Last week I had a chat with a friend about the concept of eugenics, and it revealed just how much I have to learn. With some on the American Right (that’s you and your associates, Mr Beck) accusing the Obama plan of engaging in eugenics, and the comparison of Obama with Hitler being all over the Right-wing media and on not a few protest posters, I figured that the time was right to nail my colours to the mast, even at the risk of seeming simplistic.

I support certain forms of eugenics.

Allow me to be clear in what I mean, because a large amount of rubbish passes for eugenics. I’m not talking about banning or discouraging the reproduction of people with genetic weaknesses. I’m not talking about encouraging the procreation of those with inheritable ‘good’ traits. People should be permitted to have sex and reproduce as much as they wish, with no restrictions.

Yet as we improve our knowledge of genes and their interactions, and improve the technologies that permit the selection of certain characteristics, there is no reason why we could not begin to apply such knowledge to creating people who are super-intelligent, super-strong, likely to live a long time and so on. Such people would then be socialized in the usual way – by being born and being educated and so on.

The strangeness of the concept aside, it should tell us something that the debate about eugenics usually tends to come down to the same old battle lines. For example, libertarian transhumanists want to permit all sorts of cybernetic or genetic modification so long as it is guaranteed by the market. As a socialist, I’d prefer universal access to such self-enhancement treatments on a voluntary basis.

As befits our post-modern epoch, there are also those continually trying to use every new discovery to invalidate conceptions of the class structure of society. Thus with ‘biopolitics’, where sociologists like James Hughes seem to think that eugenics and similar modifications will tackle the root causes of inequalities of power. Perhaps someone should introduce Professor Hughes to Messrs Mouffe and Laclau.

I think my argument, basic though it is, ultimately comes down to this: humanity has been editing its own genes and its own abilities since we came to be. Agriculture, something we accept daily without thinking, changed the human species irrevocably, but yet it was not ‘natural’ – we adapted nature ourselves. The nature eugenics promises to adapt is merely inside ourselves – and I don’t see much principled difference.

With any advance, there is always the question of who will get to use it and how. That is true of everything from the first productive surplus, back in the mists of time, to the extreme heights of what we can do today. So this new battleground of the same old ideologies merely gives us one more thing to attack the capitalist markets for (potentially) confining to a small minority, the already-wealthy.

Here the power of eugenics or cybernetics meets its natural limit; it cannot do more than capitalism can do. Inequality may be widened still further by its deployment, much in the same way that without redistributive measures such as our national health service, inequality would be wider than it is. But the inequality would progress along the same lines as any other, as far as I can see.

The potential for breeding a slave race of exceptionally strong but intellectually limited humans (or some other variation) is not really a viable one, I would suggest, on same basis which caused the latifundia to fail; limited productivity and the need for constant central stimulation, rather than the dynamic system of capitalism where the hegemonic ideology potentially turns every individual into their own productivity manager.

We can change that, and consciously put ourselves in control of the process, only by overthrowing capitalism. A eugenics option on the NHS would count as a redistributive measure, if the reality of genetic engineering arrives, and we should support it – but we should support it while pointing out that our society will continue to produce inequalities, and that in any case, redistributive measures are often repealed.

So things come down, once again, to class struggle, which cannot be superseded by the ‘radical democracy’ which Professor Hughes implies.

Power is not just unequally distributed because of our uneven biological development and cannot be correctly distributed by tampering with that development – in this regard Hughes ‘biopolitics’ has become another form of identity politics which fails to challenge the core issue. The condition of the human race is sustained by the means whereby we reproduce and perpetuate our social organisation; our means of production, the private ownership of capital and all the hegemonic tools which flow from these.

  1. October 28, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    I’m a bit confused here – what are you actually defining eugenics as, and can you give some practical examples of how engaging in it is good?

    I’m not sure if you’re talking about GM crops, or altering babies to turn them into automatons.

  2. October 28, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    I thought that was fairly clear from the third substantive paragraph?

    Altering genetics prior to embryo implantation is one way – and as for how it is ‘good’, is being more intelligent, stronger and healthier not a good thing?

  3. October 28, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    It’s not clear exactly what you mean to someone – like myself – who doesn’t have a first-hand knowledge of the science involved.

