I’m not the kind of journalist who’s always stepping in it on Twitter. In fact, I’ve been a member since 2010, and to the best of my knowledge only one person ever blocked me. That argument was over the definition of the word “average,” and they’ve unblocked me since. But I stepped in it last week.
In the waiting room while my wife finished up an early-morning prenatal appointment, I flipped through some RSS feeds on my phone, not just to pass the time but also because one of my jobs here at TAC is to compile the daily Of Note roundup. I spied a little gem from The New Republic called “Trump Has Turned the GOP Into the Party of Eugenics” and figured I should probably learn how such a horrifying thing happened. I didn’t get very far into the piece, though, because eugenics had been described as “discredited” three times by the third paragraph.
Maybe it shouldn’t, but this kind of scientism deeply irks me. Forced sterilization is a grotesque violation of human rights: that is the problem with it. Whether the science behind it has been “discredited” matters not one bit. By the same token, if I shoot someone in the head and take his car on the theory that this is the fastest way to get to the other side of town, my actions are not made any worse if I was wrong and the subway would have been faster, nor any better if they get me to work on time.
And it’s especially dangerous to turn a moral debate into a scientific one when you’re wrong about the science. Everyone’s jaws fall onto the floor when it’s said out loud, but the fact is that eugenics is effective. The eugenicists of last century certainly misunderstood some things, and plenty of them were downright crazy. But humans have been practicing eugenics on animals and plants for centuries with great success. One of the oddest things about human history, in fact, is how long we practiced artificial selection before anyone noticed that the natural environment could do the same thing. Charles Darwin discussed breeding in some depth in On the Origin of Species.
There’s no scientific reason that eugenics would be any less effective on humans. We still practice it, actually, just not by forced sterilization. We pre-screen embryos for genetic diseases. We abort Down Syndrome babies. We choose sperm donors—and live mates—with an eye toward what traits they will provide our offspring. With the exception of mate selection, there are lots of people who believe all of these actions are wrong. Personally, of these, I object only to aborting children with disabilities. But these practices achieve what they are intended to, and that is a separate question from whether they’re an acceptable thing to do.
Don’t take my word for it. This is not controversial among people who understand genetics and evolution. Here’s how the celebrated biologist Richard Dawkins put it in The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution:
Political opposition to eugenic breeding of humans sometimes spills over into the almost certainly false assertion that it is impossible. Not only is it immoral, you may hear it said, it wouldn’t work. Unfortunately, to say that something is morally wrong, or politically undesirable, is not to say that it wouldn’t work. I have no doubt that, if you set your mind to it and had enough time and enough political power, you could breed a race of superior body-builders, or high-jumpers, or shot-putters; pearl fishers, sumo wrestlers, or sprinters; or (I suspect, although now with less confidence because there are no animal precedents) superior musicians, poets, mathematicians or wine-tasters. The reason I am confident about selective breeding for athletic prowess is that the qualities needed are so similar to those that demonstrably work in the breeding of racehorses and carthorses, of greyhounds and sledge dogs. The reason I am still pretty confident about the practical feasibility (though not the moral or political desirability) of selective breeding for mental or otherwise uniquely human traits is that there are so few examples where an attempt at selective breeding in animals has ever failed, even for traits that might have been thought surprising. Who would have thought, for example, that dogs could be bred for sheep-herding skills, or ‘pointing’, or bull-baiting?
Also relevant: a massive review of behavioral-genetics research from 2015 showing that basically all human traits are at least somewhat heritable—and that this heritability mainly seems to stem from simple “additive” genetic variation, where a bunch of different genes either increase or decrease a given trait. Each child draws his genes randomly from each parent, so nothing is guaranteed, but a kid is more likely to inherit a lot of smart or shy or aggressive genes if his parents have lots of them to draw from. That’s one of the building blocks of natural selection—if people with a given trait are less able to reproduce, the genes for that trait become less common over time—and it’s how artificial selection often works too. You can’t discredit one without discrediting the other.
Anyhow, that’s what was going through my mind when I pulled up my RSS reader’s tweeting function and ill-advisedly fired this off:
So annoying when people say eugenics is “discredited” rather than deeply immoral. Deliberate breeding works. Sorry. https://t.co/fWetDy0SlH
— Robert VerBruggen (@RAVerBruggen) February 15, 2017
You can guess what happened next. Lots of people retweeted or favorited it—including experts in genetics but also many alt-right types. One alt-righter joined the conversation and provided some scientific material explaining how artificial selection works; not being familiar with this individual’s entire Twitter feed, I retweeted (and later un-retweeted) some of it. Geoffrey Miller, a prominent if controversial evolutionary psychologist, argued that some types of eugenics, such as mate selection, aren’t immoral. I had a mind-numbing conversation with the author of the New Republic piece in which she repeatedly insinuated I have Nazi sympathies. My very pregnant wife got mad because I spent our lunch out together checking my phone, leading to an awkward conversation about what was so damn important.
That’s Twitter, I guess. Whatever.
Robert VerBruggen is managing editor of The American Conservative.