Or, at least not allowed to procreate!
I have been studying the interplay between Darwinism and the ‘elimination of defectives’ for almost ten years, ever since my wife and I were counseled to abort our daughter, diagnosed with spina bifida. We told the doc to go pound sand. Our daughter is now almost 8, and beautiful. As you can imagine, I am sensitive to assertions and insinuations that ‘defectives’ shouldn’t be brought into the world, for her sake and ‘our’ sake (where ‘our’ means society). This latter sentiment is clearly eugenic in nature–not that any of the people who say such things are ever aware of it.
In fact, my research indicates that eugenics is alive and well and very much with us. No, you don’t find people identifying themselves as eugenicists. What you find are people advocating for eugenics policies using eugenic rationales without even knowing they are. Blame it on modern education, if you want. Or deceit or self-deceit. Call it what you want, justify it however you like, it is eugenics. [Read this, and the comments in particular, as an illustration.]
Now, the reason why eugenics continues to return, over and over again, is because eugenics is inspired directly by Darwinian thinking, and insofar as Darwinism accepted, and people think it ought to be applied to society (and shouldn’t science be applied to society?), it will always return. Consider this quote from a book called Dangerous Diagnostics:
Although the old eugenic generalizations have been cast off, the logic behind them persists, refueled from diagnostic tests and justified in terms of efficiency, effectiveness, and cost. Thus some geneticists suggest the social importance of improving the “gene pool.” For example, geneticist Margery Shaw, convinced that every Mendelian genetic trait will eventually be diagnosed prenatally, has asserted that: “The law must control the spread of genes causing severe deleterious effects, just as disabling pathogenic bacteria and viruses are controlled.” She argues that parents may be liable for failing to respond to information about potential genetic disorders by controlling their reproduction, and that the police powers of the state could be employed to prevent genetic risks. Other geneticists assume that families informed of genetic problems will voluntarily eliminate defective fetuses. References to the “pollution of the gene pool,” “genetically healthy societies,” and “optimal genetic strategies” are beginning to appear in the scientific discourse.” The language of geneticists reveals their expectations. They have called the large-scale project to map the human genome a “quest for the Holy Grail” and an effort to create the “book of Man.” The computer program that generates the genome is called Genesis.
These authors are writing in 1989. Things haven’t gotten any better, and they won’t.
It is not my purpose here to show or explain how Darwinism inspired eugenics. I have a book in progress for that. You can check this for some illustrations. There is more where that came from, I assure you. But there is one aspect I wish to draw attention to.
A small fraction of my readers will know that when Darwin published his Origin of the Species, the actual mechanism by which species ‘evolved’ was not yet known. Mendel had published his work on peas, but it did not become well known or go mainstream until the early 1900s, which left a solid 40 years for various theories to be put forward–the very same years that the ideological roots of eugenics were diving deep into the earth. The ambiguity related to the mechanism created two basic schools of thought, one ‘soft’ (Lamarckism) and one ‘hard’ (from August Weismann). If a Lamarckian explanation was correct, then it would be possible to improve the human species by tweaking the environment. If Weismann was correct, the environment was useless and had no direct impact on the transmission of biological traits, and the only viable option was to cull the herd, as it were. Or, keep the worst of the herd from breeding.
Weismann won. Mendelian genetics proved to be the answer.
Before this was established, four decades had passed by where the only thing that was believed to be known definitively, was that all biological life had gradually became exquisitely adapted to its surroundings by the elimination of the unfit and the survival of the fittest to reproduce. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is still the accepted, orthodox view. To question it or challenge it is to bring upon yourself the fires that history reserved for heretics.
According to Darwin’s son, Francis Darwin:
From the first, [Galton] had the support of Charles Darwin who never wavered in his admiration of Galton’s purpose, though he had doubts about the practicality of reform. His hesitation in regard to eugenic method is expressed with a wise proviso as to future possibilities: “I have lately been led,” he says, “to reflect a little … on the artificial checks, but doubt greatly whether such would be dangerous to the world at large at present, however it may be in the distant future.” In the first edition of the Descent of Man, 1874, he distinctly gives his adherence to the eugenic idea by his assertion that many might by selection do something for the moral and physical qualities of the race.
