Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Multicultural eugenics

Recently the concept of hybrid vigor has come to my attention. When two members of the same species from diverse gene pools mate, the product of said mating is often healthier (better?) than either parent. A common explanation is that this is the opposite of inbreeding: while combining the same genes over and over leads to potentially harmful (but sometimes helpful) accumulation of recessive genes, a genotype derived from diverse sources tends to have fewer distinct characteristics, both bad and good.
A good example arises from dog breeds: do we want dogs that have specific characteristics like a unique size or fur or hunting ability, or do we prefer a dog that is more exemplary of the capital-D Dog? Now, what if we were to apply this example to human beings? This would require believing that human beings are genetically different. To what extent and in what way people are genetically different is a controversial question, and one that I don't really want to get into.
But there is a reason to get this close to controversy. I believe that eugenics is rightly condemned for the negative historical effects that it has had. However, what if our study of genetics eventually explains the reasons behind hybrid vigor and shows conclusively that the genetics behind it would apply in human beings? That would raise the possibility of a multicultural eugenics. That is, instead of worrying about "racial purity", people might argue that mixing ethnic groups should be in some way preferred. I think any public policy of this nature would be reprehensible and doubt it would ever be seriously proposed, but it would make a stimulating science fiction novel.
One issue is that of culture. Many have argued persuasively that the differences we see between people arise mostly from culture and have little to do with genetics. But if we think about culture as a sort of genetic material, the possibility of hybrid vigor arising in culturally mixed individuals arises as well. Surely we can think of how mixing the individualistic protestant work ethic of many North Americans with the communitarian feeling of other societies could yield a beneficial result for both the individual and society as a whole.
There are many controversial moral issues that arise when we talk about genetics in human beings. I want to reassure readers that nothing here should indicate my belief in a superior ethnic group or any inferiority. Everything I have written depends only on positing a genetic difference between ethnic groups, something that I think is widely accepted and uncontroversial.


Blogger Robot said...

If the multicultural coitus is all that you say it is, then doesn't this represent a blow to Darwin? To everything history suggests is good for the species? If the multicultural kid is somehow more fit to adapt to his environment -- which this new research suggests he will be -- then why the hell has he/she never really thrived historically? (Scantron: I know you gonna back me up in that way-back time dawg!)

Furthermore, as Niall Ferguson's new book argues: "paradoxically ... a sharp rise in assimilation ... may actually be the prelude to ethnic conflict." Such conflict, Ferguson writes, was most likely to occur in regions of 'mixed settlement' like the Balkans.

Ferguson's argument -- chiefly about the causes of the First and Second World Wars -- is buttressed by the fact that Europe's longest period of peace coincides with its most homogeneous period ever, following the massive ethnic population transfers and nation-state creations following World War II. Every time the conditions are right for 'multicultural eugenics,' it just seems a lot of people end up really dead and stuff.

Despite the pessimistic picture I've just drawn, I am in complete agreement with your jubilance. Being someone who values diversity, I embrace this as another weapon in my rhetorical arsenal. Boom boom Tom Tancredo!

10:55 AM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

A med student friend wishes to remain anonymous has provided the following comment:
i agree. hybrid vigor explains why derek jeter is so good at baseball and why tyra banks is (was) so hot.

this idea has been applied in agriculture for years. ex. corn seed manufactures maintain two highly inbred (and relatively unhealthy) lines that they then cross to generate the seeds that they sell to farmers. these hybrid seeds are more likely to have heterozygotic advantage (hybrid vigor) and are generally healthier, taller, and produce more fruit.

from a genetic perspective (if you remember simple mendelian genetics): Aa is better than AA or aa for most genes since it provides greater variation and environmental adaptability. (There are plenty of incidences in which this is not the case, but in general it is desirable)

you can apply this to humans as well. for instance, jews who are relatively inbred have a higher incidence of tay-sachs, breast, prostate, colon, and ovarian cancer. but if you were to outbreed them with african-americans (who have a high incidence of sickle cell anemia) you would reduce the incidence of both jewish diseases and sickle cell thus creating healthier offpsring.

12:57 PM  
Blogger Robot said...

good luck selling your "med school friend" on the negative effects of inbreeding on the Jews.

4:50 PM  
Blogger The Sheriff said...

Amish have incredibly high incidences of Polydactylism and Dwarfism.

Also, I think the well known and accepted fact within population genetics is more to the effect that genetic differences within particular ethnic/racial groups actually outweigh similarities, such that there's an likely an equal if not greater genetic similarity between say an Ethiopian Jew and a Japanese-man then between either one and another member of their respective ethnicity. Race and ethnicity, from the standpoint of genetics, are a just about a fiction.

4:57 PM  
Blogger DMain said...

What's up. I just started a blog yesterday, so you guys are free to read it. I hope I can be a part of your blog party.

Austin, very interesting post. But I think you're a little off, Sheriff. Genetic differences between unrelated individuals within distinct human subpopulations are greater than average differences between subpopulations. But this is not to say that different races/ethnicities do not have genetic differences... as you yourself admit, the unusual sequestration of the Amish has led to a higher incidence of certain genetic disorders.

While racial differences like skin color are obviously genetic, these are minor phenotypic differences.

It is not likely that humans would have "hybrid vigor" because for almost every imaginable trait that you're talking about, there are many (and almost uniformally, poorly understood) complex and different genes working together to bring about certain traits like intelligence. This is without even bringing the cultural, familial and individual environmental influences of traits, which are obviously important (and depending on who you talk to, possibly much more important).

When you see hybrid vigor in non-human species the traits are controlled by one or two genes.

It makes sense that people are often raised to be attracted to their own ethnicity, and assuming people don't reproduce with their relatives, no problem. Multi-cultural blending adds even more variability, but when you're talking about the billions of combinations of genes and iterations of sperm and egg that come together to create a healthy human baby, ethnicity goes out the window.

Humans do not show hybrid vigor, but variability is always a good thing.


1:08 PM  

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