GATTACA: utopia or dystopia?

By Razib Khan | May 14, 2013 5:12 am

Kevin Mitchell of Wiring the Brain has a very long post up inveighing against the specter of eugenics. I don’t have a great deal of time to engage Kevin right now.* But in addition to Kevin’s post I highly recommend this episode of WBUR’s On Point. It has Steve Hsu on, and he articulates many of the positions that I myself hold. Steve’s work with BGI has triggered the latest discussion of eugenics thanks to Vice‘s sensational representation of the research project and its aims. But it’s a useful discussion to engage in, even if the starting point is a little unfortunate.

I will state though Kevin’s argument seems to be predicated on the implicit assumption that his interlocutors hold to some sort of Platonic ideal of the most-perfect-human. There’s no such thing obviously, and even those who sympathized with eugenic policies such as W. D. Hamilton rejected this notion at the end of the day. Rather, human traits are evaluated in terms of how they serve the flourishing of individuals and society according to understood values. Intelligence is generally assumed to benefit individuals, and, I believe that it benefits society as well through innovation. Innovation drives the productivity growth which is the foundation of our post-Malthusian age.

And the reality is that this isn’t all about talk. As I’ve mentioned multiple times the frequency of individuals with Down syndrome is reduced by selective abortion. Screens to detect this condition in utero are getting better and better. The sketchy empirical results we do have implies that ~90 percent of couples who receive a “positive” result chose to abort. Should this be against the law? If you take the anti-eugenic argument to its logical conclusion perhaps, because you are making a value judgement on the “quality” of an individual.

Taking an argument to a logical conclusion may give some insight, but generally it is not too useful in practice. We should be careful about taking things their logical conclusion because human affairs aren’t often dictated by logic. The reality is that eugenics in the 21st century will be driven from the “bottom-up,” through individual choice. Market forces and revealed preferences. There will be no ministry of procreation, or social engineering to sculpt the Übermensch. In fact there may be rational reasons to regulate and curtail choice so as to minimize positional bidding on the margin.

On a broader normative note, I am fine with the idea that there are beautiful people and ugly people, smart people and stupid people, nice people and mean people. Some of this is socially constructed, but some of this is not. Kevin makes the accusation of elitism against those academics, such as Steve, who support selection for intelligence. Let me suggest something here: Steve has much to lose in a selfish zero sum sense because he’s already rather assured of intelligent offspring. He’s smart. His wife is smart. Standard quantitative genetics implies that even if they regress to the mean his offspring will be quite bright. There may not be much more juice to squeeze out of that genetic background. It may be very different for a couple with more average endowments. So sorry to turn this upside down, but personal eugenics may in fact be a boon for the ugly, stupid, and psychologically unstable, because it gives them a opportunity to close much of the gap with those who were lucky in the genetic lottery. Some of you may object to terms such as “ugly,” “stupid,” or “psychological unstable.” But people with these issues have to deal with them in their day to day. One can make all the platitudes one wants to make about “inner beauty,” but very few people live by this ideal.

The biggest issue I have with Kevin’s post is that it’s general and over-broad, with a focus on 20th century industrial scale eugenics and genocide. What we’re really going to confront are a myriad of specific cases, and market-driven personal eugenics which has a service sector tinge.

Addendum: It makes sense to be skeptical of the scientific possibilities in the near to medium term.

* Someone attempted to post the following comment:

“I don’t have a great deal of time to engage Kevin right now.” is not the best way to begin an article in which you proceed to do exactly that. It’s disrespectful to both your readers and Kevin: either engage properly or not at all.

1) If you attempt to be my editor I’m going to ban you without warning. Readers don’t make demands of me. If you do so, I’ll ban you.

2) This post was nothing of the kind in terms of being a real response to Kevin’s very wide ranging elucidation of opinions. It took 30 minutes of my time to quickly reiterate some rather simple positions I’ve long stated. That being said, I think it was still useful for someone to outline this position concisely, which is all I could do with my current constraint of marginal time.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Genetics
MORE ABOUT: Genetics, Genomics

Comments (48)

  1. Kevin’s usually pretty good but it seems he’s put his Good Person crown on for this one;) To me it’d be immoral to *not* do what BGI is pursuing. I really wonder what Kevin would do in real life when choosing a sperm donor…would he all of sudden become a “eugenicist”?
    It’s painful to see even someone as smart as him not be able to “go all the way,” intellectually speaking. “Oh, you’re trying to do something amazing? It can’t be done and even if it could it’s probably immoral.” …seems to be the common Good Person thing to say about this.
    What if all this research led to a “cure” for idiocy? I guess dumb people would support this research more than Kevin.

