Is Richard Dawkins endorsing eugenics?

With the internecine sniping that’s been going on lately throughout ScienceBlogs ove Larry Moran’s intemperate “flunk the IDiots” and “Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists” remarks, or, more specifically, whether opposing ID requires that one oppose religion in general as well, I hesitate to tread here. However, given my interest in the Holocaust, World War II history, and how Nazi racial hygiene programs laid the groundwork for Germany’s plan to exterminate the Jews and all others viewed as threats to the regime, I can’t resist putting my two cents in about this issue.

Before I proceed, I’ll just point out that the title of this post is a rhetorical question. It’s inspired by the accusations that have been flying throughout the religious and anti-evolution blogosphere over the last few of days. The attack all seemed to start with an article that appeared on a pro-life website entitled, Anti-Religion Extremist Dawkins Advocates Eugenics: Says Nazi regime’s genocidal project “may not be bad”:

LONDON, November 21, 2006 (LifeSiteNews.com) – A leading international anti-religion crusader and supporter of Darwinian theory, Dr. Richard Dawkins, has said that the pseudo-science of eugenics that drove the Nazi regime’s genocidal project “may not be bad.”

Since the end of the second world war, the name of eugenics, the social philosophy that the human species or particular races ought to be improved by selective breeding or other forms of genetic manipulation, is one that conjures instant images of the Nazi death camps and “racial hygiene” programs.

In a letter to the editor of Scotland’s Sunday Herald, Dawkins argues that the time has come to lay this spectre to rest. Dawkins writes that though no one wants to be seen to be in agreement with Hitler on any particular, “if you can breed cattle for milk yield, horses for running speed, and dogs for herding skill, why on Earth should it be impossible to breed humans for mathematical, musical or athletic ability?”

Dawkins holds the Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, but is best known as one of the world’s most outspoken current opponents of religious belief, giving lectures and interviews and writing articles in which “fundamentalist” Christianity is among his favourite targets.

“I wonder whether, some 60 years after Hitler’s death, we might at least venture to ask what the moral difference is between breeding for musical ability and forcing a child to take music lessons. Or why it is acceptable to train fast runners and high jumpers but not to breed them,” Dawkins wrote Sunday.

Dawkins’ campaign against religion has led him to publish a book, “The God Delusion”, in September this year and he is one of the instigators of the notion, popular with journalists, that the Catholic Church’s opposition to artificial contraception will result in mass starvation.

Sounds really, really bad, doesn’t it?

Indeed, it’s led a number of critics to jump all over Dawkins. For example, there’s our old “friend” the antivaccination loon, tireless fighter against women’s suffrage, anti-evolutionist, and “we can deport 12 million illegal immigrants if we want to just like Hitler” blogger and “Christian Libertarian,” Vox Day, who wastes no time sticking his foot in his mouth over this (I’ll explain why below the fold):

Yes, I am vastly amused by this. It’s all just so predictable. And while I’m surprised that Dawkins has gotten so carried away by his success that he is finally daring to openly proclaim a more rational atheism, I’m not at all shocked by his conclusions. I merely wonder how long it will take for him to realize that he also lacks any rational basis to avoid exterminating pesky and unwanted minorities.

Seriously, on what basis does the atheist prosecute the individual who digs up a few kilos of rotting flesh in order to have sex with it? Trespassing? We’ve already settled that atheists have no objection to who puts what where so long as all parties a) aren’t children, and, b) consent. So, in that case, what does it matter if the lifeless random collection of atoms once happened to be human or plastic?

Atheism always leads the thinking individual to nihilism. The fact that most atheists aren’t nihilists isn’t a credit to atheism, it’s more a testimony to how few individuals are capable of reason or even understanding the logical consequences of their basic assumptions.

Ah, yes, the old “atheists are inherently immoral and nihilistic” canard taken to a truly idiotic “atheism leads to necrophilia” extreme. I didn’t expect any better from Vox, and, as predictable as he is, he didn’t disappoint in using Dawkins as a jumping off point for such silliness. I only posted his response for amusement value, given how extreme it is, although I will address the issues brought up by Dawkins before this post is over.

