Monday, August 13, 2007

The state of eugenics in the 21st century

On a recent post I criticized Dr. Alexis Carrell, Nobel laureate, for having supported eugenic theories. Bayman quickly pointed out that his views were shared by many at the time. In fact he's not even the only Nobel laureate to come out in support of eugenics, Dr. William Shockley (picture), inventor of the transistor was a staunch supporter. The difference is that Shockley was gravely criticized for his views that became more and more extreme with age. I'd be willing to speculate, that the support for eugenics changed dramatically between the lifetime of those two figures because of the Second World War. The gut reaction I have when I think of eugenics, is a strong sense of disgust, perhaps because of all the abuses that the nazi were responsible for. But is eugenics dead in our society? First let us define it: according to wikipedia

" Eugenics is a social philosophy which advocates the improvement of human hereditary traits through various forms of intervention.[1] The goals of various groups advocating eugenics have been to create healthier, more intelligent people, to save society's resources, and lessen human suffering."

Surely one cannot find opposition to the goals, but rather to the methods. The methods have much to do with controlling reproduction. Controlling reproduction, is not a new thing, the egyptians supposedly already had an herbal equivalent to the pill, but new technologies have recently brought an unprecedented degree of control, with pills, condoms, IUD, prenatal diagnosis. In fact human sexual reproduction is inherently eugenic. We have the ability to see beyond the mate to base our reproductive decisions. We now know that diseases have large genetic components, and we can choose to not reproduce based on the familial history, or even change mates accordingly. Where it gets uneasy is when the state comes in and imposes rules on your reproduction. The "one baby" policy of China for example is modern eugenics. And don't be fooled, other countries have reproductive policies, they are just not as visible as China's. Every country has a vested interest in maintaining an active working population while balancing it with ressources. Some eugenic policies may promote child birth, and catholics for example were very active in my home province of Quebec, promoting reproduction and denouncing birth control. They went so far as to tell my grandfather his duty as a good catholic was to make sure not to waste a drop of semen, giving rise to families that could easily constitute an entire hockey team. And why not? It was a very successful meme for catholicism, since all those children were raised catholic, thus helping in perpetuating the meme. The rest of Canada is not without its own dirty history either, in Alberta until 1945, the Alberta Eugenics board was sterilizing people under a certain IQ cutoff because they were mentally deficient, and most of them were immigrants that had a poor understanding of the English language.

Liberal reprogeneticist (modern day eugenics) argue that non-mandatory eugenics has a place in the management of the human race. That prenatal screening for hereditary diseases and the so called "designer babies" are good for humans as a whole as long as it is elective. Being myself atheist and pro-choice, I find it hard to detect any scientific opposition to such practises. Obviously "dysgenics", or the progressive dumbing down of humans is a ridiculous assertion. But the screening for crippling diseases doesn't seem to have many drawbacks, other than reducing genetic diversity. You never know when a "disease" might be the next cure to save humanity, like sickle cell anemia and malaria. But like James Watson put it "if we don't play god, who will?".


Bayman said...

Nice post and excellent points. I tend to agree in principle with the Liberal geneticists view point - if we have the technology to avert "genetically-encoded" suffering (if there is indeed such a thing) individuals and parents should have the right to decide whether and how they use it. The more genetic information becomes available, the more this is becoming a huge issue for people. What do you if you carry gene that will torture, maim or kill your unborn child? We don't know what all the answers will be, so we have to let people make choices freely and do the best we can.

Fortunately, in this day and age, I don't think state intervention and control of reproduction is the most immediate concern in the West. Even in amnesiac North American society, we remember the consequences of Nazi eugenics and know how to recognize it when we see it.

I think the challenge our generation will face is avoiding corporation-directed eugenics. Control of technology today lies solely in the hands of large multinational corporations who want to sell whatever they can and do not answer to the common good. They will not be able to impose their will physically, as did the Nazis, but propaganda, brainwashing and misinformation are and will be the tools corporations use to control reproduction if it helps them sell products.

It's starting to happen already - look at a press release or a commercial for birth control pills or the new (and totally unproven) HPV vaccine (Gardasil) to see how companies are twisting and contorting reality to sell products. Viewers are programmed to make reproductive and health decisions based on emotion rather than thought and accurate information. And with these products, the consequences of naive behavior bear not just on whose dish detergent you're buying, but reproduction, the most important of human faculties.

People need protection - not from themselves and their own decisions, but from the corporate agenda. Regulation of advertising would be a start, especially in the area of reproductive medicine but also in others - Big Mac ads have a pretty big impact on human health as well. In particular specific marketing tactics such as the use of propaganda and misinformation (actually passed on to corporate America by Fascist innovators) should be illegal. We seem to have figured out that genocide is not acceptable, but somehow the use of video communications technology to brainwash citizens is still OK?

Of course no sign that the current Canadian Conservative government will stand up for its citizens. They've already committed hundreds of millions to Merck-Frosst for their totally unproven HPV vaccine. Kind of like buying a train system for public transit when you know there's a good chance the engines won't work...