The Loom

Fear of a Eugenicist Planet

Today Daniel Kevles, a Yale historian, has an interesting review in the New York Times of a new book about eugenics. The book in question is War against the Weak, by Edward Black. It’s a cinderblock of a book, and it’s got a lot of chilling material to offer on how popular eugenics was in the United States in the earlier part of the century. A lot of people sincerely believed that criminals, blind people, sick babies, social misfits, and non-Nordic immigrants had to be stopped from poisoning the American gene pool. We’re not talking about a few racists here and there–we’re talking about leading biologists, doctors, philanthropists, Congressmen, and Supreme Court justices.

I was curious to see whether Kevles–who is an expert on the history of eugenics–would react to bhe book the same way I did when I reviewed it last month for Discover. For the most part he does. For all the merit of Black’s research, Kevles says, he tries too hard to turn a diffuse social phenomenon into a grand conspiracy. He tries to connect the dots into a straight line leading directly from the United States to the Nazi gas chambers. The truth is a lot more complicated, and even Black’s own book undermines his own argument.

But I was a bit disappointed to find Kevles winding up his review on a more positive note: “Black’s book does prompt us to wonder what in medical genetics and biotechnology we are taking socially and morally for granted today that our descendants might indict us for tomorrow.” The link between eugenics and today’s research on DNA is pretty dubious. Black does everything he can to make it sound like the eugenicist conspiracy lives on in the biotechnology start-ups and genetics labs of the world. He even coins a label, “newgenics.” He warns that the rich will make designer babies with genes for intelligence and good looks, and that these manufactured kids will give rise to a new species–a capitalist realization of the old dreams of a master race.

I don’t doubt that some rich people will try to monkey with their kids’ genes. I don’t doubt that some genetic information may get into the hands of insurance companies and leave some people with the wrong alleles without coverage. But the fear that newgenics will make eugenics real at last–that it will alter the genetic make-up of the species–is a flaky one.

Of course, certain genes influence our intelligence, but each one has a tiny influence. If you wanted to make your kid significantly smarter, you’d have to tinker with a huge number of them, perhaps hundreds or thousands. And you wouldn’t just have to calculate each gene’s individual contribution to intelligence, but you’d have to figure out the interactions between the genes. And then you’d have to grapple with the fact that genes are estimated to contribute only half the variation in intelligence, with the environment making up the other half. How genes and environment interact, no one really knows.

And the idea that the rich will create a new species is just as silly. For a new species to incubate, it needs barriers around it to keep genes from the old species from flowing in and its new genes from flowing out. It also needs a population big enough to survive inbreeding and the random flukes of life might snuff it out. If a lot of people colonized another solar system, you could get another species. But I have a hard time believing that genetically modified people could launch a species of their own on Earth. You’d have to get tens of thousands of people to have sex only with one another for centuries. Good luck.

I’d be happy to hear whether anyone thinks I’m wrong. But as far as I can see, here’s what’s going to happen: some rich control freaks are going to screw up their kids’ lives, and some vulnerable people are going to be disenfranchised. In other words, more of the same.