Physicist, Startup Founder, Blogger, Dad

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Forbidden thoughts

The video below is of the final lecture in Biology 7.012 at MIT (2004), co-taught by Professor Eric Lander, Director of the Broad Institute at MIT and a principal leader of the Human Genome Project, and Professor Robert A. Weinberg, winner of the 1997 National Medal of Science. Weinberg delivers the final lecture.

For more, see the OpenCourseWare 7.012 page. Transcript for this lecture is here.

Weinberg (@ 32:40): ... And what happens if one of these days people discover alleles for certain aspects of cognitive function? Chess playing ability. The ability to learn five different languages. The ability to remember strings of numbers. The ability to speak extemporaneously in front of a class, for what it's worth, for 50 minutes several times a week.

[It seems improbable to me that such abilities will be controlled or strongly impacted by specific alleles. Rather, they are likely to be subtly influenced by large numbers of different genetic loci. But this doesn't necessarily affect the following discussion. Note also that Weinberg neglects the possibility of variation in direction of selection pressure experienced by different isolated groups.]

Whatever ability you want, valued or not so valued, what if those alleles begin to come out? And here's the worse part. What if somebody begins to look for the frequency of those alleles in different ethnic groups scattered across this planet? Now, you will say to me, well, God has made all his children equal. But the fact is if you look at the details of human evolution, some of which I discussed with you a week ago, last week, you'll come to realize that most populations in humanity are the modern descendents of very small founder groups.

... So the fact is it's inescapable that different alleles are going to be present with different frequencies in different inbreeding populations of humanity or populations of humanity that traditionally have been genetically isolated from one another.

It's not as if all the genes that we carry have been mixed with everybody else's genes freely over the last 100,000 years. Different groups have bred separately and have, for reasons that I've told you, founder affects and genetic drift, acquired different sets and different constellations of alleles. So what's going to happen then, I ask you without wishing to hear an answer because nobody really knows?

Then for the first time there could be a racism which is based not on some kind of virulent ideology, not based on some kind of kooky versions of genetics, because the eugenicists in the beginning of the 20th century, as well as the Nazis hadn't had any idea about genetics, they were just using the word, even though they knew nothing about the science of genetics as we understand it today. But what happens if now for the first time we, i.e., you who begin to understand genetics, begin to perceive that there are, in fact, different populations of humanity that are endowed with different constellation of alleles that we imagine are more or less desirable?

What's going to happen then? I don't know. But some scientists say, well, the truth must come out and that everything that can be learned should be learned, and we will learn how to digest it and we will learn how to live with that. But I'm not so sure that's the right thing. And you all have to wrestle with that as well. ...


botti said...

Peter Singer has written a bit about this (also pages 26 & 26 of Practical Ethics http://tinyurl.com/3gszoyx):

"Fortunately, there is no need to pin the case for equality to one particular outcome of this scientific investigation. The appropriate response to those who claim to have found evidence of genetically-based differences in ability between the races or sexes is not to stick to the belief that the genetic explanation must be wrong, whatever evidence to the contrary may turn up: instead we should make it quite clear that the claim to equality does not depend on intelligence, moral capacity, physical strength, or similar matters of fact. Equality is a moral ideal, not a simple assertion of fact. There is no logically compelling reason for assuming that a factual difference in ability between two people justifies any difference in the amount of consideration we give to satisfying their needs and interests. The principle of the equality of human beings is not a description of an alleged actual equality among humans: it is a prescription of how we should treat humans."


And following the Watson controversy.

"Yet to say that we should not carry out research in this area is equivalent to saying that we should reject open-minded investigation of the causes of inequalities in income, education, and health between people of different racial or ethnic groups. When faced with such major social problems, a preference for ignorance over knowledge is difficult to defend."


steve hsu said...

"... it is important to note that group differences are statistical in nature and do not imply anything about particular individuals. Rather than rely on the scientifically unsupported claim that we are all equal, it would be better to emphasize that we all have inalienable human rights regardless of our abilities or genetic makeup."


ben_g said...

Part of the problem with rational discussion on this subject is that intelligence is so value-laden, like physical attractiveness. People hear "group A is smarter on average than group B" and that translates in their mind to "group A is superior to group B". Throw America's taboos and neuroses about race into the mix and you have quite the Molotov cocktail coming up in the next 5-10 years.

I agree with the view of Singer, and this blog that the intrinsic value of a person shouldn't be based on their intelligence, but I don't see that becoming a mainstream view anytime soon. Then again, maybe only the elites have to recognize it for progress to ultimately occur..

gcochran said...

The genetically-caused psychological and personality differences they will find are not going to have a particularly surprising pattern. Phenotypes aren't exactly a secret. On the other hand, we might discover genetic clues that allows us to figure out the factors - the local differences in natural selection - that led to such differences, which would be interesting.

KenC said...

Didn’t Orwell surmise that "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others"

LondonYoung said...

In the history of English law, "inalienable rights" has a long, long pedigree. However, the idea that all people have the same inalienable rights doesn't even exist in England today (though it does in the United States). In English class system, Indian caste systems, and African tribal systems, there is a long tradition or tiering rights. This is what we have to fear ...

steve hsu said...

Yes, if you listen to Weinberg he is very critical of the old Eugenicists, but he doesn't seem to realize that you can glean a lot about breeding values (e.g., of plants or livestock) without knowing about DNA or the micro-mechanisms of genetics.

Sam H said...

But I thought that race doesn't exist, or at least that is what sociologist say. = ) haha

On another the eugenicists of the past had good logic based on what they knew at at time and they were basically right.

On another note, the professor could improve his game dramatically if he shaved his head. Girl's aren't into the comb over thing so anyone with hair like his should shave it all off.

Luke Nguyen said...


MtMoru said...

 How can such results possibly reveal any more than the phenotypes of various ethnic groups already reveals? They can't. What's more, why is it assumed that there is no more to the success of a society than the talent of its individuals. The society resulting from individuals of a certain genetic composition is unpredictable. A society of slightly less able individuals might outperform one of more able individuals spectacularly. Why should NE Asia be expected to outperform the West because it putatively has more talented individuals? It has underperformed the West forever. Perhaps the Industrial Revolution has made the average person of Western European descent much less able than such a person was before the Industrial Revolution.
There should be an April MIT Professors of Biology Day.

Jack Palmetto said...

I'm surprised Prof. Weinberg still has a job, saying things like this in public.  How long before he gets "Summersed"?

Jack Palmetto said...

I'm surprised Prof. Weinberg still has a job, saying things like this in public.  How long before he gets taken out behind the tool shed for the Larry Summers treatment?

Chuck said...


Thanks for making this point since many people seem to miss it.  

Robert Rota said...

 Cool video. Thanks. Fortunately understanding breeds compassion and thus we should not worry about being discriminated against because by definition discrimination is characterized by a lack of knowledge or understanding. Who cares if you have a disease or are retarded or are going to die next month. The more we figure out about who we are and our environment the more compassionate we become and we are less likely to value such things as money, health, and death. 

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