January 2, 2007

Science Makes Babes of Us All

Justin Katz

The wonders that modern science is promising in the very near future (really, so near we can touch it, honest) seem so bright that they impart such sparkling innocence that even constitutional pessimists fail to see obvious dark sides. One such, John Derbyshire, writes:

If you don't like eugenics, you are not going to like the 21st century. "Eugenics" became a scare-word because of ***STATE-SPONSORED*** eugenics programs, which were indeed a horrible idea—especially in the 1920s, when promoters of eugenics had very little idea what (as a matter of technical biology, I mean) they were talking about. State-organized anything is pretty dubious. We're conservatives; we know that.

Private, commercial eugenics is here, though. It already has a foot in the door, & pretty soon it'll be sprawled on your living-room couch. My children (probably) and my grandchildren (certainly) will practice eugenics. Why would they not? The desire to have smart, healthy, good-looking offspring is wellnigh universal. If parents can get assurance of such an outcome for a few thousand bucks, why should they not purchase that assurance? In a free country, how will you stop them? And why would conservatives or libertarians want to stop them? "Eugenics" has become such a scare-word that we'll probably have to re-name the process to avoid all the shrieking and skirt-clutching; but it will be eugenics just the same.

Just how long does Mr. Derbyshire believe we'll be able to deny a state-sponsored "right to eugenics" for those who cannot afford a few thousand bucks? (Per child, remember. The picture is compounded by the tendency of such folks to have more children.) Surely even small-government conservatives (if I may indulge in a redundancy) would have reservations about allowing the free market to create a permanent underclass — one with fruits borne within a single short generation.

I've little doubt that Derb is correct that I'm not going to like the 21st century. It does not make for an auspicious beginning that high-profile conservatives have so abandoned the notion of a higher morality that they cannot believe otherwise than that "objections [to eugenics are] so abstract & theoretical [that] it would be hard to get anyone to care about them." Gone, apparently, is the societal stigma against attempting to play God. We're so advanced, nowadays, that we're well beyond such ancient precautions. Really, we'll get it right this time — when the stakes are such that we cannot afford to get it wrong. Honest.

Big, big oops: in the brackets of that last Derbyshire quotation, I at first used "euthanasia" rather than "eugenics." That was some very substantial and stupid mistyping on my part, and I apologize for having made the error, not the least because it distracts from what I believe to be a strong point. I can only plea for your belief that simple intellectual honesty and a sincere interest in truth, rather than victory, keep me from playing deliberate games of that sort. I suppose the best I can do, after owning up to the mistake, is to take it as reminder that I have to be particularly careful now that I've gotten in the habit of finishing up my customary 12-hour workday before blogging.

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Gone, apparently, is the societal stigma against attempting to play God. We're so advanced, nowadays, that we're well beyond such ancient precautions.

Do you offer the same admonition to the people who choose their mates on the basis of intelligence, height, temperament, attractiveness, and absence of heritable handicaps, all of which are traits with strong genetic components?

Similarly, do you admonish parents who invest in music lessons, private schools, tutoring, and sports lessons in order to provide their children with better opportunity and an enriched experience?

If a soccer mom wishes to give her unborn child a mild IQ boost and this enriches the child's life to the same degree that private schooling would have in its stead, then why are you making a distinction between two viable alternatives that parents could use to ease the path for their children?

Posted by: TangoMan at January 2, 2007 11:00 PM

I might offer just such an admonition, TangoMan, if your first group were choosing mates purely on those grounds, without considering emotional connection, moral compatibility, and an intention to mate for life. Even apart from that, I suspect more people than might initially appear likely would recoil from those who ditched spouses upon discovering some genetic quirk. Similarly to reordering unborn children who aren't adequate to the parents' specifications.

At any rate, I think the gulf rather obvious between exposing one's children to a variety of self-improving activities and attempting to predesign the very nature with which those children will be born into the world.

As to your final question, as a proponent of school choice, I can only turn the question back around to you: do you not find more peril of and in public involvement in enabling parents to custom-build their children?

Posted by: Justin Katz at January 2, 2007 11:16 PM


You're not understanding, apparently, what Katz is really writing about.

He's objecting to the new Eugenics as paving the way to the Old Eugenics. There are a number of books that have dealt with this subject (though not nearly enough).

