Monday, August 10, 2009

"Target the natives," says McChurchill.

Target the natives for genetic enhancement
our goal is to make them thrive

So says one "Max"of Brave New Worlds. Max's pop-utopian doggerel depends not only on a big, stupid generalization (and thus a fallacy), but racism of a nearly Mengele sort. Which natives are those? All non-caucasians? Does McMax have the data showing the breakdown of scores of various ethnic groups on various tests, across the world? Nyet. It's really not even worth criticizing but brings to mind a few topics still current in the nature/nurture debate.

Richard Lewontin has offered some fairly intelligent criticism of what we might call naive genetic determinism. The Lewontin/SJ Gould faction had issues--they at times drift to a sort of ivy league marxism --but they at least understood that Darwinism and genetic determinism might pose a danger to human liberties. Winston Churchill had no problem quoting Darwin as justification for his eugenics plans (as did a few nazis). To say that genes cause everything (or most of everything) does not necessarily imply one supports eugenics or a Final Solution, but there does seem to be some relationship: most eugenicists of whatever political view have relied upon a notion of a superior race (usually caucasian), and that alleged superiority was supposedly owing mostly to "genetic factors". That's not to deny Darwinian evolution whatsoever, but to question its application to ALL human activities (especially higher sort of language, mathematics, or Justice). That said, Darwin probably knew less about genetics than the average high school biology teacher. Mendel and others developed the science of genetics a few decades after Darwin's demise.

Contingencies suggests genetic determinism usually functions as a sophisticated "naturalist fallacy", really. Consider the usual mafia melodrama, with some mamacita saying of her bad boy son-- after he shoots up some cops, etc-- that he's got his papa's sicilian blood (irish, scottish, italian, african, whatever). That's a typical variety of "folk psychology": not merely the character is inherited but nationality, according to many primitive cultures. That's been proven to be mostly nonsense. There might be something like shared characteristics--probably due to appearance, language, political/historical factors, etc--but the grand generalizations about race and nationality are not supported by evidence. Conditioning matters, greatly. Caucasian chess players most likely made generalizations about latinos or hispanics until a cuban, Capablanca, defeated the greatest chess players in the world, most of them caucasian or jewish. Capa. was not born a grandmaster, of course (though hereditary factors played a part, indirectly, at least: ie good chess players, like good professors generally come from nice bourgeois homes. That doesn't mean that the bourgeois are "better"--perhaps more fortunate, or for that matter, more successful predators).


The most violent eugenicists, and in some ways racists, were geneticists who said, "Genes dominate everything, and if there are differences between groups and how rich they are, how much power they have, it must be in the genes." Only for a short period, during the Second World War, when the consequences of that ideology in the national socialist state in Germany became clear, did people back off that. When I was in high school during the Second World War, we got a pamphlet saying there really aren't any important differences between races, and so on; but that disappeared when the war was over. Within ten years of the end of the war, [genetic determinism] had come back again. Biologists in general are biological determinists. That has a very powerful ideological effect, because they speak to reporters, they talk on the radio, they have TV interviews, and they push over and over again the determinism of the gene.

My wife and I went yesterday to the Berkeley Art Museum, and there we saw an exhibit called "Gene Genesis." The poster for that exhibit, which is all over, has a quote from Jim Watson. And what does the quote say? It says, "We used to think our fate was in the stars, but now we know it's in our genes." Now, I mean, that's rubbish, you know, but that's what's pushed; and if you're a Nobel prizewinner like Jim, you get all the more credit for it.

So scientists had that ideology that as organisms, we are governed, body and soul, by our genes.

Secondly, more broadly, scientists want to make claims for the importance of what they do in the general sense. So Jim Watson wants to say, "You should support work on the genome, because after all, everything that's important in life is determined by genes." And that's not ideological; that's purely political. That is a crass way of trying to increase and guarantee the support of research.

The same is true for medical research. We're told over and over and over again that if we do this research people's lives will be saved. People will be cured. Well, obviously, medical cures do arise out of some kinds of research; nobody can deny that. But promises are made of an extreme sort which do not correspond to actual truth. This guy [William] Hazeltine, who is the head of one of these private genome organizations, finally said what everybody wanted to say but didn't have the nerve to say. He said, "Death is nothing but a succession of preventable diseases." Well, if death is nothing but a succession of preventable diseases, then if you give us enough money, you'll live forever. Now, no sensible person believes that. But that's the kind of appeal that is made. "Give us more. Give us more power, give us more money, and we will not postpone your death; we will prevent it."