According to Soloway in Demography and Degeneration, Alfred Russel Wallace
reported that “Darwin was gloomy about the prospect of a future in which natural selection had no play and the fittest did not survive. He talked about ‘the scum’ from whom ‘the stream of life’ is largely renewed, and of the grave danger it entailed in a democratic civilization.
The problem, simply, is that if natural selection be the great creative process that it must be if Darwinism was correct, then there were an awful lot of people who were living and surviving and breeding that would have died in former times. Now, unfortunately, civilization and scientific and medical advances were keeping these ‘defectives’ alive. Hundreds of examples of this sentiment could be provided, but prominent eugenicists Karl Pearson puts it all together nicely:
Our social instincts, our common humanity, enforce upon us the conception that each person born has the right to live, yet this right essentially connotes a suspension of the full intensity of natural selection. Darwinism and medical progress are opposed forces, and we shall gain nothing by screening that fact, or, in opposition to ample evidence, asserting that Darwinism has no application to civilized man.
So, there you have it. Medicine is thwarting natural selection, and it is foolish to think that Darwinism doesn’t have implications to civilized man–‘social instincts’ be damned. (Those instincts themselves being created by natural selection…)
At the turn of the century, therefore, there was a widespread and enduring concern that the human race was degenerating, in large part because humans had arrested the biological processes that maintained the health of the species. As genetic knowledge increased, there was also increasing discussion about how to apply that knowledge. As you can imagine, the elimination of the ‘defectives’ was seen as an obvious, basic, easy place to start.
This sentiment, and the nod to Darwin, is clearly expressed by a prominent popularizer of science, Gordon Rattray Taylor, in his book The Biological Time Bomb (1968). This book, by the way, was cited approvingly by the majority in Roe vs. Wade. Taylor says:
Meanwhile, we have eliminated many of the forces which selected the strong from the weak, and we are coasting on the genetic selection of the past.
It is virtually certain that this total failure to face the biological realities created by our own scientific advances will cause such disaster that there will be a sudden reversal of policy. And once the right to bear children comes under regulation, the use of those powers to improve the genetic stock rather than to degrade it could follow relatively easily. […] In short, it must be concluded that, sooner or later, genetic regulation will be adopted.
I have been compiling similar sentiments and posting them here.
Let us consider the assumptions that are driving these sentiments. 1., Darwin showed that natural selection was sufficient to account for the magnificent adaptation seen in biological life on the planet and 2., in the case of humanity, the natural selection has been stifled by our own progress and 3., this has resulted in a steady degeneration of the human genome so that 4., it is self-evident that if one had the ability and know-how (such that genetics increasingly provides us) to reduce the number of ‘defects’ in the gene pool, one ought to do so. There is a fifth assumption I won’t dwell on, but which will be seen as relevant in a moment: 5., the earth and the universe have been around for a sufficient time to create these amazing, perfectly adapted organisms and 6., there is such a thing as a genetically perfectly organism.
Now, assumption #6 is not the sort of thing you will hear expressed, and for good reason. If Darwinism is correct (on the ‘modern synthesis’), then each organism is built on a genetic plan that was itself the result–every single step of the way, right down the the tiniest bit of DNA–of mutations to a previous genetic plan that itself had been sufficient to allow the organism’s parents to survive to reproduce the organism itself. On this view, there cannot be a genetically perfect organism. Every organism in existence now or ever is just an ‘instance’ of one particular genetic combination. There is no ‘standard.’ There cannot be one. There can’t be a point where one could say, “Aha, this genome is pristine and perfect” (like one might do with a piece of computer code, for example) because the genome in question will in every case be the result of chance and time cobbling together something that was able to compete for resources better than some other population of organisms.
