Dawkins makes a tweet

UPDATE: Crikey, there’s a whole Twitter “event” devoted to Dawkins’s tweet. People can’t wait to jump all over him.

______________

When Matthew sent me this new tweet from Richard Dawkins this morning, I thought “Oh no! I know what he means, but there are a gazillion people out there ready to misinterpret it as an endorsement of eugenics.” And Matthew said, “Yeah, and everyone’s going to jump on that word ‘work’.”

Yep, what we predicted happened.

I didn’t read Richard’s followup (below) until a few minutes ago, and I don’t know whom he was arguing with, but his tweet was clearly intended to show that many human traits are heritable—that is, they would respond to artificial selection, which is what eugenics is. (In “negative” eugenics, you cull or prevent from breeding individuals with undesired traits; in “positive eugenics”, the other side of the same coin, you breed from individuals with desired traits.) As I’ve written before, nearly every artificial selection experiment conducted, on a gazillion different species, has been successful: the mean value of the trait has changed in the direction the experimenter wanted. (Two of the few unsuccessful experiments have been mine: attempts to select for directional asymmetry in flies.)

Artificial selection will work if a trait has any positive heritability, that is, if any proportion of the total variation in a trait among individuals in a population is due to genetic variation—what we specifically call “additive genetic variance” in the trade. And virtually all morphological or behavioral traits have some positive heritability.

Look at domestic dog breeds, for instance. All of them descend from the wolf, yet all the huge variety of their traits: the variation in their size, their shape, their color, and even their behavior (retrievers, border collies, etc.) have come from selecting on traits that have a positive heritability. As Darwin said in The Origin, “Breeders habitually speak of an animal’s organization as something quite plastic, which they can model almost as they please.”

That happens to be true. And it would be true of humans as well if we were able to select on them. Have a look at this paper, for instance (click on screenshot, and if you can’t get it, make a judicious inquiry or use the legal Unpaywall app on Chrome):

From the discussion:

We have conducted a meta-analysis of virtually all twin studies published in the past 50 years, on a wide range of traits and reporting on more than 14 million twin pairs across 39 different countries. Our results provide compelling evidence that all human traits are heritable: not one trait had a weighted heritability estimate of zero.

Not one! They take into account “shared environment” causes of correlations as well. And behavioral traits are among these. The heritability of IQ, as I recall, is about 50%, so if we wanted to improve the IQ of humans, we’d just let the smartest ones breed, and lo, we’d get a fairly substantial change in a few generations.

Should we do that? Hell, no!!  Nobody wants to go back to the era of eugenics, when “feeble-minded” people were sterilized in America and all kinds of mentally disabled people (as well, of course, as non-Aryans like the Jews, who were deemed to have “bad genes”) were killed by the Nazis. But we still practice a mild form of negative eugenics today, in the form of genetic counseling and selective abortion, to prevent couples from having children with deformities or genetic disease. That’s not to improve the population’s genes but to allow couples to have healthy babies. We do no large scale eugenics, positive or negative, to improve the population, and that’s the way it should stay.

In general, no biologist that I know wants to return to the bad old days of wholesale eugenics, which involved not only killing or sterilizing people but demonizing whole groups for their genetic endowment. So I understood what Richard was trying to say.

Should Richard have issued that tweet? Again: Hell no!! Richard knows (or surely must, just as Matthew and I knew) that there are many people out there ready to misinterpret what he says and would use it to imply that Dawkins favors eugenics—that he’s a latter-day Nazi. I see that it’s already happened.

Here’s someone else who didn’t get the tweet at all:

Crikey, can’t Dr. Blommaert read?

Further, a discussion about artificial selection in our own species or others should surely be more extensive and nuanced, not conducted in the medium of Twitter where you have only a few words to say what you want.

I see that Richard has already gone his usual route of trying to explain what he meant:

So what is Richard guilty of? Unwise tweeting! He’s not a neo-Nazi, and, knowing him, I know for sure that he’s not in favor of eugenics. But he should have learned by now to stay away from Twitter, at least on issues like this one.

Now I don’t know who he was responding to in the initial tweet, but it looks as if somebody somewhere said that eugenics wouldn’t work in humans. If they said that, they’re wrong, and Richard is right. But it doesn’t look as if his tweet was responding to anybody in particular (or at least I haven’t been arsed to investigate), and so he should have kept his thoughts to himself.  But it is, I suppose, useful to emphasize that we, like all animals, contain a reservoir of genetic variation for almost all traits, and that means that we could respond to artificial selection. But that should immediately be followed, for those eager to demonize you, by the statement that of course we shouldn’t artificially select on members of our own species. What’s possible is of course not identical to what we should do.

Bad optics, my friend Richard. But those of you ready to use that first tweet to demonize the man—please lay off. He may be a hamhanded tweeter, but he’s no Nazi.

 

149 Comments

  1. Posted February 16, 2020 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Dawkins has had controversial tweets before. Given his publicity and the number of people hating him and his causes, I wish someone near and dear to him would check his tweets before publishing.

    • JezGrove
      Posted February 16, 2020 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

      Ditto!

    • Posted February 16, 2020 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

      Several people, including his agent, his wife, and ME have urged Richard to go easy on Twitter. It doesn’t work. I gave up. But I will defend him when people deliberately misinterpret him.

      • A C Harper
        Posted February 17, 2020 at 2:34 am | Permalink

        Asking Richard Dawkins to go easy strikes me as soft (well meaning) censorship.

        If you believe in free speech and pushing back against the emotional imperialism of The Woke then you have to be firm in extolling the truth.

        Is Twitter a poor medium for rationality? Yes. I avoid all social media because it encourages emotionalism. But if I believed I had a need to promote science then I might be prepared to wade into the sump.

        • GBJames
          Posted February 17, 2020 at 8:46 am | Permalink

          “Soft censoring” isn’t a thing. If it were, you would be guilty for having soft censored those who you are calling on not to tell Richard he should have someone else review before clicking “Send”.

          • A C Harper
            Posted February 17, 2020 at 10:15 am | Permalink

            Really?

            • GBJames
              Posted February 17, 2020 at 10:26 am | Permalink

              Well, think it through. You say PCC[E] is “soft censoring” for calling on Richard to “go easy”. If that’s the case, why isn’t your calling on PCC[E] also soft censoring? (And, of course, I’m now “soft censoring” you for your comment.)

              It is an absurd, endless rabbit hole you want us to jump into.

              • A C Harper
                Posted February 17, 2020 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

                Thank you for your comments. I wasn’t sure you understood the point that I was making and now I am certain.

    • Posted February 16, 2020 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

      Why is tweeting a TRUE statement a problem? Moreover, based on some the comments following the tweet, there many who don’t know the difference between could and should, so his point is worth making.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted February 16, 2020 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

        Because RD made the miscalculation common to the very rational – that most people react to something based on emotion not logic. Therefore, using a trigger word like eugenics in the context of it working is just going to result in hysteria.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted February 16, 2020 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

          I should have said his miscalculation was thinking people would consider his ideas instead of reacting emotionally to words.

        • Posted February 16, 2020 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

          Dawkins is not stupid. He knows that he will be maliciously misinterpreted by some people, but those people would find something to complain about if Dawkins said one plus one equals two. To hell with them. Let Dawkins be Dawkins and let us stop telling him how and where he should get his message out.

          • Robert
            Posted February 16, 2020 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

            Exactly.

          • daniaq
            Posted February 16, 2020 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

            Nice! I agree

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted February 16, 2020 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

      I feel like Dawkins is doing this on purpose. He knows there are people who will deliberately misinterpret him like the biologist that Jerry highlighted. I think he’s hoping to expose them and bring the debate back to being more reasonable, like it should be. We can do without the ultra-woke, and they should be exposed as being, in their own way, just as bad as the cretins on the far-right.

      Extremists have already all but taken over the social sciences and humanities. The last thing we need is for them to get a strong foothold in the physical sciences as well. They’re certainly trying to get in there, and they need to be stopped.

