Eugenics and the artifice of man

Replying to an interesting comment on my previous post, I thought it deserved a post of its own.

Briefly, in keeping with the ethical principles referred to in the earlier post, I do not assent to the destruction of human embryos because this would be inconsistent with respect for human life per se. I realise that many people prefer to respect persons rather than human beings, but in my opinion such a position tends to err on the side of a narrower range of respect, and, more simply, does not reflect my experience with human beings who would not meet the criteria of personhood.

Aside from that, I am not opposed in principle to the improved condition of the human race, but I am wary of overly contrived attempts to do so. I don’t have great confidence in society, less so in government or business; who would we depend on to determine the most favourable direction of human improvement and to execute it?

Ultimately, I think I am a mystic (albeit a poor one) and I regard our deepest faults and failings as spiritual ones. I do not believe we can remedy these faults with any technology, and I suspect our faults would lead us to abuse whatever technology we might employ in our attempts to manipulate our descendents.

C.S. Lewis put it quite well in his short dystopian text The Abolition of Man:

“For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please. In all ages, no doubt, nurture and instruction have, in some sense, attempted to exercise this power. But the situation to which we must look forward will be novel in two respects. In the first place, the power will be enormously increased. Hitherto the plans of educationalists have achieved very little of what they attempted…But the man-moulders of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible scientific technique: we shall get at last a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please.

The second difference is even more important. In the older systems both the kind of man the teachers wished to produce and their motives for producing him were prescribed by the Tao — a norm to which the teachers themselves were subject and from which they claimed no liberty to depart. They did not cut men to some pattern they had chosen. They handed on what they had received: they initiated the young neophyte into the mystery of humanity which over-arched him and them alike. It was but old birds teaching young birds to fly. This will be changed.

Values are now mere natural phenomena. Judgements of value are to be produced in the pupil as part of the conditioning. Whatever Tao there is will be the product, not the motive, of education. The conditioners have been emancipated from all that. It is one more part of Nature which they have conquered. The ultimate springs of human action are no longer, for them, something given. They have surrendered — like electricity: it is the function of the Conditioners to control, not to obey them. They know how to produce conscience and decide what kind of conscience they will produce.”

In practical terms this kind of thinking means that it would be better to treat successive generations individually for a particular disease than to modify the germ line to prevent the disease from ever arising. The first comes under the auspices of medicine, whereas the latter constitutes a manipulation of humanity itself into posterity. It would make us (or more pertinently, a tiny minority of scientists and politicians) partial creators of future generations. Such an act would set a terrible precedent.

I think this is the real problem with eugenics – not that the means are accidentally immoral (abuse and murder), but that they are intrinsically immoral. Eugenics is an ab-use of humanity in the literal sense. We cannot become partial creators or modifiers of future generations without dramatically altering our relationship with those future generations, and hence our own selves.

I’ll leave you with more of Lewis’ dystopia:

“Thus at first they may look upon themselves as servants and guardians of humanity and conceive that they have a ‘duty’ to do it ‘good’. But it is only by confusion that they can remain in this state. They recognize the concept of duty as the result of certain processes which they can now control. Their victory has consisted precisely in emerging from the state in which they were acted upon by those processes to the state in which they use them as tools. One of the things they now have to decide is whether they will, or will not, so condition the rest of us that we can go on having the old idea of duty and the old reactions to it. How can duty help them to decide that? Duty itself is up for trial: it cannot also be the judge.

And ‘good’ fares no better. They know quite well how to produce a dozen different conceptions of good in us. The question is which, if any, they should produce. No conception of good can help them to decide. It is absurd to fix on one of the things they are comparing and make it the standard of comparison.

To some it will appear that I am inventing a factitious difficulty for my Conditioners. Other, more simple-minded, critics may ask. Why should you suppose they will be such bad men?’ But I am not supposing them to be bad men. They are, rather, not men (in the old sense) at all. They are, if you like, men who have sacrificed their own share in traditional humanity in order to devote themselves to the task of deciding what ‘Humanity’ shall henceforth mean. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’, applied to them, are words without content: for it is from them that the content of these words is henceforward to be derived.

