October 18, 2013
to be posted on nobabies.net

Erika Check Hayden
San Francisco

Dear Erika Hayden:
I was most interested in your article (Erika Check Hayden Taboo Genetics NATURE vol. 502 no. 7469 October 3, 1013 page 26) about four subjects in genetics – intelligence, race, violence and sexuality – that are to varying degrees subject to taboo, such that scientists may shun them or be subject to criticism if they voice some opinion, if they cross the line.  I think you missed one.

Harken to a voice from the benighted and howling wilds far beyond the line.  The question is fertility: the evidence suggests that adequate fertility over multiple generations requires sufficient consanguinity.  There have been studies of individuals and smallish groups that provide ample justification for suggesting this.  They cause no disturbance.  But when you begin to say that if it applies to each couple then it applies to every couple, that this is a demographic driver, reactions vary from indifference to outright hostility, even though obviously everything else is driven by demographics.  Nothing could be more important.

Let me hasten to say that this has nothing to do with race.  While others are happy to say that there is no biological reality to race, there is always a parenthetical “that we know of.”  I on the contrary have direct evidence that from a demographic standpoint, specifically with regard to the survival of societies, race is NOT a factor.  I can put my finger on a graph and say, “Were it even moderately important we would see it here, and we don’t.”  Check out this link http://nobabies.net/A%20December%20summary.html to
my web site mentioned above and look at the survival of Lower Mesopotamian civilizations.  Rather amusingly the all time record for a non-enduring empire was when the area was dominated by Europeans, otherwise seemingly so good at building strong societies.  So drop race from consideration.  The required consanguinity appears to be something well within tenth cousins in humans and mice. 

I run smack into the taboo at every level.  At one extreme I wanted to present a poster at a genetics society meeting in Boston.  (Never mind who organized it.  I really don’t want to run the risk of embarrassing anybody.)  This seemed to be going well until I received a letter from the secretary of the man in charge saying that I was not to present the poster because the society does not promote eugenics.  Really?  I thought eugenics asserted you were NOT to marry kin.  In fact I was told not to come to the meeting, and my registration fee was returned.  The hotel was most accommodating about canceling my reservation and returning the deposit.  The society would do nothing about the airline ticket I had bought so I was out of pocket there, but no matter; I got a good story out of it anyway.  I wrote more than once trying to get a rational response from them but all further communication attempts went unanswered.  In fact over the years as more evidence piled up I have slowly concluded that my ideas then were off the mark.  The principle is still there, but the strategy I thought I had come up with was a forlorn hope.  The point is that at the highest levels of prestige this idea cannot even be entertained for purposes of criticism.  It is truly taboo.

At the other extreme I was out for a walk only a couple of years ago and a man struck up a conversation; I guessed he was lonely.  After I had learned more than I needed to know about his life’s history he asked me mine.  It only took a few sentences to arrive at what is now my life’s work, and about two sentences into that his face went blank and he changed the subject.  And so it has gone from chance acquaintances to dear friends, to family, to a science fiction club where I sometimes lecture on science.  The organizers are quite gracious but the attendance has plummeted over the years.  They just don’t like it.  The taboo is as much in effect for the least prestigious as for the most. 

There are exceptions indeed, just a few.  In fact I got a paper published showing the effect in fruit flies.  I’ll attach it. 

It is frustrating not being able to establish some sort of network to toss the idea around.  In fact it’s frustrating just not knowing what they’re feeling.  I sometimes think it is stark terror, but that has never shown in anybody’s face. 

You point out that one rational for these taboos is that the issues in question are subject to abuse.  I’m sure this one is.  Another rational is that the issues have already been abused; people have used poorly understood ideas for political purposes.  But as for fertility and kinship, if there was ever any political movement that was based on it all knowledge of that movement has been erased. 

For the life of me I can only think of one other reason for people’s reaction.  Consider an ancient land where there was an idol to which people made sacrifices and around the worship of which they based their entire lives.  And suppose that except for a few priests anybody who touched the idol was supposed to die instantly.  A prudent person in such a society would have two reasons not to approach the idol.  Of course there would be the purported risk of dying, but people die for foolish reasons all the time so such a threat would be limited.  The greater threat would be that one might touch the idol and suffer no harm.  That would be proof that the idol was just a rock or whatever.  That means every sacrifice to it had been a fool’s errand.  It would mean that one’s whole life was proved meaningless.  That would be terrible indeed.  (Maybe the reason so many people are afraid of ghosts is similar.  Were one to appear it would shatter our belief in a world that makes sense, the world to which we must work our way back every time we wake up from dreaming, even if we don’t remember it.) 

Of course there are many strategies for mate selection in the world.  The modern urban attitude is, “It doesn’t matter.  Do as you will.”  If that proves to be a fool’s advice, a lot of people are going to be unhappy.  It’s easier just to avoid the idol so-to-speak.  It’s easier not to think about it.  And they don’t. 

I don’t much like that formulation.  I don’t like it at all.  But by now you have had ample time to consider the possibility that what I am saying is right.  You know what you are thinking.  Since you have made a serious study of taboo in genetics, you opinion is most valuable.  Would you be kind enough to share it?


M. Linton Herbert MD

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