      • Alexander
        Posted February 16, 2020 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

        Re Extremists, what do you mean by getting a strong foothold in the physical sciences? Do they push certain theories, or just the application of science in weapons development?

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted February 16, 2020 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

          I mean they don’t leave their ideology at the door of the lab. They try and rig or design experiments to give them the results they want, or interpret them with an agenda in mind. That sort of thing.

          • Alexander
            Posted February 16, 2020 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

            I agree that cheating is more frequent in research in psychology, or in some areas of the life sciences and medicine, where experimental results are the result of long lasting experiments, difficult to replicate by other researchers. And of course if there is cheating, it could be driven by ideology (or finacial interests) But in physics this is much more rare. Experiments are replicable, and usually experiments are not driven by any ideology. Here is an example of scientific fraud in physics on which I reported:
            https://www.researchgate.net/publication/3000406_Schon_shown_the_door_electronics_research_investigation

            • Bruce Lilly
              Posted February 17, 2020 at 9:45 am | Permalink

              One problem is pigeon-holing all things vaguely “sciency-sounding” as “science” (or even “physics”). I see the sciency-sounding things as a spectrum, ranging from pure pseudoscience (astrology, numerology, phrenology, etc.) at one end, through the “soft sciences”, and on to the “hard sciences”, such as chemistry.

              Physics used to be at the “hard sciences” end, and much of it still is. But Schroedinger and his cat, plus “string theory” lack the experimental falsifiability of true hard sciences. Biology also used to be one of the hard sciences, even when practitioners such as Gregor Mendel kept their political and/or religious beliefs out of their scientific experiments. Nowadays, that’s often not the case, as apparently with Dr. Blommaert. Even in physics, there are sometimes rather bizarre claims made, e.g. regarding variants of the famous double-slit experiment.

              Sociology and psychology are clearly among the “soft sciences” for the reasons you describe, but also because many of the practitioners are looking solely for confirmation of their biases, instead of the modern scientific approach of looking for falsification. It’s easy to find white swans (or e.g. ESP) if one is looking only for evidence that appears to confirm a hypothesis. It’s more challenging to seek out the egrets that falsify a hypothesis (and there are a few in the soft sciences who do so, but they tend to be rare).

              • Alexander
                Posted February 17, 2020 at 11:17 am | Permalink

                I don’t agree that there is a continuum between for example astrology and astronomy or physics. In astrology, its tenets are entirely based on mythology, and not on observations. But the epicycle theory of planetary motion, for example, was based on observation: to the early astronomers the planets appeared to move on epicycles. This theory became falsified with the more precise observations by Tycho Brahe and Galileo, and Newton’s theory of planetary motion. Although the epicycle theory was proven wrong, it was still (early) science: it was based on the (not very precise) observations that planets appeared to move on epicycles.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted February 16, 2020 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

        Yeah I get the impression he’s stirring the pot too. I hope he is because at least then he’s most likely enjoying himself instead of stressing himself out unnecessarily.

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted February 16, 2020 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

          I don’t know if ‘Dawkin’s Corner’ is still going, but he used to enjoy reading aloud some of the “unusual’ comments he got. It was a lot of fun listening to him.

  2. Posted February 16, 2020 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Having been reading the replies to the Tweet off-and-on today, I’m just amazed at the lengths people go to to misinterpret Dawkins.

    Isn’t it obvious that, as he actually says, all he’s doing is: “… combating the illogical step from “X would be bad” to “So X is impossible”.”?

    • Richard Sanderson🤴
      Posted February 16, 2020 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

      I’m not at all amazed.

      Some of these anti-science regressives have form for bad-faith hot takes and outrage.

      A lot of them are the usual NewRacists, antisemites, and PZ-types.

      • Ilya
        Posted February 17, 2020 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

        Wait, wouldn’t all those “… antisemites …” rather support Dawkins, if for all the wrong reasons? The most vociferous reaction is clearly from the Left.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted February 17, 2020 at 8:48 am | Permalink

      I poked some fun at a number of people who were making that mistake too.

  3. Posted February 16, 2020 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    I saw Dawkins’ tweet this morning also. A lot of people responded in the expected negative way but a lot also struck back, explaining what Dawkins meant. It is hard to know if any minds were changed, of course, but it was good to see pushback against the blindly virtuous. I hit “like” on all the reasonable, science-based replies and felt good doing so.

    • Posted February 16, 2020 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      👍

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted February 16, 2020 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

      Good on you.

    • darrelle
      Posted February 16, 2020 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

      Completely agree, nicely done.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted February 17, 2020 at 8:53 am | Permalink

      It is hard to know if any minds were changed, of course,

      Zero is likely to be included within the one-sigma error bar.
      I’d forgotten that Twatter has a “like button”. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Either my forgetting, or Twatter having a “like” button (rather than people needing to compose a response instead of just pressing a button ; there is plenty of “human factors” research on the dangers of that).

      • Posted February 17, 2020 at 9:29 am | Permalink

        By the time I read Dawkins’ tweet, there were already lots of comments, some supporting and explaining and some denigrating. I would have written a response but all bases were already covered.

  4. GBJames
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Sub

  5. Alexander
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Jerry says: “And virtually all morphological or behavioral traits have some positive heritability.”

    Unfortunately malice is also a behavioral trait with some positive heritability. It’s also a positive survival factor, and people endowed with this trait will exploit any possible misinterpretation of your (well-meaning)tweets.

  6. Kevin
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Dawkins said the exact same thing in Chapter 2 of The Greatest Show on Earth. He wasnt wrong then, and hes not wrong now. Twitter is just a toxic wasteland.

  7. Glepsicord
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    You can find the same statement nearly word-for-word in more than one of Dawkins books. Where was the outrage then?

    • darrelle
      Posted February 16, 2020 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

      Are you kidding? It’s hard to think of anyone that has sparked as much outrage with their books than Dawkins has. He has long been a target that exposes the fact that their are many tools among academia like Dr. Julie Blommaert. I can’t count the number of times I’ve defended Dawkins from ludicrous misinterpretations of just this sort from STEM folks on science sites.

      Heck, Dawkins has been so demonized over the years that even science types that don’t know him well enough to have specific gripes think negatively of him simply because negativity towards Dawkins is so pervasive. You’d think science types would do better, but no, sadly enough they are pretty much the same as any other demographic when it comes to the negative aspects of human behavior.

      • Posted February 16, 2020 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

        I totally agree, though Dawkins does like to stir the pot. It is hard to know exactly what prompted his tweet this morning. It isn’t obviously in reply to anything. Perhaps he just woke up and decided to fire a missile across the border.

    • keith
      Posted February 16, 2020 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

      They don’t read his books, they read what the perpetually outraged say he said.

  8. keith
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Lots of people with PhDs in biology misrepresenting Dawkins on Twitter. Why do they do it? Is it merely political correctness run wild?

    • Richard Sanderson🤴
      Posted February 16, 2020 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

      A lot of people with qualifications, including science ones, have completely regressive and anti-science views. See PZ Myers for instance.

      They are hateful, abusive ideologues.

      • BillyJoe
        Posted February 16, 2020 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

        PZ Myers went to work on Richard Dawkins’ use of the word “work”.

        And commenters on his blog falsely accused Richard Dawkins of being a eugenicist; or got side-tracked with some irrelevancy about how animal breeding can produce pug-nosed dogs that have trouble breathing; or dismissed him as a old white aristocratic British male.

        https://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2020/02/16/oh-no-richard-dawkins-no/

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted February 17, 2020 at 8:55 am | Permalink

          pug-nosed dogs

          That trope turned up on Twitter too. Probably from the same sources.

        • eric
          Posted February 17, 2020 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

          I’m not going to go there, getting into PZ’s blog is sort of like reading the (fictional) play The King in Yellow.

