Eugenics – good or bad?  

Whenever you see a title asking if something is good or bad, you know that the answer is “It all depends...” And so it will be in this essay.

So what is it that we’re talking about? Broadly speaking, eugenics is a means of improving the genetic quality of the human population. Even before they knew that genes existed, selective breeding amongst animals and plants had already been practised to produce better or more abundant food. And so it is not surprising that in around 400 BC Plato suggested, seriously or not, that the principles of selective breeding could also be applied to humans. After all, why would you not want to have better human beings? You might come closer to having his ideal, the Philosopher King.

He was not the first to think in those terms. The Pharaohs had already engaged in selective breeding, confining themselves to breeding with their (very) close relatives. Presumably, as demigods, they wouldn’t want to mix with the common people. Of course, it didn’t work awfully well: ‘inbreeding’ describes the neurological and psychological disorders and skeletal malformations which result.

And something similar happened amongst the royalty of Europe much later on with similar consequences.

Darwin’s idea of natural selection as the basis for evolution, however, gave added impetus to thinking about the possibilities of eugenics as a practical way forward for improving the human lot.

Sir Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, was at the forefront of this movement. After he read ‘On The Origin of Species’, he became convinced that humanity could be improved through selective breeding.

During that later part of his career he was interested in the factors that determine what he called human "talent and character" and its hereditary basis. He constructed his own theory of inheritance in which nature and not nurture played the leading role. It was largely based on finding out ass much information as he could about the more successful people in society and looking at how their success was reflected in their progeny and their wider family. Hardly a brilliantly constructed experiment but, as a result, he actively began to promote eugenics and soon gained important converts.

Galton’s opinions, however also included a justification of genocide ‘light’. He said: "There exists a sentiment, for the most part quite unreasonable, against the gradual extinction of an inferior race.". Galton took as read that certain ‘races’ were ‘inherently inferior’, a common view at the time. And of course it was this which led to many later horrors.

Prior to the Nazi genocide, however, it was clear that many famous people in Britain were in favour of improving the human condition by selective breeding.

Amongst them were Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw, Harold Laski, John Maynard Keynes and Marie Stopes - the names of British socialism’s most revered figures. The New Statesman and even that bastion of socialist values, then called the Manchester Guardian, joined them in support.

Nearly every one of the left’s most cherished figures espoused views which their successors in the socialist world would now find repulsive. Thus George Bernard Shaw could write: “The only fundamental and possible socialism is the socialisation of the selective breeding of man”. Later he said: “the overthrow of the aristocrat has created the necessity for the Superman”.

The pacifist, mathematician and philosophical titan, Bertrand Russell, proposed that the state issue colour-coded “procreation tickets”. Those who chose to breed with holders of a different-coloured ticket would face a heavy fine. That way the high-calibre gene pool of the ‘elite’ would not be muddied by any proletarian genes. Support for the workers? I don’t think so.

That left-leaning organ, the New Statesman agreed, explaining in July 1931: “The legitimate claims of eugenics are not inherently incompatible with the outlook of the collectivist movement. On the contrary, they would be expected to find their most intransigent opponents amongst those who cling to the individualistic views of parenthood and family economics.” Why? Because their variety of socialism was not unlike communism and so thoroughly approved of centralised state control, rather than the rights of individuals.

The secular sainthood attributed by today's socialists to these prominent figures of the past seems a bit anomalous, given that their views were based on the concept of 'Untermenschen'. Of course, if today someone were to propose the form of control required for eugenics as a way of 'improving' people or assisting in the gradual extinction of an ethnic group, there would be an uproar.

Eugenics, however, is still going on, but generally in a more positive way.

We have CRISPR editing which can make genetic alterations in individuals’ genetic codes. It can, in principle, be used to remove defective genes and replace them with the correct version. It has also recently been used to produce sterile male mosquitoes with a view to wiping out whole populations of mosquitoes so, we hope, vastly diminishing the risk of malaria.

it could though also be used in what I would suspect is a rather forlorn attempt to enhance an individual’s traits: perhaps to produce the old socialist idea of a ‘Superman’. Indeed, maybe Elon Musk already has a secret laboratory engaged in trying to create an even more successful version of himself - one who would have seen the folly in buying Twitter.

Then there is genetic screening, used in IVF, which can screen out embryos which have  undesirable genetic conditions. It can also inform mothers-to-be of serious genetic abnormalities affecting the foetus. And it is here that there has been recent debate, this time before the Court of Appeal.

The case was brought by a young lady from Coventry who has Down’s Syndrome. When I saw the now familiar name of one of the barristers involved, Bruno Quintavalle, however I realised that this must be another case involving the Catholic doctrine on ‘the right to life’.

Under current legislation there is a 24-week time limit for abortion, unless "there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped". ‘Handicap’ includes Down's syndrome.

And of course a serious handicap is not just a problem for the child, but also the parents who will have to cope with that child and its serious handicap for very many years. Heidi Crowter argued that the rules were discriminatory to people with Down's, that the legislation "doesn't respect my life". She says as someone affected by Downs that she prefers to be alive. She is someone who is apparently not badly affected by the disorder, to the extent that she is married and has the mental capacity to bring this case.

The judges however said: "The court recognises that many people with Down's Syndrome and other disabilities will be upset and offended by the fact that a diagnosis of serious disability during pregnancy is treated by the law as a justification for termination, and that they may regard it as implying that their own lives are of lesser value. "But a perception that that is what the law implies is not by itself enough to give rise to [a finding of discrimination]".

Her lawyers also argued, unsuccessfully, that foetuses should have human rights. Mrs Crowter said she was "angry that the judges say my feelings do not matter” and will try to appeal to the Supreme Court.

And so we come again to Effective Altruism, the programme which puts Longtermism into practice with money from the megarich - including the now bankrupt former bit-coin billionaire, Mr Bankman-Fried.

As we have seen before, its proponents have little concern for the alleviation of poverty. Their sole concern is that the human race should continue to exist.

Their long-termist ideology enables its believers to take a ‘rational attitude’ towards climate change - even if climate change causes island nations to disappear, triggers mass migrations and kills millions of people, it probably won’t compromise our existence as a species over the coming billions of years.

And so they also argue that we mustn’t ‘fritter away’ our finite resources on ‘feel-good projects of suboptimal efficacy’ such as ‘alleviating global poverty’ and ‘reducing animal suffering’, since neither threatens our long-term potential.

They even argue that we should actually prioritise the lives of people in rich countries over those in poor countries, since influencing the long-term future is of ‘overwhelming importance’, and the former are more likely to influence the long-term future than the latter.

Effective Altruism? Or perhaps eugenics for the Übermenschen.

Paul Buckingham

30 November 2022


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