I want to make a plea for sanity, a plea that we do not throw out the genetically engineered baby with the Third Reich bath water. I want to address the issue of eugenics.
Now the first thing which needs to be said is that most people have a completely cock-eyed idea of what eugenics involves. Eugenics is the science of good breeding, especially when applied to mankind. Anybody in a western democracy has been taught that eugenics is a pseudo-science which involves the state murdering people and making everybody blue-eyed and blond, it won’t work, it can’t work, it’s evil and only evil right wing people are interested in it. This is nonsense. Eugenics covers all aspects of genetic improvement and multiple techniques and multiple goals.
It is perfectly possible to be in favour of eugenics and not have any racist sentiments at all.
To get a bit of sanity and a rational look at the issues we can ignore man completely for a moment and explore selective breeding in animals. Take dogs for an example. Dogs have been selectively bred for tens of thousands of years. The first thing that happened to dogs is that they stopped being wolves. The first stage of the domestication of the dog was driven by a symbiosis between wolves which started to hang around human camps and the men within the camp. Factors which led to wolves getting along better as camp dogs were passed on, and camp dogs began to look less and less like wolves and to have behaviour which allowed them to coexist peacefully with men. Wolves domesticated themselves into dogs. Then once man got hold of the dog, literally, he could start to determine which dogs were allowed to stay in the camp and which were allowed to mate. Once the control of dog genetics was under the control of man dogs started to exhibit traits which were beneficial to man. There were dogs which could hunt, harrying prey and allowing men to catch them while doing less work or involving fewer men, which meant the meat went further even after giving a share to the dogs. Other dogs were bred to be watchdogs, alert, fierce with intruders, loyal to their owners. Then other dogs became bed warmers, submissive and friendly dogs who love to share body heat with their owners. Other breeds were developed to be canine pigs, to eat low-grade food and then, in turn, be eaten.
Today we see hundreds of breeds of dogs of different shapes and sizes, some clearly show their design concept, such as the corgi, which is a fit strong dog which can run fast and give a good account of itself in a fight but has short legs so that it is useful at harrying cattle and staying clear of their kicks, the corgi was the drovers dog, it almost certainly began as a result of a dwarfing gene arising spontaneously in a line of dogs who loved to harry cattle and the drovers were delighted to see such dogs were able to nip the heels and harry cattle without getting kicked for their troubles. The Rottweiler was bred to pull carts in Germany, a similar task to that of the husky but in a climate that isn’t so extreme, that’s why a husky looks like a Rottweiler in a parka. Both dogs are designed to be viewed from the back so they don’t have especially expressive faces, whereas lapdogs are often bred to be child substitutes and so have very expressive features in similar proportions to those of the Muppet babies.
What would the point of eugenics be? That depends entirely on who controls it and what their aims are. The classic Nazi aims of a tall blond master race seem rather stupid. Why does it matter that the next generation looks like? There are no dog show prizes to be won for making your people look the closest to some arbitrary breed standard. It would probably increase your chances of winning a few gold medals at the Olympics, I’d guess a nation engaged in 1930s style eugenics would stand a good chance in the rowing events, the javelin and the hammer. Their rugby team would probably do well too. In football, they’d be great at the back, but they maybe wouldn’t do quite so well in the midfield. Taller troops would make good guardsmen, reasonable infantry but probably poorer special forces. It is unlikely that intelligence would be as easy to breed for as height or hair colour. The recipe for a blue-eyed blond is simple, intelligence isn’t the same kind of thing at all. There will almost certainly be a strong reversion to the mean with breeding for IQ that you would not get so strongly with simpler traits such as stature. I would suggest breeding an average height of males of six-foot two would be substantially easier than to breed an average IQ of 150. The reason for that is that there will almost certainly not be many simple genetic recipes for higher IQ in the same way that there would be for greater height, nature already has a strong incentive to maximize intelligence as smarter people can work smarter, find novel ways to advance their prospects and attract better mates than their duller-witted companions. While good stature is part of being an attractive male it has never been the be all and end all, so there is almost certainly more genetic potential to make giants than there is to make geniuses.
