Features, Science / Tech, Top Stories

Genetics, Fear, and the Slippery Slope of Moral Authoritarianism

I write this essay as a newly minted geneticist, trained especially in the societal implications and ethics of genetics. As the Google memo saga unfolded last month, I was reminded of social pressures I was subject to in my own training at the University of Washington. I was also reminded of the lines of this song, by Malvina Reynolds:

And the people in the houses
All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same,
And there’s doctors and lawyers,
And business executives,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same1

I graduated from the University of Washington’s public health genetics doctoral program in December 2016, for which, in addition to my dissertation, I took two years of courses in genetics, ethics, law, and various social sciences, woven together to appreciate how genetics is construed by scientists and the public.

As one might expect, eugenics was well-covered ground in the public health genetics program. Many warnings were offered up to us about how well-meaning scientists and policy makers could slip into using genetic information maleficently. The warnings included the history of early 20th century statisticians advancing eugenics in the United States; compulsory sterilization laws permitting the maiming of “imbeciles” in mental hospitals; and narratives like GATTACA’s dystopian future—where the government uses DNA information to limit  citizens’ employment prospects. An otherwise rational society might again use genetic technology in the wrong ways, such that large swathes of the population are harmed. Perhaps they would be harmed with gene-editing tools such as CRISPR. Or perhaps these tools could be used on insects or microorganisms, inadvertently introducing chaos into ecosystems, avalanching downstream effects on food supplies and possibly increasing vector-borne diseases in densely crowded municipalities.

Standard cautionary tales in my training also included the potential misuse of forensic genetics in criminal investigations. This includes either the purposeful or accidental swapping of blood samples to tie someone to a crime scene and incriminate them or the use of genetics to advance stereotypes. But this last cautionary tale—that of using genetics to advance stereotypes—ultimately led to what appeared to me to be censorship and moral indoctrination. My program was shrouded in this fear like a cloud. Like Google’s motto, “Don’t be evil”, what was evil was assumed and any utterances out of step with certain assumptions were silenced—their holders punished. With this backdrop, three memories come readily to mind.

Memory one
I was in a small group of maybe four other students and one faculty member from the law school. We were discussing a lawsuit wherein a white, same-sex couple had sued a fertility clinic for giving them sperm from a black donor, resulting in the birth of a non-white child. When I referred to the donor as “black”, as had the author of the popular press piece I’d read, the faculty member corrected my speech: “You mean African-American”—we don’t say “black””. With the implication that I’d committed an egregious microaggression, it was clear to all in the room that I harbored latent racism. I sat there stunned. The lawsuit was brought because the child was black, the argument being that the child’s darker skin would induce prejudice that the parents hadn’t anticipated when they paid for the artificial insemination service. But instead of concentrating on the merits of the wrongful birth case, whether a judge was likely to dismiss it and why—it was more important to call out my “bias”.

Memory two
Shortly after Mr. Trump was elected as president, I penned a few words of a budding memoir, starting with growing up in Trump country (poor, mostly white and Hispanic, rural Arizona) and the political polarization that keeps academics from talking meaningfully with those who voted for Trump. I sent a draft of the blurb to a professor, who wrote back with reflections about checking white privilege and wondering whether it is racist for white people (I’m white) to talk about their own poverty.

Memory three
One Seattle day, a classmate asked me if I “believed in The Bell Curve”. I was a bit confused by her wording, as I had just come from a biostatistics class. Not wanting to sound like an idiot, I nodded and said something along the lines of “Of course, I believe in bell curves. How can you be in science and not use population distributions to aid decisions?” Her face wrinkled like a prune, and I didn’t know why. How could a very basic acceptance of statistics evoke disgust? A few days later, a friend of hers and fellow classmate remarked to me, “How did you get into our program?” While I can’t pin down a causal link between the two interactions, I later realized that the first classmate was referring to the book by Richard Hernstein and Charles Murray, which I had not yet encountered.

In addition to being unaware of Hernstein and Murray’s book, I was also unaware of authoritarian threads within the Left, until the final year of my program, when I heard the term “Regressive Left”, probably from the evolutionary biologist, Jerry Coyne. Slowly, the cold, shaming signals I received within the genetics community began to make sense. Genetics, I began to see, has a tribal culture, interlaced with post-modern thinking about race, gender, and intelligence. The mark of the post-modern tinge being the taboo nature of these otherwise academic topics. If you touch these topics, the gods (your peers) may punish you, even if you strive by your occupation to reduce inequalities, are an equal opportunity feminist, and think differences in intelligence matter socially but don’t constrain a person’s innate worth as a human being.

