L’impasse eugéniste

Voici quelques paragraphes issus de Modernity and Cultural Decline qui soutiennent l’idée selon laquelle l’ingénierie génétique ne pourra pas sauver l’Occident du dysgénisme. Deux vidéos sous-titrées en français résument le propos à la fin de l’article.

« Techno-optimists of various flavors tout the inevitability of certain forms of scientific progress that will yield and have yielded potential solutions to the problem of biocultural decline, such as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, embryo selection, germ-line gene therapy, CRISPR (which can be used to remove deleterious mutations), and radical life extension (e.g. Bostrom, 2002). The more wildly enthusiastic members of this crowd have even promoted the idea that it may be possible to upload the human mind to, and realize it on, a computational substrate, once the requisite computing power is available and the resolution of brain-scanning technology is high enough to capture the ultrastructure of the neurocytoarchitectonics of the brain so as to permit reliable digital reconstruction (Kurzweil, 2004). This has led to much scientific and philosophical speculation under the banner of “transhumanism” concerning what has come to be termed the Singularity Hypothesis, or the idea that recursive biological and technological improvement has the potential to radically redefine what it means to be human, including perhaps the elimination of inequality among people and possibly also among species (e.g. Eden, Moor, Søraker, & Steinhart, 2012).

There are significant reasons to be skeptical of these technological prophecies, however. Gene editing/manipulation techniques fall broadly into the category of second-wave eugenics (Woodley of Menie, 2020) and are often promoted by, or are implicitly harmonious with, a libertarian ethical framework, that is, one that makes central the role of personal choice in selection for offspring characteristics (e.g. Agar, 2004; Anomaly,2018). These techniques are also (generally) feasible, in that the science of genomics as applied to significant traits such as intelligence is sufficiently advanced at present to theoretically permit crude forms of embryo selection that would enhance g in offspring to some degree (polygenic scores for educational attainment and g can currently account for nearly 10% of the variance in g among representatively sampled individuals, which is not trivial; Lee et al., 2018). Advances are being made in identifying genetic variants responsible for pathological-range personality variation as well (e.g. Lo et al., 2017).[1]

While such personal reproductive choice may (and currently does) help reduce the prevalence of genetic diseases (amniocentesis and selective abortion have had the effect of reducing the prevalence of Down’s syndrome in certain populations for example; de Graaf, Buckley, & Skotko, 2015), major regulatory barriers currently exist in Western populations (in particular) that are unlikely to be much altered in a way that will be permissive of some kind of marketized reproductive-genetic engineering. Indeed, part of the problem may stem from the fact that certain fashionable moral/ethical views have severely attenuated support for “genetic enhancement” by changing perceptions of the value of different phenotypes. The attitude that, for example, high levels of intelligence are more valuable than low ones may in part be a consequence of historical group-selective pressures favoring those groups with the largest numbers of intelligent, industrious individuals and “genius” innovators (Woodley of Menie, Figueredo, et al., 2017). Under a regime of individual-level selection, it is easier to convince people of the value-equality of different levels of traits, absent strong ecological sorting of phenotypes as a function of their fitness payoffs to the group. Furthermore, an ecology of virtue signaling can arise from the phenocopying of axiological attitudes that elite carriers of spiteful mutations hold; this process may explain, at least in part, the modern phenomenon of some individuals ascribing equal value to objectively pathological and healthy phenotypes (consider, e.g. Szasz, 2010).

From such a severely altered social-epistatic ecology, virtues of a sort that promote further reductions of group-level fitness would be likely to emerge, which, if enmeshed with the power of gene-manipulation technologies, could unleash an epidemic of psychobehavioral pathology that would collapse a civilization very quickly. A good example of this may be imagined in the opportunity that freedom-of-choice genetic engineering might give individuals to deliberately select into their offspring traits associated with psychopathic tendencies (such as dominance and risk-taking facets of extraversion and heightened inter-personal manipulativeness[2]), which under a regime of individual-level selection may be strongly associated with success, for example, in the globalized corporate world (Brooks & Fritzon, 2016, found that as many as 1 in 5 corporate CEOs may exhibit psychopathic personalities—compared to a population prevalence of 1 in 100).

One of the very few people to realize the extreme danger of enmeshing personal-choice ethics with reproductive-genetic technologies was Raymond B. Cattell (1972, 1987), who saw that group selection was essential to maintaining the evolutionary viability of civilizations and to conditioning selection for traits that would further that viability:

A group positively planning well for its future will employ all three of the [following]: (1) differential birth/death rates, (2) rhythms of segregation and well-chosen hybridization, and (3) creation of mutations along with genetic engineering… These methods we need to use toward group goals to bring about by a collective movement of its citizens (a) survival of the group, and (b) launching out on its own evolutionary adventure. (Cattell, 1987, pp. 210–211; emphasis in original)

Raymond Cattell (1905-1998)

