January 28, 2007

Eugenics: It's Only Natural

Something's been troubling me since it first occurred to me many years back.

According to a purely naturalistic view of the cosmos (i.e., there is no God and we are merely children of nature) our moral urges can only find their origin in evolution. And evolution's only purpose — if it can be said to have a purpose at all — is the survival and reproduction of the individual and, by extension, the species. Now, even if it were argued that morality is purely a social construction, then surely the welfare of our species would figure as prominent criteria for what qualified as "good." So by whatever source, according to naturalism, one of the chief ethical concerns must be the survival, reproductive health, and, perhaps, pleasure of the human race. And since there is no outside agent to rescue and preserve us as a species, then it is in our own hands to insure our future.

What is so troubling about this so far? Well, nothing in general. Caring for humanity is certainly a Christian concern as well. The problem is that there is no reason to think that naturalism can have any higher concern than this (but this is not to say that in practice many naturalists are not, in fact, driven by more personal agendas). If there are two courses of action, one of which may seemingly lead to the demise of humanity and the other to its flourishing, what higher standard exists that would suggest that the course of survival is not the preferred route?

And here's where things get dark.

Look at the world around you; look at the condition of its people. How many people do you see suffering from illness or simple imperfections? Retardation, diabetes, muscular dystrophy, heart conditions, paraplegia, schizophrenia — these are just a few of the many conditions we find. And there are many less severe from which even more people suffer, like hypertension, obesity, poor eyesight, color blindness, and baldness. Can it not also be said that simply being unattractive is an imperfection as well?

What is the culprit of all this suffering? Is it not primarily the fault of our genes, since most of what I can list would be considered congenital, hereditary, or genetic disorders? Even where illnesses are triggered by lifestyle conditions, it is often the case that our genetic makeup predisposes us to be affected in one way or another.

Genetic disorders are sourced in mutations that affect the reproductive cells of an adult, or in genetic errors that occur in the developing embryo. Such mutations that are not lethal or sterilizing are carried on by the offspring of the affected person. Evolution is indeed occurring. Well, at least half of it. We are indeed seeing mutations, unfortunately none of which are doing us any favors. What is not happening much in the case of humans is the "natural selection" half of evolution.

The wonders of medical science is remediating the effects of more and more of these disorders, and where once a person with a serious genetic condition might have died before reproducing, today they can live a reasonably normal life. We like to think of this as a blessing, but what is it really doing to our genetic stock, our quality of life, and our economy? Couldn't it be said that if we could remove such anomalies that we could reduce the amount of human suffering and eliminate a huge financial burden from the medical, pharmaceutical, and insurance industries? Why spend all that time in research and treatment when we could just as well test fetuses (and infants) and dispose of the rejects? Why continue to allow the gene pool to be polluted?

Of course, I am not the first to point out such a concern. The genesis of Planned Parenthood and the Nazi eugenics programs where founded upon the issue, which began to germinate in the late 1800's. Hitler was not the instigator of the Nazi eugenic scourge; he was merely a product of his intellectual time and its most powerful enabler. What Hitler did, however, was to generate negative publicity for the idea of eugenics by means of his zealous application of it and his mistaken idea that the Jew was a genetically inferior race that must be cleansed.

In the nauseating wake of Hitler's pogrom, the idea of ridding ourselves of "human weeds" (to use Margaret Sanger's words) fell quickly out of vogue. While I would argue that it has remained in the ethical climate in some circles, it has dared not show itself publicly to garner an official place in medical and social policy. But as soon as the Nazi stain is erased from our collective hamster-length memories, and a kinder, gentler way to market eugenics is advanced, we will be disposing of our human refuse just the same. As one modern eugenics advocate said:

We are deteriorating genetically, and the only alternative to leaving future generations an increasingly chaotic, violent, degraded society is called "eugenics." What a dilemma! Have we no other choice than to bequeath to our children a poorer genetic legacy than the one we ourselves inherited? And what if they too live in terror of the ghost of Adolph Hitler? Where will it end?

What is to be done in a purely secular society? Isn't eugenics inevitable? Isn't it evolutionary, and aren't we supposedly creatures of evolution? Indeed, how can we rise above our natures in order to find a "higher" moral path? How could there be said to be anything higher than nature for a naturalist? But nature is a cruel matron, especially in that she taunts us with compassionate instincts that are at odds with her purposes. Mother Nature is a hustler and child abuser. She will have us kill our runts with tears in our eyes and think ourselves noble all the while.

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9 Comments:

At 1/29/2007 12:52 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

It was interesting for me to take a class on Nietzsche and learn where Hitler got his ideas about the "master race." Nietzsche opposed traditional morality in part because it was a detriment to natural selection. It prevented the master race from emerging.

Hitler and Nietzsche's ideas make sense from an evolutionary standpoint, though. The average IQ is 100, and half the world is below average. We could significantly increase the average IQ by killing off those who are below a certain IQ. We couldn't kill too many people at once because the sudden drop in population would be devastating to the economy. But we could kill off everybody who falls below a certain IQ, wait for the population to climb back up, and then do it again. After a few times of doing this, eventually, the average IQ will be signifantly higher than it is now. Given enough time, we will create a master race of highly intelligent people.

The whole goal of the medical community is an impediment to evolution. If we just let the sick and deseased die, natural selection will produce a population that's generally more healthy. By trying as hard as we do to take care of the sick and weak, we prevent natural selection from selecting the strongest and healthiest.

