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Genetics, Fear, and the Slippery Slope of Moral Authoritarianism

Many warnings were offered up to us about how well-meaning scientists and policy makers could slip into using genetic information maleficently.

· 9 min read
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.


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

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