Genetic Literacy Project On Neo-Eugenics
    By Hank Campbell | November 26th 2012 11:15 PM | 7 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Eugenics, once discredited as part of the first wave of social authoritarian progressives that trampled free will for women, handicapped people and minorities, is attempting a 21st century comeback. 

    Just the term 'eugenics' carries a lot of baggage, as if you couldn't tell by that opening paragraph; as I have said too many times to count, its endorsement by a Who's Who of liberal elite intelligentsia ended badly when that hard-left guy Hitler spoiled the party for everyone at Cold Spring Harbor and the New York Times.  And, while we do what we can to mitigate inherited diseases today, eugenics and its legacy of forced sterilization are not mentioned by name.

    That's not to say that genetics can't be a positive force for humanity. Obviously it can, and perhaps it can rescue eugenics from its social authoritarian reputation - it just seems silly to try.  Neo-Eugenics, like Neo-Conservative or New Atheist, is going to end up being used as an insult to such a degree it has no real meaning.

    But the idea of using science to make smart decisions is good, and we're already doing it. As I have noted before, testing for Down's Syndrome is basically eugenics. A hospital won't force you to abort a child with it but you are going to get a lot of counseling and dirty looks if you don't.  And once society is paying the hospital bill it is only a matter of time before it is no longer a choice. 

    Jon Entine and Sarah Fecht, writing at Genetic Literacy Project have written a terrific State of The Union address concerning eugenics - including what it is not, in the modern era.  And they dissect some confusing contradictions by people on the poles of political thought, like left-wing groups against any sort of genetic modification who still support abortion and right-wing groups against genetic modification because they think nature's randomness is somehow divine.

    Along the way they make pointed refutations of arguments made by Gerhard Adam and I. Do I necessarily agree when they say that cautioning about a Big Brother imperative regarding traits is a slippery slop to being anti-abortionist? Well, no, I think there is a big difference between being anti-abortion social authoritarian and forced abortion social authoritarian.  Because they are different. I'm not against vasectomies but I am against forced sterilization. 

    The reality is, I prefer choice, even if it is uncomfortable for most.  Choice means Asians are going to have more boys than girls, right now, and if Americans think that is bad, well, stop being so nationalistic.  Telling a woman she can choose to have a baby or not but she can't choose to have a boy or not is silly and is also a legal dead end. Dictating what people can choose using science, be it genetic enhancement or disease mitigation or gender, would mean society is being truly social authoritarian, the very Big Brother aspect I would caution against.

    One advantage society has now is that the first time eugenics rolled around, there were a whole lot of people with very little education who were steam-rolled by self-styled progressive elites, including a Supreme Court justice named Oliver Wendell Holmes who could turn his bigotry into law. As much as we can complain about science literacy today, it is far ahead of what it was even 25 years ago and well beyond a century back.  That debate about the line between good eugenics and bad, rather than blind acceptance of the consensus, will be vital to a policy that makes sense.

    Gattaca alert: Personal genomics meets neo- eugenics by Jon Entine and Sarah Fecht, Genetic Literacy Project

    Bonus: They also link to Cameron English, who once upon a time was part of the stable of unheralded, anonymous News Articles writers everyone here loves, and Razib Khan, who let me cost myself $50 in My Adventure With The Accuracy Of Political Polling because I believed people were not as predictable and polarized as polls showed - and he did.


    The problem I see with any conversation regarding Eugenics doesn't necessarily lie with the subject matter, but rather how the conversation will be framed moving forward. As a society I'm not sure we're really mature enough to handle the discussion without allowing it to devolve into extremes rather quickly. This would result in rather short-sighted attacks that never really focus on the broader ethical or cultural concerns that would need to be considered if we aim to move forward responsibly. We see this happening right now with any "debate" regarding Universal Health Care.

    This is not to say that the conversation isn't worth having. But as you say, there's a very slippery slope in either direction when attempting to choose a "line" between the responsible application of these medical advancements vs. the irresponsible exploitation of the same (or good eugenics vs bad).

    Rather than trying to define where that line is, I tend to think we'll just stumble ahead and make a mess of things.

    It's easiest just to pick a new term. Eugenics has too much baggage. Like the government PR move of calling taxes 'investments' it just needs a new more positive advertising campaign. 

    Car companies always just make up cool-sounding words, like Prius, and that might be the way to go for repositioning eugenics.  If people read 'homeopathy' they see 'useless magic water' but when it is called Zicam they pay 12 bucks to hucksters.  We could learn something about marketing from crackpots, I think.
    Perhaps, but regardless of what term is chosen, we still get into pretty murky water almost immediately.

    One aspect that seems rather non-controversial is the genetic screening for certain diseases in a fetus. It seems like a perfectly rational step to take, and those people with religious or moral aversions to abortion could simply choose to abstain from that option should the tests reveal something troubling.

    However it would be useful to imagine how such advancements would be utilized as the technology continues to progress. How many genetic disorders could we reasonably be expected to screen for? All of them? To what degree of accuracy? Or more specifically, how precise would the tests have to be before we start seriously considering the consequences of ignoring them? Regardless of any lack of legal pressure on the parents to abort if a serious condition is detected (the presence of which would surely signify "old-school" eugenics and be met with near universal disapproval), what other kind of pressure might be leveraged to achieve the same result? Skyrocketing insurance premiums come to mind as a way to twist an arm, especially when dealing with the lower middle class. In an era of government-subsidized health care, would the government get a say in the matter?

