Respectful Insolence

Is Richard Dawkins endorsing eugenics?

With the internecine sniping that’s been going on lately throughout ScienceBlogs ove Larry Moran’s intemperate “flunk the IDiots” and “Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists” remarks, or, more specifically, whether opposing ID requires that one oppose religion in general as well, I hesitate to tread here. However, given my interest in the Holocaust, World War II history, and how Nazi racial hygiene programs laid the groundwork for Germany’s plan to exterminate the Jews and all others viewed as threats to the regime, I can’t resist putting my two cents in about this issue.

Before I proceed, I’ll just point out that the title of this post is a rhetorical question. It’s inspired by the accusations that have been flying throughout the religious and anti-evolution blogosphere over the last few of days. The attack all seemed to start with an article that appeared on a pro-life website entitled, Anti-Religion Extremist Dawkins Advocates Eugenics: Says Nazi regime’s genocidal project “may not be bad”:

LONDON, November 21, 2006 (LifeSiteNews.com) – A leading international anti-religion crusader and supporter of Darwinian theory, Dr. Richard Dawkins, has said that the pseudo-science of eugenics that drove the Nazi regime’s genocidal project “may not be bad.”

Since the end of the second world war, the name of eugenics, the social philosophy that the human species or particular races ought to be improved by selective breeding or other forms of genetic manipulation, is one that conjures instant images of the Nazi death camps and “racial hygiene” programs.

In a letter to the editor of Scotland’s Sunday Herald, Dawkins argues that the time has come to lay this spectre to rest. Dawkins writes that though no one wants to be seen to be in agreement with Hitler on any particular, “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?”

Dawkins holds the Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, but is best known as one of the world’s most outspoken current opponents of religious belief, giving lectures and interviews and writing articles in which “fundamentalist” Christianity is among his favourite targets.

“I wonder whether, some 60 years after Hitler’s death, we might at least venture to ask what the moral difference is between breeding for musical ability and forcing a child to take music lessons. Or why it is acceptable to train fast runners and high jumpers but not to breed them,” Dawkins wrote Sunday.

Dawkins’ campaign against religion has led him to publish a book, “The God Delusion”, in September this year and he is one of the instigators of the notion, popular with journalists, that the Catholic Church’s opposition to artificial contraception will result in mass starvation.

Sounds really, really bad, doesn’t it?

Indeed, it’s led a number of critics to jump all over Dawkins. For example, there’s our old “friend” the antivaccination loon, tireless fighter against women’s suffrage, anti-evolutionist, and “we can deport 12 million illegal immigrants if we want to just like Hitler” blogger and “Christian Libertarian,” Vox Day, who wastes no time sticking his foot in his mouth over this (I’ll explain why below the fold):

Yes, I am vastly amused by this. It’s all just so predictable. And while I’m surprised that Dawkins has gotten so carried away by his success that he is finally daring to openly proclaim a more rational atheism, I’m not at all shocked by his conclusions. I merely wonder how long it will take for him to realize that he also lacks any rational basis to avoid exterminating pesky and unwanted minorities.

Seriously, on what basis does the atheist prosecute the individual who digs up a few kilos of rotting flesh in order to have sex with it? Trespassing? We’ve already settled that atheists have no objection to who puts what where so long as all parties a) aren’t children, and, b) consent. So, in that case, what does it matter if the lifeless random collection of atoms once happened to be human or plastic?

Atheism always leads the thinking individual to nihilism. The fact that most atheists aren’t nihilists isn’t a credit to atheism, it’s more a testimony to how few individuals are capable of reason or even understanding the logical consequences of their basic assumptions.

Ah, yes, the old “atheists are inherently immoral and nihilistic” canard taken to a truly idiotic “atheism leads to necrophilia” extreme. I didn’t expect any better from Vox, and, as predictable as he is, he didn’t disappoint in using Dawkins as a jumping off point for such silliness. I only posted his response for amusement value, given how extreme it is, although I will address the issues brought up by Dawkins before this post is over.

MikeGene over at Telic Thoughts is a little more circumspect, but not much:

It’s a typical example of Dawkins and his “consciousness-raising.” Let’s talk about religious people as child abusers. Let’s discuss whether religion is the root of all evil. Now, it’s let’s discuss whether eugenics is really bad. The new Anti-Religion Movement is off and running.

And, finally, Wesley J. Smith, Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute, can’t resist piling on as well, almost gloating with glee:

Dawkins never fails to unimpress. Hitler was not the problem with eugenics–he was the product of it. Indeed, the fundamental premise of eugenics holds that some human beings have greater value and worth than other human beings, based on their capacities or innate characteristics. Once eugenics consciousness is accepted, who matters and who matters less becomes a matter of raw political power. Moreover, once this pernicious idea is accepted, it becomes easy to justify exploiting and oppressing those now deemed unter menchen.

There are two main things wrong. First, it’s not at all clear that Hitler is the inevitable product of eugenics, although certainly Hitler does illustrate the nightmare that can occur when eugenics is fused with politics and a bizarre racial ideology. (Indeed, the discrediting of eugenics and social Darwinism is one of the many goods that came about because the Allies beat the Nazis in the Second World War.) The other thing that’s wrong is that all of these attacks are a load of quote-mining from a “letter to the editor” that was no such thing, as even Wesley Smith was forced to admit. Dawkins never said that Hitler’s eugenics program “might not be bad,” as the LifeSiteNews article misrepresents him. Here’s the actual text of a piece represented as a letter to the editor by Dawkins and entitled, Eugenics may not be bad:

IN THE 1920s and 1930s, scientists from both the political left and right would not have found the idea of designer babies particularly dangerous – though of course they would not have used that phrase. Today, I suspect that the idea is too dangerous for comfortable discussion, and my conjecture is that Adolf Hitler is responsible for the change.

Nobody wants to be caught agreeing with that monster, even in a single particular. 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? Objections such as “these are not one-dimensional abilities” apply equally to cows, horses and dogs and never stopped anybody in practice.

I wonder whether, some 60 years after Hitler’s death, we might at least venture to ask what the moral difference is between breeding for musical ability and forcing a child to take music lessons. Or why it is acceptable to train fast runners and high jumpers but not to breed them. I can think of some answers, and they are good ones, which would probably end up persuading me. But hasn’t the time come when we should stop being frightened even to put the question?

I do have problems with what Dawkins said, but, even so, the quote above is hardly the ringing endorsement of eugenics that the headline and the hysterical story describing Dawkins’ words would lead one to believe. Another point that should be emphasized is that Richard Dawkins himself, in comments on his own website, has explained that the above passage was published as an afterward in a book specifically about “dangerous ideas,” and, consequently, it is not surprising that he might be intentionally provocative about this apparently most dangerous of dangerous ideas. How Dawkin’s piece was published as a “letter to the editor” when it was nothing of the sort is unclear, and how it became associated with the headline or title “Eugenics may not be bad” remains mysterious. The whole thing smells of an orchestrated attempt to smear Dawkins.

As you can see, what Dawkins is saying is not an expression of support for eugenics, but rather a provocative question: Is eugenics inherently bad, and, if so, why? He certainly isn’t advocating eugenics; rather, he is asking whether it’s possible to discuss the matter, now that Hitler has been dead for 61 years. At the risk of falling victim to the same attacks that are now raining down on Dawkins, I’m going to wade into this topic for a bit. I may end up getting burned, but, hey, what good is a blog if you can’t take a chance every now and then?

From my perspective, the reason that Dawkins’ remarks have painted such a big, fat, juicy target on his chest for his enemies to shoot at is best revealed in Wesley Smith’s post:

The antidote to such thinking is human exceptionalism and its corollary that each and every human being has equal moral worth simply and merely because they are human. Without this profound understanding–which is the philosophy of the United States–we will never achieve universal human rights.

Of course, Dawkins never said that humans shouldn’t have equal moral worth because they are human, nor has human exceptionalism prevented the religious from approving of evils like slavery and the killing of infidels. However, this comment does bring up the primary basis for objecting to any discussion of eugenics: The exceptionalism of human beings. And where does the very concept of human exceptionalism come from? From religion, mainly, particularly the monotheistic religions. Thus, the assumption behind the attacks against Dawkins over eugenics is that there is no moral reason that an atheist can postulate to object to eugenics because atheists supposedly don’t accept human exceptionalism. But is that true? There is nothing inherent in atheism or Dawkins’ views that demands that humans shouldn’t be treated differently than animals, and there are philosophies that equate humans and animals far more than any atheist. Perhaps the best example of such a group of people who equate humans and animals and believe that they should be treated more or less the same for purposes of moral judgments are the animal rights activists–you know, the ones who state that the life of mouse is morally equivalent to the that of a human and that anyone who believes that it is acceptable to use animals in research, to own them as pets, or to eat them as food is guilty of “speciesism.” True, the naturalistic world view does not view humans as the be-all and end-all of creation or somehow apart from the animal kingdom, but the fact that humans have self-awareness and consciousness and are the only creatures able to marvel at the wonder of nature and seek to understand it is a reasonable basis upon which to value humans above most animals, without resort to supernatural reasons to justify this distinction.

