Genetic Determinism, Xenophobia

In The Corner, John Derbyshire links to a story: Caring and Trust linked to genetic variation.

Individuals homozygous for the G allele (carrying two copies of the G version of the gene) of the oxytocin receptor tend to be more "prosocial," defined by researchers as the ability to behave in a way that benefits another person. In contrast, the carriers of the A version of the gene (AG or AA genotypes) tend to have a higher risk of autism, as well as self-reported lower levels of positive emotions, empathy and parental sensitivity.

Not Exactly Rocket Science notes that the sample size for the study is very small, so it's too early to say "this gene causes this trait." But imagine we reach that point. Imagine further, we reach a point where we find a set of genes that influences not only sociability and altruism, but tribalism - the ability to be extremely caring and altruistic towards your own kind, but dehumanize the outgroup.

Regardless of how we think about it in this country, in the world's dictatorships, genetic engineering will easily make the leap from "forbidden" to "mandatory." The Chinese state, says Mr. Derbyshire elsewhere, already encourages strong tribalism through propaganda. If their state doesn't liberalize before cheap genetic engineering comes along, what's their likely use of the technology? How about the world's Islamic dictatorships, which employ tribal instincts in a different form? (And given the inborn nature of religious instincts...with those?)

Mr. Derbyshire paraphrases Trotsky: "You may not be interested in this stuff, but it's interested in you."

1 comment:

Grim said...

That's a fair point. I think we can map out a response by turning it around, and examining the question from both sides.

The impulse in this country might be to do away with the tribalism gene, but encourage the altruistic one. (That would have been "require" rather than "encourage" in Margret Sanger's generation; and let's not assume it won't be "require" in the next generation. A social trend that can go one way can go the other way, too).

What's the result of that?

Pope Benedict XVI recently gave a speech to the German Parliament in which he called for an increased respect for "human ecology." He says:

"We must listen to the language of nature and we must answer accordingly. Yet I would like to underline a point that seems to me to be neglected, today as in the past: there is also an ecology of man. Man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will. Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he respects his nature, listens to it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself. In this way, and in no other, is true human freedom fulfilled."

Dad29 pointed that out to me a little while ago, and I've been thinking about it a lot since. Our social forms are built on this notion -- the Declaration of Independence roots its purpose in 'the laws of Nature' -- and I think the Pope is right to say that it's indispensable.

Our nation was founded on a vision of human liberty that becomes unsustainable when we don't respect human limits: for example, when we craft tens of thousands of pages of proposed new regulations every year. Human nature is such that we can't read and absorb such a weight of regulation. We can't act as involved citizens; even our representatives can't keep track of all of it, and it's their full time job. This is out of order with human nature in a way that makes citizenship impossible.

The point becomes even more indispensable when we discover ways in which we can alter our nature. If we change our natures substantially, we may no longer be the kind of creatures that can sustain a nation like America. It seems clear that a nation of altruistic, anti-tribal people would be unable to do so; there is no joy to be had from either side of this model.