Eugenics and the Future of the Human Species
“It is clear that modern medicine has created a serious dilemma … In the past, there were many children who never survived – they succumbed to various diseases … But in a sense modern medicine has put natural selection out of commission. Something that has helped one individual over a serious illness can in the long run contribute to weakening the resistance of the whole human race to certain diseases. If we pay absolutely no attention to what is called hereditary hygiene, we could find ourselves facing a degeneration of the human race. Mankind’s hereditary potential for resisting serious disease will be weakened how to write a cause and effect essay .”
Jostein Gaarder in “Sophie’s World”, a bestselling philosophy textbook for adolescents published in Oslo, Norway, in 1991 and, afterwards, throughout the world, having been translated to dozens of languages.
The Nazis regarded the murder of the feeble-minded and the mentally insane – intended to purify the race and maintain hereditary hygiene – as a form of euthanasia. German doctors were enthusiastic proponents of an eugenics movements rooted in 19th century social Darwinism. Luke Gormally writes, in his essay “Walton, Davies, and Boyd” (published in “Euthanasia Examined – Ethical, Clinical, and Legal Perspectives”, ed. John Keown, Cambridge University Press, 1995):
“When the jurist Karl Binding and the psychiatrist Alfred Hoche published their tract The Permission to Destroy Life that is Not Worth Living in 1920 … their motive was to rid society of the ‘human ballast and enormous economic burden’ of care for the mentally ill, the handicapped, retarded and deformed children, and the incurably ill. But the reason they invoked to justify the killing of human beings who fell into these categories was that the lives of such human beings were ‘not worth living’, were ‘devoid of value'”
“Darwin’s description of the process of natural selection as the survival of the fittest in the struggle for life is a metaphor. ‘Struggle’ does not necessarily mean contention, strife, or combat; ‘survival’ does not mean that ravages of death are needed to make the selection effective; and ‘fittest’ is virtually never a single optimal genotype but rather an array of genotypes that collectively enhance population survival rather than extinction. All these considerations are most apposite to consideration of natural selection in humans. Decreasing infant and childhood mortality rates do not necessarily mean that natural selection in the human species no longer operates. Theoretically, natural selection could be very effective if all the children born reached maturity. Two conditions are needed to make this theoretical possibility realized: first, variation in the number of children per family and, second, variation correlated with the genetic properties of the parents. Neither of these conditions is farfetched.”
The eugenics debate is only the visible extremity of the Man vs. Nature conundrum. Have we truly conquered nature and extracted ourselves from its determinism? Have we graduated from natural to cultural evolution, from natural to artificial selection, and from genes to memes?
Does the evolutionary process culminate in a being that transcends its genetic baggage, that programs and charts its future, and that allows its weakest and sickest to survive? Supplanting the imperative of the survival of the fittest with a culturally-sensitive principle may be the hallmark of a successful evolution, rather than the beginning of an inexorable decline.
The eugenics movement turns this argument on its head. They accept the premise that the contribution of natural selection to the makeup of future human generations is glacial and negligible. But they reject the conclusion that, having ridden ourselves of its tyranny, we can now let the weak and sick among us survive and multiply. Rather, they propose to replace natural selection with eugenics.
But who, by which authority, and according to what guidelines will administer this man-made culling and decide who is to live and who is to die, who is to breed and who may not? Why select by intelligence and not by courtesy or altruism or church-going – or al of them together? It is here that eugenics fails miserably. Should the criterion be physical, like in ancient Sparta? Should it be mental? Should IQ determine one’s fate – or social status or wealth? Different answers yield disparate eugenic programs and target dissimilar groups in the population.
Aren’t eugenic criteria liable to be unduly influenced by fashion and cultural bias? Can we agree on a universal eugenic agenda in a world as ethnically and culturally diverse as ours? If we do get it wrong – and the chances are overwhelming – will we not damage our gene pool irreparably and, with it, the future of our species?