          There’s probably a good and reasonable discussion to be had on whether eugenics “works” based on what the speaker means by that…* The biologist’s “works” = increases the distribution of a specific trait in a population? Yes, in that sense it works. The animal/plant breeder’s “works” = produces a specific desired trait with little to no undesirable side effects? The answer to that is “partially.” Often you get negative side effects you can live with (e.g. the German shepherd’s weak hips, in return for it’s combined ability to track, herd, and protect). But I’d guess it’s extremely rare that you get the trait you want with no negative side effects.

          This is relevant to the human eugenics question because if any facist/supremacist/conservative is trying to claim that we can breed better people, they’re omitting an extremely importont point: any such breeding program would be likely to create new genetic problems that we don’t see in the current general population. In that sense, eugenics doesn’t work; it would be extremely difficult or improbable to breed in desired traits with no unexpected consequences.

          *…but I doubt I’ll find such a discussion on PZ’s site…

          • BillyJoe
            Posted February 17, 2020 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

            The push-back by commenters on PZ’s blog is along the lines of: “you couldn’t get people to cooperate so, no, it would NOT “work””.

  9. C.
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    Life sans Twatter (likewise for Farcebook and Instasham) is a happier healthier life. It is the breeding ground for offense-junkies and social justice wankers, not to mention alt-righters, tRump humpers and lazy “journalists”. I wish Richard Dawkins would walk away from the social media cesspool. There is little to be gained, and is reminiscent of the old adage about wrestling pigs in the mud. It is also worth noting that it is where a great many scientists attack others for their lack of ideological purity. Alex Wild (the myrmecologist whose photos and twits have been shared here before) is one of those and has in the past gone after PCC(E) for subjects like gender and sex differences. As I recall, he was banging on about how the Prof has been talking bullshit for years and needs to shut up. I unfollowed him and walked away from twatter soon after. This is the most “social” media I do, and I frequently have regrets about commenting here as well. There is just something about internet communication that doesn’t work very well for communicating ideas that are complex and/or nuanced. Perhaps it is the lack of actual social interaction in social media and other online discussions that is the problem. That’s my two ha’pennies anyway.

    • EB
      Posted February 16, 2020 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

      Agreed. The attention spans and sensitivity to reasoned argument have been blasted to smithereens for an entire generation of young people. I think in a few decades we will look back on Twitter as one of the most heinous social engineering projects ever undertaken.

      • Mark R.
        Posted February 16, 2020 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

        I think Facebook is worse than Twitter (I don’t use either, so I might not be the best critic). I just base this on the fact that Twitter has stopped running political ads and Facebook hasn’t. Facebook even knows the political ads that are paid for in rubles and they don’t care. A very greedy and destructive company, that Facebook.

    • revelator60
      Posted February 17, 2020 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

      Is the old adage about wrestling pigs in the mud similar to Orson Welles’s remark about picking up shit with gloves? (“The gloves keep getting shittier but the shit never gets glovier.”)

  10. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure I understand neither Dawkins nor Blommaert nor Jerry.

    Artificial selection works, independently if of should be used. But getting rid of eugenics “bad genes” in undesirable traits would not work in general I think. Most such traits are multigene traits, and many problematic alleles are recessives and so hide from selection unless you circumvent taboos and misery, and practice strict inbreeding.

    • Posted February 16, 2020 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

      No, you’re wrong. It doesn’t matter how many genes are involved in a trait: the degree you can change it by selection depends ONLY on the heritability and on the strength of selection.

      If the heritability is 0.5, regardless if it’s one gene or a thousand behind the variation, you will get a response equal to half the amount you selected for.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted February 17, 2020 at 9:06 am | Permalink

      Most such traits are multigene traits

      And?
      If you can do something to reduce the prevalence of damaging heritable traits with no beneficial side effects, then you really should do. (footnote after analogy)

      An analogy : Most fires are not fuelled by flammable metals or fuels less dense than water, but some are. Therefore, you should not apply water to a fire?
      (For the record, for a general domestic and/ or office circumstance a foam extinguisher is generally the best compromise, and if you’re going to use a deep-fat frier you should do a number of exercises with a fire blanket (~£20) before leaping for a saponifying extinguisher (£400 or so).

      (footnote) A good example to consider would be the several genes involved in the several variants of sickle-cell diseases. Yes, at least some variants provide significant protection against malaria when heterozygous, but cause significant (sometimes life- or breeding- threatening) disease when homozygous. So … which would be better – exterminating the mosquito (or at least, reducing the load of the malaria parasite to non-infectious levels) or exterminating the sickle-cell trait(s)?

    • Bruce Lilly
      Posted February 17, 2020 at 9:09 am | Permalink

      “But getting rid of eugenics ‘bad genes’ in undesirable traits would not work in general I think.”

      Consider Tay-Sachs disease, for example. It is known to be inherited: see e.g. https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/tay-sachs.html

      While there may be some cases where avoiding heritable diseases might not work, it is certainly feasible in many cases.

  11. Posted February 16, 2020 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    The last line is sadly ironic: “Facts ignore ideology”.
    The reverse is also true. Ideology ignores facts.

    • darrelle
      Posted February 16, 2020 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

      Yes, the two just don’t see eye to eye.

  12. Muffy Ferro
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    I read his tweet and the comments. As Matthew predicted many people jumped on the word “work.” But human eugenics would work — it would change human characteristics. That’s all he said as far as I can tell. He never said it would work to solve any human problems.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 16, 2020 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

      Some people are so against eugenics that they oppose the concept of eliminating diseases through genetic manipulation purely on principle. They jump right to designer babies and genocide.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted February 17, 2020 at 9:13 am | Permalink

      But human eugenics would work — it would change human characteristics.

      [b]Do[/b] work.
      Every day, people are making chioces on whether or not to have children at all, or whether to implant [i]this[/i] embryo rather than [i]that [/i]embryo on the basis of either genetic counselling or PIGD (or both), in order to avoid developing a foetus with one of a range of serious genetic conditions. Those alleles are (slowly, inefficently) being removed from the human gene pool resulting in a less harmful set of genes for future people who choose to swim in that particular pool. That’s eugenics.
      Of course, a lot of the people who do this choose to not talk about it. The may think they’d be called Nazis for doing it.

  13. EB
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    Contra the mass of frenzied tweeters, I don’t see a reason to bash eugenics as a whole, while needless to say, deploring the historical association with racism and fascism. Non-authoritarian, non-racial methods of improving the genetic composition of the species are still eugenical in effect and should be promoted. I’m thinking of things like the societal decline in cigarette smoking, which has the effect of lowering the average rate of germline mutations. Moreover, Geoffrey Miller, in Dawkins’ twitter thread, suggest that mate choice is a form of voluntary eugenics. It seems inevitable for the topic of eugenics to be alive well into the future, and the sooner people get comfortable talking about the associated issues without impugning motives, the better. It’s been 80 years since the demolition of Nazi ideology, with no revival in sight (putting aside the delusions of the antifa crowd). I commend Dawkins for at least talking about the issue forthrightly, even if the character limit is not ideal.

  14. Diana MacPherson
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    Oh dear. I saw it too.

  15. Taz
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    Reading the responses to that tweet is like playing woke buzzword bingo. One person claims the people pointing out that Dawkins is being misrepresented are “mansplaining”. Another says it isn’t possible because he’s confusing physiology with “social construct”.

  16. Michael Fisher
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    I think Richard Dawkins is responding to reports about the views & comments of one Andrew Sabisky – a new ‘special advisor’ to Boris Johnson with views on compulsory contraception, the IQ of blacks, women in competitive sport, eugenics – he also attended a UCL conference a few years ago with reportedly a high proportion of white supremacist speakers/attendees [I haven’t checked any of the above back to sources – just reporting what I’ve read!!!]

    Maybe RD saw tweets like this one – in which case he should have contextualised his Tweet [or not Tweeted at all]:

    • Posted February 16, 2020 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

      “I think Richard Dawkins is responding to reports about the views & comments of one Andrew Sabisky …”

      Why do you think that?

