Eugenics and ‘Newgenics’ Part 4: Lessons for the future, from the past

Thursday, 13 March, 2008

Eugenics is, in my opinion at least, highly unlikely to return in the same manner as it did in the 20th century. The historical precedents that were required for it to develop are now no longer present, as society is now seeking equality for all. The pseudo-scientific basis on which much of eugenics rested has now been replaced by sensible scientific knowledge, with luck free of cultural bias. We are also now well aware of the horrors that eugenics can cause, and can hopefully use that to learn from the past in order to see it never happen again.

On the other hand, in trying to prevent the horrors that accompanied previous implantations of eugenics, we must actually be careful to not fall into the same wrongs that of which the historical eugenicists were guilty. UNESCO’s ‘The Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights‘ from 1997, which includes guidelines that prohibit cloning and suggests germline engineering may also need to be prohibited, declares in the very first article:

The human genome underlies the fundamental unity of all members of the human family, as well as the recognition of their inherent dignity and diversity. In a symbolic sense, it is the heritage of humanity.

Compare this document to the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which segregated non-Germans and Germans within the Reich. One such set of laws, titled “Gesetz zum Schutze des deutschen Blutes und der deutschen Ehre” , which translates to the “Law to Protect German Blood and German Honour“, were introduced with the sentence:

“Durchdrungen von der Erkenntnis, daß die Reinheit des deutschen Blutes die Voraussetzung für den Fortbestand des Deutschen Volkes ist”
Translation: “Moved by the understanding that purity of the German Blood is the essential condition for the continued existence of the German people”

Perhaps it is just an illusion, but I noticed that both of these documents prohibit certain freedoms in order to maintain an allegedly-important property like ‘German blood’ or the human genome, which are seen respectively to be key to ‘German honour’ and ‘human dignity’. In that sense, it seems to be that both are eugenic policies.

I do not think the comparison is without merit. Current legislators obviously view the current human being (in all its natural varieties) as ideal, just as the Nazi eugenicists viewed the Nordic people as ideals. The modern form of Homo sapiens has become the modern Wunschbild. Just as the Nazis removed freedoms in order to prevent the introduction of ‘Jewish blood’ into the German people, so too do the modern legislators seek the prevention insertion of transgenic DNA into the germline. I believe, and I hope I am not being overly optimistic, that they will stop short of genocide or imprisonment for those partaking in such biotechnological procedures, but nonetheless the current legislation appears to be a throwback to 20th century eugenic policy.

It could be claimed that modern human enhancement is similar in another key respect – in addition to enhancing the human species – in that it could very well see the creation of a But, as far as I know, no proponent of human enhancement is seeking to create a new ‘master race’ of humans. Lee M. Silver, in his book Remaking Eden, when imagining a future with a race of ‘Gen-Rich’ ruling over the planet, did not see that as a goal in the way that the Nazis sought to create a master Aryan race. Rather, he considered it as a possible unfortunate outcome of allowing human freedom, and thus radically divergent opinions, to reign over the human genome. Therefore, as I agree with Silver, I do not even see the similarity is particularly strong in this respect.

The above is perhaps difficult to comprehend, so I have endeavoured to make it easier through the assistance of this summary table:

Results that may be morally wrong

20th century eugenics

‘Liberal eugenics’

Current bans on ‘eugenics’

Enhancement of humanity

Primary goal

Likely outcome, through individual enhancement

Explicitly forbidden

State-determined ‘ideal human’

Yes. Attributes varied in different countries

No, though a consensus ideal may result via free-market

Yes, current human considered ideal

Restrictions on reproductive freedom

Yes, to create ‘ideal human’

No, except for unusually cruel choices

Yes, to preserve ‘ideal human’

Possibility of human speciation



Quite unlikely

There is a simple conclusion that anyone must draw in order to justify choosing a ban on genetic enhancement of humans: eugenicists of the past must have been more wrong for trying to enhance the human condition than they were when interfering with reproductive liberty. Believing that the primary wrong of eugenics was the desire to improve humanity, and not genocide, discrimination or racism, is the only way in which it can be permissible for the state to dictate what sort of people there should be.

We should be able to learn from the eugenics of the past. To many, it seemed quite repugnant for men and women of different races to be marrying and having children. They feared that foreign blood would upset the ‘status quo’ of their ‘national honor’ and ‘racial purity’. Today, many consider it repugnant for DNA from an animal to be inserted into a human or for a human to be cloned. May these people also be guilty of ‘status quo’ bias , fearing what this will do to ‘human dignity’ and ‘genetic integrity’? I believe that if anything is to be learned from the past of eugenics, it should be that freedom is precious and should not be taken away based on irrational, emotional preference towards any particular people.

Part of a Four Part Blog Series:


One comment

  1. Reblogged this on Passive Aggressive Raven.

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