Saturday, July 26, 2014

Continuing Human Evolution: Fallacies and Prospects

Where are we going, and where do we want to go, genetically speaking?

Of all the politically correct stances, the genetic unimprovability of humanity is perhaps the most inviolable. Even while we work daily, even feverishly, to improve other aspects of our material and cultural existence, our biology remains an ethical red zone, where nothing can be done and no infringement placed on individual replication. As a response to the abuse of eugenics in the 20th century, and to the deep philosophical problems involved, this is understandable. But it does not do justice to the underlying science.

Two recent books have raised the issue again, as does our growing knowledge of biology generally. Marlene Zuk, in her book "Paleofantasy: what evolution really tells us about sex, diet, and how we live" explains that we have been evolving all along, up to the present day. (Review.) To think that we are no more than rock-throwing homonids trapped in cubicles and talking to our computers is a bit inaccurate. We have many issues related to insufficient evolutionary adaptation, such as back problems, diet issues with the modern fare of fats, salts, and sweets. But we have also adapted successfully to much else on  a recent time scale, like high altitude, diets of milk, and malaria. Perhaps also to reading, sewing, and music. But this only scratches the surface. There are very likely many other, more complex traits that have been honed and reshaped over the millennia of recent human evolution. The technology to detect all this in our genomes is only slowly arriving.

The implications of this are clear enough. Humans have been evolving and adapting to many conditions up to the present day, and doing so differently in different areas of the world, leading to the evident differences among human beings. Humans are not created equal, and the question arises whether differences extend to psychological and behavioral traits as well.

The other book is "A Farewell to Alms", by Gregory Clark. He puts a very provocative hypothesis about the success of English society over the last millenium. England ran roughshod over the rest of the world during its imperial heyday, authored the industrial revolution, and basically did away with the Malthusian conundrum of human reproduction continually outstripping food production. What happened? Clark conjectures a genetic hypothesis, that over hundreds of years, the rich in England consistently had more children than the poor, creating a constant diffusion of behavioral traits of competence downward through the social hierarchy.

As the linked review makes clear, Clark is an economist, not a geneticist. The genetics of such an hypothesis are entirely unknown. All we have to go on are the many observations of family traits and twin studies, which indicate strongly that many psychological / behavioral traits are heritable to a large degree. Once one accepts that, one can easily see that, whatever one's view of the "competence" and other bourgeois values of the rich and successful of England, humans all over the world have been evolving along some kind of path in these dimensions, continuously. Human nature is not set or unalterable, just as it is highly diverse. The two go hand in hand, as diversity + time + unequal reproduction = evolution. (A third book by Thomas Suddendorf, on what separates us from apes in the biological sense, is relevant as well.)

For example, not all students gain equally from an education; not all people learn music equally well, or play sports equally well. Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart each came from families of professional musicians. We are not created equal, other than in self-granted political and spiritual terms. The long fixation of the left on creating social progress solely through social policy and equalization, however well-intentioned, is not a fully realistic program, and in the long term, can have some dark consequences. On the other hand, the fixation of the right on making our economic competition as brutal as possible is not only cruel, but in genetic terms largely pointless, since in the moderately compassionate developed world, economic success is untethered from, indeed inverse to, reproductive success in broad terms.

Every society has a status system by which some behaviors or aspects are honored, while others are dishonored, to the point of death. Clark describes a society that, in his view, aligned its status system with reproductive success, thus building whatever those status-valued traits were into future populations. Assortive mating among high-status individuals created fierce competition for status, as did the consequences of failure: misery in addition to no reproduction. I am reading the tales of King Arthur currently, and that society fits the same template. Economic success was the direct fruit of political success, especially favor of the king, and was closely tied to the winning of damsels, estates, and reproductive success.

We do not take our own status system quite so seriously, as higher status individuals tend to reproduce less than those of lower status. One problem with Clark's thesis is that what he found in England is very likely the rule in all societies of that stage and earlier, where the rich lord it over the poor in countless ways, including those having to do with reproduction. So it is quite difficult to use his hypothesis to explain the particular and unique competitive strengths of the British empire, though it can help explain in very broad terms the rise and fall of hierarchical cultures generally. He has to add the additional hypothesis that the nature of status and enrichment in medieval England was uniquely selective for competence of some imperial nature rather than, say, corruption, martial ruthlessness, or courtly obseqiousness. That is a significantly more difficult case to make.

