The inevitability of eugenics…as preventative health

By Razib Khan | March 27, 2013 12:46 pm

Inbred lineage. The Role of Inbreeding in the Extinction of a European Royal Dynasty, Alvarez et. al.

Every now and then Richard Dawkins stirs controversy by bringing up the topic of eugenics. This is not surprising in terms of Dawkins’ intellectual pedigree. The most influential British evolutionary biologist in the generation before Dawkins, R. A. Fisher, was a eugenicist. Arguably the most the most eminent evolutionist of Dawkins’ own generation, W. D. Hamilton, clearly had eugenical sympathies, though he was keenly aware how unfashionable that had become.* University College London’s Galton Laboratory still had the word eugenics in its title until 1965. More recently Dawkins has brought up the issue of consanguinity amongst the British Pakistani community. A practice which one might argue is non-eugenical due to the high rate of recessive diseases.


First, let’s define our terms. There is classical eugenics in the narrow and specific sense, whereby the long term trajectory of allele frequencies shift within the population as a function of their coding for positive traits. For example, if there was a law enacted in Britain that only individuals with blue eyes could reproduce because blue eyes was judged a positive trait, that would quickly change the allele frequencies within the British population. But today that is not the primary purview of eugenic methods. Rather, operationally eugenics encompasses practices which may maintain deleterious alleles within the population, or have no long term effect. In the first instance consider Tay-Sachs, screening for which means that selection against the allele via the generation of individuals expressing the recessive disease does not occur. In the second class one can bracket the various chromosomal abnormalities which lead to Down syndrome. These individuals are often infertile or have very low reproductive fitness.

Because of its ubiquity it is the last case, prenatal screening for chromosomal abnormalities, followed by abortion in the case of a positive result, is the primary specter of eugenics today. But though these procedures may change the frequency of the trait in the population, there is no impact on inter-generational variations in allele frequencies. The classic anti-eugenic rhetoric, where eugenicists wish to create a better master race of some sort, falls flat substantively. The probability of having a Down syndrome child is a function of age, not one’s “genetic quality” (at least primarily), so one is unlikely to discriminate against classes of people by ethnicity or class (in fact, the more educated are at greater risk because they tend to delay childbearing). One could argue that encouraging early storage of sperm by men to avoid excess mutational load in the germ line is also eugenical in intent. And to some extent I think it is arguably more eugenical in the classical sense, as one is presumably reducing the frequency of loss of function mutations. But I doubt anyone views the issue in such a manner. The goal is to produce offspring with lower risk of disease.

The real fundamental issue here is that genes are at least somewhat in the picture, and genes are mystically powerful. But modern eugenics is really just part of the broader portfolio of preventative health. Since Neuroskeptic’s post on the “new eugenics” a few years back there has been great advancement, such as noninvasive prenatal screening for chromosomal abnormalities. There has been moderate controversy, but in a world of routine in vitro fertilization and occasional surrogacy this does not rise to the level of alarm or salience. The primary point here is that the “new eugenics” is not going to be about a top-down agenda about remaking the genome of the human race and producing a lineage of Übermensch. It is going to come into being through a collective series of choices by couples and individuals in terms of what their vision is for a healthy and happy child. It will happen piecemeal, in banal and unnoticed steps.

That outcome is not going to be uniform. Going back to some of the context of Richard Dawkin’s debates about consanguinity in the British Pakistani context, genetics may be the problem, but genetics will also be the solution. Because of the persistence of parallel cousin marriage in Pakistani society there is some worry about pedigree collapse within these endogamous clans. Marriage between first cousins in an outbred population does increase the risk of recessive diseases, but repeated first cousin marriages within a lineage across generations compounds the problem. The ancient community of Samaritans in Israel has been facing this issue with two responses. One is to find brides outside of the community. In other words, change their cultural practices. But there is another option: genetic testing. Genetics may present problems, but it offers up solutions.

And that is why I say eugenics, broadly understood, and seamlessly integrated into preventative medicine, is inevitable. There are more things in heaven and earth in modern genetic science than could ever have been dreamt of in Fancis Galton’s original philosophy.

* I am cautious about granting precedent to Fisher or Hamilton, as Haldane and Maynard Smith were both very accomplished thinkers in their own right. But I think if one has to pick that is the way one would have to rank them, though perhaps Hamilton and Maynard Smith are more equivalent (Haldane’s interests were more diverse and variegated than Fisher’s).

