Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits. In our towns we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague.
The concept of eugenics is fairly simple. It’s sometimes described as applying our understanding of evolution to the “betterment” of humanity, but what that amounts to is using animal breeding techniques on the human population. When it’s talked about “in theory”, some people – including those who should know better – claim that the basic concept is sound, it’s just that there are moral reasons not to do it. This is false. There are moral reasons not to do it, and we’ll get into that a bit, but it’s important to state up front that eugenics is an inherently faulty concept that cannot work. If you want a video breakdown of why that is, I’ll refer you to Rebecca Watson’s response to that time Richard Dawkins decided to demonstrate his ignorance to the world. For everyone else, here’s a quick overview of why eugenics is a vicious fantasy that could never work.
Step one would be determining what counts as “better”. Is it physical prowess? Intelligence? You can’t just breed for “better”, you have to have a clear trait in mind. Shaun’s thorough takedown of The Bell Curve does a good job of demonstrating how “intelligence” is not just a very poorly defined concept, but we also have very little idea how much of it is related to genetics vs. environmental factors. You could try to breed for brain size, but we’ve known for a while that size isn’t what determines intelligence. As I understand it, it’s much more about how the brain is organized, and how different sub-sections of the brain interact with each other. We could try to breed for “health”, but again, that’s a very nebulous concept. Do we want a metabolism that works a certain way? An immune system that works a certain way? What about allergies?
What about creativity and independent thinking? What about pro-social traits like empathy?
And once we have a clear goal in mind, what tradeoffs are we willing to accept? You can breed a dog to “point”, but then you have a compulsive behavioral trait that can be extremely inconvenient if you don’t actually need it. You see something interesting, and instead of noting it and moving on, or maybe taking a picture, or taking notes, you just freeze, and stare intently at it pretty much until you’re forced to move away. We could ignore science and breed for brain size, but then you run the risk of developing things like the skull being too small for the brain, or the head being so heavy that you risk breaking your neck if you’re startled. So we could make the whole body bigger, to support a bigger brain, right? Sure, but after a certain point, being bigger tends to come with its own health problems, and would generally lead to a decrease in longevity. Even if we could wave a wand and make everyone geniuses, would we be willing to lop three decades or so off of our average lifespan?
But let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that we have a clear trait we want to breed for, and we know we can breed for it, and we can easily detect that trait. Maybe we decided that making humanity “better” means breeding us all to have the pointiest possible elbows. Our vision of human perfection is big, bony, elbow spikes a few hundred generations down the line.
Now we run into the moral problems.
Have you ever looked into how animal breeding works?
To be perfectly frank, it’s a horrific process. Don’t get me wrong – I appreciate the generations of work that went into making livestock and some pets, but really think about the process. If your goal is to have an entire species of spiky-armed apes, that means that you don’t just need to encourage pointy-elbowed people to breed with each other rather than us inferior dull-elbowed people (Dullbows, for short), you also need to ensure that only the pointiest of elbows are allowed to breed. Even if we assume that everyone is on board with this, and Dullbows all volunteer to abstain from procreation for the greater good, you’re going to run into the same problem you encounter with every effort to breed for one trait to the exclusion of all others – you get inbreeding.
But exiting our fantastical scenario, when an animal breeder is going for a particular trait – or even broad set of traits – any babies without the desired trait tend to be “culled” – removed from the breeding population. The most common method is to just kill any individual that the breeder has decided should not be allowed to reproduce. Other options are forced sterilization, or lifelong confinement to prevent breeding.
That means, for our elbow example, that all of us Dullbows would either be murdered, imprisoned, or forcibly sterilized, for the greater pointiness of humanity. Basically, applying animal breeding techniques to humanity starts with routine and ongoing mass murder, as we saw most famously in Nazi Germany. It’s important to note here that “most famously” should not be taken to mean “only”. I didn’t learn about it in school, but long before the rise of the Nazi party, the German empire was carrying out genocides in its African colonies in the name of eugenics, overseen in part by the father of Hermann Goering. The horrors of the Holocaust didn’t come out of nowhere. A lot of what went on in Nazi Germany was not particularly exceptional for imperial governments then and since. Forced sterilization, genocide, cruel and destructive medical experiments on minorities, convicts, and disabled people have happed all over the globe, both within empires, and in colonies under imperial supervision.
The United States was the first country to have official forced sterilization laws, beginning with Indiana in 1907. The practice was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1981, but it continues to be done to disabled people, and to prisoners (including disabled prisoners, in case that needed to be made clear), both in exchange for shorter sentences, and involuntarily. Further, numerous women detained by ICE have allegedly been sterilized against their will, and the report from what was supposed to be a DHS investigation into the whistleblower’s allegations just… didn’t mention the whole nonconsensual hysterectomy thing. The DHS did, however, find the time to put music to their slideshow, resulting in this deeply weird video. Given the state of the U.S. law enforcement system, I feel no worry saying that I believe the accusers, and I don’t think it’s just some kind of mistake that the DHS just happened to leave out any mention of those allegations. Supposedly they’re doing a separate thing for that, but I’m not going to hold my breath.
