This is the piece I was writing when the brick hit my deck, inspiring this earlier post, which is now a finalist for the 3QuarksDaily science blog prize. For a more detailed and absolutely deadpan look at Wade, see Dick Dorkins’s review.
BAM! A sharp thud on our little back deck about a yard from me the other day. I looked and saw a brick, lobbed over the fence by three kids in the alley. I yelled an obscenity and dashed for the gate. The kids took off and I gave chase, barefoot, indifferent to the shards of back-alley glass. The boys were young—between 9 and 12—brown-skinned. They outran me easily after a couple of blocks. But I got close enough to get a good look. They were clean and well-groomed. Nice-looking kids. They probably had moms who would give them a licking if they knew what their boys had done. Fortunately, no damage was done. I didn’t get a concussion or a bone bruise. It didn’t total my laptop. It didn’t shatter a window. The event was not serious in the wider scheme of city crime. But it was an invasion, a violation. It pissed me off and I thought about it the rest of the day. I weighed their crime as racially motivated. They were black and I am white and they probably wouldn’t have thrown that brick into a black family’s yard. Then I thought about it as motivated by class. Houses in our neighborhood are modest, but probably by those boys’ standards we are wealthy. I thought about how much violence lay behind the gesture. The beefy white cop who took my statement told me to dispose of the brick safely (lest it explode?) and suggested I work in a safer place than my back deck. The brick remains, as a reminder, and I continue to write in the garden. I will not be cowed by a nine-year-old. In the end, I concluded that class was more important than race—and mischief more important than class. The incident was the more troubling because two days earlier, I had also been writing outside when helicopters began circling. We live near a hospital with a Medevac, and traffic copters occasionally make a few passes when there’s a jam or an accident on a nearby artery, so a couple of minutes of their drone is normal. But these persisted, and then I saw that they were black police choppers. A few minutes later, a woman ran up our small one-way street screaming and wailing into her cell phone. We thought we heard her scream, “My baby!”
I checked the Baltimore PD Twitter feed and my heart sank:
Shooting. 3600 block Old York Road. Adult female and juvenile reported to be shot.
It was about five blocks from my house, across the busy thoroughfare marking my neighborhood from the friendly but sketchier one to the east. It’s not “The Wire” sketchy. Just a lower-middle-class neighborhood, mostly black, higher-than-average unemployment rate, lots of families and low-budget hipsters. Shootings are rare there, and broad-daylight gunplay is rare anywhere. But this particular afternoon, three-year-old MacKenzie Elliot was playing on the porch. Caught a stray bullet. Was dead by sundown. The piece I was trying to write that weekend was a review of several books, on genetic and cultural theories of race. One is Nicolas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance, which received a satirical review on these pages. It is a pernicious book, a defense of white privilege on biological grounds, cloaked in the same phony tone of reason that eugenicists and anti-evolutionists have evoked for decades: I just want to talk about this issue. Science has to be able to investigate any question, no matter how unpopular. Help help, the Political Correctness Police are trying to silence me. Blah blah blah.
In the early 1980s, I learned that the nature/nurture controversy was officially over. The Victorian polymath Francis Galton had coined the phrase “nature vs. nurture” a century before.
Everyone knows now that it’s a false dichotomy. Everything interesting is shaped by both genes and environment, and moreover, genes and environment mold one another. The relative influence of genetics on a trait is not fixed; the trait may be primarily genetic under some conditions, primarily environmental under others. Scientists know this. Science journalists know it. Scholars of science know it. We have moved past it. Twenty-first century biology is about the interplay among heredity and environment: gene–gene, gene–environment, and environment-environment interactions.
Except it isn’t. Why else do we still have books like Wade’s? If anyone ought to be up on the latest findings in genetics it ought to be him, a long-time reporter on the genetics beat for the New York Times. Yet instead of providing a fair survey of the field as he was trained, he chose to be persuaded by a narrow slice of work that continues a long-discredited scientific tradition. One focusing on the biological race concept and its supposed connections with intelligence, sexuality and other tinderbox issues. As Sussman shows, much of this research is sponsored by the blatantly white-supremacist Pioneer Fund. When it comes to those qualities we think of as quintessentially human, the basic question of nature or nurture seems independent of the state of scientific knowledge. The question returns with force whenever the trait is morally charged. Sexuality. Violence. Intelligence. Race.
Since the 1970s, the brilliant Marxist population geneticist Richard Lewontin has been arguing that the essence of using genetics as a social weapon is equating “genetic” with “unchangeable.” For decades, Lewontin has been pointing out examples of how that’s not true. It’s even less true now, with biotechnology such as prenatal genetic diagnosis and genome editing. Increasingly, the eugenicists’ dream—the control of human evolution—seems to be coming within our grasp. The new eugenicists want to give individuals the opportunity to make the best baby money can buy. No government control, they insist, no problem: if the free market takes care of it, the ethical problems disappear. Adam Smith’s invisible hand will guide us toward the light. As we take control of our own children’s genomes, the rich white people may have rich white babies, but, once we equalize access to whole genome sequencing, IVF, and prenatal genetic diagnosis, then poor black couples can have,…um…the smartest little black babies they can. And so can the Hispanics! And the Catholics who believe procreation shouldn’t require intervention, well they can produce “love children,” just like in GATTACA. It’ll all be fair and market-driven, once we socialize it a little bit.