The Darwinian reader will chafe at the the invocation of ‘chance’ but it is just a simple fact that the majority of the changes that happen to the genome occur because of a mutation to the genetic code. You can say that ‘natural selection’ might bring a level of orderliness to the matter, but it is purely a matter of chance and circumstance as to which gene will mutate, when, and how, for natural selection to act upon. Each piece of every genome is the result of some mutation that has occurred, with no rhyme or reason (if there was, then you are actually an intelligent design advocate), over the eons. Which means that mutations are the engines by which new evolutionary creations are made.
This being so, we must conclude the opposite of the title of this post. The idea of ‘degeneration’ must be seen as an entirely fallacious concept, because you cannot think of something as degenerating when it seen as being in perpetual flux in the first place. Moreover, the very thing seen as the most prominent example of ‘degeneration’, a birth defect that is the result of a ‘flaw’ created by a mutation in the gene pool, should actually be seen as, plausibly, a possible next step in the evolution of our species. We should be encouraging ‘defective’ people to ‘breed’ in order to speed ‘higher’ levels of evolution!
Even referring to their condition as a ‘defect’ is a contradiction in terms, because it implies a deviation from some standard of perfection. One speaks of a defect in something that is carefully calibrated, designed, and built, say, a brand new car. If one finds a pile of scrap metal and sees one rusted piece sticking out dangerously in one direction, one would never think of referring to it as a ‘defect’ even if we injure ourselves on it.
But of course, no one thinks that someone born with a birth ‘defect’ is one of the lucky recipients of a genetic mutation. In most cases, people born with birth defects need special care and concern, and won’t be able to survive, thrive, and reproduce on their own. This is the antithesis of what Darwinism is supposed to predict.
The purpose of my quotes above was to illustrate that if there is anything that the people with this mindset agree on, it is that the presence of genetic maladies, and our putative ability to end their transmission, is something that we ought to seriously consider. This is in flat contradiction to how they really ought to conceive of people born with ‘mutations.’
How do we reconcile this?
To be honest, I don’t believe there is a rational way to reconcile this on a Darwinian viewpoint, because if anyone had been concerned about being rational, they wouldn’t have accepted Darwinism in the first place. It may have been plausible before Mendelian genetics became understood, but the arrival of Mendelian genetics should have brought acceptance of Darwinism to a complete halt. (Remember, in the ‘modern synthesis, Darwinism moved to agree with genetics, not the other way around!). What we scientifically know is that the genomes we study bear all the marks of being amazingly sophisticated expressions of biological code, where even the tiniest deviations have the potential to send the organism off kilter.
This is not consistent with a Darwinian outlook.
It is consistent, however, with the belief that life on this planet was specially created by God, and not too long ago.
In fact, I would submit that the only way in which the terms ‘defective’ or ‘degeneration’ have any meaning whatsoever–and they intuitively do, and our actual experience supports these intuitions-is if they are deviations from an originally perfect paradigm.
Or, if I can put it another way, Darwinism putatively believes that genomes started out from sludge and progressively work their way up from there, but special creation posits that genomes were rock solid works of art and engineering that, for some reason, are steadily deteriorating.
In other words, it is really only if Christianity is true (whether from a ‘young earth’ or ‘old earth’ perspective), that it is meaningful to talk about ‘birth defects.’
In saying this, I am not saying that natural selection is not a real phenomena. It obviously is. Just as obviously, if natural selection is working on originally perfect genetic specimens rather than cobbled-together ones, there will be profound differences in our expectations and the predictions we make. Indeed, natural selection was recognized long before Darwin and Wallace saw it. It had been noticed by the Christian ‘special creationist’ and naturalist Edward Blyth, decades earlier.
The difference is that Blyth saw natural selection as a conserving process, which ‘pruned’ the extremes from the various species, and otherwise preserved the basic phenotype of those species. Darwin’s innovation was in proposing that natural selection was a creative process. Sure, it ‘pruned’, but when it did, this resulted in something ‘new.’