  2. Richard Seiter

    Well, I think college admissions are ethically reprehensible because they require deciding one person is superior to another. Similarly for athletic teams having cuts. And let’s not even talk about professional athletics (or business) where salary is clearly an indicator of perceived superiority. (for the sarcasm impaired 😉

  3. Richard Seiter

    Steve, thanks for clarifying your views/motivation. Perhaps you/BGI could spend more time discussing other aspects of your research. For example, is there any possibility of using the genetic analysis to identify problems that can be addressed in the environment? Say something like PKU except not manifesting so obviously.

    One question I’ve never seen addressed scientifically is whether IVF impacts embryo selectivity negatively (by eliminating competitive pressure on the sperm reaching the egg first). Has any research been done on this? This seems like a potentially significant effect. I become nervous whenever I see humans being quick to claim they can do something better than nature (which presumably has optimized the process over millions of years). Clearly there can be benefit from embryo selection in avoiding major problems caused by one (or a small number of) mutations or other problems (e.g. chromosomal abnormalities), but what about the chance of missing something important but not well understood (especially de novo mutations)? Is the chance of this small enough not to be worth worrying about? I am making the assumption that competitive pressure of the fertilization process on sperm could select against this sort of problem–not sure if that is valid (what proportion of the genome is expressed in sperm?). Is the choice of which egg is ovulated strictly random?

    • Dominic Lahar

      I remember seeing some talk about higher frequency of some epigenetic diseases like prader-willi syndrome / Angelman syndrome due to imprinting issues in cases of in vitro fertilization. I haven’t checked the literature to see if that holds true. Most of the people seeking to go the in vitro route are likely people who may have money, but a known mutation or higher mutation burden in their genome than most. Gregory Stock has also written quite a bit on the subject in Redesigning Humans: the early adopters (mostly the wealthy) will help to subsidize the first generations and improve discovery and application of the technology for others.

  4. razibkhan

    kevin had many points, which is why i prefaced this post by saying that i didn’t have the time to hit most of the issues. i’ve already touched upon what you are talking about in our Twitter exchanges….

    IOW, i’ve gone over most of the ‘ethical/normal’ concerns at some level of detail before. now it’s actually more whether/when science can work.

  5. Emil Kirkegaard

    One thing I’ve been wondering about with the rise of liberal eugenics, will be the effect on height. Since height is highly heritable, and people value height, we can expect people to select for that. How will that selection pressure affect humans in the long run? Presumably, it will be harder to pump blood around the body, which might lead to more heart problems (I’m no expert). And we will need larger houses and vehicles.

    But even if we decided that this is a bad outcome, would it really work to outlaw selection for height? It seems to me that it will be futile to outlaw selection pressure for certain valued traits, as this technology will not be particularly hard to use in a black market, and no way to detect if it has been used except with extreme surveillance. I’m thinking that one could make it a requirement that everybody who gets pregnant has to tell the state, and if one has not used a state-approved eugenics facility, and it was not a natural pregnancy, then they will force the abortion of the fetus. I think this is a bad way to go about it. Seems to me that the best way is to just let people decide which kids they want: it is their genes after all.

    These are the kind of things that need discussion, not all the blablabla Kevin goes on about.

    • razibkhan

      is there even a point in calling it ‘liberal eugenics’ anymore? this sort of stuff is now starting to be adopted (not for complex traits, but prenatal screening is proceeding apace, and in 5 years we’ll have rather widespread adoption of very thorough screens).

      • Emil Kirkegaard

        I like to use that term as a contrast to “coercive eugenics”, that people often invoke (as Kevin did). Since I’m no fan of coercive eugenics, it seems a fine idea to have some contrasting term. No? One could of course also just go for “non-coercive eugenics” to avoid association with other things called “liberal” (for whatever reason).

