Should Ethics Be “Biologicized”? What Might that Mean for Eugenics?

Should Ethics Be “Biologicized”? What Might that Mean for Eugenics? November 30, 2015

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In the concluding chapter of Sociobiology: A New Synthesis, Harvard University’s Edward O. Wilson states, “Scientists and humanists should consider together the possibility that the time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized.”[1] Wilson is certainly not the first to recommend this move.[2] For Wilson, it is bound up with his aim to promote the “Modern Synthesis” involving sociobiology, which he defines as “the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior.”[3]

As one might suspect, many have feared that Wilson’s program opened the door to the eugenics policies of the Nazis, since the book first appeared in print in 1975. While many have raised such concerns, and while Wilson does promote a form of eugenics, it is not framed in terms of Nazi racist categories. In an excellent review and critique of Wilson’s evolutionary ethics, Whitley Kaufman maintains that

The charge that Wilson is a racist or misogynist is of course utterly unfounded; to the contrary, he is the quintessential liberal humanist. Just the same, in his 1978 Pulitzer Prize-winning book On Human Nature, Wilson voiced support for a renewed program of eugenics. While he conceded that given our limited understanding of human genetics we should at present aim to preserve the entire gene pool, he maintained that in the future, when we have “almost unimaginably greater knowledge of human heredity,” we may be able to institute a “democratically contrived eugenics.”

Wilson’s discussion of eugenics in On Human Nature evinces not the prejudice and racism of which he had been accused, but rather a naïveté about the prospect that science will be guided by the essential goodness and rationality of mankind. Not only does Wilson display too much confidence in science’s ability to control human genetics safely, he also believes that adherence to the democratic process will eliminate the potential for abuse.[4]

Along with other considerations, Kaufman gives us reason to pause, when he recalls that the Nazis copied the eugenics policies that had flourished in the democratically constituted United States. Perhaps it is true that Wilson has an unduly optimistic view of human nature and what democracy is able to achieve. For one, racism appears to be on the rise in the States, if a recent CNN/KFF poll is any accurate indication.[5]

Certainly, sociobiology may help us discern in part our human tendencies to fail to enact the good and reject evil. However, understanding the evolutionary origins of racism does not offer us any ethical support for combating racism. Even if racism helped safeguard survival in our “tribal past,” as Kaufman notes, it has “no ethical relevance,” positively or negatively. Kaufman reissues David Hume’s distinction between “is” and “ought” and combats Wilson’s and Michael Ruse’s brand of emotivism (which, Kaufman claims, is championed by many evolutionary ethicists), which traces ethical stances to emotional states, and which lacks objectivity. From Kaufman’s vantage point, one cannot reduce ethical claims to emotions such as love and hate. There are no satisfactory criteria to promote love or hate, as they are individual or group preferences that evolved for reproductive success.

Moving on, one of my fears in this democratic country is that we champion a form of utilitarianism, which entails the greatest amount of pleasure for the greatest number of people. The majority opinion wins out, and one often as the result of pleasure, whether it be refined or crass. What if the majority of people determine to engage in eugenic policies for the sake of our greater pleasure as a society bound up with the GNP? Perhaps the majority of elderly people, no longer able to produce in the marketplace or reproduce, cost too much to maintain? What if prisons function as big business ventures for communities, and so we must hold firmly to tough ‘justice’, often at the expense of minority communities?[6]

In his own context, Martin Luther King, Jr. lamented what he took to be an evil triangle of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism, which he believed was on display in the Vietnam War.[7] Dr. King did not reduce his emphasis on altruistic love to emotivism. It was grounded in the being of God enacted in Jesus Christ, as disclosed in the Bible, which shaped his call to treat all people as equal. It was his conviction that all people are created in God’s image and have inherent dignity and worth. Moreover, it is extremely difficult in my estimation to claim that King’s altruism was bound up with biologically determined kin selection, whether or not of the Dawkinsonian sort. Rather, it flows from the Spirit of God, which contends against our biological urges when they counter God’s loving aims, which includes concern for God’s enemies. King did not resort simply to emotional predictions about the future hope of beloved community. He also offered ethical principles or prescriptions to guide our actions.[8] Love is not simply an emotional or biological state, nor is justice ultimately a subjective preference. As King says in his Vietnam War address, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

In the Christian Scriptures, one finds the combination of ethical prescriptions—such as to love one’s enemies and to care for the orphan, widow and alien in their distress, regardless of the consequences to the seeming pleasure of society at large, economics included—and emotive predictions—such as the envisioning of a society of equals, where the poor are lifted up and the rich and powerful are humbled.  These Scriptures do not discount the tribal instincts that we all manifest. In fact, it acknowledges them, but encourages us to move beyond them to care for the dispossessed. It will involve preserving the ‘non-productive’ elderly. It will entail our society learning from the past when we failed as a society to be  “non-violent toward little brown Vietnamese children” caught up between the ideological forces of the Cold War, as Dr. King lamented. Such education should lead us to care for African American young men who are often endangered in our racialized country, and to welcome refugees from troubled hot spots abroad like Syria lost at sea and in the desert in the ideological war with terror.[9]


[1]E. O. Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, 25th Anniversary Edition (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1975/2000), page 562.

[2]Charles Darwin may have been tempted to make a similar move himself, but as I write elsewhere, “People often wrongly connect Darwin’s doctrine of the survival of the biological fittest, including reproduction, with superiority in other spheres, such as morality, intellect, aesthetics, and spirituality. If anything, the moral to Darwin’s ethical stance is that people should have big families, wherein the children reach adulthood. What is termed Social Darwinism should probably be labeled Social Spencerism, following Herbert Spencer’s social philosophy. Darwin did not fully accept Social Darwinism or “eugenics,” which was coined by Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton” (See the essay on Darwinism in Leslie Stevenson, David L. Haberman and Peter Matthews Wright, Twelve Theories of Human Nature, sixth edition, 2013, pp. 251-252, 254-255, 257-258).

[3]Wilson, Sociobiology, page 4.

[4] (accessed on 11/29/2015).

[5] (accessed on 11/29/2015)

[6]See Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, with a new foreword by Cornel West (New York: The New Press, 2012).

[7] (accessed on 11/29/2015).

[8] Kaufman claims that Wilson resorts to emotive predictions without providing ethical prescriptions.

[9]See the articles at CNN pertaining to Presidential candidate Ben Carson, President Obama and others regarding the Syrian refugee crisis. You can find them here:; (accessed on 11/29/2015).

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