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted February 16, 2020 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

        Because the timing is very close – the appointment of Sabisky has been reported in all the main long form UK news outlets yesterday [Saturday] & I think RD is responding to how the news & social media have employed/presented the term “eugenics.” Look up the press reports for yesterday.

        • Posted February 16, 2020 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

          But Richard isn’t criticizing those eugenic views, which is what one would expect him to have done. His tweet that eugenics would “work” in humans doesn’t make sense as a response to Sabisky. Am I misunderstanding something?

          • Michael Fisher
            Posted February 16, 2020 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

            I wrote that I think RD is responding to how the news & social media have employed/presented the term “eugenics” when reporting about Sabitsky’s appointment. I didn’t say RD is responding to Sabitsky & he clearly isn’t.

            • Michael Fisher
              Posted February 16, 2020 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

              Sabitsky Sabisky

    • Alexander
      Posted February 16, 2020 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

      Drowning Street…?

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted February 16, 2020 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

        About right

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted February 16, 2020 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

      Sabisky gave a talk at the UCL conference in 2015 on “The efficacy of early childhood interventions in improving cognitive outcomes.” RationalWiki reports that the LONDON CONFERENCE ON INTELLIGENCE of 2014, 15 & 16 had

      “Around 20 speakers [each year presenting] talks based on papers they had written or co-written in advance. Based on two of the conference publications 2015-2016 that list paper abstracts, a journalist writing for London Student calculated that over 80% of speakers have published papers in the Mankind Quarterly, a pseudoscholarly racist journal. Its publisher, Ulster Institute for Social Research was founded by Richard Lynn, a white supremacist who has far-right political views and is a eugenicist; UISR has received grants from the Pioneer Fund — a hate-group set up by Nazi-sympathisers”

      • Posted February 16, 2020 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

        Except that RationalWiki has long been captured by the woke, so I wouldn’t trust it as a source.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted February 16, 2020 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

          Well that’s all right then. RationalWiki doesn’t have to be your source, you can click on all the little link numbers & see how that works for you.

  17. eric
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    Should we do that? Hell, no!!

    We DO do it…at the individual level. Meaning that each of us selects our partner based on things we like about them (or we non-select people based on the things we don’t like about them). Each of us chooses how many kids to have. This is perfectly fine and ethical: if, for whatever reason, I only wanted to date women over 6’2″ with green eyes, people might call me an idiot, but nobody’s going to call my choice immoral.

    When we talk about unethical eugenics, we’re really talking about when the state steps in and takes away the individual’s choice to choose their partner or their choice about whether (and how much) to procreate. And given the level of coercion involved in such systems, no wonder we consider it unethical. That level of interference in personal life choices would frankly be unethical even if it did nothing to change human genetics.

    So if you think about it, the genetic component is largely irrelevant to the ethics. The ethics is really about state coercion vs. freedom for the individual’s choice. When the individual has the freedom, “self-selection” is seen as moral. And if/when the individual’s freedom is taken away, we’d see that as unethical/immoral even if there was not alteration of allele frequency in the population.

    • Posted February 16, 2020 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

      Well said.

      I have long arms, high flexibility in my shoulders and over extended knees…just like Michael Phelps. I selected for a wife, with similar traits. Any surprise my children are amazing swimmers?

      I’ve seen watched many families who either willingly or unknowingly fall into similar ‘capabilities’ strengthening, whether it be for music, art, or science or athletics or acting.

    • Ilya
      Posted February 17, 2020 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      Sure but the argument would work even better if the consequences of making certain procreation decisions weren’t socialized. When treating a rare genetic condition may cost millions, and the condition can be diagnosed in utero, wouldn’t not giving birth in this case be a reasonable expectation? Shouldn’t at least a case of this kind be treated as a special case of pre-existing condition that insurance companies could deny? Slippery slope? Yes, but it exposes the weakness of rejecting any and all regulation of procreation outcomes.

  18. chris
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Sometimes I think Dawkins does it deliberately as a sanity-check on Twitter. I personally was encouraged to see how many people responded by pointing out that Dawkins was right and that he was in no way supporting eugenics.

  19. Posted February 16, 2020 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    The blow-back on RD starts when he tries to explain that eugenics would “work”. The teacher and biologist in him could not resist teaching about biology.
    I can honestly say that I might do exactly the same thing, in a moments’ reaction to someone not understanding eugenics.

  20. Barry
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    Here is (in my opinion) an interesting and somewhat related (dog eugenics) paper.

    Norton, H.L., Quillen, E.E., Bigham, A.W. et al. Human races are not like dog breeds: refuting a racist analogy. Evo Edu Outreach 12, 17 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12052-019-0109-y (open access)

    • Tom Bombadil
      Posted February 17, 2020 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

      Interesting essay, not least for a quote of J.B.S. Haldane, a name to conjure with, indeed. Reminds me of one of my favourites of his: “Teleology is like a mistress to a biologist: he cannot live without her but he’s unwilling to be seen with her in public.”

      But – as a result of the “scientific justification for eschewing the social construction of race”, in particular – it’s a bit depressing as well to realize how far and how deeply the postmodernist rot has infected science: “feminist glaciology”, anyone? No doubt that what is “culturally labeled as ‘races’ …” is a little rough around the edges. But it is rather untenable to insist that any number of different, and significantly large, human populations do not have quite easily or readily quantifiable phenotypic or genotypic differences – populations which clearly meet the standard definitions for races:

      “1.4 Biology; A population within a species that is distinct in some way, especially a subspecies”

      https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/race

  21. Cinthia
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    I disagree entirely that we should be censoring ourselves because people will misinterpret factual statements. Doing this is part of the problem.

    • Posted February 16, 2020 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

      In fact it is an opportunity to set some people straight. The best thing about Twitter is that you can read and respond directly to the thoughts of people like Dawkins. You can’t make them read your response, of course. Perhaps that will be available in an upgrade.

  22. Raymond Cox
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    It is depressing how many responses seem to assume that Dawkins is advocating eugenics when he clearly condemns it. Do people actually bother to read his tweets before posting?

    • eric
      Posted February 16, 2020 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

      It’s a pretty common authoritarian left sort of response: you cannot admit a right-wing or socially retrograde policy might do what it claims, lest someone think the ends justifies the means.

      • Harrison
        Posted February 16, 2020 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

        It’s in the same realm of logic whereby theists state that if there wasn’t a god there’d be nothing to stop them being amoral monsters.

  23. aljones909
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    Maybe he enjoys a bit of mischief. Triggering the woke is a public service.

  24. Curt Nelson
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    That wasn’t a ham-handed tweet. It’s just that the tweetersphere is ham-headed.

  25. Ronsch
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    There are other ways to enhance performance than eugenics, for example, steroids affecting home run hitting in baseball, or cycling competition, and people are not happy with the result. But how about helping someone to be more intelligent? I know we don’t have enough handle on doing that with eugenics, but what if we did?

  26. Deodand
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    I find this interesting since most ‘Woke’ have accepted the 19th century notion of ‘Inherant Racial Characteristics’ since I’ve confronted non-Whites abusing other non-Whites and been told that it’s ‘the white blood’ that has caused the person to behave the way they did.

  27. ethologist
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    I objected to the statement “Facts ignore ideology.” In effect, Richard is saying that the question of whether eugenics would “work” is merely a matter of fact. The problem is that the very word “eugenics” has ideological connotations built into it. As everyone knows, the “eu-” part means “good” or “well.” That implies a value judgment on the part of the person or persons who are deciding on someone else’s reproductive decisions. It is very hard to separate such value judgments from matters of ideology (e.g. questions of who in society should have the power to decide what is “good”).

    • ethologist
      Posted February 16, 2020 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

      Not that I thought for a second that Dawkins supported eugenic policies. It just seemed like a really thoughtless thing to throw out there the way he did.

