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Benoist on Eugenics & Intelligence 
Interview on the Human Sciences, Part 2

1,150 words

Bertel Thorvaldsen, Venus, 1813–1816

Part 2 of 4

Translated by Greg Johnson

Francis Fukuyama (Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, 2002), Gregory Stock (Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future, 2002), and Richard Lynn (Eugenics: A Reassessment, 2001) are some recent authors who are interested in a possible return of eugenics. What is the New Right’s position on eugenics? What are the consequences of today’s gap between Western and East Asian nations regarding eugenics?

Historically, in the 19th and 20th centuries, the principal theorists of eugenics were chiefly men of the left. The United States and the Scandinavian countries, moreover, adopted eugenic policies well before Hitler’s Germany. These facts are forgotten today, and eugenics is largely discredited because it is mistakenly seen as specifically “Nazi.” But at the same time, all the Western countries practice a minimal eugenics that does not dare speak its name: embryonic sorting, therapeutic abortion, the fight against hereditary diseases, etc. I am not sure that eugenics will ever be rehabilitated as such, but I am certain this trend will continue.

The eugenic practices that the development of the life sciences makes it possible to consider in the earliest stages of embryonic life will not be imposed by the state, but on the contrary they respond to the desire of parents who of course wish to have the best children possible. In my eyes, this desire is perfectly legitimate: a society with fewer sick people is objectively better than a society with more.

The true difficulty begins when one wishes to pass from negative to positive eugenics. Indeed, this raises the crucial question of the criterion of “quality” one selects. The most common answer is general intelligence as measured by IQ  (the “g” factor evoked by Spearman in 1927, or the “fluid intelligence” of Raymond B. Cattell, in opposition to “crystallized” intelligence). But this criterion is in many ways debatable. I know quite well the literature about IQ and the polemics to which it is continually subjected (I published a bibliography about it in 1998). The work of the London school, from Galton to Robert Plomin, while passing by Eysenck and Jensen, arrived at conclusions that cannot be seriously disputed — even if it is also necessary to take account of Robert J. Sternberg’s work on “triarchic” intelligence. The contemporary state of research on intelligence has been quite well-summarized in a recent book: Helmut Nyborg, The Scientific Study of General Intelligence (London 2003).

The heritability of intelligence, i.e., the share of inter-individual variations of intelligence that can be attributed to genetic factors — or, if one prefers, the share of the phenotypical variance that can be attributed to genotypic variance — is the subject of increasingly concordant evaluations. This heritability remains, however, relative to a given environment (by definition, if there is no difference in environment, the heritability of the variance is established automatically at 100%).

In addition, the quantification of a quality — and intelligence is primarily a quality — never allows us to completely grasp its nature. This is why I find it much more interesting to know which mental differences can exist between individuals with the same IQ, rather than to know which one has the higher IQ. Lastly, the very concept of a test is a Western concept; this is why, in my opinion, even so-called “culture-free” tests can never be completely successful.

Thus my reservations are not because of the London school’s definition of intelligence or the validity of IQ tests, but rather because of the overvaluation of intelligence as the criterion of human value. Indeed, being intelligent does not at all guarantee that one is right: the falsest ideologies are the creations of highly intelligent men, sometimes geniuses. (Marx was not less intelligent than Heidegger, and Richard C. Lewontin is certainly not less intelligent than Arthur R. Jensen.) Besides, if intelligence were always advantageous, it would have always been selected by the natural selection, which was not the case.

This overvaluation of intelligence is quite typical of modern societies. It was foreign to the European mentality throughout most of our history. The Homeric hero, the medieval knight, the French gentilhomme, the English gentleman, or the Spanish caballero, represent as many ideal types (in Max Weber’s sense) which never gave a central place to cognitive capacities, but rather to character traits: courage, a sense of honor, disinterestedness, generosity, fidelity to one’s word, will, decisiveness, sensitivity, creativity, etc., all qualities that have nothing to do with intelligence per se.

I appreciate intelligence of course: all things being equal, it is more pleasant to deal with intelligent people than with idiots. But I do not make intelligence the sole criterion of human value. I myself joined MENSA around 20 years ago. I left it very quickly, since the extremely intelligent people I met there were also mediocre. We live in a time which, for the first time of in history, tends to privilege cognitive capacities alone. This climate facilitates the access of intelligent people who lack character to decision-making jobs. In the long run, it will make us dependent on machines (which already have, in many fields, cognitive powers greater than man’s).

Ludwig Klages represented all of European history as a slow rise of the prerogatives of the intellect (der Geist) to the detriment of those of sensibility and “heart” (die Seele). This critique of the intellect, which is found in continental Europe in a great number of “right wing” authors, contains at least a share of truth. Georg Simmel, for his part, indeed showed how the diffusion of the money economy supported the prevalence of the strictly intellectual and cognitive functions over the emotive functions and solidarity. Such a description helps to understand the passage from the holist model of community (“culture”) to the individualistic model of society (“civilization”). It also helps us criticize the latter. Since Plato one ought to know that scholars should be especially distrusted in positions of power. Today we need strong spines more than big brains.

The implementation of positive eugenics encounters other obvious difficulties as well. The biological law of regression to the mean (the most intelligent tend statistically to have children less intelligent than they are, and the less intelligent tend to have children more intelligent than them) contradicts one of the principal postulates of the eugenic doctrine. Moreover, men in general react more to the beauty of women than to their intelligence.

The inevitable intervention of public authorities is also problematic. Simple incentives can only have a limited effectiveness; more authoritative measures entail social engineering, to which I am completely opposed.

We will see what happens with the Chinese eugenics program. Their ultra-K strategy implemented in a coercive way by the authorities frequently results in the selective abortion of  girls and will lead in twenty years to a serious imbalance in the ratio between the two sexes. For now, I would prefer to live in Sicily, where people in general have character, rather than in Singapore, a true air-conditioned hell!

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