February 23, 2007

Neugenic Nation

Eugenics.

It is a word that has come to mean different things to different people. Some consider it a pejorative, while others use it as a powerful tool in political rhetoric. It conjures images of Nazi brutality and 20th century zealots working to sterilize the unfit. Ask anyone for a definition and you're bound to get a multitude of different answers; when you key define: eugenics into Google it spews out no less than 20 unique definitions.

When stripped of all its historical and social baggage, however, 'eugenics' can be used to describe two general philosophical tendencies: 1) the notion that human hereditary stock can and should be improved, and 2) that such changes should be enforced by the state (or other influential social groups such as cults or religions).

These two concepts are not married to one another. Transhumanists tend to subscribe to the first point but not the second, leading to the charge that they are liberal eugenicists. China, on the other hand, engages in a form of eugenics that draws from both agendas; the state is actively involved in the ongoing biological re-engineering of its citizens for ideological ends.

More broadly, eugenics is an old Greek term that means 'well born.' The general idea is that genetic constitutions can be improved, either by selective breeding or through more advanced reproductive technologies like applied genomics. Needless to say it is a highly controversial concept with no shortage of detractors.

Dysgenics and neugenics

But what does it mean to oppose eugenics? When one is anti-eugenics what does that actually entail?

There's an old truism (or is that an old Rush lyric?) which states that even when you choose not to decide you still have made a choice. A similar thing can be said about those who oppose eugenics. By consequence, detractors have unconsciously positioned themselves as being either dysgenicists or neugenicists.

Dysgenics is the notion that humans should genetically regress from an evolutionary standpoint and default to harmlessness. Yes, there are people who actually believe we should do this (which, I suppose, is not nearly as bad as the misanthropic Voluntary Human Extinction Movement). Such a standpoint can be interpreted as a kind of oxymoronic Luddite transhumanism where progress is measured not by the increase or refinement of physical and psychological capacities, but instead by their regression. The ultimate goal would be to see civilizations whither away and have devolved humans return to the jungle.

Neugenics, which is the majority bioethical opinion today (and most notably the opinion of bioconservatives, human exceptionalists, and anti-transhumanists), is the conviction that the human genome must not be deliberately altered to any significant degree. The general idea is that Homo sapiens are fine just they way they are and that enhancement will only lead to greater societal discord and/or diminished lives (i.e. a case of more being less). The underlying assumption is that God or nature has already optimized human beings; human enhancement would only knock over this fragile house of cards.

Neugenics is a new bioethical designation that has only come about through the advent of enhancement technologies (which includes artificial selection a la the old school eugenicists). This particular issue has migrated from the theoretical to the practical now that we have the capacity to enhance. It is only by becoming real (or perceived to be real) that an issue becomes political.

Human stasism

And here is where it gets interesting.

If the state sides with the neugenicists and bans the use of enhancement technologies, then it is enforcing a particular vision of humanity, albeit a fixed one. In this sense the neugenicists are similar to the authoritarian eugenicists of the past. In each case individual procreative freedoms have been trumped by the demands of the state (which, in a democracy, is supposedly the consensus opinion).

But any discussion of human reproductive rights must critically examine how the state justifies the abrogation of specific procreative choices. Fewer things are more coercive than state intervention in the reproductive practices of its citizens, especially in consideration of the presumption that parents tend to have the best interests of their children in mind.

As already noted, state control of human reproduction is one of two central tenets in the conventional definition of eugenics; the rationale behind the state’s intervention in this context is irrelevant (whether it be democratic consensus or totalitarian ideology). As the state exerts a greater interventionist role in limiting reproductive options, the greater is its commitment to 'eugenics', or in the case of limiting or denying germinal choice technologies, a commitment to autocratic neugenics (i.e. human genome stasism). One could go even further by suggesting that it is quasi-dysgenic if detrimental traits (such as genetic disorders) are permitted to disseminate and propagate unhindered in the human gene pool (but this is arguable because natural selection already works to prevent this).

Choice not chance

The parental desire for the so-called 'designer baby' is a reasonable one. It represents the next revolutionary step in human procreation and another victory over the blind forces of nature. Prospective parents will no longer have to rely on the genetic roll of the dice when it comes to determining the health and makeup of their offspring.