Giving piano lessons and extra tutoring to one's children, or choosing a mate based upon looks or intelligence is a far cry from using science, as it was used in the past, to forcibly sterilize "imbeciles" (because as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. stated, and from the US Supreme Court Bench, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough.") against their will.

The strong connections with the modern euthanasia movement and abortion-on-demand are all there to see, if anyone has eyes to see.

The fact that Derb, and other people (not just conservatives, it would seem to me, though they seem to be the only ones raising anything like a stink, modern liberals being so very, eerily....silent) cannot even muster enough moral outrage about private eugenics, not to mention the public kind coming, is telling.

That's what Katz is writing about.

Posted by: Conservative at January 2, 2007 11:21 PM

I consider argument on this issue to be trivial and irrelevant.

Educated, intelligent people who have kids consider kids to be an investment in the future. People make investments with the expectation that there will be an "ROI" in one form or another. This sentiment is a sub-set of the more generalized socio-biological instinct to have "good" offspring. This is the coming reality. Get used to it.

Fussing and getting hung up about it is not going to make any difference. So, there is no use in doing such.

Any kind of socialized medicine will simply accelerate these trends. Socialization of medicine simply means that the tax payer must foot the bill for other people's kids. Once you make the tax payer accountable for the wellbeing of other peoples' kids, the said tax payers are going to insist (demand, actually) that only "fit, healthy" kids be born (as a tax payer, I know I would).

I think the people who have qualms about this kind of technology should consider not having kids at all.

Posted by: Kurt9 at January 3, 2007 12:00 AM


if your first group were choosing mates purely on those grounds, without considering emotional connection, moral compatibility, and an intention to mate for life.

How are you modeling the fact that we all choose our mates through progressive filters? Consider that some people use attractiveness while others use educational level as a first cut before they get to know the other qualities of the person that may one day become their mate. We don't see too many female lawyers marrying male meatpacking workers despite the fact that many such men may have admirable qualities which are an excellent match for these women. Socioeconomic status, is in the above case, used as a first cut criterion, without any consideration given to the men's other fine qualities.

Many of these first cut qualities have strong genetic components, so when a man judges a woman he meets on the basis of her appearance, he's in large part judging her on the basis of her genetic heritage. If she passes the first cut then he discovers more details about her.

So, yes, people are making judgements on these grounds. The people we mate with are not just randomly drawn from the pool of humanity. There is in fact a very strong assortive mating process at work.

I suspect more people than might initially appear likely would recoil from those who ditched spouses upon discovering some genetic quirk.

This is dependent on how far into a relationship this revelation occurs. The height, attractiveness, intelligence, etc of mates is not usually something that is hidden for months or years while emotional ties between the couple are developing.

At any rate, I think the gulf rather obvious between exposing one's children to a variety of self-improving activities and attempting to predesign the very nature with which those children will be born into the world.

I gathered that you thought the gulf was obvious, but it's certainly not to me. If I can spend $5,000 on a little genetic manipulation in a Pre-Implantation Genetic Diagnosis procedure which will increase my child's potential intelligence, musicality, height, attractiveness, or lower their predisposition to inherited disease, and thereby improve their lives to the same degree, or even greater, that is seen with environmental remediation tactics then by all means I'll elect the former option rather than the latter.

do you not find more peril of and in public involvement in enabling parents to custom-build their children?

Parents are already custom-building their children by exercising discretion in mate selection. Mate selection is not a random event.


The implicit assumption in your response, at least from my reading, is that their is an inevitable course that eugenics must follow, that is it must always culminate in state-directed, negative eugenics, by which I mean that the state will use its coercive power to take away rights and liberties.

Positive eugenics is the embodiment of decentralized decision making with parents choosing whether to engage the process and determining the degree and scope of the procedure.

As a society, we've moved away from arranged marriages towards a very decentralized, couple-centric, perspective, and I have a hard time believing that procreation decisions will be permitted to be centralized within the hands of some bureaucracy intent on depriving people of rights.

Posted by: TangoMan at January 3, 2007 12:03 AM

Precisely, "Conservative." I thought it best not to meander too far toward speculation in the main body of the post, but I'd expand on it (and on your comment) by providing another step or two in a potential, and invidious, intellectual sequence.

One can easily imagine the argument being made that those unable to afford, or comprehend the benefit of, eugenic technology are precisely those whose children require it most — and with respect to whose children society would benefit from it most.

