Bioethics History Holocaust Medicine Religion

Dawkins and eugenics revisited

When I wrote a post about how Richard Dawkins was being unjustly smeared as supporting Hitler-style eugenics by the religious blogosphere, I figured I might provoke some criticism, particularly since I didn’t just stop there. No, in a bit of what some may consider blogging hubris, I couldn’t resist trying to discuss under what circumstances eugenics might be morally justifiable and under what form. (Of course hubris is almost a job requirement to be a blogger; so none of this should be surprising.) In any case, not surprisingly Vox Day wasn’t all that happy about what I wrote. (If you’re really interested in what he said, feel free to go to his site; it makes me queasy to link to him more than once in the same week.) Neither was an apparent fan of Vox’s by the name of Daniel Macintyre. I had been planning on following up my Dawkins post next week with the further discussion of eugenics, but Dan’s swipe at me was just enough to motivate me to revisit the issue now.

What is it they say about “you don’t tug on Superman’s cape”? (OK, my hubris is showing again; I’ll try to rein it in.)

I don’t mind people taking swipes at me most of the time. I really don’t. By no means do I consider myself anywhere near infallible, and I’m certainly wrong about some things occasionally. (Indeed, looking back at my Dawkins’ post there are a couple of things that I really wish I had phrased differently.) And, as long as they do it civilly, I actually appreciate it when other bloggers point out mistakes that I’ve made, raise issues that I may not have considered, or point out weaknesses in my arguments. To do that well, though, they have to address what I actually wrote, rather than a straw man of what I wrote. Unfortunately, that’s not what Dan does. Rather, he starts out with a strawman so dry that it threatens to spontaneously combust:

Orac discusses the the morality of eugenics and tries to find a reasonable grounds for its acceptance. I’d like to help him out with this – there is NO reasonable grounds for eugenics. It is FUNDAMENTALLY wrong in its conception and in practice wrong in its implementation.

Eugenics – the attempt to improve the race by selective breeding – is fundamentally wrong for two reasons. It is coercive and it needs a “coordinator” to choose who lives and who dies – genetically speaking, of course.

Sigh. Clue to you, Dan: Typing in all caps doesn’t make argument by assertion any more convincing. Also, please read again what I wrote as the biggest moral problem with eugenics programs:

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.

Well looky there! I pointed out that the reason people still recoil in horror at the thought of eugenics is because of the coercion that was used by Hitler and, sadly, by our own state governments right here in the good ol’ USA when they mandated involuntary sterilization for the “feebleminded” and certain categories of the mentally ill, not to mention the discussions that very learned psychologists openly held about “euthanizing the feeblemined” even as late as 1942, when the horrors of Hitler’s euthanasia program was becoming known and the Holocaust was cranking into into high gear.

Dan’s also not quite right in saying that I was trying to find “reasonable grounds” for its acceptance. What I was in fact doing was trying to find a reasonable starting point for a discussion of situations under which eugenics might be morally tolerable without reference to God. In other words, I was putting my admittedly imperfect thoughts about how we might construct a moral framework within which to consider eugenics that believers and atheists could both embrace. As I put it:

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.

Dan does the same thing to my words that did to Dawkins’ words by seemingly implying that I was supporting top-down, Hitler-style eugenics, complete with the culling of “life unworthy of life” and “worthless eaters,” when in fact I stated quite clearly that was not what I was doing and abhorred any form of coercion. I’m with him on that; the eugenics programs of the first half of the 20th century, particularly the Nazi program, were horrific assaults on human life and dignity. I’ll even agree with him that I can envision no situation under which a Hitlerian eugenics program would be morally acceptable.

Of course, a Hitler-style eugenics program was not at all what I was discussing, except as what must be avoided above all else. I guess it just goes to show that, in one sense at least, Dawkins was right. Talking openly about eugenics in any way other than hysterical condemnation of the practice is a risky business indeed, and, no matter how careful or nuanced you are and no matter how much you point out how much you abhor what Hitler did, abhor social Darwinism, and detest the racial hygiene pseudoscience that inspired Hitler, people will jump to the conclusion that you’re some sort of racist social Darwinist looking to fire up the ovens for the unfit (or at least sterilize them against their will based on traits I find undesirable).

It makes me wonder if Dan bothered to read what I actually wrote or whether he just lapped up Vox’s version of what I said before he was off and running. In any case, the entire first part of Dan’s post is little more than tilting at a straw men. The other one that he demolishes is, apparently, the definition of eugenics as inherently coercive. Such is not necessarily the case, and there is an entire branch of eugenics known as “liberal” or “positive” eugenics (what’s up with the association of “liberal” with “positive”), in which no coercion is used and the emphasis is on genetic testing and genetic manipulation designed to minimize genetic disorders and genetic predispositions to disease and to maximize ability.