What is the point of breeding a race of giants? Or even a race of smarter people? It isn’t obvious. I certainly struggle to find any reason to make everybody look the same as regards hair and eye colour, that just strikes me as superficial and stupid. It isn’t worth breeding for, it certainly isn’t worth killing people for.
Eugenics need not involve any killing of any kind. While the fastest way of attaining a particular genetic goal would involve lots of breeding and culling the less successful this strikes us as unacceptable for greyhounds let alone people. But until a goal is decided upon and the value of the goal assessed the idea of anybody being in the way of the great noble experiment doesn’t even begin to arise. Killing people is wrong. You don’t have to set this aside to see some prospects of a purpose in selective breeding of our own species.
Are you entirely happy with your genes? Do you think that you are the best possible combination of the genes your parents had to offer? I can’t help thinking that there is some room for improvement. Think about all your aunts and uncles and your parents and siblings. If you could select between all those traits that your grandparents brought to the table don’t you think you could come up with a few slightly better individuals? I’m sure my mother looked at her husband and thought to herself that this man’s intelligence, height and athleticism, if combined with the best genes on her side of the family, would produce something of a superman. There was the potential to make me into a great athlete or rugby player, my father was a sprinter for his county and my mother’s younger brother set school records in several track and field events which stood for decades and he played rugby for his university. She was half right, I got the six foot two sprinter’s stature of my father with the blue eyes from my mother’s father that otherwise prevented my father looking like a Nordic god. Unfortunately, I also got a loathing for team games, especially those involving mud and barely controlled violence and an idle streak of epic proportions which had come from my father’s father. Like my paternal grandfather, I have a square face and a rounded belly and a taste for wearing waistcoats. My grandfather spent too much of his time grooming his heavy horses, I spend too much of my time on the computer, either way, it shows aspects of the same character.
If my mother had the chance to see what the result of all the traits available might have been, with hindsight which is possible only now coupled with genetic insights that don’t exist yet but might exist in another fifty years I am quite sure she would not have lumbered me with genes which have made me vulnerable to obesity and heart disease. I think she would have been happy to me have my father’s height and his sense of morality and his good looks, traits I am happy to possess but she would not want me to have the recessive gene for a birthmark, which skipped over herself and her father only to reappear in my son. The recessive gene for red hair which might have come from either side of my family would probably be sent along for future generations with her blessing. If I had my own choices I would have had a blue-eyed red-head with freckles and ringlets and a brown-eyed brunette, which I did, unfortunately, it is my daughter’s brown eyes I look in as she swathes her head in henna trying to turn her arrow straight hair, actually my hair, into something she regards as attractive. My son has tried to straighten his ginger curls, hair which would have looked adorable grown out into natural ringlets in the blue-eyed sister he never had, especially with his freckles and our dimples. I’m sure given the choice he’d prefer to have my straight mousey hair, even at the price of going grey at the temples in his forties.
One day. Not today, probably not for decades, the time will come when our knowledge of genetics is good enough we can all have children who have the traits and combination of traits that we believe will give them the best chance of a happy and fulfilling life. At present, a tiny number of parents are given options to implant an embryo with a particular characteristic rather than one of his or her microscopic siblings. This involves the death of the unwanted embryos, which puts a big downer on the whole operation even when people are fully aware that nature kills such embryos by the million every day and their mothers never know they ever conceived in the first place. At the present time embryo selection is expensive, controversial and not without risk so it is used only when a major disease can be diagnosed in the embryo stage or its absence assumed on the basis of a sex test. If techniques can be advanced which reduce the need for embryonic genocide as it might be styled by the hard of thinking, people who see souls in a single cell, then we may one day be able to control our own genetic destiny, as parents and not leave it all up to something which appears random and uncaring.
You really don’t need to want to feed people with birthmarks and dwarfism into gas chambers or hate Jews to see some potential for human genetic improvement if we could read the cards in our hands rather than playing every card blind. We could exclude genes which always cause problems, nobody needs to be deaf or lame genetically, and saying that doesn’t mean we should kill people deafened or crippled by accidents. Have some basic common sense, please.