Cattell’s belief system was promoted under the rubric of Beyondism, a scientifically informed moral-ethical system of planned biocultural evolution, the function of which would be to use various techniques to enhance the flourishing of a group through the artificial selection of traits that were maximally conducive to inter-group competitiveness. The value system of Beyondism was to have a religious character, since it was derived from Galton’s (1904) belief that “eugenic” virtues would have to replace religious ones in order for selection against socially desirable traits to be stopped or reversed. Importantly, Cattell saw that it would be necessary to instigate inter-group competition in order to sustain the value system of Beyondism.[3] Cattell’s preferred method was a form of cooperative competition, whereby “like players in some greater more vital game than men usually play, cultural groups recognize that the maintenance of inter-group competition is indispensable to evolution and they agree to cooperate in whatever rules are necessary to maintain it in effective action” (Cattell, 1972, p. 86).

The consequences of losing in this “great game” would be extreme, however, amounting to nothing less than the “phasing out” of defeated biocultural groups (i.e. having the biocultural distinctiveness of groups eliminated through dismantling). Such a value system, while in theory solving the individual-level runaway artificial selection problem inherent in the libertarian ethics of second-wave eugenics, nevertheless makes Beyondism very unlikely to ever take root as a viable alternative to liberal and social democracy in the West, since it is seriously objectionable to many. The potential for mutually assured destruction among the hypothetical “players” of such a “great game” makes efforts to stimulate inter-group rivalry and competition, even if done with some kind of oversight, fraught with existential risk.

Finally, a brief note on the status of radical life extension and mind emulation as prospective solutions. It is worth noting that these ideas are surrounded by hype that makes it difficult to determine whether real progress has been made toward the goal of realizing these technologies.Moreover, there are significant doubts about the scientific foundations of certain of these claims (for criticisms of the sufficiency of brain scanning for the purposes of reconstructing consciousness in silico, see Regalado, 2013). What is known, however, is that the rate of macro-innovation (major events in science and technology per year, per billion of the world’s population) has been declining sharply since the mid-nineteenth century—the period in which the IQ-fertility correlation changed from positive to negative, or became dysgenic (Woodley of Menie, Figueredo, et al., 2017). It appears that dysgenic trends in g are making populations less innovative despite larger populations and prolonged and more universal exposure to schooling. The decline is even apparent in noted techno-optimist Ray Kurzweil’s (1999) data on innovations in computing, when these are recomputed on a per capita basis, with most of the macro-innovation having occurred in the 1950s (the decade in which William Shockley invented the transistor; Huebner, 2005b). There is, then, little reason to believe that real and sustained progress toward effectively “sci-fi” technologies is occurring. »


[1] The mind-uploading idea may depend on the assumption that the entirety of the human mind is ultimately physical, which is far from certain (see Barušs & Mossbridge, 2017).

[2] A study of how females rate the relative desirability of certain traits in hypothetical offspring indicates an overwhelming preference for extraversion (which includes facets related to social dominance and venturesomeness) and relatively little preference for intelligence and conscientiousness (Latham & von Stumm, 2017). One might find this pattern of preferences especially concerning in light of evidence that extraversion and intelligence are negatively genetically correlated (Bratko, Butkovic, Vukasovic, Chamorro-Premuzic, & Von Stumm, 2012), indicating that selection for extraversion runs the risk of selection against intelligence. In any case, this preference pattern is potentially consistent with the observation from evolutionary psychology that females respond to environmental and social cues by adaptively modulating their mate preferences (see, e.g. Del Giudice, 2011); contemporary Western women’s preferences for offspring traits are logical, given that high intelligence and conscientiousness (see, e.g. Perkins, 2016; Skirbekk & Blekesaune, 2014) may not tend to benefit offspring fitness in those females’ populations (indeed the former trait is quite robustly negatively associated with fertility in females and males [Reeve et al., 2018], although variation across regions and over time is apparent [Kolk & Barclay, 2019]). Moreover, while women certainly prefer status in male mates, and so indirectly prefer intelligent males, most evidence seems to indicate that women are not sexually attracted to high levels of intelligence per se (Gignac, Darbyshire, & Ooi, 2018).

It is conceivable that with the normalization and widespread availability of reproductive genetic tools, these preferences could translate into population-genetic change in ways that lead to runaway artificial selection for exaggerated levels of individually selected traits that are pathological vis-à-vis the well-being and fitness of biocultural groups. One could argue that male preferences for offspring traits may offset any negative externalities of female preferences in the use of reproductive-genetic techniques. But between the large proportion of children born to single mothers in contemporary Western populations, and Western law and culture’s favoring of female over male procreative choice and autonomy (Baskerville, 2017), this hypothetical offsetting would probably be negligible (and that is assuming that relevant male and female offspring trait preferences substantially differ at all).

[3] One might here think of Bruce Charlton’s (2008) proposal to genetically engineer spiritual and religious values into people (a program that he terms genospirituality). This would probably have the effect of making populations more viable in inter-group conflict, given the historical role that religion seemingly played in rendering groups more fit for such conflict (see Chap. 3).



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