Are some countries more genetically inclined towards capitalism than others?

Claiming that there is a link between genetics and the economic system of a country will no doubt strike you as a preposterous hypothesis*.

I admit I’m skeptical about the following argument. But even if it’s wrong, at least it’s interesting. Here goes:

1) People who are more likely to support business and a capitalist system – entrepreneurs, inventors, investors and company CEOs – are deluded. They think the chances of their business, invention and investment being successful are much higher than they actually statistically are. They are overconfident and overoptimistic. They are willing to take more risks than is rationally justified. It’s probably a good thing some people are like this, otherwise the pace of technological creation and innovation would likely be much slower. But overoptimism also contributed to the housing bubble that contributed to the current economic crisis.

The thing is, most people are overly optimistic and overestimate their own abilities. One famous example is an American study where 90% of drivers believed their driving skills were ‘above average’. (See here and here for more examples, and buy Daniel Kahneman’s excellent book which covers a whole range of topics on human (ir)rationality and behavioural economics). But people who are more overoptimistic are more likely to become entrepreneurs.

2) Variation in how optimistic someone is, is significantly influenced by genetics; one study of Australian twins puts the genetic contribution at 36%. So environmental factors have an influence of around 64%.

3) Immigrants, given that they are taking a risk to move from one country to another, must be reasonably optimistic that they can make a success for themselves in a new country. They’re taking a risk by giving up everything that they know for a new culture (and possibly new language). This risk-taking certainly seems indicative of a mind-set similar to those of entrepreneurs, and there is strong evidence (see here and here) that many immigrants are indeed the entrepreneurial (genetic?) type, at least in America.

4) This implies that there is a genetic inclination towards capitalistic behaviour accumulating in certain countries. Perhaps countries such as America, which were founded by immigrants relatively recently, and continue to welcome them, have capitalism in their blood.

There are of course problems with this. It’s possible to find polls that purport to show that Americans are generally more optimistic than Europeans, but this is more easily explained by environmental rather than genetic factors (it might simply be that Americans feel cultural pressure to tell people, including pollsters, that they believe their life is improving, even if they secretly don’t believe this). Until there are more studies that look at genetic differences, this argument will have to remain a mere hypothesis.

If evidence for the link between genetics and inclination towards a particular economic system strengthens, and if it becomes possible for parents to select which genes they want their child to have, then one day we may find parents imposing their economic beliefs on their children not just by controlling the environment they grow up in, but also by controlling their genetics.


* Did Steve tell you that, perchance?


The Eugenic Self-Extinction of Social Conservatism

A recent book by Chris Mooney argues that there is a neurological basis as to why many supporters of the American Republican Party seem to “believe more wrong things; appear more likely than Democrats to oppose new ideas and less likely to change their beliefs in the face of new facts; and sometimes respond to compelling evidence by doubling down on their current beliefs.”

I have not yet read this book. As such, I may be misrepresenting the views of the author, but based on the book description, it seems to me that his arguments are primarily targetted at the social conservatives in the Republican Party, rather the economic conservatives whose concern is limiting the size of the state (i.e what those outside the US would call supporters of economic liberalism).

This distinction is important. Economics is not a science; it is an art. There is no clear consensus on what is the best economic theory, partly because what one considers ‘best’ depends on your values. But even if one shares the same values, one can disagree with the means of promoting them. Strong rational arguments can be put forward for both reducing state investment and increasing it, if your agreed aim is promote economic growth. But interpretation of economic evidence is often confounded by too many variables to support one economic theory over another, at least not with the same level of confidence as one would need to reasonably support a scientific theory.

Mooney’s arguments may extend to more extreme economic theories. The book description claims he considers “why Republicans reject the widely accepted findings of mainstream science, economics, and history”. But non-mainstream economic theories exist at both ends of the economic-political spectrum. I suspect many Marxists are “less likely to change their beliefs in the face of new facts” just as much as many libertarians. (Though it should be said that someone adhering to non-mainstream economic theories does not necessarily mean they dogmatically ignore new facts. They could be right, and it’s actually the mainstream who have overlooked/ignored some essential facts).