This said, I'm not so biolibertarian or naive to suggest that we advocate a genetic free-for-all. Enhancement technologies are monumentally powerful and have the potential to cause great social disruption. Make no mistake: state regulation and monitoring will be paramount. What's needed is a smart, non-reactive, and progressive hand.

This issue speaks to the heart of reproductive rights as it is an empowering technology that will allow for greater individual control and autonomy over personal reproductive processes. But like any new technology, it will be subject to abuse and error. And like any other powerful technology, it will need to be regulated and monitored. Child abuse laws are already in effect, for example, and they will need to be applied to those cases in which the guidelines for how parents can or cannot genetically alter their offspring are disregarded or abused.

Prudent and compassionate action

Finally, another problem with the neugenic vision is its non-interventionist position. Ethics and compassion are not passive activities; it is through our actions that we are able to help.

And what is it exactly that we are trying to accomplish vis-a-vis enhancement? It is the fostering of lives that can flourish, self-actualize, and meet their greatest potentials, while ensuring that they are free from as much suffering and undue constraints as is possible.

This is a broad vision for the future. There are no pre-determined and fixed visions of what humanity must become. Rather, it will be through our collective compassionate and common sense actions that we will unintentionally allow the human species to continue to evolve in a positive direction.

10 comments:

Steve said...

I guess it's lucky for neugenics that the Y-chromosome no longer appears to be in danger of imminent demise.

Otherwise they'd be enshrining not stasis but decline ...

Nato said...

My personal expectation is that stochastic natural engineering is so different from the engineering practiced by sentient folks like ourselves that it will be much harder to improve biological systems than mechanical analogues we build from the ground up.

It doesn't mean we shouldn't try, of course. ~4 billion years of evolution has designed a whole lot of neat little widgets that are really good at their jobs.

Dale Carrico said...

"Eugenics. It is a word that has come to mean different things to different people. Some consider it a pejorative, while others use it as a powerful tool in political rhetoric. It conjures images of Nazi brutality and 20th century zealots working to sterilize the unfit. Ask anyone for a definition and you're bound to get a multitude of different answers; when you key define: eugenics into Google it spews out no less than 20 unique definitions."

George, aren't you creating the impression of controversy where there isn't really much of any? My own sense is that "eugenics" is a word that means broadly the same thing to almost everybody, and that it is almost universally reviled, not just because of the Nazi associations you rightly mention but also association with racist biomedical trials (syphilis, etc.) in 20C America. Even if Google spews twenty definitions, it isn't hard to distill a common denominator from them (pretty much in line with your own characterization right here in your post).

You continue: "When stripped of all its historical and social baggage, however, 'eugenics' can be used to describe two general philosophical tendencies: 1) the notion that human hereditary stock can and should be improved, and 2) that such changes should be enforced by the state (or other influential social groups such as cults or religions)."

How sure are you that the phrase "human hereditary stock" is one that is "stripped of historical and social baggage"? How comfortable are you with the eugenic attitude that "the human race" (as a "whole"?) can (should?) monolithically be "improved" through therapeutic intervention? Won't modification proliferate human capacities, morphologies, and lifeways -- often in ways that will not seem to be improvements to anybody but those who opt for them?

I agree with you that what is most objectionable about historical eugenicism is that its prescriptions have been implemented coercively by agents of states, and I agree with you that authoritarian non-state actors are also a worry (you mention cults and religions, and I think you would add, as certainly I would, multinational corporations). But I think maybe you underestimate somewhat the worry that overconfident professional characterizations of "optimal health" on the one hand and "substandard lives" on the other (which often get freighted with stealthy and even unconscious parochial prejudices about race, class, gender, "disability," and so on) can suffuse the community of medical practice or social service in a way that becomes very nearly as authoritative, edging just as worrisomely in the direction of the coercion we both abhor.

You continue on, very provocatively:

"If the state sides with the neugenicists and bans the use of enhancement technologies, then it is enforcing a particular vision of humanity, albeit a fixed one. In this sense the neugenicists are similar to the authoritarian eugenicists of the past. In each case individual procreative freedoms have been trumped by the demands of the state (which, in a democracy, is supposedly the consensus opinion)."

I strongly agree with you about most of this George, but it seems to me that this is a straightforward anti-eugenics argument. You are pointing out that bioconservatives are intervening in healthcare to maintain their vision of "human optimality" (which they selectively identify with elements in the status quo that they often designate as "nature," or "God's will," or "dignity" in some retrograde Kassoid construal or what have you).

