None dare call it eugenics

By Razib Khan | August 18, 2011 6:59 pm

In the comments below Phillip Lemky observes:

Hi Razib. I find disturbing all this talk of assortative mating and biological castes, as it sounds eerily similar to eugenics. Please correct me if I’m mistaken to be making this connection.

This is a common response to some of the things mooted on this weblog. Freddie deBoer even sent me a peculiar email last year expressing how appalled he was at some of the topics and comments in these parts (if you know Freddie’s internet reputation, this is not surprising behavior). First, I don’t know what people mean by “eugenics.” Here is the first sentence in Wikipedia for the eugenics entry:

Eugenics is the “applied science or the bio-social movement which advocates the use of practices aimed at improving the genetic composition of a population”, usually referring to human populations….

Wikipedia isn’t authoritative, and colloquial definitions can deviate from “official” definitions. As a rule I don’t generally talk much about state coercion or manipulation of the reproduction of the citizenry, so I don’t see that I’m talking about classical eugenics. But, it does seem that there are eugenical implications in the mass action of human behavior and the flexibility of choices which modern humans have. Consider this long article in The New York Times Magazine, The Two-Minus-One Pregnancy:

Even some people who support abortion rights admit to feeling queasy about reduction to a singleton. “I completely respect and support a woman’s choice,” one commentator wrote on UrbanBaby.com, referring to a woman who said she reduced her pregnancy to protect her marriage and finances. One fetus was male, the other female, and the woman eliminated the male because she already had a son. “Something about that whole situation just seemed unethical to me,” the commentator continued. “I just couldn’t sleep at night knowing that I terminated my daughter’s perfectly healthy twin brother.”

The justification for eliminating some fetuses in a multiple pregnancy was always to increase a woman’s chance of bringing home a healthy baby, because medical risks rise with every fetus she carries. The procedure, which is usually performed around Week 12 of a pregnancy, involves a fatal injection of potassium chloride into the fetal chest. The dead fetus shrivels over time and remains in the womb until delivery. Some physicians found reduction unnerving, particularly because the procedure is viewed under ultrasound, making it quite visually explicit, which is not the case with abortion. Still, even some doctors who opposed abortion agreed that it was better to save some fetuses than risk them all.

In 2004, however, Evans publicly reversed his stance, announcing in a major obstetrics journal that he now endorsed twin reductions. For one thing, as more women in their 40s and 50s became pregnant (often thanks to donor eggs), they pushed for two-to-one reductions for social reasons. Evans understood why these women didn’t want to be in their 60s worrying about two tempestuous teenagers or two college-tuition bills. He noted that many of the women were in second marriages, and while they wanted to create a child with their new spouse, they did not want two, especially if they had children from a previous marriage. Others had deferred child rearing for careers or education, or were single women tired of waiting for the right partner. Whatever the particulars, these patients concluded that they lacked the resources to deal with the chaos, stereophonic screaming and exhaustion of raising twins.

As word spread, a stream of patients called Wapner’s office, scheduling reductions to a singleton. A few months later, after the last patient of the day left, the sonographer who had worked with Wapner for nearly 20 years stopped at his office. She told me what happened next, on condition of anonymity because she doesn’t want her relatives to know everything her work entails: “I told him I just wasn’t comfortable doing a termination of a healthy baby for social reasons, and that if we were going to do a lot of these elective reductions, I thought he should bring in someone else who was more comfortable. From the beginning, I had wrestled with the whole idea of doing reductions, because I was raised in the church. And after a lot of soul searching, I had decided there were truly good medical reasons to reducing higher-order multiples to twins. But I had a hard time reconciling doing reductions two to one. So I said to Dr. Wapner, ‘Is this really the business we want to be in?’ ”

Who doesn’t want to create a more certain and comfortable future for themselves and their children? The more that science makes that possible, the more it has inflated our expectations of what family life should be. We’ve come to believe that the improvements are not only our due but also our responsibility. Just look at the revolution in attitudes toward selecting egg or sperm donors. In the 1970s, when sperm donation took off, most clients were married women with infertile husbands; many couples didn’t want to know about the source of the donation. Today patients in the United States can choose donors based not only on their height, hair color and ethnicity but also on their academic and athletic accomplishments, temperament, hairiness and even the length of a donor’s eyelashes.