Eugenics then. Where does this come into it? Well, let’s assume that Mooney is correct in claiming that there is a neurological/psychological basis for our political beliefs. Apparently “people more wedded to certainty tend to become conservatives; people craving novelty, liberals”. If one’s neurology influences one’s political outlook, it seems reasonable to infer there is also a genetic influence of one’s political outlook. I am not suggesting that anyone is born a Tory, Democrat, Liberal, Republican, Socialist etc. Clearly, one’s education, experience and upbringing play a hugely significant role. But genes will play a part too. [UPDATE: On his blog, Mooney does indeed list studies that suggest a varying degree of genetic influence on political preference]

Over the next few decades, it is possible that parents will, to an extent, be able to choose certain characteristics of their children. This could be done by using pre-implantation genetic screening of IVF embryos and selecting those embryos with the desired traits. Or it could be done by genetically engineering one embryo and inserting the genes for the traits the parents desire, rather than selecting from a group of embryos.

Social liberals are, apparently, more likely to “crave novelty”. Social conservatives are more likely to be “wedded to certainty”*. Historically, this can especially been seen with regards to changing attitudes towards sexuality and new reproductive technologies: consider the different stances on contraception, homosexuality, IVF, abortion. Thus, it seems likely that most social conservatives will strongly oppose using genetic engineering or embryo selection. Social liberals may be more willing to use it. If so, and they are able to select traits that they find valuable, they may seek to select genes that will encourage a socially liberal outlook. This could involve selecting genes that boost intelligence, since it appears that low intelligence, mediated via socially conservative ideology, predicts greater racism. But it could also mean selecting genes that directly influence one’s political leanings. Perhaps the genes involved in ‘craving novelty’ or being ‘wedded to uncertainty’ are related to having an appropriate development of fear responses; i.e not fearing someone merely because they belong to a new group whose clothes/language/culture/sexuality is unknown to you.

If this sort of selection occurs, then social liberals will essentially be self-promoting, and will thus increase their way of thinking within the population by having kids that are genetically inclined to think their way. Social conservatives, who won’t select for traits they desire because they generally have more ‘fear/distrust’ of the technology, will not enhance the social conservative genetic mindset. Any children they have will not deliberately be selected for conservative thinking. Thus, such children may grow up in a society that is increasingly overwhelmingly socially liberal. The liberal mindset will become the new social norm and any such children of conservatives will increasingly accept the liberal ‘status quo’; including the use of genetic technologies, perpetuating the selection of liberal ideals. Social conservatism as we know it will be extinct.


*Socially conservative attitudes can occur across the economic political spectrum. For example, I suspect there are a number of socialists who would oppose any reform or reduction of the welfare state or (in the UK) of the privatisation of the National Health Service, even if there was strong evidence that such reform would benefit those who use such services.  This can be considered socially conservative just as much as those who consider themselves to be politically right-wing and are socially conservative in a religious or cultural sense.

Artificial wombs, infanticide and the implications for abortion

Infanticide and Personhood

A recent article published in the Journal of Medical Ethics has caused a veritable shitstorm (a technical term in philosophy) for the authors and the editors of the journal. Briefly, the article argues that in some cases infanticide is justified since there is no moral difference between a foetus just before birth, and a newborn infant. Hence, if it’s ok to abort a late-stage foetus, it should be ok to kill the newborn. They claim it is ok to do both on the grounds that neither a foetus or the newborn has yet developed necessary characteristics for personhood (such as self-awareness), and therefore should not be entitled to a moral or legal “right to life”.

Legally, in the UK, personhood only begins at birth. Yet the foetus is not entirely unprotected before this. In the UK (apart from Northern Ireland), obtaining an abortion is legal before 24 weeks of pregnancy. After 24 weeks, abortion is only legal if there is evidence that the foetus is likely to be severely disabled, if the woman’s life is at risk, or to avoid severe physical or mental harm to the woman (in practice, interpretation of ‘severe physical or mental harm’ is probably rather lax). This implies it is not considered ok to abort a late-stage foetus merely on the grounds that it is not yet a person, and infanticide is therefore also not justified merely on the grounds that it is not yet a person.

