Eugenics and the Future of the Human Species
by: Sam Vaknin
“It is clear that modern medicine has created a serious dilemma … In the past, there were many children who never survived – they succumbed to various diseases … But in a sense modern medicine has put natural selection out of commission. Somet hing that has helped one individual over a serious illness can in the long run contribute to weakening the resistance of the whole human race to certain diseases. If we pay absolutely no attention to what is called hereditary hygiene, we could find ourselves facing a degeneration of the human race. Mankind ‘s hereditary potential for resisting serious disease will be weakened.”
Jo stein Gaarder in “Sophie’s World”, a bestselling philosophy textbook for adolescents published in Oslo, Norway, in 1991 and, afterwards, throughout the world, having been translated to dozens of languages.
The Nazis regarded the murder of the feeble-minded and the mentally insane – intended to purify the race and maintain hereditary hygiene – as a form of euthanasia. German doc tors were enthusiastic proponents of an eugenics movements rooted in 19th century social Darwinism. Luke Gormal ly writes, in his essay “Walton, Davies, and Boyd” (published in “Euthanasia Examined – Ethical, Clinical, and Legal Perspectives”, ed. John Keown, Cambridge University Press, 1995):
“When the jurist Karl Binding and the psychiatrist Alfred Hoche published their tract The Permission to Destroy Life that is Not Worth Living in 1920 … their motive was to rid society of the ‘human ballast and enormous economic burden’ of care for the mentally ill, the handicapped, retarded and deformed children, and the incurably ill. But the reaso n they invoked to justify the killing of human beings who fell into these categories was that the lives of such human beings were ‘not worth living’, were ‘devoid of value'”
It is th is association with the hideous Nazi regime that gave eugenics – a term coined by a relative of Charles Darwin, Sir Francis Galton, in 1883 – its bad name. Richard Lynn, o f the University of Ulster of North Ireland, thinks that this recoil resulted in “Dysgenics – the genetic deterioration of modern (human) population”, as the title of his controversial tome puts it.
The crux o f the argument for eugenics is that a host of technological, cultural, and social developments conspired to give rise to negative selection of the weakest, least intelligent, sickest, the habitually criminal, the sexually deviant, the mentally-ill, and the least adapted.
Contracepti on is more widely used by the affluent and the well-educated than by the destitute and dull. Birth control as p racticed in places like China distorted both the sex distribution in the cities – and increased the weight of the rural population (rural couples in China are allowed to have two children rather than the urban one).
Modern medici ne and the welfare state collaborate in sustaining alive individuals – mainly the mentally retarded, the mentally ill, the sick, and the genetically defective – who would otherwise have been culled by natural selection to the betterment of the entire species.
Eugenics may b e based on a literal understanding of Darwin’s metaphor.
The 2002 editio n of the Encyclopedia Britannica has this to say:
“Darwin’s descri ption of the process of natural selection as the survival of the fittest in the struggle for life is a metaphor. ‘Struggle’ does not nece ssarily mean contention, strife, or combat; ‘survival’ does not mean that ravages of death are needed to make the selection effective; and ‘fittest’ is virtuall y never a single optimal genotype but rather an array of genotypes that collectively enhance population survival rather than extinction. All these considerations a re most apposite to consideration of natural selection in humans. Decreasing infant and child hood mortality rates do not necessarily mean that natural selection in the human species no longer operates. Theoretically, natural selec tion could be very effective if all the children born reached maturity. Two conditions are needed to make this theoretical possibility realized: first, variation in the number of children per family and, second, variation correlated with the genetic properties of the parents. Neither of these conditions is farfetched.”
The eugenics debate is on ly the visible extremity of the Man vs. Nature conundrum. Have we truly conquered nature a nd extracted ourselves from its determinism? Have we graduated from natural to cultural evolution, from natural to artificial selection, and from genes to memes?
Does the evolutionary proces s culminate in a being that transcends its genetic baggage, that programs and charts its future, and that allows its weakest and sickest to survive? Supplanting the imperative of the s urvival of the fittest with a culturally-sensitive principle may be the hallmark of a successful evolution, rather than the beginning of an inexorable decline.
The eugenics movement turns th is argument on its head. They accept the premise that the cont ribution of natural selection to the makeup of future human generations is glacial and negligible. But they reject the conclusion that, h aving ridden ourselves of its tyranny, we can now let the weak and sick among us survive and multiply. Rather, they propose to replace natural selection with eugenics.
But who, by which authority, and a ccording to what guidelines will administer this man-made culling and decide who is to live and who is to die, who is to breed and who may not? Why select by intelligence and not by cou rtesy or altruism or church-going – or al of them together? It is here that eugenics fails miserably. Should the criterion be physical, like in a ncient Sparta? Should it be mental? Should IQ determine one ‘s fate – or social st atus or wealth? Different answers yield disparate eugenic prog rams and target dissimilar groups in the population.
Aren’t eugenic criteria liable to be undu ly influenced by fashion and cultural bias? Can we agree on a universal eugenic agenda in a world as ethnically and culturally diverse as ours? If we do get it wrong – and the chances are overw helming – will we not damage our gene pool irreparably and, with it, the future of our species?
And even if many will avoid a slippery slope leading from eugenics to active extermination of “inferior” groups in the general population – can we guarantee that everyone will? How to prevent eugenics from being appropriated by an intrusive, authoritarian, or even murderous state?