Eugenics continues to be practiced in the United States, and I presume elsewhere, and if anything it seems to be gaining popularity in that country’s increasingly fascist right wing, with Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve, being interviewed by conservative media on a fairly regular basis. Unfortunately, explicitly eugenicist actions like murder and forced sterilization are not the end of the story. That quote up at the top represents a different approach to eugenics, informed by the rather Calvinist perspective that a person’s “unfitness” could be seen in their position in life. In this view, the troubles of the poor are due to their own personal failings, which makes them both unworthy from a moral perspective, and unproductive, otherwise why would they be poor?
And so the recommendation was to deliberately engineer conditions calculated to bring about sickness and death among the poor as a means of “decreasing the surplus population”. This perspective was popular among the “elites” of the past (and I suspect of the present as well), probably because it both excused and even glorified their wealth, while blaming all problems on the poor. This concept of a “surplus population” is probably most famous in the English-speaking world as one of the reasons why Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge refused to give to charity. He preferred instead to rely on prisons and workhouses, both of which tended to have poor sanitation and lots of people crowded together, being worked hard on inadequate rations – all conditions that, to quote Robert Malthus, courted the return of the plague.
Malthus, for the unfamiliar, is probably the most famous figure in the field of freaking out about overpopulation. His book, An Essay on the Principle of Population, foretold eventual famine as a result of exponential population growth at a time when food production was only increasing in a linear fashion. His recommendations about trying to increase the death rate among the poor were a vicious and misguided attempt to prevent future famine by deliberately inflicting the conditions of famine on a politically powerless subset of the population on a more or less permanent basis. Malthus’ work is considered to be an inspiration for Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, which re-invigorated the overpopulation panic in the mid to late 20th century.
Malthus taught at the East India Company College, and one of his students there was one Charles Trevelyan, who went on, in time, to become an assistant secretary to the royal treasury. In that capacity, he oversaw English aid efforts during the Great Famine in Ireland, and his opinions and policies – informed by what he learned from Malthus – are widely considered to have driven up the death toll. Of particular interest to me is his belief in the laissez-faire approach to economic governance, and his belief that if, for example, the food that was exported from Ireland throughout the famine were diverted, and the Irish were given what they needed to eat, then they might become dependent on the government. A million people died of starvation and disease (which had an easier time killing people because they were starving), in the name of the so-called Protestant work ethic, and what we now know as The Invisible Hand of the Free Market. Trevelyan was knighted for his work on famine relief.
This disdain for the poor and powerless, and this dogmatic belief that “The Market will provide” remain the governing philosophies of much of the world, and the United States in particular. It’s central to the “Welfare Queen” propaganda, and other efforts to attack social safety nets, and it plays a leading role in environmental racism and the lack of response to climate change. It’s also constantly present in arguments that support the U.S. for-profit healthcare system, and recently it has been woven into a lot of the rhetoric surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic:
It is hard not to read eugenic implications in this kind of thinking: the “herd” will survive, but for that to happen, other “weaker” members of society need to be sacrificed. And while Johnson’s right-wing political milieu is associated with the recent revival of racial science, there are no hints of a far-right conspiracy in Sweden, for example, where the centre-left government has confidently stood by the advice of the Public Health Agency, firmly opposing suppression measures.
In Norway, where the government has reluctantly embarked on several weeks of lockdown, a Norwegian Institute of Public Health director has recently said the epidemic cannot be stopped, and between 40 and 60 percent of Norway‘s population might be infected. Once many people build immunity, they can spend time with the sick without getting infected, and with people in high-risk groups without risking infecting them.
The Norwegian and Swedish states have a long history of adopting policies based on eugenics that continued well after World War II. Eugenics was deployed throughout the 20th century as a branch of scientific state management, part of a social engineering project that envisioned a society made of physically healthy and “socially fit” individuals.
It was closely associated with the development of the welfare state, and resulted in cruel practices, such as the forced sterilisation of mentally ill people.
Setting aside the long shadow of the past, it is the very argument that the economy is more important than people’s health that is based on a eugenic logic. Instead of the ethnos and the nation, we have the market that rules supreme over people’s lives, and is given the power of life and death over its subjects.
Most people who push the lie that COVID numbers are overblown, the vaccines are bad, the lockdowns are tyranny, and so on – most of those folks are conservative, and opposed to universal healthcare. Their arguments tend to revolve around “personal responsibility”, and whining about having to pay for the bad health “choices” of other people. In other words, anyone who dies because of the wealth-based rationing of the U.S. healthcare system deserved to die, and we’re better off without them. Similar arguments often come from liberal sleazebags like Bill Maher – anyone with a “pre-existing condition” is, deemed Unhealthy, in a way that makes their premature deaths irrelevant, never mind the decades of life people regularly have with said conditions.
