DNA discoveries are about to make politics a lot more uncomfortable 

As a blogger, one risks being called a caveman for bringing up certain questions. Why? Some subjects are taboo. But news from the world of genetics may force us to confront a brave new (and a very old) world.

I, Neanderthal
 - In the past few weeks we learned that some folks - that is people of European and Asian extract - are likely descended from Neanderthals. That means some of our human ancestors interbred with these large-skulled hominids. And some didn't. (The writer of this post likely has Neanderthal DNA--up to 4 percent, according to the study.) So, does this mean inquiry demands we return to uneasy questions about differences among ethnic groups? I don't know. Certainly modern humans of all ethnicities are blending fairly quickly. Racial taboos are, thankfully, receding in modern societies. But the extent to which Europeans and Asians differ genetically from other peoples still leaves us with interesting-but-unsettling questions:

    1. Are the genetic differences significant enough to account for apparent group differences in, say, health, athletic skills or cognitive ability? (Notice we raise no questions about specific groups. We simply raise the question in general terms--and only with respect to probabilities).
    2. Can such differences - if they exist - be traced back to the presence or absence of Neanderthal DNA? (Neanderthals seem to have had larger skulls, for example.)
    3. Some - in an effort to poke at bigotry - have suggested it's ironic that Africans are the only humans who can be considered "pure," because they share none of the Neanderthal genes. But does such an easy put-down smuggle in a racist premise for the sake of sarcasm -- namely that "purity" actually matters? Does such sarcasm cloud the possibility that specific genes connected to Neanderthal lineage may confer advantages and/or disadvantages to individuals along certain dimensions? (What if there were Neanderthal genes that increased the likelihood of immunities or susceptibility to certain diseases, for example?).


Synthetic Genes - In other news, Craig Venter - the guy whose team sequenced the human genome - has been back in the lab. This time he's introduced synthetic DNA that can self-replicate in bacteria cells. This convergence of technology and research biology means that human beings are that much closer to tailoring the genes of their offspring -- custom kids. Up to this point, having kids has more or less been a game of chance. So, in many respects, Venter's innovation/discovery makes moot the questions raised above. In other respects, it deepens them. If people get over the idea that DNA tailoring is "playing God" - and is therefore taboo - it may become common for people 20 years from now to select the healthiest genes -- wherever those genes come from. As long as we can be pretty certain that future generations are not harmed by these technologies, won't they be moral?

To engage these questions here would probably be premature (even if we granted that I was the Neanderthal descendant to engage them). But I'd like at least to leave you with some morsels for thought.

Complexity - According to complexity and chaos theory, small differences in initial conditions (within some system, say, a human being) can mean big differences overall. This may mean that a three percent difference in the genetics of some group can, on average, make it more (or less) likely that any given member of said ethnic group will become an ultra high-performer along some dimension. In other words, you may be more or less likely to be an Olympic sprinter or quantum physicist by virtue of this three percent. Now, one might ask: why bother asking such questions? What good does it bring? Answers to such questions may go directly to government efforts to force group/ethnic participation in various fields. Identity politics, after all, assumes everyone can be shaped by education and training and should have "representation" in every sphere of life.

Good genes I - Environmental factors are incredibly important to human development. There is no doubt. (In my post last week, I mentioned Matt Ridley's Nature via Nurture, which is an excellent popular account of the interplay between genes and experience.) But if the genetic side of this tandem is as significant as we currently believe, creating custom kids could allow people to shift the distribution of, say, talents considerably. In other words, everyone can agree that smarter, faster and more creative people could help make the world a better place. But fewer will agree that this future should be bought and paid for in a market for custom kids. Fewer still will like the inequalities this could introduce at first (then again, the rich had cellphones first. Now almost everyone does.) Whatever genetic attributes people choose for their kids, they won't come from races per se. In many respects, custom genes will further blur ethnic lines. To argue that this is a bad thing means one accepts there is something inherently "good" or "bad" about races--which is fallacious and, well, racist. But there can be beneficial and detrimental properties about genes. We confuse the distinction been races and genes at our peril. 

Good genes II - Before anyone lets the term "eugenics" fall from their lips or spill from their fingertips, keep in mind that eugenics was a state-sponsored program where people were sterilized against their wills. Whether or not we agree with genetic customization, it is not eugenics in this sense. People on both sides of the issue should also be careful using terms like "neo-eugenics" with all its bad connotations--whatever the origins of the word. Like it or not, however, the science of genes is accelerating.

The month of June may just have brought both the IQ- and post-humanity- controversies roaring back. The Blank-slaters on the left are not going to be happy. Tabooists and Kass conservatives on the right ain't either. But science won't always let us simply look away from the questions that unsettle us. Things are about to get interesting. So let the tough conversations resume.

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Max Borders

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