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Is Diet and Exercise Eugenic?

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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.


Eugenics and the State

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The history of eugenics is intertwined with the history of genetics. The term “genetics” was established in 1905 by William Bateson. Half a century previously, Francis Galton coined the term “eugenics”, which is Greek for “well-born” or “good genesis”, though Galton did not attribute the genesis of the idea to the Greeks. Eugenic history began with the ancient Greeks, and, of course, is still around today. However, today we have technology that was previously not able to be conceptualized due to past people’s knowledge. This article will give a brief overview of eugenics throughout history up to the modern day.

Eugenics in ancient Greece

The idea of eugenics was first formulated by Aristotle. Aristotle imagined a rigged lottery (of course those who drew tickets did not know the lottery was rigged). The reasoning for rigging the lottery was simple: they could prevent so-called undesirable people from breeding while promoting births for people they want to breed. Plato only wanted those in the Greek upper-classes to mate (what was termed the “guardian class), men aged 25 and women aged 20—so they can birth children in their primes.

After the children were born, they were taken from their parents and held in special nurseries. Children who were Bron defective were” hidden away”, which could be a euphemism for infanticide (a form of which was reportedly practiced in Sparta where they left newborns at the city limits so the weak could die and the strong could live). Fit young men who chose not to breed had to pay a fine which went to the temple of Hera which was based on their class.

Aristotle had similar views to Plato. He, too, wanted the State to be in charge of the birthing process. He wanted both sexes to marry at their primes, in his eyes, aged 37 for men and 18 for women, while performing infanticide on babies born with deformities and aborting children if couples have too many. (See Galton, 1998 for a review of eugenic policies in ancient Greece.) (See also Genetics and the Decline of Sparta.)

The argument for autonomy

A simple argument can be erected against any and all State coercion to do something: the argument for the rejection of State authority (Wolff, 1970). The argument can be formulated thus:

P1. We have a higher-order interest in autonomy.
P2. If something promotes our higher-order interests, we have a duty to do it.
C1. We have a duty to be autonomous (modus ponens, P1, P2).
P3. If we have a duty to be autonomous, then autonomy requires that we decide what to do with ourselves.
C2. We should decide what to do for ourselves (modus ponens, C1, P3).
P4. If we accept the authority of others, then we are not autonomous.
C3. We should not accept the authority of others (modus tollens, C1, P4).
P5. If we accept the authority of law, then we accept the authority of others.
C4. We should not accept the authority of the law (modus tollens, C3, P5).

The argument is about rejecting State authority as a whole, but, of course, we can substitute. “If we accept the authority of [law X in regard to eugenic policy P] then we accept the authority of others[‘ thoughts of what to do with our lives]”. Thus we should disallow State eugenic policies.

Eugenics in ancient Rome

Like most other ancient civilizations, the ancient Romans practiced abortion and infanticide. Archaeological analyses uncovered a well, and in the well were dozens of little skeletons, implying that the Romans disposed of the babies of prostitutes (these were found in bordellos) because they were unwanted.

The Romans “deemed people with disabilities as sub-human“, with the abandonment of the baby being standard practice—which lends more credence to the baby wells of the Romans in the bordellos.

Eugenics in China

The Chinese Maternal and Infant Health Care Law states that if the screening of an embryo reveals that the couple in question has a chance of birthing a defective baby then they should agree to take contraceptive measures (see Guo, 2006 for a review). Further, if they already married then they must take long-term contraceptive measures. These measures are supported in China, since they have about 50 million disabled persons (see MacKeller and Bechtel, 2016).

Eugenics in Germany

The ideology of eugenics was present in Germany long before Hitler came to power. It was written about by numerous authors, including Nietzsche. “The first chair of eugenics was given in 1923 at the University of Munich to the geneticist Fritz Lenz” (MacKellar and Bechtel, 2016). Lenz promoted ‘racial hygeine’—he wanted Nordic traits to proliferate over others traits. He eventually joined the National Socialist party in 1937. The Nazis sterilized about 350,000 people between 1934 and 1939. This, then, led to the construction of a euthanasia program in 1939 called the “T-4 program”—‘Tiergartenstrasse 4″. The order allowed physicians to grant so-called ‘mercy killings’ to those deemed incurable as gauged by the current medical technologies. All euthanasia programs, however, were halted once word got out to the general German public. The National Socialists, thus, practiced both negative eugenics (selecting against people who they deemed unfit to have children) and positive eugenics (selecting for people who they deemed fit to have children).

