Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Eugenics Is Not A Four Letter Word

Quick note, the baby is not here yet, though momma is bursting at the seams. We are incredibly busy all around, preparing for the baby, preparing for Christmas and preparing for our adventures into the world of homeschooling. I have managed to find some work to cover a little break that I didn't need, which should keep us afloat. On to the posting at hand then.

I have paid little attention, as I have been busy, but Seed's SciBlogs have been been hammering away at one Jim West of the Discovery Institute, a “think” tank devoted to pushing the teaching of creationism into U.S. Public schools. Suffice to say that DI is nothing more than a PR organization, rife with dishonesty. PZ Meyers started in on West a while ago with this post, which I admit I haven't actually read (I include the link for context only).

Lately, sciblogger Greg Laden joined in the fray, ruffling the feathers of sciblogger Orac. In short, Laden made some rather outrageous claims about the origins of forced eugenics programs, both those that happened in the U.S. (dark enough themselves) and those of the Nazis (i.e. The extermination of millions of Jews and other undesirables). Orac corrects the mistaken notion that the intellectual propagators of these atrocious eugenics programs were mostly Christians. In comments on both Greg's and Orac's posts, Colugo adds a lot of very interesting information to the mix.

Now I am not going to argue that the early part of the twentieth century was not to a strong degree, a world gone mad with some truly frightening notions about eugenics. From forced sterilizations, to mass exterminations, forced eugenics was a very ugly, fundamentally bigoted beast. But that is not the whole picture, not by a long shot. There is something important missing in this discussion of eugenics, that is the notion that not all eugenics is bad. Indeed, much of what falls under the heading of eugenics isn't even controversial. Unfortunately, some of it is controversial. Some of it skates very fine, ethical, dare I say, moral lines. The problem with making eugenics into some bogey man, is that it inserts a certain hysteria into a very important discussion.

So what is eugenics?

Let me start with this simple exercise. When you were choosing a mate (assuming you are a breeder of some sort), did you ever consider what your children might look like, if this person or that, was the mate you chose? Did you ever consider their intellect, for the same reason? In short, was one of the factors in choosing your mate, what they might contribute genetically? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, congratulations, you practiced a very basic form of eugenics. Not the least bit controversial, evil or unreasonable.

Lets then up it a notch. I have gotten to know quite a few folks in the world of neurodiversity. Many of them great folks. Several of them have made the conscious decision not to reproduce, because they do not want to pass on what are likely genetic disorders (at least influenced by genetics) to the children they would produce. I.e. They have identified some genetic trait that they believe it would be best not to propagate and therefor chosen not to reproduce. This too, is a form of eugenics.

Now we get to some meat. Herein lies a more controversial aspect of the discussion of eugenics, one that I will state outright, I don't have a problem with. Nonetheless, there are plenty of people who have serious objections, including readers of this blog. Right now, today, medical science has progressed to the point that we can identify many disorders and congenital diseases, in vitro. My partner and I had a bit of a scare, when the nurse called about an elevated risk for downs syndrome, with the baby that is due any time now. Lets just say that she handled it badly – leading us to believe it was a significant risk, rather than a less than three percent risk.

We want this baby. Our whole family is excited (no matter how I whine about it). But with a child already, who has followed in his papa's ADHD footsteps, there is no way that we could raise a child with those sorts of special needs. Not without seriously undermining the care and attention that the son we have now requires. Nor would we find it reasonable to burden society with such a child. It would have been a hard, but simple answer; abortion. For those who have rather profound objections to the notion of abortion, please do not judge me too harshly. Yes, this decision was reached without very much discussion. Mostly we just looked at each other, already knowing the way it would be. It took little time to consider it. This is because we are all too aware of the implications.

Nor is this limited to down syndrome. There are a host of disorders that can and routinely are diagnosed in vitro. While it is not a frequent occurrence, this does lead to decisions to terminate pregnancies. This too, is eugenics.

Finally, we come to even more controversial aspects of the discussion; where is the science going?