There are a lot of sick people in the world. Most of them are sick, ultimately, because they're underfed and overworked. That's not the case for Americans. Most Americans are sick because they've lived a long time, and their machines are breaking down. You know, the transmission goes, and then you need a brake job, and so on. There's a tremendous public demand -- people are in pain, and there's a demand to relieve that pain and relieve that anxiety. Science cashes in on that in a very cynical way by making promises that can't be kept.

(to be continued...)


Unknown said...

Hate to burst your bubble, but the "natives" in question are bacteria recently awakened on an imaginary planet after having lain dormant for billions of years. If you want to consider this Mengelian racism, why I suppose that's your prerogative. Nice to see it's thought provoking... I guess.

I rather like that particular lyric myself.

J said...

The point still holds (though your explanation makes your phrasing seem even more vague--natives are human. bacteria are not, even in some wild fictional or metaphorical sense). And anyway the line serves to illustrate the point on the potential danger of genetic determinism (which is to say, read the entire essay, especially material from Dr. Lewontin, which serves as an effective counter argument to the Dawkins crowd).

And I'm sure if I had time I could search through Brave New Worlds and find more examples of genetic determinism, or Bell Curve-like guestimates from you or Erroronius--tho' in Error-Ron's case it's from the LDS-Mormon school of heredity-lite, unlike the McMengelian..........Genes transported by the Angel Moroni-Jeezuss from like Crab Nebula, etc.

Unknown said...

There are, I hope, some thoughtful aspects to the plot of my little epic. It can be summarized as a celebration of science and engineering wrapped around a romantic creation myth. Out there, I know.

There would definitely be controversy regarding my Chief Scientist's agenda, which is rather Utopian, but also a little like playing God. He's helping to rescue this dying world and it's very nearly extinct inhabitants by a colossal project of macro-engineering. It would be considered terraforming except that he's not from Terra and isn't even specifically human. The most questionable part of the agenda to me is the idea of helping the "natives" (not truly native because they originated in another solar system entirely) and also introducing life from his home world to intermix and produce an entirely new ecosystem. He's not patient enough to wait for the few indigenous survivors to evolve into a truly native biosphere so he throws everything he can into the soup. Where it would get really controversial if this was say Earth and Mars we were talking about, is if the scientists' species (humans in our case) decided to move in and occupy- a natural tempation obviously. In my story they don't intend this- instead content to "wait for the women and men."

Even if you've only read a little of it, it's nice to bounce ideas off somebody.

J said...


The reason for the post was your implicit approval of an genetic engineer who "plays God," more or less. That's in keeping with a theme I have focused on for a few months--the "ideology of science" , which is not to be mistaken for Luddite-ism, or marxism, or any ism, but about bad applications of Science.

Dr. Mengele's nightmares did happen, not that long ago. I would never suggest that the science establishment was comprised of Dr. Mengeles, but genetic engineering could potentially produce unsavory if not monstrous applications (--imagine man-lizard hybrids, etc). Like any technological or scientific knowledge, gen. engineering might offer some great advances in medicine, but it's not inherently "good," anymore than nuclear science is.

If you accept that large numbers of humans--if not the majority-- are psychopaths, sadists, or deviants (including intellectuals/scientists) then it would seem to follow that you would agree that any technology, including genetic engineering, could be applied to harmful, totalitarian ends, and that deviants/tyrants WOULD put the technology to such uses at some point.

I think that's fairly sound "Orwellian-reason"--also seen in the bleaker dystopian sci-fi of say Huxley, PK Dick, Ballard, cyberpunks. The heroic sci-fi (ir usual suspects, Heinlein, Asimov, Niven, Benford, etc) generally features technology as a savior. Overly optimistic fluff, mostly (tho' even Heinlein had darker edges, earlier on, as with Starship Troopers and the Bugs, before he went with the touchy feely BS) .

Unknown said...

BTW- the CS's "targeting the natives for genetic enhancement" is his way of favoring their development over the off-world species he's intermixing. May be criticized as affirmative action in a sense, but hardly Mengelian. The real victims are the off-worlders who are being used to supercharge the biosphere but will most likely eventually be killed off by the favored natives. Dog eat dog.

