Friday, October 28, 2011

Modeled Behavior on Population Ethics

Karl Smith and Adam Ozimek of Modeled Behavior bring to light some interesting questions and arguments on population ethics. Karl Smith, from The Morality of Creating People:

In the past we could be resigned to the fact that our biology was going to drive us to do this no matter what. However, we are facing an era where we may be able to create sentient life synthetically. Either through artificial intelligence or by growing individuals en masse outside the womb.

The excuse – my biological clock made me do it – will no longer cut it and we may be talking about trillions of lives here. If we get this wrong it will be the greatest moral crime ever committed.

Adam Ozimek, pulling a partial Bryan Caplan in Some non-answers on population ethics:

In this model of the world there is only resources, and they are directly consumed. Imagine, for instance, if your two people with two living children have a third child whose inventions increase the efficiency of solar power by 1%, or increases grain yields, or leads to a new low cost recycling technique. This person coming into existence has clearly increased the amount of output than can be created with the resources on earth. The way Population Matters has formulated the problem of scarcity only makes sense if… well, if you’re determined for some reason to try and argue that more population is a really bad thing.

My comment to Ozimek is a rehash of my questions for Bryan Caplan:

Both you and Bryan Caplan seem willing to trade off very uncertain, speculative, indirect effects (inventions, etc.) of population against the direct, quite certain physical effects. Why do speculative positive effects matter more than definite negative effects? Or do you think the negative effects are somehow themselves speculative? Is the reality of scarcity of important stuff really in question?

Also, your connection between having the third child and inventions seems to imply causation from population to nice inventions (which Caplan also assumes). What evidence supports the theory that population drives innovation in a significant, reliable way? It seems the global distribution of both innovation and population would call that relationship into doubt...Just looking at the distribution of patents or Nobel prizes, it seems there are dozens of variables that correlate better with these than population. Are you talking U.S. only, or is this also supposed to apply to Brazil and China and Kenya and India and Israel equally?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Further Thoughts on Pimps & Trolls

All human systems, like biological systems, are complex ecosystems, intricate webs of cooperation and competition - of predation, symbiosis, parasitism, and the like. In both cases, novelty - whether due to the admixture of individuals from separately evolving, isolated populations, or due to the mutative creation of new types - can have devastating effects on a stable ecosystem, though it also can have hugely beneficial effects for the innovator.

Liberals and conservatives differ in that the hubris of conservatives (in failing to value environmental protection over economic development) is in imagining we can safely manipulate the biological kind of ecosystem, while the hubris of liberals is in imagining we can safely manipulate the human kind of ecosystem.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Exposing Children to Risk: Why Do We Ignore Genetic Risk?

Reader Chuck G. proposes a thought experiment to examine our thinking on exposing children to different kinds of risk:
I was thinking about the moral problem of breeding couples with heritable diseases, specifically bipolar disorder (since I have it), and I came upon a nice little analogy that is pretty damning to those who think it's ever OK for two genetically-impaired parents to have a kid:

First of all (this isn't very well-researched, just Wiki, but it's a start), bipolar disorder has a 0.4% lifetime suicide rate among all patients, and a full third of them attempt suicide at some point. Those numbers compare well with the mortality rate and general seriousness of West Nile Virus. For those who don't know, West Nile Virus has to be handled in level 3 biosafety labs, right along with a bunch of shit the Pentagon tried to turn into biological weapons. You Do Not Want West Nile Virus.

So let's think of a couple where there is a decent chance of passing on bipolar disorder to their child. They have it, everyone comes to the baby shower, and they wish them well and give them lots of nice presents. It's a joyous occasion, and the parents may even be praised for their decision to reproduce. People might know about the parents' heritable genetic problem, but surely they would smile and nod anyway.

Now think of a genetic supercouple with no possibility of passing on a hereditary illness to their offspring. They go to the hospital, the child is delivered, and just as it comes out of the mother, the father sprays it in the face with a spray bottle full of West Nile Virus. Wanna know what happens?

Go to jail. Go directly to jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.

Oh, and also, you're going to be on the news for months, you will never live down your infamy, and you are never going to see your kid again, ever, regardless of whether or not it manifests symptoms.

I just don't see how willingly conceiving a child with a known risk of severe lifetime disease differs from willingly conceiving a child with no risk of severe disease, then willingly exposing it to such a risk later. You're deliberately gambling with someone's life in a way that goes far above and beyond the usual case for philanthropic antinatalism. I think this shows just how far toxic cheeriness infects our society. It warps all our perceptions and allows us to get away with assault/manslaughter/criminal negligence, as long as *our* genes do the hurting and not genes from some mosquito virus.

Intuitively, it does seem that we treat the risks inherent in the creation of a child differently from the risks we expose a child to after he has been created. This is true even though different prospective parents expose their children to different levels of genetic and early developmental risk.

The explanations I find most compelling for the double standard here are, first, an ill-thought-out, pluralistic/liberal distrust of eugenics, and, second, the very abstractness of the harm, compared to, say, kicking a baby like a ball or microwaving her.

