by Massimo Pigliucci
It is a rare case where I find myself sympathetic to quotes from both Steven Pinker and a Pope. And yet, reading and thinking about eugenics can cause this sort of strange happening, and more.
Here is Pinker, from an interview with Steve Sailer  about The Blank Slate, criticizing what he called “the conventional wisdom among left-leaning academics” and their obsession with Nazi-inspired eugenics:
“The 20th century suffered ‘two’ ideologies that led to genocides. The other one, Marxism, had no use for race, didn’t believe in genes and denied that human nature was a meaningful concept. Clearly, it’s not an emphasis on genes or evolution that is dangerous. It’s the desire to remake humanity by coercive means (eugenics or social engineering) and the belief that humanity advances through a struggle in which superior groups (race or classes) triumph over inferior ones.”
Fair enough. And here is Pope Pius XI in a 1930 encyclical , condemning eugenics:
“Public magistrates have no direct power over the bodies of their subjects; therefore, where no crime has taken place and there is no cause present for grave punishment, they can never directly harm, or tamper with the integrity of the body, either for the reasons of eugenics or for any other reason.”
And there, in a nutshell, is the problem with eugenics: it is an idea at the complex intersection between science and ethics, which often also means a heavy dose of ideology.
Let’s start with the science. As is well known, the father of eugenics was Francis Galton, Darwin’s half-cousin – a fact predictably exploited by creationists to reject the science of evolution on the grounds of its alleged immoral implications (which, needless to say, is a non sequitur even if true). Of course, Galton wrote before the rediscovery of Mendel’s work, and therefore before the onset of modern genetics, so his grasp of the subject was statistical and a-causal in nature.
Overall, the science behind the first phase of eugenics – roughly from Galton’s founding of the field to its disreputable association with the Nazis, which caused a marked decline of interest and support after World War II – was somewhat shaky, but not entirely flawed. The basic idea was the same that inspired Darwin’s metaphor of natural selection: if we can breed certain traits in or out of plants and animals, and if human beings are biological organisms not fundamentally different from plants and animals, then we should be able – if we so wished – to “improve” the human race by means similar to those developed over the centuries by plant and animal breeders.
The devil, of course, is in the details. A crucial problem with the science of eugenics (I’ll get to the ethics soon enough) was pointed out by one of the foremost geneticists of the early 20th century, Thomas Hunt Morgan, who discovered mutations in the fruit fly. Morgan thought that some of the target “traits” of eugenists, like intelligence, or criminality, are not at all sufficiently well defined and biologically coherent enough to lend themselves to a rigorous science of genetics. Research since Morgan’s time has repeatedly confirmed his insight: sure, there is a “genetic basis” for pretty much any human behavior, in the weak sense that one genetic variant or another, in one human population or another, can always be found that has a statistical effect on said behavior. But when the behavior is as complex and ill-defined as intelligence or criminality, such effects are usually highly multigenic (i.e., there is a very large number of genes that produce them), individual genes make tiny and hard to replicate contributions, and additionally, the environment has a huge impact on how such genetic effects are expressed. All of which makes the eugenic research program very difficult to carry out. But it also doesn’t make it anything like a pseudoscience, contra what seems to be widespread belief among what Pinker rather disdainfully refers to as left-leaning academic intellectuals.
Despite the early criticism and the Nazi debacle, the idea of eugenics is making something of a comeback in the era of genomics, under a very different, and somewhat improved, scientific guise. Just like the original version drew on an analogy with plant and animal breeding, the new eugenics is predicated on a parallel with genetic engineering of crops and other domesticated species  (and is, predictably, endorsed by that bizarre techno-cult known as transhumanism ).
