Eugenics as a luxury of the affluent

By Razib Khan | August 24, 2011 1:12 pm

In the comments below Jason says in regards to the connection between eugenics and genocide and the “slippery slope”:

In your current comfortable first world circumstances, you are right the slope is perhaps not that slippery. I hope you are never tested in a less comfortable setting as then I think you might find it can be pretty slippery after all.

A reference to the interlocutor’s status as a citizen of the comfortable First World (which itself is a somewhat archaic term by now I think) seems de rigueur in many arguments. And I think many people will find it plausible that someone in an affluent consumer society would be blind to the “dark side” of eugenics, and how it could lead to genocide. But I think this plausibility is entirely superficial, and collapses upon closer inspection. Rather, it is I believe in “First World” and advanced nations where the likelihood of the ubiquity of eugenics and possible genocide predicated on systematic eugenics is going to be the most probable outcome.

There is a large general issue at the root of this confusion, the implicit progressive “Whiggishness” in our sensibilities, which derives in part from the power of science to advance in a clear fashion. This sensibility has some grounding in our contemporary realities, but we take it too far. History can, and does, move in cycles. In the 18th century the most articulate and crisp racist sensibilities were arguably elucidated by relatively secular forward thinking intellectuals such as Voltaire, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant. This seed of scientific racialism waxed and reached its peaks in the years around 1900, before waning in the 20th century. This complex reality is often not appreciated when we Americans consider the arc of history moving always forward as the arrow. Similarly, because of the Whiggishness of our conception of cultural change many Americans have a hard time wrapping their minds around the fact that between 1837-1841 the the Vice President of the United States, Richard Mentor Johnson, was known to have had common law mixed-race wives, with whom he had daughters who he acknowledged. Johnson was the nominee of the more racially populist party of the time, the Democrats, to boot! This would not have been conceivable in a few generations, when despite the outlawing of slavery the racial boundaries were much more finely and sharply demarcated.

This Whiggish tendency means that when it comes to barbarities “less developed” societies are perceived to be more susceptible to breakdowns in civilization. But that’s just not true. People are regularly surprised that in much of Asia economic development is correlated with sex selective abortions. That’s fine to be surprised, but this seems to be something that’s replicated in both China and India.

So on to the specific point of personal eugenics, it will be societies where there is personal wealth, as well as a demographic transition, where the means of reproduction will become a major public policy and individual choice. These are also the societies where medical costs are far more socialized, whether directly (e.g., through single payer or national health services) or indirectly (e.g., requirements that no one be turned away from the emergency room). When health care is socialized it seems that there is the strong possibility that society will feel that there is an incentive for it to become active in the shaping of the characteristics of the citizenry. In contrast, in underdeveloped societies where health care is not a right and the population pyramid still skews toward youth, finely-grained eugenical sensibilities won’t be necessary, there’ll be a surplus of humanity.

All this is not to say that I think that the “end of history” will be toward some eugenical regulatory state, at least in the medium term. Rather, the necessary preconditions for this sort of society exists in the developed First World, not the less developed Third World.

MORE ABOUT: Eugenics, Health
  • jason

    ¨People are regularly surprised that in much of Asia economic development is correlated with sex selective abortions.¨

    I wonder how long that correlation will hold, given the speed with which a low birthrate is pushing countries such as China past the demographic optimum.

    Also worth wondering how long what is today considered to be the first world will enjoy the superior health provision currently available, given unfunded long-term liabilities already equivalent to multiples of GDP in countries such as the UK and the USA, let alone Italy and Spain.

    I’m a different Jason, by the way, and tend to agree that eugenics of a sort is more likely to flourish with higher incomes. Today´s map of income distribution is unlikely to last for long however and so may not serve as a good indicator for much in the future.

  • Clark

    ¨People are regularly surprised that in much of Asia economic development is correlated with sex selective abortions.¨

    I was surprised.

    I wonder how much of that is the cost of elective abortions?

  • Razib Khan

    I wonder how long that correlation will hold, given the speed with which a low birthrate is pushing countries such as China past the demographic optimum.

    male preference seems to have disappeared in japan 20 years ago, and about now in korea. so it is partly a combination of pre-consumer values and incipient wealth.

    I wonder how much of that is the cost of elective abortions?

    some of it is seems to be trivers-willard effect. female infanticide is more a feature of upper classes in many societies, and the spread of male preference in modern cultures seems part of the elite emulation package. over time this shifts, because it turns out that if you are old parents having an economically productive daughter is often better than a son (for various reasons).

  • TGGP

    Wouldn’t eugenics be an example of K selection? With less “natural” selection (in the naive layman sense, not the real one) culling herds, an increasing role is given to human choices over reproduction. And just as farmers selecting animals to breed constitutes “artificial” selection, individual human decisions about who to breed with exert selective pressure. Our technology is going to amplify many of the existing preferences we have expressed only with the blunt tools we were born with.

  • Razib Khan

    #4, kind of. my assumption is that small family sizes are going to drive LOTS of pressure from individual/family choice, because there are only so many children you’re going to have. also, changes in dependency ratios and the assumption that support for the indigent and aged are ‘socialized’ is going to result in pressure from the collective upon the individual.

  • Tom Bri

    The Swedes got away with using eugenics to eliminate their lower classes after WW-2. Generations of nipping reproductive organs of the undesirables. Up until pretty recently too. Wealth, socialized medicine. I think you have a point.

  • Abelard Lindsey

    As I have said on many social conservative blogs, putting the tax payers on the hook for the care of everyone else’s kids provides a powerful incentive that only “healthy” kids are allowed to be born. Its my experience that the social conservatives have as hard of time wrapping their heads around this reality as the liberal-left types.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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