    And no, I’m not sure that being “more intelligent, stronger and healthier” is a good thing necessarily. Variation is good. I’m also unsure what pressure we’d be putting on parents by going with this approach (after all, who wants their child to be the weakest kid in their class).

    Surely it’s better to change society so everyone is valued and we find ways in which everyone’s talents can be recognised to allow them to contribute?

  4. October 28, 2009 at 4:00 pm

    Genetic variation, and selecting for certain characteristics need not be any more or any less mutually exclusive than they are currently – or so I understand.

    With regard to pressure on parents, if we create a society in which all abilities and ranges of abilities are valued, then who the weakest in the class is won’t matter – but again, I don’t see such a society as mutually exclusive to one in which we are permitted to adapt our own bodies, either at a genetic level or cybernetically.

    I’m confused as to why you seem to set these things in opposition; we can have both.

  5. October 28, 2009 at 4:06 pm

    There will always be big questions about what constitutes ‘improvement’. What if we have parents with severe non-hereditary disabilities who seek to choose them to continue in their children via eugenics? What about those who would choose to radically alter the human form? Or guarantee some sort of personal self-destruct mechanism to avoid becoming old?

    And who gets to decide what people are allowed to do, how this balances against financial cost etc…?

    Seems to me that we’re talking Brave New World here…

  6. October 28, 2009 at 4:15 pm

    Tom, are you taking the piss? First of all, what people are allowed to do would naturally be socially moderated – as with anything. But the idea of a parent willingly choosing to force their children to live a disabled life is laughable.

    As for the rest, why shouldn’t we radically alter the human form? If someone wants a self-destruct mechanism (watching too much House MD are we?) then why the hell not? With regard to how all of this balances against financial costs, none of it would be possible under a system which relied upon the market – but we have other mechanisms.

  7. Alderson Warm-Fork
    October 28, 2009 at 7:43 pm

    In full agreement here I think. The word ‘eugenics’ is unfortunate, it’s got horrible connotations, and ‘deservedly’ so (in that the great majority of the history of eugenics, as far as I know, is bound up with racial, authoritarian, etc. ideas).

    but, to answer Tim’s question, the term’s definition, ‘deliberate efforts to improve the genetic condition of future human generations’ is so broad that it covers any method of using these kinds of technologies. In essence it’s a word defined so as to cut across ideologies, but that’s heard as ideological.

    “I’m not sure that being “more intelligent, stronger and healthier” is a good thing necessarily. Variation is good.”

    More intelligent people are not more homogenous than the general population, surely? Having people with more creativity, capacity for critical thought, capacity for technological innovation, etc. is hardly a recipe for monotonous uniformity.

    Similarly, stronger people have a greater range of physical possibilities for, I dunno, athletic innovation, whatever that would involve. Climbing skyscrapers, dancing upside down supported only by their fingers, etc.

    As for health, of course it’s true that, by definition, health is a concept that makes people less variable – but do you really value the ‘variation’ between people with functioning kidneys and people without, between people with legs but no hands and people with hands but no legs? In short, isn’t calling ill health and sickness ‘variation’ a complete misuse of the term?

    Of course the term is often misused in the converse way – classifying actual variation as sickness (homosexuality, Asperger’s syndrome, etc). But there you have to choose: if it’s good variation, then it’s not sickness, and if it’s sickness then it’s not good.

    The issue of variation vs. uniformity is, just like Dave showed for the issue of inequality, an ideological one, not one intrinsic to the use of any technology.

  8. Robert
    October 29, 2009 at 9:51 am

    But you will need to keep some thicks to clean up the mess from the highly intelligent

  9. October 29, 2009 at 10:17 am

    Enlightened as ever, Robert.

  10. October 31, 2009 at 6:52 pm

    Tbh I’ve never really been able to work out what the fuss is about. There’s no logical ethics dividing line between what we refer to as eugenics and, for example, Parkinson’s disease treatments which alter the functioning of the brain, or even more straightforwardly, mind-changing/enhancing(?) drugs. Even scientifically developed enhachements in nutrition can count as a form of eugenics.

    The issue is not the science, but who has power over the scentific outcome.

  11. October 31, 2009 at 9:14 pm

    I agree. Just on the subject of eugenics, a funny story from the Kos today:!

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