It does seem odd that evolution would result in a morality that is so opposed to evolution. Most of us think it's right to help those who need it the most. Even Nietzsche recognized how counter-intuitive his rejection of traditional morality was, and he considered it an act of bravery to oppose them. Nietzche thought traditional morality was unnatural precisely because it thwarted evolution.

 
At 1/29/2007 4:19 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Is it mere coincidence that liberal "humanitarian" aid in underdeveloped countries and poor neighborhoods so often includes condoms and abortion clinics? Some have made the connection and call this "crypto-eugenics."

 
At 1/29/2007 5:52 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Yet I think that evolution is very likely on the basis of the evidence available to be true and I think that eugenics is wrong. The huamn condition eh?
Is it a coincidence that some faith based aid discourages the use of condoms in keeping with its agenda despite the fact that innocent people will suffer as a result?

 
At 1/29/2007 7:24 PM, Blogger JELyon said...

Paul says:

According to a purely naturalistic view of the cosmos (i.e., there is no God and we are merely children of nature) our moral urges can only find their origin in evolution.

But our morality, according to the folks who study it, should be based on reason. That you reason through the process as if you had no beliefs, and come up with eugenics being OK indicates you find nonbelievers morally bankrupt.

I'm sorry that you don't or can't understand that morality does not, indeed, can't depend upon religion.

 
At 1/29/2007 7:29 PM, Blogger JELyon said...

Paul says:

Is it mere coincidence that liberal "humanitarian" aid in underdeveloped countries and poor neighborhoods so often includes condoms and abortion clinics? Some have made the connection and call this "crypto-eugenics."

Is it a coincidence that countries with the highest standards of living have the lowest birthrates? And countries with the lowest standards of living have the highest birthrates? That countries with the best educated women have the lowest birthrates?

 
At 1/29/2007 8:56 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Psio,

I'm glad you feel that eugenics is wrong. I think our intuitions against it are our only hope, but I don't see a problem with it from purely naturalistic standards — especially if it is acceptable in principle to abort our children.

As to condoms, it is not as though those same aid groups are simply saying that the disadvantaged should just go ahead and have sex without them (i.e., that it is just condoms themselves which are the problem). They are offering the alternative of abstinence. Now, I'm not sure that you would argue that abstinence would actually be inferior in STD and pregnancy prevention, but perhaps you might think that denying people the moral freedom to have sex on demand is a greater evil (or maybe that they're "just gonna do it anyway").

 
At 1/29/2007 8:56 PM, Blogger Paul said...

John,

But our morality, according to the folks who study it, should be based on reason.

"Should be based on reason"? Where'd that moral imperative come from? Also, reason alone does nothing. You have to reason to something; you have to first establish a goal or highest good toward which you will reason through various ethical dilemmas. Identifying that highest good (and the boundaries in getting there) is where it gets sticky. And it gets even worse in that objectifying reason and producing a grounds for confidence that our mental equipment is tooled for truth is a whole other philosophical morass.

That you reason through the process as if you had no beliefs, and come up with eugenics being OK indicates you find nonbelievers morally bankrupt.

Not quite following you here, but I think I get part of your point. I did use reason to come to a conclusion based on a non-religious standard. It would seem to me that, according to naturalism, evolution is the author of our moral intuitions. And if we want to be consistent with its purposes, then eugenics is a logical conclusion. I would also assume that an atheist would not have much rational grounds for departing from an evolutionary ethic, nor would it seem that he ought to be able to do so. However, this does not mean that there is some higher moral standard that says humans "ought" to bend the knee to this idea or any other goal or instinct at all. Whatever evolution has given one volitional latitude to think or do is fair game. I guess that I am simply saying that eugenics can be justifiably tied into evolutionary theory, and since society is largely secular and enamored with this theory, then I expect eugenics to win the day.

I'm sorry that you don't or can't understand that morality does not, indeed, can't depend upon religion.

I think that you can have whatever morality you like and nobody can say that your moral theories are "wrong." However, it is a different matter to say that what your ethical system is reaching for is something fixed and eternal. For that you must have a transcendent source of morality, whatever difficulties you may believe that may entail.

Is it a coincidence that countries with the highest standards of living have the lowest birthrates? And countries with the lowest standards of living have the highest birthrates? That countries with the best educated women have the lowest birthrates?

I don't know what this demonstrates. I perfectly agree that we'd have more economic prosperity if we killed off all the sick people and hungry children, and the world would be a more beautiful place if we disposed of all the fat and ugly people. However, this and your statistics say nothing about what we ought to do.

 
At 1/30/2007 6:42 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Paul,
I think we agree on most moral principles but tend to notice the exceptions more.
I think it is logically consistent for those who think that sex should only be between married couples to be against the use of condoms if they also believe that possible procreation is the proper context. I'm just saying that if you want to criticise one set of organisations for their promotion of condom use by saying they have an agenda, then the religious organisations are just as guilty. By the way, some of the victims of std's will be faithful monogomous partners who have done nothing wrong but who are undermined in their attempts to get their partner to use a condom by misleading information put forward by some religious aid organisations.
'Offer the alternative of abstinence' is an interesting phrase. It isn't as if they didn't have that already. I respect moral consistency but I think I respect the ability to temper it with compassionate pragmatism more.

 
At 3/22/2007 10:48 AM, Blogger Paul said...

I just ran across this interesting article from the UK Telegraph: Our future lies with eugenics. The author suggests that eugenics is the inevitable solution, not to the biological refuse, but to the social refuse.

 

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