Eugenics and the DI revisited

You may recall the event a few weeks ago at the University of Minnesota in which John West of the Discovery Institute attempted to tell us how Darwin was responsible for eugenics. Greg Laden has mentioned that we now have an account from Mark Borrello, who rebutted West in a too-brief ten minutes after the talk; he gets to stretch his legs a little more online and tears West’s premises to shreds. In addition, Jim Curtsinger, who missed the talk but watched it online, gets to tell us something about the practice of teaching science: we Darwinists often talk about eugenics in our classes (I did, just this week), and we tell our students not that the strong must destroy the weak, but that eugenics is unsupported by our modern understanding of evolution.

Keep those two articles in mind next time you hear a creationist spout off about the evils of survival of the fittest, trumpeting their simple-minded misunderstandings of evolution. And you will hear that, many times over.


  1. Alex says

    “….trumpeting their simple-minded misunderstandings….”

    I had the hardest time realizing that to them, survival of the fittest literally means “the (physically) strong killing off the weak”. What kind of simpleton mind is required to hold such a shallow understanding of “fitness.” Utter stupidity.

  2. says

    Crap .. I forgot to include Curtsinger’s editorial on my post pointing to Mark’s. He’s going to beat the crap out of me next time he sees me, I know it.

  3. caynazzo says

    And it was Crichton who mostly stands out in my mind as first popularizing the confounding of science and, more specifically, genetic engineering with “negative eugenics” in Jurassic Park all those years ago. Only the oracular mathematician with his mystical chaos theories knew what was brewing.

  4. T_U_T says

    I just wish that creationists and social darwinists could annihilate mutually, and let the rest of the world to live in peace. However this is unlikely, because they aren’t exactly opposites.

  5. Gary G says

    While I agree with the general sentiment here, saying “that eugenics is unsupported by our modern understanding of evolution” is a bit strong. The concept of eradicating deleterious alleles by classic eugenic methods is right out, but one could argue that shifting the allelic frequencies down may be justifiable even if a frequency of zero is unachievable. I wouldn’t argue this, but one could – and one would be justified in using scientific arguments to buttress either side in that debate. The position one holds would be based on value judgements separate from the science itself.

    One could also argue that while classical eugenics aren’t up to the task, eugenics using modern techniques could potentially (albeit not feasibly) eliminate all transmission of any particular targeted allele, leaving only de novo mutations. For that matter, those could be screened out too if one chooses, and considers that ethical.

    I’ll restrain myself from instinctively tossing in another, for-good-measure “but I don’t advocate this” here!

  6. says

    Eugenics doesn’t rely on “macroevolution”, it relies on only on “microevolution”. So, given that creationists generally admit that they accept “microevolution”, I fail to see how they are in a superior position over evolutionists.

  7. T_U_T says

    Garry G. Each human carries on average 3 broken genes, and several novel mutations. So, the “modern techniques” you would need, would have to be the nuclear button. Because there is no way to wipe out negative mutations without wiping out anyone.

  8. Jim Curtsinger says

    Gary G makes a point that is perfectly valid as far as my editorial goes, but there’s another level of complication that I left out and that was alluded to by T_U_T. Namely, the mutation-selection balance process is going on at each of thousands of loci that are capable of being mutated to a lethal state. So the result is that virtually all of us carry some recessive lethals (the figure I’ve heard is an average of 7, but let’s not quibble). Given that, negative eugenics would keep all of us from breeding.

  9. Doug Rozell says

    RE #6: “The position one holds would be based on value judgements separate from the science itself.”

    In 1957 the philospher Richard Rudenr published a brief article titled “The Scientist Qua Scientist Makes Value Judgements”. Science is intrinsically about testing hyoptheses. Doing so requires setting confidence intervals before inference from the test sample can be deemed reliable of the world. But setting confidence intervals is ipso facto to make a judgement of value about the importance of the hypothesis being tested. Therefore, the very practice of science entails that the scientist make judgements of value. QED. For example, in quality assurance testing, a crate of 5000 nails might have an acceptable value of 4800 +/- 20 good nails (barely acceptable in my experience as a framer), while a production lot of 50000 pharmaceuticals would require 49999 +/- 1/10 to the nth power.

