Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Genetic engineering = political realignment?

TangoMan at Gene Expression argues that the debate over genetic engineering cuts across the traditional left-right divide and as genetic engineering becomes more important in the future, there will be a political realignment with libertarians and "new liberals" on the "progressive" side (ie favoring the new technology) and the religious right and "old liberals" aka "race/culture/gender warriors" on the Luddite side.

It's a twist on the idea (I first came across it from Virginia Postrel but don't know if she invented it) that the new alignment has "dynamism" (libertarians, tech-friendly liberals) v. "stasis" (social conservatives, eco-radicals). TangoMan's twist is that the left side of "stasis" opposes biotechnology not because they want to keep everything the same, but because they are ideologically opposed to the idea that any cognitive/behavioral variation among humans could be due to genetics (and therefore logically opposed to engineering people to be smarter, because that can't be possible!).

I liked Postrel's take better. First of all, biotechnology is just one aspect of "dynamist technology" - it hardly seems that it would come to prominence so far that ideological opposition to "human biodiversity" would eclipse general suspicion of technology as a reason to oppose genetic engineering. I just don't see biotechnology per se being the definitive factor.

Second, I find it bizarre when TangoMan writes that the left-Luddites "share the Marxist perspective of shaping mankind through ambitious social and political efforts and can't abide the notion that substantive differences are the result of evolutionary pressures." The defining feature of the kind of radical Jacobinite leftism that embraces "ambitious social and political efforts" is that it wants to radically reshape society into something better. (Eric Hobsbawm famously said that he would probably still have been a communist in the 1930's had he known of Stalin's gulags, "because in a period in which … mass murder and mass suffering are absolutely universal, the chance of a new world being born in great suffering would still have been worth backing.")

That is, Marxists like ambitious social and political efforts only insofar as they are the means to reshape society. Since it was premised on the (false) idea that human nature is infinitely malleable by social conditions, wouldn't Marxism seize on the idea that human nature actually could be changed by social and political efforts (using new biotechnology)? Leftists fear behavioral genetics because it suggests that social and political efforts can do nothing - but once they see that it allows social and political efforts to do practically anything, wouldn't they embrace it? In other words, I don't see how the "race/class/culture warriors" will end up opposing biotechnology. What TangoMan characterizes as a "new liberal" position ("embrace genetic engineering as a vehicle to remediate many social problems") could, I think, be applied to all leftists. (I suspect that TangoMan has fought one too many comment wars over evolutionary psychology, behavioral genetics, etc. and become too frustrated at intransigence on the left to entertain this possibility.)

Postrel's analysis still holds, of course: she envisioned "stasis" as including not just conformity to the past, but conformity to any central planning (which radical reshaping of society would almost certainly involve).


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your take on my post. It seems that we differ on only one of the four political groupings I outlined.

While I agree that the desire to reshape humanity is a central tenet of many of those in the group we're focusing on I have a number of reservations about their embracing this technology. Let me enumerate a few that I didn't expand upon in my post.

I'm not positing some magic, or all encompassing, ability to engineer humans. I'm positing a slow and gradual development of this technology. My personal take is that many of the goals sought by Marxists run counter to human nature, and I don't think our future ability to tinker with the genome is going to be so comprehensive as to realign human nature.

Also, I think that many in this group are more enamored of protest and needing to battle against an enemy that such motivations are what, in part, unite this faction of the left together. For them to embrace genetic technologies would align them with a broader coalition of groups and they would lose their common enemy. If they did switch groupings then by definition they would become a part of the new group and be working towards their goals rather than belonging to their former group.

Further still, by my reckoning much of the environmental movement would be aligned with what I call the warriors. I see the seedlings of this protest in their oppostion to GMO and further, the well documented influx of communist sympathizers into the movement in the late 80s/ early 90s after the fall of the Eastern Bloc has shaped the movement to such a degree that many are known as watermelons, green on the outside and red on the inside. Their Marxist orientation is similar to what I described above. I don't believe that they really abide the notion that there is such a thing as human nature so again the fallback to politcal and social means to implement their visions of reform.

Lastly, this group of Leftists shows no willingness to embrace GE to further their goals, and in fact are ferocious in their attacks against it, whereas the other group of Leftists I described are open to acknowledging issues but seek to harness the findings and align them with their broader political aims. That's a fairly obvious cleavage to me, just as obvious as what I see on the Right.

but once they see that it allows social and political efforts to do practically anything, wouldn't they embrace it?In trying to understand where your criticism is rooted, I think the above quote comes to the crux of the premise we disagree on. I don't believe that anything is possible. I think that frequency of disease will be decreased, possibly a raising of cognitive ability, though it might be easier to help those on the left of the bell curve inch up compared to those on the right, but I don't think we're going to be changing human nature, in all of its complexity, to such a degree that anything is possible. 

