02 July 2012
ByAppeared in BioNews 663
Future Human Evolution: Eugenics in the 21st Century
By John Glad
Published by Hermitage Publishers
ISBN-10: 1557791546, ISBN-13: 978-1557791542
Back in my bar-tending days, we had as regular customers a small group of men who would spend the evening huddled around a table talking at volume about current affairs. We used to eavesdrop on their conversations: it was hard not to. For the most part, what they tended to say was robustly weird, with essays into the profoundly bizarre.
Reading John Glad's 'Future Human Evolution', I couldn't help but think of them.
Glad uses this slim book to advance two distinct claims: first, that eugenics can be cleansed of the poor reputation that it has garnered over the past 70 years or so; and second, that it is something we ought to embrace with vigour. (Evolution itself doesn't get much attention.)
The first claim ought to be fairly straightforward: though eugenics is closely associated in the public mind with Nazi ideas about racial hygiene, neither is reducible to the other, and any reasonably sophisticated account ought to be able to prise them apart easily.
The second claim is also, on the face of it, the sort of thing that we could quite comfortably expect to see touted by a decent number of mainstream bioethicists. For example, assuming that the breast cancer-associated BRCA1 gene has no desirable other function, if it were possible to eliminate it from the human population by getting carriers to take a pill that deleted it from their gametes this might well count as eugenic. But it would also count as a good idea. Moreover, so long as no currently existing person was forced to take the pill, it'd probably be straightforwardly permissible, and maybe desirable.
So far so good. But Glad's argument takes a different form. Notably, Glad is concerned by the possibility that, without intervention, humanity will face a decline in its general intelligence. After all, he argues, we can treat educational and economic attainment as an indicator of intelligence - given that we live in a world in which the better educated and better paid a woman is, the less likely she is to have large numbers of children, he claims that this generates the conclusion that the less intelligent are likely to out-breed the more. And if – as he thinks – intelligence is a matter of genes, so that the least educated and wealthy are so at least substantially because of their genetic inheritance rather than social factors – we could say that this fact about fecundity would lead to a general decline in average intelligence.
(In this way, Glad thinks that providing free childcare to the poorest, but not the wealthy, is a sign of dysfunction, since it incentivises breeding among the poor, stupid types, and loads the costs of breeding on to the wealthy, smart types (pp 18-19). His solution to this alleged problem, as we shall see, is radical.)
The problem with much of this is that it's utter nonsense. A person's social status tells us very little about their intelligence, and nothing at all about their genes. Besides, as Glad himself admits, mean IQ (intelligence quotient) is on the up. This is attributable to things like better nutrition and general health, which allows brain development. Indeed, a study by Eppig et al., published in 2010 (1), suggested that there was a correlation between health and intelligence in the developing world, such that rates of infection serve to predict IQ. The hypothesis is that if your body needs to spend extra energy merely staying alive while you're young, that's energy it won't spend on brain development. A follow-up study found the same general pattern in the USA: where infectious disease stress was lowest, IQ was highest (2).
One possible response to this would be to take it as evidence that his claims about the dim-but-fecund out-breeding the clever-but-barren are false; an alternative response would be that genes don't matter so much as environment. We could even say that the breeding claim is false and genes don't matter all that much anyway. Glad's response is different. For him, what these things show is that 'a phenotypic improvement […] has overridden genotypic deterioration' (p 26). Or, in other words: 'I'm right, even though I'm plainly wrong'.
That's a problem for his IQ claim. There's a problem with his suggested solutions to it: '[f]orced sterilisations of persons with genetically predetermined low IQ and major genetic illnesses should be reinstituted' (p 95). Seriously? Yeah, seriously. At the same time, '[r]ather than pay low-IQ women more for each child, financial support should be made dependent on consent to undergo sterilisation' (p 97) - which suggests that, at the very least, Glad has a pretty shaky grasp of what's implied by the word 'consent'.
One more example: '[e]ugenic family planning services are the greatest gift that the advanced countries can offer the Third World', because groups 'suffer when their least intelligent members serve as the breeding pool' (p 97). Forget clean water, vaccination, schools, fertiliser, infrastructural investment and all the rest of it - what they really need is more sterilisation to eliminate those with the lowest IQ… which turns out to amount to advocating coercive sterilisation of the poor, uneducated, and vulnerable.
Nor should we allow people from the developing world to move, since, apparently, 'the importation of low-IQ groups to perform unskilled labour at low wages must be recognised as a threat to the host population's long-term viability' (p 98). Why? Because Glad thinks that allowing genes to swish around the planet will lead to a loss of genetic diversity that will leave humanity vulnerable. This might conceivably be a problem if either humanity as a whole was particularly genetically diverse to begin with, or that breeding meant a dilution of desirable characteristics. Since neither of these is true, though, Glad's claim is left looking more than a little weak.
And what's more is that, though Glad's book is only a little over a hundred pages long, I've only begun to scratch at its oddness and outright wrongness. (You want another example? Oh, all right. 'Genes play a major role in virtually all behaviour, including alcoholism, smoking, autism, phobias […] marriage and divorce, job satisfaction…' (p 57). If you hate your job, it's not your boss' fault. It's in your genes.)
This is a poor book: factually wrong about genes, about epigenetics, and about environmental factors; cranky in its obsessions; and lacking in a coherent argument to hold it together. If there's one thing to be said in its favour, it's that the text can downloaded for free (.pdf 680 KB) so you don't have to pay for it.
Why you'd want to download it is another matter. You might just as well go to the pub and eavesdrop on conversations there.