Let me try to suggest a rationale that can differentiate between eugenics that might (I emphasize, might) be morally tolerable from that which is clearly not acceptable without reference to God or human exceptionalism. I begin by asking: Why do all civilized people now find the Nazi eugenics program (which the Nazis referred to as “racial hygiene”) so completely and utterly repugnant? Even if you leave out the fact that this program ultimately laid the groundwork for the Holocaust, it would still have been just as repugnant, and the reason is simple: Coercion. In essence, the Nazis decided what constituted “life unworthy of life” and, based on that, decided who should be sterilized and who should be “euthanized” (killed). Those at the receiving end had no say in the matter and no recourse once the decision was made.

Worse, the Nazis decided on who should live and who should die not based on what would be good for people or their offspring, but rather primarily on economic grounds. At least that is how they tried to justify it to the people. Indeed, one of the main arguments for the T4 euthanasia program according to the Nazi Party, would be better used for the war effort. People with severe disabilities, even if sterilized, still needed institutional care, occupying beds that would soon be needed for wounded soldiers, using medicines that could be used to treat soldiers and able-bodied civilians, and consuming food that was needed to feed soldiers at the front and armaments workers at home.They took up the time of doctors and nurses who could be “better” used treating wounded soldiers, and, even if they were cared for at home by their families, constituted a drain on the resources and time of people who could either be working in armaments factories or raising the next generation of Aryans. In other words, the Nazi approach to eugenics subordinated the value of the individual human being to economic, political, and ideological interests and trampled on human self-determination. Sadly, we in the U.S. were not immune to such trampling on individual freedom, although we did it for somewhat less blatantly economic reasons; instead, we did it more to “improve the race.” Even so, laws mandating sterilization for the “feeble-minded” were widespread in the U.S. (and several European countries) and admired by Hitler, who cited U.S. laws as an example upon which he was basing his own eugenics laws. Even after the horrors of Hitler’s eugenics programs were starting to become known, discussions of “euthanizing” the “feebleminded” were still carried out in very respectable scientific meetings without embarrassment.

This is different, morally, I would argue, from the promotion of voluntary “eugenics,” in which a from of eugenics is voluntarily practiced and promoted to the general populace, but not forced onto people. This, I would argue, is a form of “eugenics” that we already practice in the U.S. and that, as technology marches onward, will become more and more common. Let’s first look at an area that I’m involved in, breast cancer. I’ll take one example. There is a gene, known as BRCA1. Mutations in this gene can lead to a greatly increased risk of breast cancer, as well as ovarian cancer, at a young age in women and, when the gene is passed on, a similarly elevated risk in their daughters. And, even if she does not have daughters, she could pass the gene on to any sons that she might have, who might then pass the defective gene on. So, is it eugenics if a woman, diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age and then found on genetic testing to have a BRCA1 mutation, decides that she will not have any children? Or what about other examples drawn from the panoply of genetic testing that is now becoming available? Such genetic testing is a form of eugenics, I would argue. Thus, I ask: Is it immoral for a woman carrying a BRCA1 mutation to decide that she does not wish to pass this mutation on to the next generation? If so, why? The same question could be asked of a number of other of genetic conditions that predispose to various diseases. Our improved understanding of the genetic basis of disease and our increasing ability to test for it are resulting in a de facto eugenics program, whether we want to admit it or not.

If there’s one area that atheists and believers should be able to find common ground, it should be the acceptance of human autonomy and self-determination without coercion as the basis for determining what is and is not morally acceptable in terms of genetic testing or any sort of “positive” eugenics. This concept does not require that one believe in a God, but has the advantage that believers also accept it as a given. I’m not saying that this concept would be a panacea. For one thing, we’re dealing with probabilities, not certainties. (For example, not all BRCA1 carriers will get cancer.) We also have to deal with the fact that there are other motivations other than altruism that come into play, as in parents not wanting to be bothered with having a child that is less than perfect, even though that child could potentially live a satisfying and worthwhile life. I’m merely proposing the concepts of autonomy (lack of coercion) and beneficence as a starting point for such a discussion.

All of this becomes a lot more dicey when it comes to genetic engineering that is not related to known genetic defects, and this is where I’m a lot less sanguine about eugenics than Dawkins seems to be. He seems to blithely dismiss a lot of the concerns with a rather odd question: “Why is it acceptable to train for athletic skills but not breed for them?” I should think that the difference between the two should be obvious. One is maximizing an ability that an individual already has, while another is trying to predetermine an ability in one not yet born. Moreover, when it comes to breeding or genetic engineering for various traits, the argument against such such eugenics that I find most persuasive is that such a program, over time, will tend to reinforce and fix class differences. The rich and powerful will be able to afford to use such techniques to “improve” their offspring, while the vast majority of the poor will be stuck with the old-fashioned way of reproduction. In this light, a world such as that portrayed in the movie Gattaca, in which the upper classes can afford to have nothing but “designer babies” free from genetic disease, physically very attractive, and possessing enhanced physical abilities and intelligence, while people born without genetic interventions are relegated to a genetically determined status as second-class citizens and face serious discrimination, seems more plausible several generations hence. I’d be shocked if Dawkins were not aware of this argument, plus the other persuasive argument that the matter of who wins and who loses in any eugenic program tends to be a matter of who has political and economic power, which makes his comment “I can think of some answers, and they are good ones, which would probably end up persuading me” seem a bit disingenuous.

The horrors of Hitler’s regime and the Holocaust quite rightly give us pause when contemplating any sort of attempts at eugenics, particularly since genetic engineering promises (or, threatens) to give us power to alter the human race in ways undreamed of by Hitler or any of his predecessors. Technology is marching far beyond what was available 60 years ago and threatening to render the traditional objections to eugenics moot and the specter of Hitler almost irrelevant. What we need to agree on now is a framework upon which to base the moral decisions that this technology will bring. Respect for individual autonomy and beneficence represent two prerequisites for any such framework, but clearly are not enough. Dawkins may have been a bit too flippant in his comments, but he does bring up a legitimate point. It is no longer possible simply to dismiss the issue of eugenics out of hand because of what happened over sixty years ago, because advances in the science and technology of genetic testing and genetic engineering won’t let us.

ADDENDUM: I’ve noticed that The Sunday Herald has changed the title of Dawkins’ article to “From the Afterward.” Amusingly enough, the URL is still: http://www.sundayherald.com/life/people/display.var.1031440.0.eugenics_may_not_be_bad.php, betraying the original title.

ADDENDUM #2: Part two of this series has been posted.

Comments

  1. #1 Joshua
    November 27, 2006

    Just to play Dawkins’ advocate for a second, I suspect that when he talks about training athletes he is actually referring to programs like China or the old Eastern Bloc where children were sorted into Olympics programs at a very young age and more or less forced to compete. It’s still not the greatest analogy ever, but I think that’s the kind of moral equivalence he was aiming for.

  2. #2 Jud
    November 27, 2006

    I’m not at all sure we need the description “eugenics” for the ability of people to make their own child-bearing decisions based on the information available, granted that new types of information are becoming available (to those able to afford the tests – removal of coercion doesn’t equal removal of class/wealth/power effects).

  3. #3 Craig Pennington
    November 27, 2006

    Two points: (1) there is a difference between breeding for ability and providing opportunity based on demonstrated ability. The probelm in the world of Gattaca was not the “designer babies,” it was the exclusion from opportunity of the non-designer. And (2) since many believers assert a moral equivalence between a human blastocyst and a newborn infant, much of what would fall under your description of the common ground will end up in the abortion quagmire.

  4. #4 Blake Stacey
    November 27, 2006

    People have fussed about this issue before, drawing much of the same distinctions as Orac did above. For pointers into the literature, try the discussion at the bottom of Wikipedia’s “Transhumanism” article.

  5. #5 Chris
    November 27, 2006

    The most obvious obstacle to a genuine speciation event in humans is interbreeding. Even if you assume that no cross-class *marriages* will occur (which would require a *much* more stratified society than anything presently in evidence anywhere), for no cross-class *sex* to occur is unreasonable to ever expect from humans. The upperclass would have to start by genetically engineering a lack of interfertility with unmodified humans before they could start to meaningfully diverge from everyone else. Otherwise the engineered genes leak into the rest of the gene pool. (And that’s assuming that they’re inventing new genes rather than simply repairing known “defective” genes; inventing new genes that work better than the existing ones would be quite difficult if it is possible at all.)

    People who talk about class differences tend to forget that class boundaries are highly porous to individuals over the course of their lifetimes *and* human mating is at most weakly assortative leading to substantial gene flow between classes.

    It’s clear that Dawkins’s position was grossly misrepresented, probably intentionally, which is nothing new for the Liars for Jesus. I doubt very much that he was advocating coercion.

