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July 31, 2007

My Commentors Are Smarter Than Me (Eugenics Edition)

Two comments worth highlighting. The first, from Warren Terra:

I have heard of couples who choose to adopt or to use donor sperm because they know they carry the same recessive, and I've heard of Huntingtin's carriers who choose not to have children (Huntingtin's is that rare thing, a dominant-lethal, and is not lost from the gene pool because it causes lethality long after the onset of fertility). Technically, these people are making 'eugenic' decisions.

On the other side of the argument, Downs and other spontaneous defects often aren't inheritable genetic conditions, and so aborting affected fetuses technically isn't 'eugenics'. Curiously, aborting a Tay-Sachs homozygous fetus also isn't 'eugenics', as this victim of inherited disease cannot reach adulthood and thus will not transmit the condition to the next generation (aborting a Tay-Sachs heterozygous fetus, which is not an event I've heard of, would be 'eugenics').

The point is that in the context of a political/ideological debate, 'eugenics' doesn't mean exerting decisions about your own reproduction on the basis of knowledge that your offspring will suffer from serious disabilities. It means a massive, usually state-led, movement to discriminate children, teenagers, and adults, and to sterilize and murder those of whom it disapproves. Genetics - and even the technical meaning of 'eugenics' - has little or nothing to do with it.

Allegations of 'eugenics' are just another Godwin's law violation, and deserved to be treated as such.

And this one, from Hob:

the essence of Douthat's argument is that progressives are in favor of access to abortion, and abortion can be used for eugenic purposes, therefore progressives are in favor of eugenics. This is ridiculous for reasons that have nothing to do with the motives behind particular abortions. It's like saying that if you oppose banning guns, you're in favor of bank robbery, hunting bunny rabbits, and suicide.

Also in that thread, Kathy G., who used to work for the developmentally disabled, gives a more sober and informed picture of Down Syndrome than I did. Well worth reading.

July 31, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

Anyone who decides to marry an attractive, intelligent, healthy person with whom to have children, is practicing eugenics, either consciously or unconsciously.

Posted by: Aris | Jul 31, 2007 6:26:27 PM

Ezra's first post is a good reflection of the current conventional wisdom rather than of the actual complicated history, which was mostly tossed down the memory hole after WWII for political reasons.

Eugenics was highly popular with the non-religious center-left in the early decades of the 20th Century. The term was invented by Darwin's half-cousin Sir Francis Galton, a Liberal, and enthusiastic eugenicists included Fabian socialists like George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, the leading Labour Party intellectual Harold Laski, Progressives like Teddy Roosevelt, atheist pragmatists like Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr,, Stalinists like geneticist Herman Muller, and Winston Churchill during his Liberal Party years.

There wasn't much agreement among eugenicists over specific policies, with Galton, for example, favoring voluntary measures to encourage favorable marriages but Wells being totalitarian, if not genocidal.

The intellectual origins of eugenics was in the scientific breeding of domestic livestock in the 18th century, and which provided much of the intellectual impetus for Darwin's "Origin of Species" -- if artificial selection could produce wildly different breeds quickly, why not natural selection slowly? Galton then reversed Darwin's insight, and asked why shouldn't humans adopt similar practices.

Animal breeding was of course a largely private exercise, so it's not inherently state-run. Galton would have approved of modern private eugenic practices such as lesbian feminists carefully selecting sperm donors with the hereditary traits they want. (For example, Jody Foster spent months reviewing sperm bank catalogs before settling upon a tall, handsome scientist with a 160 IQ as her baby's genetic father.)

On the other hand, just about everything in the early 20th Century was turned into a state-run system, so eugenics was too, with 30 countries passing mandatory sterilization laws, although only Nazi Germany pushed beyond this to genocide.

In the English-speaking world, eugenicists tended to be WASPs, with Laski being a prominent exception.

Despite Muller's best efforts to talk Stalin into supporting eugenics, Communists favored anti-Darwinian Lysenkoism, sending geneticists to the Gulag.

Perhaps the leading opponent of eugenics in the English language was Catholic convert G.K. Chesterton, author of the 1922 book "Eugenics and Other Evils."

In the U.S., eugenic sterilization laws were most popular in Progressive states such as California and the upper Midwest, and were least popular in the Bible Belt of the lower Midwest and the South.

