The Return of Eugenics

It’s beginning to look a lot like 1913, a decade before the peak of the Social Darwinism movement, a time when educated and concerned people joined the Race Betterment Foundation and looked to the settled science of eugenics to save civilization from the growing horde of the genetically inferior.

Events have since made the word eugenics distasteful, but not the notion. The idea of human perfection via managed procreation is back and stronger than ever, at least in the academy. Now instead of forcible sterilization, the call is for fetal genetic testing and selective abortion. Race is no longer the marker of unfitness; having incorrect thoughts or unwelcome moral attitudes and genetic unworthiness are.

Early eugenicists embraced contraception. In 1921 Margaret Sanger argued birth control was “not merely of eugenic value, but is practically identical in ideal, with the final aims of Eugenics.” Two such aims were “racial regeneration” and “to improve the quality of the generations of the future.” She said the “unbalance between the birth rate of the ‘unfit’ and the ‘fit’” was “the greatest present menace to civilization.” She thought “Birth Control propaganda is thus the entering wedge for the Eugenic educator.” If undesirables didn’t voluntarily stop making babies, steps would be taken. “Possibly drastic and Spartan methods may be forced upon society if it continues complacently to encourage the chance and chaotic breeding that has resulted from our stupidly cruel sentimentalism.”

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Spartans preferred exposure for the betterment of mankind while eugenicists touted culling and sterilizing the unfit, the breeding technique used by farmers to improve their stock. What was “unfit”? That was often left undefined, though Sanger pegged low IQ. She often trumpeted statistics like those which showed that 39% of white “charity obstetrical patients” at one hospital and “70% of the negroes were found to have a mental age of 11 years or less.”

Real and imagined racial disparities were eagerly discussed. Conclusions were drawn. Progress was made. But then came Hitler, concentration camps, and the horrific practical experience of purging racial impurity. Eugenicists were shamed and clammed up. The field lay fallow for half a century, until the rise of abortion “rights” and the expansion of the universities in the late twentieth century. There arose a new crop of academics convinced that if only they were put in charge, and just the right people were aborted, the world would be a better place.

Consider David DeGrazia, tenured at George Washington University, who in the Journal of Medical Ethics recently advocated creating a master race via programmatic “moral bioenhancement.” Like many, DeGrazia gazed upon the earth and saw “an abundance of immoral behaviour.” He worried “traditional means of moral enhancement may prove inadequate to achieve needed improvements,” therefore more drastic measures are called for. Such as selection “of embryos that contain a gene coding for a greater disposition to altruism” or even implanting an “artificial chromosome that includes multiple genes coding for stronger predispositions to a variety of moral virtues.”

He disfavors letting emerge from the womb those whose DNA codes for “moral cynicism” (he cites tax cheats), those not wanting to contribute “one’s fair share,” those with “defective empathy,” those who suffer “a failure of insight or motivation,” including those not wanting to donate more than 1% of the USA’s GDP to foreign governments (yes, truly). Who decides on the list of desirable and therefore allowable traits? Well, people like DeGrazia, though he concedes “it might make sense to permit parents to adopt more debatable visions of morality—among reasonable alternatives.”

The buzzword among cognoscenti is “post-person,” defined in a much-cited 2009 Philosophy and Public Affairs paper by tenured Duke professor Allen Buchanan, as those “who would have a higher moral status than that possessed by normal human beings” (emphasis original). Buchanan admits crafting chromosomal übermenschen “might be profoundly troubling from the perspective of the unenhanced (the mere persons) who would no longer enjoy the highest moral status, as they did when there were only persons and nonpersons (‘lower animals’).” There’s ample precedent to create this new hierarchy: “the profoundly demented and infants, do not have some of the characteristics that moral philosophers typically attribute to persons and that are thought to ground the distinctive rights that persons have.” Daniel Wikler, tenured at Harvard, agreed in a 2009 article contributed to Human Enhancement figuring that once we create super-moral beings, it makes sense to restrict the legal rights of the not-so-super.

Nicholas Agar of the University of Wellington is one of only a small (and decreasing) number of faculty who have read Mary Shelly. In a special issue of this year’s Journal of Medical Ethics he dared speculate about possible bad and unforeseen consequences and was immediately taken to task by a brace of academics, like Ingmar Persson (University of Gothenburg), who has predictably chided Agar for being “biased” against post-persons.

As is plain, the leading new-eugenics organ is the Journal of Medical Ethics, edited by Julian Savulescu (tenured, St Cross College, Oxford), self-appointed champion of genetic tinkering. He is the public face of the movement, writing in Reader’s Digest that it is “our duty” to have “designer babies” (would their color go with our shoes?) and that “people have a moral obligation to select ethically better children.”

He claims, “We now know that most psychological characteristics are significantly determined by certain genes,” like, the “COMT gene” which selects for altruism (new-eugenicists really go for altruism). If you want your child “to be faithful and enjoy stable relationships” then abort him if he has “a variant of AVPR1.” Kill him, too, if he’s saddled with “a certain type of the MA0A gene” which is “linked to higher levels of violence in children who often suffer abuse or deprivation.”

