Eugenicists aren’t just fucked up; they’re stupid, too

by Jon

It probably says something about the quality of a given argument when an eminent scholar from one of the most prestigious universities in the world has it published in that most august of journals, Reader’s Digest.  It says that the author wants to get his ideas out into the public, but either failed to pass peer-review, or knows that if he tried to publish them in a real journal, or present them at a conference, the rest of the academic world would realize what a colossal fucking idiot he is. It also says that he’s too enamored of media attention to let controversial ideas go. And it says that these ideas need to be scrutinized and brought to wider attention. If Julian Savulescu, holder of the Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics at Oxford University, Director of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics, Director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, and Director of The Institute for Science and Ethics, at the Oxford Martin School wants to get the attention that comes with being an out and out eugenicist, let’s give it to him.

Savulescu is an ethicist (he did his PhD under Peter Singer) and not a biologist, so before showing how deeply fucked up his ethics are, perhaps we should take a moment to demonstrate that it doesn’t even matter because he doesn’t understand genetics in the slightest.

Savulescu’s argument is that it is a moral imperative to genetically engineer “ethical” babies. This argument depends on the assumption that “ethics” are heritable. Heritability is a technical term in genetics that refers to the portion of variation in a given trait in a given population that is attributable to genetics. What’s key here is that just because a given trait has a genetic component, it does not necessarily follow that it is heritable. Let’s look at a few examples in humans to show what I mean.

Eye color in humans is extremely heritable; that is to say that variations in eye color are almost exclusively due to genetic differences between the people who have different eye colors (the genetics are actually somewhat more complicated than the simple “brown dominant/blue recessive” Punnett squares which are how most people learn about the genetics of eye color, but that doesn’t matter here).

Height is more complicated. Obviously there is a genetic component to height, but the tricky thing about heritability is that how much of the variation in height across a given population is due to genetics depends on the environment of that given population. That is to say, height is variably heritable. In one population, it might be fairly heritable, but in another population, not heritable at all. To understand how that works, imagine two groups of children. One is wealthy, well-fed, gets plenty of exercise, has access to the best medical care imaginable, and all of them are lucky, never being severely injured or sick. In this group, height will vary, and most of that variance will probably be due to genetic factors.

Now, imagine that the second group of children grew up in absolute poverty, with little to no access to decent food, and furthermore, that they were forced to work high risk, high stress jobs that produced a great deal of wear and tear on their bodies. Imagine poor sanitation, rampant disease, and no medical care. Again, as adults, this population will exhibit significant variation in height, but more of that variation will be due to constraints like childhood malnutrition, illness, and injury. A child who managed to scrounge a bit more food, or didn’t break as many bones, or didn’t contract a wasting disease, will likely be taller than his or her less fortunate peers, but that says nothing about how tall they would have been in the absence of these constraints. The differences between them aren’t due to their genes.

Of course, populations in the real world are a mixture of these two extremes. You have people for whom the limiting factor on their height is genetic, and people for whom it’s access to enough fruits and vegetables. Because of this, height is partially heritable. Geneticists have ways of calculating the heritability of a given trait in a given population, and they use a scale of 0 to 1 to report describe it. An h score of 0 means variation in a trait is due entirely to nongenetic factors, while an h of 1 means that it’s exclusively due to genes (There are actually two kinds of heritability, which are described using capital H or lower case h. The latter refers to “narrow sense” heritability, which is what’s relevant for the kind of genetic engineering Savulescu is advocating, but the difference doesn’t really matter for the purposes of this argument).

Once you understand how heritability works, the biggest flaws with Savulescu’s proposals should become apparent. For his eugenical scheme to even be possible, it would have to be true that in a given population, differences in “ethics” are due more to genetic variation than to differences in upbringing, education, socioeconomic status, and individual circumstances, not to mention the historical and cultural idiosyncracies of what “ethics” even means.

So in order to genetically engineer more ethical babies, Savulescu would have to take a given population and account for every single variable that could have any bearing whatsoever on whether people behave ethically and control for them before he could even talk about genetic factors. And given that even purely physical characteristics like height are usually not perfectly heritable, the odds that social traits like “ethical” behavior are particularly heritable are slim to none. And as we saw with the example of height, even if he could find a genetic contributor to “ethics”, it would almost certainly be swamped by environmental factors, which would be infinitely stronger in the case of being “ethical” rather than being tall.

Of course, on top of all of that lies another, potentially even more fundamental flaw with his reasoning: the idea that ethics are somehow universal. For ethics to have a genetic basis, they would have to be common to all humans across all cultures and time periods, which even a cursory knowledge of history shows to be absurd. Savulescu probably thinks that his ethics (that is to say, the ethics of a 21st-century Anglophone academic) are universal, but that’s just fucking stupid. He may value altruism and kindness (and apparently musical virtuosity?), but there’s no reason to assume that those would be more fundamental to the human experience than adherence to dietary restrictions, marital fidelity (or infidelity, if you’re an evo-psych aficionado), religiosity, or filial piety, none of which are suggested to be amenable to genetic engineering. Ethics are historically and culturally contingent, and no amount of bullshit from some Oxford asshole is going to make them universal or biological.

Ok, so having demonstrated Savulescu’s incompetence when it comes to biology, let’s look at his ethics. He’s an ethicist promoting a eugenics program. Somehow I feel like that’s enough. How is this asshole qualified to be a bioethicist again?

In sum, Julian Savulescu is never going to read this, but on the off chance he does, fuck you.