The New Eugenics? The Ethics of Bio-Technology

Is Human Nature Obsolete? Genetics, Bioengineering, and the Future of the
Human Condition. Ed. Harold W. Baillie and Timothy K. Casey (Cambridge,
Massachusetts and London: The MIT Press, 2005), x + 422pp, £17.05 pb.

Liberal Eugenics: In Defence of Human Enhancement. By Nicholas Agar (Oxford,
Malden MA: Blackwell, 2004), viii + 205pp, £55.00 hb.

The history of eugenics is getting tricky. Once regarded as an initially idealistic
concept that degenerated into the monstrous Nazi race hygiene project or into an
American sterilization assault against the disadvantaged and racially “inferior”,
eugenics was deemed to have died after the Second World War, utterly discredited by
better biological science and more enlightened social ideas. However recent research
has shown that eugenics was more variegated than once thought — there were leftist
and “reform” eugenists as well as “mainline” or reactionary eugenists, with dedicated
opposition coming more from liberal and religious quarters. Ingrained into
contemporary structures and social issues such as demography, welfare, race and
gender, eugenics proved more resilient and widespread than previously thought.
Historians were slow to recognize its pervasive influence in Scandinavia, Latin
America and Asia, where local variants evolved as adaptations to local culture and
conditions. And it has persisted to the present day. In welfarist Scandinavia, eugenics has been repackaged as reproductive autonomy or “medical” measures.1 In Communist China it is alive and well in sterilization programmes and the one baby policy.2 More than this, critics allege, it has been resurrected in the “new genetics” of recent times.

Geneticists have historically been strong supporters of eugenics as a way of scientifically improving (now read “enhancing”) the genetic quality of the human race. As I have argued in another place, during the inter-war period they failed properly to scrutinize methodologies and data used to support sterilization of mental defectives,3 and it is contendable that social and ideological factors have continued to play a role — alongside epistemic factors associated with the expansion of genetic knowledge — in the motivations of biological scientists, although of course they routinely avoid the term “eugenics”.

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