Everyone is talking about eugenics, so I thought I’d dive into the mix.

The first difficulty in discussing eugenics lies in the fact that different people use the word to mean different things. It does no good to use one sense of the term when replying to someone who meant something completely different, so we’re going to have to start with a range of definitions:

  1. Selective breeding to positively influence the distribution of traits in the gene pool
  2. Anything that positively influences the distribution of traits in the gene pool
  3. Purposefully removing specific negative traits from the population
  4. Anything undertaken to increase desirable traits in the population
  5. Valuing one human life over another
  6. Killing off “undesirable” people
  7. Genocide
  8. etc.

Although the dictionary definition is closer to number 1 or 2, most of the time when people use the word “eugenics”, they mean it in the sense of something coercive and unpleasant. When someone decides that they would rather marry and have children with someone they find attractive than someone they find unattractive, they don’t regard themselves as practicing “eugenics,” though they are making a decision about which traits they are passing on to the next generation.

Even aside from disagreements over definitions, people become emotional about eugenics. Many people are incredibly bad at separating moral and factual statements. Much of the opposition to Dawkin’s suggestion that eugenics works is not actually about whether it works so much as moral outrage over the idea of harming innocent people. They hear “eugenics,” and their brains jump to “gas chambers.” In contrast, when people hear of ways to improve traits that don’t involve harming specific people, they tend not to call it “eugenics.”

For example, suppose we found a vitamin that could reliably make people smarter, so the government decided to use tax dollars (personal sacrifice) to provide vitamins to everyone, even the poor. Most people would think this was fine because it’s a net positive.

Yes, this example doesn’t involve genetics, but it would change the distribution of traits in the population and it would make everyone smarter. It’s also something we already do: we put iodine in the salt, vitamin D in the milk, etc.

Now suppose we could use magic CRISPR bots to remove a person’s propensity to develop Alzheimer’s, fix heart disease, decrease their chance of cancer, etc. Maybe the CRISPR bots are delivered in pill form. If these pills fixed problems like trisomy 21, genetic mental retardation, genetic vision and hearing loss*, etc., most people suffering from these conditions would freely chose to take the pills and would consider them a miracle. If they couldn’t afford them, I think most people would support using tax dollars to fund these treatments in the same way that we pay for normal medical care. Access to CRISPR bots to correct severe genetic defects would soon be considered a basic human right.

These treatments would be true eugenics, but likely wouldn’t be controversial because they wouldn’t directly harm anyone (at least until athletes started using them in the same way they currently use steroids).

By contrast, people would object strongly to something like a government board that gets veto power over who you get to marry–or that decrees whom you must marry. This would be a significant personal sacrifice with a very nebulous promise of social benefit. This is the sort of thing people are actually objecting to. 

*There is some pushback against mechanical (surgical, etc) attempts to fix certain disabilities. Some people in the deaf community, for example, do not think there is anything “wrong” with them and have complained that giving people implants to fix deafness is “genocide” against their community. While this does nothing to the genetics of the population, they clearly feel like it falls under the general category of trying to get rid of deaf people, at least as a culture. This objection is fairly rare, however.

The question of whether “eugenics works” depends on both how you define eugenics and “works”. Certainly if I had supervillain-like powers and an island full of captive humans, I could selectively breed them to be taller, shorter, prettier (by my standards,) etc. Could I breed for personality? Absolutely. We’ve bred for golden retrievers, after all. I wouldn’t be able to breed for anything I wanted: X ray vision probably isn’t possible.

But we live in the real world, where I don’t have god-like superpowers. In the real world, it’d be governments doing the eugenics, and I have some serious doubts about the abilities of real-world governments in this regard.

The Germans are trying, though:

Closing EU borders will lead to inbreeding, German finance minister warns:

In an interview with weekly paper Die Zeit, Mr Schäuble rejected the idea Europe could close its borders to immigrants, and said: “Isolation is what would ruin us – it would lead us into inbreeding.”

Taking aim at opponents of Germany’s border policies, he said: “Muslims are an enrichment of our openness and our diversity.”

8 thoughts on “Eugenics!

  1. There is no nice way to say, “You need to be sterilized because your genes are utter garbage.”

    Just tell the moochers when their sterilization appointent is, and that if they don’t show up, the state will assume that they’ve found gainful employment and cut off their benefits.

    All civilizations are dysgenic to some degree, and eventually collapse when people become too stupid to maintain them. Dark ages provide the eugenic brushfire that clears out the deadwood and allows the next civilization to flourish.


    • There is no nice way to say, “You need to be sterilized because your genes are utter garbage.”

      Sure, just add a disclaimer.

      Homer, you’re a bad man, and your seed should be wiped from the earth. (No offense, children.)


  2. Quote: “If they couldn’t afford them, I think most people would support using tax dollars to fund these treatments in the same way that we pay for normal medical care. Access to CRISPR bots to correct severe genetic defects would soon be considered a basic human right.”

    Whenever the subject of CRISPR comes up the does seem to be a lot of shouty heads worried about the “ethics” of genetic engineering. Which seems to boil down to anyone who want to reduce the occurrence of horrifying genetic diseases in babies being “literally Hitler!”.


  3. While many people are indeed bad decouplers, I think that is only part of the story because most of the bad decouplers probably come from one side of the political aisle.

    Conjecture: bad decouplers are just stupid. Apparently Ezra Klein is one? Well, I thought he was smarter than that.

    As for the political bent of bad decouplers, obviously we find a lot more nondecoupling expressed on the left, but that’s because the left controls the media, and dumb rightists tend to know to shut up.

    I would probably turn into a bad decoupler, too, if …

    Actually, I don’t think you would. At most a worse decoupler than you are for neutral stuff — but you could still do it, perhaps with minor mental effort.

    Most people have certain classes of people who they are actually okay with killing. Pedophiles and murderers, for example, so long as we only do it to punish them and remove them from the population, not with any intention of removing “criminal genes” from the gene pool.

    I think all three effects are important.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. When your girl makes you smile, and her smile’s in your child, that’s eugenics~
    ~ When you stare at her face more than each other race that’s eugenics

    When she reads a good book and you think “that’s a good look” that’s eugenics~
    ~ when you make her your wife and you have a nice life that’s eugenics

    -@konataform, twitter

    Liked by 1 person

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