Eugenics: A Reassessment
Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers 2001
One of the only valid points made by the critics of Bell Curve was that if the science was accepted, then eugenics, which Hernstein and Murray refused to endorse, becomes the rational solution to society’s ills. Steven Pinker, the next major public thinker associated with the hereditarian position, likewise refused to follow his own logic far enough. One scholar who doesn’t flinch is psychologist Richard Lynn. Eugenics is not only right, but we have a duty to increase the frequency of genes for positive traits and reduce the frequency of genes for negative traits. Once you determine that something is a genetic problem it cries out for a genetic solution. Eugenics: A Reassessment looks at the history of eugenics, the ethical case for it and its future. Here Lynn goes beyond his role as a psychologist and gives us his own theory of the coming end of history.
The Rise and Fall of Eugenics
Eugenic ideas existed long before the publications of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. In The Republic, Plato pictured a society where rulers, soldiers, and workers would be bred on the same principles of the breeding of plants and livestock, about which much must have been known in 380 B.C. Still, it was the discovery of evolution that was the catalyst of these ideas taking off in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Biologist, statistician, and psychologist Sir Francis Galton was the main prophet of eugenics. He spent his life forming organizations, writing, and spreading the word about humanity’s potential for improvement. He carried out the first studies that showed nature to be more important than nurture in determining intelligence and character.
By the early 1900s eugenics was endorsed by practically all biologists and geneticists, politicians such as Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Woodrow Wilson, and Winston Churchill, and thinkers across the political spectrum, including Bertrand Russell, H. L. Mencken, and George Bernard Shaw. Lynn makes the distinction between positive eugenics, encouragement given to society’s best to produce children, and negative eugenics, trying to set limits on the breeding of the inferior. It was the latter that was easier to legislate on.
The first American sterilization law was passed in Indiana in 1907 “to prevent the procreation of confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles, and rapists.” By 1913 similar acts had been passed in 12 states and a further 19 had laws on the books by 1931. The constitutionality of these laws was challenged in court and in 1927 Buck v. Bell went to the supreme court. The case centered around a mentally retarded woman who was born to a mentally retarded mother and gave birth to yet another retard. Her hospital applied to have her sterilized, and Christian groups protested. The court ruled 8-1 in favor of sterilization. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the following in the famous decision.
We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the state for these lesser sacrifices . . . in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute the degenerate offspring of crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit for continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccinations is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.
Unfortunately, over the twentieth century only about 60,000 American sterilizations would take place, which amounted to less than 0.1 percent of mentally retarded and psychopathic people. Sweden did a little better, sterilizing the same amount, totaling one percent of the entire population. In Japan, 16,520 women met the same fate until their law was repealed in 1996. In Denmark, a third of all retards over a ten year span. Unsurprisingly, the all-time champions of sterilization were the Germans, who sterilized 300,000 people after their sterilization law was passed in 1933.
As Lynn points out, it’s not all that unusual for a scientific theory to be accepted and then rejected. What makes eugenics unique is that it’s a rejected theory that turned out to be true. While the importance of heredity in determining individual and group traits is well-established, by the end of the twentieth century to call something eugenic was to condemn it. The author blames horror at the crimes of Nazi Germany and the increasing value given to individual over social rights. In recent years courts in the US and Britain have said that parents can have retarded women in their care sterilized, ruling against civil liberties organizations who’ve joined with Christian groups in arguing that all people have a right to as many children as they can produce. While these legal decisions aren’t made on eugenic grounds, we should be thankful for the effect.
The arguments against eugenics don’t hold up. First is the claim that we can’t decide what positive and negative traits are. It’s hard to argue with Galton’s original three characteristics of intelligence, health, and character (close enough to conscientiousness in modern psychology) being desirable. Who would argue that disease could be preferable to health or stupidity to genius? It’s a case of moral relativism taken to the extreme.
Lynn looks at other characteristics we may select for but doesn’t find any beyond Galton’s original three. Society needs a wide range of people on the continuum of extraverted/introverted and neurotic/relaxed in a way that it doesn’t need a wide range of propensity to break the law or catch diseases. He also says that beauty provides no social good, and people have different definitions of it. Here is the only place I part ways with the author. Among environmentalists (people who care about the environment, not anti-hereditarians), beauty is seen as a legitimate reason to preserve certain forests and trees that provide no economic good. It’s why we save redwood trees but not swamps. As far as the lack of a universal standard, Peter Frost demolishes that as a PC myth. Even if everyone didn’t agree that blue eyes and white skin were the most beautiful, every race could select based on their own standards.
The idea that eugenics wouldn’t work is also answered here. If we determined that it wouldn’t be possible to select for certain traits in living organisms, then not only eugenics but horticulture, animal domestication and even evolution itself would all have to be rejected too. As a matter of fact, heritability of running speed among horses has been found to be between 15 and 35 percent heritable, lower than the lowest estimates for intelligence or psychopathy among humans. Any trait that is passed on genetically can be made more or less common or enhanced among a population.
Lynn differentiates between classical eugenics and new eugenics, the use of biotechnology. A section is given to each.
The only country to practice classical positive eugenics in the modern world has been Singapore, under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew. Higher earners were given tax breaks for children and a government unit was set up to bring college graduates together in social settings like dances and cruises to encourage relationships and procreation. In three short years, the results were impressive.
Births in Singapore
|Education Level of Mother||1987||1990|
|Secondary and above||16,012||36.7||24,411||47.7|
Between 1987 and 1990, births to college educated women went from 36.7 percent of all births to 47.7. Obviously, it’s not hopeless, and the problem of dysgenics can be corrected if a government sets its mind to it. In Nazi Germany, loans were given to couples determined to be of good genetic stock. For each child they produced, 25 percent of the loan would be written off. Whether such things can be done in a democracy, especially a multi-racial one, is a different question.