    In fact, if two professional musicians (say) marry and have children, you could argue that they are already breeding their children for musical ability; but selective breeding can’t accomplish much in one generation and nobody will force the children to marry another musician (or even become one). The fact that human generation time is so long compared to human lifespans is itself a powerful barrier to selective breeding of humans by humans. Inevitably the organizers of the project will die before it is even fairly begun.

  6. #6 Joshua
    November 27, 2006

    Jud,

    This is yet another situation where going back to definitions is helpful. Eugenics: “A social philosophy which advocates the improvement of human hereditary qualities through selective breeding.” (Wiktionary) Note that coercion is neither specified nor implied in the definition. Based on that, I’d suggest that discussing voluntary eugenics the way Orac does is entirely reasonable.

    Let’s make this example. There is a gamete bank for Nobel Laureates. (I’m not certain that this is true, but let’s assume that it is for purposes of discussion.) Anybody who wants to, through artificial insemination, can give birth to the progeny of Nobel Laureates in preference to using their own genetic material. Say these progeny formed a society and agreed, voluntarily, to only breed with others who came from the Nobel stock. This is clearly a case of eugenics.

    So in the Nobel example, they are selecting for a positive trait, i.e., whatever it might be in someone’s genes that produces a person capable of winning a Nobel prize. If, instead, the same process were applied to selecting against a negative trait, like the BRCA1 gene that Orac mentioned, it’s still eugenics. You wouldn’t even need a formal society, you’d just need people deciding that they don’t want to breed with anyone who has a certain trait. That’s eugenics.

    That’s also, frankly, really hard to distinguish from normal sexual selection. We’re already trained by evolution to look for advantageous traits and fitness that suggest good genes through the feedback mechanism of sexual arousal. Eugenics simply uses a different feedback mechanism. So the voluntary selection that Orac discusses, since it uses a test other natural human sexual arousal, is eugenics.

    The morality of such a thing is still an open question, but the definition of it really is not.

  7. #7 Joshua
    November 27, 2006

    Chris,

    I think your discussion of speciation is a bit of a non-sequitur. You’re right, certainly, but that has little bearing on whether a system of genetic classes is something that could develop. I think it easily could, given that engineering techniques will be only available to the more affluent economic classes. I also think it won’t, but the reasons for that are entirely social for the other reasons you mention: namely, if anything, engineered babies will be a passing fad or, as most other technological advances have, the technology will eventually be cheap enough that all but the most extremely poor will get access to it before more than one or two generations have passed. Both of those things have little to do with speciation.

  8. #8 PhysioProf
    November 27, 2006

    “He seems to blithely dismiss a lot of the concerns with a rather odd question: ‘Why is it acceptable to train for athletic skills but not breed for them?’”

    I do not see how posing this question can be interpreted as a blithe dismissal of any concerns whatsoever regarding eugenics. To interpret it this way represents a misunderstanding of the way such questions are used in philosophical analysis to focus attention on how concepts, in this case ethical ones, are constructed and used.

  9. #9 GMHedon
    November 27, 2006

    I think there’s an aspect missing from the discussion:

    “Or why it is acceptable to train fast runners and high jumpers but not to breed them. I can think of some answers, and they are good ones, which would probably end up persuading me. But hasn’t the time come when we should stop being frightened even to put the question?”

    Given Dawkin’s well publicized feelings about how children ought not to be ‘labeled’ with the religions of their parents, I imagine that he would feel similarly strongly about a child’s abilities and vocations being largely imposed before conception to be similarly abhorent.

    It seems extraordinarily clear to me that he was simply inviting discussion about a ‘dangerous’ idea without limiting that discussion by pre-emptively undermining one of the positions before hand. Even, on a more ‘meta’ level, inviting discussions on dangerous ideas in general.

  10. #10 Sastra
    November 27, 2006

    I suspect at least one of the reasons for popular distaste for eugenics comes from the fact that our culture places a strong emphasis on a loving personal relationship between parent and child. Parents are supposed to love their children for themselves, as individuals, and not just use them for their own agenda. That’s at the level of the family.

    This doesn’t always mesh well with talk at the level of the species, or even talk at the level of the theoretical. When terms like “breeding for trait X” or “breeding against trait Y” are used, children are now being spoken of as if they were artifacts or objects intended for a use. However reasonable or benevolent the long-term goal of having healthier, happier, or more capable children is, we can’t help shifting the concept to the personal level, and picturing a child who simply doesn’t “measure up” to his parent’s standards — or society’s standards — through no fault of his own. Instead of looking at the issue from a neutral stance as applying to hypothetical possible individuals, we’re personalizing it for this person who exists, now. It’s how our minds tend to work.

    I don’t think there is any inherently religious aspect to this tendency. The “Quiverfull Families” which were recently discussed here advocated conservative Christians deliberately having as many children as possible in order to “raise an army for the Lord.” The immediate reaction of many of us freethinkers was to think at the individual level, and wonder what would happen if one of those kids who was raised *for the purpose* of being a Christian decided to become some other religion, or none.

  11. #11 Infophile
    November 27, 2006

    Thus, I ask: Is it immoral for a woman carrying a BRCA1 mutation to decide that she does not wish to pass this mutation on to the next generation? If so, why?

    Personally, it’s the reverse question that intrigues me more: Is it immoral for a woman carrying a BRCA1 mutation to decide that she does wish to pass this mutation on to the next generation? I’m not saying we should take the decision away from her; that would certainly be immoral. But we can still judge her actions.

    In fact, let’s push it a bit more. Let’s say that instead of that mutation, the woman has Harlequin-type Icthiosis, a horrible genetic skin condition that is almost always fatal upon birth. A few are able to survive, however, yet if they choose to breed they’re guaranteed to pass on the gene (it’s recessive, so anyone showing the condition has two). This results in an immensely increased risk for their offspring, or someone down the line, to get this condition as well.

    In the end, though, even if it’s a given that the offspring will have the disorder, it’s hard to say that choosing to have them is immoral. How many people, however bad their life has been, would say that they’d rather they’d never been born (assuming you ask them at a normal state, not in the heat of depression)? A small number likely would, but this isn’t determined by whether or not they have some disease. With that in mind, my own answer to this question is that it’s not immoral, though it may be ill-advised.

  12. #12 Jud
    November 27, 2006

    Joshua: “The morality of such a thing [eugenics] is still an open question, but the definition of it really is not.”

    The point I was making was slightly different. Let’s play word association. I say “eugenics” and you think of…? I say “Allow potential parents to make choices based on the best information available” and you think of…? Which was the more positive association?

    In other words, if the goal is to be able to discuss these concepts reasonably, why needlessly evoke negative associations at the outset?

  13. #13 ChopraFan
    November 27, 2006

    Read This:

    The God Delusion? Part 5

    the concluding part!

    “That covers the basic and I think most convincing refutation of the anti-God argument. It doesn’t prove God by any means, much less does it degrade science. The damage that anti-God rhetoric does is to cloud reality. In reality there is ample room for both God and science. Many forward-looking thinkers realize this; sadly, Richard Dawkins isn’t among them.”

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/deepak-chopra/the-god-delusion-part-5_b_34974.html

  14. #14 Ruth
    November 27, 2006

    Even if they find the genes responsible for autism, I would not want my daughter unborn. Some traits require work to overcome, but we parents see some of the same struggles in our own lives. I would hate a world of uniformly beautiful people-I would miss the quirky people like my face-blind brother and autistic child. They contribute to the human race. I hate hearing how autistics are going to bankrupt the country so we must start aborting them.

    Are we wise enough to know what genes can be eliminated? Natural selection acts on a diverse population, selecting for traits that enhance survival. Could some unfavorable traits become an advantage as our environment changes? Einstein and Edison were both thought subnormal as children.

  15. #15 Joshua
    November 27, 2006

    Ruth,

    It should be obvious that nobody wants their child to be “unborn”. (If they do, it raises very serious questions about them, not only as a parent, but as a human being.)

    The interesting question is what decision you would have made during conception. Imagine just discovering that you’re in the very early stages of pregnancy, and by some means your doctor is able to test the embryo for “autism genes” non-destructively. The test is positive, if you carry the child to term it will have autism to some sufficiently high confidence level. Would you abort and try again or would you have the child anyway? Which position is ethically and morally superior? Is there really a difference in moral standing between them? There’s no easy or even definitive answer to any of those questions. Either choice involves quite a lot of hope: on one hand hope of getting pregnant again and raising a non-autistic child, on the other hope that your child will live a full life even with autism. Both are, I think, reasonable hopes, but there is no guarantee attached to either course.

    For your question about unfavourable traits becoming an advantage with a changing environment, yes. Absolutely. The canonical example of this, I think, is the sickle-cell trait. In most environments, it causes aenemia and a shortened lifespan. However, it also confers a resistance to malaria, giving a relative advantage in environments where malaria is a substantial risk. Environment has a huge effect on the favourability of the sickle-cell trait.

    That fact alone is probably enough to show that eugenics programs are most likely counter-adaptive in the long run. Natural selection is much better at surviving unpredictable changes in the environment. So one could raise an objection to voluntary eugenics on the grounds that it’s simply poor strategy.