        I got the term from here:

        • razibkhan

          how about consumer eugenics? yeah, i used to use the term too. but when 90% of couples who get a positive for DS choose to abort, it seems a less politically charged term might be useful

    • Richard Seiter

      Height is a good example because it is not strictly a “more is better” trait (as you note), although often people seem to think it is.

      I thought Kevin’s post was a mix of good points and blablabla (he did at least preface his strawman with a disclaimer ;-). I think the ethics become even thornier if we allow for the possibility of traits that are good for the individual but not for society at large (perhaps like the association between sociopathy and business success?).

      • Emil Kirkegaard

        Basically, those potentially problematic traits are those that are 1) valued by some significant proportion of the population thus being selected for, 2) problematic to society if increased in the aggregate.

        Height is a potential problem, but what you mention made me think of the five factors of personality.

        Since these are known to be correlated with income (probably causal too), and known to be somewhat heritable (~50% is the usual number given for five factor traits), it might be that (1) holds for, say, low agreeableness. Who knows what happens if we increase that in society. It might give problems, hence (2) holding. It might also be that parents want nice children, even if they earn less, hence we will increase agreeableness in society at large. Perhaps that will result in less efficient markets.

        Another potential problematic trait is happiness, also known to be highly heritable (50-80%). Some unhappiness might be good for society, as it might make people want to improve on things in society.

        Another other candidates? Things like hair color, eye color doesn’t seem like they would cause problems even if we were all blue eyed light haired ‘Aryans’.

        Just speculation on my part. 🙂

  6. Chad

    Yes selective abortion reduces the number of individuals with Down Syndrome, but it is it fair to really consider this a true example of the application of eugenics? Only a small fraction of cases are familial, the vast majority being due to trisomy 21 and likely de novo. As few people with Downs are likely to reproduce; abortion will not reduce the incident of Downs, it simply eliminates these individuals from the population. I find it hard to see this as a means of improving humanity, rather the benefit is at the individual level, to those who avoid a lifetime of caring for these individuals. I admit to a priori biases against abortion, but am not so hardline on the issue.

    • razibkhan

      this is a broad definition of eugenics. i’ve gone into that before, since it doesn’t change germline frequencies. on this:

      rather the benefit is at the individual level

      in modern de faco socialized medical systems the costs are not JUST born by the parents/family.

      i suspect that the low hanging fruit in pre-implantation might be screen for the embryos with the lowest mutational load. just have 100X> coverage of parents to see what de novo they carry and so the distribution of parental non-wild type mutations. DS is the most extreme case of a ‘mutation’ obviously, but it’s a reductio ad absurdum

      • Chad

        My apologies if you have explained this in the past. I am not always a regular reader and only been reading for about a year or two.

        I agree that in a socialized medical system the costs are shared amongst society as a whole….however, it would be interesting to know how significant these costs really are. Given the size of our medical industry, I am willing to bet that costs contributed by DS individuals is rather insignificant. I have nothing to back that up on other than pure speculation.

        On the whole, I do not see a significant societal benefit from the selective abortion of DS. It is highly unlikely to be passed on, so has little long term benefit. Certainly not comparable to the removal of genetic diseases that are primarily heritable, where the incidence can really be affected. If we are to take a broad definition of “Eugenics” or whatever we are going to call it, then more significant will be changes to family planning beyond abortion. Particularly with both women and men waiting longer to have children and the obvious increased risk this brings. I think you have blogged on this in the past, whether men will store sperm and the like to reduce the mutational load they pass on to their children?

        • “it would be interesting to know how significant these costs really are.”

          Here’s one older estimate (at the lifetime cost of care estimates section): “estimated lifetime costs for child with Down Syndrome is nearly $500,000, Florida Birth Defects Registry, 1999”

          If you know the number of US people with DS you can multiply the two to get an estimate. These are 1999 (or earlier) dollars so even if you hold other things constant the number would be higher today. The link to the estimate itself is unfortunately dead. Have in mind as a comparison that the lifetime earnings (not net tax payments!) of a HS grad is around $ 1,2 million.

          I can’t find the link to the original estimate they link to, but I’d say it’s very likely that the estimate in question is only related to lifetime costs of care provision, not total societal costs – which would be much higher. These would also include much more subjective stuff like e.g. DS’ impact on the likelihood of employment and realized wage – ‘subjective’ of course because it’s not clear what ‘a similar’ non-DS individual would have earned on the labour market and paid in taxes.

