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Robert VerBruggen Is Not a Nazi, But Eugenics Isn’t Rocket Science

I’m tempted to say, in response to Robert VerBruggen’s lament [1], that yes, that’s Twitter for you, and this is one of many reasons why I’m not on it. But I think there is more to say about the problem of eugenics than merely “it’s immoral but not ineffective.”

First of all, as I’m sure VerBruggen would agree, not all efforts to improve the gene pool are immoral, and though we may disagree about exactly where the line is, we both surely agree that it’s laudable to get tested for Tay-Sachs before you marry, and we both surely agree that forced sterilization of “undesirables” is an abomination. For myself, I’ve written [2] about this before [3], and I stand by what I wrote then.

Second, we should probably limit the word “eugenics” to collective programs to improve the gene pool, and not apply the word to individual choices about who to have children with, because only collective programs can actually change the population as a whole. As such, it’s important to recognize that to breed for particular traits, you have to prevent elements within the population that don’t have those traits from breeding. For example, if you assume that intelligence is highly heritable, and wanted to increase the intelligence of the population, it wouldn’t do to get smart people to marry other smart people. You’d have to get smart people to outbreed less-smart people. I can’t think of a way to do this that is both ethical and plausible — and most of the ways I can think of are neither.

Finally, while we know from extensive experience in selectively breeding animals and plants that such programs work, by “work” we mean that we’ve maximized particular traits, abilities and behaviors. And in the course of doing so, you always get tradeoffs. The swift greyhound has chronic hip problems. The highly-trainable poodle is also prone to stress. The large-breasted chicken can’t fly. And so forth.

There is no reason to doubt that the same would be true of humans, and that any serious attempt to breed people for particular traits — even if undertaken on an entirely voluntary basis and involving no abortion or sterilization or whatnot — would have unexpected side effects. Perhaps breeding for ambition will result in lower empathy. Perhaps breeding for intelligence will result in greater incidence of anxiety and depression. Perhaps breeding for greater athletic prowess will result in higher rates of marital infidelity and divorce. Who knows?

We don’t — and we can’t ethically conduct the kinds of controlled experiments that would allow us to determine with high confidence that we had avoided unexpected side effects. That caution holds as well for genetic therapies that are surely on the horizon. “Fitness” is only meaningful relative to a set of environmental conditions. Narrow the set of traits by which you define fitness and you have implicitly narrowed the set of environments within which an organism will prove fit. Which is not, generally, a good way for a species to maximize its survival prospects.

I’m not arguing that people should blithely ignore genetic history or the science of inheritance more generally in matters like mate selection. (If I did, nobody would listen to me anyway.) But I am arguing both for humility and for a broad understanding of what constitutes fitness. Someone especially smart who says, “I need to marry someone just as smart as I am so that our children are likely to be similarly smart and hence similarly successful” is not only running the risk of disappointment due to mean-reversion (which remains a factor even when you stack the deck in your favor), but running the risk of having ignored other vital dimensions of the human personality by reducing “fitness” to a narrow, measurable trait.

(Also, if you want a good marriage, you should probably marry someone who you love and desire, who is good for you and who you are good for, and with whom you share certain core values and a robust ability to communicate, rather than thinking of your spouse primarily as breeding stock. Not to mention not treating your children as pint-sized success machines. And staying off Twitter when your wife is in the next room with the OB/GYN. Just saying.)

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Robert VerBruggen Is Not a Nazi, But Eugenics Isn’t Rocket Science"

#1 Comment By Zebesian On February 22, 2017 @ 6:44 pm

As I opined in the other article, genetic engineering will hopefully be the silver bullet that kills “traditional” eugenics for good.

As for the unpredictability of replacing certain genes, I agree. It is an area where we should tread carefully. I am hoping that we will start with well-agreed-upon diseases, and then gradually raise the standard of what we consider “diseases”, gradually improving ourselves in more general ways.

#2 Comment By John_M On February 22, 2017 @ 7:09 pm

There is a strong correlation of creativity in families with a higher incidence of schizophrenia. Many have observed that your math and science types have a much higher rate of Aspergers. And we know that some of the genetic diseases are selected for in some disease environments – sickle cell anemia, beta thalassemia, muscular dystrophy, … The high incidence of male homosexuality in the human population means that there must be a selective advantage for having a partial gene(s) for it, as it would have been reduced to a far smaller incidence otherwise.