  10. Gary G says

    Thanks, T_U_T & Jim, I understand about genetic load, though the reminder doesn’t hurt. :) My point, which I could have made much more clear, is that eugenics, using the blunt instrument of sterilization, certainly could be used to target any particular “unfavourable” allele and stop transmission utterly, leaving only new mutations – which, for that matter, could be aborted. Of course one can’t clean up every gene in one generation, but one (or a few) at a time is feasible.

    I suppose, carrying on from here, a later generation could keep up their program of sterilizing/aborting those with mutations in the first gene, and add a second gene for “purification”. Their descendents could add a third, and eventually we’d all be nice and homogenous.

    Using the sharper instrument of direct gene tinkering (editing the genome in situ), this could all be done in one generation, with no sterilization, but with equally nightmarish overtones. Obviously I’ve moved out of current technological capacity now, but not into the inconceivable.

    Don’t try this at home, kids. I should add that I find this discussion interesting, but dislike the potential for quote-mining – makes me want to self-censor.

  11. Gary G says

    Doug, I should probably read Richard Rudner’s article – well, I should finish making my exams, but I’m enjoying this discussion. One distraction at a time!

    Still, on the basis of your post, I’m not sure I can accept that choosing confidence intervals in hypothesis testing needs to, in any way, take into account the importance of the subject. Making real-world decisions based on the science certainly does – if my life depends on there being 5000 nails in a crate, I’ll be leary of accepting any one crate without further testing. But that’s my judgement as a “user” of science, not that of the person who calculated and reported the expected distribution of nails per crate (the “scientist” in this analogy).

    I may be missing a crucial point.

  12. T_U_T says

    virtually no individual is born without mutations, so, even the “slow” approach is doomed to failure. There is simply no natural way of purging all genes no matter whether in one or one thousand generations. And even if there were. The inevitable “side” effect of such tour de force would be bringing entire human evolution to a grinding halt. The cost of eugenics would always exceed all benefits by several orders of magnitude.
    Gene modifications are of course something radically different. But, unlike the eugenics they are not evil by design, they don’t hurt anybody unless gone awry.

  13. Gary G says

    I wouldn’t consider gene modification and “eugenics” to be fundamentally different – eugenics has been associated with sterilization for some, encouraged reproduction for some, but that’s because those were the tools available “back then”. Eugnics is all about the “improvement” of the gene pool, and I’d suggest that any deliberate attempt to alter human allelic frequencies, by any technique, qualifies as eugenics – even if it’s a kindler, gentler version. But this would be just a difference of semantics between us, T_U_T.

    More substantially, I’d say gene modifications to ensure there are never any more freakish red-headed children (for example) is “evil by design”.

    It may not be feasible for the “slow” approach to “purify”, let’s say, all human genes. It may be feasible, over time, to control, say, 5,000 or 10,000 of them. There’ll still be chimeras and so on, but this still suggests that eugenics to some degree is possible. To pull out another analogy, just because it’s been impossible to prevent all home fires doesn’t mean that fire prevention measures don’t work & we might as well make our furniture & appliances out of matchsticks.

    Bad analogy, since I don’t think anyone would argue against fire prevention, but still…

  14. T_U_T says

    Actually, you would be capable to control only a few hundred at best, and the cost would be turning the world to a dystopian nightmare. And that is the crucial difference between eugenics and gene modifications. Both cause change in allelic frequencies, but the former can not be done without hurting someone , because it works only through hurting someone. the later can be done without killing or sterilizing or discriminating, in fact without any damage. ( deliberate abuse like wiping out red haired people is of course not the thing I am talking about ).

