Eugenics Revival Watch: What’s Richard Dawkins’s Position on Eugenics?

He wants an open discussion concerning the subject. Below is the full text of what he wrote as a contribution to the book, What is Your Dangerous Idea? (Simon & Schuster 2006). Richard Dawkins’s statement also appeared in the The Herald of Scotland in November of 2006: 

In the 1920s and 1930s, scientists from both the political left and right would not have found the idea of designer babies particularly dangerous – though of course they would not have used that phrase. Today, I suspect that the idea is too dangerous for comfortable discussion, and my conjecture is that Adolf Hitler is responsible for the change.

Nobody wants to be caught agreeing with that monster, even in a single particular. The spectre of Hitler has led some scientists to stray from “ought” to “is” and deny that breeding for human qualities is even possible. But if you can breed cattle for milk yield, horses for running speed, and dogs for herding skill, why on Earth should it be impossible to breed humans for mathematical, musical or athletic ability? Objections such as “these are not one-dimensional abilities” apply equally to cows, horses and dogs and never stopped anybody in practice.

I wonder whether, some 60 years after Hitler’s death, we might at least venture to ask what the moral difference is between breeding for musical ability and forcing a child to take music lessons. Or why it is acceptable to train fast runners and high jumpers but not to breed them. I can think of some answers, and they are good ones, which would probably end up persuading me. But hasn’t the time come when we should stop being frightened even to put the question?

Rhetorically, this is a carefully—and even beautifully—crafted example of someone attempting to get an uncomfortable subject onto the conversational table. Like a good chess player, Dawkins anticipates his opponents’ moves, and quickly dispatches two of them:

  1. the Hitler objection; and
  2. the pragmatic objection.

He then makes a strong argument for eugenics by way of analogy:

[W]e might at least venture to ask what the moral difference is between breeding for musical ability and forcing a child to take music lessons. Or why it is acceptable to train fast runners and high jumpers but not to breed them.

Notice how Dawkins makes use of the words “force” and “train” in the above sentences. They function as morally equivalent to breeding.

But, after the initial dazzle of Dawkins’s argument wears off, isn’t it quite obvious that neither force nor training—at least as these words are used in these contexts—are really comparable to the kind of breeding that Dawkins contemplates? A child who puts up sufficient resistance to her music lessons will not likely be tied by her parents to the piano stool. The mother and father will relent. Likewise, absent an existential choice, the athlete is not compelled by her coach to train for the Olympics.

That is, of course, if she lives in a free country.

And that’s the problem. Neither the word force (as applied to a child) nor training (as applied to an athlete) really represent the complete absence of choice and influence over one’s identity and life that institutional and systematic breeding entails. No one chooses their parents—it is a logical impossibility—but we are reaching a point in history where parents (or the State) may choose, and very specifically, the traits possessed by children.

In other words, a steering wheel left to God—the genetic wheel of fortune—will be taken over by humans.

And notice what this implies. It means that the traits chosen will be instilled toward a predetermined goal—a track upon which a person’s life will be designed to run. One will not find oneself, and one’s direction, in the way that humans do now. Instead, one will be told what strengths one has received from breeding, and where one ought to proceed. A person, for example, bred to elite athletic abilities will, presumably, not be advised to take a desk job, and might well be compelled by the State not to waste one’s talents in that way.

The future, in other words, may be less free for individuals and hold that at least some of us will be bred as horses on which others will ride. And the horse analogy (which you’ll notice that Dawkins also alludes to above) is exactly the one offered in a 1909 editorial comment by the editors of Scientific American (and recently reprinted at the Scientific American website):

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. . . . 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.

This is Dawkins’s pragmatic argument turned into a positive program: if we can breed horses—and there’s evidently no reason why we can’t breed humans in the same manner—then let’s put capitalism to work on the problem, sweetening the pot toward “the physically and intellectually perfect man.”

In short, let’s make human eugenic breeding a Darwinian competition.

Why, ask the early 20th century editors of Scientific American, shouldn’t we?

