Thoughts on rationalism and the rationalist community from a skeptical perspective. The author rejects rationality in the sense that he believes it isn't a logically coherent concept, that the larger rationalism community is insufficiently critical of it's beliefs and that ELIEZER YUDKOWSKY IS NOT THE TRUE CALIF.
I like the idea of this oped series and I’m glad genetic modification is becoming a more mainstream topic. However, I’m very disappointed that the author took the easy (but usually inaccurate) path of projecting our current fears onto future tech rather than carefully trying to work out the novel new effects good and bad (tho the dystopian predictions never seem to get it right).
Indeed, we can already dismiss some of the core presumptions of the oped as implausible. Like computer tech biotech has economies of scale and continual cost reductions so let’s try not to repeat the mistakes we made worrying about the digital divide rather than what will happen when everyone’s online. Maybe only the rich will get customized babies but once we learn how to perform the procedure the marginal cost will drop very quickly (indeed I’d guess the IVF treatment will be the major cost hurdle but not out of reach of most Americans). An oped that looked into the potential effects of conformity as a result of mass produced genetic packages would have been much more interesting. As would discussion of the potential implications of parents having the option of changing their babies apparent race.
Second, by hypothesis being genetically engineered is a huge benefit to earnings but merely because of employer reaction rather than true talent. But you can’t BOTH claim that’s true, gene modification is the cause of growing caste divides and the public gene enhancement project didn’t raise salaries since either the elites must really have some extra ability or employers are just using gene enhancement as an excuse to hire the children of elites (so it’s not the gene editing that’s driving inequality). Moreover, if private gene editing offers these great economic benefits there should be plenty of financing opportunities along the lines of the education loans that take a fraction of future earnings.
Finally, either the IQ enhancement really works or it doesn’t. If it creates substantial IQ boosts we know based on what we see now that this makes huge differences in people’s ability to do various jobs and tasks. You’re not likely to see a research mathematician or physicist with an IQ below 120 and these careers have pretty objective measures of success. So people would simply be able to go check if all the major new theorems and breakthroughs in the sciences are all from genetically enhanced or not (whether it’s IQ or the result of better motivation).
If so that means society is much better off (richer, more capable more medical tech) even as a result of elites getting these modifications. Also it makes it more implausible prices haven’t dropped. In terms of changes to society the likely effects of turning one Einstein or Feynman (or even Sergey Brin and Larry Page) every 50 years into 10 a year would pretty seismic. On the other hand if you don’t see this actually making a difference in these objectively measurable fields it will eventually start to dawn on people it’s not really working at all.
This is only the most obvious and easiest to think of positive effect. Personally, I’m a big fan of the fact that it could finally bring about an end to traditional racism. The fact that parents can choose a race for their children turns race into a matter of fashion rather than a matter of ancestry. Of course, parents will often want their children to look like them but this mere possibility puts a limit on how bad the discrimination can be since if it’s bad enough you don’t put your kid through it. Moreover, once we start editing the genome I’d be shocked if we didn’t work out pretty quickly how to couple melanin production to some other uncommon nutrient or add a hook which allows it to be suppressed giving people a choice about how to present themselves. Once people can change their skin color for aesthetic effect or for a concert it will fundamentally end traditional racism.
While a homogenous army of tall men with blue eyes and firm handshakes might seem undesirable consider the benefits of a little more homogeneity in looks. Just tweaking people so the bottom 20% of the looks bracket no longer exists (i.e. now looks better) will make a huge difference in people’s welfare and it will encourage people to focus more on things besides looks once everyone has decent looks. There are so many interesting angles for fiction on this subject to cover so why must it all retread the same ground?
A Moral Imperative
Ultimately, I’d argue that we have a moral imperative to make enhancement available as soon as possible. Yes, the intelligence boosts too but the most important reason is all the unnecessary suffering that eliminating predisposition to depression or back trouble or whatever else. After antibiotics I expect that to be the next great human health advance and putting this off because we feel uncomfortable is like denying a child a vaccine because the idea of them getting artificial chemicals injected into them creeps you out.