So why are we even still talking about race and IQ? To Wade and others who say that it is a reasonable scientific question, that proper science has no politics and that the Morality Police have no business blocking scientific progress, I respond: What progress? What benefit? In order to frame this as a scientific question one has to define race, and any definition of race has a moral dimension. There is no way to ask whether racial associations with IQ are “real” without an agenda. The association of race and IQ is a legitimate historical question, but it must be acknowledged that even the most objective historian can only be interested in that question for moral reasons. If the scholarship is good, the agenda will be transparent, evaluable, debatable. But not absent. A good scholar (or reporter) will seriously investigate other viewpoints, present all sides. But he or she will not make pretense to absolute objectivity. The great danger of scientific investigations of questions such as race and IQ is just that pretense.
Science has immense cultural authority—it is the dominant intellectual enterprise of our time. Consider the state of funding or education for “STEM” (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields versus that for the humanities, social sciences, or arts. A good deal of science’s cultural authority stems from its claims to objectivity. Thus when a scientist investigates race and IQ, or a science journalist writes about it, they can invoke a cultural myth of science as having privileged access to The Truth. Not all do it—those with historical sensitivity recognize and teach the fallibility of science. But it’s common enough, even among experienced science educators and reporters, to be a crucial justification for the scholarly study of science as a social process. Science has a potent Congressional lobby. Like any industry, it needs watchdogs. Science is not just any industry. Aspects of it remain curiosity-driven, independent of the profit motive. It has an aesthetic side that unites it with the arts. And yet, for many types of questions, it provides a pleasingly rigorous set of methods for cutting through bias and pre-expectation. When scientific methods are pitted against superstition, belief, and prejudice, I side with science every time.
But when you study a lot of science; when you examine it over broad swaths of geography and time, rather than focusing on one particular tiny corner of it; when you study the trajectories of science; when you study the impact of science; when you examine the relationship of science to other cultural enterprises; you find that scientific truth is always contextual. The science of any given day is always superseded by the science of tomorrow. Despite popular myth, science does not find absolute Truth. “Science erases what was formerly true,” wrote the author John McPhee. When I was in college, brain-cell formation stopped shortly after birth. The inheritance of acquired characteristics was debunked nonsense. Genes were fixed and static. Humans had about 100,000 of them. IQ did not change over one’s lifetime. There were nine planets in our solar system. All of that was scientifically proven. None of it is true any more. Only a scientist ignorant of history can be confident that what she knows now will still be true a generation hence.
Which brings me back to the murder and the brick. On one level, the shootings a few blocks away were another incident of violence, probably drug-related, in a poor, predominantly black neighborhood. When they catch the bastard that shot that little girl, if they do a DNA test they might find genetic variants that occur with higher frequency in black males than in the population as a whole. If I catch the little punk who nearly beaned me with that brick, should he spit on my clothes and were I to have it analyzed, the lab might find SNPs in his DNA associated with a predisposition to violence. Whether those differences exist are legitimate scientific questions. But they are moot. The only reason to ask them is to prove an innate predisposition that, historically, has tended to foster racism and hinder social change. They may be legitimate scientific questions, but they’re stupid questions, and the motives of anyone who asks them are suspect. It’s not censorship to declare certain inquiries out-of-bounds. And people knowledgeable about science but outside the elite ought to be part of the process. Scholars. Journalists. Technicians. Students. Research funding should be less of a plutocracy, more of a representative democracy, so we can make better decisions about what questions are worth asking. In my case, the right questions are not “What biological differences account for that brick or that murder?” They are, Who is that brick-throwing kid’s mom? Can I, a “rich” white male, win her trust enough for her to let me into her house, to tell her my story in a way she can hear, so that she can discipline her child and get him back on a more positive path? What can we do to take our neighborhoods back, to make them not shooting galleries but communities again? How can we get people to get to know their neighbors, to keep their eyes open, to watch out for each other?
The other night, my wife took me along to an impromptu wake for the murdered girl, a five-minute bike ride away, near where the shootings occurred. In conventional racial terms, the crowd looked like Baltimore: about two-thirds black, one-third white (the latter mostly young), a sprinkling of Asians. But culturally, it was a black event, run by black women. The MC was the head of the neighborhood community association, a black woman. Words were said by the mayor, a state senator, a city councilwoman—all black women—and the governor, a white man. There was a prayer led by Sister Tina, a holy-rolling preacher who could make a middle-aged, over-educated, white atheist’s eyes well with her furious message of love and community. After the prayers and speeches, one young man threw down a Michael Jackson imitation, lip-synching and doing every move in Michael’s bag—full splits, knee-drops, and skids—on the coarse, hot Baltimore asphalt. The crowd whooped its approval. But the power that evening was held by the women. As we got ready to leave, I walked up and introduced myself to a few of those formidable, warm women. I threw my arms around Sister Tina and told her I thought she was amazing. She beamed and said she could see that the light of God was in me, she could see that I understood. And maybe I did. I know too much about evolution to believe in a literal god, but our mutual warmth and shared ideals are real. It may have been a culturally black event, but all were welcome. I understood in a new way how race matters in exactly the ways, to precisely the extent, that we want it to. Searching for the SNPs that make “them” and “us” different, seeking differences in test scores between the mixture of genes and culture Americans call “black” with those we call “white,” divides us. But here in this corner of this city, we have opportunities to celebrate each other’s cultures, and we have opportunities to share each other’s grief. The more I take those opportunities, the less value I see in the sciences of human racial difference.