    Of course, the cost of care for a child with a serious genetic disorder exists whether there's the ability to screen for the disorder or not. The key difference would be the pre-existing knowledge that the condition would manifest, and what (if any) consequences such knowledge would have for the parents. Again, this is particularly troubling when Universal Health Care is considered, thus flinging open the door for "my tax dollars shouldn't be spent on this" type of arguments (which will also eventually be leveled against smokers, drinkers, etc).

    Gerhard Adam
    You're absolutely correct about the pressure in these situations.  In modern society we seem to think that coercion is somehow substantively different than force, so we tend to use it as an excuse to argue that people are still "free" to act.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard Adam
    I don't believe there's any slippery slope or gray areas.  The problem is that the authors are framing their argument in one way [i.e. medical procedures] and then making the quantum leap over to species improvement.  There is clearly a difference and the two should not be confused.

    No one would consider medical intervention to be eugenics.  We routinely do it from using a cast for broken bones, to pharmaceuticals, to antibiotics for infections.  If there is a genetic defect that screening can correct, or even if we possessed the technology to correct it, this would not be eugenics. 

    In an effort to differentiate themselves from the Nazi eugenics programs, the point hasn't been lost, it has just been re-framed to promote exactly the same objectives.  "Improving" the human species, under the guise that it is simply voluntary and "every parent's desire to want the best for their children".  The unspoken component is that if you don't do it, then your child can effectively become a second-class citizen under such a mind-set.

    If you look at the article you see how the authors invoke the medical procedures argument:
    One key problem with Adams’s line of reasoning is that eugenic abortions would not necessarily remove the trait. Eugenics-inspired screening in the Jewish community has but ended Tay Sachs among Orthodox Jews, but the frequency of the allele has not changed. Down syndrome is a spontaneous, and not an inherited trait, so screening and abortions would not impact the germline.
    However, in the very next paragraph all medical considerations are completely ignored. eugenics is being driven largely by the individual’s personal desire to be as healthy, intelligent and attractive as possible—and for our children to be so.
    Since when does screening for Down's syndrome equate to being "attractive" or "intelligent"?

    Who is willing to concede that cosmetic surgery is a medical necessity?  Who is willing to say that kids should be allowed to get cosmetic surgery to make themselves more attractive [in the absence of defects].

    Would we agree that parents can pre-pay college tuition at Harvard and that their child must be forced to attend because they only "want the best for them"?  We recognize the absurdity of every one of these situations and yet we elect not to apply it to genetic decisions that will impact all future generations.  If we can repair genetic defects, then that is a medical procedure and no one would quarrel with that.  However, when someone can potentially decide that they want their son to be in the NBA and ask for genes to make them tall, then we certainly should object.  Since the child cannot participate in such a decision, should we allow parents to use genetics as the proxy to live their lives through their children?

    I realize that the latter is presently science fiction, but if it were not being considered than why is it perpetually mentioned in discussions of eugenics? 

    In addition, we already know that if such technology becomes available it will create a new aristocracy, negate the concept of family, and be far worse than any atrocities the Nazi's committed so clumsily.
    Mundus vult decipi
    I'm admittedly a layman, but I don't really place much stock in the idea that we'll be able to genetically enhance intelligence any time soon. I'm not even sure that significant cosmetic enhancements will be viable without unintended side effects (genetic selection for blue eyes = blue eyes, also blindness or something). So in that regard, the idea of "designer babies" seems to me like little more than wishful thinking, at least in the near term.

    With that being said, if we do accept the assumption that such enhancements will one day be possible, I can't see any reason to believe the practice wouldn't be ruthlessly exploited for the benefit of the few, and at the detriment of the many. Imagine you are born into family unable to afford such a procedure in that world. Not only would you have to fight to rise above your socio-economic status in order to have a shot at the opportunities provided to the upper crust by default; you'd now have to overcome an immense genetic disadvantage as well. Everyone whose parents had enough money would be smarter and better looking right out of the gate. Everybody thinks Quasimodo is a great guy, but he still lives in a bell tower and didn't get the girl.

    I would agree that using genetic research to CURE diseases is absolutely not eugenics. Yet the thrust of the linked article seems to involve eugenic abortions, at least currently. This raises a concern, because once the practice becomes accepted widely enough it becomes difficult to imagine that its use won't eventually hit a crossroads with the unrestricted choice of the parents. This is especially the case in a society that utilizes subsidized health care, as now it becomes "everyone's problem". Now we must have a conversation about whether or not our society deems that prospective parents have a moral or ethical obligation to terminate a pregnancy if a serious genetic condition is detected. That brings us a whole lot closer to what the article refers to as "negative eugenics".

    Gerhard Adam
    ... I don't really place much stock in the idea that we'll be able to genetically enhance intelligence any time soon.
    I would agree, but in virtually every discussion of eugenics this kind of breathless anticipation is mentioned.  That's why I indicated that 21st century eugenics has better PR.

    The ultimate problem is that there can never be a positive spin put on eugenics when it is considered as a policy or objective.  Any talk of "improvement" carries with it the explicit distinction that somehow an individual is inadequate as they currently exist.  Therefore the inevitable result of any eugenics is to either have individuals coerced into seeking "improvements" or be victimized by their inadequacy. 

    We already have such distinctions in society where individuals are pretty well divided by economic strata with opportunities being commensurate with that division.  However, there are still opportunities to change that with hard work and perserverence.  If a genetic component is introduced that even that last option will be eliminated.
    Mundus vult decipi