Genetic Discrimination

This is a follow-up post to Tuesday’s “Society vs. Individual Choice”.

It’s not entirely unreasonable to conflate ethnic and gender discrimination under a common term “genetic discrimination”—you have no control over your ethnicity or sex1, and you may be discriminated against because of either. In the past, such discrimination was institutionalized, and your choices were limited because of the results of your birth lottery. In the present, such discrimination is…still practiced, and your choices are limited because of the results of your birth lottery.

Let’s take this out a bit farther: when would such discrimination be valid? Perhaps if it were practiced on an individual basis. To be honest, though, I’m having a really hard time coming up with an example of an absolute rule even about individual characteristics…the best I can do is that someone who’s allergic to fish oil shouldn’t be working in a seafood restaurant, but even then they could wear gloves.

The strongest example is probably based in the plot of Gattaca, where a man with a heart defect hides his disability in order to get into the space program. But not only does he get into the program, he becomes the top performing member of the program. He would have been rejected out of hand for the heart condition, but the entire program benefitting by his being there.

After the movie came out, my brother said there was an outcry against NASA’s strict limitations on who can be an astronaut. But NASA pushed back, pointing out that there were good reasons for the restrictions. What if the protagonist of Gattaca has a seizure with his hands on the controls of the spaceship? He could end up killing everyone on board and instantly make the mission into a failure.

That’s not the message we’re supposed to take from Gattaca. But when it comes to matters of life and death, maybe checking someone’s health is prudent.

Insurance and Statistics

The problem comes when you extend it beyond matters of life and death. The protagonist of Gattaca wasn’t as physically fit as his fellow employees, but he was fit enough. He may not have had as high an IQ, but he still rose to the top. We don’t know how much genetics affects phenotype, and even when we do things aren’t certain.

The practical example of this is health insurance. Insurance is a bet between you and your provider: they’re betting that you won’t have an accident that costs more than what you’re paying them. Thus, if you have a known health condition, your insurance goes up. In a vacuum, this is fairly reasonable.

The problem is, your insurance goes up even for long-term conditions. (Disclaimer: I don’t know much about health insurance!) So if we start testing things at birth, and it’s determined that you have an increased risk of breast cancer, the insurance agencies won’t want to insure you. You’re a worse bet—you’ll probably need treatment sooner.

But it’s still very unlikely you’ll need breast cancer treatment as a child. The amount your insurance goes up as a child should be tiny. Given all the ways people die in this world, it’s not actually that likely that someone with a genetic marker indicating an increased likelihood of breast cancer will actually die of breast cancer.

This is Bayesian logic, which I don’t have a great handle on, but basically, if 1 in 100 people have the BRCA1 indicator gene, and 10,000 people die each year, then 100 people who die each year have the indicator. And most of them won’t have died of cancer. Even if everyone who dies of breast cancer has the indicator, that doesn’t mean that everyone who has the indicator dies of breast cancer!

It’s not fair to force insurance companies to make a losing bet. But that means someone with condition X isn’t just unable to get treatment for X, they can’t get treatment for anything. And that’s kind of a hole in the system. (Socialized health care is a different story, leave it aside for now.)

Ethnicity is Genetic Lineage

The term “ethnicity” doesn’t exactly have a clear meaning. Does it mean “country-of-origin”? Not really, although that’s correlated. “Religion”? No, but sometimes also correlated. “Culture”? No, no.

“Skin color”? Mm…sort of. But there’s a pretty big range of variation.

“Eye shape”?

“Hair color”?

The thing is, the last three are things we believe to be primarily based on genetics, although you can bleach your hair, tan your skin, and get surgery on your eyes (yuck). There are tons of other things as well: facial structure, freckles, probably skin complexion. In the past, we somewhat arbitrarily took skin color and a couple of characteristics correlated with skin color and called them “race”, and since populations mixed less back then it was easier to argue that there were clear differences between “races”.

Race, then, is somewhere between phenotype and genotype. It shows in your physical characteristics, but it’s also inherited from your parents even if you don’t share the usual marker traits. In other words, it’s a bad approximation of lineage, and not a useful scientific classification.

Today the term “ethnicity” is more politically correct, but what it means hasn’t changed much. In particular (as far as I know), every study that has shown that there are “fundamental” differences between races, particularly the cognitive abilities of different races, has been proven false.

That’s not to say there aren’t differences between races; there are! Certain groups retain the ability to digest lactose as they grow up. Certain groups are more resistant to sunburn. Certain groups are more susceptible to certain diseases. All of these have genetic bases.

Note that these may not correspond to what we think of as “races”. A classic case is hemophilia, which has been known as “the royal disease” because of the genetic ties (inbreeding?) between the various royal families in Europe. More interesting is the case of sickle-cell anemia, which is a recessive disease. However, if you only have one copy of the sickle-cell gene, you’re resistant to malaria. So it’s not an obvious “better/worse” thing, at least not if you live somewhere where malaria’s still endemic.

So your genetic lineage—your ethnicity—can mark you at risk for a disease. It can’t really say anything about your general physical or mental capabilities, though—we just don’t understand the brain and development enough to do that, not to mention the question of “nature vs. nurture”: how much your adult abilities depend on your childhood experiences and environment, in addition to your genetics.