  • toto

    “And that is why I say eugenics, broadly understood, and seamlessly integrated into preventative medicine, is inevitable.”

    Isn’t it already there? When Dor Yeshorim tests Ashkenazi Jews for recessive diseases with the specific intent of avoiding “genetically unsuitable” unions, how is that not eugenics?

    • razibkhan

      i think it is eugenics. but it isn’t quite so pervasive yet. right now you look at tay-sachs in jews. perhaps cystic fibrosis in europeans. additionally, i’m assuming there will be a ‘menu’ in the near future. right now it’s a constrained fixed-price set (i have a little bit of experience with american insurance and what they will cover for prenatal testing).

  • JonFrum

    I have to take issue with your portrayal of the word eugenics. While the word itself suggests a positive emphasis, the negative was always explicit from the start of the eugenics movement. The growth of the eugenics movement was motivated (excepting Germany) by fear of being ‘swamped’ by immigrants of ‘lower’ stock, not by a hope of producing a super race.

    And left unstated in your analysis is the concern that in the name of ‘preventive medicine,’ you end up aborting perfectly functional, but less than ‘perfect’ children. Is aborting deaf children preventive medicine? Surely there’s more to say than ‘it will happen.’

    • razibkhan

      he growth of the eugenics movement was motivated (excepting Germany) by fear of being ‘swamped’ by immigrants of ‘lower’ stock, not by a hope of producing a super race.

      which countries besides the USA are you talking about?

    • Your Lying Eyes

      A deaf child is perfectly functional?

  • http://www.facebook.com/karl.zimmerman Karl Zimmerman

    I’ve often thought that the only way to limit the scope of eugenics over the near future is to embrace genetic modification of humans, and ensure it is as low-cost and universal as possible.

    Think about it like this. We’re heading into a period where knowledge of the genome is becoming incredibly detailed, and very affordable. Some cultures in East Asia already choose mating partners on the basis of pseudoscience around blood type. It is not a huge leap to imagine that in the future, it will be considered normal in many developed countries to ask your partner for their sequencing results – and to reject having children with them due to something disturbing in their genome. Indeed, the only real choices someone will have will be who to mate with (and whether to carry a pregnancy to term)

    Genetic engineering offers a clear way around this. If we can eliminate maladaptive variants (at least in germline cells), we can eliminate any rational reason to discriminate against the people who hold these variants. Discriminating against genes might have selection effects down the road if there was a positive expression of the gene which wasn’t realized – but it won’t have negative effects on society the way that discriminating against individuals will.

    • razibkhan

      i don’t think *fundamentally* there’s that much difference between eugenics and genetic engineering. lots of the same objections hold. i think both are pretty much inevitable.

      • http://www.facebook.com/karl.zimmerman Karl Zimmerman

        I realize that many people object to eugenics and genetic engineering for similar reasons. For example, that both of them are mankind playing god, or that a super-race will result, which will either be stigmatized, or our perpetual overlords, etc.

        The thing is, all of the moral normative or hysteria-based arguments will fail. As you have noted, we are already entering a world where the wealthy have access to possibilities in reproductive technologies the rest of us do not. Sperm from those who hold doctorates commands a much higher price at sperm banks, for example – strongly suggesting people fundamentally understand that nurture isn’t all powerful, and just any old semen won’t do.

        As I see it, the status quo system – creeping eugenics, along with stigmatizing and criminalizing human genetic engineering – ensures a genetic aristocracy will form. The only clear way around it is to have a universal-healthcare-like system which offers whatever the rich might want to buy for their own kids illegally overseas to everyone free of charge. There would be massive social benefits to most non-cosmetic choices parents would make (lowered healthcare costs, higher productivity, lower crime, etc), which means there are solid public policy reasons for the government to bear such costs as well.

        The main objective I could see is at some point the “standard package” would become normative, and there would ultimately be pressure on the government to force the last holdouts to give their children such treatment. That said, compared to some other endgames, it seems banal – hardly worse than nations which mandate children be immunized today. Provided, that is, we’re just talking about ensuring no one gets terrible diseases, is stupid, or a psychopath. If we go further (for example, eliminating variants linked to mild autism spectrum because they make children unliked), it could get quite hairy.

        • eric grobler

          “The only clear way around it is to have a universal-healthcare-like system which offers whatever the rich might want to buy for their own kids illegally overseas to everyone free of charge.”

          Interestin, on face value I agree.