Our understanding of genetics and DNA, is increasing at an exponential rate. Already we have developed many gene therapies for treating certain disorders, Tays Sachs being a huge one. We are very close to viable therapies that can be started in vitro (I believe some already are). The question becomes, what is acceptable? What can we reasonably eliminate from our society? For instance, what about ADHD? Bipolar disorder? Schizophrenia? Autism? What about homosexuality?

The flip side of this, is the discussion of enhancements. What if it becomes possible to enhance certain characteristics, such as intelligence, endurance, fine motor skills, or spacial reasoning? What about absolute engineering, such as Aldous Huxley describes in Brave New World? A vast panacea is opening up before us, right now. Unfortunately, we are too busy freaking out over the terminology to actually have a serious, coherent discussion. Eugenics is not a four letter word, but it does carry rather serious implications, that require their time in the limelight.


kehrsam said...

Good discussion of a thorny subject. In the last 20 years we have seen a vast decrease in the number of Down Syndrome babies, for the simple reason that they are being aborted. As opposed to our previous policy of somewhat ignoring them and seeing huge mortality rates in infancy and childhood.

As a mildly autistic person, I am hoping that no genetic tag is ever found for my "disease." I prefer to live, and I rather suspect that most other people feel the same way.

DuWayne Brayton said...

Neurodiversity is a big factor in the importance of this conversation and why it is important to get away from the hysterics that so often accompany it. Not just neurodiversity to be sure, that is just one that jumps out at me, because it effects me, just as much as it affects you (or more to the point, people like us).

I would note that it is not just a matter of living. It is not currently possible to "cure" our respective neurological conditions, but that may not always be the case. Just as we would like to live, I for one, would like to be just who I am. I also think it would be a tremendous loss to lose the perspective of people like us.

Beth said...

DuWayne and Kurt, since you both are glad you are alive, despite having obstacles to overcome in your life, how is it that you both are comfortable with the idea of deciding for someone else that they should not get the chance at having a life that they might be glad to have, even if it is a difficult life?

kehrsam said...

Dear Beth: You are mistaken, I have never advocated abortion. I have discussed it in the context of what people and cultures do, but not in the context of what people should do.

For the record, I am pro-life, but with the understanding that this is not an area in which the powers of government are not particularly effective. Thus, it is not the first thing I look at when I am voting for a candidate. I have never worked for a pro-choice candidate or officeholder, however.

Juniper Shoemaker said...

The problem with eugenicists is that they ignore the fact that the desirability of ANY trait is dependent on its environment. The environment always changes. Traits you cannot possibly conceive of as "desirable" today could prove desirable tomorrow for a myriad of reasons. For all we know, these traits could include hypertension, bipolar disorder, Down's syndrome and autism. Reality is bizarre and unpredictable.

Moreover, "desirability" isn't always an "either/or" property. Take sickle-cell anemia, for example, and the fitness that what could be thought of as its intermediate expression confers amidst a malaria pandemic.

Your point that forced eugenics programs do not comprise the whole of the subject is well taken. However, it irritates me when eugenicists assume that the only reason why people get pissed off with them is the "controversial" nature of the subject. That implies that people have to choose between a ringing endorsement of a loaded practice or a sheep-like unthinking aversion to the practice. I don't get pissed off because people want to discuss the utility of eugenics and OH NOES ITZ A BAD WORD!!!11!!!! I get pissed off because people who like the idea of eugenics usually have a shitty understanding of evolutionary theory. If you want to discuss a subject that's painful for a lot of people, then don't broach it until you've done your fucking homework.

DuWayne Brayton said...

Hey Juniper, thanks for resurrecting a rather old post. I think I may just take the opportunity to drag it to the top, or at least drag the discussion to the top.

Just to be perfectly clear, I am not making a specific endorsement of eugenics. In fact rather the opposite, there are a lot of things going on now, the implications of which are downright frightening. Basically, this is exactly why I think this discussion is so very important to have. Unfortunately, there is a lot that is just flying under the radar, because of the hysterics that come up at the mere mention of the word eugenics.