The horrors of WWII Germany, though, caused great revile in every aspect of any kind of genetic modifications/selecting against/for any traits in humans. After the defeat of the  Axis powers, in general, the public’s attitudes towards eugenics sharply changed.

In reaction to Nazi abuses, postwar politicians and members of the scientific community denounced the notion of any inherent inequality between human individuals.


After the Second World War, however, there was a significant drop of eugenic sterilizations of those with mental disabilities in response to a decline in support for eugenic policies as a whole. (MacKellar and Bechtel, 2016: 37-38)

Eugenics in Norway

In Norway, sterilization was first mentioned in 1927. They eventually enacted a law in 1934 based on the facts that parents could not look after their children and hereditary diseases. This continued all the way up until 1977, when the rights of the individual in question were considered. Though, unlike WWII Germany, there was no State-sanctioned eugenic policy, and each case was taken on a case-by-case basis.

Between the years 1934 and 1977, about 41,000 people were sterilized, with a majority consenting to the practice—about 75 percent were enacted on women (MacKellar and Bechtel, 2016: 39). However, between the years of 1943-1945, a law for the protection of the race was enacted in Norway while the Germans occupied the country—which was removed from law after Nazi Germany fell. However, in 1977, sterilizations changed from a way to control the people to a means of one’s ability to choose to limit their own reproduction.

Eugenics in Sweden

Sweden was the only Nordic country to have a national eugenics society. One of the leaders in eugenic thinking in Sweden in the early 1900s Arthur Engbert thought that we register pedigrees of our dogs and horses, so why not do so for ourselves (Swedes). Sweden, like Norway, enacted a sterilization act in 1934, though it only addressed sterilizations without the consent of the person; they did it to people who were legally incompetent. However, in 1941, this act was widened to include individuals with heritable physical disabilities. Women could also, of course, choose to sterilize themselves if they had too many children.

Thus, from 1935, when sterlizations were often being undertaken for eugenic reasons until 1975 when they were generally considered for medical reasons and the legislation was eventually overturned, Sweden sterlized nearly sixty-three thousand persons. Up to a quarter of these persons were mentally disabled. Though there was never a systematic sterilization program of mentally disabled individuals on the basis of political descisions or administrative instructions, the sterilizations seemed to develop on their own in the context of what was allowed. More than 90 per cent of these procedures were undertaken on women, but many individuals considered as having an antisocial way of life also felt the effects of somewhat coerced sterlizations. (MacKellar and Bechtel, 2016: 41)

Eugenics in the Soviet Union

Eugenics in the Soviet Union started with the biologists Aleksandr Serebrovskii in 1929. He recommended that artificial insemination be introduced to the populace in order to control who gives birth and who does not. He wrote (quoted in MacKellar and Bechtel, 2016: 41):

With the current state of artficial insemination technology…one talented and valuable produce could have up to one thousand children…In these conditions, human selection would make gigantic leaps forward. And various women and whole communes would then be proud…of their success and achievements in this undoubtedly most astonishing field — the production of new forms of human beings.

However, Stalin did not take to these proposals since, in his eyes, these types of eugenic policies contradicted Marxist ideology by claiming that human characters were determined by biology and not social/environmental ‘realities’. This, then, led to the deaths of many geneticists in the Soviet Union. (There are many good books on this matter, though my favorite is Lysenko’s Ghost.)

Eugenics in the United Kingdom

Sybil Gotto founded the Eugenics Education Society (EES) in 1907 in the UK to voice his concerns of the lower classes outbreeding the higher classes—what was perceived as a demographic problem. Francis Galton was the first Chair of this Society. So the EES proposed to prevent lower classes from breeding and promoting only breeding for the middle and higher classes, which would improve the whole society by excising the lower classes and replacing them with middle and upper classes. (There has to be a ‘bottom’ everywhere; so there still would exist ‘lower classes.’)

Winston Churchill was even quoted as saying persons in Britain “should, if possible, be segregated under proper conditions so that their curse diet with them and was not transmitted to future generations” (quoted in MacKellar and Bechtel, 2016: 43). After Churchill stated this, three years later, the UK Mental Deficiency Act of 1913 was established, and people deemed idiots, imbeciles, feebleminded or morally defective were detained in an effort to control the breeding of the population.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990 was considered as allowing ‘soft’ forms of eugenics, it was stated that people would abort for even minor physical anomalies. Though, of course, this did end up occurring, lending credence to said ‘fears.’