  16. #16 Brian
    November 27, 2006

    There already is a eugenics program going on in the US. The Ashkenazi Jews routinely test their members for Tay-Sachs before arranging marriages. When I first heard about it, it made me mildly uncomfortable – probably due to the association with the Holocaust. But people get married, or arranged to get married, all the time for much worse reasons. Many marriages have a primary basis in economics – does that lead necessarily to happier children? I have overcome my initial discomfort with the Tay-Sachs “breeding program” to a view more like yours, Orac. As long as people are not forced into a eugenics program, and there is a sound basis for the phenotype being “bred” (hopefully, it’s so that one’s children escape a debilitating disease, not so that they have blond hair and blue eyes), I am not necessarily against it.

  17. #17 Ruth
    November 27, 2006

    Joshua-

    Yes, I would have had my daughter, even knowing she would be autistic. She has problems with language, but how many 10 year olds do you know who can handle algebra? Her autism is part of a complex person, some good traits, some that annoy. I have since learned that I fall within the autistic specrum myself. Her condition is not painfull or terminal. If I had known my child had Tay-Sachs, knowing it causes slow, painfull death, I may have opted for termination.

  18. #18 Flex
    November 27, 2006

    Wow. Good post, and good comments thus far.

    It seems to me Zelazny touched on this issue in, “The Keys to December” collected in the book, _The Doors of His Face, the Lamp of His Mouth, and other stories._

    There may be two seperate moral issues here, the morality of choosing a mate, and the morality of choosing offspring. Obviously they are related, the mate is required for the offspring, at least this was true in the past.

    We have centuries of experiance with the morality of mate selection. Many of us humans, but by no means all, have seen the conflicts that arise when restrictions on mate selection are enforced. For that reason, many of us consider there should be few (if any) restrictions on mate selection.

    However, in the past thirty years or so off-spring selection is more and more seperated from mate selection. So off-spring selection is a moral twist that new technology uncovers.

    I’m certain that at some point someone will have a ‘designer’ baby where the gametes of the parents have been altered before IVF. Whether it’s the replacement (or repair) of a genetic defect or an attempt to select for a desired trait, it’s going to be possible. (And I’m not speaking of the relatively trivial seperation of X/Y chromosomes from the male donor.)

    I’m somewhat sanguine about the result. Assuming we know enough to avoid monstrosities, removing the genes which cause genetic disorders can only be a good thing in the long term (with the understanding that no living person carrying these genes can be discriminated against, including their right to have children). Those children with ‘superior’ genes will very likely appear to not be so superior due to developmental effects of the environment. An Einstein rasied in the home of Ward and June Cleaver may not turn out to be any smarter than The Beaver.

    But is there a moral difference between mate selection and offspring selection? Does society as a whole have some interest in off-spring that it no longer does in mates?

  19. #19 Chris
    November 27, 2006

    You talk about mate selection as if you thought that society had actually caught up with the belief that “there should be few (if any) restrictions on mate selection”, yet this position can be refuted with a single word: Gays.

    While there certainly *are* people who advocate removing some more of our current restrictions on mate selection, and I’m one of them, it is by no means a universally accepted position.

    What the ramifications of that are for offspring selection is not immediately obvious, but if you expect most people to react based on thoughtful consideration of the issues, you’re very likely to be disappointed. Most people will react based on how the issue fits into a millenia-old system of rigid beliefs, their gut emotional reaction, and maybe something they saw on TV. That’s the species we have, not the species we wish we had. (If I could choose one trait to breed humans for it’d be reduced gullibility. We’d also get reduced dishonesty for free because it stops working as well when there isn’t a sucker born every minute.)

  20. #20 Flex
    November 27, 2006

    Chris, I completely agree with you, which is why I put “but by no means all” into that sentance. Most of the world still seems to want to put some sort of restrictions on mate selection. Maybe I need to work on how to show tougue-in-cheek in my writing a little better.

    My main point is that we can now, unlike previous generations, make a distinction between the traits we select in our mates, and the traits we desire in our offspring. I certainly don’t expect the choices made about offspring traits to be any more rational than we see today with mate selection.

    But with that distinction comes an ethical question. How do we handle technology that enables us to select the alleles in our gametes?

    And does society have an interest in regulating this technology? If your answer is yes, it needs justification. If your answer is no, it also needs justification.

    My opinion is that at this time we know so little of how the complete developmental system works that there is no compelling reason for society to regulate this technology. I think the technology to perform this type of procedure will be available before we know all the effects of genes and their interaction with the environment. (See C.J. Cherryh’s _Cyteen_ for an examination of some of these issues.)

    But the question should be periodically re-visited because it’s conceivable that at some point in the future our understanding of genetic and enviromental variables may reach the point where regulation is necessary. (No deliberatly creating an army of mentally deficient zombies for slave labor allowed!)

    Oh, and I’m not at all convinced you could breed for reduced gullibility. While my understanding of neurology is limited, what I do know suggests that much of brain development is strongly enviromentally influenced. This has nothing to do with consciousness or choice, just how the neural pathways are created.

    Cheers

  21. #21 Urinated State of America
    November 27, 2006

    ” The rich and powerful will be able to afford to use such techniques to “improve” their offspring, while the vast majority of the poor will be stuck with the old-fashioned way. In this light, a world such as that portrayed in the movie Gattaca, in which the upper classes can afford to have nothing but “designer babies” free from disease, physically very attractive, and possessing enhanced physical abilities and intelligence”

    Well, there is something analogous to that going on currently, albeit in a minority, with selection of donor sperm and donor eggs. Frex, a female student from an elite college can command >$50,000 for an egg donation, where an average student would get ~$5,000-10,000.

  22. #22 Renee
    November 27, 2006

    WRT the issue of the BRCA1 cancer gene and a woman choosing not to have children, I’ve seen this issue posed a different way: Is a woman who knows she carries this gene obligated to tell a husband/fiance/serious boyfriend that she has it? And then is it ethically ok if he decided he doesn’t want to have children with her, or for him to bale out of the relationship with her so he can choose to be with another woman?

    I’m not saying that many men would do this, but knowing one’s BRCA1 genetic status does raise some thorny questions.

  23. #23 Flex
    November 27, 2006

    “…”designer babies” free from disease, physically very attractive, and possessing enhanced physical abilities and intelligence”

    And all of these traits have developmental and environmental components. (Yes, there are some genetic disorders which are known to be pretty much the sole cause of some diseases. Just as there are many diseases entirely environmentally based.)

    However consider this, “free from disease” is mainly an environmental condition, genetics plays a part, but modern medicice has removed many diseases from a common occurance.

    “physically attractive” is often the result of “free from disease”, with cultural differences of course.

    “possessing enhanced physical abilities and intelligence” is unknown how much is dependant on genetics or environment. Regular workouts (environmental factors) of the mind and body are known to improve physical and mental prowess. I’m not suggesting doing push-ups or crossword puzzles will turn you into a Schwarzenegger or an Einstein, but it will improve your ability to push-ups and crossword puzzles.

    Even today the wealthy enjoy privledges which results in their offspring performing significantly better than the average person. Access to physical trainers, nutritionists, better doctors, private tutors, etc., are all available to the wealthy but rarely available to the average child. With all these perks, the children of the wealthy are on average better educated, healthier, and more physically attractive.

    So, while there are people who believe, and are willing to pay “… a female student from an elite college … >$50,000 for an egg donation, where an average student would get ~$5,000-10,000.” (from Urinated State of America) The evidence that their offspring are superior is something that I’m quite skeptical about. We’ll know in a couple dozen years. Maybe. It may well be that a person who can afford to pay $50,000 for an egg donation can also afford to send the child to better schools and provide better health care.

    The trouble I have with eugenics is that it suggests that the genes have more influence on development than the evidence really indicates. (With the caveat of diseases known to be entirely genetically based. We should educate people about the risks embedded in their genes.) How about, as a society, before we get to the gritty details of genetics we try to level the environmental factors a bit?

    Use what we do know about nutrition, exercise, education and other developmental factors to get each child the best quality possible of these.

    Then let’s see if there is any desire for designer babies. Probably yes. Human nature being what it is ;).

    Ciao, and off to class.

  24. #24 bones
    November 27, 2006

    Eugenics: “A social philosophy which advocates the improvement of human hereditary qualities through selective breeding.

    We are all products of unspoken eugenics. A parent arranges a marriage of a daughter to a powerful and wealthy man, men attempt to attract and procreate with the most beautiful women, short men and women attempt the same with taller partners, and even the ban in most societies on marriage between siblings these are all improving human hereditary qualities through selective breeding.

  25. #25 DuWayne
    November 27, 2006

    I find this very interesting. I think that a lot of people practice a form of eugenics when they choose to have children. While I didn’t intend on having a child, by the time in my life that I met my son’s mom, I had gotten to considering partners for their suitability to potentialy have a child with. I was a lot more selective, I went out with women that are at least as intelligent as I, or more so. I also looked for empathy and compassion – along with a good dose more common sense than I have.

