Summary: 31st Gentle Thinkers Debate (Eugenics)

Eugenics is the only reasonable strategy available to us, given the fact of evolution.

Humans are not static. Evolution is an ongoing process. Humans will inevitably change over time from various selective pressures on survival and reproduction. That much is certain. Equally certain is the fact that the individual and collective decisions of humans will have various direct and indirect effects on this gradual change. The only question that remains is to decide whether we wish for our influence on our continued evolution to be random, disorganised and entirely unintentional (remaining in denial of the facts due to the stigma on eugenics), or to make our influence very deliberate, careful and calculated. The fact is that (whether we like it or not) we are faced with the question of how we want to change our species, and denial of this will only mean that we leave the destination of our species to pure chance, which doesn’t seem like a very responsible or intelligent response to me.”

Note: This summary is interpreted from notes taken during the debate and may contain errors. It is not a definitive text and should be used a means of sharing and developing ideas. Edits have been made to make this summary easy to read therefore it does not reflect the actual flow of conversation. If you wish to correct, be attributed to or contribute content, please contact me or post a comment.

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  • There is a myriad definitions of eugenics, the Wikipedia definition was the one most people started with while researching this topic. The Oxford dictionary definition was also referenced in the debate.

  • There are also many different ways of implementing eugenics which may affect how we define it.

  • Most people associate it with negative eugenics or historical events. E.g. The racial genocide committed by the Third Reich.

  • Most people assume we are discussing negative aspects of eugenics when this topic is brought up. Negative connotations of the term eugenics and genetic engineering. We like to discuss “nice” eugenics rather than “bad” eugenics.

  • Eugenics is a multi-faceted, complicated and very large grey concept. Not all aspects of it are negative.

  • Controlled breeding is one way of defining eugenics.

  • We should discuss genetic engineering as medicine or scientific advancement rather than as social philosophy.

  • The discussion question assumes people would be rational towards the topic, this is not the reality.

–  Is there a meaningful distinction between eugenics and genetic engineering? If genetic engineering achieves the same goal of eugenics (improving humans by removing genetic diseases), then isn’t it just accelerated eugenics? Some argued that it is all in the method and not in the goal. They claimed that eugenics was a social policy of limiting breeding and that is why genetic engineering is not eugenics. Others disagreed and said what mattered about eugenics was the goal, not the method.

  • People will change over time. Even without eugenics or evolution, there is still genetic drift.

–  It might be irresponsible to avoid discussing or censoring the topic despite that we might need to consider it as a viable option in the future.

  • We could use artificial selection for intelligence and flourishing of humanity as we may be able to breed out cultural and cognitive biases.

  • Eugenics might be an “easier” option than introducing cultural change which would need to happen gradually to be effective. This may not be necessary depending on the society and cultural backgrounds people originate and operate in. E.g. some younger generations may be more tolerant towards others due to the cultural influences.

  • There may be unconscious discrimination happening even by people who claim to be open-minded. E.g. reference letters may focus on particular traits dependent on your gender. [Inside Higher ED post] [The Monkey Cage post]

  • Genetic modification is the most direct method of implementing eugenics.

  • For some, what makes a person is more than their physical characteristics.

–  Some of the practices involving egg, embryo and trait selection within the IVF [Wikipedia entry] process suggest that it is a form of eugenics or genetic engineering that is currently practised.

–  Eugenics can be defined as a program to change the overall genetic profile of a society or particular group.

  • Does it make a society better if they make value judgements based on genetic superiority? It may not necessarily make that society better, it could make it worse.

  • We may need dumb people to balance out society and the workforce. Smart people aren’t very good at following direct orders and performing menial work.

  • Intelligence is not necessarily an important factor for determining success and happiness.

  • Wealth is not a genetic trait.

  • We may want to get rid of particular genetic dispositions that can lead to ill health which could be removed by eugenics or genetic engineering. E.g. dispositions towards alcoholism and heart disease.

