Biotechnology

"I'm Basically a Libertarian."

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I'm basically a libertarian. I don't want to restrict anyone from doing anything unless it's going to harm me. I don't want pass a law stopping someone from smoking. It's just too dangerous. You lose the concept of a free society. Since we are genetically so diverse and our brains are so different, we're going to have different aspirations.

That's James Watson, Nobel Prize winner and co-discoverer of DNA, talking in the January 2007 issue of Esquire. More of that here (full disclosure: the Esquire page seems to be missing random words of Watson's wisdom).

In the Fall 2005 issue of New Perspectives Quarterly, Watson was asked whether there should be "some legal restriction[s] on genetic research." His answer:

I would say no. I am very libertarian. If someone discovers one day that we can add a gene so that children can be born more intelligent, or more beautiful, or healthier—well, I do not see why not to do it. I do not believe that suffering does any good to a person. Some people say: "Christ suffered, therefore men also need to suffer." I do not buy this argument. Today, we do not have the ability to improve humanity in this way. If someday we can, why not do it? Some people allege that this would favor the rich, but there is no novelty there.The rich always buy the new technologies before other people.

Full Q & A here.

And in July 2003, Watson told Discover this in reaction to a hypothetical in which he's "put in charge" of what the country should "do" about genetics:

My sensibility is very libertarian. Just let all genetic decisions be made by individual women. That is, never ask what's good for the country; ask what's good for the family. I don't know what's good for the country, but you can often say what's good or bad for the family. That is, mental disease is no good for any family. And so if there's a way of trying to fight that, I'd let a woman have the choice to do it or not do it. Not give in and have the state tell you to have a certain sort of child. I would be very frightened by the state telling you one way or the other.

Whole thing here.

Hat tip to the folks at The Institute for Humane Studies.

Reason's Ronald Bailey discussed biopolitics–and why individuals, and not states–should be allowed to make genetic decisions here (among other places).

Reason's January 2006 cover story, "Who's Afraid of Radical Human Enhancement?," was a heated debate on related topics. Read it here.

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  1. The rich always buy the new technologies before other people.

    Not always. The rich don’t buy nuclear weapons (they are not allowed to). the rich don’t buy anthrax (they are limited legally in that regard too). heck the rich don’t even buy the latest electric chairs or guillotines because there are so many laws restricting the rich from really using those devices for their intended purposes.

    It really depends on how many externalities the new technology will have before we allow the rich to buy it (and/or allow the rich to use it).

  2. It is no surprise to me why Margret Atwood hates him so much as demonstrated by her book “Orynx and Crake”

    Of course that book pretty much personifies her hatred of humankind in general.

  3. My sensibility is very libertarian. Just let all genetic decisions be made by individual women.

    Yeah, we guys would probably do something really dumb. Like engineer a kid with a tail or wings or something because “Hey, wouldn’t that be cool?”

  4. Sam: The fact that the rich don’t buy some technologies doesn’t mean that the rich don’t buy them before the poor. If no one but governments are buying, then the above quote doesn’t apply.

    But I love pedants, and am often pedantic, so I’ll give you a pass.

  5. The rich don’t buy nuclear weapons…anthrax…the latest electric chairs or guillotines…

    Jesus H. Christ, Sam. Don’t take the quote so friggin’ literally.

  6. How rare – a genius who doesn’t think he knows the one best way.

  7. Not always. The rich don’t buy nuclear weapons (they are not allowed to).

    But they do use nuclear power

    the rich don’t buy anthrax (they are limited legally in that regard too).

    But they do use insulin produced by bacteria and eat cheese and a multitude of other products derived from the same technologies that could be used in the production of weaponized anthrax

    heck the rich don’t even buy the latest electric chairs

    But they do use outlets for electronic products based on the same principles

    or guillotines

    hell i am rich…and no law prevents me from buying one…

    So what you are really saying is that just like all these other technologies we have nothing really to worry about when it comes to this new technology. right?

