Eugenics – From designer babies to the Holocaust
You can tell when something’s not moving forward anymore. When the doubts you have about it don’t go away.
– Jeffrey Eugenides
18,000 children die every day from starvation.1 The fact of the matter is the world is only so big. We live in a world of dwindling resources and massive overpopulation. We are approaching a transhumanist era. A moment in time when science and technology will fundamentally change the human experience. Indefinite lifespans, cloning and technology integrating our bodies. Perhaps then, it might be time to reconsider human breeding.
There is an old argument – closely felt by the medical community – that with so many children suffering every day, that you would expect them to put birth control in the water.2
The controversial idea to restrict or control human breeding is nothing new. In 1980, Prof. Hugh LaFollette wrote a seminal piece titled “Licensing Parents” discussing its merits.3 We in the West have also heard much of China’s one-child policy. It is hard to imagine, that the one child policy was officially adopted in 1979. It was a response to China’s population passing the 1 billion mark – having almost doubled in only 25 years.
For most in the 21st century, the idea of regulating and restricting when, where and how many children we may have seems offensively authoritarian. The idea seems to go against just about every core value we possess as a free society.
The need to control population
With the betterment of medicine and technology, the infant mortality rate is dropping everywhere. In just the last 50 years, the number of children that are born alive but no not survive to their first birthday (known as the global infant mortality rate) has dropped from 115 per 1000 births to 33.4 In Western countries, such as the US that number has dropped to under 6 per 1000 - a little over half a percent.5
In that same time period, life expectancy around the globe has increased from 51 to 71. Whilst in countries like Japan, a newborn baby has an AVERAGE life expectancy of 83 – which when you take out deaths from freak accidents such as car crashes, you can imagine a newborn in Japan easily making it past 90.6
The UK’s Office of National Statistics estimates that of the 826,000 babies born in 2012 – more than a third (32 % in boys, 39 % in girls) will celebrate their 100th birthday.7
Some scientists are now optimistically stating that human immortality is within reach in the next 20 years. Harvard scientists back in 2010 were able to slow aging in mice to such an extent that they exhibited the hallmarks of immortality by effectively turning off the biggest source of aging.8
Clearly, people are living longer, healthier and generally better lives. The question of controlling population then rests more as an economic and environmental equation.
There are those that argue that control of population through parent “licensing” should be made for the good of the species and on humanitarian grounds9
There’s no question that some of the ideas of licensing parents make sense. After all, we don’t allow people to drive cars on crack cocaine. Why would we allow them to procreate if they want while on it? The goal with licensing parents is not so much to restrict freedoms, but to guarantee the maximum resources to those children that exist and will exist in the future.
– Zoltan Istvan
If then, collectively we decide that population control is a good thing. How are we to do it?
Eugenics derives from the Greek word eu meaning “good” or “well”, whilst the suffix –genos comes from “born” in the sense of “stock” or “kin”. It is traditionally defined as a social philosophy advocating the improvement of the human population at the genetic level. Historically, this has been typically achieved by controlling sexual reproduction.
The idea of selective breeding is far from a modern idea. Look at domestic species such as dogs, cats, horses, cows. Humanity has selectively breed animals with desirable traits in an attempt to amplify the parts we like, whilst repressing those that we do not.
Even Plato suggested selective mating to produce a guardian class of superhumans to protect Greece. 10
The term eugenics was first coined by Francis Galton, half-cousin of Darwin. He had read Darwin’s work on the development of plant and animal species and applied it to humans with the belief that desirable traits were inherited.
Sadly Galton did not understand the complex nature of genetics. Nor did he understand that inheritance is not a simple black and white equation where this equals that.
Eugenics in the 20th century
Eugenics became very popular at the start of the 20th century, with many countries implementing genetic screening and birth control. Sweden even had programs in place right up to 2012.
Sadly, the first decades of the 20th century were a very conservative era. Eugenics was mostly used as an excuse for marriage restrictions, segregation (both racial and of the mentally ill), involuntary sterilisation, forced abortions, forced pregnancies.
Infamously, the name eugenics will forever be tarnished by Nazi Germany. The Nazis took eugenics such an extreme that they believed that segregation, institutionalisation, sterilisation, euthanasia and genocide was the only course of action for those deemed “unsuitable”.
After World War II, the practice of “imposing measures intended to prevent births within [a population] group” fell within the definition of the new international crime, genocide. However, the former Peruvian president allegedly sterilised prisoners and the poor between 1990-2000. The UN reported forcible sterilisations and hysterectomies in Uzbekistan without consent of women, in 2007, to control population. A controversial Californian plan saw prisoners being sterilised, sometimes without consent, as late as 2013.
In 2006, Richard Dawkins commented in a newspaper that11
In the 1920s and 1930s, scientists from both the political left and right would not have found the idea of designer babies particularly dangerous… The spectre of Hitler has led some scientists to stray from “ought” to “is” and deny that breeding for human qualities is even possible. But if you can breed cattle for milk yield, horses for running speed, and dogs for herding skill, why on Earth should it be impossible to breed humans for mathematical, musical or athletic ability?