    • http://www.facebook.com/karl.zimmerman Karl Zimmerman

      Although I normally wouldn’t do this, would someone explain why they’ve rated me down without comment? I can’t see what I said which was in the slightest objectionable.

    • Piko pon

      Karl, as japanese i have to say, “blood type mating” is myth. not fact.
      blood type future-telling is somewhat popular in japan and korea though.
      (sorry for off topic)

  • JL

    Dawkins recently ‘tweeted’ this:

    “Eugenics”: What’s wrong
    with a nonrandom choice of a gene your child COULD have got from you at random, anyway, by normal genetic lottery?”

    and this:

    “Positive eugenics: who chooses? Government? NO! Parents? Not obviously worse than present system where parents give child RANDOM sample of genes”

    and, possibly most bizarrely, this:

    “My liberal tribe is horrified by positive eugenics. But want there to be a better objection than just “Hitler did it so it must be bad.”

    I find it almost irreconcilable that a man of such intelligence in the field of biology could be so willfully ignorant of the clear and obvious difficulties in this topic. I am not sure if he is just letting his obsessive religious scorn infiltrate into his views on just about everything here, but these comments of his are troubling for anyone with a slight fear of eugenics becoming mainstream (and eugenics in our modern society *would* inevitably mean increased genetic gentrification, no matter how idealistic you are on the matter).

    He did not go on to clarify exactly what he meant by “positive” eugenics, and he didn’t go on to say any more on the matter at all really past these few very odd and provocative tweets, that clearly needed some further explanation (he should know better than to try to get into a debate like this on a platform such as twitter, he probably does, but that’s his problem – I don’t think he truly *wants* a debate).

    I do believe that we are headed, eventually, to this world. The debate needs to be had early and in public, before it becomes even more of a reality. It’s vital ground rules are put into effect early, and this is something that would take some time. But Richard Dawkins, for me, has already made it clear that even though he is at the forefront of our public scientific minds, he is not the man to do lead it. I fear the same could be said for many of his ilk.

    • razibkhan

      he’s talked about this at greater length on and off over the past 10 years. you should chill out before assuming that twitter comments are the sum of someone’s opinions on a given topic. i linked to those because they were of recent vintage. if we’re going to have a real discussion i would also think you might want to dampen your hectoring, verging on hysterical, tone.

    • Emil Kirkegaard

      For the term positive eugenics, cf. Richard Lynn’s book about Eugenics.

  • marcel proust

    Apropos your fn (and not really on topic): I think this qualification unnecessary. In stating that Fisher and Hamilton were the most influential British evolutionary biologists of their generations, you were very careful to make no claims about the relative quality or importance of their work.

    It’s probably as close to a statement of fact (rather than judgment) as one could get. Someone could disagree with you as they could disagree about any assessment of the facts of the matter, but I don’t see a direct connection from “influential” to “best” (presumably, in terms of contributions to knowledge, contributions to their field).

    However, perhaps it is useful as a device to avoid having to debate something not even tangential to the point of your post (who I would hope are more knowledgeable than I)

  • http://www.facebook.com/karl.zimmerman Karl Zimmerman

    Uhh…I mean with the government paying for the cost.

    Consider genetic diseases which cause expensive diseases, like Huntington’s. If we have cheap gene therapy, the cost to provide it by the government would be worthwhile, as it would lower overall health spending.

    The same arguments could be made more broadly about intelligence (economic productivity), or genes which are found to be associated with criminality (lowers spending on law-and-order), once procedures become affordable enough. The general social benefit can clearly outweigh any cost for procedures, since it lasts a lifetime.

  • Dmitry Pruss

    For the severe heritable adult-onset conditions (such as hereditary cancer), the discussions of the prospective parents about PGD never stop. Yet it’s largely considered unethical to use genetic testing in such settings, because the child wouldn’t need to face any medical issues before he or she can give consent, and because there is hope that the technology of the next generation would fix or mitigate these genetic flaws before the children grow old enough to face the health risks.

    But for the inherited diseases which strike during childhood, the ethical objections are much weaker, and even carrier screening is pretty much accepted. Few ethicists continue to question Dor Yeshorim’s blanket population-wide screening for 9 recessive conditions, even though Dor Yeshorim doesn’t even have any of supposedly “must-have” bells and whistles of genetic testing such as informed consent, patient disclosure, or genetic counseling.

  • Dmitry Pruss

    May I suggest two new words :) :) :) ? cacogenics for the stupid, bad eugenics of the past, and cryptogenics for the gentle, borderline variety of this age ;) ?

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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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