  • We aren’t able to distinguish which traits originate from a genetic or cultural source.

  • Human survival may depend on genetic diversity. Having vast genetic types/genetic diversity is beneficial. This could provide us with immunity against problems like super viruses.

  • A concern with eugenics and genetic engineering is that it could reduce the diversity of the gene pool, which would make us vulnerable to pandemics and other environmental changes. Genetic diversity is necessary for the survival of a species to allow it to adapt to changes.

  • But most people assume that eugenics would seek to minimise genetic diversity. What if it sought to maximise it? Or it could seek to change humans in a general direction while maintaining a certain amount of diversity as it travels towards its goal, and maintain that diversity once it reaches it.

–  Genetic manipulation and eugenics should not be in the hands of politicians. This could lead to discrimination.

  • Whenever a law or a system is created that reduces the equality or the rights of a certain kind of person, it legitimises discrimination and prejudice against those people. For example, if the absence of gay marriage encourages homophobia, then prohibiting reproduction for mentally and physically handicapped people with degenerative genetic disease would also (to some extent) legitimise maltreatment of those people in our culture.

  • Eugenics could lead to discrimination based on genetic superiority (genism), racism and limit our genetic diversity.

  • We are more positive looking for cures to problems than just removing bad elements

  • There is no reason to be proud to be something. This creates in and out groups. Though for some, being part of a group forms an integral part of their identity.

  • We may need to be careful with the biological and cultural choices we make.

  • A eugenics/genetic engineering program may need to be gradually implemented to work.

  • Eugenics is already happening on an individual and personal level. Selective breeding in humans could be unconsciously happening.

  • Societal preferences may influence choice of (breeding) partner. We may make some conscious selections. E.g. selecting partners who are financially wealthy.

  • Biologically we are attracted to particular kinds of people [YouTube video].

  • Some argued that we shouldn’t try to correct problems because it could backfire or we could prevent unexpected good benefits of apparently bad situations. Others argued that this is irresponsible because inaction is just as much a choice as action. We still have limited knowledge but we should still act using this. But our action does need to be proportionate to and tempered by the magnitude of our uncertainty/ignorance.

  • Most members advocate caution with the possibilities of genetic engineering.

  • Some evolutionary traits (mutant genes) that cause Cystic fibrous and sickle-cell disease do provide some protection from other diseases like cholera and malaria. This is known as heterozygote advantage [Wikipedia entry] [YouTube video].

  • Other mutant genes now allow some humans to ingest foods like milk [YouTube video].

  • Natural selection in humans doesn’t adhere with social constructs or it may be happening in ways we don’t recognise or consciously identify.

  • What is natural selection? It can be defined by death before reproduction or reproduction.

  • Genetic engineering might be worth testing in an experiment: There is probably no shortage of intelligent and healthy people who would volunteer for a small scale eugenics experiment (given the number of people who applied for a one-way mission to Mars).

  • We could learn quite a lot if we just got a couple of thousand people on some piece of land and conducted artificial selection. Look at the variation we have been able to create in dogs in the space of just a few hundred years. Regardless of what we end up deciding with respect to eugenics, such an experiment would yield valuable data.

  • Such experiments are unlikely to get approval or funding.
  • We don’t have enough knowledge of how to fix and achieve things with genetics. We need to be careful when exploring and testing the bounds of our knowledge in this area.

  • People need to be able to make informed decisions about what offspring they could have what genetic diseases they carry.

  • The film Gattaca proposes a dystopian future that could be possible.

  • Japan’s immigration and citizenship laws as means of preventing mixed families from becoming a legitimised part of the populous. It is very difficult for a non-Japanese person to become a citizen. Is this a cultural thing, eugenic reform or about retaining qualities integral to the Japanese identity? The declining birth rate may change these restrictions in the future.

–  The one child policy of China and the cultural preference for male children has produced an uneven ratio of men to women. This could be seen as a form of eugenics.

  • Both these countries do seem to have cultural attitudes that maintain and promote their racial superiority especially toward ethnic minority groups they assimilated.

