Curiously, the editor at the Scientific American website (Mariette DiChristina) recently approved the posting, with only minimal comment, of an editorial written in its pages 100 years ago, in 1911, advocating eugenics. Here are three quotes from the editorial:
It is not enough to take care of an insane man. To discharge him after a period of a few months or a few years and brand him as cured, when his whole family history points to the fact that he is a hereditary epileptic or lunatic, and to place no barriers in his path when he attempts to marry, is statesmanship of the poorest order.
If the Eugenist has his way, “well-born” will acquire a new meaning. It will not cease to mean descent from a proud and noble race that has accomplished great things in the past, but it will also mean that the stock descended from that race is composed of men and women who will live up to its traditions, who will have that perfect physique and stable mental organization which Maudsley, that most literary and philosophical of psychiatrists, calls “the highest sanity.”
The proper attitude to be taken toward the perpetuation of poor types is that which has been attributed to [Thomas Henry] Huxley. “We are sorry for you,” he is reported to have said; “we will do our best for you (and in so doing we elevate ourselves, since mercy blesses him that gives and him that takes), but we deny you the right to parentage. You may live, but you must not propagate.”
Mendelian principles have no doubt long been followed by professional animal breeders in an empirical way, but only within recent years have enough data been accumulated to show that they apply with equal force to human beings. We know enough about the laws of heredity, we have enough statistics from insane asylums and prisons, we have enough genealogies, to show that, although we may not be able directly to improve the human race as we improve the breed of guinea pigs, rabbits or cows, because of the rebellious spirit of mankind, yet the time has come when the lawmaker should join hands with the scientist, and at least check the propagation of the unfit. Prizes have been offered to crack trotters for beating their own record, $10,000 for a fifth of a second, all for the purpose of evolving a precious two-minute horse. Yet we hear of no prizes which are offered for that much worthier object, the physically and intellectually perfect man.
Notice, in the last quote, the advocacy of financial reward linked to genetically improving a human being, and the analogy to horse racing. Also notice, in the first two quotes, that a goal being promoted is a change in the law: the 1911 editors of Scientific American want some persons denied the human right to reproduce.
And, of the 1911 article’s reprint, the editor at the Scientific American website made this brief comment:
Editor’s note: This editorial was written and published in 1911. Although our editors of a century ago pondered some lofty aspirations for the orderly future of humans, it was only three decades later that the brutal reality of a Nazi social order suffused with a eugenicist ideal brought home the practical shortcomings of the philosophy.
This is an odd way of putting it, don’t you think? Notice that the editor calls eugenic goals “lofty aspirations for the orderly future of humans” complicated only by pragmatic considerations: eugenics has “practical shortcomings”.
Those “practical shortcomings”, of course, were manifested by a “brutal reality”: the Nazis did not pursue eugenics in a universal humanist spirit, but in a Herderian, Machiavellian, and Nietzschean one.
But what if the “practical shortcomings” of 20th century eugenics can be overcome in the 21st century?
If contemporary humanists like, say, atheist geneticist Jerry Coyne or Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins—both of whom affirm the universal brotherhood of man—consented to guide eugenic efforts (as opposed to Herderians, Machiavellians, or Nietzscheans), should we go forward with attempting to achieve the “lofty aspirations” associated with eugenics?
The Scientific American editor does not say. Nor does Jerry Coyne. Though a prolific blogger, he appears never to have directly addressed the subject of whether eugenics is something humans should pursue in the 21st century. Richard Dawkins, however, is expressly interested in placing the eugenics discussion on the table.
Maybe it should be talked about, for surely this time we wouldn’t cock it up like the Nazis did, right? And surely it’s reasonable to keep up with the Herderian Chinese leadership on the eugenics front.
Below is a quote from Samuel Lipoff’s review (from the Harvard Asia Pacific Review) of a book on eugenics in China. It offers a sense of the current “state of play” of eugenics there:
Although the state has only recently taken an official role in the control of human reproduction, its current policies stem from the age-old concept of the individual’s responsibility to the collective. It is this emphasis on the collective good that has driven modern eugenics discourse since the late nineteenth century, when Chinese intellectuals, the well-to-do gentry, and government officials explored how to improve the Chinese race after the arrival of the stronger Western imperialist nations. Indeed, nationalism in its many forms remains an important force in eugenics today. Dikötter shows that it is the introduction of modern science in China, particularly after World War I, that opened the real possibility of implementing the eugenic vision. It is in the republican era (1911-1948) that elites called for increased intervention of medical professionals and the state into the sexual lives of citizens.
Will Herderian nationalism drive eugenic efforts in the same manner as it did in the 20th century, or will humanist internationalists change the dynamics of this extraordinarily dangerous and high-stakes technology race?