I think it’s kind of silly to get worried about the long term impact of assortative mating when biotech and reproductive intervention is such a banal part of the existence of many people alive today. As many couples delay having children into their late 30s more and more regular people naturally begin to think in a eugenical manner on a personal and individual level. The state is not driving any of this, and neither is society (in fact, many of the couples above who opt for reduction of twins to singletons keep that decision to themselves for fear of social ostracism). Consider this fragment of the above article: “A. and her partner had been together 15 years when they decided to get serious about having children. Because both women were 45….” Two women who waited 15 years and are now 45 are going to view the “rational” calculus of having children very differently from a couple in their mid-20s.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health
MORE ABOUT: Personal genomics
  • Louis B.

    Freddie deBoer even sent me a peculiar email last year expressing how appalled he was at some of the topics and comments in these parts

    I love that guy.

  • http://emilkirkegaard.com Emil
  • Darkseid

    why is the commenter implying eugenics is bad?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    eugenics, like racism, is bad. so the key is to make sure that whatever you prefer is not racist or eugenical. once that is established you’re good. there isn’t an interrogation of the terms themselves from what i can gather. they’re taken as opaque axioms from which you can operate the algebra of evil and non-evil.

  • erica

    We practice eugenics when we choose a mate with whom we will have children, don’t we?

  • http://www.astraean.com/borderwars/ Christopher@BorderWars

    Throwing around the term “Eugenics” is akin to the internet tactic of invoking the Nazis. Without talking specifics, it’s just an attempt to smear by associating the mundane aspects with the horrific. For instance, nearly anything that’s authoritarian has been called “fascist” … why not just use authoritarian? Do we need to hang death camps and the final solution on anything that is remotely governmental?

    People make little e eugenic decisions when they mate select. They also espouse eugenics in a passive manner when they follow fashions, idolize models and athletes, etc. Heck, they defraud the eugenic assumptions when they get cosmetic surgery, apply copious amounts of makeup, get hair plugs, and even work out excessively using supplements and drugs. If you desire to present a false image of your genetic quality, you’re also buying into the notion that having “good” genes is superior and important.

    Anyone who suggests that it’s a slippery slope from eye-liner to forced sterilizations is an idiot.

  • Jason

    I think the big danger of eugenics or racism is that it is a very slippery slope and so should not be joked about.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #7, what does that mean? i.e., how is that different from the possibly non-slippery slope between welfare state and communism or small-government minarchism and anarchism. most slippery slope arguments are persuasive when you find the underlying proposition which they support persuasive. otherwise, they’re just cheap tricks.

  • David

    Like erica said, all humans practice eugenics. When you date someone biologically you’re looking for someone who will provide you with traits you wish to pass along to your off spring. We’re at a point where we can make more active choices about it as opposed to simply the subconscious ones. As long as the choice belongs to the potential parents, and not some governing body, then it’s just a continuation of already normal breeding patterns. Being more active in your choices for how you live your life is never a bad thing.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    “all humans practice eugenics. ”

    so what is eugenics? honestly a lot of the time readers give me negative feedback about “eugenics” i don’t know what they’re even necessarily talking about.

  • 4runner

    Is the following eugenics?

    Relatively wealthier, more-developed State A with a low birth rate looks at relatively poorer, less-developed State B that has a higher birth rate.

    State A concludes that lowering the birth rate in State B would help improve the lot of the impoverished in State B.

    State A recommends that State B start educating women– and opening up economic opportunity to women– as an approach to reducing the birth rate and ending poverty.

    Isn’t this exactly the classical Western recommendation to many developing countries?

  • http://bounds.net.au Stephen Bounds

    Turning to the ever-trusty Online Etymology Dictionary:

    eugenics
    1883, coined (along with adj. eugenic) by English scientist Francis Galton (1822-1911) on analogy of ethics, physics, etc. from Gk. eugenes “well-born, of good stock, of noble race,” from eu- “good” (see eu-) + genos “birth” (see genus).

    ie there’s a value assumption in people practicing eugenics that people born with certain genes belong in a higher social caste than others.

  • http://www.astraean.com/borderwars/ Christopher@BorderWars

    Do I win the Nostradamus award for the day?

    6. “Anyone who suggests that it’s a slippery slope from eye-liner to forced sterilizations is an idiot.”

    7. “I think the big danger of eugenics or racism is that it is a very slippery slope and so should not be joked about.”

    Given that entropy says that if there is a slippery slope and we’re on top of it, we’ll eventually fall down it… and given that there just aren’t a lot of good examples of historical slippery slopes that we’ve fallen down and never gotten back out of, why are we still talking about these supposed slippery slopes?

    More often than not, if you have to say “slippery slope,” you’re trying to make a slippery mountain out of a dry little mole hill. The image of a slippery slope implies that at any point you’re going to hit some unknown condition and fall off into disaster.