I agree that neither a foetus or a newborn has the characteristics required to be considered a person, yet pragmatically the clear-cut dividing line of birth seems to be the only real option for legal personhood, and the rights such legal recognition entails. If it is set at a later date of development, such that infanticide of newborns is allowed, then there is no obvious point where to stop. Setting it at an earlier date could be plausible for some point late in pregnancy, but then there will inevitably medical emergencies whereby a doctor may have to commit what would be legally defined as murder in order to save the life of the woman involved. This would in all likelihood lead to doctors refusing to treat heavily pregnant women, leading to deaths of both woman and child.

The purpose of this post is not to rehash the current debate on abortion. Rather, it is to discuss out how a possible future technology, an external artificial womb, is likely to confuse the situation even further, if that is at all possible.

Artificial Wombs: why bother?

What would be the point of developing an artificial womb? The primary motives currently include:

(a)enhancing the survival chances of premature infants

(b)rescuing sick foetuses

(c)the possibility of genetically-related children for women with reproductive diseases (e.g. womb and ovarian cancer) without the need for a surrogate

(d)scientific curiosity regarding human prenatal development; and

(e)enhancing equality in society, as argued by some feminists such as Shulamith Firestone, by allowing reproduction without imposing all the risks and harms of pregnancy on women. Firestone has also argued that natural pregnancy leads to inequality and divisive hierarchies in society as a consequence of favouring one child over another merely on the basis of genetic and gestational connections to the parents

Their development may also be supported by certain bioconservatives, who would traditionally otherwise oppose major technological changes relating to sex and reproduction. This is because of the perceived potential to eliminate foetal deaths that occur in abortion.

Artificial wombs will likely come about as ‘merging’ of IVF and human embryo research with neonatal incubators. In the UK, research is allowed on human embryos up to 14 days old. As far as we know, such embryos develop in vitro fairly normally. If it were legal, it seems highly likely that it would already be possible for them to develop a bit further. There would have to be some means to replicate the tasks of the placenta, such as gas exchange and nutrition, and ultimately control of hormones and antibodies. Whilst exactly how these tasks are achieved by the placenta is exceedingly complex, back in the 1990s researchers in Japan successfully kept alive goat foetuses in an artificial womb, some for up to ten days, suggesting it is not beyond the realms of possibility of understanding. And in 2002, human embryos were implanted into the wall of a tissue grown from cells from the inner membrane of the uterus.

Babies born after 24 weeks of pregnancy currently have approximately a 50% chance of survival outside the mother thanks to modern neonatal intensive care units (NICUs), though rare cases have been documented of survival of newborns as young as 21/22 weeks. This viability of 24 weeks is the reason for having the UK legal limit of abortion where it is.

Artificial wombs: the end of foetal death from abortion?

If artificial wombs are developed, then the reason for having the 24-week deadline becomes void; embryos that successfully grow in artificial wombs will by definition be viable from IVF to whenever the foetus is considered ‘born’. So should abortions from ‘natural’ pregnancies still be allowed? Since it may be possible to transfer an embryo from a mother’s (real) womb and place it in an artificial womb, there may well be pressure on mothers to undergo surgery to ‘rescue’ the embryo, rather than abort it*. What stage of development, if any, is an acceptable limit for terminating a ‘pregnancy’ using an artificial womb? When should the embryo/foetus obtain rights of personhood? The two main factors that currently provide answers to these questions, foetal viability and birth, would not apply to artificial wombs. At least, birth would no longer exist for foetuses grown in artificial wombs in the sense we currently understand it: seperation of foetus from the woman’s body and entry into the external world.

It would seem rather inconsistent to grant legal protection to foetuses of a particular age that develop in an artificial womb but not grant the same protection to those that develop in a natural womb. Of course, the latter must consider the rights of the woman. However, granting greater protection for artificial-womb-foetuses than natural-womb-foetuses could lead to women being pressured into only having children via artificial wombs. This pressure would be enhanced by the risk of miscarriage in natural pregnancy, and the fact that artificial wombs would conceivably allow greater opportunity to repair foetal defects, via surgery or gene therapy.