And again, similarly to the original incarnation, the science behind the new eugenics is problematic but not entirely bogus. Can we, in principle, make a Genetically Modified Human (GMH) analogously to the way we are making GMOs? Of course. Is it going to be just as straightforward as it is for other genetically modified organisms? No, and for precisely the same reasons intuited by Morgan. Sure, some human traits (eye color, for instance), have relatively simple genetic bases, and can therefore (in principle) be somewhat straightforwardly altered by direct insertion and replacement of specific genetic elements. Many others (intelligence, criminality, and so forth), do not behave so conveniently from the point of view of human manipulation.
All of the above is simply to say that it is wrong both to say that the problem with eugenics was (and is) “just” with the ethics, not with the science; and that eugenics (old or new) can easily be dismissed as pseudoscience quite regardless of any discussion about morality.
Which means it is now time to turn to that pesky, inherently philosophical, quagmire: ethics.
The original eugenics began as an exercise in racism and ended up being discredited because of its adoption by the mother of all racist movements. William Goodell, already in 1882 (the year before Galton’s coinage of the word eugenics) advocated extirpation of the ovaries from “insane” women, and managed to publish this in the respectable American Journal of Psychiatry . Eugenics laws were implemented initially in the self-described best democracy in the world, the United States, and then in a number of other countries, including Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Japan, and Sweden. In the latter place those laws stayed on the books as late as 1975. The Nazi concept of racial hygiene and their implementation of policies aimed at achieving it in practice were simply the logical conclusion – carried out with German efficiency – of what was a very common idea in the first part of the 20th century, surprisingly (or maybe not) endorsed by both conservatives and progressives (e.g., Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw, among many others).
I’m going to be so bold as to assume that for most of my readers there is really no question that the old eugenics was immoral for a number of reasons, chiefly: i) it was based on clearly racial, sexist, and classist stereotypes and assumptions (its victims were non-whites, women, and the poor) ; ii) it was imposed by a coercive state in a decidedly non democratic fashion that had little concern for human rights.
But what about the new, kinder, eugenics? Once again, things become more complicated. Let us set aside for the moment the still worrisome possibility that even in the 21st century, governments (democratic or not) could in fact implement coercive eugenic measures on their populations. The novel aspect of the current resurgence of interest in eugenics is that it is supposed to be voluntary and driven by market forces – as opposed to involuntary and state-imposed. Does that make it ethically unproblematic, though?
No, even if the new problems are a bit more subtle and difficult to untangle. Let’s start with the idea that if a medical decision (eugenics is considered by its supporters to be a medical issue) is voluntary it is therefore morally straightforward. This is obviously not the case. Just think of, say, the decision to forgo vaccination. The increasingly popular anti-vaccination movement is causing significant health problems for both individuals and societies, quite regardless of whether it is imposed by an external authority like the Taliban or chosen by well intentioned soccer moms in the United States . Anti-vaccers themselves have to face the moral implications of possibly harming their own kids, and the rest of us have to deal with the morality of letting people make that sort of decision about themselves and their offspring, knowing that those decisions will also negatively affect the health of countless others who were not party to those decisions.
In the case of eugenics, decisions made by individuals may similarly carry two orders of consequences: first, the recipient of a eugenic treatment (say, your daughter) may suffer the unintended consequences of whatever genetic transplant you have decided would “improve” her. Of course, unlike the case of withholding vaccination, eugenic treatment may or may not be harmful, but it is easy to imagine a number of rushed or bad choices being made by parents if the pharmaceutical industry were to dangle the prospect of smarter, more attractive, and eventually more successful offspring.
Second, if we are talking eugenics we are talking alteration of the human germline, and therefore about the course of human evolution. Unlike some, I do not find this to be inherently morally questionable. I do not think that human life is sacred, and even less so the particular genetic heritage we got as a result of the serendipitous effects of millions of years of evolution. Still, leaving eugenic decisions to individuals would essentially mean that a number of people with low scientific literacy, and likely also little appreciation of ethical consequences, would be given the power to significantly alter the human collective genome, thus affecting the entire course of humanity’s future. But, you may object, this is no different from what people have done for countless generations, simply by choosing to have kids with certain partners rather than others. True, but remember that we are now talking new eugenics, supercharged by the power of modern genomics and the promise of direct genetic engineering. It’s a whole different ballpark, with a game whose stakes are much higher and significantly more difficult to predict.