Dan goes on, likening eugenics to socialism (forgetting, of course, it was often those bastions of socialist thinkers–a.k.a. social Darwinists–who were most in favor of eugenics during the latter half of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries and that Nazi-ism was a party of the petit bourgeoisie with strong ties to industrialists and capitalists), and then moving on to an argument that fuses a simplified view of human evolution with Libertarianism:

Each of the above methods of guidance is also wrong because it actually pushes the course of man’s evolution from its most optimal path to one that is less efficient. This is simply an extension of a basic free market argument. Each person tends to seek the best “deal” he can find. In this case the best deal is the most desirable mate that he can find and hold onto. Now there are obviously many different facets in this choice of desirability, but one of the primary ones is that person’s ability to ensure one’s future – be it financially, physically or through progeny. Someone who is a poor risk in this area is usually considered less “desirable.” Now, there is a large variance in the way genes express themselves, but as they do, their viability becomes obvious. People with genetic differences then become more or less desirable as their differences are “proven” in the world at large. By this measure, people who are relatively competitive through intelligence, health, psychological strength or what have you, also become more desirable. The more desirable then are able to attract more people and then can choose the most desirable of those who are attracted to them. by this means, optimal desirable traits are reinforced. They are, of course, further reinforced by their superior survivability.

By contrast, less desireable people either aren’t able to attract anyone or are only able to attract less desireable people. These people – having reinforced traits that do not exhibit strong survivability, are less likely to live.

Now, by this point, you all are probably thinking of Darwin and wondering how this is different than any other argument about natural selection. As far as any form of micro evolution goes, there isn’t much difference here at all. I’m simply taking it to a laissez fare conclusion by indicating that the actions of natural selection are superior to any forcing done by a central authority.

Hmmm. That use of the term “microevolution” is a tad suspicious. It makes me wonder whether Dan really believes in his heart of hearts that evolution works as it is currently understood. After all, he is on record as saying that “the problem with not looking at ID as an alternative to evolution is that it sends the message that evolution is not to be challenged in debate – basically hamstringing the scientific method in an attempt to preserve a small segment of scientific theory” and asserting that “the theories of Evolution and creation are both about faith.” It’s common for “intelligent design” creationists to use that term and fairly rare for biologists to use it.

Be that as it may, in practice, there’s little doubt that natural selection is likely to be more efficient at leading to human evolution to adapt to changing environments, but that’s because right now we don’t know enough about human genetics, epigenetics, and the interactions between genetics and environment that lead to fitness, nor do we know what represents human “fitness.” (For example, Dan seems to assume that intelligence is one trait that leads to human reproductive fitness, but there’s little evidence to support such an assertion.) In any case, even if Dan is correct and natural selection will always be more “efficient” (whatever that means in terms of evolution) at “improving” (again, whatever that means) the human race than any sort of eugenics program human minds can conceive, that is not a moral argument for why eugenics is, as Dan put it, “FUNDAMENTALLY wrong.” It is a strictly utilitarian argument.

Besides, even if we accept Dan’s point as a strictly utilitarian argument against eugenics, it is not necessarily a given that natural selection is necessarily inherently superior in all instances. Consider sickle cell anemia, for example. This is a recessive mutation in the hemoglobin gene giving it an abnormal structure. When two copies of the mutation are present, under conditions of low oxygen tension the hemoglobin clumps, causing red blood cells (RBCs) to form structures that look like sickles. These RBCS get caught in the microcirculation, leading to the complications of severe pain (also known as “sickle crisis”) and starvation of the tissues for oxygen, leading to complications such as kidney failure, osteomyelitis, and stroke. Carriers of one abnormal allele have what is called the sickle trait, which is usually asymptomatic. So why would such a mutation persist in the human population if people carrying two copies are so seriously affected? (Their life expectancies are dramatically shortened.) It turns out that carriers are more resistant to malaria than people with normal hemoglobin. Thus, having one copy of the gene is an advantage in areas where malaria is endemic, and the sickle hemoglobin allele remains in the population at a fairly high frequency. When the selective pressure of malaria is removed (as in areas where agriculture has drained the swamps), it becomes a purely negative trait, leading to a decrease in its frequency to a very low level over generations.

Now, at the risk of Deepak Chopra, let’s do a little thought experiment. Let’s say we can figure out a way to produce resistance to malaria without the serious downside of sickle cell disease (perhaps by altering a protein on the RBC surface to make it less palatable to the Plasmodium parasite that causes malaria). Wouldn’t that be a “superior” solution to the problem than the one evolution has provided? In actuality, in practice natural selection almost certainly does a far better job at producing better “fitness” than scientists could ever do right now, but that will not necessarily always be the case as science progresses.

