[Paleopsych] Plausible Futures: Conservative Eugenics and Human Evolution
checker at panix.com
Fri Sep 17 19:51:29 UTC 2004
Conservative Eugenics and Human Evolution
[Thanks to Ole Peter for finding this.]
Crow's essay (1966) on "The Quality of People: Human Evolutionary
Changes" posed a number of important problems concerning the
evolutionary future of the human species. Particularly important are
the problems resulting from the slow increase in frequency of mutant
genes in human populations which must inexorably follow in the most
obvious democratic and humane termination of the population explosion.
Mount Sinai Graduate School of Biological Sciences
Editor's Note: This article appeared in a somewhat different form in
the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, (Ornstein, 1967). The editors of
BioScience asked Dr. Ornstein to allow its publication in this journal
as well because they felt it deserved the attention of a larger
audience of biologists.
Among knowledgeable biologists, much confidence is placed in our
current understanding of the broad outlines of the evolutionary
process in populations of sexual organisms. Evolution is seen to
result from the interplay of the genetic endowment of the members of
an interbreeding population with that population's environment.The
genetic endowment is continuously subject to recombination as a result
of processes associated with sexual reproduction. Occasional random
physical rearrangements, duplications, etc, provide opportunities for
linking together of especially adaptive recombinations. Rare random
point mutations of the coded genetic message provide the seeds for
adaptive inovation. Those mutations and rearrangements that provide
their carriers with some adaptive advantage will, on the average,
gradually replace the parental stock. Those mutations which, on the
average, confer a selective disadvantage to their carriers are
generally eliminated--or held at a low incidence--in competition with
the parental stock. Thus, evolution results from balanced interaction
of random mutation and selection (Dobzhansky, 1951).
In the absence of mutation, a non-human species would ultimately be
expected to become extinct if its fixed genetic resources were
inadequate to permit it to adapt to the kinds and magnitudes of
environmental changes to which it might be exposed to over periods of
millions of years. In contrast, man, with his unique ability to revamp
his environment, now depends upon cultural and technological mutations
to provide even greater plasticity for coping with natural
environmental change than that provided by the adaptive innovations
which are sparked by random genetic mutation. Therefore, the absence
or elimination of mutation in humans need not constitue a biological
In the absence of selection, however, any species (including Homo
sapiens ) would be expected to degenerate gradually through a process
closely related to genetic drift (Dobzhansky, 1951). The resulting
increasing accumulation of mutations would produce wider and wider
departures of the individual phenotypes from one another and from the
parental type. The mechanism is quite simple. The overwhelming
majority of mutations which occur in a selective environment are
deleterious and are therefore eliminated, tending to keep the
population relatively monotypic. Selection plugs the multiple leaks
that are forever occuring in the genetic dyke and channels the flow of
life thermodynamically uphill along adaptive paths. In the absence of
selection, the dike would slowly crumble and the flow would dissipate
down a multitude of exentropic gulleys, producing a vastly refashioned
species. The only directions or styles that would be apparent in this
kind of evolutionary process would be those which reflect changes in
those genetic code words which for whatever reasons, mutate at the
highest rates--and these mutations will almost always represent
phenotypic departures from the parental type. And later generations of
mutations would represent still further departures from this more
Now what can reasonably be meant by "in the absence of selection"? If
death were eliminated and fertility maintained indefinitely, there
would be, at least initially, no selection--however, in an extremely
short period of time, a species would exhaust any "real" environmental
resources--and this hypothetical kind of "elimination of selection"
thus would be too short-term to be relevant to our present discussion.
But there are two other ways to eliminate selection: (a) a mechanism
which maintains a stable population size, in the presence of random
fluctuations of fertility, by random elimination of offspring,
independent of the genetic endowments of the individuals; and (b) a
mechanism which maintains a stable population size by uniformly and
randomly limiting fertility of individuals, independent of their
If the elimination of offspring occurs before birth (e.g., abortion
and some forms of birth control), it is essentially equivalent to a
limitation on fertility, or what is commonly called birth control.
With this frame of reference, we will now consider two facts of life
which, although in and of themselves are quite encouraging from a
humanistic point of view, nonetheless conspire to generate the next
great threat to humanity.
