Monday, March 25, 2013

Yerkes and Eugenics

"Eugenics, the art of breeding better men, imperatively demands reliable measurement of human traits of body and mind, of their inter-relations, and of their modification by environmental factors."

-Yerkes (1923)

The previous post on Distrust of Psychology contained several quotes from a 1904 editorial on the dim view of psychology taken by many physiologists of the era. It was written by Robert M. Yerkes, who was the editor of the Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology. Yerkes himself was committed to establishing psychology as a respectable field (Yerkes, 1904):
For those of us who have at heart the establishment and advancement of comparative psychology as a science coordinate with physiology there is the clear duty to make our work eminently worthy of scientific recognition and reliance.

He was a notable primatologist who later became involved in human intelligence testing as part of America's World War I effort to screen army recruits. In concluding the prior post, I stated:
Yerkes was a keen observer of Psychology and a strong supporter of its importance as a natural science. Unfortunately, he also promoted eugenics in the 1910's and 1920's.

This prompted two comments on my knee-jerk reaction to "eugenics". Has the term been rehabilitated, unbeknownst to me? Is it fortunate that Yerkes believed in the racial inferiority of African Americans, based on the culturally biased intelligence tests he developed (Yerkes, 1923)?




Is modern-day amniocentesis to screen fetal DNA for Down's syndrome and other (usually fatal) trisomies really the same thing as limiting immigration from specific countries based on the population's lower "intelligence" (as assessed by flawed tests)?
"Far more interesting doubtless to the practical eugenist than occupational differences in intelligence or specifications are the racial differences which appear when the foreign-born American draft is analysed into its principal constituent groups. The difference even of median score or letter grade distribution are so great as to be significant alike to the American people and to the eugenists of the world."

-Yerkes (1923)

Recently on Twitter, evolutionary psychologist and provocateur Jesse Bering posed the question of whether a case could be made for modern-day eugenics. I originally thought he was being trollish, or perhaps had taken a page out of filmmaker Lars von Trier's comedy playbook (whose Nazi jokes got him banned from Cannes).


Since Bering is an openly gay man, I thought the question was especially preposterous. Who gets to decide the traits and "disorders" slated for elimination? But then I read the essay on Chinese eugenics by evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller -- a response to the question WHAT *SHOULD* WE BE WORRIED ABOUT?

Chinese Eugenics

China has been running the world's largest and most successful eugenics program for more than thirty years, driving China's ever-faster rise as the global superpower. I worry that this poses some existential threat to Western civilization. Yet the most likely result is that America and Europe linger around a few hundred more years as also-rans on the world-historical stage, nursing our anti-hereditarian political correctness to the bitter end.

So the resurgence of interest in eugenics is serious? And not just among white supremacists?

Miller continues:
The BGI Cognitive Genomics Project is currently doing whole-genome sequencing of 1,000 very-high-IQ people around the world, hunting for sets of sets of IQ-predicting alleles. I know because I recently contributed my DNA to the project, not fully understanding the implications.1 These IQ gene-sets will be found eventually—but will probably be used mostly in China, for China. Potentially, the results would allow all Chinese couples to maximize the intelligence of their offspring by selecting among their own fertilized eggs for the one or two that include the highest likelihood of the highest intelligence. Given the Mendelian genetic lottery, the kids produced by any one couple typically differ by 5 to 15 IQ points. So this method of "preimplantation embryo selection" might allow IQ within every Chinese family to increase by 5 to 15 IQ points per generation. After a couple of generations, it would be game over for Western global competitiveness.


What do you think, is the BGI Cognitive Genomics Project a menace to "Western civilization" as we know it?  Or is Miller's scenario a fantasy contingent upon on a vast array of genetic information that is currently unavailable2.... or even unattainable in the foreseeable future?


Footnotes

1 A very-high-IQ and yet didn't understand the implications??

2 Major problems with one recently published effort are outlined in False discovery: How not to find the genetic basis of human intelligence.


Reference

Yerkes RM. (1923). Eugenic bearing of measurements of intelligence. Eugen Rev. 14:225-45.

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13 Comments:

At March 25, 2013 2:20 PM, Blogger J. F. Aldridge said...

"Is it fortunate that Yerkes believed in the racial inferiority of African Americans, based on the culturally biased intelligence tests he developed (Yerkes, 1923)?"

Neither of our comments insinuated that.

"Who gets to decide the traits and 'disorders' slated for elimination?"
The invisible hand? You're right. The term "eugenics," with it's stress on breeding and centralized design, will likely never be rehabilitated, but the gene therapy that gradually encroaches on personalized medicine does have a lot of similar moral concerns. The fact the science is empirical and solid only makes the moral questions all the more complicated. If you spent a life struggling with a mood disorder, would you give your child a more robust serotonin network? Why not? We all want better lives for our children. Attractive people tend to get paid better, so why not cosmetic genomics? Why not a skinnier nose or skin a few shades lighter? Does a thiry-two percent chance of developing schizophrenia warrant intervention? Will insurance pay for any of this? These are all very personal questions, but, if you add them up, it's hard not to see at least some eugenic implications.
That's what I was trying to get at before, not to advocate a hyperbolic condemnation of current medical practices, or an absolution of former quackery. I should have articulated it better.