In all cases eugenics involves the imposition on majorities of a minority moral viewpoint stealthed under cover of claims about optimal health for the "race" as a whole. Anti-eugenics is the repudiation of medical moralism for medical ethics.

Rather than being inspired by visions of "racial uplift" it is inspired by visions of consensual healthcare decisions between informed patients and competent healthcare workers.

You claim that those who are anti-eugenics (as I definitely am myself) are forced into what is a palpably false alternative between two ungainly neologisms: "dysgenicism" and "neugenicism." Against a eugenics figured as universal progress, you propose that only the alternatives of universal regress and universal stasis remain on the table. But, for me, the desired alternative to eugenicism is simply: consensual practices of healthcare.

I don't agree with the bioconservatives (or, apparently, with the transhumanists) that modification medicine alters this basic vision of consensual healthcare in a democratic society. (By the way, democracy attempts the nonviolent reconciliation of dissensus, not the imposition of consensus -- the difference is enormously important.)

Anyway, I don't agree that modification medicine properly raises anew the need for the bad old rhetorics of "improving mankind" as a whole or fending off "racial decadence." I think modification medicine will provoke a proliferation of lifeways that make discourses of diversity, consent, and tolerance all the more urgent.

I actually suspect you would agree with quite a lot of this, which is why I find it so puzzling why you and so many others I respect sometimes seem keen to rehabilitate the eugenicist term in any sense in the first place. There is an overconfident and overgeneral sense of optimality at the heart of too many of these viewpoints, even when they repudiate coercive interventions in the name of that optimality, and there is in too many expressions of these viewpoints a trivialization of the horrors that took place in the name of eugenic rationality, despite the quick and inevitable genuflections that tend to frame these formulations.

Defending eugenics seems to me rather tone-deaf as a rhetorical strategy for defending consensual modification medicine from bioconservative bigots. I think an uncompromising attack on eugenics is surely what is wanted. Whether in its 20C form as the bigoted authoritarian horror show of state-sanctioned coercive medical intervention in the name of "racial uplift" or in its 21C form as the bigoted bioconservative horror show of coercive deprivation of access to wanted life-saving and lifeway-promoting therapies in the name of "preserving the race" eugenics is a moralizing and anti-democratic travesty of healthcare.

You conclude by saying: "And what is it exactly that we are trying to accomplish vis-a-vis enhancement? It is the fostering of lives that can flourish, self-actualize, and meet their greatest potentials, while ensuring that they are free from as much suffering and undue constraints as is possible." I will admit I am quite skeptical about general pronouncements about fostering "lives that can flourish" because I think there are more ways of flourishing than are ever readily intelligible from any one parochial perspective (emphatically including my own). I worry enormously about the promulgation of healthcare standards that urge "intervention" not only to ensure people are free from suffering but, beyond that, foster "greatest potentials" and eliminate "undue constraints" to those potentials. I think individual consent, parental prerogative, and diversity as a public good all have to trump an activist interventionism inspired by visions of optimality, else it is too easy to drift, however well-intentioned one is, back into the defense of some pretty old fashioned 20C eugenicism. To admit to this worry is hardly the same thing as defending a regressive luddism or celebration of the status quo. Heck, I just think I am advocating consensual healthcare practices in a rhetoric that is already incredibly legible and widely affirmed in the relatively democratic North Atlantic societies where we both reside.

I think technoprogressive advocates of some genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive therapies are better served with a rhetoric of consensual modification over generalized "enhancement," a rhetoric emphasizing informed, nonduressed consent rather than fantasies of a regulatory consensus about "human optimality," and healthcare as prosthetic self-determination rather than eugenics in any construal.

I hope you read this in its intended spirit; that is to say, as an earnest contribution to an interesting conversation rather than an attack.

Infidel753 said...

Government suppression of eugenics raises the same issue as government suppression of any kind of transhuman enhancement: the governments of some countries will suppress it, while others will not. The former group will gradually become irrelevant to the future of human progress.

Imagine that some technique becomes available to increase the IQ of one's offspring by 50%. The government of Country A bans this technique, while the government of Country B allows its citizens free choice about whether to use it or not. Thirty years later, what will be the relative rate of scientific and technological progress in Country B vs. in Country A? Fifty years later, will Country A likely still have any global importance at all relative to Country B?

