Sunday, July 8, 2012

Babies by Design

Disclaimer for the casual web surfer who stumbles across this: "This is a post AGAINST the concept or practice of eugenics."

Eugenics is the science of attempting to improve a human population by controlled breeding.

Eugenics seeks to mate persons with superior physical attributes so that each generation is physically and mentally superior to the previous generation. Conversely, people with "undesirable" physical traits, or disabilities, or mental deficiencies, or likelihood of birth defects, or undesirable social traits (criminals, etc.,) are discouraged (or prevented by government authority) from reproducing. [An example of governmental prohibition today would be no close family members mating; in some states, you can't marry your first cousin for example. So, most of us support SOME forms of eugenics.]

But much of this is science fiction stuff that has been around at least as long as science fiction has been written.

The questions that come to this blog author's mind are mostly questions such as, "Who decides?" What is desirable? What is superior? Would there come a time when the "superior" beings would be substandard by comparison and no longer be allowed to reproduce, due to being replaced by supermen and women? What becomes of the culls? I'm guessing Stephen Hawking couldn't be allowed to reproduce if the old eugenics folks were in control. They did seem to make some exceptions though, for rich folks with disabilities.

The attempt to improve DNA with the mating of two superior subjects is called positive eugenics, and the goal of removing substandard DNA from a given society is called negative eugenics. In other words, on the one hand you do what Hitler proposed and breed only superior stock to create a Master Race, and on the other hand, you don't allow the feeble-minded, alcoholics, diseased, (or blacks or Jews or _________) to reproduce. You sterilize them or kill them outright. "Superior stock" doesn't have to be big, strong healthy people necessarily; they can be college professors and people whose families have great longevity and don't have a history of disease (as long as they also have white skin, of course.) I hope I am not starting to sound cynical in this piece.

While this series of posts will talk mostly about the eugenics movements in the U.S. and Canada in the first half of the 20th century, eugenics has been around longer than that.  No, you can go really far back in history and find many instances of trying to "improve" the human race by selective breeding. In ancient Greece, for example, the Spartans were amazing warriors, according to the writings that have come down. Surely selective breeding was one of those tools used to achieve this, and not simple calisthenics or cold showers and morning runs. The name "eugenics" was supposedly coined by Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin. Neither was a proponent of it, only interested in the theory of natural selection.

In the Bible you read of God commanding the Hebrews to avoid intermarrying with the local peoples they lived with. There are probably other eugenics stories in the Bible that don't come to my mind right now as well. But the point is, throughout history, attempts have been made to "improve" or "preserve" parts of the human race.

It is interesting to note that in the "recent" eugenics movement, they were not only concerned with physically strong and healthy specimens, but they also practiced negative eugenics by sterilizing every sort of defenseless class of people you can imagine, in the theory that so doing would stop the continuing of feeblemindedness being passed down from generation to generation (which it probably would) to believing it would cure things like alcoholism and criminal activity. Indeed, one of the popular proponents of this commented that if you want to change the undesirable characteristics of a boy, you have to start with his grandfather. I guess he meant there is no real hope of improvement using only environmental means. But that seemed to be the mindset.

Some people whose names were associated with eugenics early on, in some way or another, include Winston Churchill, Margaret Sanger, H.G. Wells, Theodore Roosevelt, George Bernard Shaw, John Maynard Keynes, John Harvey Kellogg, Linus Pauling, and more.

I won't go on and on forever on this subject, but I want to do at least two more posts, one on Kellogg and the Seventh Day Adventists, and a more serious one on the treatment of mentally ill patients in government hospitals.  I have already covered the Nazi Germany eugenics in earlier posts.


  1. Nazi failure was breeding factory style. The kids did not grow up in a family situation. Egyptians interbred and some say this affected them. The Mad Spartans were ruthless but where are they now? Biblical separation was not eugenics, it was to prevent them following other gods. The did it anyway and the result show.

    1. Where are the Spartans now? Michigan State.

      Cleopatra and that kid who preceded her were brother and sister, no? But they didn't marry. I only know about Egypt from the HBO series Rome. I don't know about the Nazi assembly line system. That was long before my time so I will have to defer to your first-hand knowledge of that.

      I don't want to get started on the Canaanites again right now.

    2. Actually, weren't the Spartans famous for a particular cadre of gay warriors where lovers fought ferociously back to back in support of their mate?

      Hard to get a next generation that way, though.

    3. You are the Spartan expert. If what you say is true, I would be in favor of their right to get married.

  2. They were very strongly nature over nurture. I was going to say it shows the dangers of half understood science but Linus Pauling? Really?

    The trouble is that some people set out wanting a better world then after a while they want to get it by removing anything that doesn't correspond to their own idea of what the world should be.

    1. Linus Pauling was heavily into Sickle Cell Anemia research. He believed so strongly that it could be avoided that he advocated all black Americans should be tested, and, if a carrier, put a tattoo on their foreheads so that they would be warned not to fall in love with another tattooee. The forehead mark might have been more than he really meant to say, but it was in the early 70s and the activists were quick to condemn Dr. Pauling as a racist for wanting to stop the disease that only black people could get. Usually, in other cases, Pauling stood his ground against naysayers, but this time he shut up and stopped his research. The disease is still with us and still being passed on. I didn't agree with the "mark" but I did agree with the testing. The only thing is, you couldn't wait until just before marriage to be tested, because by then you were already in love with the wrong person.

    2. "Avoided" means "bred out of existence."

  3. Eugenics was popular because is makes so much sense, sounds so reasonable, and appears to be a solution to so many problems. Of course, it isn't. But it sounds damned good on paper.

    A quick look at pure bred dogs that can't breathe, stand up, or give birth without help will show that people are not to be trusted when it comes to selective breeding.

    I'm all for a world full of porn star bodies, Rhodes scholar brains, and Methuselah lifespans, but I have no faith that we can get there by careful selection of human reproduction.

    It's also possible that all these great minds liked the idea of a world full of Match Makers. My real concern with any kind of eugenics has always been who gets to do the choosing.

    1. I agree about the choosing. Today the choosing is pretty much between the woman and her doctor. I know that's not what you meant, and I agree with what you meant, too.

  4. I didn't comment on the whole abortion issue as it is one of the topics where no one can have a reasonable debate because no matter what you believe, YOU are right and Everyone Else should be taken out and shot.

    1. I understand. And it is sad some sort of discussion (even argument) can't take place on the issue of abortion (or religion or politics). It's particularly sad here because abortion has become such an integral part of modern eugenics. In yesteryear, sterilization was the thing; now you can wait and see before you take action.

      It is difficult to compartmentalize abortion so as to speak only of the eugenics aspect, without the "moral" aspect, or "birth control" aspect or the "giving the mother another chance at an unencumbered life" aspect creeping in. At least I failed in this post in that regard.



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