James Damore’s Breaking of Taboo

Within the purview of academia, Silicon Valley, and to a large degree polite society, James Damore’s infamous memo touched the untouchable—an authoritarian-protected category that marks someone as in or out of the postmodern tribe. He voiced arguments, over which a sense of moral certitude reigns in many academic fields including human genetics, which holds itself culpable for the misuse of its technologies, its role in the eugenics movement and other past crimes. The past is seared into its collective memory, and reparations for these past blemishes, include both educating its members but also by signalling its newly found virtue. Its virtue-signalling is an attempt to establish trust in a era in which many people will be, or already have been, genetically tested, either in the clinic or research settings or through direct-to-consumer organizations, such as 23andMe.

Human geneticists want the population not to fear what will be done with their genetic information. Damore’s memo, in some ways, threatened this goal. He committed the sin of referencing research in genetics to support, at least some biological differences between groups. His doing so conjured seemingly instinctive but, nonetheless ideologically-patterned, indignation and scorn among those who want to spread the belief that human genetics is noble and will not ever be used to promote bigotry or stereotypes, (under the assumption that Damore’s referencing research on differences was a form of bigotry). As such, he was punished, setting an example that powerful corporations take authoritarian norms seriously and this punishment was held out for all on the Internet to see.

While in 2017 the academy and corporate extensions of it, for example Google, don’t sever heads and parade them along roads to strike fear into the hearts of enemies, we do call for the shaming and economic dislocation of those who verbally stray away from tribal norms—which Damore did and which I had been taught not to do in my training at the University of Washington.

What neither those deciding to fire Damore nor the more well-meaning but censorious geneticists seem to grasp is that one can be for diversity and social justice and also critical of authoritarian moral missions. In fact, it may be our duty to do so, as shticks, even moral ones, can cloud judgment even, and perhaps especially, when masked in the language of justice. As such, genetics, public health, and Google need people who are willing to express ideas that are outside of our “little boxes” of norms clutched so tightly dear. Otherwise, we all come out with the same ticky-tackied call to think and act like each other. And there’s not much diversity in that. Moreover, being all the same is dangerous.

The aim of protecting from the slippery slope that human geneticists fear, that we will be stridden unconsciously into an endorsement of eugenics and stereotype, is trammeled by a culture of ideologically uniform members. Who will catch such a gradual slip? The majority won’t, as intuitions about harm and “right” and “wrong” are subject to the majority’s sensibilities and needs and, hence, undercurrents that move groups towards adopting unconscionable practices are likely to go unnoticed or unchallenged by those enjoying the warm rays of the majority’s safe sun. No, the majority is selectively blind to covert biases that make it vulnerable to evil. Not even diversity training, with its promise to root out bias, can rid us of the spell that in-group solidarity casts, a spell that is ancestral, chimp-like—part our social nature: our tribal solidarity unites but also divides; sneaked intimately into our familial sense of normal and purpose, can Pied Piper us even murderously; and is not going away. We are beset with it. Therefore, a tolerance of the ideologically errant (those not entranced by the moral Piper), safeguarding against the horrors of the past and the horrors of the future, is necessary. Society needs the voices of its prophets, the soul-rumbling words of those with perceptions that rattle value-laden holds and thwart cerebral creep into unforeseen but majority-vetted peril.

The Slippery Slope of Moral Authoritarianism

Recently, after the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, photos of Auschwitz staff laughing in between the slaughter of millions have been circulating online. The photos—one of which is below—show normal people, not psychopaths—happy and drunk with an ideology wrapped in moral justification for their actions, blinkered from their own evil.

SS auxiliaries poses at a resort for Auschwitz personnel, 1942

The timing of these photos circulating after Charlottesville, not long after the Damore affair, is uncanny. We can and should condemn Nazis and eugenicists. But the small band of poorly educated neo-Nazis getting too much attention is not the sort of ideological wasteland our majority needs to fear. We can handle—stymie, frustrate, and ridicule—self-professed racists into corners of meaninglessness, where they can sit until eaten by their own delusions of grandeur. In fact, our majority has already decried them, despite the failure to do so by the dangerous buffoon in the White House. However, what our majority needs to protect against is the horror that we can’t see so clearly—normal people, sanctioned by the majority, committing atrocities not yet recognized by the majority as harms. This is why we must tolerate the voices of dissent and, in particular, dissent against core values, the values that make groups take up moral crusades.

