Human Genetic Diversity

2015-01-10

Yet another thought on human genetics.

I recently read Orson Scott Card's book Shadows in Flight. It was not that good (and probably the darkest in the Ender universe), but it made me realize something: I do have an opinion of what sort of genetics traits an ideal race would have.

For those of you who are not aware of the controversy, there exists something called eugenics. The term has developed a negative connotation and most supporters have stopped using it, but they haven't come up with a new term yet (there is genetic counseling, but that is only for a particular form) so I will stick with the old one. The general idea is to improve the human race through something like selective breeding for animals. It has a nasty form where people judged inferior are killed outright (thus the negative connotation), but that has been quite rare for decades now. In the gentler and more common form, the aim to reduce the number of children the inferior people have, in hopes that the superior genes will become dominant. I have never heard them arguing that superior people need to have more children, but most people who support eugenics also worry about overpopulation, so I guess that makes sense.

I admit to having a selfish reason to worry about this: I have a form of autism, which is enough to qualify more for most forms of the "inferior" list. On the other hand, that doesn't mean that the issue isn't important.

All right, that was a bit misleading: there is no list. There is no policy. There are just a bunch of traits and a bunch of doctors that want to get rid of them. Targeted traits are mostly the obvious ones, like osteogenesis imperfecta (where your bones break easily), hemophila (where your blood doesn't clot), and colour blindness. I am not including Down syndrome here because, while it does involve DNA, 99% of cases are not caused by any know genes.

My long-standing position on this stuff has been that it is a bad idea. I don't know what the ideal human race would be like, and neither does anyone else. We don't really understand DNA that well, and scientists keep finding out that there is more going on than they thought. Lets not mess with things we don't understand.

I now realize the that that is actually misleading: I do know what I want the human race to be like. I want a lot of variety. People who look different from each other are easier to keep track of. There is a good reason why ethnic groups from near the equator have dark skin while those from near the poles have light skin. Many things are trade-offs, and it's nice to have people who are good at each of them.

From a practical side, a genetically homogenous population has a greatly reduced ability to resist diseases and adapt to a changing environment. Yet each time we eliminate an "inferior" trait, we make the remaining population a bit more homogenous. I admit that I don't know a benefit to colour blindness, but that doesn't mean that there isn't one. On the other hand, it clearly isn't a non-survival trait either, as somewhere between 1% and 10% of the population has it (numbers vary). Maybe someday people with weird color-sensing abilities will have an advantage over the rest of us because they can tell digital projections from reality by sight.

On the more idealistic side, I also can't help but think that this a form of moral regression. Racism was on the retreat before we determined that human DNA really was about the same between all ethnic groups. In hindsight it seems obvious, but I don't think it was beforehand. I don't like reintroducing the principle that some people are innately more important than others. It always seems to end with oppression.

Oh well. There are some thoughts on what is probably a lost cause.

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