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Monday, December 6, 2010


Eugenics has become one of the dirtiest words in the English language in the last sixty years. Mention it in any but a disapproving tone, and you are immediately typecast as a fan of the Holocaust. 

But, viewed outside the context of the bad associations it has garnered, is improving the human race really such a horrible idea?

The problem, of course, lies in exactly how you would go about doing it. Who would decide exactly which traits to breed for? And who decides who has those traits? Let's say you decided to breed humans for intelligence. Which IQ test would you use? How would you safeguard against cheating? No matter how much care you took, mistakes would undoubtedly be made. But at the same time, the human race as a whole would also probably be made smarter.

Then, would you practice positive eugenics (encouraging the high-IQed to breed) or negative (discouraging the low-IQed), or both? What sort of incentives would you use?

In the past the primary focus was on negative eugenics, and the mentally retarded people who were sterilized had no choice in the matter. But this needn't be the case. Twenty years ago Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore recognized that the lower IQs in his country showed much greater fecundity than the college-educated, who would often put off child-bearing until their thirties. He then instituted a program of incentives for the college-educated to have more children, which attracted no outrage from the rest of the world.

Given nature's tendency of regression toward the mean (two parents with IQ's of 150 are more likely to have a child with an IQ of 135 than one with an IQ of 150), and given the slow pace of evolution, genetic engineering -- for intelligence, as well as other traits -- will probably come about before any eugenics program could have any real effect anyway. Scientists will eventually be able to splice genes for intelligence into an individual's genetic code. (It's a lot more complex than it sounds. So far scientists have been unable to identify any one gene which is correlated with intelligence, it seems to be more a cluster of genes which interact with each other in as yet undecipherable ways.)

But in the meantime -- perhaps in order to get scientists who can separate out the genes for intelligence -- eugenics might help.

Horse breeders practice eugenics in an attempt to create faster horses. This is why Triple Crown winners command such high stud fees. And this is why horses are known by their bloodlines. (People are generally not introduced as "Bill Smith, sired by Robert Smith out of Susan Nelson." But the concept may catch on eventually.)

Ever since man first domesticated wolves, he has bred them for various purposes. Bloodhounds were bred for their sense of smell and ability to track prey. Huskies were bred to pull sleds. Terriers to kill rodents. Sheepdogs for their herding ability. And so on.

If you were to suggest to an animal breeder that he just let his animals breed randomly and create his desired creature purely through upbringing instead, you would be laughed out of the room. (Educators seem strangely unacquainted with this concept, and continue to insist that the key to creating smart people is education, as if the genetic material they are trying to mold has no bearing on the final product. This thinking is somewhat akin to saying that the right training and nutrition could turn me into the heavyweight boxing champion of the world.)

People actually do practice eugenics right now, even though it's not called that. Sperm banks regularly advertise their donors as tall and athletic and good-looking and smart. If people really believed that genetics meant nothing, they wouldn't bother to pay such close attention to the donors. But they do. (As always, especially with liberals, political philosophy and personal practice part ways at the bedroom door, if not the front door.)

If a single woman chooses her sperm donor carefully, does this make her a Nazi? Those accusations have yet to flow, but a woman in search of the perfect sperm wants pretty much the same thing Adolf did: a little super race of her own.

And, when you think about it, when women choose certain males to mate with, even recreationally, do they not -- subconsciously if not consciously -- choose one whose genes for intelligence and looks they would like to combine with their own? 

Although most women would undoubtedly give a politically correct shudder at the mention of the word "eugenics," in fact that is exactly what they practice.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post, John. I see no mention of 'personality'. Doesn't that play a part in choosing a partner? and what about men, don't some of them basically go through the same thought process you describe a woman going through?

John Craig said...

Anonymous --
Thank you. Yes, of course personality does play a part; though if you think about it, a large part of personality is intelligence, or at least a function of intelligence. And yes, men do go through the same thought process, with perhaps more of an emphasis on looks (we're far more superficial), but I used women as examples since they are the ones who go shopping for sperm, whereas you rarely hear of men who are shopping at an egg banks. (I realize that eggs are occasionally bought, too, but those cases are in the minority.)

Anonymous said...

The reason is that people think eugenics involves murdering living people or forcibly sterilizing anyone (why? a person without functioning arms and legs won't be getting any normally). What you describe as culturally supporting genetic health should have its own name. But with gene editing tech on the way, this will all become obsolete and useless. Also we should look for environmental factors that trigger predispositions. A person may never develop bipolar if their mother didn't get an infection in the womb triggering it, entire lines of families may be carrying disorders that never have the chance to activate. But this too will go away with gene editing. The biggest area of concern post-eugenics is environmental factors like toxins or smoking during pregnancy/drinking.
I actually don't feel angry if a person who did not know they carried lets say ALS unknowingly has a child while a mother who smokes, drinks, does drugs and ends up having a disabled child has my anger.

John Craig said...

Anon --
Yes, I'm hoping too for a brave new world with gene editing.

And yes, there's a huge difference between an error of omission vs. one of commission. You c'ant blame someone for something they were unaware of. And there are plenty of irresponsible mothers out there who continue to party while pregnant.

Anonymous said...

Eugenics may play a helpful role for positive effects (like more intelligence) but it can only go so far for negative effects (like being born blind without legs). Nazi Germany euthanized anywhere from 90% of their schizophrenic population but the rates in modern day Germany still are the same as the past. We should look at the epigenome. An epigenome is heritable and can be modified in a persons life and get passed on by later. That is why you can have two twins who act so differently. The bricks are the same for the house (genes and dna) but the the blueprint for building it is different (epigenome).