Regular readers of Genotopia will be familiar with Dick Dorkins, a genomicist, faculty member of Kashkow University, and founding President of the Society for the Prevention of Intelligent design, Theology, Or Other Nonsense (SPITOON). Given the forceful nature of some of Dorkins’s opinions, we hesitated when he offered to review this book. But we acceded to his wishes, because we do indeed love our daughter and would, in fact, hate for something to happen to her. One can find a two-part interview with Dorkins here and here.
A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History, by Nicholas Wade (New York: Penguin) 2014, 288 pp.
It really is a bloody shame that India just had yet another free and fair election, because Nicholas Wade’s new book is so bally good it makes me want to dig out the old pith helmet and mustache wax and jolly well troop off and colonize her again. Since I can’t conquer India, I itch to conquer Mrs. Dorkins and spread my genes, via more little Dorkinses. Alas, Wendy says she has a headache (again!), so the next best thing is to dab my favorite plume into grandfather Dorkins’s inkpot and, in my best public-school hand, pen this little squib on behalf of Wade’s latest. Perhaps I can prompt the some of you lot to do your Darwinian duty and either have or not have more children, depending on your race.
Let me begin by stating that I haven’t read such a stirring work since the sixth form, when our English Master (jolly good word, “Master.” Woody.), Old Man Donglethwaite, cracked the whip and put us through our paces on Lord Acton’s History of Freedom and Herbert Spencer’s What Social Classes Owe to Each Other. For what Wade manages in this book is to resurrect bally old triumphalist English history and social Darwinism, girding them with modern-day genomics. One sincerely hopes that modern science can provide those gallant traditions with a foundation strong enough to last.
Wade, a journalist whose previous books include Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors and The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures, has composed an argument so elegant, so accessible, so unassailable that it might have been written by Spencer himself—had Spencer known the genetics that supports his ideas. Wade’s fundamental question is not original but rather classic: Why is the West superior to the East—or, god help us, the global South? The truth of this axiom is undeniable: we have the best of everything. The most money, the most freedom, the best science, the neatest gadgets, the finest music and art (never mind Justin Bieber), the strongest militaries, and the most money. Granted, in sports we sometimes lose, and you have to include North America in Europe even though many of the Americans’ achievements are by ethnic Africans and Asians, so it gets a little messy if you examine it too closely. But those are fine points. In the War of the Continents, it’s Europe all the way—and mostly Great Britain—if you look at it right.
Bleeding-hearts such as the anthropologist Jared Diamond have feebly explained the Rise of the West as accidents of geography and climate. Social “scientists” such as Ashley Montagu and the population geneticist Richard Lewontin (honorary social scientist, because he’s so political) have tried miserably to erase the very question of race, as if denying that the term has meaning could make it go away. Burlap-clad, politically-correct academics have even strapped on their Birkenstocks and paraded around the quads, protesting entire fields of inquiry that bear crucially on this question. Only an ideologue would deny the freedom of science to merely ask the question, for example, why white people are smarter than blacks. But Wade—whose peer-reviewed scientific articles have never been called into question—points out that such arguments are disqualified because those wuzzle-headed liberals have an ideology, something that of course has no place in modern science. No, Wade staunchly insists, true science must be blind to values and morals. It must deal exclusively with facts. Wade selects his facts brilliantly, using the latest and best of Western science to explain why Western science is the latest and best. The answer, he courageously concludes, is that we Westerners have better genes.
He argues irrefutably that behavior is shaped by genes, as demonstrated by an Everest of evidence in animals and in humans. Evolution did not stop when the first African hunter-gatherer stepped from his dugout onto the mighty shores of Europe to begin the painful process of civilization; nor did it cease when some enterprising Mesopotamian plucked a leathery handful of wild wheat seeds and poked them purposefully into the Fertile Crescent; nay, nor did it halt even at the coronation of James II in 1633, as he began his campaign to rein in Parliament in the name of liberty. Natural selection is still with us, ruthlessly but efficiently plucking society’s fittest, sweeping the best alleles across the land like so much seed corn. Though it pains one to say it, really it does, the result is that in the genetic lottery some are winners and others are losers. The winners, self-evidently, are those who have been globally dominant these last seven centuries or so: we Westerners, and most especially—here I lower my eyes, reflecting the humility that is my birthright—the British. And, alright, the Americans, who are, or at least were, mostly British. Okay and the Jews. Who, one notes, Britain and America welcomed with open arms after the war, ensconcing them in our finest universities as much as our quotas would allow.
History is not made by individuals, insists Wade. It is made by peoples. Peoples with the finest qualities. Qualities such as patience, thrift, innovation, openness, nonviolence, and civility. Demonstrating those very qualities himself, Wade acknowledges that there have been minor blips along the way, such as colonialism and the Third Reich. One might add slavery, the Columbian Exchange, and the Crusades. But these are mere trifles compared to the wise stewardship with which we have managed the planet over much of the preceding millennium. The practically invisible hand of the free market has brought untold riches to literally hundreds of people worldwide. It has rendered arable vast trackless wastelands of rainforest, making it possible to raise beef cattle for millions of our beloved Big Macs. For much of this period, our oceans and rivers teemed with plump and tasty fishes; likewise the skies with birds and the plains and tundra with wild game. And today, the climate is becoming ever more interesting and will, within a few short decades, bring the luxury and tranquility of coastal life to millions of people now toiling their lives away inland. All this and of course much more constitute the fruits of these peoples. Our peoples. Your peoples. But not their peoples.
