Tuesday, July 27, 2004
Everything Old is New Again: "The Return of Eugenics"? 
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
On the always-interesting FuturePundit, a post about the evolving face of eugenics:
Pre-Implantation Genetic Diagnostics (also sometimes abbreviated PIGD) is legal and used in most Western countries. Therefore it can be argued that eugenics is already being widely practiced with little opposition by many people who are using in vitro fertilization to start pregnancies. Also, the genetic testing of couples before conception in order to provide advice about risks of having a baby amounts to eugenics as well. The use of knowledge of genetics of prospective parents or embryos to decide whether to proceed with a pregnancy is eugenics.

Eugenics is not defined as something only governments carry out. Whether individuals use genetic technology to alter genetics of offspring or governments mandate the use of technology for eugenic purposes either way the use of genetic knowledge to alter reproductive outcomes is a form of eugenics.

I expect to see the practice of eugenics to become more widespread as the cost of genetic testing drops, as the expanding body of genetic research allows us to derive increasing numbers of useful insights from genetic tests, and as it becomes possible to do gene therapy on eggs, sperm, and embryos.

While most eugenic decisions in the West will be left to individuals I also expect to see laws passed to discourage or even to forbid the passing along of certain genetic variations - and not just variations that cause what are widely held to be defects.

For instance, when genetic variations that make a person very likely to be highly violent are identified then I expect most people to eventually favor the outlawing of knowingly passing along those genetic variations to future generations.
The last paragraph in this excerpt contains the really frightening bit - extrapolating the practice of embryo selection to prevent passing on life-threatening genetic abnormalities to the selection of personality characteristics. We'd do well as a society to remember, "just because a little of something is good, more is not necessarily better."

While there are a host of gut-level emotional reasons to reject this type of future eugenics-of-personality outright, one logical objection is that most negative human traits can also express themselves in constructive and positive ways, depending on the environment in which a person is raised. A "genetic predisposition" to violence does not necessarily mean the future child is fated to become a mass murderer: the same violent tendency that might create a killer in one context could create a military genius or world champion boxer in another set of life circumstances. Self-control, personal choices and education play a major role in modfiying the influence of "bad genes."

We also risk reducing the infinite complexity of the human condition down to a checklist of disconnected genetic trait markers, not unlike the lobes on an antique phrenology model that divided the brain into discrete physical areas purporting to contain complex human characteristics - "amativeness," "conjugal love," "secretiveness," "combativeness," "appetite," and "self-esteem," for example.

It's not too far a stretch to extend these futuristic methods of "improving humanity" from violence to other tendencies: should we also prevent hearty eaters from being born, as they may someday suffer costly obesity-related health problems and become a burden on society? Should we weed out those with potentially strong sexual appetites, lest they contract and spread deadly sexually-transmitted diseases like AIDS?

History has repeatedly shown that those born into unimaginably horrible life situations and "genetics" often overcome adversity to become not only functional, but exceptional, people. If we reject a human being for having a "potentially deadly character flaw," we not only profess to have control over the choice of life and death, but predictive knowledge of and control over another person's entire lifecourse and development as well. That, I believe, is too much for any person - or organization, or government - to ever claim responsibility for.