Savulescu and the other new-eugenicists making these sorts of arguments delude themselves. “We” do not know that psychological characteristics are significantly determined by certain genes. And, as Yoav Benjamini and others have confirmed, the possibility of falsely associating a trait with a gene is high. If your baby is discovered to have “a version of the COMT gene” it does not mean that he will necessarily be altruistic. He may well grow up to be a cad. The implied claim that biology explains all or most behavior is false—do all identical twins act identically?

It is true that some genes are associated with some behaviors, but the association is statistical. Experiments with very limited numbers of (mostly white, educated, young, Western) volunteers show that more people who exhibit a specific behavior, or that fail to exhibit another, are more likely to have or lack certain genes than others in the experiments. Having a certain gene or genes thus does not mean a person will exhibit, or fail to exhibit, a behavior, especially a behavior as complex as altruism, which can only be measured crudely. Therefore it is absurd to say that by killing those who possess or lack a given gene will certainly promote desirable behaviors. Plus, nobody has any idea what would happen to the human population if certain genes are systematically removed (via abortion) or inserted (via injection). Perhaps the post-persons created in this program will be more altruistic, but they may also be more indolent or stupid as a consequence. To claim that this cannot be so is to argue wishfully, without evidence.

New-eugenicists aren’t claiming definitiveness, however. They know that gene-behavior connections are correlational and that behavior is difficult to unambiguously define. They know they’re using the “loaded-dice” argument such that aborting those with or without approved genes only increases the chances of desired behaviors, but doesn’t guarantee them. They know the correlations are weak, but they claim they’re good enough.

But just think. Here in the United States there are certain genes positively associated with crime, particularly violent crime. One group of people sporting a certain gene combination commit proportionally far more crime than others lacking these genes. This association is strong, vastly stronger than the correlation between altruism and the COMT gene, or any other gene-behavior connection; the statistical evidence is indisputable. Savulescu and his brother eugenicists’ logic is that those who display these genes should be aborted to create a better society. Who but an academic could get away with making arguments like this?

Legal abortion guarantees eugenics. Already, babies testing for Down’s syndrome are often aborted. Scientists have recently derived tests to discover over 3,500 genetic “faults.” It’s early days with the technology, so expect that number to rise, with definitions of “faults” increasingly provided by new-eugenicists. What’s forgotten in this rush for perfection is that no test is error free, and the error rate of the test depends on the “fault,” which means that a certain fraction of the pre-born who are killed will die healthy, wrongly suspected as having “faults.” But you can’t make an omelette, etc.

Eugenics via abortion for sex selection is legal in the United States, and even touted. The Manhattan-based Center For Human Reproduction tells pregnant women they may want to abort if they are concerned about diseases which “are inherited via the mother but only male offspring are affected (muscular dystrophy, hemophilia, etc.). In other cases, conditions are more severely expressed in one gender (Fragile X syndrome, autism in males, etc.) than the other.” They’re not suggesting your unborn baby boy is unhealthy, but they warn against having a boy because boys in general are less healthy. Curiously, the bias here is against males and not females as it is in the rest of the world. Congress gave itself a chance to ban sex selection, but in 2012 they voted down the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act which would have made such abortions illegal.

New-eugenicists know that, despite their best and most earnest efforts, a few unauthorized babies will slip past the goalie. Sensitivity training can’t cure them all. Academic philosophers Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva say kill ‘em while they’re still infants, before they have a chance to use their forbidden genes. The pair call their procedure “after-birth abortion.” The subtitle of their 2012 JME paper is “Why should the baby live?” Their argument? The “moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus in the sense that both lack those properties that justify the attribution of a right to life to an individual.”

For the small fraction of genetically inferior who make it out of the womb and past Giubilini’s and Minerva’s abattoir, there is always sterilization (as practiced by China, say) or drugs. For example, some claim propranolol douses racism. Sterilization is eugenics, but drugging somebody might seem not, or at least not per se. But administration of chemicals can interfere directly with the ability to procreate, or it might alter behaviors which are correlated with procreation, and that makes it eugenics.

Yet drugs, or rather “enhancement” of the already living, is not as optimal as eugenics argues Savulescu, particularly when it comes to eliminating lawlessness. In a 2006 Journal of Applied Philosophy paper he said “specific genetic markers” can be tied to “criminal tendency,” i.e. that criminality is heritable. That’s what he writes from the safety of his ivory tower. Hey, Julian, let’s me and you head to a pub in Melbourne and you can tell the blokes there what it would be like if a country was populated only by criminals with their heritable genes. Should make for an interesting discussion.

Editor’s note: The image above pictures Margaret Sanger in 1916.


  • William M. Briggs

    William M. Briggs is a consultant and adjunct Professor of Statistics at Cornell University, with specialties in medicine and the philosophy of science. He blogs at

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