Eugenics in the 21st century

Synopsis for a Café Scientifique delivered in Thessaloniki)

1950-Jan-Redbook-human-body-smEugenics was a liberal vision because, at the time of Sir Francis Galton, it was radical and against the Victorian class system. By going beyond the class structure, eugenics envisioned a future world of enhanced humans irrespective of class background. It was a truly egalitarian vision inspired by Darwinism and aiming for a balance between nature and nurture.

Following the destruction of the European class system after the carnage of WW1, egalitarian ideas were split between the Left focusing more on the “nurture” side of the argument and the Right corrupting the “nature” side and replacing it with “race”. Liberalism – expressed in the few remaining parliamentary democracies – found itself in the uneasy middle, a follower rather than a leader, a defender of its hijacked ideology.

The extreme Left in Soviet Union and the extreme Right in Nazi Germany were responsible for genocide; the former in “re-education gulags” the latter in “concentration camps”. It was thus that eugenics got a bad name, particularly from the Nazi atrocities which were linked to eugenics during the Nuremberg Trial. The line of the defence for the Nazi criminals was that they did little else compared to what the Americans were doing in their own country by means of forceful sterlization programs. The irony is, of course, that the Nazis while exterminating the Jews were aiming to destroy not an “inferior” race but an antagonistic one, a people who despite their small number had contributed immensely in the European civilisation. Race was a pretext; and this is why a big number of European Christians eagerly joined the Nazis in the slaughter.

Egalitarianism was redefined by the European Left after the war as in direct opposition to eugenics – conveniently forgetting the millions that were dying in Siberia.

But the idea has refused to disappear, because it bods with the fundamental value system of most human beings, i.e. the enhancement of our abilities. In the 21st century eugenics is not used as a term anymore (in order not to elicit negative reactions), but the idea is there, alive and well, manifesting both in technologies that intervene in the genetic make-up of the unborn (“designer babies”), as well as in technologies that may enhance already born humans. How many of us would refuse to becoming cleverer, stronger, healthier, younger and more sexually potent?

The dilemmas of enhancement

There are at least three major moral and political dilemmas that I would like to discuss. The first has to do with the control of the eugenics technologies. Should one support the liberal, free-market economics model, where private companies sell the technologies to the consumers? Or should one involve the State? And to what degree? The dilemma is obvious. If we follow a free-market approach we may arrive at a new class system, where the ultra rich will be able to use the expensive technology to enhance themselves and their offspring. We may end up with a superhuman class, the “GenRich” as it is often called. If we make eugenics a state-controlled commodity, then we uneasily reproduce a totalitarian scenario for the future. One must not forget that the Nazi party was a socialist one.

The second dilemma that I would like to discuss has to do with the technologies themselves. Both pre-natal genetic interventionism and post-natal enhancement (genetic or otherwise) have merits that need to be discussed. For example, in the case of post-natal enhancement how much down the road to becoming cyborgs we go? Finally, the third issue for discussion would be our motivation for human enhancement. One may argue that this is obvious: self-interest. One wants to be an enhanced person because it improves his or her competitiveness in the world. It is precisely the meaning of competitiveness that needs to be discussed. In a planet heading for an environmental tipping point competitiveness may not be the correct strategy, but collaboration. Altruism should be enhanced at the expense of selfishness. But, assuming a genetic disposition for those two social traits, how much does it matter which trait to select for? Is human behaviour governed by genetics? Or is it a result of framing the right game, as many game theorists would argue? And if so, what other reasons we may have for human enhancement? Colonizing another planet may be one of them. For example if humans are ever going to survive on Mars they will have to genetically change; the gravity of the planet is less and its atmosphere (even after terraforming) thinner. Is Eugenics the correct strategy for space colonization?

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