    Oh, and the point you are missing in Dough’s post is “conscious decisions”

  15. Colugo says

    Jim Curtsinger: “other factors that might have contributed to the popularity of eugenics in the early 20th century, such as massive immigration that dwarfs today’s levels in terms of percentages, or the burgeoning Progressive movement that dedicated itself to various social improvements including prohibition, worker’s rights, and women’s suffrage.”

    Nativist reaction to immigration is a major reason why American eugenics had a strong racial emphasis, in contrast to the UK eugenics movement’s more class-centered focus. American eugenicists wrote books about Teutonics being demographically swamped by nonwhite hordes (see Madison Grant, Northrop Stoddard).

    It should be noted that the Progressive Movement of the early 20th century (and the associated Social Gospel movement) was a very different movement than what is today referred to as progressive politics (for example, its prohibitionist tendencies). In that era, some prominent labor advocates (Jack London, Emma Goldman), feminists (Victoria Woodhull, Sanger, Emily Murphy), and anti-war figures (David Starr Jordan) were among those who favored eugenics. Jordan argued that war was dysgenic.


    “Our Refractory Human Material”: Eugenics and Social Control by Margaret Quigley, 1991, republished by Political Research Associates

    “A significant number of Progressives … were deeply involved with the eugenics movement. … (T)he Progressive and eugenics movements shared a great many traits and values. Both the “conservative” eugenicists and the progressives tended to be white, native-born, middle- and upper-class professionals from the East Coast. Both had a fear of degeneracy, immigrants, and the city; a condescension for the poor and other cultures; a drive for human perfectibility; and immense faith in science, in their own culture and values…”


    Christine Rosen (2004), Preaching Eugenics, Oxford University Press, p 18:

    “Most of the Protestant leaders who supported eugenics found their way through to the movement through their earlier social service work, which was initially an outgrowth of this social gospel impulse.

    The same influences that inspired Progressives and Social Gospelers encouraged campaigns for social justice by Reform Jews, and Jewish leaders who became involved in the eugenics movement were overwhelmingly from that tradition.”


    Ruth C. Engs (2000),Clean Living Movements: American Cycles of Health Reform, Praeger.

    Book description:

    “…out groups such as immigrants and/or youth were seen to exhibit behaviors that undermined society. Middle class fear of these “dangerous” classes and a desire to eliminate disease, crime, and other perceived health or social problems led to crusades … against alcohol, tobacco, drugs, certain foods, and sexual behaviors…. The desire for improved health and social conditions also led to campaigns in favor of exercise, semi-vegetarian diets, women’s rights, chastity, and eugenics.”

  16. Gary G says

    Re: T_U_T (#16)
    A few hundred, a few thousand, it doesn’t matter. One only has to be able to “cleanse” one locus to be able to claim some scientific justification for eugenics, to be able to claim that it “works”. Whether it works well enough to be justified in practice has nothing to do with the science, as I said, but with other value judgements – such as those inherent in your “dystopian nightmare” statement. It isn’t the methodology of science that leads to this claim, it’s because you have other reasons, which I share, for valuing personal freedom from state sterilization over possible benefits. Of course one could scientifically do one’s best to look at a cost-benefit analysis from purely financial grounds, for instance, but that’s not what we’re doing here. We’re saying “forced sterilization is wrong… ’cause it is”. And that’s OK by me, but it’s not science.

    I have to stand by my position that you are defining eugenics unnecessarily narrowly by assuming it only involves sterilization. Even in the early 20th century that wasn’t true for all eugenics movements (which is why the article specifies “negative eugenics”), and it certainly needn’t be true in general. Eugenics is about the goal, not about the methods.

    Doug never used the words “conscious decisions”, so I can see how I missed that point. I still don’t get it. A statistician reporting on the contents of nail crates is not making a value judgement when he reports confidence intervals. Of course values enter into it – when he chooses not to lie about his figures, he’s weighing values in a fashion, but this is a trivial thing that doesn’t improve the discussion.