MikeGene over at Telic Thoughts is a little more circumspect, but not much:

It’s a typical example of Dawkins and his “consciousness-raising.” Let’s talk about religious people as child abusers. Let’s discuss whether religion is the root of all evil. Now, it’s let’s discuss whether eugenics is really bad. The new Anti-Religion Movement is off and running.

And, finally, Wesley J. Smith, Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute, can’t resist piling on as well, almost gloating with glee:

Dawkins never fails to unimpress. Hitler was not the problem with eugenics–he was the product of it. Indeed, the fundamental premise of eugenics holds that some human beings have greater value and worth than other human beings, based on their capacities or innate characteristics. Once eugenics consciousness is accepted, who matters and who matters less becomes a matter of raw political power. Moreover, once this pernicious idea is accepted, it becomes easy to justify exploiting and oppressing those now deemed unter menchen.

There are two main things wrong. First, it’s not at all clear that Hitler is the inevitable product of eugenics, although certainly Hitler does illustrate the nightmare that can occur when eugenics is fused with politics and a bizarre racial ideology. (Indeed, the discrediting of eugenics and social Darwinism is one of the many goods that came about because the Allies beat the Nazis in the Second World War.) The other thing that’s wrong is that all of these attacks are a load of quote-mining from a “letter to the editor” that was no such thing, as even Wesley Smith was forced to admit. Dawkins never said that Hitler’s eugenics program “might not be bad,” as the LifeSiteNews article misrepresents him. Here’s the actual text of a piece represented as a letter to the editor by Dawkins and entitled, Eugenics may not be bad:

IN THE 1920s and 1930s, scientists from both the political left and right would not have found the idea of designer babies particularly dangerous – though of course they would not have used that phrase. Today, I suspect that the idea is too dangerous for comfortable discussion, and my conjecture is that Adolf Hitler is responsible for the change.

Nobody wants to be caught agreeing with that monster, even in a single particular. The spectre of Hitler has led some scientists to stray from “ought” to “is” and deny that breeding for human qualities is even possible. But if you can breed cattle for milk yield, horses for running speed, and dogs for herding skill, why on Earth should it be impossible to breed humans for mathematical, musical or athletic ability? Objections such as “these are not one-dimensional abilities” apply equally to cows, horses and dogs and never stopped anybody in practice.

I wonder whether, some 60 years after Hitler’s death, we might at least venture to ask what the moral difference is between breeding for musical ability and forcing a child to take music lessons. Or why it is acceptable to train fast runners and high jumpers but not to breed them. I can think of some answers, and they are good ones, which would probably end up persuading me. But hasn’t the time come when we should stop being frightened even to put the question?

I do have problems with what Dawkins said, but, even so, the quote above is hardly the ringing endorsement of eugenics that the headline and the hysterical story describing Dawkins’ words would lead one to believe. Another point that should be emphasized is that Richard Dawkins himself, in comments on his own website, has explained that the above passage was published as an afterward in a book specifically about “dangerous ideas,” and, consequently, it is not surprising that he might be intentionally provocative about this apparently most dangerous of dangerous ideas. How Dawkin’s piece was published as a “letter to the editor” when it was nothing of the sort is unclear, and how it became associated with the headline or title “Eugenics may not be bad” remains mysterious. The whole thing smells of an orchestrated attempt to smear Dawkins.

As you can see, what Dawkins is saying is not an expression of support for eugenics, but rather a provocative question: Is eugenics inherently bad, and, if so, why? He certainly isn’t advocating eugenics; rather, he is asking whether it’s possible to discuss the matter, now that Hitler has been dead for 61 years. At the risk of falling victim to the same attacks that are now raining down on Dawkins, I’m going to wade into this topic for a bit. I may end up getting burned, but, hey, what good is a blog if you can’t take a chance every now and then?

From my perspective, the reason that Dawkins’ remarks have painted such a big, fat, juicy target on his chest for his enemies to shoot at is best revealed in Wesley Smith’s post:

The antidote to such thinking is human exceptionalism and its corollary that each and every human being has equal moral worth simply and merely because they are human. Without this profound understanding–which is the philosophy of the United States–we will never achieve universal human rights.