(I'm semigrounded. I just remembered I had an account here.)

 
At March 25, 2013 3:59 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

J. F. Aldridge - Thanks for the clarification. You raised some very good points here about "cosmetic genomics." Like most other enhancement technologies designed to alleviate suffering and improve the quality of life for current and future generations, only the wealthy will be able to afford the brave new world. I doubt that insurance would cover any of this in the U.S., since most states are not even required to cover in vitro fertilization.

But these options are not exactly right around the corner...

 
At March 25, 2013 10:22 PM, Anonymous n/a said...

"Or is Miller's scenario a fantasy contingent upon on a vast array of genetic information that is currently unavailable2.... or even unattainable in the foreseeable future?"

You point to a critique of one small, bad, irrelevant study.

If you were better informed, you'd be aware your side already lost.

Genome-wide association studies establish that human intelligence is highly heritable and polygenic

Common DNA Markers Can Account for More Than Half of the Genetic Influence on Cognitive Abilities

 
At March 25, 2013 10:24 PM, Anonymous n/a said...

"So the resurgence of interest in eugenics is serious? And not just among white supremacists?"

Another one for you:

Richard DawkinsVerified account ‏@RichardDawkins

"Eugenics": What's wrong with a nonrandom choice of a gene your child COULD have got from you at random, anyway, by normal genetic lottery?


https://twitter.com/RichardDawkins/statuses/313323444299251713

 
At March 26, 2013 12:35 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

n/a - It's such a relief to know that as a loser, my genes will be weeded out of the population.

 
At March 26, 2013 3:31 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

n/a - Hate to throw some cold water on your plot for world domination, but here's some expert skepticism from The Myth of the Superbaby: Can China really breed a crop of genetically selected geniuses?

Hank Greely, director of Stanford’s Center for Law and the Biosciences, says ... “I think it’s pretty clear that intelligence—if it even exists as an entity, which remains controversial among psychologists—involves a boatload of genes and genetic combinations, all of them substantially mediated through the environment. The chances that genetic selection is going to lead to really substantial increases in human intelligence in your lifetime are low.”

[Santiago] Munné [director of Reprogenetics] agrees. “IQ is controlled by probably more than 1,000 genes, so there is no point even trying to control for that,” he says.

The problem is simple math, adds Lee Silver, a genetics expert and molecular biologist at Princeton. Even if you could pinpoint a handful of genes that were likely to result in a higher IQ, the chances of any given embryo containing the right combination are minuscule. “Add in the fact that nongenetic factors account for 40 to 50 percent of the variance of something like intelligence,” and the project is basically hopeless. The bottom line, he says: Preimplantation genetic testing is “unlikely to be useful as a method of positive selection. But it will have an expanding role in avoiding disease likelihood in children.”

 
At March 26, 2013 9:02 PM, Anonymous n/a said...

"“IQ is controlled by probably more than 1,000 genes, so there is no point even trying to control for that,”"

If you'd read and understood the papers I linked you'd realize it is in fact extremely simple to "control for" the individual effects of large numbers of SNPs.

"genetic combinations"

If you understood the GCTA papers you'd also realize additive genetic effects account for most of the genetic component of IQ. The additive component ("breeding value") also happens to be exactly what one would be interested in for embryo screening.

""Even if you could pinpoint a handful of genes that were likely to result in a higher IQ, the chances of any given embryo containing the right combination are minuscule"

This is an incredibly dumb objection. You would not be looking for a specific "right" combination of genes. You'd be looking at the combinations actually present in the embryos that were created, estimating genetic IQ or other traits of interest, and providing this information to the parents. The "chance" that matters is the chance that some embryos will have higher estimated trait values than others, and the chances of that are extremely high.

"mediated through the environment"

"“Add in the fact that nongenetic factors account for 40 to 50 percent of the variance of something like intelligence,” and the project is basically hopeless."

This must be why livestock breeding never worked. Or, for that matter, why humans couldn't have evolved through natural selection.

Genetic effects found through something like GCTA will be those relevant across the aggregate environments of very large numbers of people living in developed countries. Which will almost certainly be broadly similar in relevant respects to the aggregate environments of the children of people living today in developed countries.

Nor have environmental interventions within the range of typical environments in developed countries generally been shown to work.

"Environment" here basically means noise, which we can't affect. We can, however, select on genes, and to believe this is a "hopeless project" you'd pretty much need to be a creationist (though I believe even religious creationists will generally say they accept microevolution; it's only liberal creationists who believe the human brain is immune from the effects of evolution).

