Yesterday on Twitter, biologist of The Selfish Gene (Dawkins, 1976) fame Richard Dawkins set off a firestorm on Twitter with a tweet about eugenics (since it just so happened to be Galton’s birthday yesterday).
Deploring the idea means we should not do it—what ‘value’ would there be in breeding humans to jump higher or run faster? Such ideas and the push for them is the mask for eugenic policies—eugenics can and will slip in through the back door using current technologies.
Adapting an argument from Walter Glannon in Genes and Future People (Glannon, 2001: 109):
Where case (A) is CRISPR modifications; case (U) is eugenics; and (B), (C), … (N) are intermediaries.
(1) Case (A) is acceptable.
(2) But cases (B), (C), … (N) … are unacceptable.
(3) Cases (A) and (U) are assimilable, so they are differences in degree, which fall along a continuum of the same type.
(4) If case (A) is permitted, then it will lead to a precedent to allow case (U).
(5) Permitting case (A) will cause cases (B), (C), (N), and … .
(6) Thus, case (A) should be impermissible.
Glannon (2001: 109) rejects (3) stating that “treatment and enhancement are different in kind, not merely degree, and they can correspond to distinct aims that can be articulated.”
Glannon (2001:110) rejects (5) also, stating that “if case (a) is not relevantly similar to cases (b) through (n), then it is unlikely that (a) would cause (b) through (n) to occur. Hence premise (5) is false as well.” (See Govier, 1985 for these argument forms as well, mainly the feasibility argument.)
The problem with his rejection of (3) is that differences of degree can combine to become significant. So if case (A) is similar to (B)-(N), then, since differences of degree can combine to become significant, then allowing (A) will lead to (U) down the line.
… all treatments are enhancements (though not all enhancements are treatments), and … not all ehancements are, by definition alone, ethically unacceptable. (Baylis, 2019: 59)
But if the treatments (which are all enhancements) will, eventually, lead to the psychological slippery slope to accepting eugenics, then we should not do it. “Yea, the treatments were fine. Now they want to prevent this group from doing X and that group from doing Y—what’s the big deal? It’s similar to enhancement, is it not?”
If it is fine to fix a mutation in a gene in a somatic cell, then why not edit the germline so that that individual’s future kin won’t be subjected to that? It would be a waste of time—and money—to keep editing the same family’s somatic cells when they can just edit the germline and get it over with, right?
Now, some may cry “Slippery slope fallacy!” But just crying “Fallacy!” at me does not cut it—one must show that (U) does not follow from (A) and (B)-(N).
The argument provided above is a psychological slippery slope argument. Psychological slippery slope arguments—different from a logical slippery slope argument, where once a first step is taken, one is logically committed to taking subsequent steps unless there are logical reasons to avoid taking such steps—which is based on probability, that is, they are inductive. A psychological slippery slope argument is where once one practice is accepted, similar practices, too, will be accepted as they see no significant difference between them. So accepting one practice, psychologically prepares one to accept another, so we are looking at what may happen, not what the rules and logic of the assertion entail logically.
So if we allow X (gene therapy, negative eugenics) then we will ride down the slippery slope to Y (positive eugenics, genetic enhancement).
When Dawkins says that eugenics ‘works’, what does that mean? That it is possible to attempt to select for certain traits in non-human animals, then it is, therefore, possible for humans? I don’t know who (sanely) can deny this—in theory—but how would it work in practice? Whether it’s state-mandated eugenics (like, for instance, policing who has babies with who) or attempting gene editing in humans, we do not know what would occur in the future (we don’t know what environments would look like in the future so how would we select for traits that would be beneficial in an unknown environment?). Though, I can see eugenicists attempting to use some shoddy GWAS data, such as ‘Look at Hill et al (2019), these genes are associated with high-income, so if we edit/add them then others will have the ability for high-income too!’ (The high-income genes must be doing really well for the rich, as the world’s 2,153 billionaires own more wealth than 4.6 billion people—60 percent of the world’s population.)
Dawkins, though, seems to be forgetting a few things:
(1) When humans breed animals and attempt to select for certain traits, the environments are as uniform as possible.
(2) What would it mean to ‘work’? Is it independent of ideological/moral questions? If, and only if, there could be a definition of ‘favorable result’, or ‘success’ that is divorced from value could eugenics ‘work’ and be a ‘success’ or ‘favorable result.’
(3) Eugenics is a value-laden ideology. Science is—supposedly—value-free. So by that definition, eugenics is not science, it is a social movement.
