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Eugenics and Human Goodness

Ross Douthat writes today about old-school eugenicists, and how even though they believed horrible things, they weren’t crypto-Nazis — a fact that should make us very uneasy. Excerpt:

But these same eugenicists were often political and social liberals — advocates of social reform, partisans of science, critics of stasis and reaction. “They weren’t sinister characters out of some darkly lighted noir film about Nazi sympathizers,” Conniff writes of Fisher and his peers, “but environmentalists, peace activists, fitness buffs, healthy-living enthusiasts, inventors and family men.” From Teddy Roosevelt to the Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, fears about “race suicide” and “human weeds” were common among self-conscious progressives, who saw the quest for a better gene pool as of a piece with their broader dream of human advancement.

Today, Douthat writes, science has given us knowledge of the human genome that the eugenicists of old could only have dreamed of. Douthat points out that if the eugenicists of old had the knowledge that their successors today have, they would have empowered the state to weed out the “unfit.” It’s hard to imagine this sort of thing happening in today’s political climate, but Douthat points out that it’s a lot closer to reality than we care to think. More:

Having left behind pseudoscientific racial theories, it’s easy for us to look back and pass judgment on yesterday’s eugenicists. It’s harder to acknowledge what we have in common with them.

First, a relentless desire for mastery and control, not only over our own lives but over the very marrow and sinew of generations yet unborn. And second, a belief in our own fundamental goodness, no matter to what ends our mastery is turned.

I find that assuming that whatever rotten thing people can do, they eventually will do, is the sound basis for a political worldview. And this is why I am a conservative, not a liberal or a libertarian.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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