Modern eugenicists distance themselves from th e crude methods adopted at the beginning of the last century by 29 countries, including Germany, The United States, Canada, Switzerland, Austria, Venezuela, Estonia, Argentina, Norway, Denmark, Sweden (until 1976), Brazil, Italy, Greece, and Spain.
They talk about free contraceptives for low-IQ women, vasectomies or tubal ligations for criminals, sperm banks with contributions from high achievers, and incentives for college students to procreate. Modern genetic engineering and biotechnology are readi ly applicable to eugenic projects. Cloning can serve to preserve the genes of the fittest. Embryo selection and prenatal diagnosis of genetically d iseased embryos can reduce the number of the unfit.
But even these innocuous variants of eugenics fly i n the face of liberalism. Inequality, claim the proponents of hereditary amelioratio n, is genetic, not environmental. All men are created unequal and as much subject to the natu ral laws of heredity as are cows and bees. Inferior people give birth to inferior offspring and, thus, propagate their inferiority.
Even if this were true – which is at best debatable – t he question is whether the inferior specimen of our species possess the inalienable right to reproduce? If society is to bear the costs of over-population – social we lfare, medical care, daycare centers – then society has the right to r
egulate procreation. But does it have the right to act discriminately in doing so?
Another dilemma is whether we have the moral right – let a lone the necessary knowledge – to interfere with natural as well as social and demographic trends. Eugenicists counter that contraception and indiscriminate medicin e already do just that. Yet, studies show that the more affluent and educated a population becomes – the less fecund it is. Birth rates throughout the world have dropped dramatically already.
Instead of culling the great unwashed and the unworthy – would n’t it be a better idea to educate them (or their off-spring) and provide them with economic opportunities (euthenics rather than eugenics)? Human populations seem to self-regulate. A gentle and persistent nudg e in the right direction – of increased af fluence and better schooling – might achieve more than a hundred eugenic programs, voluntary or compulsory.
That eugenics presents itself not merely as a biological-social a genda, but as a panacea, ought to arouse suspicion. The typical eugenics text reads more like a catechism than a reasoned ar gument. Previous all-encompassing and omnicompetent plans tended to end traumatic ally – especially when they contrasted a human elite with a dispensable underclass of persons.
Above all, eugenics is about human hubris. To presume to know better than the lottery of life is haughty. Modern medic ine largely obviates the need for eugenics in that it allows eve n genetically defective people to lead pretty normal lives. Of course, Man himself – being part of Nature – may be regarded as nothing mo re than an agent of natural selection. Still, many of the arguments advanced in favor of eugenics can be turned again st it with embarrassing ease.
Consider sick children. True, they are a burden to society and a probable menace to the gene pool of the species. But they also inhibit further reproduction in their family by consuming the finan cial and mental resources of the parents. Their genes – however flawed – contribute to genetic diversity. Even a badly mutat ed phenotype sometimes yields precious s ientific knowledge and an interesting genotype.
The implicit Weltbild of eugenics is static – but the real world is dynamic. Th ere is no such thing as a “correct” genetic makeup towards which we must all strive. A c ombination of genes may be perfectly adaptable to one environment – but woefully inadequate in another. It i s therefore prudent to encourage genetic diversity or polymorphism.
The more rapidly the world changes, the greater the value of mutations of all sorts. One ne ver knows whether today’s maladaptation will not prove to be tomorrow’s winner. Ecosyst ems are invariably comprised of niches and different genes – even mutated ones – may fit different niches.
In the 18th century most peppered moths in Britain were silvery gray, indistinguishable from lichen-covered trunks of silver birches – their habitat. Darker mo ths were gobbled up by rapacious birds. Their muta ted genes proved to be lethal. As soot fro m sprouting factories blackened these trunks – the very same genes, hitherto fatal, became an unmitigated blessing. The blacker specimen survived while their hitherto perfectly adapted fairer brethren perished (“industrial melanism”). This mode of natural selection is called directional.
Moreover , “bad” genes are often connected to “desirable genes” (pleitropy). Sickle cell ane mia protects certain African tribes against malaria. This is called ” diversifying or disruptive natural selection”. Artificial select ion can thus fast deteriorate into adverse selection due to ignorance.
Modern eugen ics relies on statistics. It is no longer con cerned with causes – but with phenomena and the likely effects of intervention. If the adverse trait s of off-spring and parents are strongly correlated – then preventing parents with certain undesirable qualities from multiplying will surely reduce the incidence of said dispositions in the general population. Yet, correlation does not necessarily imply causation. The manipulation of on e parameter of the correlation does not inevitably alter it – or the incidence of the outcome.
Eugenicists often hark back to wisdom garnered by generations of breeders and farmers. But the unequivocal less on of thousands of years of artificial selection is that cross-breeding (hybridization) – even of two lines of inferior genetic stock – yields valuable genotypes. Inter-marriage between ra ces, groups in the population, ethnic groups, and clans is thus bound to improve the species’ chances of survival more than any eugenic scheme.
About The Author
Sam Vaknin is the aut hor of Malignant Self Love – Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain – How the West Lost the East. He is a columnist for Centra l Europe Review, PopMatters, and eBookWeb , a United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent, and the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory Bellaonline, and Suite101 .
Until recently, he serv ed as the Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia.
Visit Sam’s Web site at http://samvak.tripod.com