The very technology that some feminists view as potentially extremely liberating, would in fact be restricting for women who wish to experience natural pregnancy. The possibility of such technology also demonstrates why it is essential to consider, in advance, the rights of embryos and foetuses. Even if one believes that the current debate on abortion ends with the woman having the absolute right to abort a foetus of any stage of development, this position says little of relevance as to how we should treat embryos and foetuses in the context of a world with artificial wombs.


*A significant practical argument against this saving of would-be abortions is the shear number of new infants that would be brought into existence, and the financial cost imposed on social services. One estimate is that one year’s worth of saved embryos and foetuses in America could be in excess of $150 trillion dollars (over an average of 22 years before a child becomes self-sufficient).

A free-market or government-regulated approach to genetic enhancement?

The Potential

Within the last few months, a couple of studies by researchers at UCL have been released demonstrating the potential benefits of gene therapy. Six patients with Hemophilia B were treated; four of whom no longer need their usual treatment. And 14 out of 16 children with two different immune system disorders have been successfully treated. These, and a number of other studies, demonstrate that gene therapy is likely to help treat a wide range of diseases over the coming decades. Faulty genes will be replaced with functional ones, many being delivered to us using nature’s very own cell-invasion specialists: viruses.

But why stop at disease? If one views medicine as something that should be concerned with maintaining or increasing our well-being and not merely about fighting disease (for example, by providing access to abortion and providing palliative care), then we should be using genetic engineering for enhancement, as well as therapeutic, purposes. Indeed, if one is concerned about well-being, then there is no clear dividing line between enhancement and therapy.

As well as limiting genetic disease, it will become possible to create designer babies with genetically-enhanced intelligence, strength, beauty, even happiness and (arguably) moral virtues (or at least an increased potential for empathy). In fact, designer babies already exist to an extent: whenever a woman has an abortion on grounds of a foetal genetic disability or disease, she is choosing not to accept the non-intentional ‘design’ nature has provided her baby with. The same is true of IVF, where embryos can be selected on grounds of expression of certain genes. Whether these forms of selection can be considered ethical depend on both the traits being selected for/against, and the attitude of the parent(s). Genetic technology could be used to enhance beneficial traits or fix defective traits without requiring selection of ‘good’ embryos and the associated death of those embryos not selected.


It can be argued that genetic engineering should be restricted to individuals who consent: embryos and gametes cannot consent, therefore we should not attempt to enhance them. Under this view, genetic engineering becomes just another tool alongside other forms of enhancement for individuals to use if they desire once they are old enough to be capable of autonomous decisions. These other forms of enhancement include already-existent drugs (e.g. Modafinil, caffeine, ritalin, steroids) and ones not yet developed. Computer devices that directly interact with the brain, allowing improved memory and intelligence, are a possible future form of enhancement. Arguably current calculators, phones and computers are a form of ‘extended cognition’ and therefore a form of cognitive enhancement.

However, by relegating genetic engineering to consenting individuals, we would be severely limiting the benefits of it both to society, and to the individual, who may well have consented to his enhancement before his birth had he been able to. Certainly, it seems unlikely many people would object to being created as more intelligent, healthier and happier. Enhancement of consenting adults would likely be far more costly and carry more risks than enhancement of an IVF embryo. I shall take it as given that most people would support genetic enhancement of embryos for these general traits (even if intelligence, health and happiness are not easy to define).

Parental Choice

But when you look at specific traits, it is far less clear whether people would support being selected according to the wishes of their parents in a sort of ‘genetic supermarket’ (as Robert Nozick puts it). It could lead to children being used solely as a means to their parents end. Perhaps the parents really want their child to be a professional athlete. So they select genes that will lead to a physically stronger, more muscular, child than if left to chance. Yet what if the child rejects this, and grows up wishing to be a violinist, but finds the type of physical strength imposed upon him actually limits his ability to perform the instrument? It seems that letting parents choose particular traits will remove or limit what some philosophers have called ‘the child’s right to an open future’, and what Habermas calls being ‘an author of one’s own life’*.

Allowing parents to choose could lead to traits being selected purely based on cultural norms, leading to generations of genetically-similar babies, depending on what is in fashion at that time. It could lead to the selection of traits, that whilst being beneficial to an individual if few others possess that trait, becomes pointless or even detrimental if enhanced on a society-wide scale. Any advantage of being taller is pointless (and a waste of resources) if everyone is taller by the same degree (the benefits of height relative to others is a ‘positional good‘). If everyone was made more competitive rather than accepting/cooperative, it would arguably reduce quality of life and lead to increasing conflicts across society. There are also issues of distributive justice; could only rich parents afford to shop at such a supermarket, leading to greater social inequality as the rich reap the benefits of enhancement, maintaining their privileged position?**

State Regulation

These problems with letting parents choose imply there should be some level of state regulation. Yet excessive regulation would likely lead to the creation of a black-market. Allowing the state to dictate which traits are acceptable or not to enhance implies it has a better or more valid conception of a ‘good life’ than individual parents. Certainly there will be some parents out there capable of making ethical choices that may be superior to that sanctioned by the state, whose choices would be lost in such a system. It would also instigate fears of a slippery-slope towards a Nazi-esque eugenics policy where traits are unjustifiably selected against, or where certain nationalism-promoting traits are selected for (though I feel this is highly unlikely to occur within a stable existing liberal democracy and is merely unhelpful scaremongering).

Given the potential problems with both a free-market and a government-regulated approach to genetic enhancement, it is tempting to argue we should stop all forms of genetic engineering in humans. But this would likely lead to even bigger black-market and the associated criminality, with parents trying to hide their genetically enhanced children from the law etc. And it would mean abandoning the massive benefits genetic enhancement could bring across society. It seems we must accept some forms of genetic enhancement. But what forms? And is there a particular system we could set up to minimise the potential harms of both parental and governmental selection of traits, whilst maximising the benefits?


* Given that the child would arguably not exist (as psychologically the same person) without the parents making this selection means it is difficult to claim that the child has been harmed by the parents, unless the parents deliberately select a trait that causes such severe suffering that death/non-existence would be preferable to experiencing life with that suffering. However, a child that does come into existence solely as a consequence of parental choices could be seen to have a better or worse existence than one that would have come into existence had the parents made other choices.

The fact that parents already often seek to impose their wishes on their children does not justify extending this to genetics. It is equally wrong to impose excessive social pressure, for example, in the form of unwanted athletics coaching…though just because a child doesn’t want something doesn’t mean it is always wrong to impose it upon them!.

**I do not view unequal access to be a serious problem, provided steps are taken to ensure access is opened up to all. Most new technologies are expensive when they first come out, but that is not a reason to oppose them. We do not oppose the development of cars, computers or expensive chemotherapy just because poor people in other countries cannot afford them. Many technologies experience a rapid fall in cost after originally only being available to the richest few, ultimately benefitting the whole of society.

Vegetarianism (and preventing climate change): who actually benefits from it?

I’ve been vegetarian for 4 to 5 years now.  If someone ask why I’m vegetarian, I have a basic default response of  “It’s better for (a) animals (b) the environment (and therefore other people), and (c) one’s health”.  However, each of these points can be challenged. I will explain how a philosophical problem called the ‘Non-identity problem’ demonstrates that it is not obviously clear that as many people or animals actually benefit from vegetarianism as many vegetarians argue.

Point (c) is most easily challenged. Vegetarianism may well be healthier than the average Western diet. Excessive consumption of (especially red) meat may contribute to increased risk of various cancer and other diseases. However, similar health benefits could be obtained simply by significantly cutting down on meat consumption, rather than completely eliminating it.

The same argument applies to (b). Environmental benefits could be obtained from cutting down on meat consumption, rather than completely eliminating it. However, unlike with health, continued reductions in meat consumption should noticeably benefit the environment, so that completely eliminating meat consumption is the environmentally optimum position. This is because of (i) the vast amount of land and water required to farm meat which could have otherwise been left as rainforest or woodland or used to grow crops straight for human consumption, (ii) the large amounts of greenhouses gases produced (iii) the amount of effluent produced etc. Of course, one might feel we have a duty to protect the environment for its own sake, but I think generally people want to protect it for the sake of the sentient beings that require ecosystems to be protected: humans and other animals.

So, unless you think the environment should be protected for its own sake, the environmental benefits of vegetarianism should actually fall under (a), as being something that is better for animals (including human-animals).  Some of these benefits are obvious. Reducing pollution will immediately benefit existing people who suffer from it. Reducing the amount of land used to grow crops to feed animals could allow for more crops to be grown and thus help reduce world hunger (though it should be noted that economic factors play an important part in this; it is not necessarily true that there is not already enough food, it’s just that it is too expensive for many poor people). Reducing the impact of climate change will benefit existent young people who are likely to suffer the worst consequences of it.

How about other benefits? Environmentally, cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions should benefit future individuals by reducing the impact of climate change. And not eating animals should benefit the animals that would otherwise have been born into factory farms and inflicted with pain and suffering in their slaughter. But these 2 claims have a problem. They are both making claims about future people and animals, rather than those who already exist.

In the case of the animals (let’s assume they’re chickens), that would have been born into a factory farm, how can we say that they have benefitted by not being brought into existence? And in the case of the future individuals who have benefitted from the reduced impact of climate change, how can we say that they have benefitted by being brought into existence? This point of this latter question may not be obvious. But think about it: every action that we do or do not do will ultimately affect who is brought into existence, by way of interacting with different people and changing their behaviour ever so slightly, and thus ultimately changing which egg or sperm is involved in creating a new person, and therefore result in a person with a different identity being born.

The issue is: how (for the people) can existence be considered better than non-existence, or (for the chickens), how can non-existence be considered better than existence? This is at the core of Derek Parfit’s non-identity problem, which considers whether an act can be moral or immoral, even if no individual benefits or is harmed by the act.

Let’s focus on the people. Assume we do nothing about climate change, and as a consequence in the year 2040 an individual called John is born. John has to cope with the serious consequences of climate change, which dramatically harm his well-being. Out of 10, John has a well-being of 2. So it seems that John’s well-being is harmed by climate change. But by preventing climate change, John wouldn’t have existed; perhaps his parents never met, or they had a child, Paul, at a different time formed from a different egg and sperm, and Paul had a well-being of 7. What is John’s well-being in this case? Nothing. This does not mean John has a well-being of zero out of ten. If our ‘well-being’ scale goes from -10 to +10, with the extremes representing intense suffering and intense pleasure then a zero would be in the middle. If the scale goes from 0-10, then zero would represent intense suffering. So someone who exists could have  zero well-being. But John doesn’t exist. It makes no sense to rank his well-being on the scale, because his well-being is non-existent. Similarly, in the scenario where John does exist, it makes no sense to say his well-being is ‘better’ than his well-being if he doesn’t.

This argument applies to everyone who has not yet been born (or at least not yet been conceived) who is supposed to benefit from averting climate change. And it applies to animals who are supposed to benefit by not being eaten. But it seems that none of these people or animals will actually benefit.

Is there a way around this problem? The most obvious argument is to point out that even if no future individual benefits from vegetarianism, future generations clearly do. So rather than comparing John’s well-being with his non-existent self, you compare him to Paul. Even though no-one is harmed or benefitted by preventing climate change, if we do so, then Paul will exist. And his well-being is higher than John’s, and therefore it is better that he exists than John does, and therefore it is better to adopt a vegetarian diet to prevent climate change. Problem solved.

However… the way we have solved the problem, by looking at it from the perspective of generational, impersonal benefits, is an essentially utilitarian approach. Which comes with a whole bunch of its own major problems. And unless we are going to keep them as pets instead, it doesn’t say why we shouldn’t eat chickens.