The qualities that have made these developments possible, Wade shows, are probably genetic. At least partly. Wade, a journalist, has for decades covered the genetics beat for a little paper you might have heard of called The New York Times. He has extraordinarily broad secondhand knowledge of the arcane panoply of research coming out of Western laboratories published in English; which is to say, the most important, reliable, cutting-edge, and objective facts in the world. So when he says that the traits that underlie the rise of the West are probably at least partly genetic, you know he has read some papers in reliable major journals that seem to suggest this. In addition, Wade cites a wealth of objective, ideology-free facts by leading thinkers such as Charles Murray (co-author of The Bell Curve), Arthur Jensen—whose bold article of 1969 (pdf) demonstrated that compensatory education must fail, because objective, ideology-free science shows that blacks are simply not as intelligent as whites—and Richard Lynn, a British—note—distinguished psychologist and eugenicist who sits on the board of the objective, ideology-free Pioneer Fund, as well as that of the Pioneer-Funded journal Mankind Quarterly, which soldiers on as an objective, non-ideological stronghold of classical eugenics, social Darwinism, and white supremacy in an academic world that has moved leftward in lockstep, as if manipulated by a socialist puppeteer. Murray’s, Jensen’s, and Lynn’s writings, it must be observed, are controversial, an objective fact that may be partly explained by an occasional propensity toward language that can be taken the wrong way—as racist, social Darwinist, or eugenic. Wade, then, has become a cheerful cheerleader for a network of fearless scholars associated with what some have uncharitably branded “scientific racism,” but which I prefer to call “racial scientism.”
In short, if the West has won—and anyone who says otherwise is asking for a drone strike—it is because we are an intelligent, gentle, open, and creative people, and also because we have, as the Americans would say, a Big Gulp of Whoopass in the cup-holder of our figurative Escalade. Genetics suggests that genes underlie social traits such as intelligence, gentleness, creativity, and whoopass. Western populations must therefore have higher frequencies of the alleles for these traits. And so, little ones, we prevail not because might makes right, but because right makes might. We are on top because this is the natural order of things. As the Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner so aptly put it, “A drunkard in the gutter is just where he ought to be.” One might add that an upper-class Briton running over that drunkard in a mint-condition 1970 Aston Martin is just where he ought to be.
One quibble, to reinforce my objectivity: the book’s only serious problem is the title. This inheritance isn’t troublesome at all. It’s marvelous—for someone with the good taste to be born upper-class, C. of E. (Church of England, sod it), and Oxbridge-bred, like Wade and me, anyway. And yes, you marmots, in fact I was born Oxbridge bred: if five generations of Dorkins Firsts doesn’t breed it into you then epigenetics is a joke. What could be troublesome about my inheritance? I closed the cover of this pioneering work of retrograde science writing with a wink and a plummy little smile, lit my pipe, and reflected on how good it is to be rich, brilliant, tall, and English. On top of the world, dominant in every way that matters, and here not by force but by right, dammit, Mother. Did you hear my fist—beknuckled with a light pelage, masculine but not atavistic—pound my oaken desk? The cats lit’rally jumped off the divan.
Some eugenics news items of interest…
In Dissertation Reviews, Alison Bateman-House reviews Bradley Hart’s dissertation (Cambridge, 2011; Richard Evans, advisor) on eugenics in Britain, the U.S., and Germany begs the musical question, “Really? Another dissertation on American, German, and British eugenics? Not clear what’s new here, other than casting the oldest comparison in the history of eugenics in the trendy language of things like “transnational context.” Haven’t read it yet myself, but I am curious about the argument of chapter 2 that of the three nations, only in the US was the eugenics program not derailed by WWI. Is Hart a Rassenhygiene-denier?
If you or someone you love was sterilized under North Carolina’s 1959 “Jolly Bill,” which sought to solve the problem of out-of-wedlock births by sterilization, you have until the end of June to file for compensation under the class-action suit. The Tarheels are sorry, but although the eugenicists were tried, their patience is too. Jolly indeed.
I knew that Margaret Sanger was a eugenicist with some ugly views on race, but I didn’t know that conservatives think I don’t know that. Another thing I didn’t know is that everyone in the Progressive era was racist. Gee, you learn the most interesting facts on teh interwebs! Really, though, can we be a little more careful with our language? It’s one thing to caution against judging historical actors in terms of present-day ethics; it’s another to assert that “Literally everything we have here [in the U.S.] is a result of the less douchebaggy moments of racists.” Because if that’s true, then everything we have here is also a result of the less douchebaggy moments of sexists. Sanger was criticized at the time for her views on race. We can admire Sanger’s courage on sex and gender while criticizing her on race. That’s okay: this is history, not a fairy tale.
Huh. Apparently, the new fad in Hollywood is transhumanism. The Center for Genetics and Society reviews Transcendence, a new film that addresses issues such as regenerative and synthetic biology, consciousness uploads, and other sci-fi fantasies. Curious about the film–okay, I guess “film” is stretching it–even if it is trashy. Especially if it’s trashy, actually. I’m still uncomfortably on the fence about the linking of creepy things like prenatal genetic diagnosis and eugenics to good clean fun like making yourself into a cat or a lizard. But into the breach we go, it seems. New rule: When Johnny Depp does it, it’s no longer edgy.