Dawkins, a biologist living post-Hitler, avoids the Scientific American editors’ enthusiasm (even as he makes some of their arguments with his characteristic skill). He is careful to assert that, when push comes to shove, he hasn’t even really made up his mind about eugenics. I’m guessing that he’s being disingenuous, but his last paragraph on the subject is non-committal. Here it is again:

I wonder whether, some 60 years after Hitler’s death, we might at least venture to ask what the moral difference is between breeding for musical ability and forcing a child to take music lessons. Or why it is acceptable to train fast runners and high jumpers but not to breed them. I can think of some answers, and they are good ones, which would probably end up persuading me. But hasn’t the time come when we should stop being frightened even to put the question?

Notice that Dawkins makes no attempt at proffering some of those “good answers” against proceeding with eugenics. He can think of them, but he chooses not to argue for them. He just says that he probably could end up being persuaded by them (though, tellingly, they have not, as yet, persuaded him).

In other words, Dawkins wants the delicate subject broached. Hitler has been dead a long time now. Maybe, just maybe, if we start the conversation again, the 21st century needn’t play out as the 20th century did. Perhaps we can get eugenic policies right on a second go.

That’s Richard Dawkins’s position.

I wonder what he might say about the following recent video:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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21 Responses to Eugenics Revival Watch: What’s Richard Dawkins’s Position on Eugenics?

  1. andrewclunn says:

    Long live the übermensch 🙂

    • santitafarella says:

      I think I prefer Nietzsche’s bourgeois humanist last man to his will-driven nihilistic ubermensch.

      Play ubermensch on the weekends.

  2. Paradigm says:

    But what is a ubermensch? There is a lot of anectdotal evidence suggesting that entrepreneurs often have ADHD, which means low IQ and high impulsivity. Clearly India has better entrepeneurs and their economic growth is now believed to become larger than China’s in the next year. Their national average IQ i 85.

    And a few decades ago people with Aspergers syndrome were completely outside society. Now they are are making money and becoming socially adjusted. They are transforming from burden to asset. So what about tomorrows Aspies, who are they? No way those who want to weed out impulsivity and low IQ will even consider such questions. If China does this on a large scale they will fail miserably.

    • santitafarella says:

      Paradigm:

      It appears you are making the argument that the Invisible Hand of natural selection is preferable to the conscious hand of humans—that human central planners aren’t smart enough to anticipate the consequences of eugenics.

      I think you’re making a pretty good argument—the Frankenstein-out-of-the-lab argument. But what if China succeeds and we don’t keep up with the technology?

      —Santi

      • Paradigm says:

        Your basically saying, eventually someone will get it right, then what? Then we have to do the same thing probably. But these scenarios are very complicated. So much could happen. We could answer with protectionism or with robots. If we can get everything we need with robots the economic competition may even become obsolete.

        But all this seems like in a distant future. As it is, China can’t even keep the gender ratio in balance.

    • andrewclunn says:

      Free market genetic engineering will never eliminate natural birth. Sex will still be the typical way to reproduce.for those who can’t afford it, are against it, or just shack up and have kids by mistake. First it will be about reducing debilitating conditions, then it will about maximizing certain characteristics and abilities, then it will be about creating whole new features never before seen in humanity.

  3. santitafarella says:

    See Peter Pan fly here: [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Swqb5AY1ZxA]

    • andrewclunn says:

      Are you suggesting that my views are the stuff of fantasy? I’m not really getting your point.

      • Anonymous says:

        Not at all. Your observation just triggered the thought that, perhaps a few hundred years from now, there will be humans with wings.

        Why couldn’t there be?

        Whatever is in the range of imagination (ala Peter Pan) may well be how humans in, say, the 24th century, experience the world (because of genetic manipulation and nanotechnology). Whatever you can do or imagine with words, I suppose you’ll be able to configure with atoms.

        We shall be as gods. It’s the old story and temptation.