The genetic hypothesis may be thought to compete with another one, outlined by Jared Diamond in "Guns, Germs, and Steel". This posits that the great density, fertility, and species richness of Asia over the other continents like Africa and the Americas gave its humans special advantages that sped the development of agriculture, urban cultures, state formation, metal technology, as well as the epidemic diseases that overwhelmed proto-colonial subjects / competitiors. It was happenstance, in short, not genetics. I think it is fair to say that both hypotheses can easily coexist, since the genetic hypothesis of human (eugenic) evolution through linkage of status to reproduction does not necessarily say anything about races or colonial competitions. It is a process that has been universal over all pre-modern cultures, operating more or less in parallel everywhere. Every society has its social and reproductive hierarchy, which succeeding generations embody in genetic terms.

One can also note that eugenic policies remain quite commonplace in the world today, principally in the form of religious competition to reproduce. Catholicism tries to extend its faith by high reproductive rates, bans on birth control, etc., as does Mormonism. Islam allows the socially destructive practice of polygamy, allowing high-status males many more wives and children than low status males. They clearly take their status system very seriously. In China, in contrast, the state has enforced a one-child policy, now somewhat loosened, which has kept the status quo, genetically speaking, though the advent of Yao Ming out of the Chinese basketball program is a good example of assortive mating still at work. And Latin America is notoriously, if inadvertantly, staging a "reconquista" of the US, through immigration and high birth rates.

So evolution is happening, and the future of humanity will look different from its past. The question is whether religious & accidental eugenics are the only acceptable kind, or whether other forms are worth contemplating. Before going into details, I'll note that the urgency of this issue is extremely low. Climate heating is a far, far more urgent threat to our future happiness. The whole issue may also be moot in the face of technological development. Genetic engineering may eventually allow detailed and insightful reprogramming of our genomes, with far greater practical and ethical implications than tinkering with reproduction policies. And after the robots take over or we upload ourselves to the cloud, well ... then the biological evolution of humanity will be a quaint memory.

The degree of effort needed for a conscious reproduction policy is also very small. Selection pressures in the single digits or below can have strong effects over long periods of time. The point of such a policy would simply be to link whatever we deem valuable about ourselves as humans to our future state.

Should we take our ambient status system more seriously? I don't think so- quite the opposite, in fact. The psychopathy of the most successful people in finance and business is legendary. Money is simply not a good metric in this complicated age, of human worth and ability to create a happy, moral, and prosperous future for humanity. Education is a bit more systematic and fair as a criterion, but also tends to reinforce inherited status as much as reveal individual merit. What other criterion would serve, and what mechanism could be used?

Ethically and philosophically as well, it is extremely difficult to come up with any criterion that gives the state the power to say that one person is of greater existential value than another, however much we do so day in and day out in our economic, social, military, penal, and sexual lives. Additionally, lacking the implicit competitive mechanisms of economic, political and social success linking to reproduction, the state would need to step in explicitly. There is, however, an innate contradiction of the democratic state, founded on legal and existential equality, getting into the explicit business of judging and making us unequal.

Yet ... I met a lady recently who lives in her car, and who told me she has five children, none of whom can take care of her, being as impulsive and improvident as she, including several cases of drug abuse. It is heartbreaking, and a little disturbing. A policy that nudges us communally in a more positive direction would be beneficial in the long run.

I think the key issue is the vastly different perceived costs of having children between high and low status groups in developed countries. At the high end, each child implies hundreds of thousands of dollars in education, college, sports, enrichment, tech gadgets, etc. etc. On the low end, the expense of an extra mouth to feed is negligible, and may even be covered by the government. When expectations are low, so are costs. One solution is to create a more socially supportive environment by making education free, subsidizing child care, and making medical care free. Indeed, I would abolish private schools and make all schooling on the same public level; government run at the pre-college level, and non-profit in higher levels. This would at least level the playing field in family (cost) planning.

A second policy would be to guarantee work to everyone. Much teen pregnancy is the result of aimlessness and hopelessness, which could be ameliorated by integrating young people into a universal expectation of work and usefulness. Everyone should be trained if not college educated, and the government should offer jobs, on the pattern of the Depression-era jobs programs, to anyone not competitive enough to be recruited by the private labor market, but not disabled. Work at decent pay (substantially above welfare levels) should be a right, completing the safety net in a way that encourages responsibility and long-term life planning.

These two types of social policy would help relieve the frightening cost of having children for those with middle-class expectations, while encouraging everyone to engage in family planning and personal development that might go some distance to leveling the fertility playing field.