Further thoughts on Epigenetics and Public Policy

Shea Robison of Epigenetics and Public Policy has kindly replied to my previous comment there with a post of his own, Why Epigenetics and Politics?

To briefly quote Robison:

In general, there are two main emphases for my interests in epigenetics: the scientific side, and the political/philosophical aspects. These are necessarily related to each other in many different ways (e.g., the political and philosophical aspects would not exist without the scientific work being done in epigenetics, just as politics has had a substantial influence on the development of the science—again, a major focus of my book), but they can also be quite disconnected from each other in different contexts (e.g., political uses can be made of the science which ignore important findings or critical assumptions).

He points out that there is in fact a fair amount of legislation criminalizing drug use during pregnancy:

… just after I read this comment someone posted an extensive thread on my Twitter feed loaded with references on just this issue of ‘crack babies,’ and particularly about the differences in framing and policy narratives due to politically salient issues such as race (here: http://bit.ly/2KQHWFh). I also did a quick Google search on “criminalization of drug use during pregnancy” (http://bit.ly/2wrpvE4), which came up with 31,900,000 results about all the different ways that this kind of thing is actually a substantial focus of public policy and government action. …

An interesting subject in its own right, but I shan’t quote the whole post; you can read it on Robison’s blog.

For those of you following along, here is my response:

Disclaimer: a friend of mine was a crack baby. She’s a lovely person, but is constantly in pain. I don’t want people to end up like her, but I’m glad she exists. My first impulse is that someone who would do such a horrible thing to a baby deserves to be punished, but would this kind of legislation simply encouraged her (biological) mother to have an abortion? My friend is not suicidal; she wants to be alive, even if life is difficult.

In general, such legislation strikes me as misguided. Getting the police involved is highly punitive (what are the effects on a developing fetus of being arrested and involuntarily committed?) and has a major negative effect on people’s ability to do the kind of productive behaviors that are associated with getting off drugs, like hold down a job or have stable housing.

We can look at the gov’t’s history with public health programs. Some turned out better than others. Prohibition went quite badly. Everything “Opioid Epidemic” looks like it’s spiraling out of control. On the other hand, regulation on cigarette advertising has probably been beneficial; I suppose the jury is still out on the long-term effects of marijuana deregulation in some states.

Gov’t nutrition policy was probably good when it gave people food stamps but quite bad when it promoted trans fats (based on nutrition “research” that was not nearly as sound as people thought it was–which should be a sobering lesson about the urge to let politicians make public policy off what they think the science says.)

Not that my opinions count for much, but I think programs that promote healthy behaviors would be more effective and beneficial in the long run.

But let’s look at another example. Drug use is generally limited to individual behavior, often of very poor or otherwise marginalized people. What about mining disasters, toxic waste spills, wars, etc? Perhaps the guilty parties should be made to pay–but mining companies already routinely declare bankruptcy to avoid paying for their mistakes–I doubt this behavior is going to change. Any legislation in this direction, while well-intended, seems likely to be ineffective at best.

Of course the gov’t itself has certain obligations. What about the children of the men marched into atomic bomb blasts, or exposed to agent orange? (eg https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZWSMoE3A5DI) But the gov’t has so far been really bad about paying up for the damage it caused directly, much less the claims of the children of those hurt, so I’m not holding my breath on this. [“I got tortured in a Nazi POW camp and all I got for it was an accusation of going AWOL.”]

There seems also a risk of discounting people’s present abilities based on epigenetic claims. Right now the left likes to claim things like “Native Americans suffer epigenetic trauma that makes them do badly in school and continue the cycle of violence,” but it is easy to see how this can morph into “Native Americans are helplessly destined to be dumb and violent.”

I think the Left wants epigenetics to be a “get out of genetics free” card, but in the process they’re replicating genetic determinism, just at a different point in the organism. They’re going to be very disappointed if the results of their advocacy are the police arresting poor black women because they couldn’t afford prenatal vitamins.