While it makes sense to move selectively against some serious genetic issues, I am doubtful that we currently know enough of the tradeoffs to have a hope of making informed, let alone wise choices.

#3 Comment By Articuno On February 22, 2017 @ 7:47 pm

Eugenics is an excuse for people not to read history and philosophy

#4 Comment By Mike Schilling On February 23, 2017 @ 2:10 am

Many have observed that your math and science types have a much higher rate of Aspergers.

That’s crazy. Everyone is my family is good at math, and all my friends will tell you what a normal, empathetic person I am.

Anyway, they would if I had any.

#5 Comment By Moone Boy On February 23, 2017 @ 2:48 am

This is also a topic where I think people who grow up in farming areas, have a more sanguine view of both the normality – and the hard limits – of breeding.

You’ll get the comments (mostly humorous nowadays) about a wife having “a fine pair of childbearing hips”. But, here’s the thing: while you get rosettes for the best looking purebreds (I mean cattle, now… I think…), sometimes the most productive or suitable offspring for one’s own farm and purposes, are the crossbreeds of purebreds. For example, if you were willing to trade off some beef production for better milkers and mothers to calve. There is no universal “fitness” as you say – and anyone who has had to put a beloved purbred dog to “sleep” (almost always because of genetic problems heightened because of canine eugenics) knows this very, very well. It’s why I have mutts now.

#6 Comment By icarusr On February 23, 2017 @ 4:26 am

Thanks for this.

““Fitness” is only meaningful relative to a set of environmental conditions.”

It’s fascinating how otherwise intelligent people misunderstand this basic meaning of “survival of the fittest”. I’m always reminded of this:


To argue that eugenics is “effective” – regardless of its morality – is to argue past science.


Well put.

#7 Comment By connecticut farmer On February 23, 2017 @ 9:41 am

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly wrote a novel many years ago about this sort of thing. It was subtitled “The Modern Prometheus.”

#8 Comment By Elijah On February 23, 2017 @ 12:25 pm

‘“Fitness” is only meaningful relative to a set of environmental conditions.’

Exactly. A very important principle overlooked in most aspects of life. Fit for what? Running a marathon or lifting 500 lbs?

Contra the commenter who only has mutts, an awful lot of the problems in purebred dogs have to do with owners not being honest or knowledgeable about their stock and its background. Mutts have just as many problems as any other dog, it simply appears more random.

#9 Comment By Paul Emmons On February 25, 2017 @ 9:42 pm

Perhaps C.S. Lewis said it best (in The Abolition of Man): “Man’s conquest over nature” is really some men’s conquest over other men with nature as the instrument.

But nature will have the last word.

#10 Comment By The Autist Formerly Known as “KD” On February 27, 2017 @ 5:44 pm

I guess I am mystified by icarusr’s response.

I agree that fitness is determined by environmental conditions. If you are falling down a cliff, functional wings are “fit”, but you might prefer fins if you live in the ocean.

At the same time, human behavioral characteristics have a strong hereditary component, and so a conscious breeding program could be used to select the prevalence of certain characteristics in humans.

A group with a reproductive differential in human populations is generally “more fit” in increasing the share of its genes in the future gene pool over a group with below replacement fertility, all other things being equal.

Thus, the modern welfare state seems to select for lower IQ and religious fundamentalism from what I can tell. You could say it is a eugenics project, if not consciously so. Likewise, feminism can be viewed as a eugenics strategy to weed out females with a propensity to social dominance.

“Eu” is good, “genics” is genes, and, of course, the “good” is a conscious judgment made by human groups, not by nature at large. If a government felt is was in its interest to breed fanatical soldiers, then such a campaign would be “eugenic” in the eyes of the state.

The interesting feature of humans is the will to power, which results in a contest for status, rather than the will to survive, even though no one wants to kill off the peasants or stop them from breeding. The characteristics that may make you a competitive elite will not necessarily drive you to pass down your genes, they may even lead to your untimely death by a competitor.

Humans tend to desire characteristics that can carry them into high status positions, not simply leave them to survive and leave posterity. In fact, as eugenics comes around, it will probably result in more vicious elite competition rather than “improving the race”, however that might be understood.

#11 Comment By The Autist Formerly Known as “KD” On February 27, 2017 @ 5:55 pm

I guess some explanation for my remarks on feminism is in order. Feminism in women correlates to psychological and physical characteristics associated with social dominance:


Likewise, any social movement that encourages women in the movement to put off child bearing until late in life (if ever) will reduce those gene frequencies in the gene pool.