No, Dawkins, Eugenics Does Not “Work”

No, Dawkins, Eugenics Does Not “Work” February 17, 2020

Richard Dawkins has set twitter abuzz with a tweet about eugenics:

He quickly followed his tweet with some followup explanation:

Here is the text of all three tweets, for those who may be using tech that doesn’t show (or read out) the content of tweets:

It’s one thing to deplore eugenics on ideological, political, moral grounds. It’s quite another to conclude that it wouldn’t work in practice. Of course it would. It works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses. Why on earth wouldn’t it work for humans? Facts ignore ideology.

For those determined to miss the point, I deplore the idea of a eugenic policy. I simply said deploring it doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work. Just as we breed cows to yield more milk, we could breed humans to run faster or jump higher. But heaven forbid that we should do it.

A eugenic policy would be bad. I’m combating the illogical step from “X would be bad” to “So X is impossible”. It would work in the same sense as it works for cows. Let’s fight it on moral grounds. Deny obvious scientific facts & we lose – or at best derail – the argument.

So. These are words. I too have words.

Dawkins is quick to insist that he is not saying a eugenic police would be good. In fact, he insists that he believes such a policy would be very very bad. Okay. Let’s accept him at his word. The first question that springs to mind, given his insistence that a eugenics policy would be bad, is why Dawkins felt the need to tweet that such a policy would work. What was the purpose of doing this? I mean, I would never, ever say “I deplore the idea of a policy of killing poor children, but we have to admit that such a policy would end child poverty.” Like, what?!

Dawkins, of course, has a history of saying inflammatory things. I sometimes think he gets off on saying horrifying things and then throwing up his hands in mock surprise when people get upset, because what he actually meant was something completely harmless, of course. But in that case, why say the shocking thing in the first place? What is gained by saying it?

Let’s leave all that aside, though, because there’s actually a deeper problem with Dawkins’ comments. Namely, what does it mean for eugenics to “work”?

Dawkins statement that “just as we breed cows to yield more milk, we could breed humans to run faster or jump higher” brought to mind a post I wrote in October, regarding milk cows in the U.S. Here’s a quote from an article I referenced at the time:

When researchers at the Pennsylvania State University looked closely at the male lines a few years ago, they discovered more than 99 percent of them can be traced back to one of two bulls, both born in the 1960s. That means among all the male Holsteins in the country, there are just two Y chromosomes.

This is a problem. 

“What we’ve done is really narrowed down the genetic pool,” says Chad Dechow, one of the researchers.

The females haven’t fared much better. In fact, Dechow—an associate professor of dairy cattle genetics—and others say there is so much genetic similarity among them, the effective population size is less than 50. If Holsteins were wild animals, that would put them in the category of critically endangered species.

A very big problem.

Any elementary science student knows that genetic homogeneity isn’t good in the long term. It increases the risk of inherited disorders while also reducing the ability of a population to evolve in the face of a changing environment. Dairy farmers struggling to pay bills today aren’t necessarily focusing on the evolutionary prospects of their animals, but Dechow and his colleagues were concerned enough that they wanted to look more closely at what traits had been lost.

It turns out that there are consequences to breeding cows to yield more milk. I ask you, then, what does it mean for eugenics to “work”?

Dawkins acts as though it’s obvious that eugenics would “work”—so obvious that he doesn’t need to define what success would look like. “It would work in the same sense as it works for cows,” he writes. Except that, as I’ve just noted, it doesn’t work for dairy cows. In fact, it actually seems important, when responding to those advocating for eugenics, to point out that selective breeding hasn’t turned out well in dairy cows. Sure, they yield more milk. But getting that end has required sacrificing dairy cows’ longterm stability as a species. That is important.

In his tweets, Dawkins acts as though he has the scientific high ground. Anyone who takes issue with his comments is clearly misreading him, or responding with emotion and not science, and so forth. But he’s wrong. The science he’s claiming is clear isn’t. Terms he doesn’t think need defining do need defining. It is not ridiculous to question not just the morality of eugenics but also the efficacy. We don’t need to cede ground to bigots.

Eugenics isn’t just morally wrong. It’s also questionable whether eugenics would actually create the results eugenicists claim, because genetics is complicated, and so are humans. And that reality, frankly, is beautiful. Everyone has worth. Everyone’s genes play a role. You can’t sort the “good ones” from the “bad ones”—as though it could ever be that easy.

Or course, any attempt at eugenics would also run into the problem of nature verses nurture. Unlike milk cows, whether someone will be an award-winning runner depends not just on their genes but also on their upbringing. That leads to another point: instead of talking about tinkering with genes, perhaps we should focus on creating a society equitable enough that everyone can maximize their particular talents and realize their interests.

Sorry, Dawkins, but whether eugenics “works”—and what it would even mean for it to “work”—is actually an open question. You’re the one being unscientific, not your critics. Also, to say, in sum, I’m not pro-eugenics, but it would work and anyone who says otherwise is an idiot, when in fact the jury is very much out on whether eugenics would work—or even what that means—is weird.

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