In Social Democratic Sweden, eugenic sterilization was carried on into the mid-1970s.

Modern statistics is, more than anything else, the product of the eugenics movement, with the outspoken eugenicists Galton, Karl Pearson (a Marxist who changed the spelling of his first name from Carl to Karl to honor his hero), and Ronald A. Fisher, being three of the most important progenitors of the statistical techniques used every day in medical research and the like.

Despite the conventional wisdom that links eugenics utterly to Hitlerism, the most successful eugenic enterprise at present is probably found among very orthodox Jews. A rabbi who lost four children to Tay-Sachs started a eugenic testing service for Ashkenazi Jews that has proved highly successful in reducing the incidence of the disease. Of course, he was helped by his brand of Jewish adherents tending to have arranged marriages.

This points out G.K. Chesterton's objection to the practicality of eugenics: if the eugenicists actually succeeded in breeding healthier, smarter, more formidable humans, the first thing these semi-supermen would do is tell the eugenicists to butt out of arranging their marriages and go back to marrying whomever they loved.

Posted by: Steve Sailer | Jul 31, 2007 6:32:01 PM

Parts of Sailer's comment are accurate (for example, saying Galton was one of the originators of statistical analysis of biological data), other parts are more suspect (my recollections of what I've read suggest that calling the Nobel-prizewinning geneticist Muller a Stalinist is slander, though he did have Communist leanings in the 1930's).

For people interested in the history of eugenics, I recommend Daniel Kevles' excellent book. I'd recommend reading a history of genetics first; Sturtevant's remains a classic and as a good a choice as any I know of.

Posted by: Warren Terra | Jul 31, 2007 6:43:09 PM

Muller, who was born in NYC, moved to the Soviet Union in 1933 and lived there until 1937, when his anti-Lysenkoist expertise in genetics put him in danger for his life.

Do you have any other objections to my facts?

Posted by: Steve Sailer | Jul 31, 2007 7:03:24 PM

Do you have any other objections to my facts?

Sorry, I stopped reading when I saw that you write for a hate site.

Posted by: Seitz | Jul 31, 2007 7:12:39 PM

Golly, someone infatuated with Communism in the 1930's! Alert the media! You'd almost think that (1) there was at the time a world-wide economic catastrophe following a gilded age, and people were seeking alternatives to capitalism as they'd experienced it; and (2) that people were in possession of incomplete information about Stalin and the Soviet Union.

Also, while there were many earlier atrocities (the famine in the Ukraine comes to mind), it was the purges and the show trials (which, as I recall, started in what, 1936?) that slowly led Stalin's fans in the West to realize what Stalin was and what he was doing. It may be worth noting that Muller lived for several decades and did some of his best work after he left the Soviet Union.

Posted by: Warren Terra | Jul 31, 2007 7:22:34 PM

Okay, Muller wasn't a _real_ Stalinist, he just moved to Stalin's Russia in 1933 and he wrote Stalin in 1936 a long letter explaining how "your farsighted view and your strength in the realistic use of dialectic thought" meant that Stalin would understand that "True eugenics can only
be a product of socialism" and would thus want to support eugenicism -- but Muller wasn't a _real_ Stalinist!

Muller then returned to America, where he inspired the founding of the Nobel Prizewinners sperm bank.

Posted by: Steve Sailer | Jul 31, 2007 7:41:36 PM

I agree with Kathy G.'s description of Down syndrome, but she's failing to mention that this group has an unusually high rate of Alzheimers', and often this develops at a very early age (30's to 40's). The emotional and financial costs of disability and institutionalization due to Alzheimers' need to be considered by prospective parents of Down syndrome persons.

Posted by: beckya57 | Jul 31, 2007 7:56:15 PM

My Commentors Are Smarter Than Me

And yet, Steve Sailor is commenting on this very thread. Ironic, no?

Posted by: sangfroid826 | Jul 31, 2007 8:36:17 PM

The point is that in the context of a political/ideological debate, 'eugenics' doesn't mean exerting decisions about your own reproduction on the basis of knowledge that your offspring will suffer from serious disabilities. It means a massive, usually state-led, movement to discriminate children, teenagers, and adults, and to sterilize and murder those of whom it disapproves. Genetics - and even the technical meaning of 'eugenics' - has little or nothing to do with it.