I don't use "underclass" as a marker of moral stain on a society (as do liberals) but as an actual and threatening category within that society. We would have a moral responsibility to help those whose families are under threat of perpetual deficiency, but there would also be a strong public interest case to be made.

And once the public interest is ceded in such a matter, once we're claiming to be so confident in our knowledge of the qualities that particular children ought to possess that we're willing to define them in those terms, then we've opened the door to further micromanaging. And thereafter, it's easy to imagine frightening results, indeed.

Posted by: Justin Katz at January 3, 2007 12:05 AM

It should be noted that the term "Eugenics" covers a tremendously broad range of options.

If a woman seeks out genius sperm from a sperm bank, that's eugenics. If the same woman goes to physicist parties in hopes of having a 1-night stand with a genius and getting pregnant, that's also eugenics. If a woman chooses only to date/marry highly successful men, that's also arguably eugenics. If a successful man chooses only to date women he considers highly attractive (and he intends to marry and have children eventually), that's eugenics. Of course, there are non-genetic components to becoming highly successful/a genius/looking good/etc., but as long as you believe genetics play a huge role, then you'll see such actions as eugenics, even if the actors don't see it that way)

Eugenics has meant all sorts of things, from trying to get better DNA by selective breeding, to trying to exterminate some group. It could be eugenics whether that group is viewed as superior /inferior/no different and whether or not that group in reality possesses advantages (like targeting high IQ people for death), disadvantages (targeting dumb people), or is not really different (black hair vs. blonde)

Eugenics is also tied up very closely to the abortion issue (because how else can you prevent a child from being born with certain genes? often abortion is the only way). An increasing number of women will have abortions for eugenics reasons.

But what's the alternative to leaving it legal? Are we going to spring the Abortion Police on the American public to make sure women are acting on pure motives when they go to have an abortion?

I think it will be positive for us if as a society we start having more genius children.

Posted by: Daryl Herbert at January 3, 2007 2:24 AM

It is astonishing that mate selection should be argued as indistinguishable from deliberate eugenics of the type that we all know to be discussing, here. In terms of playing God, processes of attraction, being natural, cannot be such because they are, themselves God-created. (Of course, this line of argument can progress indefinitely, but suffice to say that there's a line to be crossed.)

As I said above, it would be objectionable if a person were to select a mate clinically for those reasons, as if to say, "I would not love you if you were not so handsome." In other words, if the person were treating others as means to be manipulated toward their own ends and desires. Just so with manipulating one's own children.

God help the parent who pays $5,000 for a perfectly perfect child and then discovers that something has gone wrong — or that the Jones's $8,000 child is gets that extra A and that additional homerun.

Posted by: Justin Katz at January 3, 2007 6:26 AM

First, it should be noted, Derbyshire is inarguably correct. Even should a nation be so foolish as to put laws in place to outlaw the practice of parents taking steps to make their children smarter, faster, stronger and be less prone to disease and mental illness other nations will welcome the practice. In an age of common place jet travel making something legal in one nation is the same as making it legal in all nations -- for rich people.

Do you worry about having a permanent underclass? Have rich Americans travel to South Korea to turbo charge their children while poor people are stuck with having regular kids is one way to guarantee it.

I understand that the concept of Eugenics is frightening. But what we are talking about today has little to do with the Eugenics of yesteryear. We are not discussing sterilizing people with mental retardation or not allowing "lesser races" the right of reproduction. We are looking at a future where parents can jigger the genes of their offspring.

Such a future is inevitable and, especially at first, fraught with unintended consequences. How many of the brightest people on the planet live on the edge of madness? It is common enough to be a stereotype: the mad scientist, the suicidal painter, the alcoholic writer. It is entirely likely that we will find out that genes that provide for high IQ are often associated with mental illness. In fact, we are likely to find out all sorts of things the hard way.

That being said, haven't you ever met someone who seemed blessed by the fates? Healthy, smart, good looking, outgoing, happy and filled with motivation. Such people do exist, rare as they are, as though they hit the genetic jackpot. I have no doubt that science will find a way to group them up and compare their genes to the rest of us mere mortals. The results will be illuminating and they will be the template that future parents will use to model their own children.

Posted by: Gerald Hibbs at January 3, 2007 7:48 AM

So let's imagine that we take the genetic manipulation as far as it can go. Humanity will be a super-race of good looking, athletic Einsteins. (That is supposing that everyone eventually gets there and there is no ugly, intellectually deficient underclass.) Then what? (Despite my reluctance to engage in slippery slopism, here goes.)

