Some thoughts on a delicate subject
Eugenics is the sub-branch of the science of human genetics that is occupied with measures concerning the control of the genetic features of a population. Widukind Lenz (1919 - 1995), one of the pioneers of human genetics in Germany, differentiates between two types of eugenics:
Positive eugenics: measures to stimulate the spreading of genetic traits that are considered good
Negative eugenics: measures to repress the spreading of genetic traits that are considered bad
The fact that the terms "good" and "bad" appear imply that eugenics is not based on objective findings, but that it is highly dependent on ethic values. Who decides
what features are good or bad? It is the government of the country in which eugenics is practised.
Overall there seem to be three reasons why a government may decide to enact eugenic measures:
The government may believe that the health of its citizens is endangered by the spreading of inheritable diseases. Therefore it imposes measures belonging to the type of "negative eugenics" in order to avoid that the occurence of genetic diseases increases.
As people suffering from mental subnormality or other severe handicaps are often unable to make a living themselves, other people have to care for them. The concept of "social welfare" forces the government to spend money on those citizens who are unable to have an income themselves. The larger this group of people, the more money has to be spent on them and the less money is available for other areas, such as education, research, health and economic development. Therefore the government may try to keep the number of such citizens within tight limits by means of negative eugenics.
In the first half of the 20th century, it was the official ideology of some countries to improve the genetic features of its people both by means of negative and positive eugenics. What genetic features were considered good and worth supporting, was decided by the government on an ideological basis.
Lots of countries have had eugenic policies. Some of the best known historical examples are:
Negative eugenics (to be more concrete: sterilization of people with mental subnormalities) was common practice in some US states in the first half of the 20th century. Furthermore, immigrants were selected on genetic criteria; a lot of immigrants were sent back to their home countries for ethnic reasons or because of inherited diseases.
It was common practice to sterilize handicapped citizens and ethnic minority group such as gypsies without informing them up until the 1970's.
Of course this is the best known and most extreme example. The population was originally divided into two categories: on the one hand, those who were considered worth living, and on the other, those who were considered not worth living. The latter group was sent to special places (lunatic asylums, concentration camps) at which they were eventually killed ("euthanasia", holocaust / shoah). More than 6 million Jews and 100,000's of gypsies and mentally disabled people lost their lives in this way; it was one of the greatest genocides in history. For the time after the war, there had also been plans to divide the German population into three groups: those who should be hindered from reproducing (negative eugenics), those who were allowed to reproduce and those who would be obliged to reproduce because of desirable genetic traits (positive eugenics).
But even today, eugenics is common practice in the Western world, even though it is implemented in a far more subtle form (pre-natal diagnostics resulting in abortion on the one hand, the government subsidizing young families with a certain amount of money per child on the other). In fact it is even one of the official aims of the European Union to decrease the spreading of genetically caused diseases among its citizens.
How have negative and positive eugenics been implemented so far, and what other ways of putting them into practice are conceivable?
Since the 1950s, a lot of devices have been invented that allow taking a look at the appearance and genetic set-up of a yet unborn child, i.e. what's nowadays commonly known as "pre-natal diagnostics". Some examples are sonography, amniocentesis and chorion biopsy. Pre-natal diagnostics is common practice in Western countries these days. In recent years, an additional technology related to in-vitro fertilization has been established, which is called "pre-implantation diagnostics". All of these devices allow for an early and quite reliable detection of various diseases with a genetic cause, for instance Trisomy 21 (Down Syndrome, in past times also known as "mongolism"). If such an abnormality is detected in a fetus before delivery, the mother is informed on the consequences for her family's life and asked whether she really wants to bring her child to life. If she agrees, doctors will abort the child.
In Sweden and the USA, sterilization of people suffering from mental subnormality used to be common practice. The reason for this was the fear that if people with a low IQ continued to reproduce at fast pace, the average level of intelligence of the total population would decrease. Especially American intellectuals such as professors at Harvard University were worried about the possible consequences concerning US culture and economy. Sterilization was done by medical doctors who acted on the decision of a court. People were sterilized without their agreement. In most of the cases, they were not even informed about what was being done to them.
This is of course the most brutal and blunt way of negative eugenics; it was what the National socialists did to members of ethnic minorities and mentally handicapped people. (The latter crime was euphemistically referred to as "euthanasia", but actually it was not euthanasia in its true sense because euthanasia requires the victim's wish to be killed!) Mass-murder of racial groups (genocide) has still not vanished from our planet; on the contrary, it happens every day, especially in so-called third world countries.