I had suggested the term "personal functional eugenics" to address this concern, to make a separate point about functional construals of words that normally refer to intention, not because I favor the term. Then I saw that Douthat made reference to a term I wasn't aware of, "liberal eugenics" (which isn't about being politically liberal in the narrow sense). I still don't think eugenics is the best term to apply here, but it may be that those who favor the practices will overrule me.

the essence of Douthat's argument is that progressives are in favor of access to abortion, and abortion can be used for eugenic purposes, therefore progressives are in favor of eugenics

This isn't the essence of Douthat's argument. Douthat does argue that progressives enable eugenics by supporting the unfettered right to abortion, which has eugenic consequences, but he explicitly points out this doesn't require they directly favor those consequences. He then argues that it's something most progressives don't regard as a serious problem or do directly embrace. He also points out that some liberals embrace the term "eugenics" itself, as has happened in these threads and elsewhere.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 31, 2007 8:55:42 PM

The crux of the matter is that most contemporary progressives haven't thought about eugenics much at all, other than to absorb the conventional wisdom that eugenics=Hitler=evil, so they get offended ("very unfair") when anybody mentions that the center-left was highly enthusiastic for eugenics for decades, or that contemporary liberal sacraments like abortion are increasingly being used for eugenic purposes, and that this will only increase with improved genetic research and technology.

Ezra at least has the good grace to admit he doesn't know much about what he's talking about on this topic, while Kevin Drum just displays his ignorance.

Posted by: Steve Sailer | Jul 31, 2007 9:04:59 PM

if you were going to study the author of "desire under the elms" and "a moon for the misbegotten"...what could you call your work?

haha...this commenter may not be smarter than you, but..perhaps funnier?
just experiencing a lightness of being!

Posted by: jacqueline | Jul 31, 2007 9:21:12 PM

I absolutely DARE Ross Douhat to walk up to Representative Tom Lantos, pro-choice politician, member of the Congressional Progressive caucus, and Holocaust survivor, and tell him that he is part of a political movement that is "enabling eugenics."

That piece of trash wouldn't make it out the door.

This is more than just a violation of Goodwin's law. I'm sorry, but given the history of Tay-Sachs in the Ashkenazi Jewish community--nearly eradicated by aggressive screening--it's like a violation of Goodwin's law while standing in a temple.

Accusing a parent who has made this horrible choice, either for Tay-Sachs or for any other disease, of being a eugenicist? It's disgusting. And maybe I'm overreacting since I've seen so many people struggle with these tests, and the fear in their eyes before the tests came back fine, but it offends me TO MY CORE that this cheap bastard would call these loving parents Nazis just so he could score political points.

How's about looking in the mirror? That anti-abortion lobby? Using the coercive power of the state to keep women pregnant, regardless of what those women want? Regardless of even their health? That's eugenics: the forcible state coercion of people in what is the most consequential, most private, most fundamentally important decision in their lives?

Where does Ross get off calling people Nazis because they don't want to watch their child suffer, go blind, go deaf, and slowly and painfully die before they're five years old?

Posted by: anonymous | Jul 31, 2007 10:00:10 PM

it offends me TO MY CORE that this cheap bastard would call these loving parents Nazis just so he could score political points

That's your fault, not his, because he doesn't do that.

Jacqueline, it would be "O'Neillics," unless you're on a first name basis.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 31, 2007 10:33:12 PM

Shouldn't it be "My Commentors are Smarter than I?"

With the "am" in ellipsis at the end.

Posted by: Michael | Jul 31, 2007 10:54:29 PM

...the essence of Douthat's argument is that progressives are in favor of access to abortion, and abortion can be used for eugenic purposes, therefore progressives are in favor of eugenics.

No, I think the essence of Douthat's argument is that progressive support for abortion amounts to supporting the continued, widespread de facto practice of eugenics. Now, it's perhaps not a very technically precise definition of the term. But culling fetuses to insure that only the healthiest, least defective ones come to term in an awfully close cousin. It's not as if (many) progressives are going around saying: "it's fine to abort for a variety of reasons, but eliminating the retarded from the ranks of those allowed to be born is not one of those legitimate reasons." No, progressives don't want to talk about any issues of morality or ethics with regard to abortion. Douthat, not surprisingly, does.