    I also have a friend who’s wife carries the gene for a terminal illness, I can’t remember what. It is nearly always dominant, if they had a boy it would be a 95% chance he would have it and die before he was twenty. They had sex to soon after my friends vasectomy and she got pregnant. They were sweating bullets until they found out it was a girl. They had saved some of his sperm in hopes that it might become possible to pre-determine the sex of a child, or insure that the disease was not passed.

    I actually think it is probably a good idea for serious discussion of eugenics. There is nothing wrong with voluntary eugenics and it would be good to get it past the abuses of state run eugenics programs and the fear. It would be nice to educate the public and quell the fears that erupt when it comes up – such as those expressed by the pieces you link to.

    I just happen to be reading through Frank Herbert’s Dune novels again right now. There is a running eugenics project described in the series, running thousands of years. I find it intruiging because the main tool for maintaining the breeding project is through a perpetual aristocracy. Ultimately the whole series is something of an argument against eugenics, but should be delineated as arguing against compulsory eugenics. Though it is certainly not anything like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, my favorite American novel. There eugenics defines the social framework rather than stifling society like Herbert’s does in Dune.

    All in all a fascinating subject, one worth talking about and researching.

  26. #26 double-soup tuesday
    November 27, 2006

    Let’s make this example. There is a gamete bank for Nobel Laureates. (I’m not certain that this is true, but let’s assume that it is for purposes of discussion.) Anybody who wants to, through artificial insemination, can give birth to the progeny of Nobel Laureates in preference to using their own genetic material.

    What would be the point of raising children that are not yours? To altruistically move the race forward? To have pride in stewardship of something that you couldn’t do on your own? I can see this desire if you cannot have children of your own, but why go for the Nobel laureates? Is this a matter of creating really good furniture to go with the B&O stereo?

    I think these people that are paying the $50K for the smart and healthy college girls may be hedging their bets, but I attribute the basis of the transaction to be rooted in some sort of inability by the natural parents to complete the transaction. OTOH, if they pay $50K up front for prime cut donors, they may avoid $100Ks of medical expenses later. It’s a good investment when considering taking on someone else’s product with a policy of no-return.

  27. #27 Peter Barber
    November 27, 2006

    Good post, Orac. I also want to commend Joshua’s comment. I should point out that the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary’s definition of eugenics has somewhat more sinister connotations that that supplied by Wiktionary.

    Anyway: assuming the Wiktionary definition, my major problem with eugenics is the very disagreement about its role in our future. An official policy of “improvement of human hereditary qualities through selective breeding” would necessarily affect the structure of society (as pointed out, it could very easily lead to fixing of socioeconomic divisions) and therefore require society’s unanimous support. I see widespread support for pre-implantation screening of embryos for predispositions to a particular list of diseases. But given people’s disparate conceptions of the ideal society, it seems to me that any further consensus on what exactly would constitute “improvement” is currently impossible to achieve.

    Which reinforces for me the correctness of Dawkins’ original point: in the light of our increasing ability to manipulate our species’ genetic material, we need to discuss it now, so that technology does not once again trump ethics. Otherwise we will see yet another unnecessary anti-science backlash in years to come.

  28. #28 Blake Stacey
    November 27, 2006

    Normally, I wouldn’t quote a Wikipedia article; I’ve often waxed von-Neumannesque and said that anyone who relies upon it is living in a state of sin. However, I know the Transhumanism article has been worked over by, among others, Russell Blackford, and it should at least provide a jumping-off point. The following comes from the “Eugenics Wars argument” sub-section of the “Criticisms” section.

    A trenchant argument against transhumanism comes from critics who allege social bias in the use of concepts such as “limitations”, “enhancement”, and “improvement.” Such critics see the coercive eugenics, social Darwinist and master race ideologies and programs of the past as warnings of what the promotion of eugenic enhancement technologies might unintentionally encourage. While some acknowledge the differences between coercive and elective forms of eugenics, they argue that the social stratification that may result from the latter would still be problematic. In particular, in their view, it could present unprecedented challenges to democratic governance, even if it came about as the cumulative result of individual choices. Some fear future “Eugenics Wars”, a speculative form of genetic class warfare, as the worst-case scenario. Health law professor George Annas and technology law professor Lori Andrews are prominent advocates of the position that the use of these technologies could lead to human-posthuman conflict and new forms of genocide.

    For most of its history, eugenics has manifested itself as a movement to sterilize against their will the “genetically unfit” and encourage the selective breeding of the genetically advantaged. The major transhumanist organizations strongly condemn the coercion involved in such policies and reject the racialist and classist assumptions on which they were based, along with the pseudoscientific notions that eugenic improvements could be accomplished in a practically meaningful time frame through selective human breeding. Most transhumanist thinkers instead advocate a form of egalitarian liberal eugenics. In their 2000 book From Chance to Choice: Genetics and Justice, bioethicists Allen Buchanan, Dan Brock, Norman Daniels and Daniel Wikler have argued that liberal societies have an obligation to encourage as wide an adoption of eugenic enhancement technologies as possible (so long as such policies do not infringe on individuals’ reproductive rights or exert undue pressures on prospective parents to use these technologies) in order to maximize public health and minimize the inequalities that may result from both natural genetic endowments and unequal access to genetic enhancements. Transhumanists holding similar views nonetheless distance themselves from the term “eugenics” (preferring “reprogenetics”) to avoid having their position confused with the discredited theories and practices of early-20th-century eugenic movements.

    See, at the very least now you have a new buzzword and a few names you can toss into a search engine. Also, this particular Wikipedia article is an honorable member of the species, because it has footnotes.

  29. #29 Blake Stacey
    November 27, 2006

    Peter Barber wrote:

    Which reinforces for me the correctness of Dawkins’ original point: in the light of our increasing ability to manipulate our species’ genetic material, we need to discuss it now, so that technology does not once again trump ethics. Otherwise we will see yet another unnecessary anti-science backlash in years to come.

    I agree heartily with this. Genetic engineering and, possibly, artificial intelligence offer possibilities for anti-science polemics which could make our modern fight against creationism look like a tropical depression in a teapot.

  30. #30 James
    November 27, 2006

    I really enjoy this sort of discussion. I find it interesting that the developing consensus here is that it is state coersion, not eugenics per se that is the real problem.

    Dawkins is clearly correct that this is a discussion that needs to be had. That is how morality develops, not that those who derive all their cognitive infrastructure from books that are 2000 – 6000 yeasr old would understand that.

  31. #31 Justin Moretti
    November 28, 2006

    There is nothing wrong with eugenics except the way it’s defined by its critics. There is a big difference between breeding for improvement and shoving people into gas ovens.

  32. #32 valhar2000
    November 28, 2006

    There are many strawmen associated with genetic engineering (and eugenics, if you will). One that springs to mind is the idea that it would result in the production of blond blue eyed babies: what if the parents who design their babies want brown-haired, briwn-eyed babies? There are certainly plenty of people nowadays who consider dark skin more beautiful (and not all of them are black separatists).

  33. #33 valhar2000
    November 28, 2006

    To add my two cents: I think, as others here seem to, that the best way to start applying this technology is by attacking diseases that have a genetic component, since that is very likely to be agreed upon by everybody; that way we could begin profitting from the technology soon, while we work out the more controversial aspects of it.

  34. #34 afh
    November 28, 2006

    Regarding the Gattaca scenario – there is an assumption that the rich will benefit more from eugenics than the poor, which, beyond the first couple of decades, may not be true. Should it follow the pattern of air travel or computer technology, the middle-classes and the relatively poor will be able to benefit from it far more, proportional to their bank balance, than the very wealthy (think about it – flying first class may be a lot more comfortable than coach, but it doesn’t really enable you to live your life in a way that flying coach does not). Indeed, it may be the case that people further down society have more to gain (in terms of improved health, reduced genetic disease burden…) than the wealthy – some of these people may have ended up so far down society to begin with in part due to sub-clinical, but nevertheless harmful, genetic ‘bugs’.

    With that said, it is still worth considering that some proportion of society may be so far out on the margins that even though eugenic technology may be affordable, they won’t feel able to access it – in much the same way that they rarely access the IT or other services today which could improve their lives somewhat.

  35. #35 Mark UK
    November 28, 2006

    Interesting point by renee… What if in the (not too distant?) future we all get routinely screened for our potential DNA faults, probabilities of having a certain illness at some point. If you know you have a high chance of dying before the age of 40 of some kind of cancer of heart disease, should you tell your new girl/boy friend/fiancee? If you know you are likely to pass a genetic fault to your child do you have children? Do you tell your partner?

    If you are pregnant (or your partner) and the doctor tells you there is something wrong with the baby, what do you do? Now you have to take the responsibility of the type of life the child will have. Autism is OK to live with, how about severely disabled? significant brain damage?

    I only became a father recently and those questions raced through my head quite a bit during the build up…

  36. #36 Flex
    November 28, 2006

    double-soup tuesday wrote, What would be the point of raising children that are not yours?

