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Why is Andrew Sullivan rolling his eyes?

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on October 24th, 2007

Andrew Sullivan – libertarian conservative pundit, gay Catholic, prolific blogger – quotes CGS’s Patty Berne via a ColorLines article, in a blog post he titles Genetics and “Race.”  Sullivan expresses his irritation at her reminder of the history of science and racism, complaining that, “My eyes roll when they don't glaze over.” He goes on to pledge his allegiance to “fact” and “truth.”

Sullivan has been here before. In 1994, as editor of the New Republic, he gave prominent and respectful coverage to the argument advanced in The Bell Curve that Blacks are less intelligent than Whites and Asians. His comment on that decision: “The notion that there might be resilient ethnic differences in intelligence is not, we believe, an inherently racist belief.”

As Jim Naureckas pointed out at the time, “In fact, the idea that some races are inherently inferior to others is the definition of racism. What the New Republic was saying – along with other media outlets that prominently and respectfully considered the thesis of Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein's book – is that racism is a respectable intellectual position, and has a legitimate place in the national debate on race.”

Watson as wake-up call: When genetics endorses a new eugenics

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on October 22nd, 2007

The world now knows about the blatant racism of the twentieth century's most famous geneticist. Those tracking the story have also learned of James Watson's other assorted bigotries - his denigration of "ugly girls," "stupid" children, and "fat people"; his endorsement of paying rich people to have more children and aborting affected fetuses when tests for a "gay gene" are developed.

But that's not all. Though neither media nor blogosphere have noted it so far, Watson - and a small but disturbing number of other prominent figures - have over the past decade been actively promoting a renewed program of eugenics, this time using twenty-first century reproductive and genetic technologies.

The new eugenics crowd is hardly coy. Various among them have explicitly endorsed "seizing control of our [human] evolutionary future" and "engineering the human germline." Back in 1998 they held a high-profile conference - covered on the front pages of the New York Times and Washington Post - to plan how to make this high-tech eugenics "acceptable" to the American public.

At that event, Watson called for "mak[ing] better human beings" by "add[ing] genes." A few years later, he advised that "Hitler's use of the term Master Race" should not make us "feel the need to say that we never want to use genetics to make humans more capable than they are today."

Those familiar with the Center for Genetics and Society are aware of these travesties; in fact, CGS's formation in 2001 was prompted in large part by the urgent need to counter them. Thus we've collected a fair sample of revealing Watsonisms. We've compiled these, and ask that anyone who has others send them to us.

Here are a few other accounts of Watson's eugenics advocacy:

James Watson's Legacy

Posted by Center for Genetics and Society on October 22nd, 2007

James Watson

Over the past half century, millions have known James Watson for his Nobel Prize and double-helix fame. Only last week did most learn about James Watson, bigot and eugenics enthusiast.

Watson now says, "That is not what I meant." But take a look at these statements by  him, stretching back years. And he's not the only one; some of his colleagues have joined him in advocating for a new high-tech eugenics.

Do you have a Watson quote we've missed? Post it as a comment below, and we'll add it to the list. Please be sure to include citation.

On race and intelligence

“[A]ll our social policies are based on the fact that [Africans'] intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really… [P]eople who have to deal with black employees find [equality] is not true.”

Interview with The Times of London, October 14, 2007

"There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so."

Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science (2007)

On "stupid" kids, ugly girls, and enhanced children

"If you really are stupid, I would call that a disease.... The lower 10 percent who really have difficulty, even in elementary school, what's the cause of it? A lot of people would like to say, 'Well, poverty, things like that.' It probably isn't. So I'd like to get rid of that, to help the lower 10 percent...."

"It seems unfair that some people don’t get the same opportunity. Once you have a way in which you can improve our children, no one can stop it. It would be stupid not to use it because someone else will. Those parents who enhance their children, then their children are going to be the ones who dominate the world..."

"People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would be great...."

"I think it's irresponsible not to try and direct evolution to produce a human being who will be an asset to the world."

DNA, British documentary, March 2003

"Then I am a eugenicist"

"My view is that, despite the risks, we should give serious consideration to germ-line gene therapy. I only hope that the many biologists who share my opinion will stand tall in the debates to come and not be intimidated by the inevitable criticism ... If such work be called eugenics, then I am a eugenicist."

DNA: The Secret of Life, 2003

On sex and discriminating against overweight people

Watson proposed that skin color and sex drive are linked. "That's why you have Latin lovers. You've never heard of an English lover. Only an English patient."

Watson proposed that thinness and ambition are linked, and thus thin people are better hires. "When you interview fat people, you feel bad, because you know you're not going to hire them."

"The Pursuit of Happiness: Lessons from pom-C," Watson's lecture at University of California, Berkeley, October 2000

Let's play God

"If scientists don't play God, who will?"

Addressing members of the British Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, May 2000

Embracing the Master Race

"Here we must not fall into the absurd trap of being against everything Hitler was for.... Because of Hitler's use of the term Master Race, we should not feel the need to say that we never want to use genetics to make humans more capable than they are today."

