Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Pragmatic Case Against Eugenics

Allow me to list the terms that should be used to properly refer to prenatal testing of autism and other genotypes.

Genocide.- "The systematic killing of substantial numbers of people on the basis of ethnicity, religion, political opinion, social status, or other particularity." (Wiktionary)

Eugenics.- "A social philosophy which advocates the improvement of human hereditary qualities through selective breeding. See natural selection." (Wiktionary)

Eugenicists prefer to dance around these terms in favor of euphemisms such as "reproductive choice". But this debate is not about a woman's right to choose to give birth. It's about the potential to choose which types of children are born based on their genetic makeup. Breeding humans in this manner is no one's right, and should never have become an option.

This is a moral issue primarily, but it is also a pragmatic issue. Let's think about the practical implications of artificially selecting human beings.

I don't just mean that it would be a bad idea to abort a potential Bill Gates. This example is easy to grasp, but it only represents the tip of the iceberg. And eugenicists will no doubt try to work around this problem by choosing specific characteristics that make people like Bill Gates successful (e.g. abort only those who are "low functioning" - for the time being).

The main problem with eugenics is that it's a potentially catastrophic experiment involving the entire human race. It presumes that humans are capable (without any prior experience) of replacing nature in its task of natural selection and evolution. It presumes that we know which traits are desirable and which aren't. It presumes that we can anticipate our future needs, and that we can ensure the survival of the species under varying environmental circumstances.

Human diversity is not a politically correct description of human deficiencies. It's a necessary part of our species. A civilization where everyone is a talented salesperson could not possibly function; nor could a civilization where everyone is a scientist or an engineer. There is a term from evolutionary theory for this equilibrium. It's called balanced polymorphism or disruptive selection. This is the mechanism that ensures the existence of genetic diversity within a species, and naturally leads to the existence of "fringe" phenotypes.

Autism is particularly problematic in regards to eugenics. It is likely that autism results from the combination of multiple alleles, perhaps 3, perhaps 100. Phenotypes such as autism and homosexuality have a reproductive disadvantage, but it is clear that the individual alleles that make up the corresponding genotypes cannot be reproductively disadvantageous. If parents start to abort babies with specific allele combinations, then the frequency of each individual allele will likely increase, as parents attempt to reproduce again. It will be increasingly difficult to conceive children who are not autistic.

The debate over the ethics of eugenics relates also to the debate over the ethics of cloning. Imagine a future where parents prefer to clone celebrities instead of conceiving their own biological children. It would lead to the same outcome: catastrophic collapse of the species.

Finally, I must point out that while they may try to exterminate our kind, we will not just disappear quietly into the night. Think about the pragmatics of that.

18 comments:

  1. An excellent post, Joseph. Please feel free to link to my post, as you requested. I'd be honored.

    Here's a link to some speculative fiction describing what could happen if all the autistics were aborted.

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  2. I am confused. Is anyone thinking about prenatal testing for autism?

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  3. Thanks for this Joseph, esp. in regard to your coments about autism and eugenics at Autism Vox.

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  4. Is anyone thinking about prenatal testing for autism?

    Short answer: Yes. Joseph will have some more information, I'm sure. But basically, it's the same story as with Down Syndrome - just harder to test for right now.

    *****

    This is what the movie Gattaca is about - choosing specific genetic combinations and creating a "dream child". I love that movie, by the way. It drives home the importance of "imperfections", and how people can be successful even with traits we may consider undesirable.

    Which was important to me even before I was diagnosed.

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  5. Thanks for the link to that story, Abfh. I've also enjoyed Apology from an Autism Researcher.

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  6. Catherina,

    Yes. I should've given some background. Here it goes.

    "Dr. Joseph Buxbaum, who heads the Autism Genome Project at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, said in an interview posted on MSNBC.com on Feb. 23, 2005, that there could be a prenatal test within 10 years." See Autism Genocide Clock.

    A few days ago, Kristina posted about a new genetic test in Genetic Testing for Autism: Too Close for Comfort.