If parents chose to make their children lighter skinned what would the problem be? Oh no, somebody might feel less good about themselves because they have a trait other people don’t want in their children. So what? Life’s a bitch. I know there are plenty of people who consider my fatness to be a hideous deformity and they think that if they looked like me they would kill themselves. It doesn’t negate my life. I do still find a reason to go on breathing. So people don’t want skin the colour of your skin, that’s nothing, my daughter doesn’t want hair my colour and I have to watch her dye it. I don’t bleed to death inside when I watch. Well, not much. I suppose given a choice nobody would have a child who was a self-loathing moaning politically correct adenoidal whinger tossed on the froth of leftist fashionable politics so the future will be brighter to that degree at least.
If people had the choice of their own genes to pass on, which would in effect be the choice between traits exhibited by their own parents, grandparents and their siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins, I am confident that the results would be beneficial for the whole society. People would be unlikely to want to endow their children with a psychopathic tendency, a short temper, a facial deformity and a low intelligence. That doesn’t seem a very good mixture, but its a combination nature experiments with quite regularly. I can’t see even somebody who came from a family of unemployables with a tendency to arson, criminal damage and theft would actually choose to have children with those genetic tendencies if these could be identified and alternatives used instead.
There is always the chance that couples will both carry unwanted genes and their desire to have children who are not afflicted with those traits would require the intervention of a third party. Today if a family knows that both mother and father carry bad genes, what tends to happen is that they use a surrogate, often without the husband being aware of it, and no turkey basters involved, if you get my drift. Or if doctors are involved again 50% of the genetic input will be from elsewhere, usually an anonymous donor or the couple will adopt a child not related to them at all. How much more satisfactory would it be if only the highly undesirable trait was substituted, the shortest possible strand of foreign DNA coming from a donor, and the child therefore still strongly resembled both parents?
The bulk of this piece was written in 2012, but as I come to update it and edit now I found little reason to change it and one major piece to add. This last week my wife has two liver transplants. The reason for this is a hereditary condition called primary biliary cirrhosis. Unpacking the name tells you what the condition is, cirrhosis is an almost complete shut-down of the functions of the liver, which is the largest internal organ which has a huge range of functions. Biliary refers to the bile ducts, where the problem begins and the word primary means in effect they don’t know what causes it. It has nothing to do with any lifestyle choices, and it certainly is not caused by alcohol abuse as so many cirrhosis cases are. There has been some research to suggest that this condition arises out of a failed eugenic experiment. The genes which are associated with PBS appear to have originated in Neanderthals. In the thirty thousand or so years that we have been carrying these genes they haven’t been eliminated from our gene pool The reason for this is that the vast majority of people who suffer PBS are women over the age of 40. It doesn’t begin to threaten people’s lives until after they have had children and passed on the genes. That is just the kind of trait that I am suggesting could be eliminated from the gene pool completely, clearly as not everybody gets this condition if it vanished from our species for good it is unlikely to do us as a species any irreparable harm. There have been some genes which have come from Neanderthals which have brought advantages to us, but many which haven’t and a few which are positively harmful. Conscious genetic screening, once it becomes feasible, could be the way for us to have children free of conditions which could blight their lives. Surely the cost of screening out conditions which cause healthy people to cease being productive workers and instead become very sick and requiring hugely expensive operations would make the process worthwhile. I know that if I had the choice to avoid passing on awkward genes from both parents I would leap at the chance. I think this is how it should be done, vetoing certain conditions and combinations but not so many that you are designing a perfect baby. There should not be choice of the sex of babies because this is bound to lead to skewed populations with unintended social problems down the line. I might just be inclined to say that people could choose the sex of a fifth child, but really I’d prefer that there were smaller families and no need for people to have a fifth child.
There is no end of good reasons why some forms of eugenics are bad, but there are not sufficiently good reasons to rule out all forms for ever. Eugenics, the manipulation of human genes, is a powerful technology, like fire or nuclear fission, it is absurd to declare it to be evil in all its forms.