New eugenics proposals must be interrogated very carefully

William Reville: Social pressure on parents to go along with genetic enhancement of offspring would be great

Many science writers have an unfortunate tendency to present the history of science as a Whig history – an inevitable progression of discoveries leading towards ever greater understanding of nature and benefits for humankind. While science is undoubtedly a marvellously successful enterprise, it can also make, and has made, grave errors that have caused much human misery. Supporting eugenics was one such mistake. It is important that science acknowledges its mistakes in order to minimise the possibility of repeating them.

In 1858 Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace introduced the biological theory of evolution by natural selection, whereby strong and fit organisms naturally outcompete and succeed the weak and unfit, who die out naturally. This theory was enthusiastically received in scientific and intellectual circles.

Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton, proposed eugenics as a science in the late 1800s. Eugenicists became obsessed with the idea that society was gravely threatened through inheritance of inferior traits from "unfit" poor, criminal and immigrant classes. Consequently eugenicists encouraged poor people to breed less and middle and upper class people to breed more.

Encouraged by eugenic notions and utilitarian ethics, two German intellectuals, Karl Binding, a jurist, and Alfred Hoche, a professor of psychiatry, published a book in 1920 – Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life – in which they proposed killing people whose lives have no value. This killing was justified in the interests of "release from suffering" and "compassion". The slow progression of natural selection was to be speeded up by the active elimination of the unfit.

Euthanasia

Many advocates of euthanasia were professors of medicine and the concept of euthanising comatose patients, those close to death and the mentally ill crystallised in German medicine. Systematic euthanasia programmes began in the 1930s starting with congenitally-impaired and mentally-impaired children and later with disabled and mentally-impaired adults, and the terminally ill. Lethal injections were administered to psychiatric patients and gas chambers were built in some psychiatric hospitals. Detailed cases built on medical economics were drawn up to justify the euthanasia programmes.

Many historical studies have described the destruction of science and liberal values in Nazi Germany. However, the German euthanasia programme was not established by the Nazis but by the German medical science community. The Nazi government accepted eugenics, supported the euthanasia programme and legalised the killings. The Nazis later extended the programme to "inferior races", killing over six million Jews and others.

Not all sciences suffered under the Nazis. Physics and mathematics declined but sciences such as psychology, anthropology, human genetics, racial hygiene and medical science prospered. Many medical researchers conducted horrible experiments on concentration camp inmates.

Prior to the Nazis, the notion of improving humankind by selective breeding became very popular throughout Europe and the USA, and was enthusiastically supported by academics. Forced sterilisation laws for "defectives" were enacted in 27 American states in 1909. Scientific and economic arguments were proposed to justify sterilisation of the unfit and justified ethically as "release from suffering".

Improvement

A “new eugenics” is currently being promoted by some scientists and philosophers who argue that we are morally obliged to avail of new biological technology to genetically enhance human beings. They argue that, unlike the old coercive and unscientific eugenics (the idea that you could breed to select for high moral values was scientifically illiterate), the new eugenics will be both optional and scientific and those who refuse to avail of genetic improvement will not thrive.

But is new eugenics really non-coercive? All parents want to give their children every advantage, so the social pressure to go along with genetic enhancement of offspring would be great. And is the overall aim of the new eugenics not the same as that of the old eugenics – the development of superior individuals and the concomitant elimination of inferior individuals?

Science must interrogate this new eugenics very carefully because we know what happens when science gets it wrong. An essential first step must be, unlike last time, to act only on the basis that all human beings are endowed with full and equal human dignity.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC