Neurotic to the Bone

Ed Hagen recently wrote a paper outlining his objections to the classification of major depression as a “brain disorder,” on the grounds that, in sum: the diagnosis is made to distinguish it from other conditions and not from “normal” persons, symptoms of what is called depression tend to remit within weeks or months, and occur at points in life where some amount of sorrow would be expected, and depression is a continuous distribution, so the cut-off for disordered behaviour is arbitrary. Although I cannot disagree with any of this, I think it misidentifies the problem, which is now potentially avoidable thanks to recent advances in genetics.

Namely: psychiatric diagnoses are based upon symptoms and not their genetic place of origin, evolution, or adaptive value.

By definition, natural selection only allows adaptive or neutral alleles to stay around; alleles can only avoid extinction if they keep up with the rate at which competing variants are reproduced. Thus, when an organism displays maladaptive behaviours, the explanation for this falls into one of three categories: deleterious mutations (the occasional fuck-up in DNA’s copying process), pathogens, and gene-environment mismatch. The last of these refers to situations in which genes that are adaptive in some environment are still present as the environment changes – they simply have not had time to be selected out yet.

As Hagen notes, the symptoms of depression are usually synonymous with the symptoms of neuroticism – a personality variable which remains fairly constant throughout the lifespan and determines responsiveness in aversive situations such as the death of a first-degree relative. However, it is not as though there is no variation in trait neuroticism itself; some people and groups are known to be higher in it than others, e.g. women. How much of that variation is “normal,” in adaptive terms? Perhaps very little, I suspect.

Some of it is obviously gene-environment mismatch. We have not had planes or parachutes for that long, which is why most people are more scared of skydiving than driving a car despite the fact that the latter is demonstrably more dangerous. Equally, sex differences are generally a sign of different (historical) adaptive challenges for the sexes, which may be why women are more neurotic than men by ~0.4 standard deviations, roughly equivalent to two subpopulations of males with a mean height difference of 1¼ inches – think of the English vs. the Spanish. Barely noticeable at the mean, but very much so at the tails. But, on the whole, I doubt that most variation in neuroticism is adaptive.

The genetic architecture of personality traits looks similar to intelligence in that both are massively polygenic and only a small chunk of the variance is eaten up by the “common” neutral alleles. In the case of personality, it might not even be as much as 10%. The rest, according to this paper, is due to “rare variant effects and/or a combination of dominance and epistasis.” These common (freq. > ~1%) variants are in a kind of equilibrium because each has reproductive costs and benefits, otherwise it would be impossible for them to all be common. For a personality trait such as agreeableness, it may be for example that genes which inculcate high agreeableness make one less attractive at the outset, especially as a male, but more fecund in the long run because agreeable people are more willing to have more kids, etc. The rest of the variance, in the individually rare (≤ 1%) alleles, will be deleterious, hence their rarity.

A deleterious allele can accumulate in the population until it reaches equilibrium frequency, the point at which further accumulation is counterbalanced by selection. The equilibrium frequency for a given allele is generally just the mutation rate at its locus divided by its reduction in fitness relative to the population average, e.g. if the population’s average birth rate is 2.0 and the allele knocks carriers down to 1.98, that is a fitness loss of 1%. For an allele with a mutation rate of 0.0001, this gives you an effective “maximum” frequency of 1%. Given the number of variants involved in the brain, there are apparently a lot of these, almost everyone is carrying some, and the unluckiest, at the right tail of mutational load, could be carrying quantities orders of magnitude more than the average.

Since the behavioural correlates of neuroticism are not neutral and tend heavily towards the maladaptive (references: 123), one has to question how much of “normal” sorrow, grief, and anxiety is really normal. Common, sure, but nonetheless aberrant. Natural evolution does not offer a straightforward means to eliminate it in toto, but that need not make it impossible.

This shows yet more problems with the popular usage of the word “disorder.” Perhaps it is time to abandon the word altogether.

The Brick Wall of Washing Machines

People probably make too much fuss about defining biological sex in terms of its organic components. The term “chromosomes” gets thrown about, maybe because it is commonly used in basic biology education and is consequently a bit more accessible than “gametes,” although gametes are in fact the heart of the matter. Several different chromosomal combinations exist in humans (as abnormalities) besides XX and XY, but gametes come in only two forms – sperm and ova, the component factors of sexual reproduction.

But why does sexual reproduction itself exist, and by extension, why do the two sexes themselves? It is not a given across all species. Quite a few species of plants and some unicellular organisms practise autogamous fertilisation, effectively a slightly modified form of cloning in which the variants of sex are applied to an otherwise identical genetic template. Others, like the New Mexico whiptail, are parthenogenic, meaning that females can produce more females (clones) with no fertilisation at all. Most often this manifests as a “fail safe,” in species such as the Komodo monitor, for environments with a shortage of males. Obligate parthenogens are rare. When it happens, it tends to be the result of an unusually torpid environment combined with some kind of recent fuck-up. In the case of the obligately parthenogenic New Mexico whiptail: it lives primarily in the desert and owes its existence to cross-breeding between two parent lizard species which cannot produce viable males. If its environment changes too much, it is fucked: cloning and autogamy place a hard limit on gene recombination, and therefore adaptation, which is why the latter really only exists in plants and invertebrates, and the dominant presentation of the former is as a “failure mode” in otherwise sexually reproducing species. It is only “practical” in species with extraordinarily high reproductive potential, short gestation periods, sedate or undemanding environments, low metabolic needs, or high mutation rates.

Given this, it is not hard to see where males and females came from. Think of The Sexes™ as a strategy of gene propagation, and then secondary sex differences, in morphology and psychology, as strategies which reflect the different selective pressures the sexes were subjected to and/or subjected each other to (dimorphism). Viewed through this lens, females represent the “default” strategy which began with the oldest organisms (e.g. asexual bacteria): the “incubators,” reproducing through cloning and self-fertilisation, whereas males, the “fertilisers,” are a comparatively recent innovation. The degree of “sex-differentiation load” that falls upon males varies by species according to the aforestated variables in selection. Since females are, as is often noted, the gatekeepers of reproduction, the selection pressures that act primarily on females tend to be similar across species and relate, directly or obliquely, to their ability to bear offspring. For males, the story revolves around the conditions of access to females, which is why the male sex “morph” (form) differentiates itself from the female in completely different ways across species.

Sometimes male and female are barely distinguishable from one another. This is the case for many monogamous avians, whose environments, for whatever reason, do not lend themselves to significant sexual differentiation, which reduces female choosiness, which limits dimorphism: it is a negative feedback system. Other birds, like the crested auklet, engage in a kind of mutually eliminative sexual selection, whereby each sex vets the other for organically expensive sexual ornaments for reasons that are not well understood. In elephant seals, the degree of sex differentiation, just in size, borders on the absurd, although their (relative to humans) feeble brains mean that the possible scope of behavioural differentiation is not all that striking most of the time. Exactly where humans “fit” on these continua of male sex differentiation is something of a relative judgement call, but we are obviously not auklets or crows.

Sexual dimorphism and monomorphism have special behavioural correlates, most of which are obvious. Monomorphic species tend to be monogamous with fairly equal parental investment in offspring and low variance in male reproductive success. Dimorphics tend towards, well, the opposite of those traits. Humans also have a lengthier post-reproductive schedule than most animals, largely because of how long it takes the human brain to develop, which probably limits sex differentiation in e.g. aggression compared with some species that practise effective polygyny, and different normative mating systems between human societies will also affect it notwithstanding other forces such as judicially enforced genetic pacification. There is also considerable variation in these “life history traits” through time: from a time when “childhood” was seldom acknowledged as its own entity and children were expected to be responsible, to the point of execution, for criminal wrongdoing from an extremely young age, to … whatever you would call the situation we have now. Certain kinds of change may be inevitable, in this respect. Other things are remarkably changeless even in the face of new environments.

Human sexual dimorphism is an example of this changelessness. If aliens were to observe the human sexes 100 years ago and now, they would note stability in a range of male and female responses to exogenous stimuli, and note the differences in underlying strategy. Males are the strategy of high risk, aggression, dominance, status-seeking, agency and systems orientation; females are the strategy of low risk, passive aggression, emotional dominance, comfort-seeking, agency by proxy, and social orientation. (A great example of the agency/agency by proxy distinction can be seen in sex-specific antisocial behaviours such as psychopathy in males and Briquet’s syndrome in females.) They would note that human females are the limiting factor in reproduction, but human males are the limiting factor in just about everything else (obligatory Paglia quote about living in grass huts, etc). Intelligence is probably not a sexually selected trait in humans, or at least, there is little good evidence for it, and sex differences in intelligence per se are trivial. The sex difference is in application. Human brain complexity and its antecedents mean that the domain of activities germane to preserving one’s genetic line are rather more elaborate than normal, and since females are the “selector” sex, those tasks, and selection for assiduous task-doing, are upon the males.

There is no real sense in which human beings can “escape” natural selection, because natural selection is the reason behind everything that we are, including the desire (of some) to “overcome” natural selection, whatever that means. However, natural selection has also given us moral instincts and reasoning abilities which, combined with the technologies born mostly of male ingenuity, could allow us to divert evolutionary selection pressures in a way that could never happen without our technology. The crapshoot of genetic recombination, by the lights of human morality, is just that: a crapshoot. At some point, artificial gametogenesis could allow humans to become effective hermaphrodites, even if we still have the old equipment. CRISPR, and eventually full genome synthesis, could render natural recombination processes obsolete, and therefore sexual reproduction itself obsolete. Childhood will increasingly resemble adulthood as we produce children of extremely superior intelligence, and thus, reduce the need for high investment. Male breadwinning social roles will run into a brick wall of automation, or perhaps cloning of the 99.999th percentile most workaholic and intelligent workers. Female homemaking roles will (or have?) run into a brick wall of washing machines. As technology outpaces our obsolescent biological hardware, one seriously has to wonder: how much of the human intersexual dynamic, i.e. behavioural sexual dimorphism, is worth preserving? Maybe we could do with being more like the monomorphic crows.

Alternatively, perhaps one imagines a world of nearly infinite morphological freedom where individuals can modify their own physiology and psychology with ease, unconstrained by sex, like character profiles in an RPG, and where sex and gender, insomuch as they exist, amount to little more than fashion. One may dream.

The Age of Orangutans

There is much talk of incentivising fecundity. It did not work for Imperator Augustus, nor will it for us, for a simple reason: kids are a pain in the arse. And land grants for chavs are probably not the best idea; need I explain why? One must differentiate based on intelligence or education level (a proxy for the former) to avoid pouring money into the sewer, and since no earthly government has the balls for that, we can forget it.

Alternatively, technology promises that which the Romans could scarcely have dreamt of. The demographic “problem” is not low fertility. Only in light of mass migration, which need not be, is low average fertility bad, and selection pressure will deal with that regardless. The problem is that the cognitive elite are infertile. Conversely, would the African population explosion be worrisome if the children all had IQs upwards of 180?

Even if you adhere to an ethical system such as libertarianism and so place all emphasis on freedom from coercion, there is a lot to be said for a state-enforced rewriting of human genetics, perhaps even a global one – setting aside the practicalities thereof. If the rewrite is imposed on all, well, there goes the problem of an inherited continuity of stupid. I am sympathetic to a lot of anti-paternalist intuitions where paternalism is liable to exacerbate a problem or make no odds, but it does make odds when one contemplates a future of regression to the mental acuity of orangutans. There will be no liberty then, nor indeed anything worth speaking of (assuming people could still speak). The desire for paternalism often arises from the knowledge that most people have poor reasoning abilities, but that need not always be, thanks to forthcoming technological interventions, too numerous to list. True, this may not be coming soon. What was that about caring for the long-term?

As per, pessimism is sensible. In the zeroth approximation, bet on China. Beyond that, don’t bother. This is where we are at.

The Nail In the Coffin

When I saw that JF Gariepy was releasing a book related to genetics, I assumed it would be another boring race/IQ/HBD volume that I would have little interest in (given the redundancy of the topic.) However, it would turn out that JF instead devotes his book, The Revolutionary Phenotype to the subject of gene editing. In it, he argues against messing around with the technology of gene editing, making the case that such modifications will lead to the end of our species. He claims essentially that the new and improved lifeforms resulting from this process will eventually replace humanity. For reasons not entire clear to me, JF just seems to take for granted that such a development would be a bad thing. In fact, the entire point of the book becomes moot however, if the reader disagrees with the JF’s premise. JF’s arguments for why gene editing may inevitably spell the end for humans may be astonishingly persuasive, air tight and what have you, but if one doesn’t think that the prospect of humans being replaced by a related, “superior” organism would be a negative outcome, then it’s merely an academic question. The merit of the arguments put forth doesn’t matter one way or the other. The type of people whom will be most receptive to JF’s premise are those already vehemently opposed to gene editing and transhumanism on religious and moralistic grounds (“humans shouldn’t be ‘playing God'”…etc.) They don’t give a rats ass in a room full of cats about the scientific arguments for it being bad other than to the extent such arguments could be used to reinforce their pre-existing religious beliefs (if JF had written a scientifically persuasive book in favor of gene editing, these same people would dismiss it irrespective of the veracity of the arguments.)

I have to admit that I find JF’s ambivalence toward gene editing to be disappointing. Ironically, it actually strikes me as similar to Jordan Peterson warning people of the dangers of identity politics. As Ryan Faulk has pointed out, Jordan Peterson’s audience is primarily white, and the likely effect of his crusade against identity politics will be to make white people (the least overtly ethnocentric group) less likely to engage in it, while other groups continue to use it to their advantage. Identity politics may change in form as new identities emerge, but it isn’t going away. Since non-white groups are unlikely to take Peterson’s advice and abandon group identity, Peterson ultimately serves to convince whites to further handicap themselves and become less ethnocentric than they already are.

What JF does here is strikingly similar. Gene editing is absolutely going to happen. The “genie” (so to speak) is out of the bottle. Even if nations don’t officially sanction it at the public level, there will be scientists which continue with this research privately, and as a practical matter it will be unstoppable. JF’s own thesis backs up this assertion, since he argues that these newly concocted, revolutionary beings will replace us if they are created. Since scientists in Asia or who knows where will continue to move forward with gene editing, these beings will come to be sooner or later. Since JF’s audience is primarily AltRight and “pro-white” types and not rogue Asian scientists, the effect of this book will be to convince the AltRight to simply cede this bio-technological frontier to someone else, even though as humans we won’t be shielded from the effects of others embracing it anyway. Babies are going to be genetically modified. So we can either decide to be at the forefront and help direct this process toward something in our image, or sit passively as others enthusiastically explore this technology and render us irrelevant. The West has typically been at the forefront of technological progress, which is why it was so easily able to dominate large parts of the world, where natives (whom could easily outbreed Europeans) held vastly superior numbers. Even with the most aggressive pro-natalist policies, Europeans are not going to outhump the third world. Why then would Europeans want to deprive themselves of one of the few tools which could offer them some kind of advantage?

Also, the idea that beings which result from experiments in gene-editing will lead to “our” extinction strikes me as a matter of interpretation. Sure, maybe technically such organisms would not be our direct progeny, but just because a baby didn’t pop out of some lady’s vagina, does not mean it isn’t our descendant for all intents and purposes. If the result of gene editing is that something ends up being created which improves upon and replaces humanity, I don’t see what the problem is, since these supposedly “superior” beings would ultimately still be a product of our creation. If not literally, they would figuratively be our children…(and sometimes children do grow up to rebel and take our place.) This seems undoubtedly to me to be a more remarkable achievement though than simply two overweight, reality tv watching, human beasts taking a trip to bonetown and making some disgusting babies. Any idiot with functioning reproductive organs can do that.

This is of course to say nothing of the misanthropic objections to JF’s premise. Anyone who has ever worked retail on Black Friday probably wouldn’t clutch their pearls at the idea of humanity becoming extinct and replaced by something better. A few hours overhearing people’s conversations on public transit or an afternoon reading the hundreds of thousands of replies to a typical Ariana Grande tweet, and I might volunteer to push the button myself.

One thing which JF’s book has managed to do is act as a proverbial “nail in the coffin” in terms of my own relationship with AltRight ideas. JF’s faction was probably one of the few remaining which I could still relate to on any level. His laid back persona, high-profile guest lineup, cogent debate style, and pink pantheresque delivery make for what for what in my mind is probably the only substantive and watchable AltRight program. There are no compelling factions or attractive political movements to be enthusiastic about. People like me are withdrawing and moving toward an abstract, post-political future. I, for one, am ready for whatever comes next.