You Break It, You Own It: Whence the Future of Eugenics Research?

God’s a delusion (Dawkins). Religion poisons everything (Hitchens). So let’s have the end of faith (Harris)!

Okay. You’ve got your wish. Let’s imagine that the New Atheists have won. The world is our big and collective secular oyster to do whatever we want with. John Lennon’s Imagine  is on everybody’s iPod playlist.

Now what?

Well, let’s talk about eugenics, shall we? Yeah, you know, eugenics. That Social Darwinian thing that has, since the late 19th century, been taboo within the major religious traditions. Eugenics. Setting human reproduction on more rational grounds. Tinkering with the human genome to make better, smarter, faster people. Think Lee Majors and the Six Million Dollar Man:

Based on reason or not, religious taboos tend to keep people away from certain behaviors, and to make them fear those behaviors on visceral grounds, and the fact is that the New Atheism seeks to unloose humanity from all its religious taboos, and to ground our taboos in pragmatic and rational justifications (as opposed to simple religious sanctions).

But this makes it much more likely that serious eugenic projects will be coming in the very near future, doesn’t it? I mean, what’s going to stop them if not religious taboos? Paul Kurtz-style appeals to ethical humanism? Please. And in a sense, the New Atheists have already got their secular wish. There’s lots and lots of places in the world (and with lots and lots of people) where religion is so marginalized that it plays little or no role in policy making. China, for example. You know, the most populous country in the world! China is an atheist nation with top flight geneticists, and there appears to be nothing publicly functioning within that atheist culture that would make tinkering with the human genome taboo. And if you think that, as we speak, there are no “black sites” in China or elsewhere in the world where funky human genetic experiments are going on in secret, you’re kidding yourself. For good or ill, a broad religious taboo is in the process of being breached, and will continue to be breached, and if it goes horrendously wrong religion will not be to blame.

I would like to offer an analogy: Hinduism has long held a taboo against the eating of cows. It may be irrational (from an atheist perspective) to have such a taboo, but it effectively prevents the widespread popularity of McDonald’s in India. There may be a few McDonald’s restaurants in the big cities, and around the airports that Westerners frequent, but an atheist country like China is going to be much more fertile ground for McDonald’s (for good and for ill) than India is. If McDonald’s spreads throughout India someday, whatever good or ill might be brought upon the country by this fact cannot be placed at the door of orthodox Hindus.

Likewise with Darwinian eugenics. The world of the future will be, for better or worse, different from today not because of currently functioning religious taboos against eugenics, but because those taboos will be absent from the equation. The New Atheists will have their wish soon. The world will function much more rationally and non-religiously in the future. The elite atheist, agnostic, and secular scientists of today (and those in the near future) are about to take over the genetic destiny of humankind (against the taboos of religion), and if they make something wonderful of it, they’ll own it. Religion will get no credit for what the world will have become. But as Colin Powell also told President Bush about invading Iraq: “If you break it, you own it.” That will be true of secular eugenics projects too.

In short, if you are an atheist devoted to breaking down irrational religious taboos, and you want to live in a world based strictly on materialist assumptions—and on pragmatism, reason, and science—you might still want to be careful what you wish for, and worry about what such a religion-free and rational future will look like. As Dr. Zaius said to Taylor in Planet of the Apes, “You may not like what you find.”

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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13 Responses to You Break It, You Own It: Whence the Future of Eugenics Research?

  1. I’m sorry, but I’ve got to call this line of blog as I see it: garbage. For instance,

    Based on reason or not, religious taboos tend to keep people away from certain behaviors, and to make them fear those behaviors on visceral grounds, and the fact is that the New Atheism seeks to unloose humanity from all its religious taboos, and to ground our taboos in pragmatic and rational justifications (as opposed to simple religious sanctions).

    But this makes it much more likely that serious eugenic projects will be coming in the very near future, doesn’t it?

    No, it does NOT! Are you saying that atheists are without ethics? That the Hollywood version scientists are so into what they are doing that they don’t care about the ramifications? Bullshit! Because religious taboos are undendable logically means they can only be hit and miss. And they usually miss! How is a prohibition on wearing mixed-fiber clothing going to save humanity? Stem cell research was banned under the Bush administration over arguments of when a human is ‘ensouled’ without bothering to ask the question of whether there is a soul in the first place! For every time religion has a taboo or considers something moral that can be arrived at through examination via ethics, 100 are plain stupid and harmful to society.

    I’ve had enough of this anti-intellectual crap. What on earth makes you think that a religious person is more ethical than a non-religious one?

    • PS If religious taboos are so wonderful, please explain how the Vatican’s prohibition of condom use is anything less than (at the very least) depraved indifference. The RC church has lied about condoms reducing the spread of HIV. As a result of this, millions of deaths can be laid at the pope’s door, as will tens of millions more. How does this fit in with your fantasy view of the benefit of religion? Please!

  2. santitafarella says:


    No offense taken. Speak your mind. When I think of Dr. Zaius, though, I would note that the way that he had kept his “people” out of the taboo Forbidden Zone was by scaring the shit out of them. He wasn’t trying to make arguments from reason, but from authority based on fear and taboo. And because of the nature of those being ruled, that was a more powerful tool of control than reason.

    I also think of Sophocles’s Oedipus. Oedipus, like all atheists and agnostics, wants to know the truth completely, and wants to follow reason and evidence bravely. But Oedipus, at the end, on discovering the whole truth, tears out his eyes. He can’t handle the truth. I’m just saying that there is some very old wisdom about taboos and secret knowledge that should give one pause in the rush to tear down religious taboos and regard them as being born entirely of stupidity. What you unleash in the tearing down of religion may not be to your liking, in the end.