Is eugenics a historical evil poised for a comeback? Or is it a noble but oft-abused concept, finally being done correctly?
Once defined as “the science of human improvement through better breeding,” eugenics has roared back into the headlines in recent weeks as both Mr. Hyde and Dr. Jekyll. The close observer may well wonder which persona will prevail. The snarling Mr. Hyde is the state control over reproduction. Although this idea may evoke visions of Nazi genocide, the U.S. itself has a long, unsavory eugenic history, stretching through much of the 20th century. And now it extends into the 21st: the recent investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting, which showed that between 2006 and 2010 nearly 150 pregnant prisoners had been sterilized against their will in California, was a stunning reminder that traces of the old eugenics remain in our current century. Another recent story—a polemical but informative three-part series on the continued efforts of Project Prevention, a private effort begun in 1997 that pays poor and drug-addicted women to be sterilized—highlights some of the complexities of reproductive rights. Payment of the poor or incarcerated has long been acknowledged as a form of coercion; yet some such women genuinely welcome the opportunity not to bear more children they cannot afford without curtailing their sex lives. Sorting out these issues has been a problem at least since North Carolina’s eugenics program, begun in the 1940s, which sterilized thousands through the 1950s and 1960s, with the express approval of the state. A dabbing of eyes and collective sigh of closure accompanied the news this month that the North Carolina legislature will pay a total of $10 million to the program’s victims, or, as they were known at the time, patients.
Eugenics critics are still the vocal majority, spanning the political spectrum. But in recent years, a growing constituency of Drs. Jekyll within the biomedical community has sought to resurrect eugenics as something that, if done correctly, can bring about marvelous benefits for humankind. The key to the new eugenics, they say, is individuality—a word with complex resonances ranging from “individualized medicine” to individualism, a cherished American value. Indeed, the new eugenics is sometimes called “individual” eugenics. A recent article by Jon Entine, of the Center for Genetic Literacy at George Mason University, exemplified this push for eugenicists to come back out of the night. Prenatal genetic diagnosis is eugenics, Entine says—“and that’s okay,” because it is controlled by individuals, not governments. This sparked a lively debate on both his blog and mine. To those following the discussion this summer, individuality seems to be fighting for the soul of eugenics.
Individuality is one of the oldest and newest terms in medicine. The Hippocratic physicians acknowledged that each patient was a unique, individual constellation of heredity, environment, and experience (although individualized treatment was, as today, reserved for those who could afford it). In the second century A.D., Rufus of Ephesus stressed the importance of interrogating the patient as to habits, preferences, experiences, and congenital diseases as an aid to diagnosis. The development of the case-study method in the Early Modern period signaled new attention being focused on the individual; each case came to be understood as a unique manifestation of disease. Yet one of the greatest transformations in medicine—the 19th century concept of specific disease, caused by a specific disease agent such as the cholera vibrio or the tubercle bacillus—shifted the physician’s gaze from the patient to the disease. Although this development led to enormous gains in the potency of medical therapy, some have rued the disappearance of the “sick man.” The current fad for “individualized” or “personalized” medicine is, among other things, the latest call for a return to patient-centered medicine. Increasingly, the physician interrogates the patient’s genome, learning far more from the sub-microscopic ticker-tape of DNA in her cells than Rufus’s wildest dreams could conjure.
But some question whether this new technology really puts the person back into medicine. Critics point out that personalized medicine often seems to concern profit more than health. Indeed, tech business sites show that personalized medicine is one of the healthcare industry’s biggest growth areas. Cui bono? Here is where individuality meets individualism—the libertarian swing that has captured much of American culture in recent decades. Events as disparate as the stock-market bubble, gay marriage, legalization of marijuana, and “right-to-carry” laws illustrate the resurgence of this quintessential American value. Individualism, of course, runs deep in the American identity, but not since the Gilded Age have the individualist mythos and free-market economics enjoyed such dominance. Indeed, the main arguments in domestic politics today seem to concern how and how fast to cut costs and disempower the government. Individualized medicine can be seen as individualist as well: many advocates stress that the new medicine must be “participatory,” meaning that the patient has increased responsibility for their own care. Modern individualism means everyone looks out for their own interests—from biotech CEOs to hospitals to patients.
The old eugenics was top-down and collectivist. Francis Galton proposed eugenics in Victorian England, as a humane alternative to the ruggedly individualist but misleadingly named social Darwinism. (More accurate though less sonorous would have been “social Spencerism,” after Herbert Spencer.) Rather than letting the weak kill off themselves and each other, Galton proposed a system of tax incentives and education programs he thought would lead the poor, sick, and stupid to voluntarily have fewer children—and the healthy, wealthy, and wise to voluntarily breed like rabbits. Human evolution could thus be gently directed toward perfection with much less suffering. Galton counted on evolution’s losers to unselect themselves, for the greater good.