Posted by TangoMan

2/08/2005 04:55:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

BTW, I crossposted the essay over at DeanNation and you may want to engage in debate over there as well. 

Posted by TangoMan

2/08/2005 05:04:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what you mean when you say that these groups (the "race/culture/class warriors") are united more by their need for an enemy to battle against than any coherent ideology. Can you elaborate?

I'm pretty sure you're right about the environmental movement, at least in its extreme elements (eco-radicals or whatever). It's just that I thought Postrel's take (that their opposition to "dynamism" comes out of technophobia, a desire to regulate and control progress, etc.) captured more than the idea that opposition to genetic engineering stems more from ideological opposition to its scientific basis than from opposition to its effects, per se.

Anyway, I did think after I posted this that I was overstating things when I said that genetic engineering makes anything possible. (Even aside from the technical difficulties (which could probably be overcome if you really wanted to), the degree of coercion that the re-engineering of humanity would require makes it an unlikely position to advocate for anyone except unredeemed Stalinists...) So perhaps you're right on this point.  

Posted by Andrew

2/09/2005 12:05:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To me at least, many of the race/culture/gender warriors seem to rail against the establishment. Without oppression that they think they suffer under, their ideological foundation crumbles and they become more moderate and no longer part of the group. They need that enemy.

Another point that I didn't raise, was the almost quasi-religious aspect that many of these warriors have in their beliefs. You hinted at where I picked up this insight - I have done much battle with them, and really, it's like arguing the existence of god with the Religious Right. This faith in how the world should work makes them analogues to the RR. They both have the same mindset but advocate different policies.

As for Postrel's take, well I think she ignores the characteristics of the far groupings that I laid out and the commmonalities that will bind them. I find that I can make common cause with the Libertarian Right and the New Liberals, but the Religious Right and the Race, Gender & Cutlure Warriors are completely alien to me. So in a sense, I'm aleady practicing the politics I laid out. Sure, there would be differences of opinion within these coalitions, but that's no different than the differences we already see within the existing coalitional camps. Need I spell these out? :) Postrel misses what I think is the key foundational issue to how we see the world - religion, (not in the god sense, but in the faith-based sense of reaching a conclusion absent evidence) and how humanity shapes itself is most definitely a religiously tinged question. Some groups will deal with the reality of what's before them and others will hold to a mystical vision of how things should be. For the RCG warriors to admit inequality, not in law, but in the substance of the genome, and to acknowledge through propositional logic, that all the sins that the fight against aren't necessarily the result of oppression and could be the result of biology - holy moley, they'll admit to that as readily as a religious person will state that there is no god. It'll never happen.

While we're both playing amateur psychologists, I find it interesting that you posit that there is more uniformity of ideology on the Left than on the Right and that the Left seems to be devoid of "faith based" reasoning. I don't see that at all. I see both sides being coalitions and they split on, what is now, political grounds. Postrel thinks they'll realign along political lines having to do with dynamism or control and I think the realignment will come on the issue of what it means to be human. Why you think that the Left is unified, and not coalitional, I think warrants a post from you, because frankly, if I'm missing something obvious here, I'd love to read about it. 

Posted by TangoMan

2/09/2005 01:21:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Liberal attitudes towards genetic engineering are far more diverse and nuanced than TangoMan acknowledges.

It's important to specify what kind of engineering we're talking about. For example, a radical transhumanist might or might not support the introduction of genetically modified cereals into the European Union.

Many liberal arguments for and against genetic engineering have to do with the social and cultural context in which these technologies are likely to be implemented, rather than with the technologies themselves. Will GM crops destroy traditional economies by requiring farmers to repurchase their seed every year? Are there adequate environmental safeguards? Has anyone thought about how to preserve biodiversity in the face of market pressures? (Biodiversity isn't just a mystical prefecence. Amongst other things, it's important to preserve raw materials for future genetic research!)

Some liberals are very much in favor of GM crops because these plants can be designed to advance environmental and social goals like reducing pesticide and water consumption, counteracting the effects of salination, and feeding people in the developing world.

There are liberal arguments for and against human GM, too. Most liberals hope for genetic cures for diseases like cystic fibrosis. In fact, liberals tend to be more willing to pay for publicly-funded research and socialized medical care that might include genetic medicine. Liberals also tend to support genetic counseling and a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy if she learns that she is carrying a fetus with severe genetic problems.

There are many liberal arguments for the individual's right to use transhuman technology, but also many liberal caveats about the potential ethical consequences of allowing parents, the market, or the government to impose their preferences on future generations.  