We aren’t ready to start o humans yet but for us to get there we need to start a focused effort on learning how to manage safe and effective genetic enhancement of lower animals, primates and ultimately humans. Even if you disagree with me on the desirability of this technology you’ve got no choice. It’s inevitable and the question the world needs to answer is whether they prefer it done by third-world doctors in back rooms or safely researched by the world’s best scientists and offered in our best facilities. I don’t plan to have children but if I was and I knew I could give them an advantage by having some illegal gene editing done in some clinic I’d give it a serious thought and there are lots of people who would take it way farther even with the risks (think beauty pageant moms). So let’s get cracking.
DNA tweaks won’t fix our problems. By Ted Chiang Mr. Chiang is an award-winning science fiction writer and the author of “Exhalation.” Editors’ note: This is the first installment in a new series, “Op-Eds From the Future,” in which science fiction authors, futurists, philosophers and scientists write op-eds that they imagine we might read 10, 20 or even 100 years in the future.
I’m generally a defender of Harris and I believe Vox (under Klein) was uncharitable to Murray and Harris. Even in this interview I think he (probably unintentionally) suggests that we should take Murray’s arguments less seriously because of his political aims and implied motivations.
However, Klein is dead on the nose when he accuses Harris of not being willing to extend the same charity to others he wants extended to him. Disagreements are hard and understanding other people is very difficult and Harris (like all of us) does have trouble extending charity when it feels near something that’s a personal attack on him or understanding how other people’s errors may be motivated by similar emotional response to prior unfairness.
My sense is the Klein’s real position is a reasonable view that Murray is very wrong on the science in a way that is harmful and that Harris gets it wrong because of the issue above. However, I think Harris is absolutely right in criticizing Klein for speaking in ways he should know are likely to lead to extreme moral condemnation.
Klein should know that the way his articles (and the articles in Vox while he was editor) will be interpreted by the public as going far beyond a mild criticism that Harris makes the same kind of unremarkable mistake we all do talking about tough political issues. I don’t think Klein is being malicious here and Harris is uncharitable in assuming this but I think he should be faulted for not being much more clear to his readers that he isn’t suggesting Harris is beyond the realm of reasonable disagreement…merely that he thinks he is well-intentioned, but wrong, in a way that happens to be harmful.
In short Harris and Klein both fall short of the ideal of charity and they both could do a great deal more to communicate that well-intentioned good people can disagree intensely and even think another person’s views are harmful without having to think they are a bad person.
In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Ezra Klein, Editor-at-Large for Vox Media, about racism, identity politics, intellectual honesty, and the controversy over his podcast with Charles Murray (Waking Up #73).
Here is a bit of hard data to respond to the claims that observed performance on IQ tests by those in third world countries reflect genetic deficits. Its a good thing too (even if this was hardly the first piece of evidence on the point) since its easy to imagine that the world could have turned out in a way in which (despite race not being a scientifically useful category) third world populations also suffered from genetic intelligence disadvantages. There is a decent case to be made that the Ashkenazi Jews have genetic differences given them higher average IQs. Notably that case doesn’t merely depend on differences in performance on some tests but, likely all compelling scientific arguments, weaves together an explanation of a number of different phenomena with an appealing theoretical account1. Whether or not this ultimately turns out to be true it could have been true and other undisputed cases of recent evolutionary pressure like adult tolerance for lactose make it abundantly clear that we got very lucky that there aren’t major differences in genetic predisposition to IQ across people of different descent and seeing studies like this reassures me that we really did get lucky and its not just that we are laboring under a desirable fiction.
