Few issues today raise as much heated emotion as the subject of eugenics and bioengineering. Hardly a day goes by when we do not see Congressional hearings on the ethics of stem cell research or debate in the media over some proposal to expand to boundaries of our artificial reproductive technologies. Hollywood and popular culture constantly bombard us with scenarios related to genetic engineering. Aldous Huxley’s controversial book Brave New World introduced the possibility of selective breeding of human beings as far back as 1932 (Huxley, 1932). More recently in 1970, the book Future Shock by Alvin Toffler portrayed the worst possible outcomes for the development of assisted reproductive technologies in an attempt to frighten people about what our future holds, with the same forecasts of our doom repeated in the 2002 book Redesigning Humans. And even as recently as 1997, the film Gattaca portrayed a eugenicist society in which people conceived naturally, without technological interference, are considered malformed and dangerous. It seems we crave these apocalyptic interpretations of our own society, and find entertaining the possibility that our own behaviour could be planting the seeds of our own destruction. Proponents of eugenics highlight the potential benefits to humankind and society through greater technological manipulation of the reproductive process, while opponents point to the history of the Nazi experiments as an example of a eugenics program taken to its most frightening and horrific conclusion. In this paper, we will consider three arguments in favor of eugenics, followed by an examination to the opposing response to each one.
The most common justification for eugenics rests on the fact that we already engage in eugenics on a mass scale by selectively breeding plants and animals for agricultural purposes. Every student of science has been taught in school that Gregor Mendel first began cross-breeding garden peas in the midd-1800’s, which sparked what we now think of as the science of genetics (Tudge, 2000). This type of cross-breeding and selective breeding is eugenics at its most basic form. All of the various breeds of dogs and horses have been produced through selective breeding, many of which have proved invaluable assets to the human race. One has only to compare the modern domestic breeds of dog, such as the Pekinese or the Poodle, with a wild wolf to see how much genetic modification they required to turn them into their current forms. All of our common household vegetables have undergone massive changes to their basic characteristics to make them most useful to us and to make the plants produce as much as possible. Many of these species in their wild form are virtually useless to humans. Compare the common domestic carrot to its wild relative for a perfect example of this (Hilton Pond Center). Clearly we as humans even practice this in a rudimentary form when we choose mates whom we perceive as healthier, stronger, or more intelligent than others. This selection process is hard-wired into our genes, our instincts, and our body chemistry (Dawkins, 1976). For this reason, there seems little reason to fight the course of nature by labelling these selections as bad, since they obviously contribute to the genetic strength of our species.
The counter to this line of reasoning is that it’s a big step between selectively breeding plants and animals to selectively breeding human beings. The various eugenics experiments that have been tried read like a litany of horror in the history of the human race, particularly in the twentieth century when genocidal movements such as the German Nazi Party attempted to carry our eugenics programs on a mass scale, leading to the deaths of millions of less “desirable” genetic groups (Glad, 2008). One has merely to cast a passing glance over the propaganda posters of the Nazi era to realize the insidious nature of their doctrine of racial superiority which justified their forced sterilization of target groups, scientific experiments on mothers and their babies, and the systematic mass extermination of outsider races, the disabled, and the mentally ill (German Propoganda Archive). In selectively breeding animals, we decide between, for example, one cow or another, and we simply breed with the chosen cow and not with the less-favored cow. Almost never does animal breeding lead to the wholesale slaughter of large numbers of animals. In the case of plants, the breeding process takes an even more exact form, with small numbers of flowers and seeds being chosen for breeding in favor of others. In the few instances where undesirable crops, such as genetically modified organisms that have escaped quarantine, are subsequently destroyed, this is quite a different situation from the massacre of millions of people for the sake of genetic purity (NaturalSociety.com).
Proponents of eugenics point out that reproductive engineering could lead to the cures for many diseases, while genetic modification of our agricultural crop plants could lead to the end of world hunger through greater production of food. They argue that genetically modified plants produce larger ears of corn as well as larger and better muscled cows, sheep, and fish. Even now, scientists use gene splicing in bacteria to produce medically necessary drugs such as insulin and penicillin. Celebrity actors Michael J. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, and Christopher Reeve, who became a quadriplegic after a spinal cord injury, appeared before the United States Congress, essentially begging our representatives to lift the restrictions on stem cell research in the hope that the new research would provide them and countless others with cures. It would truly be a shame to allow so many people to continue to suffer and die needlessly when we have the means to help them, as is mandated by the Hippocratic Oath, our foundational scientific and medical ethic.