Posted by Lindsay Beyerstein

2/09/2005 05:54:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i plan to post on this sometime in the future, but i think the use of the term "marxist" is causing confusions on this. i don't think that many of the "liberal" opponents of genetic engineering of marxist in any genetic sense (that is, working back up the line of political philosophical descent). lindsay's points are on point when it comes to many liberals, even social democrats who would be explicitly marxist, they don't oppose GE per se, just abuse & misuse.

but i do believe that a segment of the american populace which calls itself "liberal" does have solid principled opposition to "unnatural" GE from a quasi-vitalist anti-scientific stance. i live in a small liberal town in oregon where this sort of view is in the majority, and can be bracketed as "new age." the proliferation of "alternative medicine" (for example, my girlfriend has an office next to a "magnetologist") seems to be an attempt in my town to mimic non-western medical traditions, and much experimentation outside of the rationalist-empirical model produced by the enlightenment is going on here.

marxists and non-marxists can be solid debates because in the end there are commonalities of terminology. many of the people i talk to day to day are not people i can truly engage which because their worldview is suffused with "primitivist postmodernism" (for lack of a better term). 

Posted by razib

2/09/2005 06:26:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Liberal attitudes towards genetic engineering are far more diverse and nuanced than TangoMan acknowledges.I apologize if I'm incorrectly making an assumption here, but it seems to me that you haven't read my post, for a central point I make is the spectrum of attitudes on both the Left and the Right.

Andrew's point of difference is that he thinks that there are no parties on the left who would oppose GE and, if I'm reading him correctly, that the Left is far more unified in their basic propositions than the Right. If you are basing your comment on Andrew's point of contention then I can see why you think I argue that the entire Left is opposed, rather than only a segment.

I don't really have any disagreement with your comment for it's how I think it characterizes what I call the Progressives from both the Left and the Right, but certainly not the extremists on both sides. 

Posted by TangoMan

2/09/2005 07:21:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you all for your comments!

TangoMan, I certainly agree that both the left and the right are ramshackle coalitions. (I've enjoyed reading Tim Burke's analysis, eg here, on how the Democratic coalition is falling apart, though he doesn't talk about the split that you observe.) I think I might have been overstating my position when I hoped that using biotechnology for social democratic goals would be something all leftists could agree on.

Still, I tend to think that the religious right is a much more numerous, powerful, and threatening force in American politics than is the anti-rational (or whatever you want to call it) left.

One query - in your analysis, why is it now (or relatively soon) that this distinction between faith and reason will supersede the distinction between the economic principles of right and left ('help the poor' v. 'rugged individualism' or whatever)? 

Posted by Andrew

2/09/2005 08:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I didn't say that the split would occur soon, I referenced the HapMap data as being released now and this being the point where the seeds are sown. How long until they bear fruit? I have no clue. The ever growing genomic information though will be like water and nutrients to a sapling, and this sapling will slowly draw in those who see common cause.

As for the size of the RR, I think you're right that it is a far, far larger contingent than its analogue on the Left. However, I think that's because the schism on the Right is well demarcated already, well in advance of this split that I forecast. The Left seems more united, more or less, right now because the Left hasn't yet addressed this philosophical question in such a way as to categorize its constituents on this question. Note that the Right already recognizes their EvolCons.

As the significance of this question grows in size for both sides of the political equation, the semblence of common cause on the Left will no longer be as easy to maintain for the schism will become starker and allies on the other side will become more noticeable, leading to gradual crossovers.

If you think about the importance of the political question of how we change the genome, especially if we start introducing germline engineering (look at Gregory Stock's book) then I do think that this will get as meaningful as the abortion debate to many people. If you look at Thomas Frank's book, "What's the Matter With Kansas" he makes the point that there are a lot of people in the Religious Right who really should be on the Left, but one defining issue drives these people into the Republican Party. If it can happen today, I think it's completely plausible that a similarly deeply held belief in the GE question will unite people. 

Posted by TangoMan

2/10/2005 02:18:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The educator referenced in this article today fits the RGC Warrior label precisely.


I think there is the same chasm between him and the New Liberals as there is between Libertarians and the RR. 

Posted by TangoMan

2/10/2005 02:44:00 AM  
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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can see some strain between libertarians and liberals on genetic engineering.

Libertarians would be willing to allow parents to alter DNA in their baby any way they want except most likely for debilitating diseases and disabilities since making someone with diseases or disabilities could be seen as aggression.

Liberals on the other hand may want to enforce improvements beyond this for social equality. They may want it mandatory to maximize intelligence in all babies or to maximize longevity.

Also libertarians would want to make the individual pay for genetic engineering while liberals would want to provide it free of charge.

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