    But the eugenics train has already left the station. Humanist atheism is too incoherent to stop it and religious taboo has simply grown too weak in the 21st century to really slow secular policy makers and scientists to any substantial degree.

    In other words, atheist humanists are no more or less ethical than religionists, but that doesn’t mean that replacing the taboos of Catholicism (for example) with the intellectual ethical humanism of Paul Kurtz will have the power to stop the rush to eugenic manipulation over the next several decades. Poor Paul Kurtz can’t even keep his small band of atheist in Buffalo in line! They’ve totally betrayed him, making a mockery of his restraining ethical humanist ideals.

    It may be that only religion has sufficient psychological taboo power over humanity to help people resist the temptations to “play god” with the genome, but as I say, it’s too weak now. I, personally, think it is already a lost cause. An enhanced genetic future is almost certainly on the way, whatever rational or taboo arguments humanist atheists and religionists might make against it.

    The eugenic future will arrive from Nietzschean nihilist scientists and policy makers, or secular idealists who think they’ll give humans eternal life thereby. Those ethical atheist humanists and religionists still wed to non-Darwinian views of ethics will be laughed at by the Nietzscheans and derided as the preventers of progress by the Utopians.

    What I’m trying to suggest is that the future will belong to atheism, but not of the wet bread humanist variety. It will belong to the hard Nietzcheans and the Utopians. Too much money and power will be following the genetic enhancers. The temptation will be too large. People will be reading Machiavelli and Darwin before making their next moves, not Paul Kurtz or the Sermon on the Mount. It’s an old, old story of seduction. The fruit at the center of the garden. Frankenstein, Metropolis, Moloch. The machine is running and grinding. Who will be Dostoevsky’s underground men?


  3. Grad Student says:

    Dear Santi,

    I have to admit that I find this post to be incongruent with the tone your blog has taken on atheism/religion in the past.

    Where is the warrant for your assertion that a democratic atheist society will not fear eugenics “on visceral grounds”?

    Why do you dismiss the possibility of ethical humanism with a single word (“Please”)?

    Why do you accuse China of practicing eugenics without evidence? Why am I “kidding myself” if I think that such activity occuring in China is unlikely?

    -Grad Student

  4. Pingback: “Someone is wrong on the internet” « The world is all that is the case

  5. Grad Student says:

    Dear Heuristics and Santi,

    I’ll withdraw my China criticism (thanks Heuristics). Here’s the money quote from Heuristics’ link:

    “Almost unanimously – by 91% – the [chinese] scientists said that couples who carried the same disease-causing genetic mutation should not be allowed to have children.

    More than three-quarters believed that governments should require pre-marital tests to detect carriers of hereditary disease.

    They also supported the routine genetic testing of job applicants by employers.

    There was also strong backing for the genetic testing of children to see if they are susceptible to problems such as alcoholism.”

    Though I would note that there’s still no evidence that eugenics projects are occurring in China. Also, I think a democratic atheist society (like Denmark?) is far different than a totalitarian atheist society.

    -Grad Student

  6. Grad Student says:


    Okay Okay, I’ll totally withdraw the China criticism then!

    But I wonder, if China were a communist state that it is today minus the atheism, who’s to say that it wouldn’t have the same eugenics policy it has now?

    Santi, isn’t blaming Chinese eugenics on China’s atheism precisely the sort of simplistic thinking normally associated with Dawkins and crew?

    -Grad Student

  7. Heuristics says:

    Grad Student: the power of google 🙂

    Interestingly we are starting to have some debate about eugenics in Sweden now, as morality based on a God concept or creation concept has been deemed anathema in the public discussion in Sweden people have really started asking the question “why not?”. The discussion revolves around a controversy around abortion, if it should be allowed to abort a (child/thing/featus/insert pc correct word here) due to it having the “wrong” sex and it has been interesting trying to find an actual argument from the ones being against this option for soon to be parents that do not want their child to be a girl or boy (as of yet I have been unsuccessful). It seems to be the kind of thing some people like and others dislike, but no one cares much to formulate coherent arguments for their case.

  8. Grad Student says:

    Dear Heuristics,

    I don’t see religion as having much to say about eugenics. Religious arguments can be made on both sides of the eugenics debate.

    I would suggest the current consensus among Christians against eugenics has more of a sociological basis rather than a religious basis rooted in the scriptures and/or Church tradition. In the west, Christians tend to be more conservative and resistant to change, thus they oppose eugenics more vociferously than liberal atheists.

    In sum, I don’t see how an understanding of Church tradition, the Church Fathers, or the Bible helps much with the eugenics debate. Couldn’t one use this understanding to support the improvement of the human race? So, the Christian position on eugenics doesn’t seem to be as rooted in Christian ethical and metaphysical beliefs, as it does in the political alignment with conservative ideology in the West.

    -Grad Student

  9. santitafarella says:

    Grad Student:

    In late response to your questions above, I’m not endorsing taboo over reason, I’m simply skeptical of the power of humanist reason, once it overcomes taboo, to restrain the bestial in man. Religious taboo seems more visceral, and therefore more effective, in holding back something like eugenics from being pushed in a society. It is not a coincidence that eugenics is emerging in China and not a country like, say, Ireland or Chile (both with large Catholic populations). When reason has vanquished religious taboo from the Earth, we may not like what we find rushing into the void.

    I just think it is naive to assume that humanist atheism is a more powerful force in a denuded religious landscape than Machiavellian or Nietzschean forms of atheism.


  10. santitafarella says:

    Grad Student:

    A quick analogy: Christians tend to think that if everyone was Christian, the world would be like Jesus. But maybe it would be more like Torquemada. True believers always assume that the benign form of their religion is the most natural, but they might well be wrong. I think the same goes for atheists.


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