    Looking at history, this is so rarely the case. The worst human disasters weren’t slippery slopes, they took years of willful and knowing action by hordes of people in full daylight with a very specific mission doing exactly what they initially intended to do.

    This is why it’s inane to try and smear genetic science with the ghost of evil “eugenics.”

  • bob sykes

    Actually, the socialist goal of “socialist man” requires a kind of eugenics program. Socialists think it is all a matter of “education,” although in practice they include extermination (Kulaks) and brainwashing (re-education camps). A successful socialist program would undoubtedly entail actual genetic changes (selection for subservience), but the socialists don’t want to hear that.

    Didn’t Harpening et al. propose that the neolithic revolution also selected for subservience? “We are descended from those who got down on their knees,” or something like that.

  • Human Flesh

    It seems that some people’s first exposure to basic concepts in biology comes from the History Channel. When they read about how some congenital diseases and other characteristics are heritable and their distribution in a population is influenced by breeding/mating decisions, they think about some documentary on World War II that they saw.

  • Gary B

    All this reminds me of a famous SF novel by Olaf Stapledon, “Last and First Men”. This book covers the future history of mankind as it goes through a series of types of humans. The First Men are us. The Second Men are developed by genetic engineering much like what we are talking about here – everyone wants to have smarter healthier kids, but the Second Men that actually arose were superintelligent, emotionless and overly rational, having lost their ability to empathize. They ended badly with nuclear war. The Third Men arose ‘naturally’ from the mutated survivors, etc.

    The lesson here is that ‘eugenics’ can be driven purely by the sense of the populace – it need not be driven by the state. Every influence – peer pressure, financial pressure, ambition for one’s descendants, desire to avoid the ‘hassle’ of two children, medical pressure, state pressure, … – all will contribute to changing the direction of the evolutionary process as expressed in our social milieu.

    Even today, without genetic engineering, society is breeding less-fit individuals due to the protection from harsh evolutionary reality that civilization provides. For example, in modern first world society, children with crooked teeth have orthodontics, so they grow up with a nice looking smile. But the effect of this is that a potential spouse loses the ability to reject that child for that reason, and as a result the next generation has a higher tendency to crooked teeth. (I’m assuming for the purposes of argument that crooked teeth are genetically controlled, which I don’t know to be the case. It’s just an illustration.)

    Of course, now we have these capabilities to increase the probability of more ‘fit’ individuals. But, since parents and other arts of society have varying standards of fitness, I hope that despite Stapledon, the future Second Men will not be a monoculture but a rich stew resulting from different ideas of fitness. I look forward to our blue-haired, richly empathic, six-fingered children, our five-foot astronauts and our eight-foot basketball players! :D

  • Paul

    Even today, without genetic engineering, society is breeding less-fit individuals due to the protection from harsh evolutionary reality that civilization provides.

    Evoluton doesn’t produce less-fit individuals, pretty much by definition. The environment they are adapted to can change, of course.

  • jb

    Evoluton doesn’t produce less-fit individuals, pretty much by definition. The environment they are adapted to can change, of course.

    Fitness != desirability. Evolution (i.e., natural selection) may, by definition, always increase fitness. But the traits that are more “fit” in a certain environment can also be traits that people may reasonably consider undesirable. For example, if, in some parallel universe, a society were to make it difficult for smart people to have children (let’s say, by expecting both partners to take demanding jobs that leave little time or energy for children), and easy for stupid people to have children (let’s say, by flat out subsidizing them), then in that society (environment), people of low intelligence could easily be more fit, in an evolutionary sense, than people of high intelligence. And yet it would be quite reasonable for people in that society to consider this a bad thing! And quite reasonable for them to make efforts to change the situation.

    (Oh wait. That would be Eugenics! Sorry! Off limits! Taboo! Thoughtcrime! Forget I ever said it….)

  • http://philliplemky.com Phillip Lemky

    It wasn’t indicated in my comment, but I was more concerned with the notion of “biological castes” than I was with “assortative mating” when I threw around the loaded word, “eugenics.”

    Having a discussion about eugenics necessitates a useful definition. I’ll offer one by co-opting a phrase from James D. Watson: “The unambiguous identification of genes that lead to social and occupational stratification as well as genes justifying racial discrimination.” That’s the sense of eugenics I find disturbing and with which the notion of “biological castes” could theoretically blend.

  • Jason

    I don’t think choosing who we mate with should really be compared to the practice of Eugenics which been has been a big factor in leading to genocide. I think that is making light hearted comments about something that has led to the most evil events that have occurred in human history.