What I didn’t expect was to see these arguments from someone claiming to be on the left, and claiming to be a standard-bearer in the fight for universal healthcare:
Note what the “point” of Dore’s clip was: the numbers are artificially inflated because out of the roughly 170,000 people in the UK whose deaths were attributed to COVID-19, only around ten percent had COVID-19 with zero comorbidities. That means, for example, that a 20 year old who is overweight and dies of COVID-19 shouldn’t count, when considering the severity of the disease, because they are overweight. Because it is “common knowledge” that being overweight shortens your life expectancy.
By a couple years.
“Extreme” obesity might shorten one’s life by as much as 14 years. Taking myself as an example – my BMI is over 40 – that would mean that at 37 years old, I should still have at least another 23 years or so in me, assuming I don’t do anything to improve my health, like exercising more. I should also point out that it’s only in the last few years that I’ve actually gotten to the point where I consider myself pretty good at my craft, and the amount of writing I’ve been doing has been increasing in recent years, and is likely to keep increasing.
If I were to catch COVID tomorrow and die a month later, that would wipe out a majority what would have been my career as a writer, and according to Jimmy Dore and those like him, that doesn’t count.
The reality is that all diseases have a wide array of comorbidities, and they always have. There has never been a world in which a majority of the population was in “perfect health” with no conditions that might make them more vulnerable to one disease or another, and setting policies based on such a world is guaranteed to result in mass death. We haven’t even touched on things like asthma or heart problems, which can be caused or exacerbated simply by breathing the polluted air of urban and industrial environments, but the reality is that we shouldn’t have to. Even if my obesity was due to a conscious, calculated decision to sacrifice a decade of life in exchange for more General Tso’s chicken, that doesn’t amount to a conscious choice to lose three decades of life because a pandemic was badly managed.
But as a disabled, immunocompromised person, I’m haunted by how Dr. Walensky added, after explaining that over 75% of the deaths of vaccinated people from Covid have been people with four or more comorbidities, that this is “encouraging news.” This messaging–meant to encourage a return to normal and apparently meant to comfort nondisabled people–is the real sting of this constant refrain of “people with comorbidities” rhetoric. I have been told, almost daily since the earliest stages of this pandemic, that it’s only people like me that are dying, that people like me are somehow a completely acceptable sacrifice for “the economy” and a “return to normal.” What should be read as a profound failure of national policy to protect the most vulnerable among us is being repackaged as “encouraging news.”
I’m troubled by how deeply this messaging has permeated our culture. In talks with nondisabled people about how I’m still being careful, isolating and using a mask when I absolutely have to leave my home, I am gaslight by nondisabled people, who robotically repeat to me this “it’s only people with comorbidities dying” talking point. When I remind them that when they talk about people with comorbidities that they are talking about people like me, the response is predictably the same: “I wasn’t talking about you.”
But the fact that they’re not talking about me–and about us as immunocompromised and disabled people–is the problem. “People with comorbidities” is deployed to make us faceless non-people, to erase us from the conversation even when we are–in the most literal sense–the people being talked about. The rhetorical function of that word, of “comorbidities” is to erase our identities, to talk about us without talking about us. With the rhetoric of “comorbidities,” we’re not your siblings or your grandparents or your neighbors or your friends anymore. We’re statistics.
The reality of the situation is my government doesn’t care if I or other disabled, marginalized people die as long as nondisabled people can eat inside at an Applebees. We’re disposable as long as most people can continue to offer their labor (coerced by capitalism) and consumption to make the richest people a bit richer. In the push for a return to normal–a normal which already disregarded disabled people, and especially multiply marginalized disabled people–the eugenic belief that lives like mine are less worthy continues to solidify as policy, as schools and businesses reopen, as my state government here in Texas continues to stand in the way of local mandates and protections.
A versatile concept, “comorbidities,” is rhetorically deployed like the other eugenic weapons of capitalism and white supremacy, making faceless abstractions of the very people most at risk from this widely unmitigated pandemic. But framing the deaths of those with comorbidities as “encouraging news” sidesteps conversations around other prevailing injustices, including how BIPOC communities are more likely to have comorbidities because of systemic inequalities, how this pandemic has disproportionately harmed indigenous communities, and how the medical industrial complex already maligns disabled people, BIPOC folks, fat people, and LGBTQA+ kin.
Epidemics and pandemics are, pretty much by definition, a Bad Time. They bring death and fear, and have a long history of bringing societies of every kind to a grinding, painful halt. Those of us in wealthy nations are often told that we’re at or near the peak of civilization, and that all those bad things in the past don’t count because we didn’t know better, and that was so long ago. And it’s bullshit. We’ve learned enough about the world to know that things like eugenics aren’t just morally repugnant, but are also entirely without even the “practical merits” their advocates claim. What we haven’t done is change the ways in which our society incentivizes scapegoating, bigotry, and the devaluation of human life.
We are in the beginning of an era that is likely to be defined by “natural” disasters of every kind, and conditions like heat, cold, and disease outbreaks have always been used as tools of eugenics and genocide. This pandemic should open our eyes to a great many problems with the way we run things, and that definitely includes the fact that support for eugenics has never really gone away. We can’t avoid repeating the horrors of the past if we don’t change the social infrastructure that was in many cases designed to lead people towards “solutions” that involve deliberately letting people die for no good reason.
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