Last week, famous biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins outraged all of the rage heads on Twitter by tweeting out, “It’s one thing to deplore eugenics on ideological, political, moral grounds. It’s quite another to conclude that it wouldn’t work in practice. Of course it would. It works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses. Why on earth wouldn’t it work for humans? Facts ignore ideology” The rage heads responded with outrage and demands that he be thrown into a well for bad think.
It was one of those events where people revealed things about themselves that they probably wish they had kept private. The “world’s foremost philosopher” managed to step on a series of rakes responding to Paul Ramsey. Not satisfied with his twitter performance, he did a full hour on YouTube, where he must have broken a record for the number of logical fallacies committed in one sitting. Apparently he has yet to reach the chapter on Hume’s law or the masked-man fallacy.
Molyneux’s response was fairly typical, so it is a useful, if unfortunate, example to use when discussing the issue raised by Dawkins. Eugenics, however one defines it, can be both immoral and effective. The morality of it has nothing to do with whether it would work, however one defines that. They are separate issues. Slavery “worked” for a long time, but then we decided it was immoral and it was eliminated. Slavery was not eliminated because it was unworkable or impractical.
His blunders are not surprising, as we live in an age in which morality has been anathematized and made illegitimate. We are no longer allowed to oppose something on moral grounds. Instead we’re required to make economic arguments or make appeals to science. Simply not wanting something, because you don’t like it is no longer a legitimate position. We see this here. Molyneux could not simply say eugenics is immoral, so he claimed it would not work.
The narrow definition of eugenics, according to Webster’s, is “the practice or advocacy of controlled selective breeding of human populations to improve the population’s genetic composition.” Of course, the term is loaded with historical significance and has a strong negative connotation. It brings to mind evil doctors experimenting on children or the state sterilizing people they deem unfit. Of course, you know who looms over any discussion about human fitness these days.
That said, Western societies have been putting a thumb on the scale, as far as the mating habits of the people, for a long time. A great example of this is the laws against consanguineous marriage. In the Middle Ages, the Church and then secular rulers enforced rules against marrying close relatives. This had a huge impact on the human capital of Europe. Cousin marriage leads to lower intelligence and most likely amplifies normal kinship into clannishness.
Henry Harpending and Peter Frost argued that the prolific use of the death penalty in Western Europe, starting in the late Middle Ages, pacified the population. Young men, who committed crimes, were hanged, thus eliminating them from the breeding pool at an early age. Do this long enough and the genes of violent men are slowly reduced. As interpersonal violence declined, men prone to it declined in status, thus reducing their value in the sexual marketplace. That’s eugenics.
That’s also a great example of how the moral arguments about eugenics are mostly based on a cartoon version of the past. Few would deny that the reduction in interpersonal violence was a good thing for the West. Similarly, no one would argue that a society has no right to defend itself against the violent. Like everything else, morality is about trade-offs. Reducing the amount mayhem and violence with the prolific use of the death penalty looks like a pretty good trade-off.
Now, Frost and Harpending could be wrong about the impact of the death penalty, but their theory is not wrong. We can make rules that reduce the reproductive success of those possessing undesirable traits. Those rules, given enough time, will reduce that undesirable trait. If we wanted, we can use force to eliminate those people from the breeding pool. East Asia has been using soft coercion for generations to alter the breeding habits of their people.
Of course, a big part of the hysteria is the implications. If eugenics is a real thing, it means people are not amorphous blobs that can be molded into any shape. To give an inch on the eugenics question is to give up entirely on the blank slate theology. Instead the true believers argue against reality by denying it or avoiding it. You see that in the Dawkins thread, where various people, mostly women, offered ridiculous claims against the reality of animal husbandry and agriculture.
Ultimately, the topic of eugenics brings us back to that point about discussing morality and collective agency in the modern age. A eugenic policy would mean legitimizing the collective will. It would also mean accepting that people collectively have an identity that is rooted in their nature. The war on our collective humanity starts with denying us a right to say who we are and what makes us who we are. It means denying us the legitimacy to want what we want for no other reason than we want it.
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