Nor is their difficulty factitious, “We might suppose that it was possible to say ‘After all, most of us want more or less the same things — food and drink and sexual intercourse, amusement,art, science, and the longest possible life for individuals and for the species. Let them simply say. This is what we happen to like, and go on to condition men in the way most likely to produce it. Where’s the trouble?’

But this will not answer. In the first place, it is false that we all really like the same things. But even if we did, what motive is to impel the Conditioners to scorn delights and live laborious days in order that we, and posterity, may have what we like? Their duty? But that is only the Tao, which they may decide to impose on us, but which cannot be valid for them. If they accept it, then they are no longer the makers of conscience but still its subjects, and their final conquest over Nature has not really happened. The preservation of the species? But why should the species be preserved? One of the questions before them is whether this feeling for posterity (they know well how it is produced) shall be continued or not. However far they go back, or down, they can find no ground to stand on.

Every motive they try to act on becomes at once petitio. It is not that they are bad men. They are not men at all. Stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into the void. Nor are their subjects necessarily unhappy men. They are not men at all: they are artefacts. Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man.”

3 thoughts on “Eugenics and the artifice of man

  1. Fascinating post.

    On a tangential note, specifically a musicological one, I see a lot of parallels between your post and the ongoing debate in musical circles about tradition and performance practices. It may only be superficially related to the sort of “master conditioners” Lewis describes, but if you wanted to approach this problem from an inter-disciplinary angle I recommend Richard Taruskin’s book “Text and Act.” It discusses things like the nature of tradition, the way our ideals can betray our real intentions, and how we deal with the very concept of past and present.

  2. Thanks for another thought-provoking post.

    I have to agree on preventing government from deciding what changes to make, if any. I would fear these would be for the social or party good rather than the individual’s, or pandering to interest groups. For now, the government will say “No!” to any improvement. The wealthy will be the ones to circumvent this and decide for themselves or their children what constitutes a desirable trait.

    I must agree with the assessment of some schemes as contrived, and that increasing human ability will not in itself solve our imperfections. Most conceptions of eugenics and transhumanism paint a Utopian future where intelligence, modified personalities, or technology magically remove social and personal ills. If either were practical, they would increase our potential, and our ability, but could not overcome most of humanity’s defects. But dealing with some faults technologically or genetically would perhaps free us to deal with others? Consider the relationship between intelligence and criminality or family structure.

    I don’t agree that our faults and limitations are the essence of humanity. I see us on a continuum of ability or outcome, and the goal of genetic modification to push more of us toward the upper end. The result would be entirely human, just more competent. [Transhumanism is another story.] One might insist on ethical modifications, as opposed to creating sheeple, Bond villains, or Michael Jackson clones. What would be ethical? One could consider the well-being of all parties: society, parents, and child, and allow only selections that would benefit all. Or one could apply the Golden and Silver Rules as a test. The common examples are increased health or general intelligence.

    But there is potential in modification beyond reducing disease and suffering, beyond increased personal ability for purely individual reasons. People together form civilizations greater than themselves. I wonder what would happen at that level with a dramatic increase in intelligence and creativity? What would be the effect on social institutions, on culture? Is there a level unrealizeable by humanity today but achievable by version 2.0? Is collective achievement a moral goal? An altered relationship with humanity could be a change for the better.

    Consider also that eugenic manipulation is a change in the frequency of alleles in a population, a gradual shift in one direction or another. Most interesting traits are under the influence of many genes, only some of which will be affected by our artificial selective pressures in any individual. There is no hard line dividing the new from the old; any changes of which we are capable will leave us with very much more in common than changed.

    I find fault with the argument that we cannot self-direct our progress. In an instant’s thought I’m sure you can see in humanity many things to decry and many to praise, or in yourself many things your would wish improved. It is not traitorous to want to change what humanity is or may become. If to be human is to be flawed, perhaps we should become something else? Who cries for the Cro-Magnon?


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