Posts Tagged ‘Neolithic Revolution’

The return of Eugenics

March 30, 2013

It is the association of the practice of Eugenics with Adolf Hitler and his Nazis and the stigma which that brings which makes it – at least overtly – politically incorrect and tabu. But it was formally practiced by many governments through the 1900’s and as late as 1975 in Sweden.  But Hitler was also a vegetarian, a teetotaler and a non-smoker. So something more than a “Hitler connection” is needed when discussing eugenics. This recent tweet from Richard Dawkins  together with all the recent developments in genetics and IVF and pre-natal screening got me to wondering as to why there is a perception in some quarters that eugenics is “evil”.

Richard Dawkins@RichardDawkins  “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? 9:18 AM – 17 Mar 13

Definition oeugenicsnoun [treated as singular]

the science of improving a population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics.

The application of eugenics included genetic screening, birth control, promoting differential birth rates, marriage restrictions, segregation, compulsory sterilization, forced abortions or forced pregnancies and genocide. But the history of the practice of eugenics goes back to infanticide in pre-historic times and we apply it every day without any objections in the management of domestic and wild animals. In the days when we were hunter gatherers – it is thought – infanticide was commonly prevalent:

Joseph Birdsell believed that infanticide rates in prehistoric times were between 15% and 50% of the total number of births, while Laila Williamson estimated a lower rate ranging from 15% to 20%. Both anthropologists believed that these high rates of infanticide persisted until the development of agriculture during the Neolithic Revolution. Comparative anthropologists have calculated that 50% of female newborn babies were killed by their parents during the Paleolithic era. Decapitated skeletons of hominid children have been found with evidence of cannibalism.

The Hitler and the Nazi connotation is certainly part of it but is it primarily the application of coercive measures which today gives eugenics its unsavoury reputation? As practiced in the early 20th century eugenics was applied to humans pretty much as it was for animals – effectively by promoting certain types of matings, preventing others and culling unwanted individuals. I suspect that it is not just the Hitler connection and the coercive treatment of humans which is so objectionable but also that groups of humans were treated en masse as animals for the sake of improvement of the herd.

In today’s world it is perfectly acceptable for couples using IVF to choose – so far as is possible – desirable genetic characteristics of the sperm or egg donor or both. Genetic pre-natal screening can and does lead to abortions if certain criteria are met or others are found wanting. It is effectively culling before birth. Potential surrogate mothers are genetically screened before selection. Genocide and mass rape still take place in conflict situations (Kosovo, Rwanda…) but are universally condemned. We find it perfectly acceptable however that these choices be made by individuals or couples about “their” child. It is taken to be a proper expression of individual rights – though the consequences are mainly borne by the child yet to be born (or not born). But we would find it quite unacceptable today if any government or society would impose these choices on any individual.

It would seem therefore that eugenics is here to stay. As a preventative health measure it is already acceptable if practiced voluntarily by the individuals involved. Selective breeding practiced voluntarily by individuals is also acceptable but is unacceptable if imposed by coercive decree. Enforced sterilisation of those considered mentally or physically defective was a major part of the Eugenics programs in Europe and the US and Australia but the sterilisation of the mentally ill is much rarer now. It seems inevitable that as physical or behavioural or mental characteristics can be connected to specific genes or groups of genes that these characteristics will become part of the criteria for selecting sperm or eggs or for continuing with a pregnancy or not. And even if “voluntary” individual eugenics is already in place today, I am afraid that it is not unthinkable that governments and societies will once again insist on specifying the criteria to be used to improve the common condition. I conclude therefore that it cannot be eugenics which is evil but it is the manner in which it is practiced which can.


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