    Afbh followed up with Next Fight, Or Last Day.

    Kristina then posted Them’s Fighting Words 2: Genetic Testing, Prenatal.

    This post is my follow-up to the ongoing discussion. Prenatal testing for autism is not quite there yet, but it's getting closer and closer.

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  7. May I refer everybody to this excellent post by Prometheus which explains that eugenics simply doesn't work because it can't work; it's based on an oversimplified model of genetics that doesn't correspond to reality.

    The whole appeal of "designer kids" (and BTW, the belief that it's possible to create them is also based on an oversimplified model of genetics) involves a failure to understand the law of supply and demand. Many of the traits (particularly those involving appearance) that we tend to think of as "very desirable" are only so because they're relatively rare. If they became commonplace, they'd lose their appeal. Didn't everyone read The Sneeches by Dr. Suess?

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  8. Thanks Ebohlman. Prometheus makes a good case regarding how eugenics is based on simplistic assumptions. In reality gene expression and interaction are not straightforward. As I argue in the post, eugenicists could prevent autistics from being born, but this won't reduce the frequency of autistic alleles - in fact, the opposite may be the result.

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  9. goodness me - thank you for the background, Joseph, I had not seen that. What a frivolous endeavor. I am very much with ebohlman on this one (and I love the Sneeches)...

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  10. Interesting post, thanks. I didn't know this.

    Great way of thinking.

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  11. [Fore Sam Comment, moved from next post]

    The "negative discourse" that you think contributed to her state of mind would certainly include those who keep saying there is no cure and curing autism is wrong.
    Ebohlman is way off base in thinking that the possibility of a cure would contribute to hopelessness. The fact that I have hope for my son is probably why the thought of ending his suffering hasn't crossed my mind.
    It is more likely that those who keep telling parents there is no cure caused this tragedy.

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  12. [Moved from next post]
    The "negative discourse" that you think contributed to her state of mind would certainly include those who keep saying there is no cure and curing autism is wrong.

    Acceptance is not negative. Seeing the positive aspects of a condition is not negative. Realistic hope - as opposed to fantastic expectations - is not negative, John.

    Ebohlman is way off base in thinking that the possibility of a cure would contribute to hopelessness. The fact that I have hope for my son is probably why the thought of ending his suffering hasn't crossed my mind.

    The hope you have for your son consists of expecting him to be cured in a few years, or he'll be institutionalized. We are all aware of this. Unfortunately, your son is doomed. And he's not doomed because he's autistic. He's doomed because he's got JB Jr. as a dad.

    It is more likely that those who keep telling parents there is no cure caused this tragedy.

    You are way off base John. Factually speaking, this particular mom was clearly going for "cure" relentlessly. You'll have to explain what the acceptance movement had do with with her putting a bag over her daughter's head.

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  13. Joe;
    How do you know she was "going for cure relentlessly"?
    If my son is doomed because he has me for a Dad, are all children doomed whose parents are trying to cure them? What about the ones who've already been cured? Are they doomed too?
    What about the kids in institutions who nobody is trying to cure who never even get visits from their parents? They've already been doomed by the likes of you who put them there with your anti-cure rhetoric. The people who run the institutions won't help them. They only receive custodial care. They're allowed to bash their heads on the walls, run into doors at full speed, bite themselves relentlessly and all they get for help is an extra Seroquel. What will your philosophy do about those doomed children? If you set them free, they'd all be dead inside a week. When will you people wake up and try to help these kids who've already been given up on?

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  14. How do you know she was "going for cure relentlessly"?

    Go read Autism Diva and Kev.

    If my son is doomed because he has me for a Dad, are all children doomed whose parents are trying to cure them?

    You're a special case.

    What about the ones who've already been cured? Are they doomed too?

    Give me an example.

    What about the kids in institutions who nobody is trying to cure who never even get visits from their parents?

    It's unfortunate that the parents gave up on these kids. It's not the fault of the kids. And it's not because the parents didn't try hard to cure the kids.

    They've already been doomed by the likes of you who put them there with your anti-cure rhetoric.

