Eugenics by another name

By Razib Khan | June 18, 2012 10:03 pm

Evolution’s winner. Real headline.

In the mid-2000s two British biologists of some public note attempted to revive or resuscitate the good name of eugenics, Richard Dawkins and Armand Leroi. My own suspicion is that this emerges in part from a implicit cultural history in the British Isles in regards to eugenics: in those nations,* unlike in the USA or Germany, eugenics was generally conceived of in the positive rather than negative sense. By this, I mean that a disproportionate amount of thought was given to the procreation of the favored, rather than coercive restriction of the unfit. This is exemplified by R. A. Fisher, the co-founder of both evolutionary genetics and statistics, who worried about the high mortality rate of the British elite during World War I. Fisher himself went on to have eight children, a situation which occasionally left him in financial distress, as would be predicted from standard Malthusian assumptions (see R.A. Fisher: The Life of a Scientist).

But despite the best efforts of Dawkins & Leroi, eugenics is still a swear word. For example, a few months ago Chris Mooney was accused of being a eugenicist because of the nature of his arguments in The Republican Brain. Of course there’s a difference between the word, and the reality. Idiocracy had an implicitly eugenical moral. And there are dating sites like Good Genes:

Our mission is to help Ivy Leaguers and similarly well-educated graduates and faculty find others with matching credentials. We introduce people who enjoy sharing thoughts, opinions and quality time.

Apparently good genes do not entail web design skills which post-date 1997. In any case, “good genes” has been obviated by the emergence of social networks, where people can sort and segregate to their hearts’ delight. And of course there is a copious social science on the strong racial and ethnic preferences of people dating. In particular, this preference seems to be much stronger in females, as one would predict from behavioral ecology (i.e., women are looking for “good genes” because they have a smaller number of potential reproductive opportunities).

Finally, there’s the famous statistic that 90 percent of couples who receive a positive test for Down Syndrome choose to terminate the pregnancy. That is, they request the doctors kill the fetus. This datum is at the heart of a recent Ross Douthat column, Eugenics, Past and Future. I appreciate Ross’ take though I disagree on the details and normative implications. He at least attempts not to be trite or trivialize the matter. Many conservative critics of eugenics are more interested in using the term as a cudgel against liberals, while liberals abhor eugenics the term, but dismiss the eugenical implications of individual freedoms which they defend (the abortion & crime argument being an exception). Douthat is clearly against eugenics, but he draws up real statistics and cutting edge science which attests to its reality in our time.

In particular he is putting the focus on non-invasive forms of prenatal testing. I do think that he overestimates the power of individual prediction broadly in the near term (and possibly the long term). Though there are many traits, like height, which are highly heritable, they’re so genomically diffuse that you have to screen from a wide range of embryos before you pick the “right” one. And that assumes you can adduce a good correlation between genotype and phenotype. But, there will be some immediate yield when it comes to large effect genetic abnormalities.

We can have theoretical discussions about genetics and ethics, but the real phenomenon which aggravates me about people who act Very Serious is that this is a domain which manifests not through discussion, but action. If you read the articles about “test tube babies” from the 1970s you notice how frightened everyone was, and contrast it with the banality of in vitro fertilization now. The past is not always prologue to the present, but if we have such high abortion rates of fetuses with Down Syndrome via amniocentesis and CVS, it is totally reasonable to assume that the rates will increase even higher with widespread and nearly obligate screening.

I’m not a pro-choice absolutist. In fact, I don’t even believe in rights, as such. I’m generally predisposed toward stronger restrictions on post-1st trimester abortions on the grounds which pro-life people would recognize. But, I also think we do need to open the possibility toward restrictions on 1st trimester abortions in some circumstances if feasible, because I do not believe children are a parental consumption good. In other words, becoming a parent is not an increment of individual utility in toto. The child is going to be a member of a community, to which they will have responsibilities, and from whom they will derive benefits.**

We did choose to go through CVS testing when my daughter was in utero. And I plan to have some form of non-invasive screening performed for our next child. That’s a personal choice. When I explain my rationale to people often I get standard-issue ignorant repugnance. My main annoyance is that it’s an unthinking reflex in a world already saturated with artifice. We need to have a serious conversation about the limits of individual self-actualization when it comes to the potential lives of other human beings who are integral elements of society. But, in the interests of candid realism I am very uninterested in the stories of people like George F. Will (who is, by the way, an agnostic) about the value of their Down Syndrome son. George F. Will is a man of means. I’d like to see how a struggling lower middle class family manages. There are many more of them. This is a frankly base consideration, but such are the things which constitute a life lived in the real world.