          If the total societal costs of the DS individuals are ‘low’ ‘in the big picture’, it’s because there aren’t more of them, not because they’re not very expensive on an individual basis. If you start calculating the societal ROI of the marginal abortion here, well…

          • Chad

            Avg lifespan ~50 years


            Which given your estimate of ~$500,000 over a lifespan, the cost per year per individual is ~$5,000. Now lets assume that $5k a year is all in health care expenditures rather than other costs.

            High estimate I ran across of number of individuals in the US is ~400k, with a low of 250k


            Taking the upper estimate, yearly cost to health care system would be ~$2 billion in a ~$2.6 trillion yearly healthcare expenditure. Or ~0.7% of all healthcare expenditures for ~0.12% of the entire US population.

            Now the average health care expenditure per person in the US is $8,233, which means that there are people out there sucking up a lot more of our healthcare costs than individuals with DS.


            Furthermore, this is all under the assumption the DS individuals do no work or contribute nothing to society or their own well being. In fact many do work, which means they also earn an income. Sure, this is unlikely to be as much as the average person, but the figures do not really suggest that DS is in any way a significant drain on our healthcare expenditures. In a $2.6 trillion health care system, the shared societal cost of DS individuals in negligible.

            Certainly DS is a limiting disability, but it is also one that individuals with have been able to fulfill happy lives and contribute to society. It is certainly something to work towards curing/treating, but the nature of DS is such that it is primarily a disease arising by de novo mutation, rather than being heritable. This means that unless some future preventative means is found, DS will always be a possibility. Whereas diseases like cystic fibrosis are transmitted as a recessive mutation and there is a solid basis for reducing the incidence.

          • “Avg lifespan ~50 years […] Which given your estimate of ~$500,000 over a lifespan, the cost per year per individual is ~$5,000.”

            Surely 500.000 divided by 50 is $10.000, not $5.000.

            “the average health care expenditure per person in the US is $8,233, which means that there are people out there sucking up a lot more of our healthcare costs than individuals with DS.”

            A big chunk of total lifetime healthcare costs are incurred as end-of-life costs, so averages like these always tend to be a bit deceiving. This is not uniquely a US phenomenon. Given that DS individuals are part of the average and likely also incur significant end-of-life costs you can’t really dismiss the extra costs like that – the main argument in the opposite direction should probably be that they’re less likely to be paid social security in old age, and so pension payments to that group is lower than average (a similar argument is often made regarding smokers). Incidentally I should point out that it’s not ‘my’ healthcare costs – I live in Denmark, and I’m not actually all that emotionally invested in how much money you guys spend on DS individuals.

            Although total direct medical costs are arguably not that high in the big picture (I’m sure that’ll depend on whom you ask), as I point out you also need to include stuff like wage and employment effects to get the full picture; these incidentally should also include second order effects related to foregone earnings incurred by non-public sector caregivers (parents, siblings), which can be substantial but are rarely included in costs estimates like these because they’re very hard to measure. On net I’d be very surprised if you did not have significant net non-medical transfers to this group as well.

          • Chad

            My bad, made a simple calculation error.

          • Chad

            Based on estimates from the EPA in 1996, I would assume that the $500,000 lifetime costs are not limited to medical costs, but include the cost of education and other provisions. In which case the actual medical costs would constitute and even smaller percentage of the whole. Educational costs appear to be a significant factor, but then the cost of education for the average student is hardly insignificant either. In the long run, selective abortion of DS individuals does little to affect the actual cost to society, while depriving individuals who can lead fulfilling lives the opportunity to do so.


  7. Chad

    We already have real-life examples of consumer-driven eugenics having a negative effect on society. Consider the imbalance of males-females in nations like China and India due to a sex-selective abortion as driven by either national policy, culture, or a combination of both. I honestly do not see a societal benefit to such skewed sex ratios, particularly when it skews it towards greater numbers of men.

    • Emil Kirkegaard

      Reducing overpopulation?

      • Chad

        Consider the social consequences however. I don’t know how to put it in a more politically correct way. Men are more aggressive and I do not see it being very good for a society to have an abundance of young men with little or no prospect of finding mates. I can certainly see such a society resulting in increased trafficking of women and other such abuses.