By separating a part of the population from the rest, the genetic traits from these two groups cease to mix. In the course of centuries, the two former parts of one population will have have evolved rather different characteristics. This concept of segregation has been very important for the evolution of life from amoeba to man, as well as for the development of mankind itself: it is the reason why there are so many different ethnic groups. Each group is equipped with certain genes that appear in it more commonly than in other populations; these genes may be valuable for adaptation to certain geographical areas and diseases. Segregation could be used as a means of both positive and negative eugenics: as a means of negative eugenics by grouping people with traits considered disadvantageous and separating them from the remaining, healthy population, or as a means of positive eugenics by picking people with traits considered advantageous and making them marry among each other so that the number of people with these features increases. Examples of modern countries in which the concept of segregation has been partially implemented include traditional India, South Africa during the Apartheid period, the pre-1960's USA and Israel. As a matter of fact there are also non-government organizations that select people according to particular, genetically determined criteria, such as IQ; it is a common phenomenon that members of such societies significantly tend to marry among each other, and their offspring - what a surprise - in many cases also qualifies for membership in this society.
Control of marriage (negative/positive):
Among Ashkenazi Jews, a grave genetic illness called Tay-Sachs disease used to be rather wide-spread. It causes blindness and severe mental deficiency. Since it is recessively inherited, the number of people carrying the fatal gene is far larger than the number of those who actually develop the disease. In order to get rid of Tay-Sachs disease, an American Jewish community has enacted the law that all of its members must be tested for it at young age. The test results are stored anonymously in a data-base; every member just gets a number refering to his data. When a young couple wants to marry, they have to call a matchmaker and tell him their numbers. He will then evaluate the risk of getting a baby with Tay-Sachs disease and thus decide whether the couple is allowed to marry. In this way Tay-Sachs disease has become almost unknown among US Jews. This is a good example of a humane implementation of negative eugenics. The same method could also be used for positive eugenics.
Motivation to reproduce (positive):
Only a few years ago, the Austrian government decided to subsidize every young couple with a relatively high monthly fee per child until they reach the age of 6 years. In this way all young people living in Austria are encouraged to reproduce. If the subsidiary were not universal, but if people had to fulfill certain genetic criteria in order to get it, it would be a measure of positive eugenics.
After these factual statements, let us get to the actual point of interest. Is eugenics good or bad? Does it bring us more benefit than harm, or is it the other way round? Is eugenics in accordance with the philosophy of the Western world, including freedom, democracy and human rights? Does it make sense to commit oneself to putting eugenics into practice?
As I see it, from a biological point of view, the way life works in general (not only human life) is primarily about three things:
raising the offspring.
The life of an ordinary human being living in a Western country can be shortly described as follows:
We are raised by our parents who have decided to give birth to us in order to pass their genes on to the next generation. Our parents introduce us to the world, teach us basic surviving strategies and in general prepare us for life.
2. General education:
At school, we are for the first time considered members of society. We are together with other people of the same age and gain a lot of cultural techniques, knowledge and skills that is supposed to help us in our further life under the guidance of a grown-up person, the teacher. It is our duty to learn the way society is organized and adapt to its demands. While attending school, our physique undergoes dramatic changes: As we enter puberty, we start to get interested in the opposite sex. We also start to question the teachings of the elder and establish our own youth-cultures with values differing from those of our parents. By the end of general education, however, we usually begin to re-adapt to traditional norms again.
3. Occupational training:
After leaving school, we are considered mature. It is now our duty to choose a profession that fits our talents and skills as well as possible and become full members of society, aware of responsibilities and opportunities. Many of us will start a training or a study without being certain whether it is really the right thing for them. A period of insecurity commences, in which we usually do many experiments and try out a lot of things, a bit similarly to puberty. Some stop their training after a while and decide to do something else instead, while others remain persistent. Anyhow, sooner or later a key experience will (hopefully) come that causes us to finally realize what we are striving for. And from then on, we will pursue our studies with great diligence and enthusiasm. Meanwhile we get in contact with a lot of people, make new friends, go out with various members of the opposite sex, and perhaps already meet the woman (or man) we have always been waiting for.
4. Entering the working life:
Equipped with the skills gained at occupational training or university, we venture into the big world of economy. It is now up to our commitment, intelligence and creativity what we make of what has been taught us - whether we will be a simple employee keeping up the system or accomplish something great, something that has not existed before.
5. Reproduction and raising of the off-spring:
Once they have reached a certain social position that confronts them with tasks adequate to their talents and interests, most people decide to remain at this level. Career now becomes secondary, while family-life becomes more important. People decide to reproduce and raise children. The loop starts back at point 1, this time for the next generation.