The upshot of the Darwinian viewpoint was that death was good; nay, death was essential. It was necessary that some die in order to see a gradual change from one species to another. The unspoken reason for why ‘defectives’ continue to be targeted for destruction is because it is through this elimination that a new species will emerge. Insofar as people wish to maintain the ‘gene pool’ they are not actually thinking of natural selection as Darwin perceived it, but as Blyth perceived it: as a conserving process. I say ‘unspoken’ which may imply that eugenicists past and present are aware of this rationale but don’t dare say it, but I don’t think it is as simple as that. There are people who do in fact have this point of view, but it is not something they can articulate so much as they instinctively feel. However, it has been articulated in the past, and every now and then you will hear people come pretty close to saying it aloud. But only the bravest (today) will say it explicitly.
But our knowledge of genetics tell us that this cannot be even close to the real story of how life came to be on this planet and that there is no reasonable hope that a truly new evolutionary species that is ‘healthy and whole’ would, or could, emerge. Natural selection can ‘prune’ all day long, but it can only work upon existing genetic code. Natural selection does not cause mutations, the thing that we now know (and Darwin didn’t and couldn’t know) is the basis for the variation ‘selected’ upon.
If I am right, then what I am proposing is actually something we could test by observation. Indeed, I believe the observations have already been made. The geneticist John Sanford has made this argument in his book “Genetic Entropy” for example. (Sanford abandoned his atheism and his Darwinian viewpoint because of his study of the genome.) The language and conduct of geneticists at work on ‘defects’ is consistent with a Biblical understanding of the genome, whereas it is not consistent with an atheistic understanding of the genome–contrary to their assertions otherwise. And every now and then, a member of the establishment lets slip the genius built into the genome, and is made to pay the price by his peers, like poor Ewan Birney, who prompted one author to whine, “The creationists are going to love this.”
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Francis Collins, the head of the aforementioned Human Genome Project, who also abandoned his atheism because of the ‘language of God.’ (I don’t really think Collins makes this case very well. Actually, he makes it pretty poorly. Personally, I think he is afraid of what the Grand Inquisitors would say and do to him if he explicitly challenged the Guiding Paradigm. Still, his credentials are impeccable, no?)
The astute reader might now have realized that, if I’m right, there are implications, that I might find reprehensible. Namely, if the concepts of ‘defects’ or ‘degeneration’ or ‘deterioration’ only have meaning if we’re really talking about a genome in decay, rather than decay turning into a genome, then doesn’t it follow that of all people, Christians should be most concerned with ‘eliminating’ dangerous defects from the human population? Wouldn’t we want to spare people, and future generations, from all of the likely suffering to come?
Ah, that is not at all the case.
The Darwinian viewpoint is internally convoluted, talking about things ‘degenerating’ as if from a perfected norm when its own paradigm shouldn’t have anything of the sort. Nonetheless, on their thinking, they think there is good reason to think that by careful and deliberate genetic engineering, we may be overcome the stupefying effect of civilization on the human population, replacing natural selection with conscious selection. This, by the by, is precisely what eugenics was all about!
But on my view, there is literally nothing we can do to prevent the genome from deteriorating. As already stated, it is just a scientific fact that mutations happen when mutations happen, and they will happen randomly with random effects today, tomorrow, and the day after. These will remain, as they have always been observed to be, nearly always deleterious.
In short, every person is a carrier of genetic information that has become corrupted, and these corruptions are going to accumulate. Apply natural selection to them all you want, you will never get a new species. Take a billion years, if you want. It just won’t happen. The laws of logic, genetics, biology, and physics stand in the way. If you ‘select’ one particular line of deleterious mutations out of the population, it doesn’t matter, because there are countless other lines, and these lines are going to be added to other lines, and new ones will be introduced over time.
The bottom line is that we are going to see an increasing number of children born with visible birth defects, because as it stands right now, every person is loaded with defects. The day will come when saying “we should eliminate birth defects” is precisely the same as saying “the human race should be brought to an end.”
One’s entire perspective changes based on whether you think that everything is winding down, versus everything winding up. The former necessarily implies a particular starting point. The latter is not even thought of as something possible according to the laws of our universe.
If you think everything is winding down and see no reason to hope that we can turn the clock back, you realize that in our quest to eliminate suffering, our solution cannot be to deprive people of existence.