    I understand where you are coming from, but there are plenty of current examples of people raising children which do not carry the parent’s genes. Without even touching on what the phrase “children that are not yours” means, I presume you meant genetically.

    If you want examples of people choosing to raise children who are not their own (genetically), just look at adoption. This is a (generally) socially acceptable means to raise children which are not of the parents genetic material. I know of three couples who have adopted, only one of those adoptions was closely related and due to a tragic death. I haven’t made a special study of their behavior, and my observations are anecdotal, but none of these families seem any less loving than normal. (Although I am aware of some Canadian studies which suggest otherwise. Which I submit is a social problem, not ingrained into our genetic code.)

    I suggest there are few people who decide to have children primarily to pass on their genes. Once you pull the genes out of the equation, the point of raising children which are not yours is identical to the point of raising children with are yours.

    So let’s back up a little further. What would be the point of only raising children that are genetically yours?

    One final comment, double-soup tuesday wrote, OTOH, if they pay $50K up front for prime cut donors, they may avoid $100Ks of medical expenses later.

    This would only be true if there was evidence to suggest that a $50K ovum was truly less likely to have $100K of additional medical expenses than a $5K ovum.

    I wouldn’t classify that form of behavior as an example hedging an investment. I see this behvior as a form of counting coup.

    Ciao.

  37. #37 valhar2000
    November 28, 2006

    Flex: I wouldn’t classify that form of behavior as an example hedging an investment. I see this behvior as a form of counting coup.

    Or maybe it is just people buying “the best” because they can afford it and it makes them feel good to know that they have it?

  38. #38 Z Anonymous
    November 28, 2006

    I for one support such selective engineering, as long as it doesn’t affect tinkering with personality and free will. Let’s stop gambling on some things.

  39. #39 Flex
    November 28, 2006

    Mark UK wrote, What if in the (not too distant?) future we all get routinely screened for our potential DNA faults, probabilities of having a certain illness at some point.

    Yeah. I think we can expect this to happen. I don’t have any comment on the social side of this. I really don’t know if telling a girlfriend or financee about a potential medical condition is something we can or should force someone to do. I would hope that a couple who trusts each other enough to be intimate, would also trust each other enough to share potential future problems. Unfortunately, experiance suggests that complete honesty is rare in any relationship. At the most, it should be a social duty for a partner to inform the other about conditions which will impact their decisions or health.

    However, this does bring up a point I have been considering for a little while now. The population segmentation being done in the insurance industry. As more and detail of individuals are available to insurance companies, they appear to be tailoring their plans to individuals.

    I can see how market forces would do this. Charging more for people at higher risk means they can charge less to people at lower risk. This lower price will attract customers.

    However, it seems to me that this practice runs counter to the original philosophy of insurance which is to spread the risk (and associated cost) of individuals across a large population. Seperating the individuals out of the population and writing policies based on each individual’s risks is not spreading the risks, or the costs, across a large population. It’s a step toward everyone having to pay all their expenses themselves (or toward socialization of insurance).

  40. #40 Neil Lewis
    November 28, 2006

    “The antidote to such thinking is human exceptionalism and its corollary that each and every human being has equal moral worth simply and merely because they are human.”

    Yes, unless they happen to be women, or of another religion, or gay. The idea that religion holds up an unequivocal torch for equality is a joke. At some point, we’re going to meet another conscious species, and this ‘human exceptionalism’ will be the basis for yet another holy war. It’s morally abhorrent, narcissistic and shallow like much of religious thought.

  41. #41 Matt
    November 28, 2006

    Does the child being modified have a say in the matter? Totally putting abortion aside, it would seem that parents or perhaps the government would have a totalitarian control over their children that contradicts Western philosophy.

    The problem with eugenics is the same as the atomic bomb. It is simply a tool. As we speak, the number of fetuses aborted because they have even mild cases of Downs Syndrome are growing. You have to get at the root problem. Why are the Progressives, Hitler, and most Western governments considered evil with regards to their eugenics programs? Was the sterilization of mentally retarded individuals evil, and if so why? And if it was evil, then how is it different to abort said individuals before they are born, or to alter their genes so that they are not born? Is it the means or the ends or both that is wrong? Or is none of it wrong, and had Hitler simply sterilized the Jews he wouldn’t be considered as evil.

  42. #42 Mark UK
    November 28, 2006

    You could debate quite a bit whether an unborn foetus should be considered a person and awarded the same rights as a person. I think there is an ethical question that if we do not grant rights to an unborn foetus, which we don’t as abortion is legal, should we then let the foetus grow into a full person who carries a disability? I am sure no parent would wish their children away and this i sobviously a difficult subject. I do wonder though that if we would not choose to carry a disability ourselves if we should choose to have our child go through life with this disability.

  43. #43 double-soup tuesday
    November 28, 2006

    I suggest there are few people who decide to have children primarily to pass on their genes.

    I don’t think that people have the explicit goal of gene propagation, but I do think this is a major desire that when two people love each other they want to create something unique that is an expression of that union and that they can undertake as a binding project. Do people have different feelings about external donors, external carriers or adoptions? I don’t know, but I suspect that at some level they do. Do people love the children of others the same as their own? I speculate that they do not, hence the lack of compassion for those suffering elsewhere or every child starving, dying would be a personal tragedy.

    Then there’s the grandparents. How do they feel about grandparenting others? I suspect differently; I wonder what their view is.

    But I think that there is a huge chance to tinker to create a market driven, manufactured society. What loss we’d have if we weeded out depression? No Plath, Hemingway, Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, Shelley. That’s a less colorful world, and we may as well start building wide, communist boulevards to go with. This uniformity would be like the mass manufacture, low cost goods that prevail on today’s market. Cheap availability is not the same as quality. It produces Wal*Mart shopper mentality.

    I also don’t think we’d be too far off from social class divisions and market based engineering. Why tune everyone for creativity when we need more labor force? Couldn’t we rationalize that tweaking an underclass to be happy sewing soccer balls is good both for them and for us?

  44. #44 Baratos
    November 28, 2006

    I also don’t think we’d be too far off from social class divisions and market based engineering. Why tune everyone for creativity when we need more labor force? Couldn’t we rationalize that tweaking an underclass to be happy sewing soccer balls is good both for them and for us?

    Why would it be good for us? Robots would do the job much better–in fact, I think they already do. Why would there be more than one social class? Using Brave New World terms, we would only need Alpha plusses. Every other group does almost no thinking, and could be replaced with machines.

    In fact, why even bother with an entire social class? There is nothing stopping robotics from advancing to the point where machines are more creative, cheaper, and easier to maintain than human beings. At that point, paying to keep human beings alive would be like shooting yourself in the foot. Society, the economy, and the government would be a lot better off if humans were out of the picture.

  45. #45 Orac
    November 28, 2006

    In fact, why even bother with an entire social class? There is nothing stopping robotics from advancing to the point where machines are more creative, cheaper, and easier to maintain than human beings. At that point, paying to keep human beings alive would be like shooting yourself in the foot. Society, the economy, and the government would be a lot better off if humans were out of the picture.

    Sounds like the Terminator movies to me. ;-)

  46. #46 Prup aka Jim Benton
    November 28, 2006

    I want to be one of the stronger opponents to this idea, for several reasons that don’t seem to have made it into the discussion so far.

    Orac mentioned the example of animal breeding. But most of the examples of animal breeding I am aware of seem to have forced particular breeds or species into configurations that have met OUR desires, either for ‘usefulness’ (racehorses, grossly overweight pigs) or ‘fashion’ (seen what a ‘prize-winning’ Persian cat looks like these days, and, because a pushed-back nose is the ‘fashion’ how much difficulty they have breathing?).

    We all assume that parents would choose what WE consider ‘desireable’ traits. But we — the readers and contributors to this blog — are a pretty exceptional group, on average, more intelligent, more sensible and rational (even with some major cranks — hi, Choprafan — lowering the average). Our choices would, on the whole, probably be sensible. But imagine the ‘ideal children’ the readers and contributors to WorldNutDaily would want. And, sadly, there are probably more of them than there are of us.

    I am, if anyone remembers an article I wrote for SkepCirc — one of these days I WILL write the second part of it — very dubious about the idea of genetic bases for many traits. But lets assume I am wrong, that there are ‘gay genes’ and ‘God genes’ etc. We might select against the “God gene,’ but the majority of people would select FOR it. And I can imagine even many people here selecting against the ‘gay gene’ not out of homophobia but simply arguing that, with the existence of homophobia, we wouldn’t want our kids going through this if we could help it.

    Some of us have brougfht up the economic factor, and the argument goes that, well, it might start out as a thing for the rich, but it would filter down to the middle class pretty soon. Well, maybe I’m a little different from most of you. I have spent a good part of my life a little lower down on the economic scale. (Am I the only reader here who has spent six months living in a homeless shelter — not from some philanthropic or research motive but because I was, in fact, homeless?)
    And the one thing I have seen repeatedly is that people on a particular economic level MIGHT understand those above themselves, but have the most absurd ideas of the lives of those below. The poor wouldn’t have access to this voluntarily. But if it became feasible, I can easily see regulations — from ‘philanthropic motives’ of course — that would make it available to all, and encourage — maybe eventually demand — that they take advantage of it.