  28. Harrison
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

    I’m reminded of this particular Mitchell and Webb bit:

  29. Bobarillo
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

    Dawkins’ views on eugenics effectiveness vs. morality are spelled out in some detail in the first chapter of his most recent book, “Science in the Soul”.

    The chapter is called “The Values of Science and the Science of Values”, which dates from a 1997 lecture dedicated to Carl Sagan.

    The eugenics topic arises in the context of Dawkins pointing out that certain left-wing ideologue scientists (e.g., Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin in this case) appear to be personally unable to distinguish what they want to be true from what actually is true or that they use their “science” to promote their own belief system. And these same individuals project their inability to separate facts from desires on to others, such as Dawkins. (Therefore accusing him of being right-wing.)

    Dawkins raises the eugenics point in the chapter specifically to say: “This is clearly something that could be effective; for example, look at what we’ve done to domesticated animals. HOWEVER, although the reality is that it would be effective, I would be opposed to it.” (paraphrased)

    In other words, it is raised specifically to show that even if something is morally repugnant, that doesn’t change its being true.

    It is depressing to see the “scientists” who are arguing against Dawkins for exactly the same reason more than 20 years later.

    I assume that Dawkins tweet was designed to provoke exactly this response.

  30. Posted February 16, 2020 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    It’s one thing to deplore eugenics on ideological, political, moral grounds. […]

    People are wrong who wrote he deplores eugenics in that very tweet. He wrote that however numerous times elsewhere, and in a subsequent tweet. Here he just says that deploring it is a different from whether it also works in practice. Who deplores it, or on which grounds is unspecified. From this alone we cannot tell whether he deplores eugenics.

    […] It’s quite another to conclude that it wouldn’t work in practice. Of course it would. It works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses. Why on earth wouldn’t it work for humans? Facts ignore ideology.

    He first points out that unspecified people may find it deplorable, and then says that it would “work”, which indeed makes it sound like an endorsement. The juxtaposition between people who deplore it, and that it would “work” creates this impression through the conative function.

    He would have been clearer had he swapped the points around: saying that it would work for humans, too, but that he believes it’s deplorable to do.

    And I just recently wrote here that he is typically misunderstood with his tweets.

    • Tom Bombadil
      Posted February 17, 2020 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

      “misunderstood” is probably an understatement – he does seem to have a penchant for throwing the fox in amongst the chickens, by intent or otherwise. One fondly remembers his “Dear Muslima”, lo these many years ago ….

      But one might suggest that that is exactly what the doctor ordered, the cure for what ails the body politic: an inability to call a spade a shovel, if not an anathematization of that – and mostly by the Left.

      I gather that this is typically misattributed to Orwell, but it sure seems consistent with his other views, and is entirely applicable to the current zeitgeist – and in many more cases than just eugenics:

      “In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

  31. Posted February 17, 2020 at 12:17 am | Permalink

    What a perfect storm of pious lectures on Twitter by the Dr. Blommaert’s of the world over a mere statement of facts. Elsewhere she informs us we’re to consult the bioethicists on the matter. They’re really no different from priests – people who claim to be experts on something that doesn’t exist. In one case their claim to “expertise” depends on maintaining the God charade, and in the other on the charade of some kind of an objective moral law pertaining to biology. How many of these “experts” have raised the slightest whimper of protest over the poisoning, mutilation and sterilization of children in the name of “transgendering” them? If we are to take what Darwin said in chapter IV of “The Descent of Man” seriously, it stands morality completely on its head as far as the reasons for its very existence are concerned. Still, this is a teachable moment. It demonstrates how the latest version of the “objective moral law” is concocted via enraged emotional outbursts. I suppose if we’re squeamish about how things are cooked, we shouldn’t wander into the kitchen.

  32. Matthew North
    Posted February 17, 2020 at 1:03 am | Permalink

    Dawkins should stay the hell away from Twitter.

    It has gotten him into too much trouble in the past. That’s why I’m not so sure he didn’t know the ruckus he would create when he sent this tweet.
    I used to think he could do no wrong, but over the years I realized he’s just another fallible, mixed up human being with the wrong-headed, ill-thought out opinions and biases we all have.
    I’m a nobody. I don’t have a Twitter account because I think Twitter causes too much confusion and controversy in the limited amount of space it has for normal human discourse. Dawkins, on the other hand, is a world renowned author and biologist known for his controversial stance on religion and other things. He should have known, (maybe he did), the negative attention he would cause in the Twitter-verse with this tweet.

    Eugenics would “work” for humans.

    Talk about an overly-broad statement.

  33. kelskye
    Posted February 17, 2020 at 1:17 am | Permalink

    My take on it is that people generally gravitate to one offer extreme interpretations – if X is good, everything about X is good (halo effect), and of X is bad, everything about X is bad. Trying to tease out the complications of life is the whole reason philosophy needed to be invented, and why to this day people can’t just be satisfied to make an IS-OUGHT distinction (or say “reality is complicated) and move on with their lives.

    I do wonder if Dawkins would be better served quoting what someone’s said or written to give a context to his tweet. That way they seem less like abstract musings (I.e. why is Dawkins even bringing up eugenics?!) and more a direct response to something. Stephen Pinker is good at the latter.

  34. jonno
    Posted February 17, 2020 at 5:34 am | Permalink

    Why should he stop tweeting like that, Jerry?

    Why should we be walking on eggshells like this?

    What he said is completely modest and reasonable and OBVIOUSLY not an endorsement of eugenics. We should as hell should be able to say things like that without repercussion. A line must be drawn SOMEWHERE.

    Or it’ll just get worse and worse and we’ll have to withdraw more and more until nothing but wokey-head BS can get tweeted about. And truth and discussion is only harmed.

    Why are those people (including certain scientists) who are BLATANTLY lying about him able to get away with less repercussions? They shouldn’t be tweeting. What they are doing is far more egregious than Dawkins. Where is the accountability for these liars?

    Dawkins in fact did absolutely nothing wrong, not even in what and how he tweeted. More tweets like this are in order instead of cowing to nonsense and censoring ourselves and censoring truth. A line must be drawn.

    • Posted February 17, 2020 at 6:04 am | Permalink

      I’ve already written about how he hates the pushback on his tweets, and if that’s the case, he should write what he wants not in a tweet, but in a longer article. I never said he did anything wrong. All he accomplishes from this is to rile up people and get more people calling him a nazi, sexist, and so on. He doesn’t like that, as you see when he “corrected” or “explained” his tweets later. He could publish an op-ed anywhere he wants, so he should write at greater length, not in these cryptic emissions on Twitter. I’m not the only friend of his who thinks that.

      And, as you see, I defended him.Nobody got away with anything. It’s interesting that when I defend the man, I get crap from both sides.

      As this is your first post, I’d ask you to try to be a bit calmer and more civil in your subsequent posts, and try to leave out the capslock. Read the Roolz on the sidebar.

      • jonno
        Posted February 17, 2020 at 6:54 am | Permalink

        Fair enough but i think it’s an important point.

        The more we cow to these tyrants and self-censor the more emboldened they will get until nothing can be discussed on twitter or anywhere except on their terms. The demands on speech will just get more extreme, as they have.

        And it’s frustrating how certain people lying and defaming people like Dawkins (and others, with often serious consequence) often seem to get away with it with less professional and social repercussions. they are the ones who should be more worried about what they tweet about.

        There’s such a double standard and we don’t fix it by just taking it.

  35. Westi
    Posted February 17, 2020 at 6:13 am | Permalink

    If you don’t know Dawkins then this tweet comes out as typical “Dog-whistle politics”. So the reaction is more then expected. I admit that it always makes you wonder how smart man like Dawkins can be so naive about twitter.

