Eugenics

There was an article in the ‘Times Of India’, Mumbai edition dated July 20th 2010 which caught my fancy. It was titled ‘I was programmed to be a genius’.
I wasn’t in Delhi at that time. So I really don’t know whether this was also published in the Delhi edition or not.

Immediately, a few questions arose in my mind. They were:

  • 1.What exactly is Eugenics?
  • 2.How does Eugenics actually work?
  • 3.Does history have anything to offer?
  • 4.Is it ethically right to practice Eugenics?

 

The word eugenics derives from the Greek word eu (good or well) and the suffix -genēs (born). It was coined by Sir Francis Galton in 1883, who defined it as “the study of all agencies under human control which can improve or impair the racial quality of future generations”

As quoted in the “Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary”, Eugenics is the science that deals with the improvement of races and breeds, especially the human race, through the control of hereditary factors. It is basically the broad concept of selective breeding for people.

If we could somehow enhance factors like, ’Intelligence’, ‘Loyalty’, ‘Stature’, ‘Longevity’, ‘Health and fitness’ etc. in humans! Seems an exciting idea, right? Only if we could, by selective and controlled breeding ensure that our future generations inherit the ‘desirable’ characteristics and thus are better off than us! Thrilled to know this? I sure was!

The next thing that aroused in my mind was how did this work? Now, Eugenics can be applied in different ways, but the essential principle is virtually always the same. It is “to reduce the reproduction rate of individuals possessing undesired trait(s) (Called Negative Eugenics) and/or to raise the reproduction rate of individuals with the desired trait(s) (Called Positive Eugenics).” Several methods have been proposed to achieve those evolutionary differential birthrates. Some of them notably are,

·“Sperm Banks”, Artificial Insemination and In Vitro fertilization:

Banks of frozen eggs or sperm selected from highly talented, healthy, and intelligent individuals could satisfy sterile couples’ wish to have children, with either artificial insemination or In vitro fertilization.

·Cloning:

This technique consists in replacing the nucleus of an egg by the nucleus of an adult cell. The resulting offspring will not be a phenotypic duplicate of the adult that donated the nucleus, nor will it be its complete genetic duplicate.

·Pre-natal diagnosis and Abortion:

Various procedures are available that allow for the pre-natal diagnosis of chromosomal anomalies and various single-gene disorders. Combined with abortion, it is thus a eugenic possibility that may help reduce the occurrence of certain diseases.

·Pre-implantation diagnosis and modification:

The cell on which the most successful transgenic operations have been carried out can then be implanted for gestational development. Various transgenic procedures include the disablement of some previously functional genes and gene substitution techniques in which new functional genes are implanted, even ones from other species.

The next thing that concerned me was to see whether history had anything to offer about it. And I was surprised to see that there was so much to know. Eugenics was a common ideology, philosophy as well as a scientific idea in the early twentieth century or the first half of the twentieth century that really fell out of favor sort of, after World War II. It essentially was the self direction of human development, “Humans trying to make humans of a certain type”. The way this was done was that you control breeding, you sort of pick the people who you think should breed; the people who you think are the higher people, the best specimens and you only let them breed and you prevent other people from breeding.

People who were deemed unfit would be sterilized. They weren’t allowed to breed. There were all sorts of racial segregation and stereotypes. The best example of Eugenics movement and sort of also the worst example is of the Holocaust and the Nazis. Hitler believed that his was the ultimate race and that the other races such as Gypsies, Jews and were deemed by him as mentally ill or simply not fit. According to him, not only they didn’t deserve reproduce but also that they didn’t deserve to live.

After some deep thinking, I realized that things begin to get complicated when we start to ask in whose interests is the improvement done. It is only improvement if it is done in our interests, otherwise it is cynical manipulation. If a ruling class breeds willing slaves or fanatical soldiers that is surely an intolerable abuse of our humanity but what if selection becomes universal and the selectors select for all classes? That becomes a different matter all together.

The elimination of disease through genetic knowledge is, in my view, not only morally defensible but a moral imperative. The difficulty comes in defining what is a disease and what is simply variation. To me racial differences such as hair and skin colour come firmly under the category of variation. However even this is not totally clear-cut. If we were in the position to select every gene individually would you want to knowingly give a new person a skin type that is dangerously prone to skin cancer and sun burn after even modest sun exposure? When does variation shade into genetic handicap?

For most genetic diseases the choice is fairly clear. Cystic fibrosis or sickle cell anemia are clearly genetic diseases and should be eliminated. But what about dwarfism and homosexuality? It is remarkable how defensive people are of their own kind, even when the outside world sees them as pathogenic. Do dwarfs have a right to breed more of their kind? Or the deaf? People who are physically or mentally handicapped should be made quite clear about our attitude to them, we respect them as people but we also seek not to have more of their kind, there is no logical inconsistency in that position. We cannot allow these most selfish of selfish genes to spread. The issues of the limits of the pathological and the normal variation must be addressed. My own opinion is that homosexuality is not pathological but dwarfism is.

We could select for intelligence and longevity but should we? I can see no reason why we should select for either. Increasing longevity would produce population size and structure problems which would inevitably cause enormous strains on society and the economy for no obvious benefit. Why would we want our descendants to be so much brighter than we are? Who benefits and how? Would they thank us for it? Would it matter to us if they did? As all these questions seem unanswerable I think it is prudent not to purposely strive for greater intelligence directly but to aim to increase the aggregate intelligence level by avoiding the breeding of people who are significantly less intelligent than average just as I would suggest avoiding breeding from any people at the pathological end of any bell curve such as the seriously short or tall. Variety is a good thing, but you can have too much of anything.

The world is at least a full generation away from the time when eugenics can raise its head again. I have put these ideas here to act as the spores for the debate in that far off time, when the conditions are right to address the issues without hysteria.

Karan Kalra

Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology Delhi (IIIT-D)