  • Eugenics is not a viable option for our cultures, technologic level and governments.

  • There are laws (in Australia) to prevent homosexuals from having children. Methods include prohibiting the use of local surrogates, restrictions on adoption and fostering children and having children via natural means. One can argue that this is eugenics in action.

  • Western society (especially Australia) is an insular and isolated bubble

  • Religions and countries can control who can be part of their communities. This may not involve eugenics if the selection criterion doesn’t include genetic makeup/viability.

  • You have access to quite a lot of information about a potential genetic donor. This allows you to refine what genes your child could have rather than having sex with random strangers.

  • Do we say as a society that particular people aren’t good enough? It may be extremely problematic if this attitude is enforced legally.

  • The White Australia Policy could be argued as a eugenics program.

  • Was this culturally and politically motivated?
  • What were the criteria to determine entry into Australia?
  • Blind spots in human eyes, wisdom teeth, appendices, cognitive biases. There is no shortage of problems with “healthy” people. If we have the option to give future generations a better world and a better life, do we not have a responsibility to? If you could choose for your child to not have wisdom teeth or mental retardation, wouldn’t you choose to give them a better life?
  • If most people make this choice (which is highly probable), then we won’t need any top-down organisation, eugenics will just happen anyway due to the accumulation of individuals’ choices.
  • “I didn’t choose to be born”. In a eugenic society, would children be resentful of parents who chose to let them be handicapped?

  • Apparently there is an association between myopia and intelligence. But what causes issues with vision? Can this determine if people with these problems are good at different things? Maybe intelligent people tend to read more and cause near-sightedness. However, if it is the case that myopia and intelligence are linked genetically, then what should we do as eugenicists?

  • Some of ethical considerations of eugenics and genetic engineering were brought up during the debate and are bound to be discussed further by group members or

–  Are we talking about ethical eugenics? One person argued that “eugenics” was a silly word to bother using due to its negative connotations and that if we were to proceed we should use a different term, or otherwise specify that what we are interested in is “ethical eugenics”.

–  Never underestimate the stupidity of the general population. Educating people may not help the ones that need leadership and guidance.

–  The morality of denying a choice may be depending on the effect of that choice. Denying choice can be seen as immoral.

  • Do governments tell people what to do all the time? Where is the line? We should be conservative with drawing the line and sticking to it

–  People refuse to vaccinate their children for very stupid reasons. Parents refuse their children blood transfusions for similarly silly reasons. Should the government prevent bad parents from harming their children? If so, how are these examples different from prohibiting people with heart conditions from reproducing? People seem okay with laws preventing harm in most ways, but when it affects genetics, most people seem to be against it. Why is that? Is there a stigma on genes?

  • Problems with unselective breeding may be resolved when we have the technology and experience to fix them.

  • If in the future we have directed our evolution in a bad direction, then we would have older genomes on file as they are being recorded today. And if we can avert disaster from eugenics by that method, then we could use the same method to avert disaster resulting from undirected genetic drift.

  • Or could we? What if the genetic drift is one of stupidity and tribalism? Then the emotional and violent majority might destroy scientific data and discourage the application of science to solve problems (as currently happens today). At which point we might be locked in with that tribalistic stupidity with no genetic science to save us.

–  We may not have these options if we limit breeding and have a limited gene pool to choose from.

  • The current time could be the most dangerous time for humanity.

  • The most dangerous weapon against humans could be an engineered virus capable of decimating humanity.

Interesting questions asked by the group

How do we define eugenics? What falls under eugenics?

-Is it still eugenics if everyone agrees with it? In the case of Japan, there is no coercion within the Japanese population because a sense of superiority is so ubiquitous in the culture. Without coercion, is it still eugenics?

Are we more open to changes in cultures than the implementation of scientific advances?

Where and how would we limit the modification of genetic material? Would we target altering people’s thoughts?

