August 12, 2007


Why I support liberal eugenics: This has nothing to do with the evils of Nazi eugenics. It is entered into by parents and it is motivated by love (Johann Hari, 06 July 2006, Independent)

The criticisms that I have even less time for come, predictably, from the Vatican and other centres of organised superstition. Interestingly, Jews, Muslims and followers of Eastern religions are much less hostile to human biotechnology - the problem here is primarily with the Christians. They argue that at the moment of conception, an invisible supernatural agent ('God') implants an invisible substance ('a soul') into a cluster of cells smaller than a speck of dust, and from that moment on the cells are a person with inalienable rights. To perform tests on them is morally equivalent to performing tests on an adult human. Stem-cell research is Mengelian. Discarded embryos have been murdered.

To a materialist who rejects supernatural explanations for the world, this of course seems absurd. We believe humans develop slowly and in stages, and that they have far greater rights once they become self-aware and capable of feeling pain - at around twelve weeks after conception - than when they are insentient blobs. The brilliant science writer Ronald Bailey has picked numerous holes in the Vatican position. Using their logic, if there was a fire in an embryo lab and you had a choice between saving a petri dish of ten near-invisible embryos or Steven Hawking, you would snatch the petri dish and run. And there's a bigger hole. Eight in every ten embryos are flushed out in women's menstrual flows, so why aren't the Catholics trying to prevent this global holocaust of human beings? Why aren't they trying to collect and implant them? The answer is obvious - even they cannot take the Pope's position seriously. If we followed his dictates and refused to develop cures that can treat millions because of these supernatural beliefs, we would actually create the "culture of death" that the Pope crows about.

The criticism that deserves more careful consideration comes from disability rights activists like Adrienne Asch. They argue that this attempt to eradicate disability is an assault on disabled people. By trying to eradicate disabilities, we are saying disabled people are worth less - " errors in the gene pool" - and clearing the way for them to be treated even more badly.

But is this true? By making sure that no more mothers take thalidomide during pregnancy, are we implicitly saying that thalidomide people have worthless lives and should be killed? Of course not. We are simply saying that a person is more likely to be able to live the kind of life they want to with fully formed arms and legs. By ensuring that the number of able-bodied babies are maximised, we are simply acknowledging that - however harsh it might seem to say it - lacking an ability to hear or see or walk is not simply a difference. It is a disability nobody would voluntarily choose, and that you are better off without. Nor does the evidence suggest greater screening and treatment will lead to the remaining disabled people being treated worse. Since amniocentesis was introduced, people with Down syndrome are, if anything, treated better.

The only criticism that really lingers in the mind comes from egalitarian critics. They warn that human biotechnology may create a world divided between the rich, with their "Genetically Modified Babies", and the poor, who are lumbered with the random flaws of nature. The idea of human equality will, they say, melt in the biotech labs. But there are already inequalities thrown up by nature. The idea of human equality will, they say, melt in the biotech labs. But there are two answers to this. The first is that there are already inequalities thrown up by nature.

I am nowhere near as clever as Amartya Sen, nor as good-looking as, say, the average tub of lard. Does that mean human equality is a nonsense? No - my belief in it is strong enough to cope with smarter, fitter people. The solution to unequal access to biotech cannot be the Stalin-style levelling down proposed by the biotech-banners. We did not react to the invention of medicine - which similarly benefited only the rich at first - by banning it. We reacted by creating the NHS so everyone could access it.

These worries do not outweigh the obvious, incalculable benefits of biotechnology. And we should be honest enough to call this attempt to improve the genetic lot of humanity by its name - liberal eugenics. It has nothing to do with the evil of Nazi eugenics, which was imposed by the state and concerned not with producing healthier babies but with deranged race-theories.

To the extent that folks this monstrous can be amusing, what makes them so is something like Mr. Hari's conceit that once a society starts engineering its citizens the fat bespectacled gays won't be among the disabled done away with. Of course, his insistence that his favored brand of eugenics also be subsumed into a socialized medical system makes a hash of his attempt to differentiate the liberal version from the Nazi. Basically, the only difference is that he wants to pick who gets Holocausted.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 12, 2007 7:51 AM

"...from the Vatican and other centres of organised superstition."

There are no viable explanations for the universe that don't invovle some form of what could be called superstition, as anyone who has taken upper-division college physics classes can attest to.

However, it is nice to see that American ideals have become so prevelant that even demented marxist europeans are using phrases like "inalienable rights".

Posted by: lebeaux at August 12, 2007 12:33 PM

Hari's holocost will happen in-utero, and thus not be as unsightly as the Nazi's.

If it swims and quacks like an attempt to create a master race, then it's an attempt to create a master race.

Posted by: Dave W at August 13, 2007 3:01 AM

Why? If you're a materialist and you've established the eugenic principle, what does it matter if they've been born to your killing them?

Posted by: oj at August 13, 2007 6:46 AM

Most amusing is this: "Since amniocentesis was introduced, people with Down syndrome are, if anything, treated better." Its because you hardly ever see one anymore.

Down syndrome babies are loved to death.

Posted by: Buttercup at August 13, 2007 6:47 AM


Yep, it obviously doesn't matter. Look how the literati fawn over Peter Singer. And these guys think that if they discard God a kind of natural morality will kick in and prevent us from slaughtering babies and old folks? Hello, anybody home?

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 14, 2007 2:13 AM