The other thing that is supposed to make the new eugenics more benign than its predecessor is that it would be (allegedly) market driven, not government imposed. Except that I just don’t buy into the popular idea that markets are a purely a-moral means of increasing economic efficiency. Without getting into a detailed discussion of libertarianism or economic theory more broadly, markets are human social inventions (i.e., there is no such thing as a “natural” market), and they function only within whatever set of constraints and allowances a given society happens to provide. This in turn means that government influences are, in fact, never excluded just because something is left in the hands of a “free” market, which also implies that the specter of state-imposed (or at the least state-“facilitated”) eugenics may simply be hidden from view, rather than precluded.
Moreover, private forces are often anything but benign, especially in an era of globalization where large international corporations are becoming significantly more powerful than individual governments. After all, a chief reason the world seems incapable of tackling the problem of anthropogenic climate change is precisely because many of our politicians are in the pockets of powerful industries who would stand to lose billions upon billions if something meaningful were to be done.
In the case of the health industry, and therefore coming closer to eugenics, it is by now pretty well established that pharmaceutical companies have literally manufactured a number of “conditions” for which they then have eagerly provided “cures” by way of mass direct marketing campaigns to “consumers” (as opposed to patients) as well as significant financial incentives freely distributed to doctors, so much so that even professional medical organizations finally have begun to take notice . One can only imagine the breathtaking onslaught of misleading advertisements Big Pharma would unleash on the public if GMH became a practical possibility.
The answer, of course, is not an outright ban – which would likely simply generate an even more dangerous black market – but tight regulation of the industry, as is currently the case for a number of chemical and biomedical products. Which, however, brings us right back to the issue of government involvement with the new eugenics, quite irrespectively of the above mentioned problem with corruption and an increasingly supra-state corporatism.
Finally, but not at all least importantly, there is the issue of access. Even assuming that the new eugenicists can adequately work out the science of what they aim to do, that we can manage to sufficiently educate the public about it, and that we can put in place well working restrictions and guarantees concerning the eugenic industry, there would be the perennial issue of how to allow equal access to the new technologies.
We are already experiencing, especially in the United States, a crisis in health care costs and access, where millions of people go uninsured in one of the most prosperous countries in the world. Adding presumably highly costly (at the least in the beginning, and likely for a long time) eugenic procedures to health care would only exacerbate the problem and create even more disparity. What would happen, almost certainly, is that a small number of super-rich people would be able to afford direct access to the new technologies, thereby endowing their offspring not just with the already existing crushing advantages in terms of money and (therefore) education, but also with permanent biological enhancement. If you can’t see how quickly a Gattaca-type scenario  would likely develop from there, your imagination is hopelessly limited (and you may need to work on your sense of critical analysis as well). And if you remember the movie, the initial divide between the “naturals” and the eugenically enhanced individuals quickly becomes a difference between DNA “in-valids” and valids, thereby effectively creating not just two new races (with the predictable attitude of superiority, discriminative behaviors, etc.), but essentially two species, one clearly subjugated by the other.
But it’s science fiction, you say. Yes, for now.
Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).
 Steven Pinker interviewed by Steve Sailer for United Press International, 10 October 2002.
 On Christian Marriage, by Pope Pius XI, 31 December 1930.
 Is a new eugenics afoot?, by Garland E. Allen, Science, 5 October 2001.
 A transhumanist manifesto, by some bloke who names himself Socrates (!), over at the Singularity Institute.
 Clinical notes on the extirpation of the ovaries for insanity, by William Goodell, The American Journal of Psychiatry, 1 January 1882.
 Anti-vaccination movement causes a deadly year in the US, by Brian Krans, Healthline News, 3 December 2013.
 Inappropriate prescribing, by Brendan L. Smith, American Psychological Association, June 2012.
 Gattaca, 1997.