The Confused Idea of ‘Eugenics’

Whenever someone uses the word ‘eugenics’ to refer to anything other than the political movement, popular in the twentieth century, with the aim of using state power to improve ‘the race,’ there’s a good chance they’ll end up very confused. Like ‘fascism,’ ‘eugenics’ today functions as little more than a slur, and is normally used very imprecisely. The confusion resulting from this imprecision is evident in this post at Center for Genetics and Society Blog:

If eugenics makes a come-back, it will likely be as a consumer option, which explains why it tends to be championed by libertarians. A recent report, however, is raising the specter of old-fashioned, state-sponsored eugenics, and doing so from what appears to be a thoroughly libertarian perspective.

The report is from the Citizens’ Council on Health Care (CCHC) in St. Paul, MN, and written by its President, Twila Brase. It focuses on the practice of testing the DNA of newborns and keeping the results on file, often without fully informed parental consent. As a consequence, Brase speculates, the government may soon have enough data about individuals to make genetically-based decisions about who would be a “burden on society.” Given that, her logic goes, might not some see it as in society’s interest at least to sterilize them?

Brase is a committed opponent of “socialized medicine” (video here of a “Tea Party” speech) who recommends that genetic screening programs be privatized as a “protective strategy.” Clearly libertarian, then, in her general approach; but worried about eugenics. What gives?

There is no contradiction: Brase’s concern is with what some call “negative eugenics” — government programs to discriminate against, sterilize (or outright murder) the so-called “unfit.” The CCHC report does a fine job of relating modern privacy concerns about newborn genetic screening to the sordid history of negative eugenics, but says nothing about “designer babies” or “improved” humans, the so-called “positive eugenics” that some advocate today.

Of course there is no contradiction: the kind of eugenics Brase is worried about is utterly different from the parent-controlled genetic screening or enhancement (‘designer babies’)  most libertarians see as unobjectionable. The relevant distinction here is not between positive and negative eugenics; but, I would suggest, between eugenics and non-eugenics. The meaning of ‘eugenics’ has been stretched beyond recognition, but I would like to return to the definition it was given by its founder, Francis Galton. Writing in 1904, Galton defined eugenics as ‘the science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those that develop them to the utmost advantage.’ This is clearly a collectivist ideology: the aim of eugenics is to improve the race as a whole, rather than any individual in particular.  Galton continues:

A considerable list of qualities can easily be compiled that nearly everyone except “cranks” would take into account when picking out the best specimens of his class. It would include health, energy, ability, manliness, and courteous disposition. Recollect that the natural differences between dogs are highly marked in all these respects., and that men are quite as variable by nature as other animals of like species. Special aptitudes would be assessed highly by those who possessed them, as the artistic faculties by artists, fearlessness of inquiry and veracity by scientists, religious absorption by mystics, and so on. There would be self-sacrificers, self-tormentors, and other exceptional idealists; but the representatives of these would be better members of a community than the body of their electors. They would have more of those qualities that are needed in a state–more vigor, more ability, and more consistency of purpose. The community might be trusted to refuse representatives of criminals, and of others whom it rates as undesirable.

Let us for a moment suppose that the practice of eugenics should hereafter raise the average quality of our nation to that of its better moiety at the present day, and consider the gain. The general tone of domestic, social, and political life would be higher. The race as a whole would be less foolish, less frivolous, less excitable, and politically more provident than now. Its demagogues who “played to the gallery” would play to a more sensible gallery than at present. We should be better fitted to fulfil our vast imperial opportunities. Lastly, men of an order of ability which is now very rare would become more frequent, because, the level out of which they rose would itself have risen.

The aim of eugenics is to bring as many influences as can be reasonably employed, to cause the useful classes in the community to contribute more than their proportion to the next generation.

It’s clear that both positive and negative eugenics – the promotion of desirable traits and the discouragement of undesirable traits – fall within Galton’s scope. We may find negative eugenics, especially when it involves forced sterilization, more repugnant than positive eugenics, but libertarians should be troubled by both forms. Eugenics in Galton’s definition involves the state or ‘society’ deeming some traits desirable and others undesirable, and using state power to maximize the former and/or minimize the latter at the population level.

Compare this to the ‘liberal eugenics’ of parents selecting for certain traits through pre-implantation screening or, in the future, genetic manipulation. In this case, no agency is empowered to act upon the population as a whole. The aim is not the improvement of the race, but the improvement of a single human life. A large part of my dislike for state eugenics is the single standard of desirability binding upon all. This, along with extreme coercion, is absent from liberal eugenics.

There seem to be two particularly morally relevant dimensions to consider in distinguishing different attitudes to human enhancement:

  1. The intended object of improvement – does the decision-maker wish to influence the population or an individual?
  2. Improvement or stasis – does the decision-maker wish to change genetic traits based on their own conception of what is desirable, or avoid genetic traits from being intentionally changed?

There are undoubtedly other factors to consider, but I think these two get at the core of the issue and enable a simple mapping on a 2*2 matrix:


Classical eugenics and the contemporary drive to enhance one’s own children through biotechnology share the desire to improve genetic traits. They differ, though, on the level at which they operate. In this respect classical eugenics and the contemporary opposition to liberal eugenics are similar: both define the boundaries of a desirable or acceptable life and use state power to enforce that standard. If I were king of Language Town, I would restrict the use of the word ‘eugenics’ to the upper left cell of the matrix, since this is clearly what classical eugenics was all about and liberal eugenics (the lower left cell) seems entirely different. Given that ‘liberal eugenics’ has become the standard term for individual enhancement of one’s children, I will grudgingly accept it. But I would ask – nay, plead – that anyone talking about enhancement keep the crucial distinction between classical and liberal eugenics, as well as the commonality of classical eugenics and collectivist stasism, in mind. This would all be too obvious to bother saying if it weren’t for all the confusion out there.


3 Responses

  1. Of course, if we want to get serious about stopping the horrors of the bottom left quadrant, we need to have randomized marriage. Isn’t it terrible that folks try to choose intelligent, attractive partners with whom to fuse their gametes? Shouldn’t this be stopped?

  2. It always amazes me how much bioludditism is present in the popular ideologies. Something to do with the exploded Enlightenment-style ‘equality’ still clinging on, I suspect.

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