The biggest victory for negative eugenics has been the liberalization of abortion laws. Although justified as based on a “woman’s right to choose,” those who have unintended pregnancies are usually of low intelligence and those with anti-social tendencies. Thus, increasing the availability of abortion is eugenic. Those who are concerned about good breeding should support causes traditionally associated with the left like abortion on demand and making birth control freely available.
The Promise of Biotechnology
The most exciting part of this book is the section on the new eugenics, and how biotechnology may make all the questions raised here obsolete. Prenatal diagnosis can now screen for some of the most common genetic diseases, and the fetuses can be aborted. In the 1990s, this was estimated to reduce incidences of genetic disorders at birth by 5 percent. As the technology becomes better and more widely available we can expect the rate of genetic disease to drop. It’s a matter of time before embryos can be screened for other traits like beauty and intelligence.
Gene therapy is the attempt to help an individual by inserting genes for positive traits. These genes are then passed on to offspring. In the 1980s, this technology was used on mice to treat a heredity disease and by the 1990s was used to treat human disorders. Like prenatal screening, it’s only a matter of time before this technology can be used for the selection of whatever parents desire.
Embryo selection consists of taking a number of eggs from a woman, fertilizing them with the sperm of a partner in vitro, testing each for desirable traits and inserting the best embryo. The second, third, and fourth best can be saved for possible future use and the rest discarded. When Lynn’s book was written in 2001, it was possible to test for sex and thousands of genetic diseases.
In the twenty-first century it will become possible to test embryos for the presence of genes affecting numerous other characteristics, including late-onset diseases and disorders; intelligence; special cognitive abilities, such as mathematical, linguistic, and musical aptitudes; personality traits; athletic abilities; height; body build; and physical appearance. It will then be possible for couples to examine the genetic printouts of a number of embryos and select for implantation the ones they regard as having the most desirable genetic characteristics.
Before this happens some technical issues need to be addressed, such as identifying the desirable genes. That’s going to happen over the next few decades. Right now it’s possible to hormonally stimulate a woman to produce around 25 embryos at one time. With this technology, even parents of poor stock will be able to produce at least average children. Couples can be expected to produce embryos within a range of 30 IQ points; 15 over the parents‘ average to 15 below. With embryo selection the IQ of a population will have the potential to be raised 15 points in a single generation. Average intelligence can be expected to keep increasing until we hit our limit and new mutations pop up, the way average speed among thoroughbreds has been rising without the fastest times doing so in decades. In 2001, in vitro fertilization cost between $40,000 and $200,000 in the US and $3,000 to $4,000 in Britain, due to lower health care costs in general. Today, it’s a fraction of that. Like all technology, the quality can be expected to improve and the price to drop.
Western governments may outlaw all these technologies, but they will be legal somewhere, and as these options became cheaper and better known more couples will travel to take advantage of them. The situation will be similar to when abortion was only available in certain US states or European countries, and women desiring to have one would simply take a bus.
Not everybody will be able to afford biotechnology, and some ethicists reject it on those grounds. Of course, there are all kinds of things that rich people can afford that the poor can’t; we don’t outlaw them all. Lynn optimistically points out that no technology that can help humanity has ever been successfully suppressed. The inherent quality gap between the genetically engineered upper class and the ‘natural’ lower class will continue to grow until the former decides to sterilize the latter or forces them to use biotechnology themselves.
Why China is the Future
In 1994 China passed the Eugenic Law. All pregnant women were required to undergo embryo screening and abort fetuses with genetic disorders. This was a follow-up to the famous one-child policy introduced in 1979 that brought the birth rate down to 1.9 per woman.
Attitudes of elites and those who work in the relevant fields are likely to determine what technologies are accepted and how liberally they’ll be used. A survey was conducted between 1994 and 1996 asking geneticists and physicians around the world whether they agreed with the statement “An important goal of genetic counseling is to reduce the number of deleterious genes in the population.”
|Country||Percentage of Geneticists and Physicians Agreeing with Eugenic Goals|
In addition to the negative attitudes of the elites towards anything eugenic, other reasons we can expect these ideas not to win fast acceptance in the West are the value placed on individual rights, democracy, and the existence of low IQ minorities who would be disproportionately affected by any measures aimed at improving the genetic quality of the population. While many countries in the third world might feel positively about eugenic measures, the attitudes in China are the most favorable and when that is combined with the advantages of an authoritarian government, a lack of dysgenic immigration, and a high IQ starting point it’s not hard to believe that the Chinese will continue to be the most enthusiastic and efficient users of biotechnology.
So how will this nation of a billion people treat the rest of the world after it’s raised its IQ to 150+? Lynn might be too optimistic here. He believes the Chinese will colonize the world and try to improve the IQs and living standards of their subjects. The Europeans will be kept around for their biological uniqueness and admired for their cultural accomplishments, the way that the Romans subjugated the Greeks but appreciated their philosophy and art. If the Chinese decide that the Europeans should be preserved they’d be doing more for them than whites are currently doing for themselves. A global eugenic superstate led by by the Chinese will be the “end of history.”
Lynn’s forecasts the next 100 years with a stone-cold detachment. The first government to utilize the power of biotechnology will take over the world. Thanks to third world immigration and egalitarianism, the decline of the West seems inevitable and eugenic policies unlikely. The future of humanity being in the hands of the dictators in Beijing may not be the most comforting idea in the world, but at least the reader of Eugenics may be convinced that intelligence and civilization will continue somewhere.
For a review of Richard Lynn’s Dysgenics see here.
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Lothrop Stoddard’s Into the Darkness, Part 2
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