    I grew up in South Africa and I can assure you racism is definitely a slippery slope. What starts off as a mild sense of superiority of one race over another can quickly degenerate into complete hatred of one race given the wrong circumstances.

  • ackbark

    Is it eugenics if we use a virus to replace a defective gene in an embryo before it is born?

  • Jason

    21: I would so no, that is a genetic based medical treatment.

  • Human Flesh

    #19, The genes that code for cystic fibrosis can certainly influence the career opportunities of the people who express said genes. Would you find a non-coercive form of eugenics more palatable?

    One academic journal changed its name from Annals of Eugenics to Annals of Human Genetics in 1954. The term ‘eugenics’ has fallen out of fashion, but the practice of influencing the proliferation of various genes is still alive and well.

  • ackbark

    But it changes the dna in a socially mandated way.

  • Clark

    It seems to me that “eugenics” is typically used in an analogous way or as hyperbole. (Like “fascist” in most discussions) However I think the issue of genetic medical treatments are interesting if there is strong social pressure that is anything but objective. You can already see that with say the deaf community where some parents refuse to treat children for deafness because they want them to be deaf like the community.

    If that is already happening imagine what would happen if there were a genetic way to say avoid propensity towards homosexuality? What if the level of melanin could be chosen in the first trimester?

    I think there are some troubling issues down the road. But I have a feeling that honestly they are pretty far down the road (if they happen at all). The only contemporary one is the choosing of baby sex – especially in Asia.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    What if the level of melanin could be chosen in the first trimester?

    this is already possible to some extent.

  • Darkseid

    woah. can you please expand, Razib? are you inferring about the labs that can offer a specific eye color, etc. or about something else?

  • jb

    the practice of Eugenics … been has been a big factor in leading to genocide.

    People keep saying this, but is it actually true?

    It’s not clear to me that belief in eugenics has ever actually led to genocide. It seems to me the Nazis were motivated primarily by nationalism, antisemitism, and paranoia, and when they talked about eugenics they were simply using currently fashionable language to further insult people they already hated for other reasons. And aside from the Nazis, what other cases of “genocide” has eugenics ever been implicated in? I can’t think of any off the top of my head. Stalin and Mao each arguably killed more people than Hitler, but I don’t see a eugenics connection with either of them. What have I missed?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #28, i agree.

  • Jason

    28, 29: The Nazi’s form of anti-Semitism was based on a racial rather than a religious point of view. This made its combination with Eugenics particularly poisonous. Also the genocide in Rwanda was racially based. That’s why I think the important thing, morally, is to consider all people as having the same intrinsic value what ever their genes are. But I don’t think that makes it wrong to use genetic medical methods to cure illness, that is just obviously helping the person.

  • Kiwiguy

    ***It’s not clear to me that belief in eugenics has ever actually led to genocide.***

    Academics Seymour Itzkoff & John Glad agree. Here’s Glad’s book with a foreword by Itzkoff. It’s apparently the most widely read book on the topic.

    http://whatwemaybe.org/

  • Clark

    Razib (26) you can control how “black” your baby is right now via drugs of some sort? Really? If this is an actual obtainable treatment I’m surprised it hasn’t become an issue. (Redheads wanting darker babies, issues of pigment within sub communities – didn’t Spike Lee do a movie about that within the African American community?)

  • Chuck

    “I think the big danger of eugenics or racism is that it is a very slippery slope and so should not be joked about.”

    I agree that eugenics or racism stand on a slippery slope. The slope is slippery, though, because many have gone out of their way to grease it and because few have cared to make, let alone establish, conceptual distinctions between kinds of eugenics or racism. I would argue that there are tactical socio-political reasons for this and that such distinctions could readily be made. Few argue that capital punishment — to take an extreme example — stands on a slippery slope that will lead to genocide, because clear conceptual distinctions and boundaries between kinds of killing have been established in the public discourse. I find it amazing that many rather intellectual individuals are unable to carve out conceptual forms of eugenics or racism at their logical joints — which leads be to believe that the unwillingness is not unintentional. It’s now clear that for a minority, there are genetic predispositions for racism (in the non-pejorative sense) along with religiocentrism and ethnocentrism (see for example, Lewis and Bates “Genetic Evidence for Multiple Biological Mechanisms Underlying In-Group Favoritism”). (I myself admittedly have racial tendencies and am rather unapologetic about them.) The modern day demonization of racialists under multiculturedom is akin to the demonization of homosexuals under Christendom; just as creating and maintaining psychological slippery slopes with respect to homosexuality aided in the maintenance of the norms against the latter, so does it with the former.

  • Jason

    Chuck,

    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.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

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 http://www.razib.com

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