For this reason, Google should end its shunning and offer back to Damore his job. Far from Damore’s words being a threat to diversity, they protected diversity in Silicon Valley from the creeping boxed thinking that sets communities up for moral malaise. Likewise, the genetics and public health communities, while their majorities must continue to perennially warn about eugenics and potential unintended consequences of technology, they must also receive and engage, not browbeat and remove, their ideologically daring members, those sometimes risible taboo-wranglers who dispute sacredly held principles.

Not unlike the instinct to rapidly dismiss a reviewer whose critique of an excruciatingly sweated-over manuscript is felt to be stupid but whose thoughts, in the end, make the manuscript better, moving through the initial impulse to blast away the different is virtuous. The intellectually crippling fear of catching taboo’s stain and actions to purify a group, ridding it of morally suspect members, aren’t, however, virtuous and don’t protect against the mayhem that the un-tainted, in-group majority—be that Google, genetics, public health, or the wider academy—can create. Excepting those rare occasions where literally running, dashing away, would wisely save one’s hide—a scenario far more likely to occur in a bar after a pint too many than at the Googleplex or wet lab—ideas are best addressed by facing them, not by ousting members with ideas deemed contentious. Engaging on the battlefield of ideas is how we balance and protect each other.

 

Endnote

1. Reynolds, M (1967). Malvina Reynolds Sings the Truth. Columbia Records. CS-9414.

 

Charleen Adams

Charleen Adams

Charleen Adams is a public health geneticist and post-doctoral scientist at the University of Bristol. She trained in genetics and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins, the National Cancer Institute, and the University of Washington. Aimed at understanding cancer in human populations, she’s studied cancer predisposition in families, sex-specific tumors in men, and transcriptional regulation (methylation) in shift workers. She’s also a Yiddish-loving secular humanist and atheist and holds (additional) graduate degrees in linguistics, theology, and public health. You can follow her on Twitter @CharleenDAdams
Charleen Adams

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Charleen Adams is a public health geneticist and post-doctoral scientist at the University of Bristol. She trained in genetics and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins, the National Cancer Institute, and the University of Washington. Aimed at understanding cancer in human populations, she’s studied cancer predisposition in families, sex-specific tumors in men, and transcriptional regulation (methylation) in shift workers. She’s also a Yiddish-loving secular humanist and atheist and holds (additional) graduate degrees in linguistics, theology, and public health. You can follow her on Twitter @CharleenDAdams

22 Comments

  1. “We can handle—stymie, frustrate, and ridicule—self-professed racists into corners of meaninglessness, where they can sit until eaten by their own delusions of grandeur.”

    Actually, if you genuinely believe that, then I suggest you take up the standing invitation for debate from the most widely-listened “racist” podcast:

    “The Daily Shoah”

    Of course, in so doing you would be risking a great deal of actual damages inflicted by the folks who want no such dialogue to occur. The reason they don’t want this dialogue to occur will become obvious once you are involved in it.

  2. Damore should’ve been fired for stupidity alone.

    “Far from Damore’s words being a threat to diversity, they protected diversity in Silicon Valley from the creeping boxed thinking that sets communities up for moral malaise.”

    That’s not how the real world works. The only morality that is sponsored is the company line. As the saying goes, tell your boss the truth and the truth will set you free. The only way to win the battle and not lose the war when fighting city hall or corporate management is to have your exist strategy planned out well in advance. There are few stories of women suing a corporation for sexual harassment and then keeping her job and building a career at that corporation. The best strategy is to quit and then sue. Corporations do not tolerate trouble makers.

    The naivety on display here is that a corporation is anything but tyrannical and something in world exists other than “creeping boxed thinking that sets communities up for moral malaise”. There is nothing more ubiquitous in moral malaise than people towing the corporate moral line for the billions of people on this planet who work for corporations.

    Corporations are tyrannical by nature. You either tow the line or you’re fired. Damore is over 40 and should know better. Only a fool falls for “we want to hear you opinion” by management. They are just looking to weed out the trouble makers. Damore is a fool for thinking he would not lose his job.

      • Well met! Thanks! Reports I read after the story broke indicated he was over forty! So Thanks! Doubly thanks for the SJW voice label. Writing is like acting and has many schools of thought. I was taught to parrot the reader’s, not your own. Write to your reader! not yourself! In this case I was experimenting with a SJW voice coupled with a conservative message. If one consumes much conservative media at all then one theme recurring is that liberals are unemployed. Conservatives oft say that the reason they are not out protesting is because they have a job and are too busy to protest. Similarly, conservatives espouse the “left-wing intolerance” is unemployable; ergo Millennials must be unemployed. Conservatives are worried today that college safe places are setting up students to be unemployable. So I thought would combine a SJW voice with a conservative message: submit where the SJW group think is to resist and the conservative job group think is to “submit” for work. Mmmm, I actually thought the word “tyranny” was a nice touch. I approach language the same way I approach software, it is all just programming. It is nice when one gets confirmation ones programming is working, eh? Cheers!

