Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Bob Rants On: Genetic Determinists

Bob's Rants are likely to be a recurring feature. Be warned...

Among the various people who really get my goat are genetic determinists. They lean exclusively toward the Nature side of the Nature-versus-Nurture debate, and believe that a person's genetic code determines practically everything about that person.

They hold a position different from mine, and good for them! Science thrives on debate, and nothing enlivens a controversy like good old-fashioned polarization.

But in one sense the genes-versus-environment controversy has more at stake than, say, disagreement over the mechanism of enzymatic reactions. The premise that genes determine complex human characteristics, like morality and intelligence, has been used aggressively to promote social engineering. To Social Darwinists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, "survival of the fittest" wasn't just a mechanism that drove evolution, it was a moral imperative to cull "undesirables" from the human populations. What started out as a collection of drawing room intellectuals patting each other on the back for being "genetically fit" soon turned into public policy. The conflation of social privilege with genetic superiority allowed people to accept their socio-economic advantages without guilt, and gave them the additional pretext to deny the underprivileged a fair chance to succeed. "Pauperism" was declared a genetic predisposition to poverty, and many proposed it be "cured" via sterilization. Native Americans were actually sterilized. American immigration policies were severely biased against non-Anglo-Saxons, to prevent "dilution" of the national blood by less worthy ethnicities.

Many contemporary genetic determinists continue to attribute the low success rates of underprivileged groups to genetic causes. They are careful to avoid outright claims that "Caucasians and Asians are more intelligent than Africans". They speak of more averages and standard deviations and outliers than you can throw a bell curve at. But their underlying premise is that IQ tests and the SAT are accurate predictors of "intelligence" rather than of, well, test taking ability. If the average scores for whites and asians are higher than those of blacks and hispanics, it is because the evolutionary pressures on their ancestors selected for sentence completion and analogy recognition.

Come again?

It is interesting to note that genetic determinists have never doubted their own fitness. Why should they? It is obvious to them that they are the creme de la creme of the human race. If they are anything less than the fittest, they would clearly not be at the top of the game. Their status at the top confirms their belief in their genetic superiority. It also affords them the unique privilege to decide what "fitness" is, and to judge others for their difference.

More importantly, it allows them to strengthen their position in the social heirarchy. They are successful, therefore they are fit. They are fit and so are entitled to more. The have-nots are unfit because they have not, and therefore deserve not. It's the perfect excuse to eliminate social welfare, abandon affirmative action, and place power firmly in the privileged hands that have held it so far. And what of the women, the poor, the ethnic and racial minorities? Let them fend for themselves. After all, it's a jungle out there.

Funny how anti-science correlates with anti-feminism

Anti-Darwinist and co-founder of the Discovery Institute, George Gilder, reveals that his first beef with the theory of evolution is that it doesn't Put Women In Their Proper Place.

Darwinism seemed to offer me and its other male devotees a long-sought tool — resembling the x-ray glasses lamentably found elsewhere only in cartoons — for stripping away the distracting décor of clothing and the political underwear of ideology worn by feminists and other young women of the day. Using this swashbuckling scheme of fitness and survival, nature “red in tooth and claw,” we could reveal our ideological nemeses as naked mammals on the savannah to be ruled and protected by hunting parties of macho males, rather like us.

In actually writing and researching Sexual Suicide, however, I was alarmed to discover that both sides could play the game of telling just-so stories. In The Descent of Woman, Elaine Morgan showed humans undulating from the tides as amphibious apes mostly led by females. Jane Goodall croodled about the friendliness of “our closest relatives,” the chimpanzees, and movement feminists flogged research citing the bonobo and other apes as chiefly matriarchal and frequently homosexual.

Gilder proceeds to write a weak and disjointed essay on how Information Theory applied to his straw-man version of molecular biology proves that life could not have arisen without the input of an Intelligent Designer.