        • Emil Kirkegaard

          You said that you “do not see a societal benefit to such skewed sex ratios”. I was merely trying to point out one potential benefit.

          Going with Danish numbers, men contribute much more economically than do women. In DK men contribute on average 0.8 million DKK over a life time, while women cost society 2.4 million DKK over a life time. So increasing the number of men should be good for the economy, at least on the short term.

  8. Chad

    On matters of IQ, Eugenics is obviously a bogeyman summoned forth by those ideologically opposed to admitting a genetic basis. Its an easy way to shutdown argument without having to expose ones ignorance on the data.

    • razibkhan

      your pro-life conservative compatriots pull that crap too.

      • Chad

        They do not speak for me. I do not speak for them. Please do not imply a connection that does not exist. I might as well call them your compatriots as well since you often call yourself a conservative.

        • razibkhan

          yeah, that’s fine. just sayin’ they do the same crap as liberals with the same rhetoric, though for different reasons. the intelligent design weirdos too. the nazi card is tried & tested. but i think it’s getting stale.

          • Chad

            I agree. I just do not want the association. I lean conservative politically, lean pro-life, but my views on abortion are not so simple as those expressed by the sort that engage in such arguments. Early in development, particularly at the embryonic stages, I am largely ambivalent. I have a hard time opposing screening of of embryos pre-implantation. On purely moral grounds, I am against late term abortions and the like. In between, I admit to a great deal of uncertainty, which translates practically into inaction.

            I agree should be seeking ways to reduce the incidence of genetic disease. I just prefer a more proactive approach than abortion. It is my hope that someday sequencing/genotyping will become mainstream enough that individuals will be aware of their own genetic risks and take proactive steps to reduce the incidence of passing these on. So in the case of Downs, if someone is aware that they are a carrier of one of the translocations responsible for the familial cases, then perhaps they chose to adopt or at least choose in vitro fertilization and screen the embryos before hand.

            And the Nazi argument is stale. Anytime an argument is used so often that it becomes its own fallacy (“reductio ad Hitlerum/argumentum ad Hitlerum”) it is stale.

          • razibkhan

            the issue 4 me is fetal personhood.

            interestingly just had a twitter exchange. some research trying to *cure* downs is having a hard time raising funds from catholic foundations.

          • lk

            which is a shame all things considered…

  9. To be honest, the more I think about the possibilities of “liberal eugenics,” the more I think that the implications of it are far more terrifying (in terms of extensively altering the human condition) than traditional eugenics.

    Let’s say, for example, you have a (fairly democratic) government which has the ability to coerce parents into accepting gene therapy. What sort of therapies would it push? Going under the historic example of immunization, certainly the elimination of genetic disease – it’s better for the individual, as well leading to lower medical costs for the society. Obviously boosting intelligence would be a great thing, as it would lead to higher productivity, and probably slightly lower crime. If any genes are found to be associated with antisocial/criminal behavior, one could make a public-policy argument in favor of editing those as well. But unless you’re dealing with a North-Korea like government, it would probably end with this.

    Then consider what the world of “liberal eugenics.” Imagine parents being informed by their doctor that while their son will be healthy and bright, he’ll be shorter than average, have a smaller than average penis, and copious amounts of body hair. He’ll also be, if not actually on the autism spectrum, probably socially awkward, and likely to have comparably few friends in childhood. He’ll also tend to be lazy, and thus likely not succeed as much as his intelligence suggests. Further, the parents know that all of their friends opt for the (comparably low cost) treatments to deal with such issues.

    To be clear, most of the “peer-driven modifications” mentioned are probably harmless. Like Razib, I don’t think there will be any harm in having less ugly people in the world. But I don’t think the same can be said regarding what has been termed “neurodiversity.” The central problem is while non-neurotypical people are often ill-adjusted and unhappy, it may be they disproportionately create many of mankind’s Great Works. Certainly it seems depressives are more likely to engage in creative work, and autism-spectrum folks analytic work. It’s broadly in the interest of parents to ensure their children are as normal and well-adjusted as possible (probably even most people who aren’t normal want this for their kids), but it doesn’t follow that it is in the best interest of humankind to be made up of entirely normal individuals.

