by Daniel Gurpide
Eugenics – meaning the applied science for the self-direction of human evolution – is nowadays the object of Freudian, hypocritical repression.
Although one may say that eugenic concerns are an implicit constant in most post-Neolithic cultures, the essential question of eugenics flares up with the advent of the Darwinian revolution, and of Mendelian genetics—which has long been considered one and the same with eugenics. This arose in anticipation of a very real dysgenic risk in modern times that ‘traditional’ selective factors would break down.
Galton, who coined the term, defined eugenics as ‘the study of all agencies under human control which can improve or impair the racial quality of future generations.’ The philanthropic motives that encouraged him to develop the new science are beyond question:
Man is gifted with pity and other kindly feelings; he has also the power of preventing many kinds of suffering. I conceive it to fall well within his province to replace Natural Selection by other processes that are more merciful and not less effective. The way of hunger, death, stupidity, delusion, chance, and bare survival—natural selection—is thus replaced by the way of life, will, aspiration, and achievement—conscious evolution—not merely on a temporary and local basis, as in ancient Sparta, but permanently and universally.
Breeding may itself be considered an early aristocratic technique. Yet, it was impossible to return to earlier Western social forms based on a hereditary aristocracy that had achieved their position by means of the military accomplishments of their ancestors. Hence, in the early twentieth century, a current of thought headed in the direction of developing a natural aristocracy based on intelligence, moral probity, and meritocratic social mobility. This was the heyday of eugenics as a belief system common among European elites—both liberal and conservative.
Ultimately, the eugenics movement was shattered; it was a victim of the outcome of the Second World War, although eugenics was not expunged from polite society until the 1960s as an outcome of an energetic campaign by Holocaust-haunted egalitarian intellectuals bent on striking a blow against their rivals (nevertheless, in Sweden the eugenics programme continued until 1975).
However, before it was ‘cursed,’ eugenics had long been perceived—essentially until the 1930s—as a ‘progressivist’ theme, since it was linked to concerns about the evolution of society in general (and correlated with the latter ‘taking charge of itself ’), to the extent that even Soviet intellectuals and scientists promoted its study.
In Germany, the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk—politically on the left—recently argued that, given the understanding existing in genetic science, the eugenic dream of ‘selection’ is now within reach. Sloterdijk’s use of the word ‘selection’ horrified, of course, his colleagues, for whom the word evokes the ramp at Auschwitz. What most worried critics, however, was Sloterdijk’s argument that this capability should be exploited to breed a new generation of human beings. Coming after Sloterdijk’s open letter in Die Zeit attacking Jürgen Habermas as the representative of an outdated humanism, suggestions were made that he was ‘flirting with fascism,’ which reveals the uncertainty and fear still evoked by the issue of ‘conscious evolution.’ The Sloterdijk controversy demonstrates the almost exclusively ideological nature of contemporary discussions of eugenics. This has been accentuated by the increasing erosion, because of technoscientific progress, of the subjective costs of eugenic practices. Such costs have plummeted ever since the exposure of newborns, and the strict parental or communal control of mating gave way to the chemical or surgical sterilisation of severely retarded individuals, as well as to birth control. These have been succeeded by prematrimonial anamnesis—replaced, in turn, by prenatal diagnosis and genetic screening. In turn, these will be supplanted by IVF with embryo and gamete selection; and, finally, by direct therapeutic manipulation of germlines. In fact, in respect of contemporary and upcoming procedures, the natural empathy for the individuals concerned operates in an entirely favourable sense—to the point of rendering unconditional rejection of eugenics an increasingly embarrassing and untenable position.
The key issue regarding eugenics are which countries will develop it to its fullest extent. Francis Galton had already predicted in 1909 that ‘the nation which first subjects itself to a rational eugenical discipline is bound to inherit the earth.’