Eugenics Debate

There has been a ton of talk in recent days about eugenics, stemming from a Richard Dawkins tweet in which he said that ‘eugenics works,’ but also added the caveat that he still opposes it for humans even though eugenics is used to select for certain traits in regard to animal breeding, for example. This disclaimer was not enough to stave off critics from the left who interpreted it as an endorsement of eugenics on humans, and the tweet has made news everywhere and has been picked by major YouTube channels, Reddit, blogs, and forums, until finally being overshadowed by the recent 2020 democratic debate. I knew Richard Dawkins was popular but I didn’t realize he is so popular that his tweets can create a news cycle. He is possibly the most influential public intellectual alive, more so than Jordan Peterson or Sam Harris.

Although I agree with Dawkins, I have also seen some of his supporters and detractors misapply the eugenics label to things that may not be actually eugenics, but something else. Eugenics is a difficult word to define as there is no universally accepted definition of it. But in the historical context of how it has been defined and applied, it generally means “promoting or demoting certain hereditary traits by controlling reproduction.” The emphasis here should be on ‘controlling reproduction.’ This is typically by a government or entity that caries out a eugenics program. It’s not so much applicable at an individual level.

Eugenics is not assortative mating or sexual preferences (such as women preferring taller or more handsome men). It’s also confused with prenatal screening and embryo selection. Although this can be considered a form of eugenics, not all screening is eugenics. Screening for Down’s Syndrome is not eugenics, because Trisomy 21 is not inherited but rather arises spontaneously due to a mutations. Affected individuals are also sterile, which means their genes cannot be passed on anyway. The same goes for many other rare disorders, such as Tay-Sachs disease, which is lethal before well-before adulthood, hence preventing affected individuals from ever passing on their genes. Hence, the problem fixes itself due to such individuals either being sterile or dying young, without the need for eugenics. Preventing such pregnancies would fall under merely genetic screening, which is not that controversial, not eugenics.

It does however become eugenics when one screens for traits that are undesirable yet do not preclude the possibly of reproduction and hence can be propagated, such as screening for low IQ. Discarding embryos that contain and prenatal screening for low-IQ genes, may be considered eugenics. Sterilization of low IQ individuals is classic eugenics, because it is directly controls reproduction. Elective abortion is possible another, as less intelligent , poorer women are more likely to have unwanted/unplanned pregnancies, so this can be considered a form of negative eugenics. The government giving financial incentives for high IQ couples to procreate, could be considered a form of positive eugenics. Making welfare contingent on birth control, which is policy I support, is another form of eugenics. Eugenics as it has classically been applied, such as sterilization or abortion, is crude compared to modern alternatives afforded by genomic screening. It’s possible that the genes for IQ will eventually be fully determined, and this will mean that prenatal screening can be used to raise national IQ by discarding low IQ embryos, which bypasses the issue of restricting reproductive rights.