Even though our racial categories don’t correspond to any principled scientific division at the genetic level it is a classification that correlates with ones ancestry. Given that people still tend to choose mates relatively close to themselves genetically (whether or not race is salient to them or merely geographic proximity) that means it could easily have been the case that, even supposing all developmental and social effects are controlled for, that some races would average much, much worse on IQ tests and other measures of intelligence than others. It wouldn’t really matter that race wasn’t the best scientific category to explain the effect if it turned out that 80% of people we classified as black had genes which cost them 20 IQ points while only 20% of Caucasians and 30% of Semites had this genetic combination. Such a fact would have amplified existing prejudices and resentments making it much more difficult to roll back racist attitudes and laws. In such a world I doubt one of the 20% of blacks without those genes would have had much luck explaining to the white racists around them that no, no, black isn’t the appropriate scientific concept with which to analyze this effect its really this other grouping they should be using, e.g., one which is purely defined via heredity and doesn’t exactly track our racial divisions but just happens to correlate with them.
One might try and argue that there is too much human genetic mixing for substantial genetic differences in IQ to have arisen. While it is true that for the most part humans haven’t partitioned themselves into non-interbreeding (or at least rarely) sub-populations that only holds for the most part and is itself purely a lucky accident. Australian aborigines appear to have been genetically isolated for almost 50,000 years with that isolation only ending quite recently2. There is evidence that the San people in Africa may split off from the rest of the human lineage at around the time modern homo sapiens first arrived on the scene and were then genetically isolated for nearly 100,000 years until only 40,000 years ago. There is no scientific law that ensured there weren’t major genetically isolated branches of the human species with substantially different intellectual abilities which remained separated until the end of the middle ages. It didn’t have to be the case that America was populated by genetically modern humans3 and for less extreme cases one doesn’t even need genetic isolation at all. One can imagine a scenario in which the black death is even worse and attacks the neural system creating strong selective pressure in Europe for a mutation which protects against it despite its detrimental effects on IQ. I suppose one could argue that people are just too rapacious and generally willing to fuck each other for differences to have persisted during the historical era but that is only true if all populations were subject to the same selective pressures and one could certainly imagine a scenario in which only farmers and not hunter gatherers (or vice versa) experience selection for the kind of mixed blessing genes postulated to be more prevalent in the Ashkenazi.
Of course, if we learn enough about genetics and perform sufficiently high powered studies we will probably come across some minor statistical difference in IQ between racial groups. If we assumed that humans were all otherwise genetically identical the small IQ advantage observed in Ashkenazi Jews would be enough to ensure that sufficiently powerful studies would find some average difference. Of course we aren’t all otherwise genetically identical and surely the beneficial and detrimental mutations won’t perfectly cancel out on average. But the fact that we haven’t already found substantial differences and don’t even know who will come out on top if average differences are ever found already means that we got incredibly lucky. It didn’t have to be that the HBD people were wrong, it didn’t even half to be that our racial categories didn’t track scientifically important genetic fault lines. Even though many of the HBD proponents seem so desperately motivated to believe their theories (and not all for racist reasons…some just want to be contrarian) their views certainly describe a way the world could have been and we got quite lucky that human capacities ended up sufficiently close together and interbreeding smeared us out enough that we can’t obviously pick out the more and less capable major ethnic groups.
In Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, I showed that nurture effects are small within the First World. But I also freely conceded that the nurture effects of growing up outside the First World are probably large:The most important weakness…
In this case the theoretical account suggests that certain mutations which both increase intelligence but also increase susceptibility to certain congenital disorders were selected for in Jews living in medieval Europe and laboring under systematic discrimination which kept them out of most occupations while concentrating them in a few occupations for which IQ was particularly important. ↩
Though one could, I suppose, argue that had the aboriginal Australians, contrary to fact, been intellectually impaired relative to other humans then relatively nearby populations would have noticed and used their superior intelligence to supplant them. ↩
For a truly extreme scenario, one could imagine an “out of America” theory of human evolution in which 200,000 years ago proto-humans leave America over the land bridge which subsequently closes (and weather/sea conditions prevent coast hopping) it is only in 1492, after modern humans evolve in the rest of the world, that we rediscover the lost American branch of the human tree. ↩