Saturday, 5 October 2013

The ethics of taboo genetics

Nature, which calls itself the International weekly journal of science, and is known to all researchers just as Nature (pause, deep respect) has published a news feature  by Erika Check Hayden entitled “Ethics: Taboo genetics”. The strapline is: “Probing the biological basis of certain traits ignites controversy. But some scientists choose to cross the red line anyway.”

It begins with Stephen Hsu’s work on the genetics of very high ability, and reports “scientific qualms over the value of his work”. Checking this reference leads to a Nature news article by Ed Yong which reveals that a few interviewed geneticists think that Hsu and Robert Plomin will fail because their sample size is too small and intelligence is too complex. They may be right, but frankly neither Hsu or Plomin nor the other geneticists know if the analysis of this unique sample will come up with anything until the DNA has been analysed to death. Not only is this the biggest sample of high intelligence people ever sequenced, but sequencing power is increasing and costs are falling. So the scientific qualms are that the enterprise might not work. That is true, and also true of much of science. In my view it would be premature to give up just as we are beginning to learn how difficult it is to obtain replicable results.

The Hayden article continues: “At the root of this caution is the widespread but antiquated idea that genetics is destiny — that someone's genes can accurately predict complex behaviours and traits regardless of their environment. The public and many scientists have continued to misinterpret modern findings on the basis of this — fearing that the work will lead to a new age of eugenics, pre-emptive imprisonment and discrimination against already marginalized groups.”

She continues: “But trying to forestall such poor choices by drawing red lines around certain areas subverts science, says Christopher Chabris of Union College in Schenectady, New York. Funding for research in some areas dries up and researchers are dissuaded from entering promising fields. “Any time there's a taboo or norm against studying something for anything other than good scientific reasons, it distorts researchers' priorities and can harm the understanding of related topics,” he says. “It's not just that we've ripped this page out of the book of science; it causes mistakes and distortions to appear in other areas as well.”

Nature then goes on to look at “four controversial areas of behavioural genetics to find out why each field has been a flashpoint, and whether there are sound scientific reasons for pursuing such studies.” It may be just a matter of words, but this seems to put the onus on the scientists who want to carry out the studies. Usually scientists in free societies pursue the studies that interest them, and it is those who would ban those studies who have to justify themselves.

Intelligence is the first controversial area to be looked at, and is rated High Taboo. The objections given are not scientific but social and historical: feared selection for intelligent babies by totalitarian governments; and forced sterilization of people deemed mentally inferior. A more “scientific” concern is that intelligence is a “slippery” concept which does not measure wholly innate ability, though it is conceded that 50% of variability in intelligence seems to be inherited. In my view intelligence researchers would not say that intelligence was slippery, but that it measures mental abilities with significant reliability and validity, yet always contains an error term. Of course, an ability measure does not of itself provide any evidence about the heritability of the trait: those estimates come from heritability studies using various measures of relatedness.

Next to be looked at is Race which is rated Very High Taboo and the most heavily policed. “This is due mostly to suspicion about what motivates the study. There is broad consensus across the social and biological sciences that groups of humans typically referred to as races are not very different from one another. Two individuals from the same race could have more genetic variation between them than individuals from different races. Race is therefore not a particularly useful category to use when searching for the genetics of biological traits or even medical vulnerabilities, despite widespread assumptions.” Hayden then discusses Bruce Lahn, who was bullied into laying off further investigating his micro-cephalic linked genes result. I can remember being at the Amsterdam meeting where Danielle Posthuma found that on larger sample the link disappeared. Those who most avidly prohibit research on racial genetics are the most convinced that research will come up with results! Some times it may, some times not. At this stage in genetic research we can expect lots of null results and failed replications.