Humans selectively bred dogs from wolves, and now we have the gamut from big and tall, to short and fat and short and small with many different phenotypes in between. But look at the pugs. We breed them for the flatter, ‘cuter’ face but what does that do for them? Pugs have what is called “Brachycephalic airway obstruction syndrome (BAOS) or Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS) occurs in all breeds with significant brachycephaly. Brachycephaly is abnormally short head shape (compared with the ancestral, natural, head shape of dogs) with, in some cases, greatly shortened upper jaws and noses.” This can lead to asphyxiation of the dog. What do ya know? Something unintended (possible asphyxiation) occurred due to what we selected for (shorter heads, flatter faces). Who’s to say what would happen if we attempted to select for ‘income genes’ (or whatever else) in humans?
Even prenatal screening can be used to get eugenics in through the back door (Thomas and Rothman, 2016; also see Duster, 2003). I have argued—for and against—the use of PGD (preimplantation genetic diagnosis) back in 2018. I have also covered eugenic laws in America and throughout the world during the 20th century. Allowing (A) will lead us right back to (U)—where were in the 20th century. Selecting against or for certain traits/genes may lead to unintended consequences (like the breathing problems that pugs have). So, why should we do things to humans if we don’t know the consequences of what we are selecting for or against?
Wilson (2017: 46) describes how value-laden eugenics is, stating that it is not “merely theoretical”, nor “primarily mathematical”:
Identifying eugenics as applied science may be thought to imply very little, saying only that eugenics does not fall under the contrasting mythical category of “pure science.” But the labeling of eugenics as applied science should be taken not so much to register a location on the putative divide between pure and applied science as to distinguish eugenics from a certain idealization of scientific inquiry. It signals three things that eugenics is not, and never was: it is not merely theoretical, not primarily mathematical or statistical, and not value-free.
First, eugenics is not merely theoretical, in the sense of being concerend primarily with abstract or idealized conditions (cf. theoretical physics or theoretical biology). It is focused on, and very motivated by, perceived problems in real-world human populations and their solution.
Second, eugenics is not primarily mathematical or statistical in nature, however much it may at times draw from or rely on mathematical techniques or results. Galton himself was an accomplished mathematician, inventing several statistical techniques, such as the quantified idea of a standard deviation and the use of regression lines in statistics, which remain with us today. Galton’s most prominent successors in the United Kingdom—Karl Person and Ronald Fisher—were also statistically sophisticated innovators who led a biometric wing to the eugenics movement. While the quantitative measures of both individuals and populations has played an important role in the short history of eugenics, much eugenic work bears no closer relationship to the underlying statistics than does the bulk of contemporary, biological, cognitive, and social sciences.
Third, eugenics is not value-free science, and doesn’t purport to be: it is deeply and often explicitly value-laden. I want to take a little more time to explain this dimension to the applied nature of eugenics, for doing so will take us to some core aspects of eugenics as a mixture of applied science and social movement.
First, the evaluative judgments that The Eugenic Mind rests on go well beyond those for traits, behaviors, and characteristics whose desirability or undesirability can be properly taken for granted. Second, eugenic thinking presumes that there are more desirable and more undesirable—better or worse—kinds or sorts of people. For this reason, the primary way in which eugenics has sought to improve the quality of human lives over generational time has been for advocating for ideas and policies that promote there being a greater proportion of better kinds or sorts of people in future generations.
To illustrate the first of these points, many eugenic policies were either explicitly stated in terms of, or implicitly relied on, a positive valuation of high intelligence and a negative valuation of low intelligence, especially as measured by standard IQ tests, such as the Stanford-Binet. While this positive valuation od intelligence is still widely shared in our society when expressed abstractly, as a part of science that aims to inform and shape what sorts of people there should be in future generations, it is a value judgment that is significantly more questionable than that concerning avoiding pain and suffering. Eugenic thinking and practice also rested on assessments of a broader range of personality and dispositional tendencies—for example, clannishness, cheerfulness, laziness, honesty, criminality—not only whos transmissibility across generations was considered controversial but whos very existence as intrinsic traits and tendencies has never had substantial scientific support.
Likewise, turning to the second point, the eugenic thinking that informed immigration policy in the United States following the First World War held that people of different races or ethnicities were differentially desirable as immigrants coming into the country. This differential valuation was applied to groups such as Poles, Greeks, Italians, Jews, and Slavs. Thus, eugenic immigration policies aimed to promote the influx of immigrants who were viewed as more desirable in nature, and to restrict the immigration of those deemed to be of inferior stock. We now question whether such groups of people are properly thought of as more or less desirable sorts of people to produce future generations of American nationals. But we also rightly wonder whether these are sorts of people, in the relevant sense, at all.
The eugenicists of the 20th century advocated laws, policy, ideas, and practices to ensure that the ‘right people’ would have more children (positive eugenics) while, at the same time, aiming to lower the birth rates of the ‘wrong people’ (negative eugenics) or both.