    I suppose what I’m talking around is sometimes markets fail, and leaving these sort of decisions to individual humans to feel their way through, while it seems most fair, could result in suboptimal outcomes. Some combination of market choice and well-thought public policy has to drive the discussion regarding the choices we make regarding the genome.

    • Matthew Carnegie

      This seems like bordering on Omelas ( ) in that there may be a deliberate choice to randomly subject members of the population to a decreased hedonic experience in order to raise the aggregate welfare. It’s hard to imagine anyone really going for it in Western culture, where we tend to like at least a fig leaf of free will and choice to justify suffering (however utilitarian optimal).

      Ultimately though, all this is conditional what the genetic architecture shows.

      Hopefully for most genes, it will be the case that there are relatively few purely beneficial alleles and a lot of deleterious alleles that are simply phenotypically undesirable, and that the relative strengths of phenotypes like autism are simply due to probability (i.e. people tend to have equal numbers of beneficial and deleterious alleles overall, so if a subject has all their deleterious alleles in areas that underlie social abilities, they are more likely to have beneficial alleles elsewhere).

      The gloomy case would be that there are real tradeoffs between high frequency major alleles (i.e. this predisposes you to depression, but the ability to feel negative emotions strongly allows psychologically deeper empathy and as a side effect helps you depict realistic and interesting people).

      • Realistically speaking, you’d need to get the “weirdies” to believe creating more people like themselves is a positive social good, because no one else is going to want to do so.

        While I think you might have a good shot of this with people with very weak levels of autism spectrum, there will always be some who have experiences which lead them to want to “break the cycle.” Along with having a lesser chance of reproducing in general, this would lead to a long-term attenuation of the autism spectrum.

        For depression, forget about it. I don’t know of anyone with clinical depression who hopes their children end up like them. In my experience, those who struggle with depression are disproportionately likely to be childless in the modern era, in large part because they are horrified with the idea of creating another person who suffers from depression. Paradoxically, the development of consumer eugenics may actually raise the birth rate for these people considerably.

  10. Steve, is there a BGI Reproductive Health Division looking into the genetics of intelligent humor?

  11. Another consumer eugenics issue. I mentioned this on the old blog, but not here….

    We can very accurately measure admixture today in racially mixed individuals. We can also engage in genetic diagnosis/screening before implantation.

    AFAIK, these two have not been put together…yet. But I see no technical reason why they couldn’t be done today. Hence in couples where one or both of the parents were biracial, or from a racially admixed population, it would be easy enough to select for whiter (or less white, whatever the consumer prefers) zygotes. It may even have limited utility in long-admixed populations like Indians, although the results are likely to be far less dramatic than in populations which have been admixed for a shorter period of time.

    I think within the U.S. context, the idea of doing this will be abhorrent. But globally, I could see many parents making the choice to literally whiten their offspring, once clinics offer the chance. And given the majority of wealthy people of mixed racial descent are in Latin America and the Muslim world, I think what the west chooses here is moot.

    • razibkhan

      would work on traits with only a few genes segregating even in long admixed populations. skin color. i’ve talked about this.

      • Yes, but selecting for a few genes (like skin color) wouldn’t produce the dramatic results that it would in recently-admixed groups, because facial morphology is controlled by far more genes. You might get lighter-skinned South Asians, or ensure more Uighurs have fair hair and blue eyes, but otherwise with single-gene selection you’d end up with normally-admixed populations.

        Still, I could see it being in major demand in parts of the world where fair skin is desirable, like South or East Asia. This wouldn’t be “whitening” except in the broadest sense, but it would be immensely popular (particularly because these regions have no stigma against abortion, and probably the least stigma regarding human genetic modification of anywhere on earth.

  12. razibkhan

    But this is something where they may actually be a eugenic effect from people becoming more open-minded about other cultures and races

    my wife is probably more skeptical of the character of non-western societies because of knowing me, because of what i’ve told her. sometimes familiarity does not breed fondness.

  13. razibkhan

    You’re championing individual choice and thus a more acceptable form of eugenics than sterilising the poor or certain races.

    no, i’m not. just one post.

  14. General Zod

    I have been following this blog for about a year now…

    I don’t have time to fully engage at this time. However, I agree with Kevin
    Mitchell of Wiring the Brain, the cavalier attitude of you pseudo-eugenicists
    is astonishing.