    Rhetoric did not put anyone in an institution. Despair could have. Do some people necessarily end up in an institution? Perhaps - a portion of people always do. Can something be done to improve this? I'm sure - but quackery ain't it.

    What will your philosophy do about those doomed children?

    Self-advocacy, prevention of self-hate, wider acceptance, inclusion and accomodation.

    When will you people wake up and try to help these kids who've already been given up on?

    I wish we could help your son. Unfortunately, I don't see how.

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  15. Joe;
    You said: "Rhetoric did not put anyone in an institution. Despair could have. Do some people necessarily end up in an institution? Perhaps - a portion of people always do. Can something be done to improve this? I'm sure - but quackery ain't it."
    If people who listened to your rhetoric instead of GR's good advice on how to treat mercury poisoning never tried to cure the kids, then it was your rhetoric that doomed them. It has nothing to do with despair when a young, strong kid is too much to handle and can't be cared for safely.
    Quackery is denying the fact that mercury caused the epidemic. Quackery is giving babies 200 times as much mercury as is alleged to be safe. Removing poison from a kid is good medicine, not quackery.

    "Self-advocacy, prevention of self-hate, wider acceptance, inclusion and accomodation."
    This might be OK for Asperger's. These things won't detoxify anyone and they won't induce speech or the ability to pay attention to anything.

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  16. Quackery is denying the fact that mercury caused the epidemic.

    No John. An example of quackery is stating as fact something that not only has not been demonstrated, but which also is inconsistent with scientific knowledge - just like your statement above.

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  17. It is always funny how the self-proclaimed expert at one minute tells us "that might be okay for Aspergers", then goes to comment on one Aspie's video saying that he is the foremost expert on autism in the world and that the person in the video "doesn't have it". The only logical explanation I can think of for John being allowed to continue his asinine ranting is that Autism Speaks is unaware of it. Out of the twenty-one million dollars they conned out of the American public one year, I am sure it would be no burden for them to allocate a few million to silencing in the strongest terms possible the best evidence we have that curebies are a bunch of raving lunatics who have no regard for the people they hurt or a semblance of scientific understanding.

    What would be really funny is to get this self-proclaimed foremost expert in the world in a room with the real foremost experts in the world. Coincidentally, none of them are cure advocates. In fact one of them was quoted in an interview as saying that the biggest issue he finds in adults he sees in a professional context is the need to deal with feelings of their person being rejected by family and the authority figures of their childhood. A problem I expect Sam Best to end up having to deal with in great amounts if the chelation does not kill him first like it already has with several children (and those are just the ones we know about).

    Also amusing is one comment from the local governor's office in Best's state. Although the reason they speculate for why Sam might show any benefit from chelation is off (benefits from chelation have a funny habit of coinciding with times in the child's life where natural growth in the brain might occur), one statement they made hits the nail right on the head. John Best does not deserve the time of day from his local governor, nor the time of day from anyone who knows a damned thing about the subject. That we even have to suffer his delusional rantings with no recourse, especially not the ability to complain to the police that he is a child abuser, proves that we are the underclass of the early twenty-first century.

    Best would do well to ask himself a few questions. One would be what he expects would happen to Diabetes America or the Cancer Foundation Of America if those charities were to suddenly begin proclaiming that a cure for diabetes or cancer is not needed, in direct contravention of the will of the people they are chartered to help (that part being the most important). If people who are higher-functioning do not feel any pain, why do real autism experts such as Tony Attwood report that this part of the autism spectrum is where PTSD and related issues such as drug abuse or other such self-medication is most prevalent? Why does he think that so-called charities such as Cure Autism Now have been referred to by a number of people on the autistic spectrum as terrorist organisations? And really, does it ever occur to him that the reason people in "the hell that is autism" hate him enough that they would skin him alive because it is behaviour like his, rather than the autism, that is hell for us?

    Not that I expect any answer from Best of such questions. His skill at pretending a different question was asked and answering that one instead is the stuff of legend. I hope he chokes.

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