Before I close, in all fairness to Dan (after all, this is Respectful Insolence™–most of the time, anyway), there are two areas were he did get it more right than wrong. They’re both utilitarian, rather than moral, arguments, but they represent two of the problems with eugenics that I didn’t get around to discussing in my first post, given that it was getting too long anyway. The first is that any large eugenics program that affected a sufficiently large segment of the population would come to resemble inbreeding:

Eugenics necessarily leads to the thinning of the gene pool and statically selecting for a set of traits desireable in the current environment. This is dangerous to the race as a whole because, while our ability to control and modify our immediate environment protects us somewhat from genetic stagnation, any bad downturn in our fortune (like the much vaunted global warming possibilities) could easily lead to the complete annihilation of our species.

I’m not sure that global warming would be the sort of thing that would produce such a catastrophic result in an inbred population, but the emergence of a new and virulent disease for which few have resistance could. Again, however, Dan’s fears are more likely to occur in a top-down, rather than voluntary eugenics program, because the very “central authority” that he fears would decide what genes and what traits are desirable. In contrast, in a hypothetical voluntary program, such an outcome would be much less likely for a couple of reasons. First, not every parent would choose the same sets of genes or traits for his or her children. If it became possible, some parents would choose athletic ability over high intelligence, for instance, while others would make the opposite choice. Second, in a voluntary program, there would inevitably be interbreeding between the “genetically enhanced” and the rest of us. Again, Dan seems to be assuming a program of total coercion with no interbreeding. Yet we know that throughout human history, whenever two human populations are in close proximity, there is always interbreeding, and that would serve to lessen the tendency towards homozygosity of harmful alleles.

What Dan is closer to being correct is in his description of unintended consequences. Thanks to linkages between genes, incomplete understandings of what individual genes do or of what batteries of genes determine which trait and how the members of those batteries of genes may crossover and determine other traits as well, changing one or a few genes might have consequences that we can’t foresee:

The other issue of implementation is unintended consequences. Often, selecting for a desirable trait can lead to consequences that make the net gain less substantial or even possibly a loss. Take for instance intelligence. As human beings, our greatest strength is our intelligence, so it might make sense to attempt to selectively breed for intelligence. This, however could easily lead to neurological diseases. This is pretty much exactly what happened to the Ashkenazi Jews I’ve referenced in earlier articles. This is a population that, through various influences, may have become more intelligent through a process of selection that favored intelligence. However, they also suffer from a series of genetic disorders that are directly related to the same process of selection.

Actually, it’s not at all settled scientifically that the reason Ashkenazi Jews tend to score higher in IQ tests is related to their genetic inbreeding or because of cultural influences. Quite possibly, it’s both. Either way, the contention that the higher average intelligence in Ashkenazi Jews is due primarily to genetics and is related to their much higher rate of various genetic diseases and mutations (Tay-Sachs, BRCA mutations, etc.) is a highly controversial hypothesis that Dan seems to accept as settled science when it is still very much in dispute. Even so, the overall concept behind the example is valid, namely that the breeding for (or genetic engineering for) one trait (or one narrow set of traits) can have unintended deleterious consequences in other traits, often in ways that we cannot predict. Indeed, we see the same sort of thing in purebred dogs, many of whom suffer from a host of predictable inherited maladies specific to their breed. There is no reason to think that humans would be immune from the same presently unpredictable effects, unless scientists can develop an orders of magnitude better understanding of the genome, genetics, and epigenetics.

In the end, given the highly imperfect state of our knowledge at present, any attempts at eugenics would be likely to be only marginally less of a crapshoot than regular sexual reproduction. Nonetheless, as I pointed out before, with the proliferation of genetic testing, we are already early in the process of developing a de facto voluntary eugenics program. Moreover, if there is no coercion involved and no “controlling authority” (as Dan puts it) deciding what traits or genes must be eliminated or kept, the moral issues involved are not nearly as black and white as Dan makes them out to be. Indeed, Dan’s absolutist position is hard to disagree with because it’s built on a straw man, and the totalitarian-style eugenics programs that he is attacking are so clearly morally repugnant, for reasons I have discussed here and in my previous piece. Almost no one is agreeing that we should implement such a program. However, we are, whether Dan likes it or not, implementing a much less radical eugenics program without even realizing that that is what we are doing, and, as our understanding of the genome and what determines various traits improves, this trend is likely to continue. Dawkins is right. The discussion must begin, and we can’t allow the ghost of Hitler to inhibit it, even if in the end we decide (perhaps on the basis of the morality of altering a person before he is born in ways that he has no say over) that eugenics as a concept is inherently immoral. In the face of silence and fear of being labeled Nazis for bringing up the topic, we will have no hope of controlling the genie of eugenics, now that it has been released.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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