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.”