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Is Diet and Exercise Eugenic?

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Denis Noble

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Eugenics can be defined as “the science of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics.” Though, in his book Genetic Ethics: An Introduction, Farrelly (2018: 30) cites Bertrand Russel’s definition of eugenics. Eugenics is “the attempt to improve the biological character of a breed by deliberate methods adopted to that end.” So, eugenics does not have to be ‘bad’, if it is morally justifiable and defensible, if they treat all people as free and equal (which most eugenic movements in the past have not done. See my article Eugenics and the State for a history of eugenics and the policies that arose from it.)

Dieting (defined as “what one eats”, not the other commonly-used definition “when one is in caloric restriction under TDEE”) and exercise change the expression of genes in the genome. For example, mature skeletal muscle can adapt to numerous stressors—indeed, if it could not, then we would not be able to choose to gain (or lose) muscle mass. Exercise induces the activity of certain genes (Vissing, Anderson, and Schjerling, 2005). One study on endurance athletes showed that there are pronounced effects of gene expression on exercised and non-exercised muscles (Catoire et al, 2012). One study showed that the ingestion of glucose during exercise decreases the gene expression of genes associated with fatty acid metabolism (Civitarese et al, 2005). Numerous epigenetic changes are also induced by exercise (Ntanasis-Stathopoulos, Tzanninis, and Koutsilieris, 2013). Miyamoto-Mikami et al (2018) showed that young men who participated in high-intensity intermittent exercise training showed that 79 genes had an elevated expression whereas 73 genes were significantly reduced.

Williams and Neufer (1996) show that long-term responses in regard to adaptations in regard to a specific exercise “require changes in gene expression, mediated by changes in the rate of transcription of specific genes and in the rate of synthesis of
specific proteins.” Further, diet and exercise can change the transcriptional properties of skeletal muscle, which induce further physiological changes (Hargreaves and Cameron-Smith, 2002). There is even preliminary evidence that diet and exercise affects the epigenome over several generations (Barres and Zierath, 2016). Since changes occur to the epigenome due to environmental stressors, and exercise is an environmental stressor, it follows that exercise, too, can change the epigenome.

People visit the gym to change their biology. Since people visit the gym to change their biology, are they involved in “self-eugenics”? I would say yes, going with the definition from Russell quoted above. That one wants to change their biology means that they are most likely not currently happy with the way their biological phenotype currently is. So they visit the gym, begin a diet (defined here as “caloric restriction”) in order to change their biological phenotype since they are not happy with it. Methods like diet and exercise seek to improve the biological character of a breed through deliberate methods, and so, fall under the umbrella of “eugenics.”

But there is a difference between this type of “eugenics” and methods commonly thought of when “eugenics” are discussed. “When eugenic measures exemplify moral and epistemic virtue rather than vice, they are morally obligatory rather than simply morally permissible” (Farrelly, 2018: 42). Prescribing (a sensible) diet and exercise to a populace can and will improve their health; further, educating people on the right and wrong things to eat (“right and wrong things to eat” in regard to their current goals) and how these things we eat affect our physiology is not morally objectionable nor is it coercive.

Think of the eugenic policies I discussed in my article on eugenics and the State. The policies discussed (such as forced sterilization, infanticide, forced contraceptive measures, and selective breeding) are immoral: the State is attempting to force its ideals on the populace, and so it can be argued that it is immoral since individual autonomy is taken away (or attempted to be taken away). On the other hand, prescribing diet and exercise is not eugenic in this manner: it’s just a prescription, what one should do if they would like to live their life to the highest quality. This includes staying away from highly processed and refined foods (carbs) and other, “non-natural” foodstuffs. This is only a suggestion based on the current state of nutritional knowledge; if one wants to live the best-possible life then they should diet and exercise.

On the other hand, we can take a State-measure and, using the definition in this article from Russell, can say that this measure is eugenic, but its similarities to what is being argued here is irrelevant, since I am arguing for education, not forcing people to do something (though I will state my views on this matter at the end, which I still honestly think about since it conflicts with some of my views.)

Back in the beginning of this decade, then-mayor of NYC Michael Bloombergproposed [a] regulation that would bar food service establishments from selling certain sugary drinks in containers larger than sixteen ounces” in an effort to “reduce the city’s obesity rate.” When this law was proposed, I was all for it. People cannot make decisions for themselves, because when they do, they make the “wrong” (in regard to, what I would assume to be what people try to achieve—a healthy lifestyle) decisions, and so, I thought that a policy like this was a good idea, because who the hell needs a 64 oz. Big Gulp soda (which could have up to 700 kcal in the cup) from 7-11? Why would someone need to down almost 2 liters of soda in one go? Note that, I would assume, the individual would not be caught dead drinking out of a 2-liter bottle of soda (though I have seen quite a lot of people do so, even early in the morning). But there is no problem using the cup since its size is kind of deceptive—deceptive in the manner that it does not look like the 2-liter bottle of (family-sized) soda.

I loved this proposal when it was announced. It would, I thought, attempt to address one aspect of our obesity problem (since nearly 40 percent of all of the added sugars we consume come from sugary drinks). Back then, I was more libertarian in my politics, but I thought that the policy was a good idea, even though it conflicted with my views on politics. I now do not believe we should take these types of measures—I believe that education is sufficient, along with getting rid of food deserts which hamper the ability of those in those deserts to get access to good, high-quality food (which affects certain races over others; National Research Council, 2009).

The view held by Bloomberg, and now current NYC mayor Bill Deblasio, is an example of a policy that would take away one’s choice to drink what they would like. Bloomberg’s rationale was that, if people wanted more of the drink, then they can go over and refill their cup so that they can see what and how much they are actually drinking. This, on its face, is sensible. If one wants to drink the same amount they would have drank in, say, a 64 oz. Big Gulp, they can keep refilling their cup in order to get the same amount of liquid they would have gotten in the bigger cup. But, what if someone wants a 64 oz. Big Gulp? What about a 128 oz. Ultra Big Gulp? A 256 oz. Super Ultra Big Gulp? Is there anywhere we should draw this line? Should we?

In any case, I have shown that exercise and diet is “eugenic” in the sense of Russel’s definition. But it is not “eugenic” in the sense of, in my opinion, what most people mean when they discuss “eugenics”: taking away one’s individual autonomy to do what they want, forcing them to do something. (Though, they are not being told they cannot drink sugary drinks, they are being told that there is a size limit on how big their cup is; they would be forced to drink a sugary drink in a small cup.)

Bloomberg’s proposed measure is quite obviously eugenic since it “attempt[s] to improve the biological character of a breed by deliberate methods adopted to that end.” Is the health of the populace more important than individual autonomy to be able to buy their 256 oz. Super Ultra Big Gulp? Or is one’s ability to freely drink their 256 oz. Ultra Big Gulp more important? If it can be shown that this policy would reduce the number of obese people in the City, should it be attempted?

These are important (moral) questions to answer. I am honestly undecided here; this issue is incredibly complex. Though, we do know one thing: exercise and diet is “eugenic” in Russel’s sense, and the measures exemplify moral and epistemic virtue so it is not like “State-forced” eugenics of old. Whether or not there is a negative connotation to “eugenics” depends on whether or not it pursues sound and morally justifiable aims. Therefore, though prescribing diet and exercise is eugenic since they both influence the epigenome and gene expression (along with it falling under Russel’s definition of eugenics), it is not eugenic in a negative sense, since there are sound and morally justifiable aims in prescribing diet and exercise to the population at large.

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