So What is Wrong with Eugenics Anyway?
This is a transcript of a talk I did for the Pod Delusion Live event at QEDcon 2011. I argue that we should not be scared of discussing the issue of eugenics. Why? Read on...
When James asked me to prepare a segment for this event, I was suffering with my wisdom teeth again. They’ve been intermittently problematic for the last 4 or 5 years and I really need to take them out at some point.
So, I got to thinking...
Before I say what I was thinking, I want to say that despite being in front of an audience of evidence-based, emotionless sceptical people, if I misjudge the tone of this by one iota, I fully expect to be drinking alone on the corner of the bar this evening, undisturbed except for the occasional peanut flicked my way.
So. My segment is called: What is wrong with eugenics anyway?
It’s a subject that invites Godwin’s law even before I’ve finished uttering the opening sentence. Some percentage of you will be thinking that I’ll be prattling about the supremacy of the Skeptical Master Race in no time, and at that point will have to be booed off stage and, if I’m unlucky, shot through the lungs.
That’s the problem. There have been such dreadful things done in the name of "improving the species" in the past that it’s almost impossible to have a rational debate about the subject any more.
Many years ago, Analog magazine had an article about wisdom teeth, and my recent troubles in the same direction have led me to remember and elaborate on the same subject. Unlike race, intelligence (whatever that means), mental illness or religion, wisdom teeth are relatively uncontroversial. Either you don’t notice them very much, or they bother you a lot. No-one every got killed, isolated into a ghetto, or persecuted for their attitude towards wisdom teeth. It is, however, pretty much incontrovertible that, on the whole, it would be a good idea to be rid of them.
I can imagine a future technology where, at some point before they develop, adolescent people can opt to have injections of a transgenic virus that (somehow, I’m hand-waving here) suppressed the developmental pathways that lead to the development of wisdom teeth.
I can also imagine a side-effect though. Due to the retroviral nature of this therapy, the change is universally applied to every cell in the body and is therefore heritable.
So, I’ll ask for a show of hands. Is my hypothetical treatment ethical?
[Summarize audience response.]
I would argue that it is. Wisdom teeth are a pain. Literally, in a lot of cases. And yet, a lot of people would argue that this is a step too far. It’s a step onto the slippery slope of tinkering with our children’s genes and leading to ethnic cleansing, cats and dogs living together, the end of civilization as we know it, join in if you know the words.
But, hang on.
As sceptics, we’re always up for a game of “spot the logical fallacy” when the practitioner is homeopathic, holistic or hermeneutic. We should be able to spot a “slippery slope” fallacy when we see one, and here one is.
We are right to be worried about this. We are rightly worried about knife crime, but this does not stop us banning the surgeon the use of his scalpel, a freedom our esteemed editor has recently been grateful for (hello James!).
I am worried, however, that the excesses committed in the name of "eugenics" have tainted the name of the discipline to the point that the very utterance of the word metaphorically decorates the speaker with a swooping hairline and toothbrush moustache.
(Neither or which is evil in its own right either, I would hasten to point out. Just ask David Mitchell or Richard Herring if you don’t believe me.)
Are there things which are universally held to be a problem? Yes, I am sure there are. Some aren’t. Bipolar disorder produces both depression and genius. Many forms of perceptual problems (such as deafness or Asperger’s syndrome) produce viewpoint differences which can be either handicapping or empowering depending on the attitude of the bearer of these burdens, to the point where the "sufferer" would positively strive that their children be like them too.
Can we presume to eliminate or even just reduce them? No, probably not. But this does not mean that there are not still some things which we can, with some justification, identify as "safe" to reduce or eliminate. Trivial stuff like wisdom teeth or a propensity to fallen arches. Fatal conditions like Huntington’s disease. Debilitating conditions such as sickle-cell anaemia, arthritis and lupus. These are things incidental to our identity that we could plausibly reduce given appropriate screening or genetic therapy.
Would we lose a unique viewpoint on the world as a result? Maybe. I can’t, as a good skeptic, rule it out. And yet any condition brings a viewpoint with it. We do not seem to worry about the unique viewpoint of those affected by consumption, or rickets, or malnutrition, or polio, or smallpox. We have (to some degree or other) removed these from our society already. Why should we feel that genetic conditions are any more or less worthy of our scrutiny?
It may tax our minds to lay down what is allowed, and what is not. Yet we clearly feel happy doing the same with other dangerous technology, such as knives, and guns, and chemicals.
While I was preparing this segment, I had the great luck to go for a curry and be seated next to Andy Copson from the BHA (that’s the good BHA, the British Humanist Association, not the homeopathic lot), and he crystallized into one word what my remaining misgivings had been about this issue. It’s all about consent.
Any kind of reproductive counselling or therapy must be done with the informed consent of those who are affected. The trouble is that those affected will simply never exist if we exercise our choice. As in the case of anyone too young to give consent, we will have to trust the parents.
Reproduction is an area that is so emotionally loaded, it’s very difficult to reason about it productively at all. I have two healthy children: I’m lucky. I’m doubly lucky that, by complete coincidence, they are the best two boys in the entire world, even when they are naughty and simply will not go to bed. I therefore have the luxury of reasoning about this from a point of safety, having successfully propagated my genes (thus far) into the next generation.
Already, we have pre-natal tests for a number of conditions that would mean serious problems down the line for the unborn child. Huntington’s, I’ve already mentioned. Downs is the most common test. IVF parents can select which of a number of embryos to implant based on very early genetic testing. We are already in an era of voluntary eugenics, to a limited degree.
Does this put the parents in an uncomfortable position. Of course! Do we risk selecting for those who cannot make the choice? Maybe. Am I wrong because I’m seeing this from my viewpoint? Quite possibly!
But, on the whole, I’d rather that we discussed openly how to take charge of our own destiny, rather than leaving it up to the blind impersonal forces of evolution.
Because, from a purely trivial and selfish point of view, those blind impersonal forces of evolution mean I have a date at the dentists that I’d rather not think about.