    One final point, for now. We do have examples of one type of ‘selective breeding.’ That’s gender selection. And it isn’t something that just started with legal abortions — which I favor — and ultrasound. There have been a lot of societies which favor males over females, and when it has not been discouraged, steps have been taken towards gender selection. Its not common even now, but I have no doubt that it does happen, and might happen even more if it were easier. How many parents, even if they welcome the birth of a daughter, still have in their minds the Biblical/Qur’anic idea that a family’s worth is in the number of sons.

    To close with an analogy from Civilization II — which I am still playing with enjoyment. The rules allow you to create new rules, pieces and ‘wonders’ but remind you that any change you make can be used by all the other players in the game.

  47. #47 Flex
    November 28, 2006

    double-soup tuesday wrote, “when two people love each other they want to create something unique that is an expression of that union and that they can undertake as a binding project.”/

    Raising a child, even one adopted as a baby, can be seen as creating something unique which is an expression of a parents union undertaken as a binding project.

    I realize that, with the focus our society has had over the past decades on genes, we tend to assume uniqueness happens at conception. While this is true, uniqueness also occurs throughout the development cycle, and of course throughout our entire lives. Focusing our understanding of uniqueness on a particular instant in time ignores the unique beauty of the rest of life.

    DNA may be a unique identifier for a person, but it can’t tell me much about who a person really is. A VIN is a unique identifier for your car, but it doesn’t tell me if it has tinted glass and racing decals.

    Your comment about depression is interesting, but it still suggests a belief that medical conditions like depression are genetically based, and can be eliminated by simple genetic manipulation. I don’t think that’s been shown to be true.
    —-
    Prup aka Jim Benton wrote,
    “But we — the readers and contributors to this blog — are a pretty exceptional group, on average, more intelligent, more sensible and rational….”

    Hah!

    Flattery is nice (although I’m only assuming that at least part of that comment is directed at me) but as much as I aspire to rationality, there are likely irrational people who contribute far more to the welfare of mankind than I. (And even more rational people who contribute more.)

    More seriously though, I’m on the same page as you. I have serious doubts about the ability of genetics to direct very specialized behavior in human beings. The mind doesn’t appear to develop in that way. With the caveat that there is still a lot about the mind and genetic expression we don’t know.

    I don’t believe the evidence strongly supports a ‘God’ gene, or a ‘Gay’ gene. This doesn’t mean I think belief in god or homosexual desires are a matter of choice. The whole genetic, environmental, and development through the interaction of genetic expression in accordance to environmental inputs is an extreamly complex system. Single causes can lead to complex behaviours within complex systems, but it’s far more likely that interaction of multiple causes lead to the complex behavior.

    Where we differ, I think, is that I believe that environmental variables, like language, have a greater impact on mental development than genetics. Similarly, I believe that environmental variables, like exercise, have a greater impact on physical development than genetics.

    It’s like the recent study showing that malnutritian affects both physical and mental development. I know that some people mistakenly reported this study showed that short people aren’t as smart as tall people, but the details of the study was a simple test of predicable phenomenon. Diet affects the entire body’s development and an inadequate diet will result in less growth both mentally and physically. Which is a good reason to ensure children everywhere get a sufficient diet.

    My point is, if the technology is available for people to modify their offspring, people will us it. Parents may select for an allele which has been identified in the popular press as a ‘God’ gene. Parents may select to remove an allele which has been identified in popular press as a ‘Gay’ gene. But considering the complexity of the systems involved in development, I think they will be dissapointed in the results.

    Simple alleles like blue or brown eyes may be possible. Gender selection is very likely to be possible fairly soon, and as you mention, is already practised in a primitive way in many societies. You may even see some societies where because of their social beliefs, the male/female ratio goes from 48/52 to something like 75/25. This will certainly cause stress to a society which chooses this. But that doesn’t mean that any of the members of that society won’t be able to have satisfying lives.

  48. #48 Scott
    November 28, 2006

    The “Draka” series by S.M. Stirling addresses the potential downsides of eugenics. (Yeah, it’s fiction. But it’s exploring the human condition.) It can be real scary if someone else starts deciding who can and cannot bread. On the one hand, if science comes up with a “fix” for a genetic disease, what parent would willingly subject their child to a preventable ailment? Sounds reasonable, right? But what if science comes up with a “tweak” that would increase your child’s IQ by 20 points, or increase his/her strength or reflexes by 10%, with no down sides? What parent (with the money) would turn down that opportunity? If the tools become available, self directed eugenics seems inevitable.

  49. #49 double-soup tuesday
    November 28, 2006

    Why would it be good for us? Robots would do the job much better–in fact, I think they already do. Why would there be more than one social class? Using Brave New World terms, we would only need Alpha plusses. Every other group does almost no thinking, and could be replaced with machines.

    There is no payback in being superior or feeling superior to the toaster. The buzz of ownership is too short; I’d need the toaster to have an attitude and be insolent, the way a person can. One needs people to feel morally superior to, otherwise how would one know where one stands relative to others of kind. I see no benefit in comparing the masterpiece I create (Jeffrey Dahmer for example), to some simplified object like a tree, rock or machine. Even very complex machines are not as much fun as screwing with the psychology and moral makeup of a kid. Granted access to the genetic makeup of Nobel Laureates, I’d stick the kid in front of a PS3, a heavy dose of rap music and religion, just to see what I can produce through passive neglect given the august seed of a scientist. TV is boring; mindless, irresponsible creativity is fun. Lord Byron’s daughter was a computer scientist; talk about scrambling the kid up.

    In fact, why even bother with an entire social class? There is nothing stopping robotics from advancing to the point where machines are more creative, cheaper, and easier to maintain than human beings. At that point, paying to keep human beings alive would be like shooting yourself in the foot. Society, the economy, and the government would be a lot better off if humans were out of the picture.

    I would assume that knowing us, we’d want others of our own race to tell us how great we are. Dogs are close, but not as good as the power rush of sycophantic followers willing to diddle us or murder for us just because we give the command. I’m told that’s the real buzz, right there.

    The question may have been — are we apt to use eugenics for good? And I think the answer is in how we use medicine as delivered by the unfree markets. What’s bankrupting the country? The good will of doctors, or the cold and logical efficiency of the health care industry?

    Do we treat people like robots already, punting them based on inefficiency and expense? Yeah, look at GM and DELCO, or any other industry that puts quarterly results topmost.

  50. #50 Jeremy
    November 28, 2006

    So you are saying that most people won’t support eugenics? I think that is a false statement. With the advancement in the genome project I would assume that most people given the opportunity would choose to have their child genetically manipulated in order to create a perfect person. It’s only a matter of time before this becomes mainstream and we are back in 1930′s with Hitler’s initial program.

  51. #51 El Christador
    November 28, 2006

    Anyone who selects a partner based on physical attraction is engaging in eugenics. To a first approximation: attractiveness = good genes, so wanting an attractive partner is about getting good genes for your children.

    But I suppose that’s ok because eyeballing someone is a very crude method of assessing their genes, whereas, actually taking a look at their genome, well, then you have better information and it’s less half-assed, so it’s different morally because although the intent is the same, the implementation is more effective. Wait. Um, never mind.

  52. #52 El Christador
    November 28, 2006

    eyeballing someone is a very crude method of assessing their genes, whereas, actually taking a look at their genome, well, then you have better information and it’s less half-assed, so it’s different morally because although the intent is the same, the implementation is more effective.

    Wait, important modification to that. The conscious intent is probably not the same, since with physical attractiveness people probably aren’t consciously intending to select their partners based on eugenics. Of course, nowadays we know that that’s why we find attractive things attractive so we know what we’re doing. But if you marry someone attractive purely because you like to look at them, and you don’t care about your childrens’ genes, I suppose it’s not really eugenics in conscious intent. Except that, you still know that that’s why you find them attractive, because they have good genes.

    Still, attractiveness is all about getting kids with “good” breeding, even if not consciously, and we’re not particularly horrified that people take it into account in partner selection.

  53. #53 JohnnieCanuck
    November 28, 2006

    And then there are the little flaws like a busted vitamin C gene. We now know exactly what is wrong with the code segment and what it actually should be.

    The only thing stopping us from fixing it is that there isn’t a practical method, yet. That and whatever ethical concerns get raised, or the fact that it isn’t too pressing a problem.

    Someone back there said that it was best to leave natural selection to take care of adjustments for changing environments. I don’t believe that was well thought out. The change in the gene pool happens when the new organisms tend not to die before successfully reproducing themselves. The change in the environment tends to cause early death or reproductive failure in the unsuccessful organisms.

    Aboriginal North Americans evolved a resistance to smallpox. I suspect even the survivors are not grateful for the opportunity that improved their people.