Of course, Dawkins never said that humans shouldn’t have equal moral worth because they are human, nor has human exceptionalism prevented the religious from approving of evils like slavery and the killing of infidels. However, this comment does bring up the primary basis for objecting to any discussion of eugenics: The exceptionalism of human beings. And where does the very concept of human exceptionalism come from? From religion, mainly, particularly the monotheistic religions. Thus, the assumption behind the attacks against Dawkins over eugenics is that there is no moral reason that an atheist can postulate to object to eugenics because atheists supposedly don’t accept human exceptionalism. But is that true? There is nothing inherent in atheism or Dawkins’ views that demands that humans shouldn’t be treated differently than animals, and there are philosophies that equate humans and animals far more than any atheist. Perhaps the best example of such a group of people who equate humans and animals and believe that they should be treated more or less the same for purposes of moral judgments are the animal rights activists–you know, the ones who state that the life of mouse is morally equivalent to the that of a human and that anyone who believes that it is acceptable to use animals in research, to own them as pets, or to eat them as food is guilty of “speciesism.” True, the naturalistic world view does not view humans as the be-all and end-all of creation or somehow apart from the animal kingdom, but the fact that humans have self-awareness and consciousness and are the only creatures able to marvel at the wonder of nature and seek to understand it is a reasonable basis upon which to value humans above most animals, without resort to supernatural reasons to justify this distinction.

Let me try to suggest a rationale that can differentiate between eugenics that might (I emphasize, might) be morally tolerable from that which is clearly not acceptable without reference to God or human exceptionalism. I begin by asking: Why do all civilized people now find the Nazi eugenics program (which the Nazis referred to as “racial hygiene”) so completely and utterly repugnant? Even if you leave out the fact that this program ultimately laid the groundwork for the Holocaust, it would still have been just as repugnant, and the reason is simple: Coercion. In essence, the Nazis decided what constituted “life unworthy of life” and, based on that, decided who should be sterilized and who should be “euthanized” (killed). Those at the receiving end had no say in the matter and no recourse once the decision was made.

Worse, the Nazis decided on who should live and who should die not based on what would be good for people or their offspring, but rather primarily on economic grounds. At least that is how they tried to justify it to the people. Indeed, one of the main arguments for the T4 euthanasia program according to the Nazi Party, would be better used for the war effort. People with severe disabilities, even if sterilized, still needed institutional care, occupying beds that would soon be needed for wounded soldiers, using medicines that could be used to treat soldiers and able-bodied civilians, and consuming food that was needed to feed soldiers at the front and armaments workers at home.They took up the time of doctors and nurses who could be “better” used treating wounded soldiers, and, even if they were cared for at home by their families, constituted a drain on the resources and time of people who could either be working in armaments factories or raising the next generation of Aryans. In other words, the Nazi approach to eugenics subordinated the value of the individual human being to economic, political, and ideological interests and trampled on human self-determination. Sadly, we in the U.S. were not immune to such trampling on individual freedom, although we did it for somewhat less blatantly economic reasons; instead, we did it more to “improve the race.” Even so, laws mandating sterilization for the “feeble-minded” were widespread in the U.S. (and several European countries) and admired by Hitler, who cited U.S. laws as an example upon which he was basing his own eugenics laws. Even after the horrors of Hitler’s eugenics programs were starting to become known, discussions of “euthanizing” the “feebleminded” were still carried out in very respectable scientific meetings without embarrassment.