And, of course, there's the idea that any existence is better than none, so that any risk necessarily engendered by bringing someone into existence is acceptable, whereas creating new risk after the fact is morally questionable.

What other reasons might there be for treating genetic and early developmental harm/risk differently from the harm/risk created later in a child's life? Is it so obvious that any existence is better than none? This seems like a dubious proposition upon which to base such a a serious action as childbearing.


On the Nazi/eugenics issue, I think it is highly relevant that many observant Ashkenazim participate in voluntary screening for Tay-Sachs disease. This, despite speculation that heterozygosity confers greater intelligence. As a culture, observant Ashkenazim have decided that the suffering of children born with Tay-Sachs is more important than concerns about "eugenics," and certainly more important than a speculated slight increase in intelligence for carriers.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Suicide Prevention Industry Advocates Search Engine Manipulation to Hide Information About Suicide

Why is it so hard to find information about suicide?

A study entitled "Hyperlinked Suicide : Assessing the Prominence and Accessibility of Suicide Websites" (led by a professor hilariously named Sunny Collings) found that, shockingly, search engines get people what they're looking for. When suicidal people search for methods, they find information (albeit poor) about methods - they don't find bullshit. The authors think this is a problem. They say "significant improvements need to be made," which they use as a euphemistic call for creepy search engine censorship:

“One of the big problems with the internet is that pro-suicide sites are often the first thing people see when they search about methods,” says Professor Collings. “In contrast support sites were only 9.3% of total hits, but never featured as the number one search result.”

The study suggests more effort should be made to make support sites more accessible through search engine optimization. Professor Collings says it is totally unsatisfactory to have pro-suicide sites occupying the first 10 search results, rather than information and advice to help prevent suicidal behavior in New Zealand. [Emphasis mine.]

I am pretty scandalized by the fact that they openly call for search engine manipulation - perhaps for companies like Google to get rid of the crowd-sourced model with regard to suicide searches and make anti-suicide sites more "accessible" - you know, the way the Nazis made anti-Jewish propaganda more accessible. It's hard to imagine. But then, traditional media have often gone along with calls to censor suicide stories.

Suicide is sad. But there are things worse than suicide. One of them is miserable, suicidal people being trapped in their bodies with no exit available.

But since "everybody knows" that suicide is bad and needs to be forcibly prevented, study authors can still get away with Orwellian bullshit like this.

Thanks to Rob Sica for pointing me to this!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Access to Information about Childbearing

What messages do women get about the positives and negatives of childbearing? How do these differ from reality? How do these differ from the messages people get about other activities?

From ChildfreeFeminist:

...women need to be aware of why the media is pressuring women so strongly to give birth. They want your money, and you will gladly spend it because they make you feel your progeny is worth an $800 stroller and all the other items that come with it. And maybe he is, but motherhood will never be like the happy family in the Pampers commercials or like Katie Holmes and Suri.

There is the nasty green ca-ca , the snot, the no sleepign–and that’s just Day One. . Pregnancy is not all “amazing and life changing and awesome” like they all confess from Jessica Alba to Gisele Bundchen. Have you seen a pregnant woman’s feet? They look like air balloons shaped like…feet. And the GAS! And-and…oh, all the horror. I mean maybe if you can afford a personal masseuse and organic wildberry smoothies. Then possibly this baby stuff is for you. The rest of us have to go back to reality.

For a regular dose of pregnancy reality, I am very grateful to Shape of a Mother, a blog that posts real pictures of postpartum women's bodies, together with (often poignant) stories about their lives. While the tone of that website is breeding-positive and the audience is the Oprah crowd, information is information and this is information that women considering getting pregnant need to be aware of. The physical toll of pregnancy is often much worse than that of methamphetamine abuse, but we never see billboard-sized images of postpartum bellies on the freeway!

In the name of awareness, I must suppress my aesthetic reaction and agree with the advice of Shape of a Mother readers who encourage postpartum women to wear bikinis.

Marginalized Social Roles

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Idiocracy Effect is Okay

Ever since the time of Darwin, science has been gradually revealing (to those with their eyes open) that we were created as part of a giant game of passing information into the future.

Ever since thousands of years before Darwin, the most creative human beings have been engaged in information games other than the biological one, including the game of passing information into the future. They have done this through creating and participating in institutions, writing literature, and inventing maths. (They have also done this through writing radio jingles, copying and sending chain letters, and breeding pigeons.)

When the game of making human babies did not have a good opt-out (i.e., prior to around 1970 C.E.), participation in the wider information games was largely instrumental for better playing the breeding game. But with good ways to opt out of breeding new humans, the original game - the game of breeding to pass some of one's genetic information into the future - is coming to be recognized as a small, rather pathetic subset of the total space of information games.

Only the least creative and least intelligent will continue to play the original game, with its massive costs and limited returns. Those who can't think of any more interesting information game to play will be the parents of future biological humans.

But lamenting this is like lamenting brain drain from print newspapers to electronic media: missing the point, because that's no longer where the interesting information is being created and passed around.
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