Cognitive biases, not science, poses ethical dilemmas

By Razib Khan | October 21, 2013 6:10 am


A Chimera

Yesterday I pointed to an io9 post, These Unresolved Ethical Questions Are About to Get Real, on my Twitter feed. It’s interesting (that’s why I tweeted it!), but there were some aspects which I thought were specious, and reflect common intuitions and fears in the public. Two in particular I want to highlight.

First, “Is it okay to introduce non-human DNA in our genome?” The premise is false. A substantial proportion of the human genome is derived from viruses. Lateral gene transfer in complex organisms is not unknown, and may sometimes be quite functional (arguably endosymbiogenesis and mitochondria is the classic case, but that’s so far back in the past that people aren’t shocked by it). Second, the piece also asks if we “Should we biologically enhance non-human animals?” Last I checked selection was a biological process. Domestication events have radically changed many organisms. The io9 piece spends some time on the possible Uplift of other species, but as a matter of reality coexistence with humans tends to reduce the intelligence of domestic animals (they offload many tasks to us). The narrow exception though is the case of dogs. Yes, they are uniformly less intelligent than wolves, but excel at reading human social cues. We’ve modified them to be our perfect companion animals!

Credit: Lily M

Credit: Lily M

The only reason these are of note as more than simple confusions is that they’re objections that come up over and over. I recently listened to a radio interview with an activist for organic crops who expressed horror at transgenic organisms. Of course he himself is in some fashion transgenic (being a human, and loaded with viral sequence). Similarly, the idea of animals changing in a manner to be more like man fills us with horror and fascination (Planet of the Apes). But domestic dogs are fundamentally peculiar creatures, whose existence can not be understood aside from the needs of human which they have come to serve. Dogs have even evolved to be able to digest our carbohydrates.

But the strange can become the familiar. There is little controversy over a process as unnatural as in vitro fertilization. We’ve gotten over it. Similarly, our reactions to our obsequious and often malformed “best friend” is not horror, but affection. As far as transgenics goes, the issue is that humans have a false intuition for how we come into being, and what our essence is. The outlines can be found in books such as Paul Bloom’s Descarte’s Baby. Basically we have an essentialist understanding of Being and nature, and breaking identity apart into reduced elements such as discrete genes is not part of our intuition. Mendelism more generally, and lateral gene transfer more specifically, falsify our intuitions about inheritance and the roots of Being. But they aren’t at the forefront of our thoughts, so you have “gut” responses like the aversion to transgenics.

  • Robert Ford

    Good point about being derived from viruses – hadn’t thought of applying that point as a rebuttal. Some opinions are so dumb it can be hard to fully flesh out how little sense the make!
    I also find it amusing how stuck in the now people can be. I’m pretty certain that, a million years from now, future civilizations won’t be worrying about such trivial matters (unless GMOs have wiped out all life on Earth:)

  • Riordan

    “First, “Is it okay to introduce non-human DNA in our genome?” The premise is false. A substantial proportion of the human genome is derived from viruses. ”

    I don’t quite think that was the context behind that objection, but rather one of praxis and it’s moral implications. In addition, knowing that we have been modified on a genomic level by evolution and nature over hundreds of millions of years ago (a largely paleobiological issue), just how relevant should it be towards the debate of genetically modifying ourselves by ourselves, with almost no “input” from nature, in the 21st century ( which is much more of a broader societal if not civilizational debate) ?

    • razibkhan

      what are you talking about?

      • Riordan

        I don’t think the writer’s premise and assumption was necessarily that humans don’t have any “alien” genes ( though it’s very likely) and thus we shouldn’t “contaminate” it, but that he was much more concerned about the potential consequences of that intentional genomic modification, regardless of the state of our current genome and how it came to be. I also wondered, concerning whether or not we should alter our genomes for ourselves, by ourselves etc., the fact that nature did it for us many eons ago probably isn’t very relevant at all to that issue. Perhaps this will be clearer to you.

        • razibkhan

          I don’t think the writer’s premise and assumption was necessarily that humans don’t have any “alien” genes ( though it’s very likely)

          what? they don’t know about transgenes, or not?

  • Dmitry Pruss

    Of course, fundamental beliefs result in cognitive biases, but I don’t think one will go far by explaining or “debunking” these biases.

    First of all, Razib, the impure origin of the mankind isn’t a universal argument. The core systems of human beliefs are beholden to the concept of purity (in very different incarnations, but perhaps evolutionarily rooted either in prevention of infectious disease, or ritual differentiation of Self from Strange). The value of Purity is therefore universal, and the human being is typically held exhalted even though it’s full of excrement, and of animal yearnings, inside. The humans won’t eat forbidden, impure foods just because they have feces inside their bodies, will they?

    And teaching that the human casts and races, akin to the animal breeds, underwent rapid, targeted divergent selection is fraught with even bigger problems, as, I hope, you realize.

    • razibkhan

      Of course, fundamental beliefs result in cognitive biases, but I don’t think one will go far by explaining or “debunking” these biases.

      which is why no one believes in heliocentrism? or the constant rate of acceleration of objects subject to a gravitational pull? the reality is that one can have biases, but rationally understand that that’s what they are. biological subjects are more complex, but the same can happen, and surely will. current arguments are mostly specious because they allude to things (e.g., ‘dangers’) that are not the central issue (i.e., ‘purity’).

      • Dmitry Pruss

        why no one believes in heliocentrism?

        Cultural biases are generally undone by shifting culture, by acculturation to what’s new or strange and by fading connection between one’s identity and specific beliefs – at least as much as they are undone by “teaching the right ideas”. In the days before calendars and clocks, and before many other technology breakthroughs, the Sky and the celestial objects were of singular importance in people’s imagination and beliefs. People just stopped caring; they still believe that summers happen because the Sun is closer to Earth than in winter; they still are perplexed when asked to show the approximate position of the Sun at night (“how could you point you finger to something which doesn’t exist”). Basically, cosmogony is no longer overlaid with faith and ethics.

        But reproductive matters remain central to ethics and religion. Ditto the equality of the human beings. That’s why I think that the changes will come changing cultural practices, rather than from the arguments of logic. Even more so because, as I tried to explain, your explanation fly in face of beliefs which either have deep evolutionary roots (Purity myths) or equally deep cultural-religious roots (Equality). We may be too recent newcomers to the American culture to appreciate what Equality means in the context of American history. It really meant adherence to a divine plan, understood either as “everyone is endowed by the same skills” by its proponents or as “colored people are created for the menial tasks” by its opponents ( It is still about faith and ethics more so than it is about scientific precision; and when some logical or statistical notion flies in face of a core belief, you know what wins.


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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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