Within societies which allow their citizens free choice, the same principle applies between social/religious groups which renounce eugenic enhancement and those which embrace it.

In fact, I don't think eugenics will play much of a role in our future because it's too slow -- the effects take a generation to appear, while technological enhancement of existing adult brains would bring immediate benefit. Still, the same principle applies to any transhuman enhancement. Those who renounce important new technological advances are pretty much always left behind and marginalized by those who embrace them.

mtraven said...

Thanks for an excellent post and introducing a useful new (to me anyway) term.

One thing to note is that one form of noncoercive eugenics is widely practiced and is almost the norm, in the sense that prenatal testing for genetic defects followed by abortion if the test is negative. This is unquestionably eugenics, although it is not oriented towards improvement so much as avoiding defects. What's interesting is that this practice is so common, yet unremarked.

The bioconservatives (see here for example would like to link this with sex-selective abortion, but that of course is not eugenic in nature.

ReddyK said...

This relates to the quote of the week --
"Fiat Justicia, Ruat Coelumtet (let justice be done, though the heavens may fall)" - Lord Mansfield
-- I find no other place to comment on it: The quote shows a certain arrogance current in the "enlightened" mode of thinking, i.e., that man's morality is superior to that of the heavenly order. Rather, the opposite is true, that man is inconstant in the face of universal order, even if he cannot discern divinity, or the "need for God."

casey said...

Again, I'm struck with real-life synchronicities.

Just yesterday, I was engaged in a discussion with my wife about how the very concept of eugenics has been forever tainted by the misguided actions of 20th-century governments and medical institutions.

It's important that we factor in human suffering when we talk about biological modification. There is no doubt that those with genetic presdispositions to disease and infirmity suffer more than other individuals. Genetic barriers to the development of intelligence likewise limits the quality of life for many.

Is it not, then, an act of compassion to help create a suitable health and intellectual baseline for humanity?

I agree with Nato that improving existing biological systems may indeed be a fool's errand, especially if one gives heed to the kind of mechanical intelligence predicted by Singularians.

That said, there's already an 800 lb. (I'm a non-metric American) gorrilla sitting on our collective heads. If we can't calmly and willingly enter a public debate about genetic modification, we will, in the not-too-distant-future, be dragged kicking and screaming into what will no doubt become the most contentious issue of our century.

Look at the shitstorm surrounding stem-cell research, and multiply it by a few thousand.

The eugenics check is in the mail; we're just afraid to go to the mailbox. Because doing so would mean we'd have to confront a rather dark part of our history.

But humankind only learns from its mistakes. I obviously believe racially-based genetic assumptions to be one of them. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be pursuing ways to improve the our species' lot.

Problem is, governments are typically not the most responsible arbiters of scientific development.

Great post, BTW.

Stephen said...

George, your link for "human deevolution" was not what you were looking for.

Instead of a site by people who believe that humanity should devolve, this is a site for a book that argues that humans did devolve from spirit beings.

George said...

Whoops, thanks for letting me know.

Anonymous said...

Well, although I find your essay interesting on many points, I think there is another option. I don't understand enough about neugenics to be certain, but:

Isn't there a place for people who don't want deliberate modification, not because they want stasis, but because they think that change/progress will happen, on it's own. Perhaps similar to neugenics in that they believe that they themselves are not prepared to know what should be selected for?

Of course, that argument, like any, IMO, is flawed. An example is human vision, and what it has to deal with now, as compared to even 100 years ago.

It just seems like the debate is missing key players. This isn't a criticism of you, but a curiousity about the debate as a whole.

As usual, I have no idea where I stand. On a semi-concious level, I know that I select for traits I consider favorable. However, I'm also acutely aware that my family tree is a mess of unfavorable traits. And I can't help but feel offended when it's suggested that because of these traits, I don't reproduce. This isn't a hypothetical for me; it's been suggested in the past, either directly, or obliquely, in reference to people who carry these traits in general.

I'm also opposed to any sort of enforced mucking about, be it eugenic, dysgenic, or neugenic.

But, I digress. I guess my point is: Is there any term, or movement, which actively doesn't promote stasis, but instead promotes an attitude of hands-off progression? Or does it, by default, get lumped in with neugenics? Because, at least to me, the two views seem very different.

Perhaps because I've spent too much time in social forums with a maturity level of livejournal, I feel the need to point out that I'm not here to push buttons, but rather to get a greater understanding of the issue as a whole.