  8. “or guillotines”

    wait a sec – a lot of rich housewives of earlier generations (hence the term, “housewife”) got into photography and developed film in their basements. That grid-knife-chopping thingy is kinda like a guillotine.

  9. The first reliable handguns were bought by the rich. Everybody else was stuck with guns that fired when gently bumped. The traditional solution was to fill the thing with corn syrup, so that the mechanical components would get stuck and not move so easily.

  10. Ah ha!

    That explains it!

    “it’s an .88 magnum. it shoots through schools!”

  11. co-discoverer of DNA

    Should that be “co-discoverer of the structure of DNA”?

  12. It really depends on how many externalities the new technology will have before we allow the rich to buy it (and/or allow the rich to use it).

    Regardless of the merits of limiting genetic research for fear of some sort of harm to third parties, this has absolutely nothing to do with the quote you were responding to, Sam. Watson was addressing the concern that genetic engineering would “favor the rich”, at least at first, which he rightly points out is not unique among technological advances. His point likely being that were we to restrict all technological advances that initially favored the rich, we likely wouldn’t have any technological advances at all. And most of us would not want that.

  13. The guy thinks people ought to make their own decisions about how to live?

    Obviously a crackpot.

  14. Regardless of the merits of limiting genetic research for fear of some sort of harm to third parties, this has absolutely nothing to do with the quote you were responding to, Sam. Watson was addressing the concern that genetic engineering would “favor the rich”, at least at first, which he rightly points out is not unique among technological advances. His point likely being that were we to restrict all technological advances that initially favored the rich, we likely wouldn’t have any technological advances at all. And most of us would not want that.

    Hypothetical:

    Genetic treatments start to increase intelligence. the treatments are expensive for whatever reason, but we allow the rich a free hand. Over a decade or so, intelligence becomes a function strongly correlated with the wealth of one’s parents.

    Now even assuming that raw intelligence is good thing (and believe me I do), it is possible, no not just possible, but sensible, to believe that the benefit of the extra intelligence will be outweighed by its inequitable distribution.

    This is one example of why the scientist is wrong, even under your charitable (but reasonable) construction of his remark.

  15. intelligence becomes a function strongly correlated with the wealth of one’s parents.

    intelligence is already moderately correlated with the wealth of one’s parents via a relatively indirect route involving genetics.

    what you’re describing is merely a quantitative difference, not a qualitative difference, from the current situation.

  16. the Esquire page seems to be missing random words of Watson’s wisdom

    It may be an unedited transcript of a verbal interview. Watson tends to speak in broken sentences.

  17. what you’re describing is merely a quantitative difference, not a qualitative difference, from the current situation.

    the difference between a rifle and large bomb is primarily a difference in degree, too.

    I know everybody like to think in binary. Sometimes I think that is the central fallacy of the post 9/11 age.

  18. Over a decade or so, intelligence becomes a function strongly correlated with the wealth of one’s parents.

    Intelligence will always be inequitably distributed. But that’s not the same as saying that there is some fixed-quantity of intelligence to be distributed…once the treatments become more prevalent, the price decreases as price competition occurs.

  19. Sam, sam, sam.

    Your idea is not only not sensible, it is downright idiotic.

    Let us assume that rich people can afford a genetic treatment that makes their children more intelligent than the unimproved children of poor people. Let us further assume that this intelligence makes them more economically productive than the children of poor people. (productivity is based on a combination of intelligence, luck and industriousness).

    So what?

    The unchanged human beings will continue to be increasingly productive as new processes and capital equipment is invvented. Only, the pace of inventions produced by these enhanced children will increase the productivity of everyone.

    In other words, even in the unequal distribution scenario, poor people will be economically more productive, and will enjoy more wealth. In fact, they will be better off than they would if the improvements were foregone.

    There is a term used in basic economic courses, “Ricardo’s Law of Comparative Advantage”

    My mommy had a phrase to describe your concern. It’s called “cutting off your nose to spite your face”.

  20. once the treatments become more prevalent

    Unless rich people decide to pay off the patent holders and trade secrets owners such that the treatments do not become more prevalent.