The same urge that pushes humans to want to be better--particularly better than other humans, incidentally--can also push them from being "merely" superhuman and into being "super other." What happens when we create our brave new world and some of us start contemplating paying a visit to Dr. Moreau? But I'm sure that's a line that would never be crossed, right? Certainly not in the U.S. Maybe Korea, but never the U.S....

Posted by: Marc Comtois at January 3, 2007 9:13 AM

One other thing. Mr. Derbyshire's POV is premised on the fact that such pre-natal engineering will be "harmless". How do we get to that point? How do we determine what is harmless? Who wants to sign up to have their little ones as part of the first "Gene-rigged Generation"? What if the boys of the GrG, at the age of 13 (when they hit puberty), start to spontaneously combust because their "perfect" genetic makeup couldn't deal with the rush of testosterone. Admittedly, far-fetched, but how do we know what will happen? Is gene manipulation really side-effect free?

Posted by: Marc Comtois at January 3, 2007 9:23 AM

Marc Comtois,

I would guess it would similar to how major drugs are introduced. Initial tests on animals, than very small and limited clinical trials. The bugs will get sorted out eventually.

Posted by: NM at January 3, 2007 11:27 AM

This whole discussion is interesting in that it only touches on genetic manipulation of yet unborn children. What about genetic manipulation of adults? Gene therapies already exist today and will only expand.

Don't like the color of your eyes? Take this pill for two weeks and within seven weeks your eyes will be the color you selected.

Don't like that you're fat? Yeah, we've got a pill to genetically manipulate that, too.

Should these be illegal? I would think no.

And then there's cybernetics. Once the stuff of science fiction, we're already curing deafness with technology and blindness is close behind. What if, sometime in the future, I decide I want a cybernetic eye with zoom and video capabilities? Or maybe have my Blackberry implanted? Should I not be able to have these things?

Posted by: Greg at January 3, 2007 11:46 AM

"Eugenics" breaks down into two parts:

First, modern medical advances are making it increasingly possible for people with harmful mutations to survive and pass on these mutations to their offspring. The result, due to simple random mutations, is that eventually nearly all of us will require medical care for much (perhaps all) of our lives. As Nicholas Wade pointed out in "Before the Dawn," nearly 40% of our genes for scent have been rendered usless, simply because we don't need them to survive.

Eventually it will become necessary - even preferable - to cure this problem using genetic engineering techniques. Fix the problem at the DNA level before birth and you can avoid a lifetime of expensive/annoying medical care for all of us.

The second aspect is cosmetic. This is the "I want my kid to have this gene so he can be smarter than me" part. The question is to ask how far should this go. How far would you even want it to go? I am neither a great athlete nor a great genius. If, by altering just one or two genes I could make my children both, I would gladly do so. But what if it's not just one or two genes? What if it's 30 or 40? Or 1000? At that point, it would seem, I am hardly passing on my DNA at all. And isn't that the whole point of the reproductive game: to pass on your genes? Essentially, many of us would end up raising someone else's children.

And how do we know that the genes we are leaving behind, the ones that make us "stupid" in one context, won't be our salvation in another? Evolution is a funny thing. Homo erectus left Africa and conquered the world. So who won the human gene pool game? The boneheads who stayed behind in Africa, who eventually displaced them.

Just some food for thought.

Posted by: Craig at January 3, 2007 1:53 PM

Craig - While it's true that what makes for success in one environment doesn't necessarily make for success in another, as the Homo Erectus example shows, it doesn't follow that what is disadvantageous in one environment will be necessary in the future.

While the concern that the genes that we make less frequent will turn out to be necessary at some point in the future is legitimate, it's just as legitimate (if not more so) to suppose that the genes that we're making more common (increased intelligence, athleticism, etc) will turn out to be necessary at some point in the future. All else being equal, surely something that's better now is more likely to be better in the future than something that's worse now.

The question of whose children we're really raising is interesting. Adoption is more common now than it used to be, though, and that's unequivocally raising someone else's child. A great many people wouldn't mind at all. Those that do, of course, will presumably have the option of either not having children or not taking advantage of the treatment (and, if we guard against state-sponsored mandatory eugenics, we can ensure that this is the case).

Posted by: Myself at January 3, 2007 5:31 PM