May 1999

Popular Myths About Human Genetic Differences

“Nature versus nurture. The pendulum swings back and forth, and right now we’re in the midst of a major lurch towards preoccupation with ‘nature,'” said Professor Jon Seger at the April meeting of Humanists of Utah. There are current books by well-respected geneticists espousing an “enthusiasm for this modern form of predestinationism.”

Professor Seger identified four “myths” about human genetic variation and spent the bulk of his presentation debunking them:

  1. There are substantial genetic differences among the human “races.”
  2. Within populations, physical and mental differences are also largely genetic and heritable.
  3. People could, in principle, be improved by selective breeding.
  4. Civilization has relaxed natural selection to the point where less fit individuals reproduce as much (or more than) more fit individuals so that bad genes are increasing in frequency.

The first argument against these common conceptions was general in nature: the propositions could, in principle, be true. “The problem is that these beliefs lend themselves to odious applications involving nonfactual value judgments and rationalizations of events in which we could intervene. It is just good luck that these myths are untrue, or at least not true in the forms commonly believed. Thus a correct understanding of the facts can undermine certain kinds of social and political arguments by depriving them of key factual premises.”

Professor Seger presented a variety of charts and statistics to undermine each of the four statements. Among the items discussed were genetic distribution schemes for common markers found on blood cells. The distribution of “blood types” is an effective argument that the whole notion of “race” among humans is fallacious. (myth one) Other studies showed that the vast majority of variation in human genetic makeup is found in small, isolated populations. For example, if an alien, wanting to capture breeding stock for an extraterrestrial human zoo, landed at a basketball game in Nephi and abducted the basketball players and cheerleaders, it would take with it some 80% of human genetic variation! (myth two) In fact humans are more genetically homogeneous than our nearest relative the chimpanzee (which goes to show you that if you have seen one chimp, you haven’t seen them all!) (myth three) Finally, “bad genes” found in isolated populations often serve to provide a level of protection against some environmental threat. The classic example is that of hemoglobin variations among Africans and Mediterranean peoples that provide a natural resistance to malaria. (myth four)

After the lecture I overheard a small group exclaiming that at last they had “proof” of humanism. While I agree, I think it prudent to quote Professor Seger’s disclaimer: “My comments on these myths will necessarily be very brief and in many respects very superficial and inadequate…I’m not the leading expert on any of these issues; I’m here because you invited me, and I decided to take on this issue because I think it is important, and timely, and close to the central concerns of your organization. I’ll be quite happy if I succeed in raising your awareness of the issues and motivating you to learn more, and think more about them.” He should still be happy!

–Wayne Wilson


Euthanasia

On April 13, 1999, Dr. Jack Kevorkian was sentenced to 10-25 years in prison after being found guilty of second degree murder in the mercy killing of Thomas Youk. This seems to be a confrontation with the law that Dr. Kevorkian wanted.

In the United States (except for the state of Oregon) the law recognizes no formal grounds of defense for someone accused of killing to relieve someone else’s suffering from an incurable disease. Dr. Kevorkian is challenging that law. I applaud Dr. Kevorkian’s effort and suggest that the law in the United States regarding euthanasia needs to change.

Many elderly people are trapped in their own bodies, not knowing who or where they are and living out the last part of their lives, often disoriented, in a nursing home. This is a waste of billions of dollars annually that is badly needed in other areas of society. However, money is not my main motivation for wanting the law changed regarding euthanasia. My main reason is to reduce the suffering of individuals and their loved ones. I have never met one person who wants to end up living in a nursing home. Yet millions of us do just that.

I became a proponent of euthanasia after watching my mother die and then later my first wife die of cancer. I was further influenced by visiting my mother in a nursing home over an 18-month period. My mother was able to live independently past her 90th birthday with a lot of help and love from her five children. One day during my weekly visit my mother informed me that she had lived too long, that she was worn out, and hoped that we would soon find her dead. Instead of dying she had a partial stroke, fell, broke her hip, and after repairs in a hospital ended up in a nursing home. She did not know who she was nor did she recognize her family. She was unable to communicate her needs in any way. She became extremely tearful if she ever got close to being reminded of her painful reality. Under the law, we were unable to deny any treatment that would prolong her life; it would have been better if we could have released her from the indignity of the last eighteen months of her life.