There is a growing agreement that some form of birth control will
provide the only reasonable solution to the population explosion and
the limited resources of our planet. All efforts to increase food
production to relieve, at least temporarily, population pressures
should be encouraged. But no one supposes that exponential population
growth can be matched by food technology. Therefore, in the long run,
enthusiasm for such efforts is not likely to be permitted to reduce
attempts at population control. Those who divert attention from the
real and pressing problem by appeal to science fiction--expecting "to
reap the resources of the universe"--will hopefully soon begin to
appreciate the sobering cost estimates of even a trip to a nearby star
(von Hoerner, 1962).
The ranks of those who at least pay lip service to the principles of
equalitarianism and classless or open-class societies are swelling
rapidly both within bona fide democracies and in major totaitarian
states. It seems not only undesirable from a humanistic point of view
that this trend should be reversed, but reversal is also unlikely.
The expected solution, if any, to the population explosion therefore
will probably involve the almost universal application of birth
control and voluntary (although socially and/or economically rewarded
or coerced) individual commitment to the maintenance of a reproductive
rate of two offspring per pair of adults, independent of the genetic
(or other) endowment of the parents. If such a program is successful
in maintaining a stable population and avoiding racial, class and
individual biases in the rates of reproduction (and therefore in the
composition of future generations), the human species may eliminate
selection and thus be on the road to ultimate biological degradation
and probable extinction!
Is there a democratic way out? Lederberg (1966) has stated that "It
would be a tour de force to demonstrate any change (increase) in the
frequency of a specific harmful gene in a human population that could
be unambiguously traced to relaxation of natural selection against it.
In comparison to the pace of medical progress, these exigencies are
trivial." Crow also has pointed out that "An increase incidence [of
homozygotes for a rare recessive harmful gene] of 2% per generation
would mean about 40 generations for the incidence to double. This is
more than a thousand years. The genetic consequences of the successful
treatment of diseases caused by rare recessive genes are slight." The
tone of such remarks is calculated to lull the reader into a state of
evolutionary complacency. Yet, on the following page, Crow's tone
turns. "However, I must introduce two cautions in this perhaps
over-optimistic discussion of simple examples. One is that the
increase is geometric, not arithmetic, and over a long period will
become important" (itallic supplied).
Effective tools for recognizing the human cariers of recessive genes
(the great majority of new mutations are recessive and harmful) have
only been discovered within the past few years. Changes in the
frequency of such genes due to mutation in large breeding populations
(the human population now is effectively a very large breeding
population) occur very slowly. Therefore an extremely large random
sample of each of two successive generations would probably be
required to demonstrate a change unambiguously. Lederberg's first
statement is therefore correct.
His second statement, however, requires more careful examination.
"Trivial" by what standards? Examine the case of a disease such as
diabetes. Assume that diabetes is due to a recessive gene in the
homozygous state. Prior to the discovery of insulin, a large fraction
of diabetics died before reaching sexual maturity (or soon enough
thereafter to lower the probability of the survival of their
offspring). The human efforts, in terms of research and medical care,
and the economic and other social costs of the production of drugs
which control diabetes clearly are trivial when compared to the
suffering of millions of diabetics and their families that was endured
before the development of such drugs. Medicine has, in this case,
effectively begun to neutralize the harmfulness of diabetes genes.
Their frequencies and the frequency of afflicted carriers will
therefore automatically increase among future generations due to
unapposed mutation pressure (Dobzhansky, 1961). In a similar way, eye
glasses, artficial kidneys, and all the devices, transplants, and
drugs of the coming euphenic revolution will reduce or eliminate the
harmfulness of many genes. But the genetic base from which harmful
mutations arise has until now been kept relatively homogenoeous by
selection. Therefore, the numbers and kinds of mutations that at
present can occur are constrained by the homogeneity of that base. As
this special variant of genetic drift slowly takes over, the base will
become more and more heterogeneous, and euphenic correction of each
new mutation will become more and more a problem of the custom
engineering of individual medical or biochemical crutches or
prostheses. Insulin solves the problem of a very large number of
diabetic individuals and the social cost per individual is very
*The production of insulin has been coupled with, rather than
competitive with, food production. It is, however, perhaps instructive
to note that until very recently, the maintenance of an average
diabetic over a 30-year period required the production and destruction
of about 1000 head of cattle.
