November 7, 2003


Outrage at academic's selective breeding call (The Age, October 2, 2003)

A leading Danish psychologist has caused outrage by calling for the state to encourage the selective reproduction of children from intelligent parents and try to stop less gifted groups having children.

"Intelligence is hereditary," said Professor Helmuth Nyborg, the dean of the psychology institute at Aarhus University.

"The 15 to 20 per cent of those at the lower levels of society - those who are not able to manage even the simplest tasks and often not their children - should be dissuaded from having children. "The fact is that they are having more children and the intelligent ones are having fewer."

That seems completely consistent with the transhumanist view that it should be a goal to improve ourselves genetically. Of course, it's anti-human, but if you want to make an omelette...

Tailored Genes: Eugenics was the darling of scientists and lawmakers of the early 20th century. Should we be concerned that it’s catching on in the 21st? (Edward J. Larson, Nov/Dec 2003, Legal Affairs)

A CENTURY AGO, ENERGIZED BY THE DISCOVERY of Darwinian evolution and Mendelian genetics, many social and biological scientists thought that we could improve humanity through simple scientific techniques of selective breeding. Eugenics, as their plan came to be known, captured the enthusiasm of the American elite and profoundly influenced progressive public policy. It changed the way Americans treated one another, splitting (or re-splitting) us along lines of race, ethnicity, class, and gender. “[T]he eugenicists . . . are seeking to assist the race toward the elimination of the unfit,” declared the birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger. Like Sanger, most American eugenicists came from British or Northern European stock, and it was their “race” that they sought to enhance.

The term “eugenics” was coined by Charles Darwin’s first cousin, the wealthy English polymath Francis Galton. He proposed that, with respect to human evolutionary development, “what Nature does blindly, slowly and ruthlessly”—through natural selection—“man may do providently, quickly and kindly”—through controlled breeding. Galton advocated programs to encourage reproduction by the fit (whom he roughly defined as people pretty much like himself) and to discourage reproduction by the unfit (habitual criminals and those who suffered from hereditary forms of mental illness and retardation).

In the United States, the cause was picked up by a number of biologists, most notably Charles Davenport, who ran the Station for Experimental Evolution at Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y. Another important advocate was social scientist H. H. Goddard, the director of research at the prestigious Vineland School for Feebleminded Girls and Boys in New Jersey, who introduced a version of the Binet-Simon I.Q. test to the United States as a way to identify the mentally unfit. Davenport, Goddard, and others were soon filling the scientific literature with their versions of the call for more children from the right people (“positive eugenics,” in Galton’s terms) and fewer from the wrong people (“negative eugenics”).

Edwin Black, an investigative journalist who gained notice in 2001 with a book on IBM’s role in the Holocaust, treads over this ground in his latest offering, War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race . He presents the leading lights of American progressivism—the Carnegie Institution (which created Davenport’s institute in 1904), the Rockefeller Foundation, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Margaret Sanger, and Woodrow Wilson, among others—promoting eugenics through the establishment of U.S. government programs that, he claims, led to the Nazi death camps. In Black’s view, prominent American scientists, including many geneticists associated with the respected American Breeders Association (which is now known as the American Genetic Association), aided and abetted the cause. These homegrown eugenicists worked closely with like-minded eugenicists in other countries.

But Black exaggerates the importance of these ties. [...]

“After Hitler, eugenics did not disappear,” Black recognizes. “What had thrived loudly as eugenics for decades quietly took postwar refuge under the labels human genetics and genetic counseling.” Now, voluntary eugenics is enjoying a revival or at least a rehabilitation of sorts. Many of us support the informed use of human gene testing and technology to prevent genetic disability and, more tentatively, to enhance genetic ability. Black captures America’s most famous geneticist James Watson musing, “The lower 10 per cent who really have difficulty, even in elementary school, what’s the cause of it? A lot of people would like to say, 'Well, poverty, things like that.’ It probably isn’t. So I’d like to get rid of that.” Watson goes on to say: “People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would be great.” Black implies that we should condemn Watson’s impulses, but which parent among us wouldn’t want a smart, good-looking child if offered the choice?

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 7, 2003 2:13 PM

Like Margaret Sanger and Jack Kevorkian before him, Professor Nyborg would no doubt support the forced sterilization of the "lesser breeds," and the "culling" of the weak ones like Terri Schiavo.

It's just one big, seamless Culture of Death out there.

Posted by: Mike Morley at November 7, 2003 2:18 PM

Dissuading the lower levels of society from having children is "anti-human"? If so, then welfare reform was anti-human, since one of the arguments for it was that the existing structure of welfare payments were an incentive for women with the inability to care for children to have them.

Posted by: Carter at November 7, 2003 3:12 PM

Carter: No one -- no one reputable -- argued that this was because it was helping the genetically unfit have children, and so needed to be reformed. And for reference, related though I am to numerous welfare queens and disgusted at the practice, that argument is one of the reasons I was leery of welfare reform.

Posted by: Chris at November 7, 2003 3:16 PM

How much does a Chihaua resemble a wolf? but that's where it came from. It is entirly possible to breed super humans, the reason we don't is that it's a 500 year project that would require a consistant political force administering it. That was Hitler's ultimate ambition, a 1000-year reich cluminating in the production of a superhuman master race to be bred up from aryian stock, an artificial leap in humanity's evolutionary progress. We saw what acts he thought was necessary to acieve this, I suspect our modern eugenicists would end up in a similar situation, left to their own devices.

Fortunatly, I think there will always be enough of us genetic weaklings around to beat the crap out of the ubermensch as he appears.

Posted by: Amos at November 7, 2003 9:08 PM

So are you saying that the Chihuahua is a super wolf and that we should spend five hundred years breeding human Chihuahua's. Sorry, but there are already too many Democrats.

Posted by: David Cohen at November 7, 2003 10:00 PM


Ah, but doesn't evolutionary theory tell us that man is already pretty well optimized for his environment?

Now, I'll grant the environment has changed in the last few thousand years, but don't be shocked if a human selective breeding program loses something for everything it adds - Chihuahaus get attacked by hawks, and Great Danes die young of heart failure.

Posted by: mike earl at November 8, 2003 1:09 AM

Granted there is little to admire in rank, drooling stupidity, but what advantages do eugenicists forsee from a general increase in the level of intelligence. Seriously, what is the upside? Surely it would mean more fanaticism, more unhappiness, more family dislocation and more mental illness, even if it did improve the efficiency of recycling programmes.

And note how, so enthralled are we with the theory, we hardly notice Watson's 10% human detritus rises to the good professor's 15-20% like magic. Just as an alcoholic is someone who drinks more than his doctor, so a sub-human is someone who gets less than a B- in the class of a frustrated, second-rate academic.

Posted by: Peter B at November 8, 2003 6:16 AM

mike e:

Right you are, and we're going to get to see what the drawbacks are of attempting to "juice" humans, since the first genetically modified humans should be coming of age in about forty years.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at November 10, 2003 10:04 AM