Friday, February 20, 2009

Fun With Eugenics.

It's almost the weekend and it's time for a light hearted topic. So lets talk about eugenics!

On another blog I got into a discussion about the topic yesterday, after initially making a half joking remark about wanting to stop the likes of Karen Matthews and 'Alfie' popping out dozens of kids for the good of society, I could have mentioned the mother of octuplets as well. Come to think of it I referred to preventing prisoners from breeding as being good for society for explicitly genetic reasons the other day.

Eugenics is strongly associated with the savagery of the Nazis and is therefore pretty much the ultimate taboo. Personally I think the ethical problem with 20th century advocates of eugenics is that they had no respect for civil liberties and believed in the right of the state to forcibly restrict people's right to reproduce. It doesn't therefore follow that there is something intrinsically wicked about non coercive eugenics.

However you can get away with advocating eugenic theories and policies as long as you avoid calling them eugenic take for example:
  • The theory that abortion cuts crime.
  • Singapore's policy of helping graduates have children whilst discouraging the less well educated from doing so.
  • Screening among people of jewish descent for Tay Sach's disease.
All these make at least implicit eugenic assumptions yet spark little outrage so it seems safe to assume that the word "eugenics" sparks more outrage than the practice. I'm not endorsing any of these policies or theories (I'm sceptical about the abortion-crime theory) by the way so I don't feel any great need to defend any of them.

If it isn't morally wrong to try to improve the fitness of the population through selective breeding then the question will really come down to whether it is effective or not. For eliminating diseases with identifiable genetic markers- like Tay Sachs- it obviously is effective. When it comes to encouraging the well off to reproduce themselves and the less well off to not do so then it really depends to what extent socio-economic status is influenced by genes, which is altogether a murkier question.

Update: On the subject of how eugenics is socially acceptable as long as you don't call it eugenics see this-
A March of Dimes report released today says all 50 states and the District of Columbia now require newborn screening for 21 or more so-called core disorders recommended for testing. These core disorders, 29 in all, include many rare but potentially disabling or fatal metabolic disorders. Although all states have rules or laws requiring the screenings, Pennsylvania and West Virginia have yet to implement their expanded programs, according to the organization.
Update 2: Cabalamat at Amused Cynicism had a post on this very subject a few months back which is worth a read.

14 comments:

Mark Wadsworth said...

It's far simpler than that. If we stopped paying The Underclass what are, relatively, huge amounts of money to have kids, then they'd stop doing so.

Yaffle said...

Mark,

One of the alarming conclusions of Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate is that at least 50 per cent of mental ability is attributable to inheritance. So basically we're subsidising the moronification of our society.

Yaffle said...

(I meant "at least 50% of the variance in mental ability". I think!)

TDK said...

Eugenics is strongly associated with the savagery of the Nazis

That may be true now but it was a originally product of progressive generally leftist opinion. If you look at the advocates worldwide they were far more frequently of the left than the right. The Margaret Sangers of this world were noted eugenicists.

In Scandinavia, the practice of sterilising 'unfit' adults ceased as late as the 1970s.

In the US the states which promoted it were overwhelmingly controlled by the Democrat party.

In Nazi Germany they introduced the same practice using the US example as precedent. I can't find a link now but I believe the medical procedure in Germany took its name from something in this case, (something along the lines of Virginia procedure or Holmes technique).

It's part of a noted paradox - the amnesia of the left. Failures of the left in time become failures of western civilisation. Not so failures of the right.

Ross said...

That may be true now but it was a originally product of progressive generally leftist opinion. "

Yes, the discussion to which I referred in the post occured in a post about the early 20th century socialist Beatrice Webb.

Ross said...

"It's far simpler than that. If we stopped paying "

Yes I'd agree with that.

Mark said...

'That may be true now but it was a originally product of progressive generally leftist opinion.'
Absolutely true- there were motions presented (but not I think passed)at Labour Party Conferences in the 1930s calling for the 'sterilisation of defectives'- usually by womens's groups !(I think they got outvoted by members with Catholic backgrounds).
Our horror at eugenics derives very largely from the horrors carried out in its name by the Nazis.
BTW The problem of paying the underclass 'relatively, huge amounts of money' has got progressively worse since 1966, when the more rigorous (and moralistic) criteria applied by the National Assistance Board were ditched in favour of much looser eligibility criteria under the Supplementary Benefit regs.Keith Joseph pointed this out in 1974- the roasting he got from the liberal elite as a consequence was nearly as strong as that applied to Enoch after his 'Rivers of Blood'speech in 1968. We are now enjoying the bitter fruits of the moral indignation extruded by the bien pensants more than 30 years ago.

TDK said...

has got progressively worse since 1966, when the more rigorous (and moralistic) criteria applied by the National Assistance Board were ditched in favour of much looser eligibility criteria under the Supplementary Benefit regs

When the original welfare state was created it used the qualification model. ie your entitlement was because you contributed to the social fund. That was replaced by the rights model. You are entitled because you need it.

cabalamat said...

Regarding the abortion-reduces-crime hypothesis, I'm not sure the basis for it is particularly eugenic, it's more that if a child is born in circumstances where it isn't wanted, it's likely to be less well cared for, and therefore more likely to turn out a bad 'un.

BTW, I've previously discussed eugenics here.

asquith said...

Mark Wadsworth got there before me. A reduction in child benefit, which has soared out of control under Labour, would suffice. I would cap any payments at number 3.

I would not reduce housing benefit or Jobseeker’s Allowance for single people. Many of them are caught in a trap which is not their own fault. But having children is a choice which, frankly, some people should exercise. It is not our place to forcibly stop them unless they are abusive, but neither is it our place to provide funding for what they cannot do themselves.

The basic argument for this is that a liberal society is only possible when the majority of people are self-reliant & rational enough to live their own lives with little or no state involvement. This is why a servile underclass are natural friends to an authoritarian state.

The problem I’ve always got is that it’s so hard to decide who is decent & who is lowlife. I know a load of single parents & people who haven’t worked in years. The majority are thoroughly decent people who are hindered by lack of available work & the fact that they are not qualified for what work there is, which is often temporary & insecure anyway.

But they could be rescued, whereas I think the likes of Karen Matthews are beyond hope. Because I do not vilify all welfare claimants, my “reforms” would be very modest & would centre around reducing child benefit (for large families) as that is the really crucial bit. If we instill in them responsibility for the next generation, these problems we have can be reduced.

There will always be unemployment, but unemployment is not necessarily a killer if it is short-term & people get jobs soon enough. It is deeply immoral, about the worst thing I can think of short of physical or sexual abuse, to inflict this “lifestyle” on a baby. I think it is a lot worse than abortion. As for adoption, people talk glibly about it as a solution to all our woes but I doubt whether it is because there isn’t an unlimited stream of adoptive parents especially for those severely damaged in the early years.

G Orwell said...

"It's far simpler than that. If we stopped paying The Underclass what are, relatively, huge amounts of money to have kids, then they'd stop doing so."
Very true, what we do now is misugenics - paying people who should not have children to have children.
A really crazy idea

Ross said...

"Regarding the abortion-reduces-crime hypothesis, I'm not sure the basis for it is particularly eugenic"

I'm sure Levitt would agree with you, but adoption studies which show how heritable criminality is make it hard to credit the idea that children will behave themselves providing their parents bring them up right. Good post at your place, I'll add a link at the end of my post.

Ross said...

I do agree with everyone who argues that it is the incentives with the benefits system that should be changed. That would obviously be far easier to do than some overt selective breeding programme.

Yaffle said...

G Orwell:

You mean dysgenics

Y :-)