This is likely to gradually become less and less the case for the
correction of newly arising mutations. It may not be possible to
predict, with any accuracy, the relative rates of progress of medical
and euphenic research as compared to the rates of increase of problems
with which medicine will have to deal as a result of the elimination
of selection. In the short run, the benefits from the development of
crutches will clearly outweigh the costs, but in the long run (and how
long is problematical) the costs are likely to become prohibitive. It
takes little effort to conjure up glimpses of the bizarre brave new
world--a world of enormous individual variability, each individual
(human?) uniquely wired up and supported by his own special set of
transplants and external biochemical plant. A glimpse into a
relatively modern hospital will convince one of the rapidity with
which this vision is being realized at present, although admittedly
for a relatively tiny fraction of the world population. But later, a
major portion of technology and virtually all of society's resources
would be consumed by that technology. An individual that would be
recognizable as a member of Homo sapiens would be rare indeed. Are
such exigenicies "trivial"?
The cultural relativist might argue that provided such a culture does
not exhaust its resources in trying to keep itself alive, its values
and way of life may be just as good for its members as ours are for
us. I would counter that if we can now, by judicious planning, provide
greater adaptive flexibility and fewer biological and economic burdens
for our descendants, as judged by our standards of value, then we
cannot entertain the relativist's rationalization with a clear
What alternatives exist? Lederberg (1966) states "Eugenics is
relatively inefficacious since its reasonable aims are a necessarily
slow shift in the population frequencies of favorable genes" (italics
supplied). He and others (e.g., see Dobzhansky, 1962) have rightly
emphasized the problems of defining "favorable" genes in our present
state of genetic ignorance. The problems of defining "unfavorable"
genes may often be equally difficult. If the genes for schizophrenia
were responsible, in the heterozygous state, for attributes of the
kind of intelligence which we believe we value, eugenic attempts to
reduce the frequency of schizophrenics from their present levels of 1%
to 2% might reduce average intelligence of the population as a whole.
This might produce an undesired and unexpected by-product which would
outweigh the desired reduction in human misery and in the social
burden that elimination of schizophrenia should represent. Would
schizophrenia genes average out as favorable or unfavorable? And would
we want to increase or decrease their frequency? Because of the
difficulty in defining "favorable" genes as well as "unfavorable"
genes, I question Lederberg's implication of the absence of other
reasonable (short-term, i.e., within the next 10,000 years?) aims of
In discussing the evolutionary process, Crow reminds us "...that for
many, and probably most traits there is little selection toward
systematic change in a fixed direction. Most natural selection is not
changing things. Rather it is acting to remove deviants in both
directions from the mean, or adjusting to fluctuations in the
environment, eliminating recurrent harmful mutations, or maintaining
polymorphisms. Considerable selection is needed to maintain the
genetic status quo, even without any progressive evolutionary changes"
And later on he asks, "...must we soon begin genetic steps if the
human phenotype is not to deteriorate? And should we be content merely
to keep ourselves from getting worse?"
I believe we must begin by being "content merely to keep ourselves
from getting worse," and that perhaps the only reasonable short-term
and conservative aims of eugenics, taking into account the impending
reduction in natural selection and our present state of ignorance of
human genetics, are: (1) the approximate maintenance of the present
distribution of gene frequencies and frequencies of "linked"
combinations of genes, and (2) the reduction of the frequency of those
rare mutations which clearly confer severe phenotypic disabilities
that are not easily compensated by present medical technology. Such
conservative aims should be vigorously pursued, provided that the
individual and social costs are not excessive.
If we had methods for decoding and reading the complete set of genetic
messages of each and every individual and for recording this data in a
central computer file, it would be possible, in principle, to examine
the message sets of any two prospective mates to compute
recommendations as to the number of offspring they should have in
order to help to contribute to the maintenance of the genetic status
quo. For most couples, the recommended number of children would be
two; for many, one or three; and in rare cases, none or more than
three. As Crow (1958) previously demonstrated, variances in
reproductive rate of this sort can provide very "considerable
selection". The computer would be programmed to take past frequencies
of both intentional and accidental departures from the recomended
values (continuously updated from birth records) into account in
formulating recommendations. Some such program of conservative
eugenics is probably the only kind of eugenic program that would have
a chance to start to function successfully in democratic societies.