    It is interesting to see individuals with biology degrees
    attempt to make grandiose claims concerning the histories. I would expect to
    see biologists with a passion for history more respectful of the discipline and
    less eager to attempt to bastardize it.

    I guess you Neo-eugenicist’s are comfortable because you are
    claiming that “eugenics in the 21st century will be driven from the
    “bottom-up,” through individual choice. Market forces and revealed preferences.
    There will be no ministry of procreation, or social engineering to sculpt the Übermensch.”

    However, it is well understood that the ability to create
    your “Supermen” will be more easily accomplished through private entities
    comprised of members with individual choice promoting a common “social good.”

    And regardless if you change them terminology from eugenics
    to bio-demography, or population demography, or even “genomic health.”

    You will fail…..

    This “super-man” is nothing of the kind; I’ve
    discovered his weakness.


  15. “Which begs the question of at what point does an individual become so burdensome on society that it outweighs their quality of life?”

    How about this question instead: How many non-DS people could you save/provide health care for for the at this point almost completely avoidable lifetime costs (taking the long run perspective) of a DS individual? That number is potentially large.

    Cost efficiency matters. If private individuals want to give birth to a DS indidual and cover the expected costs associated with bringing up such an individual themselves I’d probably not have much of a problem with that. When costs are shared across all individuals however it makes sense to start asking if there are better ways to spend that money. The fact that a lot of money is spent on health care does not mean there’s not a budget constraint somewhere, nor that some ways to spend the money does not give more utility/$ than others.

    • Chad

      In a $2.6 trillion health care system, saving $2 billion by eliminating 400k individuals is a drop in the bucket. I see no reason to believe that it will save additional lives. After all, we continue to support ever increasing numbers of individuals regardless, so it is not a direct tradeoff of 1 DS for 2 normal. It also ignores the quality of life had by DS individuals and their own contribution to society.

      DS is not a preventable condition. You are redefining “preventable”. This is hyperbole, but lets say we killed off every smoker by an early age of say 45…you would be “preventing” a great number of cancer cases, but its hardly what one would call “preventable”. And unlike the smoker, fast-food addict, alcoholic, and a wide-range of other preventable diseases that cost society a great deal, DS is not a matter of choice, but of genetics. Those individuals just happened to get the wrong role of the dice. Quite frankly I would rather the system support 400k DS individuals than several million smokers, alcoholics, individuals with STDs etc.

      • “it is not a direct tradeoff of 1 DS for 2 normal.”

        No, it surely isn’t, more like 10 to 1. I’m not sure you understand the magnitude of the costs involved – the costs are huge. I probably shouldn’t have brought up the HS grad lifetime income – you seem to have confused that number with net tax payments (it’d explain your 1 for 2 tradeoff) even though I specifically warned against doing that. The net present value of the total lifetime net tax contributions by a Danish male (females are net recipients, not net contributors) in 2005 was estimated at 800k kroner, or $160k.

        (p. 124, unfortunately in Danish)

        I haven’t actually seen US estimates of this specific and very useful metric, but I’ve seen fiscal sustainability metrics for the US and given the federal budget shortfalls you’re operating with these years I can’t imagine you have many groups which turn out to be net lifetime contributors given current policies. As I’ve pointed out the $500k ($750k using inflation-adjusted terms, and likely way over a million if using actual cost-adjusted terms, taking into account that medical cost inflation has been substantially higher than average consumer price inflation estimates over the time period in question) medical costs aren’t the only costs related to DS individuals. You guys have a serious long-term funding problem, and although you can’t really blame that on DS individuals they sure aren’t helping.

        Here’s another way to think about the costs:

        “Using the 2012-2013 cost per LLIN, we estimate the cost per child life saved through an AMF LLIN distribution at just under $2,300 using the marginal cost ($5.15 per LLIN) and just under $2,500 using the total cost ($5.54 per LLIN)”

        -AMF: Against Malaria Foundation,
        -LLIN: a long-lasting insecticide-treated net.

        That’s not the alternative use of the funds spent on a DS individual today, but it could have been.

        I get the impression – I’m not saying this is what you think, but it is the impression you’re giving me – that you seem to assume that because money is wasted in one area it’s okay to waste money elsewhere too.

