Seventy years after the Holocaust, the eugenics movement should have withered away and died. Even in this supposed modern era of tolerance, there is a vocal minority that advocates for a new eugenics program: imposing restrictions on human reproduction, so that only “superior” individuals may reproduce.
The idea behind eugenics is that only allowing those “superior” individuals to reproduce can remove certain weaknesses from the gene pool, thus eradicating our social ills.
It is en vogue to believe that society is in a state of decline, and that it is the fault of certain groups or individuals who are somehow degenerate in the eyes of those eugenicists.
In my private life and even from public figures, I have heard the same argument many times: stupid people are everywhere these days, and we should prevent them from spreading their genes.
As someone who actually studies genetics, it amuses me that so many people fancy themselves experts on the genetic contribution to a human’s intelligence or other traits.
This persistent appeal to eugenics is dangerous through and through. Not only is it bad science and near certain to fail, it is more morally degenerate than any of the societal ills eugenicists could hope to cure.
Consider, for example, attempting to use eugenics to create a more intelligent society.
Would selecting only the smartest individuals for reproduction result in a smarter society?
The question of how much of human intelligence is the result of genetic or environmental factors has been in play since before the word “gene” existed. The measure of how much of an effect genes have on determining which traits are present in a population is called heritability.
The heritability in cow populations for the pattern of spots in their fur is highly heritable. The spotting patterns on cows is almost entirely based on genetics. However, the amount of milk a cow can produce depends on both genetic and environmental factors.
The most modern attempts to measure the heritability of human intelligence have concluded similarly: We owe our intelligence to both genetics and environment. This would mean one might be able to milk a little more intelligence out of the human population with selective breeding.
But that probably won’t work. There are a massive amount of individual genes that affect intelligence, and all evidence indicates no specific genes can really make one more or less intelligent.
There are no known genes for intelligence, so selective breeding would not be easy or very productive.
Even if I were to accept the idea that eugenics is a viable option for potentially increasing human intelligence, what about the moral depravity of it all?
Is it worth creating a society that is intellectually superior if it requires that we become morally barbaric to do so? Is it worth sterilizing countless women and castrating countless men we deem unworthy to achieve this goal?
What evils could the so called “degenerates” of our society possibly be committing that would warrant what would be nothing less than treating humans as cattle? Is human husbandry not an utterly terrifying solution to our problems?
Remember that by mathematical law, half of the people on this planet have below average intelligence.
If that’s where you draw the line, are you so self-assured that a coin toss will land in your favor?
Reach the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at @jacobevansSP
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