I smell a sequel!

Unknown said...

I escape so many issues by placing this in a completely imaginary time and place, it's almost not fair. I can assume that the scientists of this race are uniformly enlightened and heroic and would never create monsters and such. Of course, that might be boring, so maybe I'll have to create my own alter-Mengele at some point. So many possibilities...

J said...

That said, I generally prefer realism, even in sci-fi--

We won't be travelling above the speed of light, ever. We won't even be coming close for decades, if not centuries.

Even if some massive Orion-like star-craft project got going, it would probably require like some massive police state to get it up and running--similar for manned Mars expedition. And the best Orion like scenarios suggest maybe 50% the speed of light (even that would require like hundreds of Hiroshima like blasts, and hopefully a craft that doesn't explode itself). Then consider all the supplies, H20, food, gear for the new planet--un- f-n likely. (and not even any planets within what a few hundred light years).

I'm for more humble goals--say orbitals of some type--the HP Lovecraft Cafe and Space-casino, located only 200 miles or so above you.

Unknown said...

All the more reason my cheat is so golden. I can break as many rules as I please.

"We won't be travelling above the speed of light, ever. We won't even be coming close for decades, if not centuries."

Sounds kind of familiar... like those 1890s folks who huffed that "if man was meant to fly he would have had wings!"

J said...

The SOL is a constant, not a technological barrier--not really comparable to luddite-ism (anyway, there were gliders before that time).

The most far-fetched proposals for space travel don't foresee any craft reaching near 50% of SOL in the next few decades. Even then many reasonable citizens would probably not support the nuclear-fusion or fission type rockets.

Futurism nearly always runs into dead ends (like, who funds the starcraft, builds it, is allowed to pilot it,, etc.). Or serves as a type of trivial escapism.

Anyway, the Pelosicrats have already begun to downsize NASA (as predicted).

J said...

Oh by the way, just to remind you, since you're sort of acting polite and civil---the thug aka Belch-ron on your site has starting sending death threats again (and lying about it), along with his usual Big Lie (and juvenile rants in general) that I'm a conservative.

Hah. Conservatives support NASA, for one. Conservatives march into sunday school, for years (and lie about it). Conservatives make false accusations, and send death threats as well. Conservatives are paranoid, and take steroids and sell chiropractor supplies (Holy Subluxation, batman)

Yes, you've heard it before. Hear it again. He's the nut, the rightist, the Luddite for that matter (gaze at his knick-knack site for one, and note the pic of Palmer, the original Subluxanator and super-quack)

For that matter, he can't hold a melody (or play an instrument). Even most of yr cronies in JS realized dat.

J said...

And if you think I'm inventing things, also review a few of B-ron's rants on DU (at least the ones where he has anyone commenting).

One commenter, laughing at B-ron's bizarre rant on the kids' Transformers flick (not quite Fellini, Belch-ron) called his "review" a "hysterical, loony rant". He was being charitable (there were other comments like that as well). And in typical crass, paranoid right wing style B-ron told him to F. off.

He attempts a HS Thompson schtick (alternating between that an like Jerry Falwell) and can't even manage bad gonzo parody. Jus' ugly, insincere noise (like his entire life output)

Oops. I had hoped not to indulge in this. Lo siento.

And anyone who ever valued say Verdi's best moments would have banned and banished the knave years ago (or even Wagnerian bombast)

Unknown said...

I get it. You don't like him. Moving on...

BTW- my natural tendency is to act nice and civil. Having my wife's limited income jeopardized by harassment can get me pretty riled, however.

Don't try that again.

J said...

Wasn't harrassment, and if you read it, it wasn't even about you, but about your NWs star Thug-ron.

So, I actually will apologize to Sofia, but not to Thug-ron (or really you), but she or Miss Chambers misread it if they took it personally.

Maybe I will post some of B-rons's recent hysteria, like threatening to kick in the door of my parents' house, kicking my ass (not to say the usual Nixonian snitch "I 've got the DA on you, etc.). On the other hand, it's far too nauseating.

He's out of control.

One semi-positive note I will pass on. Big Wagner-fest in LA next year--already some commotion (and protests. If I have cash I might take in a show (like to see Parzifal, or T and I. Even last act of Ring--The Ring a bit too f-n long and tedious for me, but would enjoy seeing Siegfried's funeral scene staged).

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