Connecticut, for instance in 1896, enacted a law stating that no man or woman who is epileptic or feebleminded could marry or live together if the woman is under 45 years old. Indiana, in 1907, passed sterilization laws for criminals, rapists, and those with incurable diseases. And by 1914, at least half of the states in America barred marriages if one of the participants had a mental defect. The SCOTUS case Buck v. Bell made the sterilization of the ‘feebleminded’ constitutional in 1927 with more than 30 states participating, to different degrees, by the 1930s. Then by the 30s, more than 12000 sterilizations were carried out, with at least 7500 occurring in California; then by the 60s, more than 63000 sterilizations were carried out in America. (See Alexander, 2017 for references.)
Eugenic policies can be used for either wing of politics—right, left, or center. Quoting Alexander (2017: 69):
Sterilisation was seen as progressive and an obvious responsibility for a state-organised society with a social conscience. A Swedish doctor writing in 1934 stated that ‘[t]he idea of reducing the number of carriers of bad genes is entirely reasonable. It will naturally be considered within the preventative health measures in socialist community life’ (Burleigh, 2000, p. 366). Sterilisation laws in Sweden stayed in place until the 1970s. Based on a solid biological basis in the power of nature over nurture, eugenics represented the rational response of progressive science-based state control in the light of the social problems contributed by the unfit and the feeble-minded. The Nobel prize-winning Marxist geneticist Herman Muller (1890-1967) declared to the Third International Congress of Eugenics in 1932 ‘[t]hat imbeciles should be sterilized is unquestionable’. In 1935, Muller envisaged that, through selective breeding, within a century most people could have ‘the innate qualities of such men as Lenin, Newton, Leonardo, Pasteur, Beethoven, Omar Khayyam, Pushkin, Sun Yat Sen, Marx, or even to possess their varied faculties combined’ (Muller, 1936, p. 113).
Lastly, here is a story of a girl who survived eugenics:
In this landmark legal case decided in 1996 by Madame Justice Joanne Veit, eugenics survivor Leilani Muir successfully sued the province of Alberta for wrongful confinement and sterilization relating to her admission to and treatment at the Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives in Red Deer, Alberta, from 1955 until 1965. As a child of ten, Leilani had found herself swept up by the eugenics movement. After being institutionalized, Leilani was sterilized putatively in accord with the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta, a law that was in place in the province until 1972. That provincial law, one of only two enacted in Canada’s history, authorized the eugenic sterilization of individuals whose recommendation for sterilization by the medical superintendents of provincial institutions or other state authority figures had been approved by a four-person committee known informally as the “Eugenics Board.” The legal wrongfulness of both Leilani’s institutionalization/confinement and her sterilization that was established in Muir v. Alberta drew attention to many problematic features of how eugenics was practiced in the province, including how the Eugenics Board did its work.
Leilani was distinctive, and admirably so as I got to know her better, but not different in the way one might expect, given her history. She was, to put it in terms of a concept that structures our perceptions of human variation, as normal as can be. Yet Leilani had been institutionalized at a school for mental defectives for an extended period of time as a child, teenager, and as a young adult; she had also been classified as a “moron”—a term whose colloquial familiarity now might make it surprising to some to learn that it was invented barely 100 years ago by the eugenicist and psychologist Henry Goddard to pick out “higher grade” mental defectives. Classified as a higher-grade mental defectives, Leilani was sterilized putatively in accord with the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta. And all of that had further, unexpected, and devastating consequences for Leilani’s post-institutional life.
How did this happen? Leilani was certainly different from the educated, upwardly mobile, middle-class people who populated my snug university surroundings. But she wasn’t that different from the less-educated, often class-stagnant, working-class people with whom I grew up. And, it turned out, she was not different from the many hundreds, if not thousands, of others who were subjected to the very same laws in Alberta. How does this kind of thing happen? (Wilson, 2017: 20, 22)
I don’t know why Dawkins said that it’s one thing to oppose eugenics on “ideological, political, moral grounds”; whether or not it ‘works’ and is a ‘success’ (see caveats above) is irrelevant. As the moral/political arguments against eugenics (and any supposed precursors) outweigh any arguments for ‘utility’. Starting with negative eugenics/gene therapy can and will lead to modification/eugenics. State-mandated? Maybe not. But the attempt to take away choice from an unborn human (on, say, what he wants to do in life, if a parent is trying to ‘select for’ a certain trait or quality that supposedly will lead him down the path to doing X)? Definitely.
Eugenics is morally wrong. Anything that may lead to the slippery slope of eugenics is, then, by proxy, morally wrong. The psychological slippery slope argument provided proves this. The claim that eugenics can ‘work’ implies that our genes are US—that our genes make us who we are (e.g., Plomin, 2018). This is the cost of our gene-worshipping society. Instead of worshipping God, we now worship the gene—the gene god—thinking that our ‘destiny’ is in our genes and that if we choose certain genes—or certain people with the certain genes—then we can guide our society and evolution into something ‘good’ (whatever that means).
Just as traditional thought placed biological forms in the mind of God, so modern thought finds ways of endowing genes with ultimate formative power. (Oyama, 1985)