Eugenics in America

Finally, the eugenics movement really became ‘scientific’ in America in the late 1800s to early 1900s. In fact, the first recorded eugenic experiment took place in America, at the so-called Perfectionist Community in Oneida, New York. The leader of this community was named John Noyes—a radical Christian, who believed that Christians had a moral responsibility to promote ‘moral perfection.’ He was influenced, of course, by Darwin and Galton. Between the years of 1869 and 1879, Noyes organized a campaign to get the so-called best to propagate. Members chosen to propagate were chosen on the basis of characters like ‘intelligence’, physical traits, and, of course, the commitment to Noyes’ vision (of a utopia). Fifty-eight children were born, but the project was soon abandoned.

Numerous US states passed laws barring certain people from marriage—imbeciles, epileptics, or those with feeble-minds. (See, for example, this article on Connecticut eugenic policies.) The Connecticut law was, in fact, the first eugenic policy passed in the country. These types of policies even were used to prevent immigration into America (see Dolmage, 2018 for a review).

Further, during the first 70 years of the 20th century, “eugenic policies affected up to sixty-four thousand Americans. But this happened primarily through measures such as forced sterilization. The 1907 Compulsory Sterilization Law of Indiana was the first to enact such legislation, though the public at large, was generally unaware of the initiative. According to this law, every institution that housed ‘confirmed criminals, idiots, rapists and imbeciles’ could authorize medical personnel ‘to perform such operation for the prevention of procreation’. This legislation was replicated by other states to such an extent that, by 1927, an estimated twenty-four states had enacted similar laws. Of these, the state of California was one of the most active, performing 4,636 sterilizations and castrations between 1907 and 1925, reaching a total of 9,930 by 1935″ (MacKellar and Bechtel, 2016: 46-47).

Then in 1927, a woman named Carrie Buck challenged the state of Virginia when a physician said that her sterilization would be for the ‘good of society.’ The high court of Virginia denied her claim, so she took it to the SCOTUS—known as Buck v. Bell. SCOTUS went 8-1 against Buck, saying that Buck “was a threat and danger to the genetic stability of society” (MacKellar and Bechtel, 2016: 47). So, the highest Court in the Land sided with the physician and not the woman. Eugenic policies were hardly opposed until 1974, with the case Relf v. Weinberger. The case came about due to to “the malicious, undesired sterilization of sisters Mary Alice and Minnie Reif” (MacKellar and Bechtel, 2016: 47). In the ruling, it was stated that mentally competent adults had to give their consent to sterilization, but this did not become standard until 1981.

Ultimately, formal acknowledgment of the ethically unacceptable abuse of sterilizations in the United States only came in 2003.

The international influence of American eugenic policies shpould not be underestimated. The Nazi government regularly cited a publication that touted favorable results of the sterilization policy in the state of California as evidence that wide-reaching sterilization programs were both feasible and humane. At the Nuremberg trials following the Second World War, Nazi administrators accused of war crimes actually justified the mass-sterilization of hundreds of thousands of people in less than a decade by referencing the United States success as their inspiration. (MacKellar and Bechtel, 2016: 47-48)


Eugenic thinking has been with us at least since the ancient Greeks and the idea has mutated over the times with different types of policies and measures each society has taken to ensure that their ‘genetic hygiene’ was as good as possible.

Eugenic thinking is, of course, still around today. Most recently, the Chinese using CRISPR—on twin girls—to create the first genetically modified humans, who were born this month. It is important to note that these claims have not been verified by other scientists nor have they been published yet. I am not too surprised at the outrage of this—if it did indeed happen (many people are skeptical that it did). I know some will say ‘Ethics don’t matter when the Chinese don’t care about ethics and look at what they’re doing!!!’ (If they truly did do this.) However, just because people disregard something doesn’t mean it does not exist. (The scientist, He Jiankui, is currently under investigation amidst questions of whether or not what he supposedly did was ethical and legal.)

Understanding the history of eugenics—the hows and whys—can prevent us from repeating past mistakes.

(For some info on the supposed Chinese gene-edited baby, see China’s gene-edited babies will push bioethics into a dark new era and A Sobering Moment for thoughts on the supposed gene-editing.)