Why eugenics doesn’t work

January 25, 2008

Dog and cat breeders, pigeon fanciers, racehorse breeders, and others whose livelihoods depend on their trying to do better than nature at the Darwinian game often offer anecdotes about breeding failures. They thought they might get a faster horse, but they got a skittish one instead; they thought they were getting a good bird dog, but the dog would panic at the shot of a gun.

Breeders know genetics carry a lot of traits, and trying to select for one is difficult. One may amplify a bad trait in addition to the desired trait.

In short, as the actors told us in the old Chiffon Margarine advertisements, it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature, and not always easy.

Enron tilted E sign, Associated Press photo

In one classic paper that more critics of Darwin should read, researchers discovered that instead of getting better egg production, they got mean chickens that damaged production of the entire flock.

Adam Lerymenko at Greythumb.blog notes the paper, and notes how the phenomenon was demonstrated among humans at the now-failed and discredited Enron Corp. (While informative, the piece may not be wholly safe for profanity filters in schools; the comments may be a problem, too.)

One of my favorite papers in evolutionary biology, which I have mentioned here before, is this:

Muir, W.M., and D.L. Liggett, 1995a. Group selection for adaptation to multiple-hen cages: selection program and responses. Poultry Sci. 74: s1:101

It outlines the group selection effects observed when trying to breed chickens for increased egg production in multiple-hen cage environments. In short, selecting individual chickens for increased productivity in a group environment didn’t select for increased productivity. Instead, it selected for mean chickens. The result was an overall reduction in productivity. Only by selecting at the group level was productivity increased.

The topic is a worthy one for discussion in economics courses, especially with regard to incentives for certain behaviors.

There is this caution: Adam notes that Enron annually fired the “bottom 10%” as a matter of policy, trying to encourage everyone else to work harder, trying to reward productive people, trying to prune deadwood from the corporate vine. At one point, some divisions of GE Corp. would purge the bottom 25%. That’s even more intensive selective pressures, for evil as well as good.

W. Edwards Deming was right, in his 14-point program for getting quality production from corporations and other organizations. He said no corporation ever appears to get it right when they select individuals to blame for problems with annual performance reviews, rather than working to improve processes to improve quality of their products. (See Point 12)

And when legislators try to purge education of bad teachers? Can they possibly hope to get anything but mean chickens? Economists indict our reliance on standardized tests of students.

So much to learn, so many a–holes.


Photo: Enron tilted E sign from the Houston headquarters; Associated Press photo via ABC News, January 22, 2008.

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