“I not only think we will tamper with Mother Nature, I think Mother wants us to.”
IT IS THE DESTINY of the human race to overcome human nature. Thus spoke Nietzsche’s Zarathustra some hundred twenty years ago. But the idea that our species can and should be improved is much older still, and after a half century lull, the debate has returned to the fore. In an opinion piece appearing in Scotland’s Sunday Herald, scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins writes why “Eugenics May Not Be Bad”. Withholding his explicit support for the controversial theory, his thesis is simply that a debate on eugenics is long overdue.
“Eugenics” as the logo for the 1921 Second International Eugenics Conference billed it, “is the Self-Direction of Human Evolution”. Advances in science notwithstanding, the basic idea is perhaps as old as civilization itself; ancient Prussian, Fan, and other aboriginal societies are said to have engaged in primitive eugenics and Spartans used to dump “unfit” male newborns on the steppes of Mount Taygetus. However, such archaic attempts at selective breeding were doomed to fail without two modern developments: the centralized state and the science of genetics.
Eugenics was given new life after the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species seemed to validate the tenets of selective breeding. Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Darwin’s, became an early exponent with a paper titled “Hereditary Genius”, in which he argued that human “talent” and “genius” were hereditary, and without social policies to prevent interbreeding of the classes, society would suffer from what he termed “a regression towards the mean”.
It comes as no surprise that men such as Galton, born into the upper class of a 19th century England defined by its primitive class system, tended to equate themselves, their bloodlines, and their habits with “talent” and “genius” (note the explicitly un-Americanness of the enterprise; eugenics leaves little room for the sanguine phrase “created equal”).
It also comes as no surprise that Richard Dawkins would be interested in rekindling the debate. Dawkins, himself a Briton, is a brilliant man who strongly believes in the promise of science and reason, and who is famously contemptuous towards religious thought (he would probably object even to the pairing of the words). At times, however, Dawkins comes dangerously close to mimicking the intellectual hubris of his Oxford predecessors, including Galton. For instance, Dawkins believes atheists should abandon the moniker and refer to themselves as “brights”, a label Christopher Hitchens dismissed as “conceited” and “cringe-inducing”).
What may come as a surprise was that a chief opponent of eugenics—also known as social Darwinism—was Charles Darwin himself.
Darwin rejected eugenics on political grounds as a deeply illiberal concept requiring of the state an unacceptable assumption of power. Darwin also rejected eugenics on scientific grounds. Darwin expressed a lack-of-confidence in the ability of science to conclude which traits were worthy of promotion, which were not, and to predict what kind of social damage would be wrought by the sudden absence of millennia old behavior. Sedentary talents—philosophy, art, music—are impossible to quantify in terms of social value, and are not necessarily genetic: Sean Lennon is no John Lennon, and before you blame the screeching genetic influence of one Yoko Ono, it must be said the Julian Lennon (from a previous marriage) is also no Beatle.
Most importantly, Charles Darwin also rejected social Darwinism and eugenics on moral grounds. It was true, he said, that advances in medicine and economic prosperity ensured the survival and reproduction of the weakest, laziest, most unintelligent among us, and he even conceded that this was probably “injurious to the race of man”. Nevertheless, within that same race, natural selection has also included the instinct for sympathy and compassion which we cannot reject without the “deterioration [of] the noblest part of our nature…To neglect the weak and helpless” he said, could only come with an “overwhelming evil”.
Darwin would marvel at the scientific advances which have occurred since his 1882 passing. And yet, despite the lessons of Gregor Mendel’s peas, regardless of the discovery of the double helix, even in the face of the stunning progress at the Human Genome Project, the ethical question remains exactly the same: if we had the power to modify our species in significant ways, should we do it?
No matter the question, honest and open debate is always the right course of action. However, Richard Dawkins is wrong to think the quiet regarding eugenics is due to fear, intimidation, or inquisitiveness. In actuality, there is no debate simply because we’ve already had it, and in that debate, Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins’ hero, came out categorically against.
Darwin’s work is a marvel of scholasticism, genius, and hard work. It upended established thought and for that alone deserves our continued recognition. This February 12th, 2009, we celebrate what would have been Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday. What better way to carry on the tradition of the storied scholar than to scrutinize the opinion’s of today’s established thought, starting with those who claim his mantle? Judging from Dawkins’ latest post, he’s asking for it. We should oblige.