Why use the term “eugenics”, when there are more acceptable terms like genetic engineering or IVF?

We might want to get rid of negative health, behaviour and cultural traits. Are these traits purely genetic? Are there other factors that contribute to these?

Should deaf parents be able to choose deafness as a desired quality for a future child? [The Telegraph article] [Practical Ethics blog post]

Could choosing to focus on particular traits lead to the isolation of particular communities?

Would it make it easier for disabled parents to relate to their children if they shared the same disability? Would a child object to having this choice made for them?

Do people have the right to have children?

Is it moral to choose which embryo to raise? Is it moral to deliberately select the genes of a potential child?

Is there a difference between eugenics and evolution?

Do we see genetic engineering as a limit to assisting people?

Is it bad to use artificial selection to prevent particular traits or people from existing?

Is eugenics a subversion of evolution?

What are the global policies on eugenics? Are there any countries that have implemented eugenic policies? Are there any where it is specifically illegal?

Is cloning illegal?

Are genetic modifications illegal? In humans? Is it illegal in unborn humans and in existing people?

Natural selection stopped occurring in humans, is this bad?

What determines which partner you choose?

What is the optimal way of producing people?

How would we solve a problem like cystic fibrous?

Do we want to keep mutant genes like the ones that cause cystic fibrous to resolve other health issues?

Is genetic engineering and eugenics mucking about with humans?

Would we prevent or delay human extinction by using genetic engineering or eugenics?

Would educational programs be a better form of population control than selective breeding?

Do we need to balance out the low birth rates of intelligent people and the high birth rates among impoverished people? E.g. baby bonus.

Can you choose your parents?

Does a person’s character determine their worth?

What makes a person’s character?

What do disabled people contribute to society?

Would we lose particular qualities (e.g. nurturing ones) if we bred or engineered to remove physical and mental disabilities? With no people to nurture, how will that affect human experience and behaviour?

Is selective breeding part of the pursuit of perfection? Are we buying into hype?

Are we making people better?

Is Tony Abbott practising eugenics? E.g. encouraging rich people to have children with income based parental leave payments?

  • Is this an equalising of incentives? We’d have to give rich people more money to make them take the same amount of effort as a lower income earner. How do we fix this?

Do we have too many people?

Why do we need to encourage people to reproduce and raise children?

Nuclear power, would we be better off?

Eugenics is a social philosophy, where do we draw the line?

What makes a better person?

Is eugenics the curing of congenital diseases?

Can we discuss the topic and use the word without opening Pandora’s Box?

What if the intent is not specifically improvement, but rather preventing degradation and thereby maintaining the current quality (as in the Japan example)? Is that as good (or as bad) as trying to improve the human genome?

Does intent matter? Eugenic effects (systematic genetic changes) can occur from many different kinds of laws or cultures that were created for various reasons. Does the government need to intend to promote specific traits for us to care about it? What about the unintended effects of gene-agnostic laws and cultural attitudes? Are these overlooked? Does it matter?

When does intelligence become a disease?

Can the use of eugenics or genetic engineering be determined by a case by case basis?

Would we accept allowing everyone to be able to make choices regarding what kinds of children are born?

Is eugenics the stuff of fiction?

Is it naive to believe that people won’t want the option to choose which children are born?

Are there countries with secret breeding programs? Is it hearsay that Russia and China would selectively breed for better Olympic athletes?

Is opposition against mixed marriages about racial and genetic purity or community integration? E.g. religious laws where partners must convert.

Are there soft powers (authority figures) culturally brainwashing people to breed if they fall into particular stereotypes?

Does eugenics need to have an authorising power behind it?

Is it eugenics to force people to convert when they marry into particular groups?

Are attitudes and behaviours imposed culturally instead of legally?

Are we accepting that the state is controlling who can breed via the implantation of Paid Parental Leave schemes?

Does the euthanasia of disabled people fall under eugenics?

Are we more interested in the rights of the parent rather than that of the child?