My first wife Nancy Moore died of cancer eighteen months after diagnosis. The last nine months of her life were agonizing for everyone close to her. Thanks to the help from Hospice, medication helped control most of her pain. However, the control of pain came at tremendous cost such as disorientation and hallucinations. She begged for help to die. We surely wished that we personally knew Dr. Kevorkian at that time.

I realize that life is precious and that society needs to move carefully regarding euthanasia, but I have found that there are conditions worse than death. We can create new laws that would protect life but not interfere with the free, informed choices of citizens in matters that do not cause others harm.

–Paul Moore


The Impeachment: A Contest for the American Soul

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

“Anyone who thinks the impeachment trial is just about William Jefferson Clinton, his behavior and his opponents should think again,” says Ken Ringle in the International Herald Tribune of January 21, 1999. Rather, the trial, “…according to a number of thinkers on language, ethics and history is one of the great morality plays of this century: a contest for the moral soul of the United States of America. It is not really about Monica Lewinski or Linda Tripp or lying or perjury or thong underwear and cigars in the oval office.” Nor is it about partisan political gamesmanship.

“It is about something far deeper and more basic to our culture,” says Jan Shipps, a historian of Christian conservatism. “It is about the behavioral boundaries once defined by class but increasingly in flux everywhere since World War II.” She, along with George Lakoff, author of Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don’t, posit that impeachment is a surrogate battleground for culture wars over issues from abortion and race to economics and gay rights.

Lakoff says the trial is about two very different but equally sincere ways of looking at and thinking and talking about American society, and it is not as simple as it is often pictured: Mr. Clinton’s baby boom generation against everyone else. Shipps says the baby boomers are the very ones fueling growth in fundamentalist churches.

Accountability and discipline are less important to liberals than nurturing is, opines Lakoff. “But to conservatives they are the foundation of American character: without them the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.” Clinton’s opponents argued for punishment of moral transgression. His defenders saw greater morality in leaving him in office to help the disadvantaged.

Shipps sees the roots of the nation’s political and cultural split not in the Woodstocks and riots of the 1960’s, but in the passage of the GI Bill of Rights in 1944. With its promise of college and home ownership for returning veterans, it “did what nothing else in history probably ever has: it transformed the class structure of an entire nation almost overnight. Sons and daughters of farmers and factory workers, often threadbare survivors of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, whose lives might well have duplicated their parents’ instead found themselves suburban college graduates living a middle class life style. The structures of class and community, both urban and rural, “pretty much defined acceptable limits of behavior” in the 1930’s, but the GI Bill boosted the majority of Americans into the middle class.

Lakoff views the baby boomer generation as reacting against the “stern father” governmental model of the president, which had served so well during the Great Depression and World War II. They demanded a different “nurturing parent” model, which recognized that plenty alone was not enough. To liberals moral authority comes from a president’s success in meeting public needs. This Clinton has done. To them Clinton is a moral president, however they may view him as a moral man. Conservatives believe that, if we close our eyes to a lying, philandering president, the republic is going to crumble.

Humanist Paul Kurtz also thinks the impeachment trial was manifestation of the clash of two cultures, but he identifies them differently than the aforementioned writers. Two contending conceptions are engulfing America–the humanistic morality, which prizes individual freedom and autonomy and the pre-modern conception, which has its roots in historical religious tradition. The humanist ethical principle, the core principle of large sectors of life in Western civilization, is “the right of privacy,” which states that society should respect the right of an individual to control his or her own personal life as long as he or she does not intrude upon or deny the rights of other individuals. Traditional morality is Biblical (or Koranic). It is guided by a set of absolute moral commandments. Some of its advocates would call upon the state to legislate moral conduct. The Christian Coalition of the United States and fundamentalist religions in other parts of the world are intent on overthrowing humanist morality and imposing a puritanical inquisition.

The new Puritans, says Kurtz, insist that the president should have no private life; he must be a Paragon of Virtue. He has committed two unpardonable sins: adultery and lying. “It is also apparent that many of those who wish to impeach the president also wish to fundamentally remake all our institutions; to solidify their control of Congress, the presidency, and the courts,” states Kurtz. “In my view, they pose a real threat to the very fabric of our society.”