        “unlike the smoker, fast-food addict, alcoholic, and a wide-range of other preventable diseases that cost society a great deal, DS is not a matter of choice, but of genetics”

        DS is in my opinion becoming a matter of choice – the choice of the parents. The parents can decide not to have the child. Many parents make that choice every day. Which is a big part of why we’re having this discussion.

        I understand that you think DS individuals who are alive today are more deserving than many of the people who receive government support to pay for medical care they would not have needed to pay for if they’d made different life style choices. I don’t disagree with that (though it’s worth having in mind that I’m reasonably certain that at least part of why DS is a costly disease is that individuals with DS make poor choices regarding their health, due again in part presumably to the limited capacity for decisionmaking which is a feature of their medical condition. But as I point out with the malaria example there are lots of other ways to spend the money besides paying for the medical bills of fat Americans with T2 diabetes.

        And here’s what I believe is the main thing that separates us: I don’t agree it’s a good idea to bring more DS people into the world, because I agree with Razib – I think Down Syndrome is bad:

        You probably don’t, judging from your comments. So we will not come to some agreement. That’s okay – I mostly entered this discussion to add some data to the table because you expressed an interest in knowing what that data said and I happened to remember an estimate I’d come across. So now I’ve added some data to the discussion and I feel fine not engaging any further.

        • Chad

          The “it is not a direct tradeoff of 1 DS for 2 normal.” was not based on any calculation (certainly not the sort you think I did). It was simply rhetorical.

          However, I also think that you are making an error in considering the $750k to be a cost bore solely by the state. Do you know whether or not the initial $500k estimate was purely of US government costs or of just total costs? The US has a $2.6 trillion dollar health care system, but this is spread amongst both the US government and private citizens. If the $750k is purely the cost to the federal government, then certainly you can try to make a 1:5 or 1:10 comparison, but if it is simply the total cost, then you can’t do that at all. Rather that cost would be shared by family, private insurers, local and state governments, and so spread over a much larger base than simply tax revenue.

          I agree that there is a funding problem in the US, but our funding problem is a lot larger than $2billion, which I do not believe for a second is a cost that is born entirely by the federal government. Considering our funding problem, eliminating DS individuals would not translate into 5 kids in Africa getting insecticide treated nets. Rather it would translate into either debt repayment or simply reducing the annual deficit. Besides, if you really want to make that argument, aborting DS children is the wrong tree to be barking up. There are far bigger and less noble fish to fry. For instance, simply closing down a few bases overseas would more than compensate for any costs incurred by DS individuals.

          At the end of the day, we do have fundamental value differences. I for one do not consider monetary costs to be a valid reason to judge the worthiness of human life. You also ignore a key aspect of my argument regarding DS, which I have stated a couple of times.

          DS is not a typical genetic disease in the sense that in the majority of cases it is not heritable. Nearly all cases of DS arise by de novo mutation. So aborting DS does not reduce the actual incidence of DS, it simply removes those individuals. In contrast, diseases like Cystic Fibrosis and others are inherited in typical mendelian fashions, a eugenic policy would have a long term effect of actually reducing the incidence of this disease.

          Far more effective at reducing DS would be identifying risk factors, such as reproduction at older ages, and taking preventative measures. To me, aborting DS is not solving the issue, its sweeping it under the rug.

          • Incidentally, a last comment: I was ignoring the de-novo aspect because I don’t think it’s very relevant. The fact that most DS cases arise by de novo mutations does not change that you could in theory drive prevalence to near-zero over time by means of selective abortions. I really don’t see why incidence should be the outcome variable of interest, rather than prevalence. Minimizing prevalence of DS this way does not preclude informing people of risk factors (old-at-birth being the main one). It does not preclude handling diseases like CF in a (similar/different) manner.

            “At the end of the day, we do have fundamental value differences.” – as I also mentioned I’m aware of this, and that’s fine. You think it’s worth it to pay for DS individuals and I don’t.

            Thanks for the discussion.

  16. Emil Kirkegaard

    There is plenty of evidence that blacks score lower on intelligence tests for genetic reasons. If you read the academic literature, what you will find is that many of the researchers who are openly against that idea hold unto their opinion for emotional reasons. See e.g. the special issue devoted to Arthur Jensen in 1998. Intelligence Volume 26, Issue 3, 1998


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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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