  36. John Ottaway
    Posted February 17, 2020 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    The whole subject of Eugenics was brought up because Dominic Cummongs, special adviser to Boris Johnson, hired Andrew Sabisky as an aide

    Sabisky spoke in favour of it, at a white nationalists eugenics conference

    Dawkins is just a side issue and not the focus of the overall discussion

    • John Ottaway
      Posted February 17, 2020 at 6:46 am | Permalink

      Cummings*

  37. Dominic
    Posted February 17, 2020 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    I am not sure I am opposed to ‘improving’ humans. If we could grow gills for example, or photosynthesise!

  38. KD
    Posted February 17, 2020 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    Should Richard have issued that tweet? Again: Hell no!! Richard knows (or surely must, just as Matthew and I knew) that there are many people out there ready to misinterpret what he says and would use it to imply that Dawkins favors eugenics—that he’s a latter-day Nazi.

    Dawkins is a provocateur. He likes to say things designed to rile people up, and then explain why he is right and his critics are wrong.

    But we do have eugenics now, there are markets for “superior” egg and sperm donations, and even lawsuits over fraud. Designer babies are a thing, and no one aside from some lonely Catholic medical ethicists seem to be alarmed.

    I think it has everything to do with what kind of eugenics program that is being pushed. I think genetic interventions in infants suffering from genetic diseases (say Huntingtons or Tay-Sachs) is not going to create a lot of public outrage. On the other hand, something along the lines that William Shockley advocated would go over about as well as Dawkins tweet.

    • KD
      Posted February 17, 2020 at 9:49 am | Permalink

      The problem with Dawkin’s tweet is that there is a strong correlation between the belief that eugenics is not effective and the belief that eugenics is wrong. [Obviously, if something doesn’t work, it is easier to defend why wasting resources on something that doesn’t work is immoral.]

      The typical argument against eugenics runs something like Nazis, the Holocaust, T4 Program in Nazi Germany, and its irrational and it doesn’t work anyways.

      The pro-eugenics argument has to make an argument for efficacy prior to distinguishing eugenics program A from the Nazi eugenics program and arguing for its morality. Given the arguments for efficacy generally involve (depending on your perspective), the “hard truths about human nature” or “pseudo-science”, Dawkin’s is adding his credibility and authority to what might be called the “heavy lifting” component of a pro-eugenics case. Of course its going to be a lightning rod for critics.

      Frankly, if you take equality of outcome seriously, and you take genetics seriously, then I don’t see how you can walk away from eugenics, because it is likely to be your best means of accomplishing equality of outcome. Given that blank slate arguments are usually advanced in service of the goal of equality of outcome, I would imagine your typical progressive would embrace eugenics in a heartbeat if they were convinced it could work.

  39. Matt
    Posted February 17, 2020 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    Ken Ham is going to love this.

  40. Posted February 17, 2020 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    …And now a word from the Simonyi Professor for Trolling the Public About Science…

  41. Dave Adams
    Posted February 17, 2020 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    If the Dawkins post brings one person closer to an understanding of science, it was worth the effort.

  42. Posted February 17, 2020 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    I think it is important yo point out the real reasons to be against something, and to point out errors in arguments. It us also true doing so does brings misinterpretation and confusion about motives. But it should be done. That is the only way toward progress and understanding.

  43. Posted February 17, 2020 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    I still am ambivalent on some of the discussion about heritability. All my textbook and monograph sources say that heritability is relative to an environment. Consquently, say Lewontin and Sarkar (for example), we can *change the environment* and make IQ (for example) much less heritable (or not at all such). So why focus on heritability and not the environment when understanding the determination of human traits?

    This argument I think has some merit, but one thing that nowhere do any of the “environmental” folks explain to my satisfaction what counts as “same environment” (or “different environment”). Only then can I see if this seems a good way to explore the problem. IOW, are human environments different like Lewontin’s perennial example of acidity of soil, a case showing it makes no sense to say “plant is genetically tall” (or whatever), or is there less variation?

    On the other hand, partisans of the “IQ is genetic!” crowd (the better evolutionary psychologists, for example) like Pinker just cite the heritability as if completely answered the question, which of course it doesn’t in any useful way, thanks to the argument above. This is why some (it seems) think that the evolutionary psychologists are arguing in bad faith because they ignore the *actual argument*.

    I personally for the moment say, “Pox on both your houses, explain to me precisely how this is to work, please” 🙂

    • Babacito
      Posted February 17, 2020 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

      The only ways you could change the environment to make IQ *less* heritable would be unthinkable social engineering.

      To make IQ less heritable, you’d have to either *increase* environmental variability in upbringing (exactly the sort of thing we want to avoid) or do genetic testing for intelligence and intentionally hold back students who were genetically too bright while advancing those who were not.

      In fact, liberal social policies emphasizing equal opportunity and low inequality will tend to *increase* the heritability of IQ by decreasing environmental variance. They would tend to make eugenics programs *more* effective (not less) by making one’s phenotype a better predictor of the underlying genotype. Lewontin’s own social goals undermine his own argument against eugenics.

      • KD
        Posted February 17, 2020 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

        The problem is that genetics sets an outward bound on potential, and environment controls how close an organism comes to that potential.

        Since genetic and genetic potential differs between individuals and groups, no amount of environment is going to give you equal outcomes. Some people will never play for the NBA no matter how hard they try.

        If you look at male bodies, much higher muscle mass, much lower fat, much higher testosterone than females. Even a female athlete taking performance enhancing drugs to mimic a male hormonal profile is not going to be able to compete with male athlete of the same weight class, because of the difference in body composition. Its just physics.

        If equal outcomes matter to you, then you will never get there with simply environmental interventions, you are going to require eugenics. Maybe that is a reason not to worry about equal outcomes, but its ironic because the people most worried about equal outcomes are the same ones most worried about eugenics.

      • EB
        Posted February 18, 2020 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

        No one concerned with social issues has it as their *goal* to make IQ (or any other phenotype) less heritable. That would be an odd obsession with a much-misunderstood quantity whose main purview is in technical discussions of quantitative genetics. One’s goal could be to make IQ (or other phenotypic markers) less determinative of social status, by, for instance, establishing a society that is not divided into economic classes. Changes in heritability would be an absurd metric by which to measure progress on that front.

        Also, it’s not the case that the only way to reduce heritability is to increase environmental variation. A change to a different environment altogether (such as a socialist society, for example) would have unpredictable effects on the heritability, given that the quantity is defined only for a limited set of reference environments. Any environments outside of that limited set are, a priori, unpredictable in their effects.

        Last thing, it is not the case that heritability solely determines the effectiveness of breeding programs. The range of variation is also important. After all, one can increase heritability simply by lowering both genetic and environmental sources of variation, but lowering that latter by a smaller amount. Selection can be less effective after such a change, even though heritability has gone up.

        • Posted February 19, 2020 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

          “A change to a different environment altogether (such as a socialist society, for example) would have unpredictable effects on the heritability, given that the quantity is defined only for a limited set of reference environments.”

          Or put another way: do we know that a socialist (or fascist, or hunter-gatherer or …) society is sufficiently “different environment” for the heritability to be different – in any direction?

      • Posted February 19, 2020 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

        How do you know this without answering the question I posed, which is what counts as the same environment? (This is not snark, I genuinely do not see it.)

    • Bruce Lilly
      Posted February 18, 2020 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      “All my textbook and monograph sources say that heritability is relative to an environment.”

      How, precisely, is heritability of eye color (for example, or hair color, or genetic diseases such as Tay-Sachs) “relative to an environment”?

      • BillyJoe
        Posted February 18, 2020 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

        “How, precisely, is heritability of eye color relative to an environment”?

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anophthalmia

        • Bruce Lilly
          Posted February 20, 2020 at 11:52 am | Permalink

          Not having an eye is a different situation from eye color. If I have no apples, I cannot speak of the color of the apples that I (don’t) have.

      • EB
        Posted February 18, 2020 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

        Heritability is defined as the proportion of phenotypic variability due to variation in genes, relative to a set of reference genotypes and reference environments. One can very well imagine nutrition-poor environments that introduce variation in hair color, or the presence certain toxins in the environment, etc. If the set of reference environments don’t introduce additional variation, then okay, heritability is equal to 1. But the whole exercise of calculating heritability must necessarily include environmental considerations, even if just to exclude their influence for some cases. Moreover, the details of population structure, inbreeding, and assortative mating introduce variation in heritability between populations, and so even simple genetic diseases are subject to environmental influence.

