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Evolution’s winner. Real headline.

In the mid-2000s two British biologists of some public note attempted to revive or resuscitate the good name of eugenics, Richard Dawkins and Armand Leroi. My own suspicion is that this emerges in part from a implicit cultural history in the British Isles in regards to eugenics: in those nations,* unlike in the USA or Germany, eugenics was generally conceived of in the positive rather than negative sense. By this, I mean that a disproportionate amount of thought was given to the procreation of the favored, rather than coercive restriction of the unfit. This is exemplified by R. A. Fisher, the co-founder of both evolutionary genetics and statistics, who worried about the high mortality rate of the British elite during World War I. Fisher himself went on to have eight children, a situation which occasionally left him in financial distress, as would be predicted from standard Malthusian assumptions (see R.A. Fisher: The Life of a Scientist).

But despite the best efforts of Dawkins & Leroi, eugenics is still a swear word. For example, a few months ago Chris Mooney was accused of being a eugenicist because of the nature of his arguments in The Republican Brain. Of course there’s a difference between the word, and the reality. Idiocracy had an implicitly eugenical moral. And there are dating sites like Good Genes:

Our mission is to help Ivy Leaguers and similarly well-educated graduates and faculty find others with matching credentials. We introduce people who enjoy sharing thoughts, opinions and quality time.

Apparently good genes do not entail web design skills which post-date 1997. In any case, “good genes” has been obviated by the emergence of social networks, where people can sort and segregate to their hearts’ delight. And of course there is a copious social science on the strong racial and ethnic preferences of people dating. In particular, this preference seems to be much stronger in females, as one would predict from behavioral ecology (i.e., women are looking for “good genes” because they have a smaller number of potential reproductive opportunities).

Finally, there’s the famous statistic that 90 percent of couples who receive a positive test for Down Syndrome choose to terminate the pregnancy. That is, they request the doctors kill the fetus. This datum is at the heart of a recent Ross Douthat column, Eugenics, Past and Future. I appreciate Ross’ take though I disagree on the details and normative implications. He at least attempts not to be trite or trivialize the matter. Many conservative critics of eugenics are more interested in using the term as a cudgel against liberals, while liberals abhor eugenics the term, but dismiss the eugenical implications of individual freedoms which they defend (the abortion & crime argument being an exception). Douthat is clearly against eugenics, but he draws up real statistics and cutting edge science which attests to its reality in our time.

In particular he is putting the focus on non-invasive forms of prenatal testing. I do think that he overestimates the power of individual prediction broadly in the near term (and possibly the long term). Though there are many traits, like height, which are highly heritable, they’re so genomically diffuse that you have to screen from a wide range of embryos before you pick the “right” one. And that assumes you can adduce a good correlation between genotype and phenotype. But, there will be some immediate yield when it comes to large effect genetic abnormalities.

We can have theoretical discussions about genetics and ethics, but the real phenomenon which aggravates me about people who act Very Serious is that this is a domain which manifests not through discussion, but action. If you read the articles about “test tube babies” from the 1970s you notice how frightened everyone was, and contrast it with the banality of in vitro fertilization now. The past is not always prologue to the present, but if we have such high abortion rates of fetuses with Down Syndrome via amniocentesis and CVS, it is totally reasonable to assume that the rates will increase even higher with widespread and nearly obligate screening.

I’m not a pro-choice absolutist. In fact, I don’t even believe in rights, as such. I’m generally predisposed toward stronger restrictions on post-1st trimester abortions on the grounds which pro-life people would recognize. But, I also think we do need to open the possibility toward restrictions on 1st trimester abortions in some circumstances if feasible, because I do not believe children are a parental consumption good. In other words, becoming a parent is not an increment of individual utility in toto. The child is going to be a member of a community, to which they will have responsibilities, and from whom they will derive benefits.**

We did choose to go through CVS testing when my daughter was in utero. And I plan to have some form of non-invasive screening performed for our next child. That’s a personal choice. When I explain my rationale to people often I get standard-issue ignorant repugnance. My main annoyance is that it’s an unthinking reflex in a world already saturated with artifice. We need to have a serious conversation about the limits of individual self-actualization when it comes to the potential lives of other human beings who are integral elements of society. But, in the interests of candid realism I am very uninterested in the stories of people like George F. Will (who is, by the way, an agnostic) about the value of their Down Syndrome son. George F. Will is a man of means. I’d like to see how a struggling lower middle class family manages. There are many more of them. This is a frankly base consideration, but such are the things which constitute a life lived in the real world.

* Britain is home to three nations, England, Scotland, and Wales.

** My concern about sex-selective abortion is as much a consideration of a well balance society as it is about sex-bias.

• Category: Science • Tags: Bioethics, Down Syndrome, Personal Genomics, Testing 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"