“Some argue that Lahn should have been more cautious. “Science always plays out in a certain socio-political context, and you have to look at the consequences of how the science might play out,” says John Horgan, a journalist who has written widely on the societal implications of science. “Research on race and intelligence is much more prone to supporting racist ideas about the inferiority of certain groups, which plays into racist policies.” Horgan says that institutional review boards should ban or seriously question proposed studies on race and IQ.”

Third area examined: Genetics of violence. Mild taboo.

Fourth area examined: Genetics of sexuality: Mild taboo.

In conclusion, Hayden says the highest taboo is on the genetics of race. However, apart from the difficulties currently experienced in relating the genetic code to any behaviour, the objections are mostly about feared abuses of knowledge. There are also some ancient arguments about whether genetic variance within races prevents any study of genetic group differences. I do not rank any of these arguments very highly, and Hayden probably does not either, but the views of those that do are given proper coverage. She leaves the final word to someone standing up for scientific enquiry: “You hear this refrain in lots of areas of science, that because people will misuse science we shouldn't engage in scientific inquiry. I think that gets it backwards. If we're worried that people will misuse it, we need to create safeguards — and an open public dialogue that ensures responsible use.”

Hayden ends saying “That, (open public dialogue) rather than censoring science or ignoring its implications, is perhaps the only way that…researchers will get their wish: to do their work in peace.”

It is a bit depressing to see a science journal not looking at the scientific debates in more detail, particularly when genetic analysis is becoming increasingly powerful. Essentially, this paper follows Lewontin 1972 without reference to Edwards 2003  and ignores Richard Dawkin’s elegant summary: "However small the racial partition of the total variation may be, if such racial characteristics as there are highly correlate with other racial characteristics, they are by definition informative, and therefore of taxonomic significance." On the broader front, geneticists have now organised themselves to provide extremely large samples of human genomes (125,000 in the most recent publication) and technology is racing to increase the speed and particularly the power of gene analysis. In strategic terms they have more data points in terms of people, and more data points in terms of analytic comparisons within the genome. It seems odd to give up the quest now. To use an old analogy, it would be like trying to break the Enigma code by using a punched tape reading machine, finding that the process was slow, cumbersome, and error prone, resulting in long periods in which the enemy code could not be read, and therefore deciding to give up trying.  In such circumstances Bletchley Park increased the numbers of code breaking machines and invented the computer age.

By the way, after an essay on science, Nature allows you to vote on each of the four topics, without recording who you are, or how many times you vote. As Steve Sailer wryly notes over at iSteve “Vote early and often”. However, no reader of this blog would participate in flawed science. Here is the link again:

Post-script. Nature has written an editorial about the Hayden paper entitled “Dangerous work” which includes the following admonition: “Researchers should design studies on the basis of sound scientific reasoning. For instance, in light of increasing evidence that race is biologically meaningless, research into genetic traits that underlie differences in intelligence between races, or that predispose some races to act more aggressively than others, will produce little.”

I will try to comment about that at some later stage, once I have worked out whether I am a patient of black African descent, in which case my “eGFR must be corrected (multiplied by 1.2)”. Will let you know how that goes.


  1. What a poisonous little piece of bile that piece was. The same boring cant that's been repeated ad nauseam for goodness knows how long in the face of all evidence. The cowardice is quite shocking.

    I suppose brain size is also meaningless?

    1. endre bakken stovner5 October 2013 at 18:56

      Nature has been the greatest offender when it comes to shunning scientific correctness on ideologically controversial issues. It seems like the few times a year I open their journal they print Lewontinisms (no references given, of course), as if they were accepted truth.

      The pop-sci journals Scientific American and Scientific American Mind, which I read every month, have never stooped to such levels. They even published a Deary piece on the g/genetic quality nexus a few years back. Why they employ an obscurantist crank such as Horgan I do not understand - as an alibi perhaps?

  2. "But some scientists choose to cross the red line anyway." When did I last hear the expression "red line"? Some politician bloviating about Syria, was it?

    Anyway, if you cross red lines, cruise missiles attack your house apparently. Beware.