* Britain is home to three nations, England, Scotland, and Wales.

** My concern about sex-selective abortion is as much a consideration of a well balance society as it is about sex-bias.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Bioethics, Personal Genomics
MORE ABOUT: Down Syndrome, Testing
  • marcel

    I have no idea what you are getting at when you write, “But, I also think we do need to open the possibility toward restrictions on 1st trimester abortions in some circumstances if feasible, because I do not believe children are a parental consumption good.”

    Please elaborate on the first part of this sentence (the second is fairly clear, especially after reading the sentence that follows).

    More than 2 decades ago, my wife and I tried to have a 3rd child. The 2nd of these attempts (the other 2 ended in early miscarriages) was a very difficult pregnancy which ended in a late abortion (20th or 21st week). The decision was in some sense an easy one for both of us, although we were both quite sad that it was the right choice. The amnio and associated examinations (IIRC, the sonogram) had indicated severe neural tube defects and a missing corpus callosum. The genetic counselor could provide no guidance as to the likely degree of disability, no indication, as I thought about it at the time, as to whether we’d be dealing with animal, vegetable or mineral. We did not believe that this was an appropriate, fair, or constructive burden to place on our 2 young children.

    I am an abortion rights absolutist (at least before viability outside the womb and the NICU) not because I do not believe that individuals have some responsiblity to the greater community — I suspect that I feel more strongly about this than you based on statements you have made here — but because I think the costs of trying to police abortion and the reasons that women might choose one (like most of the “war on drugs”) are greater than any benefits.

  • Razib Khan

    #1, there are some restrictions we might want to theoretically implement (e.g., sex selective abortion) which we may not be able to impelement.

    I am an abortion rights absolutist

    what follows implies that i’d call you an abortion rights situationalist rather than an absolutist. what if the benefits were greater? the modern american discussion about abortion rights really tends to reduce down to property rights (e.g., “my body, my choice”). i don’t know if i believe this anymore.

  • Finch

    Razib, do you have any idea whether birth defect rates are typically quoted before or after potential abortion?

    My understanding from links like is that they are typically quoted per live birth.

    If that’s the case, and certain defects like Downs are selectively aborted at high rates, are we understating the risk of those defects in advice to potential mothers? You often see a rate of about 1% for Downs Syndrome quoted for 40-year-old mothers. Is the defective rate really 10% because 90% of those are aborted? Are there good statistics on how often defects influence abortions?

  • Razib Khan

    #3, i think it’s live births too. it seems that 30-50 percent of pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion, and when people have somehow examined the fetuses they have karyotype anomalies. down can survive in part cuz it’s on a small chromosome, so causes the least havoc. for 40 year old mothers i assume that the problems > 90%, judging by the low unassisted fertility.

  • marcel

    i’d call you an abortion rights situationalist.

    (Almost) fair enough. I cannot imagine a situation in which policing people’s motives and reasons for doing something, for the purpose of determining whether an action was legal or criminal, would have more benefits than costs.

    We do query motive and intent in criminal court to assess specifically which crime was committed and which penalty should be imposed; rarely I think, at least before the current spate of Stand Your Ground Laws, do we do this (query motive and other feelings) in order to determine whether the act in question was indeed a crime and therefore not allowed. The various degrees of murder (1st=premeditated, 2nd=unpremeditated, manslaughter varies but sfaik means death that occurred due to negligence or ill intent without the intent to kill) are all crimes; it is my understanding that the claim of justifiable homicide, which is not a crime, has traditionally required facts (not feelings) about real actions that occurred.

    It would take a great deal to persuade me that benefits (e.g., of outlawing sex-selective abortion, which I agree has serious social consequences for all of us) outweigh costs, and outweigh them sufficiently for me to be confident of that conclusion. In principle, I may be an abortion rights situationalist, but for practical purposes I am an absolutist, with the proviso stated in my comment above.

  • Euler

    About that headline, apparently the story isn’t quite what the headline says. The guy never asked for help with child support from the sate, and he “only” has 24 children. Also, unlike in the msnbc article, he hasn’t had any more kids since 2009, when he was arrested for aggravated assault, and he won’t get out of jail until 2014. I guess it’s only fair that he’s evolution’s winner, so at least he is a winner at something.

  • Emil

    Apparently my country, Denmark, is on the forefront in removing Down’s Syndrome thru voluntary abortions. I came across some numbers recently: 99% of people who are diagnosed with a fetus with chromosome errors choose abortion. Since about 90% of people get screened, this is quite a lot.–Downs-syndrom-er-et-uddoeende-handicap


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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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