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#12: Bring Back Eugenics

August 13, 2010, 12:00 AM
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The word “eugenics” invariably calls one thing to mind: the efforts of the Nazi party to purify the Aryan race of “undesirable traits” during the Holocaust. These horrific events remain among mankind's darkest moments. Yet in recent years, a group of bioethicists have begun to reclaim this term, calling for a new “liberal eugenics,” that they say could spur humanity on to a higher stage of evolution.

To some extent, eugenics is already currently in practice: In America, more than 90 percent of fetuses that test positive for Down Syndrome are aborted. But this new brand of liberal eugenics would seek to emphasize positive traits rather than to suppress those seen as negative ones. Scientists can already choose the sex of an infant with relative certainty and can select for traits like hair and eye color. And many scientists expect that they will have even greater control in the near future. 

For Julian Savulescu, Director of the Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics at Oxford, this debate is more than just academic. “Humans must change our morality,” he tells Big Think—otherwise, we will wipe ourselves out. "We exist in a unique moment in human history," he says. According to Savulescu, we possess technologies that, if used improperly, could obliterate the earth. At the same time, natural crises like global warming threaten a similar fate if decisive, coordinated action isn’t taken. Yet we can't seem to put the goals of the planet in front of our own short-sighted needs, as demonstrated by last year's Copenhagen Climate Conference.

Unlike Stephen Hawking, Savulescu believes there is hope here on earth, but overcoming these major problems will require “cooperation at a global level in a way that humans so far have not cooperated.”  Because of our pre-historic past as hunter-gatherers, man's capacity for morality is “limited,” he says. Evolution favored a tribal, short-sighted sense of morality. But now tremendous advances in science have placed potentially apocalyptic technologies in the hands of a people whose sense of morality is largely unchanged from our pre-historic days. We will have to become “post-humans," Savulescu believes.

One way such an engineered evolution could be achieved is through this new form of eugenics. “Our sense of fairness and our basic moral dispositions, like our patterns of sexual behavior and our relationships, have strong biological contributors capable of being understood and being manipulated or changed,” he said at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney last year. Savulescu advocates screening for genes and proteins associated with poor impulse control as well as those for psychopathy and anti-social personality disorder; at the same time genes for compassion and moral thinking should be promoted. Doing so would not only make global cooperation more likely, it would lessen the likelihood of nuclear or biological weapons falling into the wrong hands. 

Drugs could also make humans more moral and cooperative. In fact drugs that promote social behavior already exist: “Prozac has been shown to increase cooperation and decrease aggression,” says Savulescu. Also, the drug Oxytocin has been shown to promote trust and the willingness to take risks. More radically, pedophiles have been treated with hormonal castration, sometimes as an alternative to imprisonment, using drugs that limit testosterone and sex drive. 

Not only are these sorts of enhancements morally permissible, says Savulescu, they are vital to our survival. And if these cognitive and ethical enhancers are deemed to be safe, he tells Big Think we should add them to the drinking water (a topic we broached earlier in our series) Ultimately, Savulescu hopes that recent radical advances in science will usher in a “second great human enlightenment, an enlightenment of the human condition.” If not, these may be our twilight years. 

Takeaway

Never in history have there been so many potential ways that mankind might suddenly meet its extinction, including molecular nanotech weapons, superintelligent A.I., genetically engineered pandemics, and nuclear terrorism. These technologies need only fall into the hands of one psychopath and that might be it for our race. Liberal eugenics and morality-enhancing drugs could combat amoral and anti-social character traits, and could foster the sort of cooperation that will be necessary for tackling climate change, nuclear proliferation, and other global issues that threaten our race. 

Why We Should Reject This

Jurgen Habermas, a leading German philosopher and critical theorist, opposes these sorts of enhancements on the basis that they inherently compromise our understanding of morality, even as they try to enhance our capacity for moral behavior.

In his book “The Future of Human Nature,” Habermas lays out his argument against genetic enhancement: Our current understanding of what it means to be moral rests on two presuppositions:  (a) that humans view themselves as free, autonomous, self-legislating beings, and (b) that we act in a way that acknowledges these attributes in other moral agents. Savulescu’s morality enhancements violate both these tenets: tampering with genes would deprive “enhanced” beings of their sense of autonomy, and imposing genetic preferences on another person treats them like an object rather than an autonomous subject. So what is at stake is morality itself—whether or not post-humans could view themselves as committed to moral judgment and action. 

There is also the pesky “slippery slope” issue, which has always dogged the practice of eugenics. Once these technologies are widely available, where do we draw the line between enhancement and suppression, between what is and what isn’t "undesirable?"

More Resources

— Julian Savulescu’s lecture at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney 

Global Catastrophic Risks Survey 

— “Ethical Issues in Human Enhancement” [PDF] co-authored by Nick Bostrom, Director of the Future of Humanity Institute

More from the Big Idea for Saturday, June 04 2011

 

#12: Bring Back Eugenics

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