A Word That Everybody Hates

A Word That Everybody Hates February 23, 2020

Google eugenics and you will find yourself buried under a mountain of different definitions. Some are fairly objective, but the vast majority disparage, even demonize, the idea. A few examples:

“The study of how to arrange reproduction within a human population to increase the occurrence of heritable characteristics regarded as desirable. Developed largely by Sir Francis Galton as a method of improving the human race, eugenics was increasingly discredited as unscientific and racially biased during the 20th century, especially after the adoption of its doctrines by the Nazis in order to justify their treatment of Jews, disabled people, and other minority groups.”

“The study of or belief in the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a human population, especially by such means as discouraging reproduction by persons having genetic defects or presumed to have inheritable undesirable traits (negative eugenics) or encouraging reproduction by persons presumed to have inheritable desirable traits (positive eugenics).”

“A pseudoscience with the stated aim of improving the genetic constitution of the human species by selective breeding.”

A writer of a recent article on another blog attacks Richard Dawkins for some statements he made about eugenics. Here is what Dawkins said:

“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.

Even with his outspoken opposition to eugenics, he was excoriated, not only by the writer of the piece, but also by commenters. The final paragraph pretty much says it all:

“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.”

No, it’s not. Dawkins is saying that we have the ability to alter the genome, and make substantive changes in the organism that will result. He is not saying that it “works” in the sense of whether the result would be beneficial to the individual, or to society as a whole. In fact, he says quite the opposite.

A commentor says:

“I think that any attempt to ‘improve’ the human genome is very dangerous — and perhaps existential in nature.”

What if a couple, both blonde and blue-eyed, decide that they want a dark-haired, dark-eyed daughter? So, they have the genome in their fetus modified to make that happen. How is that an “existential” danger?

I acknowledge that I have moved the goalposts. The definitions I quoted above were based on earlier science, when genetic engineering was not possible. Now it is, although it is in an early stage of development, and many of the criticisms about unanticipated negative side-effects are valid. But Dawkins point was that science continues to advance, and saying that it will NEVER be possible is wrong.

Another commenter says:

“The moral arguments against eugenics are profound.”

How so? A religious believer might think that the “design” of a human being is the provenance of God, and usurping His authority is blasphemy, or even heresy. I don’t share their beliefs, and see nothing fundamentally immoral about modifying a human genome. I recognize the dangers, and would not approve of it until there is reasonable assurance that no harm would result. But there is never a certainty of that, just as there is no certainty that if you get on an airplane, you will arrive at your destination safely. Life is full of risks.

The criticism of Dawkins for his comments is, in my opinion, unwarranted. He is a technologist. He understands the dangers and even said that he opposes eugenics. But that isn’t enough to satisfy the defenders of God’s primacy in “creating” us according to His design. Or those who say that we will never be able to do it without risk. That is probably true, but who should decide what the risk vs. benefit ratio should be?







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