Philosophy:
The question of what exactly the Founding Fathers (and common man) thought in 1776 is fascinating, but not necessarily relevant to current policies. Those Americans believed a wide variety of things, from Puritans (predestination) to Southern aristocrats (slavery) to affable Quakers. I suspect equality was not so much a philosophical position for the average man so much as a practical one–the man who survived by his wits in the wilderness, clearing the land, building his farm, etc., far from the civilizing and protective umbrella of the cities, was a law unto himself, enforced by violence or not at all. In essence, man was free not because he had read Locke, but because he had a gun and would shot anyone who said otherwise.

Regardless, no matter how, erm, clean your genome is, you don’t get from genes to Lockeian blank slates. You still have genes, some good, some bad.

Most people (even libs) acknowledge a combination of “nature and nurture” in shaping the individual. It’s only at the extremes that people start wholesale denying that genetic differences exist (“Women only do worse than men at sports because they’ve internalized norms of feminity that make them lose;” “Dog breeds are identical in temperament; any differences in behavior are entirely due to training,”) but there is always pressure on moderates not to contradict the extremes; not to mention a fear among libs that any acknowledgement of genetic differences between people or groups will embolden the conservatives.

In this they are simply wrong–genetic differences exist; the Blank Slate is nonsense; and people who think genes influence behavior tend to be more tolerant, not less (eg https://mobile.twitter.com/SteveStuWill/status/995978801518559234/photo/1#tweet_995978801518559234 ).

Modern liberalism cannot be saved so long as it rests on incorrect factual statements about the world. Sooner or later the results are either mass suffering (eg, the Soviet Union) or mass discrediting of the idea and the rise of a new one.

>”We already have ways of describing and discussing inheritance of behaviors from environmental exposures (e.g., psychology),”

Unfortunately, much of psychology is terribly broken. Priming, stereotype threat, implicit bias, Freudianism… they’re all either nonsense or have failed to replicate. The most reliable results, imo, are drug-related. Prozac works pretty well for depression; lithium works for bi-polar; risperidone lets schizophrenics lead relatively normal lives. Any drug can be abused or mis-prescribed, but the results with some of the most effective psychiatric drugs are really quite amazing. Psychology, by contrast, is at best talking with people about their problems, giving them a supportive space to vent and think things through.

In the end, I suppose my thoughts summarize to caution. It is easy to over-estimate how much we know and toss together legislation that ends up having unexpected effects. There might be some areas where better knowledge of epigenetic effects can lead to superior policy making (various dietary/nutrition supplementation programs like the promotion of folic acid for expectant mothers, fluoridated water, iodized salt, etc., have already IMO caused great improvement in public health.)

I hope people can be on the lookout for ways to improve life, rather than merely punish.

 

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3 thoughts on “Further thoughts on Epigenetics and Public Policy

  1. In general, such legislation strikes me as misguided. Getting the police involved is highly punitive (what are the effects on a developing fetus of being arrested and involuntarily committed?) and has a major negative effect on people’s ability to do the kind of productive behaviors that are associated with getting off drugs, like hold down a job or have stable housing.

    We can look at the gov’t’s history with public health programs. Some turned out better than others.

    This strikes me as probably the best argument against moral legislation. “It’s not effective and is in fact practically counterproductive.”

    But the twofold question remains:

    1) Is this just a local minimum? If the State were to recognize its role as in medieval political philosophy to be to care for the good of the polity, would this change? Obviously not overnight, but with a change in the rhetoric of statesmanship would, I should think, come a change in our statesmen. Though perhaps I’m just optimistic

    2) Along similar lines, this is effectively a call for the State – that is, the specific individual people who in whatever way represent the State in its functions – to materially cooperate with evil. Material cooperation with evil is morally licit, but is it so under these circumstances?

    These two questions pertain regardless of the specific issue in hand, I should think.

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    • What do you mean by “cooperate with evil?”

      If people really can reliably find some thing that causes long-term damage, it makes sense for people to do *something* to combat it. But I worry about unreliable, faulty conclusions getting promoted to the level of policy for political reasons.

      Like

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