        • Zachary Reichert says

          Alright, so the TL;DR version of all that is, “I got called on my bullshit, so I’ll just go ahead and pretend I was trolling.” Gotcha.

          I’ve done that too. . . When I was 14. Take it on the chin man, we all make mistakes.

  3. Graham says

    The “dangerous buffoon” in the White House did call out the Nazis etc, the MSM simply spread fake reports. The author seems to have fallen for it.
    Otherwise a very interesting article

    • I noticed that too, Graham. The “dangerous baffoon” in the White House called it out AFTER they actually caught, identified, and charged a person with a crime leading to a death rather than “hands-up, don’t shoot!” knee jerk reactions like the previous “dangerous baffoon” occupier of the White House. But then, the MSM isn’t happy with 5-6 denouncements, you must denounce on demand or AH HA! like the David Duke endorsement that the MSM followers will claim was never denounced (yet the KKK of CA’s endorsement of the losing candidate didn’t receive nearly the same coverage or demands for denouncement).

      • Graham says

        The big story is going to be Charlottesville, where I have stayed with friends, visited the University, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello etc, a lovely town.

        After watching hours of video on youtube, I conclude the driver of the car will be found “not at fault.”
        Wait for the explosion!

  4. For the most part, a well written and thoughtful piece. While you made note of memories within your program, I noticed the same within mine but on a different topic: climate change. My doctorate is in computer science and I recall similar experiences whenever someone noted things like a demand for a null hypothesis in “climate science” discussions gets one labeled as a denier/heretic. When we had discussions on formulating null hypothesis and formulating experimental designs, any tangent into climate science breaking with those rules was verboten.

  5. Philip Grimm says

    I have spent fifty years engaging in the battlefield of ideas and nothing has changed. I believe what I believe as strongly as I ever did and the doubts about my own opinions have only added to my disappointment in the human race. I have never succeeded in changing anyones mind. I have not seen an American politician of either party, perform any great and lasting accomplishment in the last fifty years.

    Truth is a cultural artifact.

    The zeitgeist of modern America is as f*cked up as the zeitgeist in Germany in 1942. Intolerance abides. Every single one of us has our heads buried in the sand.

  6. Bill Haywood says

    “Moral Authoritarianism” is a strong phrase, but nothing in the article came close to describing violence or imprisonment of the author or anyone she discussed. Her personal experience of “moral authoritarianism” consisted of a) a single self-righteous snub of her for saying “black” b) a written reaction she solicited to a paper, which as described, was too vague for the reader to understand what went on, and c) an actual miscommunication about bell curves.

    None of those constitute repression. It’s the normal cost of doing business with people.

    I think the Google memo should be distinguished from an academic setting. Google’s decision, to some degree or another, had its eye on the bottom line and the company’s concern about its popularity. That’s a good example of why diverse viewpoints in the academy need to be sheltered. But according to the author’s own testimony, the worst that happened to her was she felt anxious about what other people thought of her.

    So avoiding “moral authoritarianism” means the author should never feel uncomfortable. How could lively debate thrive in a setting of such enforced blandness?

    • Michael says

      “None of those constitute repression. It’s the normal cost of doing business with people.”

      You do realize you just totally defanged any kind of social movement that talks about “biases”, right?

      So basically, all these Government positions and VPs of “anti-bias this or that” should all be fired as they’re not needed.

    • Victoria says

      Your version of her three anecdotes are sanitized to ignore the ignorance and authoritarianism at work:

      1. “African-American” refers to a distinct subset of people, desecended from enslaved Africans, and almost universally having European admixture Now that voluntary immigration from sub-Saharan Africa, very few of whom have non-African admixture, is a significant phenomenon the nomenclature needs to catch up with. Adams was on much solider ground saying “black,” not knowing anything else about an anonymous sperm donor than the faculty member, a faculty member at one of the world’s top research institutions no less. When a faculty member is chastising you for being more intellectually sound than they, it’s repression.

      2. The second example is the most grotesque, and you try to pretend you don’t understand it. The feedback racially essentialized Adams as white, which speaks for itself, and further offered, assuming Adams description is correct, although it sounds fully in keeping with contemporary Regressive Left politics, the risible notion that whites would be “racists” to discuss white poverty. That is a chilling racist and classist sentiment, and amounts to intellectual bullying in a context of differential power.