After 1900, eugenics became yet more collectivist and much more potent, particularly in Progressive-era America. Progressivism was, fundamentally, a reaction to the exploitative practices of what Mark Twain called the “Gilded Age”—the industrial boom of the 19th century. Americans were fed up with the selfish greed and worker exploitation of Andrew Carnegie (an avid social Spencerist), Cornelius Vanderbilt, JP Morgan, and the other “Robber Barons.” (The fact that the history of American industrialism is more complicated than this doesn’t alter the mythos that motivated people at the time.) Progressives counted on Government as the only social entity powerful enough to stand up to industry, but even many who did not identify with the Progressive Party valued personal sacrifice for the greater good. The first part of the twentieth century was, by American standards, a moment of profound shift toward collectivism. However, progressivism was also about science. The rediscovery of Mendel’s principles in 1900 seemed to do for heredity what Marie Curie’s radium and Rutherford’s splitting of the atom did for physics: crack open the secrets of nature, providing hitherto unknown power to harness natural forces for the good of humanity.
The combination of collectivism and science could be deadly. Progressive-era eugenics grew highly coercive and—as politics always does—reflected the prejudices of the day. State after state passed laws that prevented miscegenation, restricted marriage, and permitted sterilization without consent for people with “defects” ranging from epilepsy to mild mental retardation to tuberculosis. Congress heard testimony from arch-eugenicist Harry Laughlin before passing the restrictive 1924 Johnson Immigration Act, and, to his great pride, Laughlin’s “Model Sterilization Law” served as the basis of the Nazi eugenic law of 1933. Thirty-five states ultimately had sterilization laws on the books. Contrary to widespread belief, the Second World War did not crush the eugenic spirit, though it did modulate it. Eugenics became increasingly medicalized. For example, the North Carolina eugenics program was run by credentialed, even distinguished physicians and scientists. Although coerced sterilizations dropped sharply during the Cold War, many of the laws remained on the books into the 1970s.
Not entirely coincidentally, about that time, “eugenics” became a dirty word. Even through the 1960s, it was possible for respected scientists to write that eugenics had a “sound core,” despite having been abused by the Germans. The conscious betterment of our gene pool, the self-direction of human evolution, had been a goal of human genetics throughout the field’s history. But by the 1980s, explicit discussion of eugenics had become Verboten, and even eugenics critics tended to think that the term had simply become too loaded to be productive. Calling someone a eugenicist was tantamount to calling him a Nazi.
It is fascinating, then, to watch a small but growing contingent within the scientific community begin to use “eugenics” again voluntarily, even proudly. In recent years, authors such as DJ Galton, Nicholas Agar, John Harris, Matt Ridley, Julian Savulescu, and others have argued that it is time to reopen a discussion of eugenics. Like the original Galtonian eugenics, this new eugenics was voluntary and aspirational, but it traded collectivist altruism for personal choice. Some of the new eugenicists were coy about the term: “In point of fact, we practise eugenics when we screen for Down’s syndrome, and other chromosomal or genetic abnormalities,” said Savulescu in a 2005 interview. “The reason we don’t define that sort of thing as ‘eugenics’, as the Nazis did, is because it’s based on choice. It’s about enhancing people’s freedom rather than reducing it.” However, others called a spade a spade. Agar, for example, used a similar argument about choice—“prospective parents should empowered to use available technologies to choose some of their children’s characteristics”—but titled his 1998 book Liberal Eugenics.
Modern medicine, yielding to the demands of real progress, is becoming less a curative and more a preventive science. From an art of curing illness, it is becoming a science of health. It is safe to predict, I believe, that…medical men generally will be more of the order of guardians of the public health than doctors of private diseases.
Though they could stand as an epigram for genomic individualized medicine, those words were written one hundred and one years ago, in an article called “Eugenics and the medical curriculum,” by Harvey Ernest Jordan, later the Dean of Medicine at the University of Virginia. His next sentence, however, gives away that he is writing in 1910, not 2010: “This represents the medical aspect of the general change from individualism to collectivism.” To adapt Jordan’s quote to our century, we’d only need to reverse those last three words. Collectivism is now anathema.
Today’s nouveau eugenicists argue explicitly that the general change back to individualism is what defangs the new eugenics. In Cold Spring Harbor’s 2008 reissue of Charles Davenport’s big book, 1910’s Heredity and Eugenics, Matt Ridley writes,
There is every difference in the world between the goal of individual eugenics and Davenport’s goal. One aims for individual happiness with no thought to the future of the human race; the other aims to improve the race at the expense of individual happiness.
First, that remark is disingenuous. “Control and nothing else is the aim of biology,” wrote Jacques Loeb in 1905. Efforts such as the J. Craig Venter Institute’s efforts to engineer life “from scratch” or the “BioBricks” project—an open-source genetic engineering project, like SourceForge for wetware—make clear that designing living things from the DNA up is a conscious and widespread goal. It cannot but merge with medicine eventually. Further, concern for individual happiness has never been mutually exclusive of concern for the race. In 1912, Charles Davenport recognized this in 1912 when he wrote that physicians have an obligation to practice eugenics, for the individual, for the family, for the community, and for the race. Concern for your individual child is concern for a member of your family lineage. Savulescu’s principle of procreative beneficence—that one has a moral obligation to bring the best children possible into the world—grades into the view that we have such an obligation, collectively. Individual eugenics, in other words, becomes a species of collective eugenics.