        • Bruce Lilly
          Posted February 20, 2020 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

          This response (and another) appears to confirm my suspicion; in the context of intentional selection for characteristics (of plants or animals via non-natural selection), one does not generally introduce confounding factors such as “nutrition-poor environments”, etc. (unless, of course, one is selecting for tolerance to such environments, etc.).

          So the “*change the environment*” in the original comment (#43) amounts to introduction of a confounding factor (except in the specific cases of selection for tolerance to such factors), and doesn’t invalidate the selection for traits based on heritability in the absence of confounding factors.

          If one is selecting e.g. for sheep with exceptional quality or quantity of wool production under normal conditions, introducing a nutrition-poor environment is probably not conducive to obtaining desirable results. At best, it will muddle the results, making it difficult to distinguish (desirable or undesirable) results attributable to natural variability vs. genetic factors vs. poor nutrition vs. a combination of causes.

          In most cases, when one is observing experimental outcomes, effective experimental design generally manipulates one independent variable at a time (e.g. genetic combinations, or some environmental factor, but not multiple variables simultaneously).

  44. Tom Bombadil
    Posted February 17, 2020 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    “But we still practice a mild form of negative eugenics today, in the form of genetic counseling and selective abortion, to prevent couples from having children with deformities or genetic disease.”

    Exactly. Of maybe some related interest, Matt Ridley in his “Genome” had an entire chapter on eugenics – Chromosome 21 – and he elaborated on specific examples in an earlier chapter (Chromosome 13). Of particular note from the latter:

    “In the US the Committee for the Prevention of Jewish Genetic Disease organizes the testing of schoolchildren’s blood. …. If [both prospective marriage partners are] carriers of the same mutation, for Tay-Sachs disease or cystic fibrosis, the committee advises against the marriage. The practical results of this voluntary policy – which was criticized in 1993 by the NY Times as eugenic – are already impressive. Cystic fibrosis has been virtually eliminated from the Jewish population in the US.” [pg 191]

    Toujours le contexte.

  45. Ben
    Posted February 17, 2020 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    Unpopular opinion: Dawkins might be kinda dumb. A normal person reads “eugenics would work” as “the practice of eugenics would achieve the goals of eugenics”. Which it wouldn’t. Sure, you could definitely alter the frequency of certain traits. But you would also inadvertently mess it up by excluding/reducing valuable traits, increasing disadvantageous traits, and reducing the genetic diversity of the population. Just like we did in every species he listed. So, again, is he dumb or just playing dumb?

    • Posted February 17, 2020 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

      You’re the only person who doesn’t seem to understand what Dawkins was saying, so I’d say you’re the dumb one.

  46. jb
    Posted February 17, 2020 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    The thing is, it is entirely possible that we are already engaging in a form of what might be called negative eugenics, but which has a better name: dysgenics.

    The thing is, I know, and know of, an awful lot of very smart people who have no children, or maybe just one. Smart people tend to have smart children, and some of those missing children would have been brilliant. On the other hand, I am constantly reading about idiot criminals who have five or six siblings. It seems at least possible that stupid, disorganized people are outbreeding smart, successful people, and that as a result people in generally are, on average, becoming less intelligent and less capable. If true that would undeniably be a bad thing.

    So is it true? We don’t really know, because the subject is so taboo that that nobody dares study it seriously. Intellectual taboos in generally are a bad thing, and I think this taboo in particular needs to be broken, so that we can find out whether there is actually a problem, and if so how bad it is. So hurray for Dawkins for taking a chip out of the wall!

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted February 17, 2020 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

      Experiments have been run with various plagues & wars doing some brutal selecting – the stats exist against that background.

      Purely speaking as a layman, I am guessing that the dysgenic effect of wealthier, more educated, smarter people producing fewer offspring, matters not a jot over mere centuries. And it would be very hard to disentangle the causes of any confirmed overall population negatives:

      [1] We have Africa as a backup drive so to speak – it is still true, & will remain true, that Africa has the greatest pot of human gene variation & what has happened in the so-called “first world” over two millennia perhaps doesn’t matter by comparison – any blips in China re one child policies & similar devices elsewhere will be washed out over significant time.

      [2] Environmental & cultural factors seem to matter most [at least in these last 2,000 years] – we have been experimenting on populations for at least two hundred years with manufactured [bio & non-bio] chemicals in ourselves, our food & our environment – I doubt that the effect [if it exists] of the poor having more kids would show up against a noisy non-heritable background like that.

  47. Victor Szulc
    Posted February 17, 2020 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    Kind of ironic, that so many people who “deplore” his opinions and think he’s a horrible person, also do much more to actively FURTHER eugenics than Dawson does.

    I’m talking about people who rail against Dawson, while at the same time taking a pro-choice stand.

    In Iceland, people with Down’s syndrome are rapidly becoming extinct from society due to prenatal screening and abortion.

    If you support a woman’s right to choose abortion under all circumstances, including aborting the child because of a chromosome disorder, than you’re practically supporting eugenics in action.

    • Posted February 17, 2020 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

      Dawson? You said it twice, so do you really even know who the guy is?

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted February 17, 2020 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

      Victor Szulc:

      “In Iceland, people with Down’s syndrome are rapidly becoming extinct from society due to prenatal screening and abortion”

      This “rapidly becoming extinct” claim isn’t true as Icelanders are employing their right to choose in more than one direction [see last quote below].

      Your information source Victor, sounds like it might be pressure group disinformation – well here’s a different pressure group:

      “[Using the WHO data] you can, for example, compare Iceland with other European countries. It’s better to compare the rates for a full decade, because of the year to year variation I mentioned earlier. In the last ten years for which the WHO provides data, Iceland’s rate was about 10% lower than the EU average. Scientifically, such a small difference can be considered random”

      My own SOURCE for the above is pushing for abortion rights in Ireland & they disagree with you. But how about Hulda Hjartardóttir, chief of obstetrics at Iceland’s National University Hospital? Here’s what she says:

      “The truth is that one third of mothers-to-be choose not to have more [pre-natal] tests done after the first indication of Down Syndrome. These women want to continue their pregnancies even with the increased chance of Down [Syndrome]. [Also], 80-85% of [pregnant] women choose to have the screening, so there are 15-20% who don’t. Those women don’t want the information. Of the women who have the screening and get results that point to increased risk [of Down Syndrome] about 75-80% get further tests done but 20-25% choose not to”

  48. Dean Reimer
    Posted February 18, 2020 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Late to the party, but I just came across this Twitter thread this morning, claiming that eugenics would not, in fact, work. It doesn’t mention Dawkins, but I can’t help but think this is meant to rebut Dawkins’ tweet.

    One of his arguments is that human generation times are too long. It doesn’t take a biologist to point out how that is a non-argument, as it merely means that it would take a long time, not that it couldn’t work.

    Some of his other arguments may be valid, but as a non-expert I can’t judge them. Perhaps PCC can weigh in on them.

    • Posted February 18, 2020 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      My take is that he made a series of dubious points in pursuit of his conclusion, stated in the thread’s final tweet, that eugenics is racist. IMHO, he would have been better off making the moral argument against eugenics rather than this faux scientific one. Of course, I’m not a biologist. Biologists?

      • GBJames
        Posted February 18, 2020 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

        If his point is to distinguish moral arguments from scientific facts/arguments (which I think it was), that strategy would not help.

      • Bluewhsle
        Posted February 18, 2020 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

        I agree with this assessment. Despite being well meaning, these types of assertions by scientists can cause harm, as some of his arguments could lead to bad habits and misconceptions among the public. First of all, he starts with an argument from authority by mentioning his publications. This isn’t that bad, as knowledge and expertise matters, but a consensus of experts would be more convincing imo. If you surveyed geneticists worldwide, I would expect many of them would agree that it is possible, but difficult to implement. Obviously, this would be morally unacceptable to most of them.