    Can you think of a reason why a rich people might decide to pay for the privilege of keeping the treatment exclusive?

    (not to mention the fact that even a 20 or 10 year lag in the cheapening of the treatment is liable to have a catastrophic effect on society)

  21. Only, the pace of inventions produced by these enhanced children will increase the productivity of everyone.

    now that really depends upon whether the enhanced children (once they become adults) turn out to be a good witch or a bad witch.

    I already have a lot of trouble respecting dumb people and I don’t even have any friends. I hate to think what would happen if . . .

  22. (not to mention the fact that even a 20 or 10 year lag in the cheapening of the treatment is liable to have a catastrophic effect on society)

    Sam, this experiment has already been done…with nutrition (i.e., food). Rich people have always eaten better than poor people (comparitively speaking)…few rich people starved or had malnourished children…and yet here we are in 2007 debating just how many people (rich AND poor) in this country are overfed!

  23. Discussion of “inequitable distribution” aside — about which I have to agree with gaijin.

    Sam: the difference between a rifle and large bomb is primarily a difference in degree, too.

    What increase in intelligence are you imagining would be possible for wealthy *early adopters*? It would certainly be marginal: some fraction of a standard deviation, not like the difference between a rifle and a large bomb.

  24. …Certainly not more than what is already achieved by rich/smart people by assortative mating.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assortative_mating

  25. I posted some excerpts from the Esquire interview on my blog when I received my print copy last month.

    In general, I think his remarks can easily be separated into two distinct groups. The first group consists of statements that are interesting because they are fresh and insightful. The second group, by contrast, consists of statements seemingly crafted to convey Mel Gibson batshit-craziness.

    From the latter group:

    Should you be allowed to make an anti-Semitic remark? Yes, because some anti-Semitism is justified. Just like some anti-irish feeling is justified.

    Now just to be clear, I would agree that you should be allowed to make anti-Semitic remarks. I just wouldn’t defend a right to free speech by arguing the validity of such statements. Don’t worry though-Watson also has some kind words for the Jews:

    I’ve wondered why people aren’t more intelligent. Why isn’t everyone as intelligent as Ashkenazi Jews?

    Note his need to exclude Sephardi Jews. Always the geneticist.

  26. . . .It would certainly be marginal: some fraction of a standard deviation . . .

    At some point, the intelligence margin is low enough that the good will outweigh the bad.

    You pose an intelligent framework for looking at the margin and deciding whether how drastic the societal ripples may or may not be.

    I am puzzled how you already know that the intelligence treatments will be so limited in their power.

    What else do you know about these treatments and who told you?

  27. Sam, read a few review articles on the genetics of intelligence if you’re interested.

    Check google scholar.

  28. I bet my local science library has lots of helpful books and periodicals too. if I have some extra time I might even check out teh Intrawebs.

  29. Can you think of a reason why a rich people might decide to pay for the privilege of keeping the treatment exclusive?

    So, all the rich people conspire to not let the regular people have the treatment even after technological advances make it affordable to regular people? Is that what you’re getting at? Sounds like neat science fiction, but not like reality. Any examples of this happening with a type of technology?

  30. Correction: Watson was not a “co-discoverer of DNA,” but a co-discoverer of the *structure* of DNA. The molecule had been know for decades before Watson and Crick came along.

  31. Yes Kevin… was mentioned above 🙂

    https://reason.com/blog/show/117811.html#623383

    El Christador | January 10, 2007, 2:37pm | #
    co-discoverer of DNA

    Should that be “co-discoverer of the structure of DNA”?

  32. Reason’s January 2006 cover story, “Who’s Afraid of Radical Human Enhancement?”

    Worst Reason Cover Ever as compared to the Belly Button Cover, which was one of the best….

  33. I’ve wondered why people aren’t more intelligent. Why isn’t everyone as intelligent as Ashkenazi Jews? . . . Note his need to exclude Sephardi Jews. Always the geneticist.

