CRISPR and eugenics? Hope, hype, and history

(from The Nation)

In a new piece out today in The Nation, I argue that both the hand-waving and the hand-wringing about gene editing technologies such as CRISPR ushering in a new era of eugenics is a sideshow.

In some circles, eugenics is no longer a dirty word. Enthusiasts for human genetic improvement, such as John Harris, Julian Savulescu, and Nicholas Agar, like to talk of a new “liberal” or “individual” eugenics. This new eugenics would be free of the state control over reproduction that characterized the old Progressive-era eugenics. In the article, I argue that liberal eugenics is really neoliberal eugenics. Individual choice does not in fact solve the moral problems of eugenics, as the cheerleaders would have us believe.

We already know how to achieve meaningful human improvement: through education, public health, and peaceful,  livable cities. The social determinants of health are far more important for human happiness than genetic engineering will probably ever be.

CRISPR technology is one of the most potent, versatile technologies to come along in many years. It’s looking like this generation’s PCR. But sci fi utopias and dystopias are a distraction from both exciting basic research and real human improvement.

3 thoughts on “CRISPR and eugenics? Hope, hype, and history”

  1. I am in general agreement about social structures being a better, more robust line of attack for helping almost all people, for changing societies generally.

    I see the fear of genetic changes as overstated, as well. I agree that the cultural zeitgeist of genetic determinism leads to some current social conservatism. But surely both flowers can bloom. The genetic knowledge and manipulability that we are acquiring does not preclude making important social changes. Quite frankly, better genetic understanding should eventually lead to the call for greater and more precise social changes (assuming my/our understanding is right). Furthermore, there are many reasons for our rather conservative present, with genetic claims being but a small fraction of that.

    This leads to the next point: Pushes for massive (but well-intentioned) changes to social structures can be just as damaging as pushes for genetic changes. Genetic alteration should not be placed in some anathema category of unacceptable anymore than social alterations. Perhaps we fear one from past eugenics movements, while others we fear from “argument from USSR” or from cult-like entities. The overreaction to both leads to poorer social results. Of course, some people took the failures of socialism to give us lessons about human nature (thus genes), which were really bad arguments.

  2.  “Sci-fi genetic fantasies, whether hand-waving or hand-wringing, divert our attention from other, more important determinants of health…. In short, if we really wanted to engineer better, happier, healthier humans, we would focus much more on nurture than on nature.” That’s gorgeous. Well said.

    I wrestle with this nature/nurture question often — not necessarily where I sit on the spectrum, but if the spectrum is besides the point. With a slew of recent scholarly work (certainly in the social sciences, but also in the bench top sciences, i.e. epigenetics) on breaking down this oftentimes useless dichotomy, it seems frustrating that it’s still an intellectual and cultural stronghold. But as you rightly point out, breaking down this barrier can also be dangerous as slippage between social and biomedical scapegoating can be equally abusive – a way to mask power plays with ‘scientific’ or ‘social scientific’ explanations for managing deviant behaviors or pharmacogenetic anomalies, or for ignoring inequalities that actually matter — whichever one fits the bill. Too much rigidity between nature/nurture becomes wildly incorrect yet advantageous to those who do the categorizing; too much leeway between them leaves us vulnerable to creative abdications of responsibility. So which is it — do we fight neoliberal eugenics by calling out conflation of the social and the biological, or do we counter it by privileging the social over the biological? Do we break down the dichotomy, or fortify it and tout the social as more important? Or, as is usually the answer to most things in life: it depends.

    I think that it’s easier to prove the dichotomy doesn’t really exist. It’s nearly impossible to argue that it doesn’t matter despite its constructed-ness. I agree with your politics on emerging neoliberal eugenics, and I’m so pleased to see them getting good airtime. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Thanks for this. As I see it, the nature/nurture spectrum has shifted from a biological to a social issue. The biological question was resolved decades ago. Every issue of Science and Nature, it seems, carries new evidence of the way that the environment affects heredity and the ways that inborn behaviors shape our environment. Entre nous, I’m no longer even sure that the gene paradigm is the most productive way to think about the role of DNA in the cell. What’s being called “Weismannism” (after August Weismann) is starting to look like a very 20th-century way of looking at biology.

    However, the hype over fields such as personalized/individualized/precision medicine and evolutionary psychology continue to harden the heredity/environment dichotomy in everyday discourse. I keep a running list of articles about the “gene for” this or that “trait”–it’s unbelievable to me. Despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, we still regularly see articles that say things like, “Tired of your wife’s constant nagging? Maybe it’s all in the genes!” Wtf?

    This is where we need historians of science and medicine, I think—as well as others who are historically literate. The salient dichotomy today is biological/social, not nature/nurture. Or at least that’s how I see it at the moment.

    Thanks, as always, for reading.

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