  • Are parents with severe genetic handicaps being selfish by insisting on having biological children instead of adopting or using surrogates? Are parents with wisdom teeth being selfish if they refuse to adopt?

Would we stop mentally and physically disabled people from breeding? How would they be able to select viable embryos?

Should we be allowing refugees in camps who are detained indefinitely to have children?

Would Stephen Hawkins and other great intellects have been born in a world where eugenics was used?

Would we sterilise people who have less desirable genetic material?

A new nuanced version of eugenics would be interesting but would we call it eugenics? Some group members favoured “ethical eugenics” to describe this version of eugenics.

How would we implement this gentler and more encompassing form of eugenics?

If we didn’t use eugenics or genetic engineering to breed humans would we be dooming humanity?

Is it irresponsible to not use genetic engineering?

How much are we leaving to chance by not selectively breeding or genetically engineering humans?

Are there better ways of breeding people?

Can we rebrand eugenics?

If we openly discuss genetic engineering and eugenics, how do we stop fascists and bigots from weighing in?

Is eugenics bad in itself or how you implement it?

Is it bad to get rid of things like myopia and wisdom teeth?

Could we breed for genetic diversity?

Would we breed towards fashion trends? If people could choose their infants’ traits, would we see different fashions come and go (e.g. this year it might be trendy to be tall, so parents choose to make tall children)? Could we breed out this tendency to conform to fashions?

Does individual choice have an effect on eugenics?

Could eugenics be a bottom up process rather than a top down one?

  •  Does it matter where it is coming from? What if it is subtle or soft? Does it count if it is organised by individuals deciding independently (e.g. sexual selection influenced by culture and peers), or must it be centrally organised?

Who is accountable in a eugenics program?

Does the level and method of control affect which traits are desirable?

Is there a difference between choosing traits like wisdom teeth or for mental retardation?

Can societies make value judgements like genetic engineering to reduce health problems or would they debase these judgements and opt for engineering for peak physical appearance?

Is it eugenics if there is no governing body?

Are we focusing too much on the desirable traits rather than the eugenic method? People seem to draw lines on both independently, but are there certain methods that we can all agree on that are always okay (e.g. genetic engineering rather than selective breeding), or are there certain traits we can agree on regardless of the method (e.g. physical and mental dysfunction that causes a short, painful life)?

What are the criteria for deciding what desirable traits are?

Are we living in an illusion of democracy?

Certain health regulations are beneficial and worthwhile but should we enforce regulations of genes and genetics?

What do we do if we are genetically engineering wrong? A surgical patient can give consent and is only the loss of one life but a potential human can’t give consent and what happens if we accidently introduce a congenital disease into an entire population?

Is humanity headed for catastrophe? Is it a given that we are headed this way?

Is it more probable that humanity will destroy itself?

Will the world population fall down when developing countries reach similar levels of technology and wealth as first world ones?

What would happen if these countries reach these peaks?

Will Africa be the next hotspot for cheap labour?

Would robots make cheap human labour redundant?

Is it about the method or the traits?

Are people protecting the “rights of the parent” at the expense of the “rights of the child?”

Are humans still evolving?

Additional content

Mitochondrial DNA and “three parent IVF” [Huffington Post article] [Genetic Support Network Victoria page]

Pro eugenics groups

Genetic rights

Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge from Star Trek [Wikipedia entry]

Natural law

Women’s age and associated health problems during pregnancy

Human longevity

Stella Young on disability and inspiration [TED Talk via YouTube]

Zero population growth

Invasion of Australia by Indonesia

Climate change due to lack of foresight about nuclear power and the focus on coal

Pre World War II attitudes towards eugenics

IQ rate rising in developing countries

Sterilisation of the mentally and physically disabled.

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells [Public domain copies via Project Gutenberg] [Wikipedia entry]

Chemical castration of paedophiles

Religious parents forbidding children to receive blood transfusions

Raw milk [YouTube Video]

Global food shortages


You can find more debate summaries via the Summary Index.


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