A Passion for DNA: Genes, Genomes, and Society, 2000

On inheritable human genetic modification

"I'm afraid of asking people what they think. Don't ask Congress to approve it. Just ask them for the money to help their constituents. That's what they want.... Frankly, they would care much more about having their relatives not sick than they do about ethics and principles. We can talk principles forever, but what the public actually wants is not to be sick. And if we help them not be sick, they'll be on our side....

"If we could make better human beings by knowing how to add genes, why shouldn't we? What's wrong with it?… Evolution can be just damn cruel, and to say that we've got a perfect genome and there's some sanctity?"

Engineering the Human Germline, symposium at University of California Los Angeles, March 20, 1998

Aborting fetuses with a "gay gene"

"If you could find the gene which determines sexuality and a woman decides she doesn't want a homosexual child, well, let her."

The Telegraph, February 16, 1997

On the Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications program of the Human Genome Project

"I wanted a group that would talk and talk and never get anything done," Andrews quotes Watson as telling a meeting. "And if they did do something, I wanted them to get it wrong. I wanted as its head Shirley Temple Black."

Quoted by Lori Andrews in The Clone Age: Adventures in the New World of Reproductive Technology

More on Hitler

The time has come to "put Hitler behind us," Watson said, urging Germany to put more resources into genetic research.

Keynote speech to a conference on molecular medicine in Berlin, May 1997


Hillary Clinton and the Office of Technology Assessment

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on October 19th, 2007

Earlier this month, presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton used the fiftieth anniversary of the Soviet Sputnik launch - a surprise that spurred American investment in scientific research and education - to challenge Republicans on science. Unveiling her "Agenda to Reclaim Scientific Innovation," she leveled the expected accusations against Bush.

Such charges have dramatically lifted the position of science in political discourse in recent years. The Administration has been accused of suppressing and distorting data, retaliating against nonconforming researchers, ignoring and dismissing key science advisors, censoring National Park Service rangers, and promoting tainted reports of business-backed "sound science." Taken together, Bush's critics maintain, these actions amount to a partisan war on science.

This description of an assault on facts conducted by the Bush Administration largely rings true. Distorting and suppressing scientific data and conclusions have allowed the President to pander to the two primary components of his base: big business and religious conservatives. As Clinton paraphrased Stephen Colbert, "this administration doesn't make decisions on facts. It makes facts based on decisions."

The media coverage of Clinton's speech hit on many of her plans: preventing appointees from altering scientific reports, establishing a $50 billion fund for clean energy, complying with existing laws regarding climate change, and most prominently, rescinding the funding limitations on embryonic stem cell research. An intriguing element that got less play was her call to strengthen scientific advice for policy makers. Her proposal to restore the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, a position eliminated by Bush, seems uncontroversial and an obvious choice. But what about her plan to revive Congress's long-defunct Office of Technology Assessment?

The demise of the OTA in 1995 left a critical gap in policy-making that urgently needs to be filled. It was established by Congress in 1972 to balance fact-bending by an earlier Republican administration. Like the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Budget Office, it provided analyses to Congress that were not only shielded from executive influence, but demonstrably nonpartisan. On a relatively slim budget, the OTA produced hundreds of insightful and widely-read reports, and rapidly became a model for similar agencies throughout the world.

But conservatives soon set their targets on such reality-based work. OTA's reports on the proposed missile defense shield, in particular, riled Reagan Republicans. By the nineties, it was at the top of Gingrich's hit list. In what Chris Mooney called [PDF] "a stunning act of self‑lobotomy," in 1995 the new House Speaker engineered its demise by defunding, despite significant support for the agency from moderate Republicans. Since then, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) has championed OTA's revival, but has made little headway. Currently, the only technology assessment proposal in Congress is a tiny appropriation to the GAO.

Clinton's pitch to bring back the OTA is commendable. Existing bodies fail to fill the gap. Some are too easily swayed by political winds. Others are limited in scope. The Food and Drug Administration, for example, is mandated to look only at safety and efficacy issues, and is not permitted to consider social or ethical concerns. And because the wheels of both parties are greased by big business, particularly by high-tech industries, executive agencies are vulnerable to regulatory capture.

The next best substitute, the National Academies, is not even a governmental body. Furthermore, while the Academies are adept at forming expert committees to make specific policy recommendations, what's need are broader assessments of the economic, social, and environmental impacts of emerging technologies, done in a context that is shielded from commercial conflicts.

Such assessments are needed now more than ever. Artificial intelligence technologies may force a reevaluation of sentience, consciousness, and personhood. Human enhancement, particularly through genetic modification, could reinforce social stratification or produce new varieties of it. Nanotechnology presents a fundamentally novel challenge to public and environmental health. Let's hope the next administration prioritizes technology assessment - the kind that promotes both scientific advance and the public interest.

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