        A big part of his argument is based on the premise that for eugenics to work, it would have to eliminate 100% of deleterious alleles in the population. He brings up things like de novo mutations and rare variants to back up this point. However, a successful eugenics program would only need to result in a change in the mean value of a given trait in the desired direction. For example, suppose that these hypothetical eugenicists believed that black hair was desirable. If they increased the proportion of people with black hair from 20% to 30% in a hypothetical population, that would be considered a success to them. Suppose that they could get to a point where 100% of the population has black hair. If in the subsequent generations, children started being born with other basic colors, it wouldn’t mean that their program was a failure. Rather, they would just need to continue it.

        It’s also worth mentioning that heritability is key (as Dr. Coyne mentioned). We have ways of estimating this that do not depend on us understanding the biological basis of a given trait. If a trait is heritable, then you could theoretically implement a selective breeding program, without knowing the underlying genetics.

        He is also conflating whether or not eugenics is possible with whether or not it would work quickly. Those are two separate things. Yes, it would take awhile to make to make sizable increases in the average values of certain traits. This would cause challenges in societies, such as ours, that aren’t good at longterm planning. However, we’re clearly dealing with a hypothetical society here, so this doesn’t apply.

  49. Tim Evans
    Posted February 18, 2020 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    FYI Dr. Coyne, the postdoc whose tweet you highlighted here has received a lot of harassment on twitter since this post appeared. (And it’s still ongoing.)

    Surely you must have known what kind of negative attention this post would bring her?

    You have a lot of power in the field of evolutionary biology, and in the online science/atheism/skepticism community in general, and using this power to harm (intentionally or unintentionally) someone with much less power is a pretty despicable way to treat a junior scientist in your field.

    • Posted February 18, 2020 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      First, I did not know the person was a postdoc. I looked at the Twitter profile, saw that she described herself as a “scientist,” and did not investigate further. Frankly, I didn’t care what her position was: she made a public statement and I used her tweet as an example of a scientist demonizing Dawkins for favoring eugenics when that was clearly not his intention. I also said it seemed that she didn’t really read what Dawkins said. I stand by that statement.

      My intention was not to unleash a horde of people on her, nor did I anticipate it. And I would ask people to not harass her or ANYBODY because I reproduced one of their tweets. That is all I can do. Respectful discussion or criticism is fine, harassment is not.

      But are junior scientists who make public pronouncements on Twitter supposed to be immune from criticism? If they desire that, they should not be making such public pronouncements, especially if they call other scientists “clowns” and mischaracterize them as “supporters of eugenics”, as she did to Dawkins. Presumably she wanted the public to notice her tweet, as I did.

      I now see that she is tweeting this: “in addition to ‘Fuck eugenics’ and ‘Fuck dawks, I’d like to add, Fuck Jerry Coyne you sexist asshat.”

      I don’t think I’m the one here who is being despicable!

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted February 18, 2020 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

        Yikes. I agree. She made a public statement and she needs to understand that people are free to disagree with her statements. Calling people names because they criticize her makes her no better than the people harassing her for other than what she stated. If she finds this unfair, get ready for a rocky ride in the science business.

    • jonno
      Posted February 18, 2020 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

      I don’t feel much sympathy for her at all. She’s not getting pushback for her ideas, rather, she’s getting pushback for attempting to defame and ruin Dawkins.

      I don’t want or think anyone should be attacked for their ideas, fairly expressed, but this is different. She callously attacked him.

      But yeah, twitter spats are definitely not ideal but there should be some accountability for when people do things like that. What Jerry did is completely fair. It’s not right that Dawkins be more afraid to tweet something purely intellectual than others are to outright attack and defame him for his *ideas*. He attacked noone.

    • Posted February 19, 2020 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

      Hi Tim,

      “… the postdoc whose tweet you highlighted here has received a lot of harassment on twitter since this post appeared.”

      Could you point us at the Tweets that you regard as “harassment” of that scientist?

      I’ve had a look at the threads. There’s a lot of replies to her that agree with her and support her. There’s also quite a few disagreeing with her. I’ve not seen much that amounts to “harassment”, though I could be overlooking it.

  50. dfurtek
    Posted February 19, 2020 at 3:15 am | Permalink

    Brilliant men and women go to top universities. They fall in love, marry, and have have perhaps even more brilliant children. Isn’t this a form of eugenics?

    • ethologist
      Posted February 19, 2020 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      “Eugenics” implies a program where some members of society control the breeding of other members of society to make the overall gene pool “better” according to whatever criteria. Mate choice by individuals is not the same thing.

      • Posted February 19, 2020 at 11:38 am | Permalink

        Yes, I think many are blurring that distinction, one which makes all the difference in the world.

      • Bruce Lilly
        Posted February 20, 2020 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

        By that definition, there are already eugenics programs in operation via laws imposed/enacted by politicians restricting marriage between half-siblings and/or first cousins (in some jurisdictions). Here’s a resource that mentions this in relationship to the genetics involved: https://genetics.thetech.org/ask-a-geneticist/can-you-marry-cousin

        This raises a couple of issues, especially for those who claim that “eugenics is always immoral”.

        1. One had better be quite certain about that “is” before embarking on an “ought” to eliminate all such laws.

        2. As there is a difference between marriage and procreation, it follows that there is no reason to prohibit same-sex marriage based on familial relationships, as there is no issue of hereditary genetic disorders arising from such marriages. Perhaps those laws should be revised to provide an exception for same-sex couples (I hear the sound of conservative heads exploding…).

  51. Posted February 20, 2020 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    I was totally clear what I meant by “would work”. It would work in exactly the same sense as breeding cows for increased milk yield works. And that is precisely what I explicitly said I meant by “works”. In this sense it would work, as Jerry says, for any trait that has positive heritability, and that means most traits.

    You are at liberty to stretch the English language to breaking point and interpret “would work” as meaning “would be a right and proper, moral thing to do” but I was totally explicit that I meant anything but that.

    People rightly ask what provoked my tweet. Why did it come out of the blue? I happened to be reading a book which provoked it. I won’t name the book because the provocation was indirect, and I don’t in any case want to get into a spat with the author, who seems to be a decent person.

    So the argument against my tweet amounts to “You were imprudent not to recognise that many people on Twitter are idiots”. You could turn that on its head and say I was being respectful – and not patronising – by assuming that they were not idiots. Evidently I was wrong. Should I apologise? Hell no.

    Richard

    • EB
      Posted February 20, 2020 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for the clarification. There were two other interpretations of “work” that took issue with your tweet, which I could make out amid the endless pile-on of the mob. One non-moralistic concern was a sense that you implied artificial selection could be performed without any negative phenotypic byproducts (e.g. without producing undesirable “correlations of character”, to use Darwin’s terminology), and so more than a few tweeters brought up the existence of dog breeds with breathing problems. Another was that the notion of “genetic improvement” is intrinsic to the definition of eugenics, and that such a notion is undefinable. I wonder if you found these to be among the reasonable concerns, putting aside the widespread conflation of is and ought.

    • gothamette
      Posted February 22, 2020 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

      I agree that it would work. If eugenics only brought about good results, why would this be morally wrong?

  52. gothamette
    Posted February 22, 2020 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    “but his tweet was clearly intended to show that many human traits are heritable—that is, they would respond to artificial selection, which is what eugenics is. ”

    No, that’s not what eugenics is.

    The definition of “eugenics” as the word itself clearly implies, is value-laden. The goal is to “improve” the human race.

    Please do not tell me that good and bad traits are subjective – I would agree with that. To a degree.

    But Jerry Coyne’s attempt to disinfect the term “eugenics” from its actual meaning is wrong.

    Words have meanings. Galton meant something very specific by the term. Don’t deny that.


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