Second, is giving no thought to our future truly anodyne against disaster? If collectivism carries the risks of the slavish embrace of ideology and the concentration of power, individualism carries the risks of selfishness and lack of foresight. Consider other individualistic approaches to technology—to name but one example, the impact of technology on our climate. Aiming for individual happiness with no thought to the future of the human race has led to countless inventions that provide individual happiness for millions of people every day: air conditioning, automobiles, smartphones, cheap food, global travel, and much more. However, all these devices and industries contribute massively to climate change. We have understood the climatic effects of anthropogenic CO2 for decades, but individual happiness (including not least that of the corporate CEOs) has trumped any thought for the future. We have, in short, altered an enormously complex system without meaning to, and the results, according to scientific consensus, may be catastrophic.
Our genome creates a climate within our body. Recent findings make clear that it is a dynamic, complex system—a “sensitive organ of the cell,” as Barbara McClintock wrote presciently in 1984. Under this view, Progressive-era marriage and sterilization laws regulated whole bodies and their relations, while modern genomics regulates single genes and their relations. Bringing the decision within the body’s boundaries makes individual choice possible. But it also disrupts a complex genetic ecosystem, which any scientist will admit we know almost nothing about. Our knowledge of this ecosystem is changing incredibly rapidly; it is certain that in 20 years, today’s knowledge will seem almost incomprehensibly primitive. Almost inevitably, then, altering individual components of the system in isolation will have unforeseeable consequences. Dog breeders, exercising individual choice, produced modern Labrador Retrievers, a breed blessed with qualities of temperament, strength, and beauty, but plagued by eye problems and a tendency to hip dysplasia. Selection at the level of individual genes is likely to increase, not decrease, such problems. Individual choice, then, is subject to pressures of fashion and the profit motive, which are no better guides to evolution than bureaucracy.
In short, as blogger Razib Khan has noted, we already live in the new age of eugenics. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves that the latest political pendulum swing immunizes us against its risks. Individualism solves the problems of collectivism in mirror image of the ways that collectivism solves those of individualism. To treat either approach as a panacea is both naive and dangerous. The sociologist Nikolas Rose argues that our health status is becoming more important than our labor in shaping our identity. Many people today may find more in common with a fellow cancer victim or celiac sufferer than with a fellow plumber or banker. Such “biological citizenship” will obviously be profoundly influenced by genome screening, prenatal diagnostics, and other techniques of the new eugenics. This fact should remind us that although our identity may be unique, it is never isolated. We are all individuals within a collective.
Comfort, Nathaniel. The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine. Yale University Press, 2012.
———. The Tangled Field: Barbara Mcclintock’s Search for the Patterns of Genetic Control. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Davenport, Charles. “Eugenics and the Physician.” New York Medical Journal June 8 (1912): 1195-99.
Jewson, N. C. “The Disappearance of the Sick-Man from Medical Cosmology, 1770-1870.” Sociology 10 (1976).
Schoen, Johanna. Choice & Coercion: Birth Control, Sterilization, and Abortion in Public Health and Welfare. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.
Stern, Alexandra Minna. Telling Genes: The Story of Genetic Counseling in Modern America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.
Rose, Nikolas. The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century. Princeton University Press, 2006.
Rufus of Ephesus. “On the Interrogation of the Patient.” In Greek Medicine, Being Extracts Illustrative of Medical Writers from Hippocrates to Galen, edited by Arthur John Brock. xii, 256 p. New York,: AMS Press, 1972.
Nathaniel Comfort is Associate Professor of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. He is the author, most recently, of The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine (Yale, 2012). He also writes the blog Genotopia (http://genotopia.scienceblog.com) and can be followed on Twitter at @nccomfort.
 Agar, Nicholas. “Liberal Eugenics.” Public Affairs Quarterly 12, no. 2 (1998): 137-55, p. 2.
 Jordan, H. E. “The Place of Eugenics in the Medical Curriculum.” In Problems in Eugenics: Papers Communicated to the First International Eugenics Congress. 396-99. Adelphi, W. C.: Eugenics Education Society, 1912.
 Ridley, Matt. “Davenport’s Dream.” In Davenport’s Dream: 21st Century Reflections on Heredity and Eugenics. Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2008, ix-xi.
 Loeb, Jacques. Studies in General Physiology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1905, ix.
John Belmont has asked a question that deserves a separate post. This is necessarily brief and should not be mistaken for a general survey of this concept, but the concept is so general that it deserves a somewhat fuller answer than I can (or should) give in the comments. Here is John’s question:
Can you discuss Savelescu’s Procreative Beneficence in the context of these new genetic screening technologies? (Screening that then often triggers definitive diagnostic testing)
It seems normal for parents to desire healthy offspring. Is it evil or morally suspect for a couple to choose healthy offspring?
In 2001, Julian Savulescu advanced a principle he calls “procreative beneficence,” which states that “couples (or single reproducers) should select the child, of the possible children they could have, who is expected to have the best life, or at least as good a life as the others, based on the relevant, available information.” It is of that species of ethical principles called “intuitive”: on the face of it, who could argue on behalf of not providing the best possible conditions for one’s child, whether they be environmental or genetic? So no, of course it’s not evil to choose healthy offspring, so long as one is morally okay with disposing of “unfit” embryos or young fetuses. But its morality is less straightforward.
Savulescu’s idea has spawned a sizable secondary literature, especially among bioethicists, most of whom have tried various tacks to destroy his principle. A full discussion and evaluation of this literature is more than I can undertake here, but i’ll provide a starter bibliography at the bottom.