        —Santi

  4. There is a parallel here with the management of information. Maybe further genetic specialization is an emergent response to large-numbers (i.e. overpopulation). Having said this, I’ve written on the history of eugenics — it was my first serious foray into research in history of science/science studies. To me, the problem with all the “scientific” arguments about eugenics is that they’re always blind to the particulars of society, culture, and politics, elements that figure so prominently in eugenic theory as to render the whole endeavor ultimately “un-scientific”, now and then.

    Don’t people read Plato’s Republic critically anymore?

    • santitafarella says:

      Well, if you’re referring to Plato’s totalitarian philosopher-king utopia, I suppose you’re right: it wouldn’t work and it would be unpleasant to live in.

      But, really, we already have a philosopher-king society in which experts in disciplines as varied as economics, biology, and climatology advise the governing elites (those of either wealth or intellect who have arrived at pinnacles of power) on policy. Democracy is, as Chomsky suggests, a veneer for elite rule; a place where the consent of the governed is manufactured via propaganda and the fostering of “necessary illusions” (like religion and nationalism).

      The political leaders of China aren’t just taking capitalism from us, they’re studying our methods of governance and crowd control as well. Strauss and Schmitt are the Machiavellian and Herderian “how to” philosophers for setting up a Platonic society. And they’re “in” among both Americans neoconservatives and Chinese intellectuals. One needs only to watch Fox News to get the hang of how to effectively and cynically orchestrate and drive propaganda cycles to masses.

      And most of the leaders of China were trained as engineers.

      It’s best that the world is run by experts and elites, but it’s only better than the populist alternative IF they have a conscience, a respect for the rule of law, and some degree of of concern for the poor (for democratic equity). We don’t want Nietzscheans ruling the world. Our elites should have humanist (or Christian) limits within their value system. Unfortunately, we seem to be heading for a world competed over largely by nihilists and fundamentalists.

      And that means that, at least for nihilists, eugenic schemes need have no breaks tapped on their progress.

      —Santi

      • Paradigm says:

        And the only way to create a ruling elite of humanists (not that I like that term, here they are very snug and narrow-minded) is to abandon the one man, one vote prinicipal. If people who have more idealism, compassion, intelligence etc get a weighted vote then they might elect politicians like themselves. Or you could begin in the other end – take away the right to vote for anyone who has been convicted of a crime. I believe you do that to a certain degree in America. Or use genetic markers for nihilism – stuff on the anti-social spectrum that would translate to their votes weighing less.

      • andrewclunn says:

        Paradigm,

        Anybody tries that and I’ll be grabbing my gun, along with every other anti-social, nihilistic, or ignorant person.

  5. Paradigm says:

    Maybe. But America already bans some criminals from voting and they usually have anti-social personality disorder or psychopathy. And you have to be 18 to vote, which is also a way of eliminating people with less judgement and knowledge than others. There is no strong opinion against it.

    Besides, you’re already holding your gun, aren’t you ; )

  6. Colin Hutton says:

    Paradigm :

    Humanists can’t defeat militarists head on. They must outflank them!

    Very hard to take things/rights away from people. What you do is to give extra votes to the categories you favour.

    So, in my book, every citizen has one vote. An extra vote if you pay income tax. Another extra one if you have a post-graduate university degree. Etc. Up to a constitutionally determined limit (say, 5 votes).

    You also institute a system which assigns status to those who have multiple voting rights (a step towards undermining crass materialism!)

    (Would be a constructive way for authoritarian governments (eg China) to move towards broader representation, in a controlled fashion)

    Colin

  7. Paradigm says:

    Yes, that may be a smoother way to implement it. But there might still be a problem with a small machiavellian elite that can dupe even smart people. It makes sense to keep these at check somehow.

  8. Toby Simmons says:

    Fascinating! A joy to read. All-round great blog, by the way.
    Let me know what you think of mine . . . http://apieceofcoffee.wordpress.com/
    Keep on writing!

  9. Pingback: The Origins of Ethnic Cleansing, Eugenics and the Madmen out to ‘create’ Superman « emmausroadprojects

  10. Pingback: The Origins of Eugenics and the Madmen out to ‘create’ Superman « emmausroadprojects

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