This is different, morally, I would argue, from the promotion of voluntary “eugenics,” in which a from of eugenics is voluntarily practiced and promoted to the general populace, but not forced onto people. This, I would argue, is a form of “eugenics” that we already practice in the U.S. and that, as technology marches onward, will become more and more common. Let’s first look at an area that I’m involved in, breast cancer. I’ll take one example. There is a gene, known as BRCA1. Mutations in this gene can lead to a greatly increased risk of breast cancer, as well as ovarian cancer, at a young age in women and, when the gene is passed on, a similarly elevated risk in their daughters. And, even if she does not have daughters, she could pass the gene on to any sons that she might have, who might then pass the defective gene on. So, is it eugenics if a woman, diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age and then found on genetic testing to have a BRCA1 mutation, decides that she will not have any children? Or what about other examples drawn from the panoply of genetic testing that is now becoming available? Such genetic testing is a form of eugenics, I would argue. Thus, I ask: Is it immoral for a woman carrying a BRCA1 mutation to decide that she does not wish to pass this mutation on to the next generation? If so, why? The same question could be asked of a number of other of genetic conditions that predispose to various diseases. Our improved understanding of the genetic basis of disease and our increasing ability to test for it are resulting in a de facto eugenics program, whether we want to admit it or not.

If there’s one area that atheists and believers should be able to find common ground, it should be the acceptance of human autonomy and self-determination without coercion as the basis for determining what is and is not morally acceptable in terms of genetic testing or any sort of “positive” eugenics. This concept does not require that one believe in a God, but has the advantage that believers also accept it as a given. I’m not saying that this concept would be a panacea. For one thing, we’re dealing with probabilities, not certainties. (For example, not all BRCA1 carriers will get cancer.) We also have to deal with the fact that there are other motivations other than altruism that come into play, as in parents not wanting to be bothered with having a child that is less than perfect, even though that child could potentially live a satisfying and worthwhile life. I’m merely proposing the concepts of autonomy (lack of coercion) and beneficence as a starting point for such a discussion.

All of this becomes a lot more dicey when it comes to genetic engineering that is not related to known genetic defects, and this is where I’m a lot less sanguine about eugenics than Dawkins seems to be. He seems to blithely dismiss a lot of the concerns with a rather odd question: “Why is it acceptable to train for athletic skills but not breed for them?” I should think that the difference between the two should be obvious. One is maximizing an ability that an individual already has, while another is trying to predetermine an ability in one not yet born. Moreover, when it comes to breeding or genetic engineering for various traits, the argument against such such eugenics that I find most persuasive is that such a program, over time, will tend to reinforce and fix class differences. The rich and powerful will be able to afford to use such techniques to “improve” their offspring, while the vast majority of the poor will be stuck with the old-fashioned way of reproduction. In this light, a world such as that portrayed in the movie Gattaca, in which the upper classes can afford to have nothing but “designer babies” free from genetic disease, physically very attractive, and possessing enhanced physical abilities and intelligence, while people born without genetic interventions are relegated to a genetically determined status as second-class citizens and face serious discrimination, seems more plausible several generations hence. I’d be shocked if Dawkins were not aware of this argument, plus the other persuasive argument that the matter of who wins and who loses in any eugenic program tends to be a matter of who has political and economic power, which makes his comment “I can think of some answers, and they are good ones, which would probably end up persuading me” seem a bit disingenuous.

The horrors of Hitler’s regime and the Holocaust quite rightly give us pause when contemplating any sort of attempts at eugenics, particularly since genetic engineering promises (or, threatens) to give us power to alter the human race in ways undreamed of by Hitler or any of his predecessors. Technology is marching far beyond what was available 60 years ago and threatening to render the traditional objections to eugenics moot and the specter of Hitler almost irrelevant. What we need to agree on now is a framework upon which to base the moral decisions that this technology will bring. Respect for individual autonomy and beneficence represent two prerequisites for any such framework, but clearly are not enough. Dawkins may have been a bit too flippant in his comments, but he does bring up a legitimate point. It is no longer possible simply to dismiss the issue of eugenics out of hand because of what happened over sixty years ago, because advances in the science and technology of genetic testing and genetic engineering won’t let us.

ADDENDUM: I’ve noticed that The Sunday Herald has changed the title of Dawkins’ article to “From the Afterward.” Amusingly enough, the URL is still: http://www.sundayherald.com/life/people/display.var.1031440.0.eugenics_may_not_be_bad.php, betraying the original title.

ADDENDUM #2: Part two of this series has been posted.