Few–including Savulescu himself–deny that PB is an element of the “new eugenics.” By this is meant an “individualized” or “liberalized” (or even “commercialized”) eugenics, rather than a state-controlled eugenics. This distinction is entirely appropriate. State-controlled eugenics is part of a specific historical context, whereas I see eugenics as a trans-historical principle (what I have more colloquially called an “impulse”). The eugenic impulse goes beyond notions of “old” or “new” eugenics: eugenics is just there, manifesting in different ways in different periods. Empirically, we appear to be driven to take control of our own evolution.
On the surface, Savulescu’s principle, like arguments in favor of “new” eugenics generally, appears not to be concerned with control over human evolution. It refers only to choices about specific individuals—a couple’s (or individual’s) choices about the genome of an embryo or fetus, it doesn’t concern the well-being of the population. However, <a href=”http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20047587″ target=”_blank”>Elster</a> shows that procreative beneficence is impossible to fully separate from “General Procreative Beneficence”–the idea that “couples ought to select children in view of maximizing the overall expected value in the world, not just the welfare of their future child.” Most literature advocating the new eugenics treats the individual and the population as wholly distinct, yet of course what is a population but a collection of individuals? These two principles–concern for the individual and concern for the population– are by no means mutually exclusive; indeed, the thrust of my book is that they have always coexisted. It’s naive (or cynical) to act as though one can be separated from the other.
Under this view, PB is in fact an indirect means of directing the evolution of the population. My position is that state control is not what makes a practice eugenic. What makes a reproductive practice eugenic is whether it includes a decision about the welfare of the population; whether it is subject to social (including economic) pressures. If one is “merely” choosing the “best” possible child, few of us have the luxury of ignoring racial features, for example. The “best” child is the best in a particular or anticipated environment. The literature on PB that I have read does not take this fully into account.
If the “best” environment is truly adapting, shifting, and local, then we have Darwinian conditions, in which the population is “evolving itself” with no particular end. This is morally less troubling than a Spencerian goal-directedness. I make no claim to being a moral philosopher, but as a historian, it seems morally less responsible to deny parents that freedom than to allow it. In sum, I am not persuaded by moral arguments against PB.
But I have rational arguments against it. They are two: What if it doesn’t work?; and What if it does?
What if it doesn’t work? We can tinker with genomes long before we understand them, the way one can learn a few Unix commands without fully comprehending the operating system. I worry we will make bad choices. I worry we will uncouple biological systems that have evolved together for millennia. I worry that our technology outstrips our wisdom.
What if it does? I worry that corporate control–via market pressures, advertising, and so forth–may prove even more potent than government control. I worry that PB will instantiate in our very DNA ideas of normalcy that may transcend local conditions and become general principles of human perfection. I worry that it will encourage the idea that genes are all; that we can simply “dial in” the child we want; that we will rob poorly funded social programs to pay for already amply funded research programs for the elite. Historical examples do not provide a comforting set of models for human behavior in these areas.
In short, then, it may not be “evil” to choose the genetic constitution of a child, but in doing so we are making many more choices than we are aware of.
Some references on procreative beneficence:
Savulescu, J. “Procreative Beneficence: Why We Should Select the Best Children.” Bioethics 15, no. 5-6 (Oct 2001): 413-26.
Savulescu, J. “In Defence of Procreative Beneficence.” J Med Ethics 33, no. 5 (May 2007): 284-8. doi:10.1136/jme.2006.018184.
Savulescu, J., and G. Kahane. “The Moral Obligation to Create Children with the Best Chance of the Best Life.” Bioethics 23 (Jun 2009): 274-90. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8519.2008.00687.x.
Herissone-Kelly, P. “Procreative Beneficence and the Prospective Parent.” J Med Ethics 32, no. 3 (Mar 2006): 166-9. doi:10.1136/jme.2005.012369.
Bennett, R. “The Fallacy of the Principle of Procreative Beneficence.” Bioethics 23, no. 5 (Jun 2009): 265-73. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8519.2008.00655.x.
Elster, J. “Procreative Beneficence: Cui Bono?”. Bioethics 25, no. 9 (Nov 2011): 482-8. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8519.2009.01794.x.
Herissone-Kelly, P. “Reasons, Rationalities, and Procreative Beneficence: Need Hayry Stand Politely by While Savulescu and Herissone-Kelly Disagree?”. Camb Q Healthc Ethics 20, no. 2 (Apr 2011): 258-67. doi:10.1017/S0963180110000903.
Bourne, H., T. Douglas, and J. Savulescu. “Procreative Beneficence and in Vitro Gametogenesis.” Monash Bioeth Rev 30, no. 2 (Sep 2012): 29-48.
Herissone-Kelly, P. “Wrongs, Preferences, and the Selection of Children: A Critique of Rebecca Bennett’s Argument against the Principle of Procreative Beneficence.” Bioethics 26, no. 8 (Oct 2012): 447-54. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8519.2010.01870.x.
Hotke, A. “The Principle of Procreative Beneficence: Old Arguments and a New Challenge.” Bioethics (Jul 29 2012). doi:10.1111/j.1467-8519.2012.01999.x.
Bennett, R. “When Intuition Is Not Enough. Why the Principle of Procreative Beneficence Must Work Much Harder to Justify Its Eugenic Vision.” Bioethics (Jul 10 2013). doi:10.1111/bioe.12044.