Some reasonable eugenic measures have begun to be put into effect to
hold down the frequencies of rare genes that produce severe
disabilities. Those with the highest natural mutation rates pose the
greatest threat, and it is just those which tend to be among the first
to be singled out for attention. This is the kind of genetic
counselling program to which informed and humane physicians are often
It is clear that the evolutionary process itself has selected, in some
cases, for reduction of effective mutation rate to compensate for
increase in generation time and decrease in number of offspring per
mating. We are now beginning to understand something of the workings
of some mutation-rate control mechanisms such as excision of
nucleotide codons which constitute coding errors and replacement with
correct codons (using an unmutated complementary strand as a model?).
Increased redundancy in the genetic code (e.g., polyteny and
polyploidy and gene duplications) may have provided natural means for
reduction of effective mutation rates through the action of such
genetic reading and editing mechanisms. And in so far as we can
discover artificial means to reduce natural mutation rates, the rate
of genetic drift can be slowed.
New high-resolution electrophoretic techniques for the separation of
proteins (which are the direct translation of genetic messages) and
techniques for fingerprinting of the peptide digests of pure proteins
begin to permit us to collect significant amounts of data on gene
frequencies. These techniques more often than not permit the
identification of heterozygous carriers of otherwise pheotypically
recessive genes. Routine cataloguing of the accessable proteins of
blood cells and serum and other body fluids of each individual (to be
followed up later by routine analyses of the proteins of samples of
tissue biopsies or cultures from such biopsies) will begin to lay a
foundation for the kind of genetic analyses of human populations that
is required to guide conservative eugenics.
Although the pace of genetic drift in large populations is initially
very slow, the development of the kind of biomedical
information-retrieval system and genetic decoding techniques required
to stem the tide of drift may also be very slow, and attempts to
discover practical means for reducing mutation rates may be even
slower in reaching fruition. Therefore, the sooner a very much more
substantial social commitment is made to the pursuit of such ends,
including making adequate genetic education a required part of all
high school curricula, the more secure will be the future of humanity.
Removing the spectre of suicide by nuclear, chemical, or biological
warfare and putting a damper on the population explosion (which
includes world-wide democratic application of birth control and the
elimination of poverty) come first and second on my personal list of
social priorities. Attending to our evolutionary future comes a very
close third. Learning to live with leisure and computers follows. A
1000 BEV Alternating Gradient Synchnotron, trips to the moon and
planets, listening for messages from outer space (Project OZMA), etc.,
all seem trivial by comparison. As for large-scale application of
"algeny" and positive eugenics to the improvement of mankind, I
believe, with Lederberg (1966), Dobzhansky (1962), and Hotchkiss
(1965) that these must wait at least until we are both technicallyt
more proficient and genetically vastly more knbowledgeable.
References Crow, J.F. 1958. "Some possibilities for measuring
selection intensities in man" Human Biology, 30: 1.
Crow, J.F. 1966. "The quality of people: human evolutionary changes".
BioScience, 16: 863-867.
Dobzhansky, T. 1951. Genectics and the Origin of Species. Columbia
University Press, New York.
Dobzhansky, T. 1962. Mankind Evolving. Yale University Press, New
Hotchkiss, R.D. 1965. "Portents for a genetic engineering". J.
Heredity, 56: 197.
Lederberg, J. 1966. "Eperimental genetics and human evolution". Bull.
Atom. Sci., 22: (10) 4.
Ornstein, L. 1965. "Subnuclear particles: a question of social
priorities". Science, 149: 584.
Ornstein, L. 1967. "The population explosion, conservative eugenics
and human evolution". Bull. Atom. Sci., 23: (6) 57.
von Hoerner, S. 1962. "The general limits of space travel". Science,
Thirty years later, the above arguments about the priority that
Conservative Eugenics deserves still hold.
In the interim, the gel electrophoresis methods which I co-invented
have been successfully extended (by others) to the resolution of
nucliec acid fragments that differ by single nucleotides, and serve as
the main analytical tools for reading the genetic code. The
multi-year, 3-billion dollar Human Genome Project is well on the way
to sequencing the "complete set of human genetic messages" and the
first generation of the required kinds of computers and computer
programs to do the job already exist. To make execution of my
recomendations practical will require methods that reduce the
3-billion dollar cost by about five more orders of magnitude, and the
years to at least days, that appears feasible to me within the
life-time of the next few generations. It hasn't been my priorities
that have driven this revolution, but curiosity and the wide-spread
belief in the power of the new technologies for euphenic (mainly
medical and agricultural) applications and the possibilities for "gene
repair" (algeny). But for the long run, conservative eugenics still
warrant the higher priority.
More information about the paleopsych