    Sex selection may not be a serious problem in Western society, but that can’t be said about China and India. The long term potential for bad outcomes is very real. Then there are the methods employed. http://www.gendercide.org/case_infanticide.html

  54. #54 ThoughtfulK
    November 28, 2006

    In all the discussion, it seems like there hasn’t been much emphasis put on what the product of eugenics would have to deal with. Expectation-wise, it certainly leaves the child born of a selective breeding situation in a potentially rather awkward position.

    For example: We all know about the sports-oriented super dads who coerce their kids into playing organized sports at a young age, with the eventual hope that they’ll go pro someday. How many kids have been less than sanguine about such a situation but went along with it, rather than, say, pouring their free time into studying poetry or playing with a chemistry set, because Dad (or Mom, I suppose) thought it was “sissy” or a waste of time?

    Well, imagine if you will if a “designer baby” is born, at a very high monetary cost, who is genetically superior to most other kids because he/she can run faster, has better reflexes, etc. But let’s say this kid doesn’t want to run, or throw a ball, or anything like that. Well, obviously, if the kid’s strong enough emotionally, s/he can just tell Dad to take a hike. But… at the same time, the amount of money and thought put into making this special kid is a powerful mechanism for guilt, and there’s no telling what kind of emotional havoc could be played on the kid’s psyche.

    “I put a lot of money into that body of yours, and you’re gonna play quarterback, dammit.”

    It goes the same for a kid with superior intelligence genes who doesn’t want to go to college, who wants to live a life on his or her own terms as a PE teacher or a dog walker or whatever.

    Creating a child who has potential that, to some extent, dictates the direction s/he must take in life is a bit on the dangerous side, I think. It does happen naturally, but by making it a conscious decision, it makes it more complicated.

    And I may be over-emphasizing this, given that the human condition is what it is, and there always will be kids who are forced to do something they’re not interested in by their parents. I just think that by the parents being able to nudge the genetic direction a kid might take in life could exacerbate the problem and leave us with a lot more unhappy people than we have now.

  55. #55 James
    November 28, 2006

    I’m with Flex on this one, the thing that matters most about us is our brains, and that is the one part that is most responsive to environmental factors. I suspect DNA manipulataion will hit some pretty hard constraints on its effectiveness once you get past disease and gender selection.

  56. #56 Flex
    November 29, 2006

    ThoughtfulK wrote, “I just think that by the parents being able to nudge the genetic direction a kid might take in life could exacerbate the problem and leave us with a lot more unhappy people than we have now.”

    So genetic manipulation may be another way to apply guilt to a child to perform the actions the parents want? (E.g. “I payed $50,0000 for you when you where a single cell! Why aren’t you practising that violin!”)

    I didn’t realize parents were lacking in that area.

    A little more seriously, and an aspect we’ve only touched on in this discussion, is what the ethics are from the child’s perspective. Someone earlier brought up the idea that once a person has reached consciousness, that person may be loathe to suggest they shouldn’t have been born. Even if that person suffers from a horrible genetic disorder.

    Let’s say there is a way, through genetic manipulation, to prevent most types of diabetes. Most diabetics lead pretty normal lives, there are a couple possible ways to ask them about these ethical issues, and I suspect the phrasing of the question would lead to very different results.

    If you asked a diabetic, “If it had been possible for your parents to have removed the cause of your diabetes before you were born, would you have approved of them doing so?” You would probably get quite a few diabetics who would approve.

    As a follow-up question, if you ask, “Even if removing the cause of the diabetes would have given you a different genetic code?” Some of them would start expressing doubt.

    Finally, if you continue with, “Even if removing the cause of the diabetes would have made you a different person?” A great deal of doubt would be expressed. After consideration many may still say yes, but a lot more thought would be given to the question.

    We seem to be so tied up in our personal identity that it’s hard to seperate ourselves from the ethical questions which crop up when dealing with reproduction. Which is, IMHO, a very good thing. (The most common way for a group to innure itself against this sympathy seems to be denying the target group the same status as human beings. Denigrate or demonize your enemies and slaughtering their children doesn’t seem quite as bad.)

    The non-conscious embryo has no experiance of different possibile environments in which it will develop. (Unless you believe in immaterial souls.) A child born with four arms due to genetic tampering is never going to experiance life without having four arms. There are both good and terrible things which could happen to this person during their life, but I seriously doubt that the individual would (necessarily) feel that they shouldn’t have been genetically tampered with.

    On the other hand, we can predict that a child born with four arms might be treated like a freak, ostracized, maybe even forced to undergo surgery. (Not to mention the additional lifetime cost of mittens.) Since we are able to predict, and sympathize with, the amount of misery that a person with four arms would experiance while growing up, I suspect most of us would choose not to subject our offspring to such an experiance.

    The ethical dilemna is, like any good dilemna, very interesting. We are trying to establish and account for the feelings and opinions of a potential person, not an actual one.

    At the time of the genetic manipulation, that cell is not yet a person, but (arbitrarily) 19 years later we are (hopefully) going to give the result of that manipulation all the rights and privileges we enjoy ourselves.

    In nineteen years, how will this potential person feel about what we are thinking about doing today?

    Frankly, I’m amazed, and pleased, that we even are asking the question.

  57. #57 double-soup tuesday
    November 29, 2006

    …Not to mention the additional lifetime cost of mittens….(arbitrarily) 19 years later…

    Damn, but that’s profound and irreverent. It’s gems like those, that make blog reading fun and hopefully worthwhile.

    …but of course, we’d only need to question what the ethics are from the child’s perspective after arbitrarily waiting 19 years…

  58. #58 Mat
    November 29, 2006

    I think what bothers me the most about this current debate is the fact that, for years, people with various disabilities have been expected to not get angry or feel ‘offended’ when we watch attempts to breed us out of the genepool (even if they aren’t allowed to sterilise us any more, usually) with prenatal tests and the like, but as soon as the idea of choosing and breeding for traits turns around and points at ‘normal’ people…ah, THEN it’s horribly offensive.

    (In case anyone cares, by the by, I don’t think I’d have much of a problem with choosing traits in offspring in a world without massive endemic prejudice. Given that we don’t live in that world, things get a little more edgy.)

  59. #59 Pierce R. Butler
    November 29, 2006

    Richard Dawkins: … what the moral difference is between breeding for musical ability and forcing a child to take music lessons.

    Both are instances of one generation attempting to influence the next in a particular direction, the ethical dimensions of which process should probably be contemplated more widely than they are.

    They differ, morally, in that only the breeding program requires major control over the lives of participating adults (or an elaborate systems of implants, surrogates, etc, which also usurps people’s reproductive lives), though both assume control over the offspring.

    Music lessons – even an extreme & abusive regimen such as Ludwig van Beethoven’s daddy imposed – involve only domination within a family, while a pro-active eugenics program requires domination over multiple families.

    We’ve learned to live with the retail form of eugenics, aka “sexual selection”, aka picking your partner (or your kids’ partners). (Tangentially: some hard-core creationists can be brought to agree there’s a large non-random factor in natural selection if you start by asking them about their own families this way.)

    To be done “right”, by the standards of breeding programs used for all other livestock, human eugenics would entail large-scale breeding programs, with (say) the top 10% of each generation selected for maximum replication within the next generation and the rest discarded; factory fetus farms; DNA tinkering; in short, great raw material for generations of “B” movies.

    Damn straight it’s time we look at these questions. As part of the biota of this planet, humans are inescapably subject to what’s happening to said biota – even if what’s happening to that turns out to be our own out-of-control industrialization.

    Meanwhile, the general condition of the species gene pool – under siege by a growing soup of genotoxins, mutagens, teratogens, etc; subject to whipsawing selection factors; arguably due for a major population crash; in an ecological environment of rapidly depleting diversity & resources but accumulating phenotoxins; etc – remains undercontemplated as well. That study would be a form of “eugenics” we desperately need.

  60. #60 Orac
    November 30, 2006

    A follow-up to this post has been posted.

  61. #61 Christensen
    December 9, 2006

    Dawkins doesn’t quite have the guts to come out with it, but he sees eugenics as the answer.

    Hell, Darwin’s cousin (and Dawkins hero worships Darwin) was Francis Galton, the friggeing FATHER of eugenics.

    And Darwin himself decried vaccination, in The Descent of Man, as weakening the race.

    (We will ignore Darwins own racist leanings.)

    Who does Dawkins think he is kidding

    I wouldn’t trust a raving atheist who fronts for atheism by using science as much as I would trust a used car salesman down town.

    In fact, I would probably trust the used car salesman firt.

  62. #62 Cade
    December 12, 2006

    And where does the very concept of human exceptionalism come from? From religion, mainly, particularly the monotheistic religions.

    I found your article interesting besides the above quote. I don’t think many religions teach human exceptionalism. Most probably want the exact opposite. It is the followers of those religions that become over-zealous with their own pride. Human exceptionalism isn’t a trait of religion, but of humans themselves.

    Sorry to get off topic.

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