      3. It’s dishonest of you to spin the third incident as mere “miscommunication.” She experienced direct verbal harassment as a result of the initial miscommunication and said harassment overtly suggested that she should have been excluded from the academic program based on her perceive viewpoint, which is the authoritarian impulse of the Regressive Left in a nutshell.

  7. Just a few comments about “morality” and James Damore of “Google” fame. I would urge interested readers to consider a well reasoned conversation on this topic found at Heterodoxy Academy.org. Jonathan Haidt has written a thought ful response. I would also HIGHLY recommend Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion” . Haidt’s expertise is in social psychology, in particular origins of “moral communities” and “evolutionary psychology”.

    See:
    The Google Memo: What Does the Research Say About Gender Differences? by Sean Stevens and Jonathan Haidt

    https://heterodoxacademy.org/2017/08/10/the-google-memo-what-does-the-research-say-about-gender-differences/

    My main quarrel with the social psychologists’ views regarding the google/Damore kerfuffle is they neglect what is actually the primary gravamen in this controversy. The biological differences found between “maleness and femaleness” is pretty much settled. (See Haidt and Stevens) The main question, I would aver, deals with the topic of “power” “dominance” and privilege”- who has it? why? how did it get this way? what maintains it?. These topics are part of the purview of political science sociology and anthropology. My personal intellectual commitments align with Western Marxism, the Frankfurt School, and hegemonic discourse. E ” mploying this method of analysis, “moral authoritarianism” assumes a much more satisfying and broader meaning.

    Just a few additional words on “corporations” “management” in Silicon Valley. These topics are the focus of the academic enterprise found in organizational theory, and “the theory of the firm”. Inside these broad rubrics is the more confined question of “what to do with Damore?” This sort of discussion has been conducted for decades under the topic of “principle- agent” theory. As an example, see Albert O Hirschman’s “Exit, Voice, Loyalty”

  8. Good for you, Ms. Adams. As more and more people like you stand up for what is obviously the best way to approach these issues, sanity may begin to prevail. But be gentle: the other side are not unlike orthodox 19th century Christians threatened by what they mistakenly thought were the implications of Darwin’s new theory. In fact, it is the same play all over again. Nonetheless, realism is the first desideratum for moral responsibility in this world.

  9. Hi Charleen,
    I understand your hurt at the responses to innocent comments and misunderstandings. I don’t think these have much to do with the Left, understood as socialists who are striving to replace class (capitalist) society and its accompanying racism, sexism and other oppressions with one where those who work (and their families) own and control the means of production and determine the priorities of society. Socialists try to change the society that oppresses by building a movement, rather than alienating and repelling potential allies.

    It is only right that demeaning or inaccurate terms for groups of fellow human beings be discouraged. The views of those stigmatised need to be sought but descriptive terms need to be accurate, which “black” (or indeed “white”) clearly aren’t.

    The problem with James Damore’s “science” is that it is partial i.e. incomplete and therefore misleading. If consistent gender differences are found in attitudes and preferences, it cannot ipso facto be concluded that these are genetic. Correlation is not causation. Having said that, it is a big jump to agreeing with his firing and, if I was his union rep, I would have strenuously resisted this.

    My own contribution to the discussion can be found here:

    https://randomwalkinscience.wordpress.com/2017/08/28/the-google-memo-theres-bias-and-then-theres-bias/

    Best wishes,
    Les

    • You realize that when you do things like put quotes around Damore’s “science” you are showing your bias and the same problem that Charleen is describing? There have been numerous academics (numerous links available above and some are in other articles here in Quillette) who are actually familiar with the science on which Damore leaned who have stated that he is correct in describing what the existing empirical science shows. That you don’t agree with it does not make it “science.” I’m curious, do you consider people who don’t agree with climate “science” to be deniers? If so, then perhaps I should welcome you to the “anti-science deniers” since you are obviously skeptical of the consensus of published research in this field of study.

  10. The problem with James Damore’s “science” is that it is partial i.e. incomplete and therefore misleading.

    If you are going to wait for the science to be complete before we can discuss it how are we to move towards completion?

    If consistent gender differences are found in attitudes and preferences, it cannot ipso facto be concluded that these are genetic. Correlation is not causation.

    Maybe not but correlation is correlation and many on the Left are refusing to accept even that fact by denying that preferences – genetically determined or not – play a part.

  11. Ms.Adams, thank you for your thoughtful and thought provoking essay. However, one minor edit would be in order. Your reference to “the dangerous buffoon in the White House” is now outdated as Barrack Obama is no longer President.

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