Posted by: Jasper | Jul 31, 2007 10:55:00 PM

Damn.

And then I go and make a punctuation error.

Posted by: Michael | Jul 31, 2007 10:55:10 PM

No, progressives don't want to talk about any issues of morality or ethics with regard to abortion. Douthat, not surprisingly, does.

As I believe Douthat is against the destruction of pre-implantation embryos, and as you assert that Douthat is trying to discuss to morality and ethics rather than trying to smear progressives, could you please point me to where he denounces in vitro fertilization and demands that it be banned or crippled by regulation?

Thanks in advance.

Posted by: Warren Terra | Jul 31, 2007 11:01:07 PM

Didn't we "progressives" have a nice talk about issues of morality and ethics with regard to abortion just, like, last week, in the comment section of this very blog? I remember having an exchange with Neil the Ethical Werewolf, Julian something-or-other, and a guy who's name was initials on just that.

Demagoguery does nothing to advance the debate.

Posted by: Michael | Jul 31, 2007 11:05:14 PM

Probably the more useful term for what is emerging these days is "free market eugenics." For example, high IQ Ivy League coeds can make a lot more money selling their eggs to infertile women than can community college coeds.

The growth of free market eugenics raises important issues about the future of humanity, but progressives aren't doing much solid thinking about the questions involved for a variety of reasons, such as worries that it would raise doubts about abortion. Similarly, the way feminist lesbians like Jody Foster behave at the sperm bank suggests that, just like The Bell Curve says, they believe IQ is important and quite heritable. So, it's best just not to think about it because if people did worry about the growth of free market eugenics, it would point out contradictions in the progressive world-view. Therefore, just get mad at people who mention the whole topic.

Posted by: Steve Sailer | Jul 31, 2007 11:30:27 PM

As I believe Douthat is against the destruction of pre-implantation embryos, and as you assert that Douthat is trying to discuss to morality and ethics rather than trying to smear progressives, could you please point me to where he denounces in vitro fertilization and demands that it be banned or crippled by regulation?

I don't think this would determine whether he was trying to smear progressives. At most it might relate to how consistent he is in his views.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 31, 2007 11:47:56 PM

This is insane. You call someone a eugenicist, you're calling them a Nazi-lover.

This is like saying someone is practicing a new form of racial segregation (say, "liberal segregation"), inventing some tendentious connections to a policy they support and traditional segregation--and then denying you accused them of being racists.

Posted by: anonymous | Jul 31, 2007 11:53:45 PM

This is a topic I haven't really given a lot of thought to, but just fresh from this recent bloggy discussion, it seems to me that the objection to eugenics isn't really with the essence of the practice (which I interpret as making reproductive choices based on the predicted outcome of genetic heritage) but with the critera used to make those choices. 30's-style eugenics seems appalling to us now because it was racist, and racism is appalling in its own right. Eugenic decisions are consequential, so a consequential decision based on racist criteria is naturally going to be repugnant. Likewise, the understanding of human intelligence was very crude at the time (a situation which has only marginally improved since), so consequential decisions based on who was or wasn't "mentally impaired" are also repugnant in retrospect.

Of course, the methodology is also the issue. By modern standards, for the state to force sterilization on adults is a serious violation of individual liberty; you'd want to have a very strong justification for it, bringing us back to how we judge the criteria on which these decisions are made. And conservatives' effort to equate forced sterilization of adults with the voluntary abortion of pregnacies perhaps gets to the heart of how the two sides weigh consequences.


Posted by: cerebrocrat | Aug 1, 2007 12:20:57 AM

Actually rather than whining, the liberals should indeed assert that the conservatives support murder of innocent people as they support unfettered ownership of guns.

You can win a fight either when you have overwhelming advantage of strength against the opponent, or if you stoop to his level.

Posted by: gregor | Aug 1, 2007 12:24:24 AM

This is insane. You call someone a eugenicist, you're calling them a Nazi-lover.

Just not true. Eugenics was always and still is a much broader movement than Naziism.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 1, 2007 1:28:11 AM

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