In opposition to this argument, a quick research of the results of genetic modifications that have been practiced so far show that the promise of stem cells research & genetically modified foods has failed to materialize. In fact, genetically modified foods have proved in the long run to produce less and to be more susceptible to disease than their wild, unmodified counterparts. In his classic book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins outlines a picture of the gene and its ability to vary through the reproductive process as the key to the survivability of all species, not just humans. With each generation, the continual recombination of genes provides the maximum diversity, leading to the greatest adaptability to whichever unique environment any particular species finds themselves encountering. If we follow this logic, we must assume, therefore, that only truly wild, uncontrolled reproduction can afford us the needed adaptability to survive in an ever-changing world. Viruses, molds, bacteria, and other pathogens are constantly changing their genetic profile to attack us. Also soil conditions, water chemistry, and atmospheric conditions are always changing, and we cannot hope to stay abreast with these changes fast enough to modify our own genes in response. Our genes need maximum flexibility to combat all these changes, and the only way to do that effectively is to allow them to recombine and adapt in their own natural way, through natural reproduction. When we listen to people like Christopher Reeve and Michael J. Fox, we come away with the impression that they believe science should operate without the encumbrance of ethical considerations, but this attitude is exactly the same one that has gotten us into trouble in the past. Neither stem cell research, nor assisted reproductive technology, nor any other form of bioengineering can guarantee a perfectly satisfactory outcome, and by venturing into uncharted territory, we can expect any number of unforeseen pitfalls, setbacks, and negative consequences. Hence the need for ethical considerations to play a key role before making the decision to embark on these practices.
Since the world faces the prospect of catastrophic resource failure in the near future, eugenicists propose that we should use our technology to ensure the survival of the best possible specimens of the human race to give ourselves the best possible chance of survival. If we have the technology to make ourselves stronger, smarter, healthier, or in need of less food, we can only benefit ourselves by taking advantage of the opportunity and giving future generations a head start. With every disaster, both natural and man-made, that befalls us, the desire to hedge our bets on our technological advances grows. Through selectively breeding human beings, we find our best prospect for gaining an advantage over a natural world in which we would otherwise be out of control.
The response to this claim continues from the previous statements regarding our adaptability to our environment. Since we don’t know exactly what the future holds, or what form such a hypothetical catastrophe might take, we can’t predict which traits would be the most beneficial to breed for survival. The physical traits needed to survive a radioactive fallout from a nuclear apocalypse, for example, might be very different from the traits needed to survive a failure of the economic distribution system or massive social unrest. The first example might require very specific genetic features of resistance to certain rare radioactive isotopes, the exact nature of which would depend greatly on the source of the contamination, while the second examples might require a greater degree of mental and emotional strength, or even social ability to network and communicate with other people. Since we as a species have never experienced these scenarios before, we cannont predict them. Any attempt to use our technology to manipulate the future will, in all likelihood, end in bigger problems than we currently face.
As demonstrated in this brief survey of the concerns surrounding eugenics, the topic contains many complex problems all fraught with serious emotional issues. Each of the subjects raised here causes its adherents great anxiety and leads to considerable conflict when opponents attempt to discuss the topic. The good news is that our technology has limits; so far, all attempts at human cloning, one of the greatest bogeymen of the eugenics debate, have failed, and many of the more advanced bioengineering techniques attempted by scientists have also produced disappointing results. We will not achieve our wildest dreams, or nightmares, of bioengineering, simply because we can imagine them. The natural world mercifully provides limits to what we finite humans can accomplish. So we can all sleep peacefully at night knowing that the natural world will continue unmolested by us and that human beings and the rest of biological life on this planet will continue to function in much the same way it always has.
- Toffler, Alvin. Future Shock. London: Bantam Books, 1970.
- Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. London: Chatto and Windus, 1932.
- Stock, Gregory. Redesigning Humans: Choosing Our Children’s Genes. London: Profile Books, 2002.
- Tudge, Colin. The Impact of the Gene: From Mendel’s peas to Designer Babies. New York: Hill & Wang, 2000.
- German Propoganda Archive, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI, 1936. Posters. http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/gpa/volkundrasse1936-8.htm
- Gattaca. United States: Columbia Pictures, 1997. Film, 108 minutes.
- NaturalSociety. Com; “Hungary Destroys All Monsanto GMO Corn Fields” blog entry by Anthony Gucciardi, September 20th, 2011
- Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. London: Oxford University Press, 1976.
- Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History, York, SC. 2004. Article. http://www.hiltonpond.org/ThisWeek040715.html
- Glad, John. “Eugenics and the Holocaust: 1927-1939.” Mankind Quarterly 48. 4 (2008)