One of his more amusing claims is:

Biologists commonly blur the information into the slippery synecdoche of DNA, a material molecule, and imply that life is biochemistry rather than information processing. But even here, the deoxyribonucleic acid that bears the word is not itself the word. Like a sheet of paper or a computer memory chip, DNA bears messages but its chemistry is irrelevant to its content. The alphabet’s nucleotide “bases” form “words” without help from their bonds with the helical sugar-phosphate backbone that frames them. The genetic words are no more dictated by the chemistry of their frame than the words in Scrabble are determined by the chemistry of their wooden racks or by the force of gravity that holds them.

Let's ponder the last statement - that the chemistry of a DNA molecule is as irrelevent to its ability to convey information as the substance of a Scrabble rack is to the words formed during the game.

It is clear to me that one could play Scrabble with the same vocabulary and intellectual ability whether one used a wooden, metal, plastic or blue cheese rack. One could also conceivably play Scrabble in zero-gravity conditions. But if we were to make similar substitutions in the chemistry of a DNA molecule while keeping the "information content" constant, the ability to use those words would unquestionably be lost. Just try to replace the four nucleotides with four other arbitrary monomers. Without the requisite chemical bonds that Gilder pooh-poohs, a molecule that stores and conveys information is just so much polymeric gunk.

If Gilder's arguments made any sense, I could refute each one and say, "Ergo, information is not necessarily preceeded by intelligence." That consolation is lost under the deluge of misinformation, misquotation, obfuscatory jargon and non sequitors that he subjects us to. I can't desprove a premise if a cogent premise doesn't exist.

Panda's Thumb dismantles the essay, and lets the gunk on the cogs dry and shrivel under the blazing heat of Real Science.

Pharyngula points out that Gilder is an ideologue trying to force-fit science to his worldview. He also links to his previous previous posts on the gentleman's writings - well worth a read.

Pandagon explores the idea that creationism and fundamentalism appeal to people because they want justification for their own bigotries.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Excommunication Is Sought for Stem Cell Researchers


Scientists who engage in stem cell research using human embryos should be subject to excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church, according to a senior Vatican official.

"Destroying an embryo is equivalent to abortion," said the cardinal. Excommunication is valid for the women, the doctors and researchers who destroy embryos."

Mmhm. Didn't get the memo about Galileo, did you?

The Catholic Church punishes the most severe religious transgressions with latae senentiae, which is automatic excommunication of a church member. It applies to those who direct violence at the Pope, desecrate the Eucharist and have abortions.

Interesting that automatic excommunication applies predominantly to ecclesiastical offenses, for which excommunication seems a reasonable response. But it additionally applies to women who procure abortions, extending church authority to the bodies of female church-goers. The church may argue that protecting the sanctity of all human life is its responsibility. I wonder then if latae senentiae applies to all other instances in which a life is taken.

The Catholic Church is also vocal in its opposition to capital punishment. Are state executioners and involved officials excommmunicated as well? Perhaps the church is especially protective of "innocent", "defenseless" life. Then why doesn't it automatically excommunicate people who murder young children? And why not excommunicate priests who have molested children? They have injured children, betrayed their communities and damaged the integrity of the Church - an ecclesiastical offense by any stretch of the imagination.

The excommunication of women who have made a difficult decision in trying circumstances is arbitrary and cruel. Officials of the Church now wish to extend their controlling influence to scientists who are trying to save the lives of people with debillitating diseases. It seems clear that the Church is motivated by a desire not to protect life but to elevate an unsentient embryo above living people, especially the young and the ill.

In the process, the Church collides head-on yet again with Science, makes hand-wavy ecclesiastical arguments to justify bad policy, and threatens Catholic scientists with spiritual blackmail. I do not know how many practicing Catholics are working on embryonic stem-cell research, but I'm sure the number is not insignificant. Like all scientists with religious affiliations they find a way to reconcile their spiritual lives with their scientific work. I imagine that many feel called to their work out of a desire to end human suffering. For high-ranking Church officials to suggest they should be excommunicated is to circumvent the authority of God to call upon a believer to do His works. Is the Catholic Church within its rights to make such a decision? Can anyone tell me?