Increasingly in the future, the demand for eugenics is going to be consumer driven. Today, during a typical IVF (in vitro fertilisation) procedure a 3-day old embryo has a single cell removed. It is fertilised and then screened for a huge range of genetic abnormalities and diseases. Including diseases such as Down’s syndrome, Tay-Sachs disease and Sickle Cell anaemia.12 It is very easy at a pre-implantation stage of IVF to screen embryos for something such as gender. To date, several requests have been made to ethics committees for the sexual selection of embryos. Particularly when parents already have children or in cases of LGBT couples seeking a family. To date, no ethics committee has granted sexual selection.13
Eugenics used to have more to do with sterilisation and enforcement of reproduction laws. We are now moving into an age of mapped genomes, increased embryo screening, increased IVF, with possibilities of artificial wombs, external of women just around the corner. Eugenics has already become less about regulation of the living but instead, preemptive action on the unborn.
Few rational people would argue with the betterment of the species and giving their own children the best possible start in life. Athletes, musicians and even doctors already dedicate lifetimes to the pursuit of perfection and better results. Why not start this pursuit even earlier? Why not rid the species of some debilitating genetic conditions?
By its very definition, eugenic policies lead to a loss of genetic diversity. A culturally accepted improvement to the gene pool would very much reduce the number of genes in the population. This leaves us more susceptible to any change in the environment. Disease, climate change and a number of other unknown factors that we have no way of predicting.
Some experts have suggested that in any given generation, a realistic eugenics program should only change a tiny fraction of the gene pool and only in minor increments. That way, sufficient time is built in to reverse any unintended consequences, should they arise.
Other precautions could of course be made. In Svalbard, Norway in the Arctic circle sits the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Its job is to sit there as a massive bank vault with seeds from every species in the world, so that in the event of a mass extinction event we can restart agriculture.
When disease is desirable
Problems also arise when we consider what is desirable to the species. Ultimately, any eugenics program would require oversight to prevent obvious abuses and self-interest. However, how do we go about considering what is best for the species – especially when the future is so unknown.
Genetic diseases such as sickle-cell anaemia and cystic fibrosis are largely considered to be horrible diseases, that no normal human would choose.
Or are they?
The sickle-cell gene results in red blood cells are bent and not their normal disk shape – this actually provides the sufferers with immunity to malaria. In Africa, where malaria is commonplace and deadly, there are entire populations that show characteristic, mild forms of sickle-cell anaemia.
Cystic fibrosis, is a disease that results in copious amounts of thick mucus to be secreted from mucosal tissues (such as the lungs and stomach lining). This makes sufferers very prone to lung infections. However, this extra mucus actually provides sufferers resistance to cholera and typhoid fever.14
On the flipside of the coin, some genetic diseases, such as haemochromatosis (the build-up of iron in the body), show absolutely no benefit to the sufferer. In the case of haemochromatosis causing only growth deformities, physical dysfunction and increased illness likelihood.
Consider also autism. Autistic people have long advocated that the perception of the autism spectrum of disorders be considered as a complex of syndromes in a way a person thinks, rather than a disease that must be cured. There is also some thinking that suggests autism occurs too often within the gene pool for it to be a simple disorder - it must provide some genetic advantage for it still to be in the population at such high levels. Consider also that for autism to be considered a disease, and therefore, something to be fixed, you must first accept that there is an ideal brain to which autism is differentiated.
Undeniable past, unavoidable future
History has shown us both the very best and worst of humanity.
The atrocities of the Holocaust in search of a perfect Aryan race cannot be ignored.
Any eugenics program that comes from a position of authority will always be viewed with suspicion. Perhaps, we as a society, we will round that corner by ourselves. Developed and developing countries around the world are seeing the repercussions of a shrinking population, as baby boomers age the population with no replacements.
Life expectancy and quality of life is increasing. Childhood deaths are decreasing. We are having fewer children and having them later in life.
Perhaps with the pursuit of what is best for the next generation, the increase in genetic testing combined with the ease of manipulating DNA, will mean that we are selecting the best for our children.
Nature finds a way
It is important to remember that eugenics has a very broad definition. Every “Just say no” campaign, every sex education class, every use of contraception, every IVF clinic, every tax break for families, every one of these is a form of eugenics.
Every other species on the planet has a well-defined and predictable population life cycle. The population is determined by the availability of food and shelter, the ability to reproduce and predation. Homo sapiens eliminated its predators a long time ago. Modern agriculture has provided us with a stable food source. With a stable food source, we have been able to build great cities and develop new technologies. Our numbers have exploded in response.
We have systematically beaten all of nature’s barriers to huge populations. For the good of the species and the planet, perhaps, maybe it is time we impose some rules ourselves?
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