    Actually, I read an article somewhere in the past year–maybe in Discover magazine, or someplace like that–which suggested that Ashkenazi Jews are, on average, more intelligent than most. The theory was that for centuries, they were in Europe limited to only certain types of jobs (like in finance) which require intelligence. So if you were intelligent, you could get a job and support lots of healthy children, but if you were stupid you’d starve and your genes would starve with you.

    Maybe he too read that article and had that in mind.

  34. Any examples of this happening with a type of technology?

    Not off the top of my head (and really how would I know — the best way to deny a technology to a poor guy like me is to keep it secret from me).

    However, very few technologies would allow the rich so much assistance in an area they care deeply about, which is keeping money in the family.

  35. Ohhh Sam, you crafty ass butcher, you.

  36. However, very few technologies would allow the rich so much assistance in an area they care deeply about, which is keeping money in the family.

    Hell, I’m not rich by American standards and I want to keep all my money in my family.

  37. Now even assuming that raw intelligence is good thing (and believe me I do), it is possible, no not just possible, but sensible, to believe that the benefit of the extra intelligence will be outweighed by its inequitable distribution.

    Yeah, and the benefit of human intelligence evolving in the first place wasn’t worth it due to the inequalities between us and the Neanderthals.

  38. Will we get spam for genetically enganced sexual performance products?
    Genenlarge

  39. The only radical body mod I want is some kind of transdimensional colostomy so I never have to poop again – a little portal would be installed in my bowels and it’d just go off to the sixth dimension. Kind of like a little D&D-style bag of holding or portable hole.

    Just imagine the time you’d save over a lifetime. And the paper.

    Sadly, I don’t think that’s going to happen.

  40. fyodor writes: “Sounds like neat science fiction, but not like reality. Any examples of this happening with a type of technology?”

    Well, hedge funds could be considered a form of technology (since a fund may have their own models or homegrown software tools) and if I’m not mistaken they can’t be used by non-rich people.

  41. Jon H.
    At first hedge funds were only available to only certain high worth individuals but now they are available to many investors through most large fund managers (most pensions also have a portion of their assets now invested in hedge funds). I guess if you don’t have any money to invest you are out of luck still.

  42. So in the future, the rich, who already think that they are smarter than poor people, actually will be. It’s much better when perception matches reality.

  43. Sam’s comments about rich people reserving the right to genetic enhancement to themselves is remarkably similar to early arguments against the motorcar: i.e. only the rich would be able to have them.

    Ironically, there is a further parallel in this comparison: Just as the rich today can already afford better health care, nutrition and education for their children, giving those children a ‘leg up’ in their intellectual development, the rich of a century ago could afford to keep horses and carriages and private rail cars, thus giving them better transportation even before the develpment of the motorcar.

    With respect to the Ashkenazi Jews, I suspect that the higher average IQ scores they record has more to do with strong cultural respect for learning and education, the family, and the work ethic than to genetic factors.

  44. So in the future, the rich, who already think that they are smarter than poor people, actually will be. It’s much better when perception matches reality.

    Why do you assume that rich people’s perceptions and ego-driven misperceptions will remain static with increasing intelligence? I am sure they can still dramatically overestimate the intelligence gap, regardless of of large it gets.

  45. btw, I only brought up the intelligence thing because fyodor wanted a more specific example of the type of problem that could occur if human genetic engineering technology becomes unregulated.

    My fear is not limited to the intelligence stuff — I merely thought that was the easiest possible example for proof of the larger concept.

    I honestly think the first casualty of genetic engineering will be homosexuals. I think there are enough rich homosexuals that some will select to have homosexual children, but really, there won’t be critical mass and the gay communities will probably be hard hit. If they ever do come up with a homosexuality gene screening, I think that technology will be allowed to trickle down to the lower classes as soon as economically feasible.

    just didn’t want this thd to be narrowly focussed on a small example of a much larger set of potential problems.

  46. Since the rich already run everything, would it be a bad thing for everyone if they were smarter? I mean, come on, a genetically smarter George Bush would not be a bad thing right now….

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