6. Retirement and Old Age:
Once people reach a certain age, society no longer considers them productive and therefore these people are allowed to retire. By now their offspring will have probably reached adult age and will take care of its parents. Life will become less pleasant for the elderly due to disease, and after a couple of years to decades they will finally die.
In my opinion, something that is especially important for human beings is: freedom. Only if human beings are free to choose between several options, including job and partner, according to their inborn preferences and talents, they will be able to serve society in an optimal way. In my eyes, the best political basis for freedom is a democratic government.
How do freedom and eugenics get along? As a matter of fact, they do, but only certain types of eugenics. If a woman is allowed to decide whether or not to give birth to a handicapped child, that is okay. If a certain man and a certain woman are encouraged to marry because they promise to result in an interesting combination, that is okay; but it is not okay if they are forced to marry, or if they are prohibited from marrying because one of them carries a bad gene. It should be up to the couple's own decision whether to take the risk of conceiving an impaired child. However, it is the duty of their doctors to inform them about the possible consequences.
What I am absolutely against is state-enforced eugenics without agreement of the people concerned. I consider sterilization policies such as the Swedish or the early American one inhumane. As a matter of fact the UN Declaration of Human Rights does contain a passage that states that every human being has the right to reproduce if he or she is biologically able to do so.
Furthermore, I am of the opinion that in the past, there has been too much focus on negative eugenics. I deem negative eugenics not too effective anyway because of two reasons:
1. There are thousands of known genetic diseases. A lot of them are recessive, i.e. there are far more people carrying the gene responsible for the disease than people actually afflicted with it. Should all carriers be hindered from reproducing? Mind that these people are not easy to detect. And if they reproduce, it depends on the genetic configuration of their partners whether the child is at risk of developing the disease. If two healthy carriers of the recessive disease gene create a child, the chance that it will be sick is only 25 %! If the child is a carrier, the chance of a sick grand-child is again
25 % if the partner is also a carrier, and it is 0 % if the partner is free of the gene. If the child is sick, the chance of a sick grand-child is 100 % if the partner is sick as well, but it is only 50 % if the partner is just a carrier, and 0 % (!) if the partner is free of the gene. This means that over a long-time period, the disease will stay in the family, but it will not occur in every generation.
Of course if all carriers were sterilized, the chance of having the disease passed on to the next generation would be 0 %. However, it is infeasible to sterilize all carriers of a recessive gene defect: you would sterilize almost the entire population. Let me retell a simple calculation I was once demonstrated by a professor of population genetics: Assuming that 1 % of the population is carrier of a certain disease-causing gene,
99 % are free of the gene defect - they have no risk of conceiving children with this disease (unless some spontaneous mutation occurs, but that is highly improbable). But mind that there is not only one genetic disease in a normal human population, but let's say 5000. So the percentage of the population that is absolutely free from genetic diseases is approximately just
(99 %)^5000 or 1.5 % * 10^(-20) - an extremely low number. Okay, it is probably a bit larger as people usually carry more than one bad gene. Nonetheless there are only few, if any individuals who are completely free of genetic diseases. So if a government were about to eliminate all carriers of a recessive gene defect, it would become depleted of citizens.
However, mind that genes usually have both positive and negative effects. Some of the genes that cause diseases might also be protective against other threats. (An example: Sickle cell anemia has the benefit of resistance against plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes malaria tropica.) Therefore it may be even counterproductive for public health to get rid of certain genetic diseases!
2. There is far enough statistical evidence showing that couples usually have a similarly high IQ. It is not too probable that a smart man will marry a dumb woman or vice versa. So there is no reason for being afraid that gifted people might become extinct because they choose intellectually inferior partners. On the contrary, I suppose that the average level of intelligence of mankind will continue to rise. I believe that it is due to the long-time period of peace, security and welfare in the Western countries (a premiere in world history) since the Second World War that people have more possibilities to explore their abilities, gain social positions that suit their talents and choose adequate partners. In earlier days, by contrast, many women were unable to marry the man of their choice because they got killed in war and therefore had to make do with second-class husbands.
However, what should be more enforced in my opinion is positive eugenics: implementing ways how men and women with abilities that are valuable for society are encouraged to meet. One of the most adequates places for this aim, of course, is university. It is a good thing that female students are no longer a rarity like only less than a century ago.
Eugenics has been a subject of heavy controversion for ethical reasons, because the ways it has been implemented in the course of history have often been very brutal and absolutely in disaccordance with the human rights.
Since eugenics is a term on the mentioning of which most people react with emotions, I have tried to remain factual and show various aspects. Of course this article does by far not cover all aspects of this very complex and delicate matter; but maybe it has inspired some of its readers to further deal with this subject.
Claus D. Volko (Adok/Hugi)
May of 2003