Monday, November 06, 2006

Eugenics and Libertarianism

I’ve just been reading Matt Ridley’s very interesting book Genome, which I highly recommend. It contains, among many other things, a brief history of the eugenics movement. Compulsory eugenics, in the form of sterilization of the “feeble-minded” and similar schemes, is sometimes blamed on Herbert Spencer and Social Darwinism, hence on laissez-faire beliefs, hence on libertarianism. Judging by Ridley’s account, that is almost precisely backwards.

Spencer was indeed concerned about human eugenics but, as a believer in laissez-faire, he did not propose using government to improve them. Compulsory eugenics originated with Galton and was rapidly taken up by the British left, with supporters including Shaw, Wells, Keynes, Laski and the Webbs. The idea spread across the political spectrum; Winston Churchill was one of many enthusiastic supporters. The result was an attempt, in 1912, to enact compulsory eugenics into law.

It was successfully opposed by Josiah Wedgewood, who Ridley describes as a radical libertarian. His central argument was not that it was bad science but that it was a striking violation of individual liberty. He made that argument sufficiently persuasive to force the government to withdraw the bill. Another opponent was G.K. Chesterton, best known today as a Catholic apologist and the author of some early mysteries. Chesterton was another radical libertarian, although a somewhat odd ones, to whom I devoted a chapter in the second edition of my Machinery of Freedom.

In addition to libertarian politicians such as Wedgewood and Cecil, compulsory eugenics had another important opponent: The Catholic church. Compulsory sterilization was implemented in a considerable number of countries, including the U.S. and Sweden, and almost implemented in Britain. It was not implemented in countries where the Catholic church was powerful. In that case, at least, the Church’s opposition to the latest findings of modern science put it where it belonged, on the side of the angels.

We were there too.

To be fair, I should add that there was a second push for compulsory eugenics in the early 1930’s, successful in some European countries but not in Britain. This time the failure was at least in part due to intellectual changes associated primarily with the left, the shift from belief in genetic determination of human beings to belief in social determination.

As Ridley points out, there is a different sort of eugenics that is alive and well in the modern world—decisions by parents related to the genes of their actual or potential offspring. He discusses two versions.

One is represented by the Committee for the Prevention of Jewish Genetic Disease, an organization that uses blood tests of school children to identify the carriers of genes for Tay-Sachs or cystic fibrosis. “When matchmakers are later considering a marriage between two young people, they can call a hotline and quote the anonymous numbers they were each assigned at the testing. If the are both carriers of the same mutation … the committee advises against the marriage.”

The other is the increasingly common practice of parents using amniocentesis to identify embryos carrying the extra chromosome that leads to Downs syndrome, and aborting them.


Anonymous said...

As a believer in eugenics and a radical libertarian, thank you for letting me know of others that were like me in the past. People cringe at eugenics for obvious reasons associated with compuslory laws. But, what people don't realize is eugenics is part of what we practice anyway. People look for the best faces and the smartest people when competiting for wives and husbands. Most people applaud the most beautiful and/or the most intellgent couples marrying each other since they admire the characteristics and the great potential of the offspring. This is another way in which our desire for perfection is displayed.

Anonymous said...

No, I think that people cringe at eugenics when they think of the holocaust, ethnic cleansing, social darwinism, Shockley, etc.

When I got my two dogs, sight unseen, from a dog breeder in another state, I ask for the ones that appeared alert and bright to her. They are smart for dogs, I suppose. I played Bach and Beethoven for them when they were puppies, but they still preferred to chase squirrels and bitches in heat. I only wish they could talk, so I could buy them cellphones. Why can't scientists put the talking gene into them. Hopeless cretins those scientific types, if you ask me!

On a personal note, I wish I were as smart as Professor Friedman. But, would I want to look like him?

Anonymous said...

Centralized eugenics (government sterilizing undesireables, say) is clearly creepy. My libertarian instincts suggest that decentralized eugenics isn't so creepy, and your examples seem rather beneficial.

But I can offer at least one horrible counterexample of decentralized eugenics. Sex-selection abortions are common in parts of India and China. The result is a huge, possibly destabilizing surplus of males.

Perhaps another example of decentralized eugenics with central ideological control is dog breeding. We have dog breeds with known health and behavior problems as a result of selective breeding for certain ideals. It's worth wondering whether some parents, offered the chance, will flock toward aesthetic ideals (tall, strong, smart) at the expense of some other non-obvious properties.

I don't propose trying to fix this with government. Government involvement seems likely to make it worse. But I do think there's stuff worth worrying about here.

Anonymous said...

In fairness, the Chinese abortion example is also associated with the government single child per woman program.

There is some mathematical formula that says that if you suppress risky marriages due to recessive gene, you actually increase the number of instances of the damaging resessives in the population.

The explanation is something like that in the steady state the number of expressed recessive genes in the population is equal to the rate that they are produced due to mutation.

For example, if you have a population which has had alot of close relatives as parents for a large number of generations, then that population will have a small number of damaging resessive genes as they will have been bred out.

However, they will still have the same number of expressed resessive genes as they have close relatives as parents. The two effects will exactly cancel.

However, if that culture switched to having a 2nd or 3rd cousin rule, there would be a drop in the number of expressed damaging resessive traits as they would have a combination of a low number of damaging resessive traits and at the same time would not allow close relatives to marry.

By this logic, as city sizes get larger and people's "catchment" ranges get wider, the number of expressed damaging resessives should drop. This is because as cities get larger, a random couple would on average be less related. However, since the population is expanding, it is not in the steady state.

This would both increase the frequency of damaging recessives (as they aren't being bred out) while at the same time decrease the number of them that are expressed in the population.

This could add another risk to the generic a high tech society 'after the fall'. After 'the fall', people would end up being more closely related than they were before, thus there would be a boom in the number of resessive (damaging and otherwise) being expressed.

Anonymous said...

I would like to see a foundation that would pay people to get sterilized; on the theory that people who would take money to be sterilized should be. It could differentiate by the amount paid – an 18 year old would be paid much more than a 40 year old. Been in prison, have a history of violence or diabetes? The fee goes up.

earth that was said...

There is a detailed PDF document on line by Thomas C Leonard called "Mistaking Eugenics for Social Darwinism" which provides a detailed overview of the whole issue.