Gender is Different

Most obviously, humans are set up so that whether you’re a man or a woman doesn’t depend on your parents.2 Thus gender is effectively not an inherited trait. But more interestingly, men and women are physically different in a much more drastic way: disabilities that live on the X chromosome, like most forms of color-blindness, will affect men much more than women (who have a backup copy). Men are virile much longer than women. Women go have periodic chemical changes in their bodies linked with menstruation, while AFAIK men have a relatively stable biochemistry day-to-day.

I think there are studies that show that men and women really do think about things differently, but even those results might not be conclusive. Remember how I said all studies showing that one ethnicity was better than another have been disproven? I wouldn’t be surprised to see the same about a number of “scientific” studies of gender today. (Expecting certain results can change your perception of things, and not all studies are perfect anyway.)

And that’s not to mention “nature vs. nurture”. If you think we treat different ethnicities differently, take a look at how American society treats girls and boys. Girls are pink, boys are blue. Boys play contact sports, girls play less competitive sports. Boys build things, girls dress things up.3 None of these trends are universal, but you can’t say we’re not discriminating between boys and girls. And kids do the rest on their own, scorning a boy with a pink backpack without really knowing why. (None of these trends have a genetic basis, except perhaps male competition.)

So when we hear a report saying “girls can’t do math”, but then my friend finds a book that states “23 percent of young American women would rather become lose their ability to read rather than lose their figures”, my guess is that we have a screwed-up society, not a real genetic difference.

There are clear differences between men and women, but “it’s a guy thing” or “it’s a girl thing” has never been a satisfactory explanation to me, and any notion that “women are better at X” and “men are better at Y” needs to at least be qualified with an “in general”, and probably dropped altogether.

An UNscientific Manifesto

The Litany of Gendlin:4

What is true is already so.
Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.
Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away.
And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with.
Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived.
People can stand what is true,
for they are already enduring it.

Unfortunately, this only works for honest and rational people, and no one is 100% honest or 100% rational. (Nor should they be, at least not the latter.) What if we discover that Peruvians really are better at math? We will then have a valid general impression that might still not be true at the individual level.

What if we discover that, based on their genetic profile, this kid is good at math? Maybe they want to be a writer, and maybe they’d also be a really good writer. What if we discover someone’s bad at math? Maybe it turns out they’re really good at spatial reasoning, and discover a geometric representation of an algebraic problem and make a huge breakthrough.

What if we eliminate all genetic disposition for autism, and find out that the same genes are good for abstract reasoning? As far as I know, autism does seem to be correlated with scientific or mathematical reasoning ability. What if we eliminate pain, and find out we’ve eliminated art?

My point is, even if we could evaluate someone’s potential to contribute to a field, or to society in general, it wouldn’t tell us what they actually would contribute. Even if we know that someone’s going to die of cancer, it doesn’t mean they’re going to die the first time they get cancer.

That is, I would not want to live in a society that chose people’s lives based on what your genes say about your potential, even if they’re right. On some level, this is saying that a chimpanzee can make valuable contributions to mathematics if they just study hard enough. But the genetic variation across all humans is much smaller than that. The difference between genders is much smaller than that.

By definition, most people are not the best at what they do. Most people get rejected from a job because the manager feels they’re not qualified. Most people probably do not “achieve their potential” in one area or another.

And all of this is assuming that genetic analysis can correctly predict adult characteristics. Not only are there “known unknowns” here (this gene only has a 60% correlation with the trait), but there are “unknown unknowns” at play as well (this gene also turns out to affect something completely different as well). Not to mention a child’s environment and influences growing up, and all of the various medical treatments we have to fix health problems. Our current genetics knowledge is far from able to predict much about an adult with any certainty.

So please don’t institutionalize these theoretical limits on potential, which we are very bad at estimating today and which usually have nothing to do with ethnicity or gender anyway. I can assure you that there are people with less potential than I have who are better than me at many things, and vice versa. And that is why I’d rather not know limits on my potential, or on anybody else’s, because it will influence my perceptions of {my,their} actual abilities. Let us simply demonstrate our abilities instead.

TLDR: See above paragraph.

P.S. When we meet another sentient species a fair amount of this goes out the window, because capabilities might really be different—think humans vs. chimpanzees. A species that can withstand fifty Gs of pressure and with reaction times fifty times our own—silicon-based life?—will have race cars we simply cannot drive, and can probably think much faster than us as well. But again, that doesn’t mean we won’t be better at, say, spatial reasoning, and it doesn’t mean we’re inherently inferior as a species. At the very least hopefully our civilizations can treat each other with peace and respect.

If dolphins and chimpanzees are sentient we may have already screwed this up.

P.P.S. This says nothing about cultural differences, which are much more valid and also much harder to measure. But it’s still not good to discriminate against someone based on what you think you know about their culture…you still have to treat them as an individual and find out what they’re capable of.

  1. In this day and age, you can change your sex, and to some degree your skin color and physical features, but you may be discriminated against even more for that. But to keep this post simple, I’m going to leave that out of the equation. Sexuality also. ↩︎

  2. Women have two X chromosomes, men have an X and a Y. Genetic disorders can result in someone who has one or three chromosomes, but if you have an undamaged Y you’re male, and if you don’t have an X the embryo won’t develop at all. We’re starting to be able to mix DNA from arbitrary individuals though, in which case two women will never be able to have a son. ↩︎

  3. I don’t want to say dolls are really that limited; my brother and I made cities and played out stories and everything. We just used dinosaur figures instead of human ones. ↩︎

  4. See, I’ve gotten through this without mentioning Methods of Rationality once! Er, I mean…crap. ↩︎

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