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Eugenics refers to the idea of humans controlling which genes they pass on to their offspring. The reasoning behind this is that the human race, by circumventing natural selection through its use of technology, is in a state of gradual genetic decline. (See Did technology kill evolution?)

I am personally all for eugenics, but there are a TON of problems that go along with it, and it could really only be implemented sucessfully with a lot of effort and money put in by the human community at large. I believe that if we can put into motion a concerted effort to clean up the gene pool, we should. It'd be better for our children and for the human race in general... if we do it right.

Unfortunately, it's a lot easier to do it wrong. To get a good argument against eugenics, watch the movie Gattaca. In Gattaca, the world has embraced eugenics. They don't do it the barbaric Nazi way, i.e. sterilizing those thought to be genetically unfit to bear children. Instead, they have an intimate knowledge of the human genome, and they can weed out a number of fertilized human eggs to find the most genetically healthy ones, then implant them into the mother. They can pick the sex, hair and eye color, physical build, personality traits, and aptitudes. Sounds all nice until you realize that, with the price of healthcare, only the well-off can afford this procedure, so lower economic classes are forced to do it the "old-fashioned way." This effectively splits society... not into black and white, or male or female, but "valid or invalid" (read: Genetically cultivated or freeborn.) The "invalids" can't get good jobs, good educations, or good places to live simply because of their genetic makeup.

So, in order for eugenics to be done right, it has to be a worldwide effort that encompasses people of all economic status equally. There can be no lines drawn, or it will only divide humanity even more.

Obviously, at this time, this is all a pipe dream. Genetic manipulation services are the last thing most third-world countries are worried about. So if eugenics becomes a reality, it's obvious who's going to see the benefits first... the rich.

So that's the state of things to come. The technology to do it successfully is already in our grasp. I remember a news story from when I was in high school that a couple of people had their zygotes tested for certain hereditary defects and then had one zygote that passed implanted into the mother's uterus. As the Human Genome Project winds down, we're going to begin seeing more and more genetic traits being isolated, and hence more and more traits added to the list of things we can look for in our potential children.

Unfortunately, our ability to handle this technology responsibly is probably NOT within our grasp. I fear we're going to start using this technology before we're really ready for it.

Still, I know I'll be one of the first in line.

I have a feeling I will heartily second st.augustine's forthright refutation, once I learn more about building blocks and her interesting-sounding youth. Did she make any money out of any of her other speeches? I hope so. My college roommate, who introduced me to Libertarianism, once said, anything worth doing is worth doing for profit, and I couldn't agree more.

But permit me to offer the cold, intellectual complement to her argument. To wit:

Eugenics is defined in two senses: in the literal Webster 1913 sense, it just means "The science of improving stock". But it also carries strong connotations of social control, as is discussed at The Eugenics Problem and elsewhere. In the first sense, Eugenics is just a tool, and like a gun, is amoral. I will therefore refer to this first sense as "genetic engineering". In the second sense, Eugenics in the hands of government or other elites is immoral, because it replaces individual choice with collective choice.

Selective breeding has been used by individual human parents since the dawn of the species to improve the prospects of their offspring. Mates are selected based on desirable physical features, prosperity, health, fitness, and so on. Now some of these traits may not be directly related to a specific gene, but all are effected to a greater or lesser degree by genetic make-up. Civilization may appear to have removed a lot of selective pressures on the gene pool (for example, the selective pressure against near sightedness is greatly reduced due to corrective lenses and contacts), but this is only a temporary situation. Now that civilization is on the verge of enabling genetic engineering, we will see selective pressures return to the gene pool.1

So really, the morality of genetic engineering is categorically no different than the morality of allowing individuals to choose their mates and choose when and how often to reproduce. Democratic societies that respect individual rights have managed by and large to enforce the necessary rules that govern "traditional" (non-engineered) selective breeding, such as the prohibition on incest and rape, and the obligation of parents not to euthanize children who aren't what they hoped for. Lately, according to the UN, we've even managed to control our population growth! By the same token, I have little doubt that science and common sense will allow us to formulate appropriate rules to moderate the excesses of genetically engineered selective breeding. But the basic rule need only be that until proven otherwise, the parent(s) know what's best for their offspring.

Its true, genetic engineering will at first only be available to those elites that can afford it. ApoxyButt (but what do your friends call you?) fails to explain why genetic engineering technology is different from so many other technological advancements. In a democratic, free market society, advancements like vaccines, antibiotics, cars, and so many others (who am I kidding -- virtually all of them!), become available and affordable to the masses within a generation or two of their discovery. So long as we keep our society free, why should genetic engineering be the exception that leads to a split society? Indeed, if genetic engineering is done right, the lower middle class stands to benefit most, because they are least able to afford the huge lifetime costs of caring for a child with a debilitating genetic disease.

The only way that genetic engineering can result in true Eugenics and the split society is if we take reproductive and genetic decisions away from individuals and put them in the exclusive hands of governments or other elites.

Inspired by kick-ass libertarian Virginia Postrel, particularly at http://www.dynamist.com/scene.html#anti.

1. A note about natural versus artificial selection. One may argue that genetic engineering is dangerous because it replaces natural selection with artificial selection, and so it risks putting the species "out of balance" or otherwise screwing up the careful, patient work of millennia of evolution by natural selection. This is an important point, but in my view, it reveals a common misunderstanding. Natural selection is not a promise that just because a species has survived and adapted well so far, that it will continue to be fit to survive in the future. Evolution by natural selection is not teleological. Enjoy my discussion under Watching the Teleological Argument in action. Who's to say that purposeful, artificial selection can't be better than purposless, natural selection, so long as we do it right?

I read somewhere that when the polio vaccine was ready for the public, the powers that be argued it was immoral to use it, because it must be part of God's holy purpose for those people to die. I'll try to find the citation on this. Thankfully, that argument didn't take, but the vaccine did. The supposed superiority of natural selection simply replaces "God" with "nature" in this argument. Eerie, huh?

One final thought: For several generations now, we've had the ability do conduct genetic screening of potential parents. Recently with actual DNA tests, but historically by the simple method of interviewing potential parents and as many of their relatives as possible about health problems. From these interviews, a geneticists can determine if any relatives had any known genetic diseases, and in many cases, such as sickle cell anemia, calculate the precise odds that offspring will have this disease. If both parents are carriers of a recessive gene, this percentage is 50%. Happily, I am not aware of a Western country that has yet taken the "logical" next step and prohibited such parents from reproducing. If Genetic engineering progresses to the point where we can screen sperm and egg, or even repair known genetic defects, it might actually reduce the temptation to practice Eugenics against those unfortunates who are carriers of genetic disease.

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