 
At March 26, 2013 11:48 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

n/a - Go troll Professor Hank Greely (director of Stanford’s Center for Law and the Biosciences), Dr. Santiago Munné (director of Reprogenetics, a Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis company), and Dr. Lee Silver (genetics expert and molecular biologist at Princeton), because they're the ones who made those statements.

But what do they know, they're all losers too. I'm sure you're in a much more exalted and powerful position than they are, and have published many more papers.

 
At March 27, 2013 7:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like n/a is really mad his/her parents did not pick better genes for him/her. Oh well... :)

 
At March 31, 2013 7:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

n/a:
1) Natural selection acts on a population in the context of long-term adaptation to a surrounding environment. Selecting genes so the kiddies can go to Ivy league schools is not exactly the same thing.

2) An artificial selection process, such as the one you cite on animal breeds, comes at a cost. You can select for a trait but in the process you will also be selecting/unselecting a host of other unrelated traits. Yes you may get your super-milker cows, but that may entail say increased arthritis or other degenerative diseases. It is a pandora's box out there, and the ethical issues such a manipulation entails for human populations is enormous.

3) Which brings the last point: how do you know that selecting for intelligence does not bring in increased risk for say mental illness or other maladies? Intelligence is not an unqualified advantageous trait in and of itself (otherwise many more animal species would have capitalized on it), but again is tempered by many checks and balances relevant to other traits.

All of this is basic evolutionary genetics, I might add.

 
At April 02, 2013 8:19 PM, Anonymous n/a said...

(1) It doesn't really matter how uncomfortable it makes you: the science is there, and this is one of the ways it will be applied. Those of your ilk certainly aren't going to stop it in Asia, and probably will fail at stopping it here as well.

(2) Most of those with your apparent political leanings fancy themselves "pro-choice" (support abortion on demand for any reason or no reason). Where exactly do you then get off on telling a woman which embryo she can or can't implant?

(3) "how do you know that selecting for intelligence does not bring in increased risk for say mental illness or other maladies?"

The known physical, psychological, and sociological correlates of g are overwhelmingly positive (at least according to the normative values of a sane person). More intelligent people are healthier, better looking, more symmetrical, live longer, are more fertile (in a physiological sense: higher sperm counts in males; lower rates of infertility in females), have lower rates of depression, lower rates of criminality, etc. The only apparent counter-example I'm aware of is myopia -- but there are plenty of people with high IQ and excellent vision. So even if there turns out to be a correlation between intelligence and poor distance vision stemming from common genetic factors, there will still be room to select for intelligence without selecting for increased myopia and this will be straightforward once the necessary samples are in place. Just calculate expected IQs and myopia risk scores for each embryo and let the parents decide. Again, it's really none of your business. Parents will weigh risks and benefits and make their own decisions. Also, no one is saying they will or have to select only on IQ. It will be possible to select on any reasonably heritable trait for which sufficient reference data becomes available (height, disease risks, and so on).

 
At April 02, 2013 8:24 PM, Anonymous n/a said...

There is, by the way, no law of "basic evolutionary genetics" that says "an artifical selection process [. . .] comes at a cost". It may or it may not, depending on what you're selecting for, how you're selecting for it, and in what population.

One apparent source of variation in IQ is individual differences in genetic load. Thousands of genes influence IQ, and each individual will have dozens or hundreds of rare, deleterious mutations affecting these genes. Those with relatively many of these mutations will tend to have lower IQs. Those with more broken genes will on average also tend to be less healthy, less attractive, and so on. It's hard to imagine what cost one would incur in screening against such mutations.

"Intelligence is not an unqualified advantageous trait in and of itself (otherwise many more animal species would have capitalized on it)"

We're not talking about "many more animal species". We're talking about humans. And in the human lineage, intelligence has certainly been associated with reproductive success on net (unless you believe we're not more intelligent than our common ancestor with chimps).

That it's unlikely selection for intelligence was perfectly equal in strength and monotonically positive across all human populations throughout every time and place is true, but not all that relevant to this particular discussion.

Again, parents will be the ones making choices (not you) and many will value intelligence, which does happen to constitute an advantage almost without qualification in the developed world. One could try to make up a scenario in which modern civilization collapses and some percentage of people are left with unnecessarily large and energetically expensive brains (though I doubt this would be a real issue -- humans who lived 20,000 years ago had larger brains on average than those living today). If modern civilization collapses, most living humans will be dead regardless. And the only way to realistically increase the long term survival odds of humans is through more technology, not less. Which will require more not fewer intelligent people.

 
At April 29, 2013 11:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, folks, this seems simple enough to replicate, no? Simple undergraduate project. This could become interesting if some of the online betting sites start accepting bets on the outcome of replications!

 

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