Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Fearing Eugenics, Resisting Sociobiology


Some might argue that the last thing the world needs is for the right to embrace Darwinian thinking.  What was the nightmare of eugenics, some on both right and left would ask, if not the misapplication of Darwinian ideas to right-wing political ends?  Nightmarish eugenics may have been — a perverse use of state power and pseudo-science to slaughter or sterilize those deemed unfit — but it was not per se a right-wing phenomenon.

Today associated with the death camps of the Nazis, eugenics was once considered common sense by well-meaning people across the political spectrum.  Margaret Sanger, revered by feminists as an early advocate of contraceptives, promoted them in part to lower the birth rate of undesirables.  In the minds of many in that day, eugenics was not so much a plan for racial war as it was a natural extension of the immense successes of public hygiene in eliminating disease outbreaks.  First eliminate cholera, then the mentally retarded, you might say.  The proto-fascists’ calisthenics, open-air hikes, and organic diets were all part of a larger ideal of health and purity that had no place for freaks and genetic defectives.  But witty socialist George Bernard Shaw, too, like many left-leaning early modernists, subscribed to a “superman” ideal (he phrased even his arguments for vegetarianism in strikingly masculine and triumphalist terms by today’s standards, noting in Preface to Androcles and the Lion that meat-eaters have suffered “the most ignominious defeats by vegetarian wrestlers and racers and bicyclists”).

Of course, just because evolution is an often-brutal process doesn’t mean we have any obligation to help it along, nor to steer it any particular direction (and if a retarded person could have survived and even reproduced were he not attacked by the state, then he is not “unfit” in any strictly Darwinian sense).  It is not the case that everyone who studies evolution harbors a desire to crush the weak — but that was pretty much the view that student protesters took of Darwinians in the 1970s, reacting against a new wave of interdiscplinary scholars referred to as sociobiologists, who strove to explain modern human behavior in terms of the evolutionary incentive structures that shaped our ancestors.  That intellectual endeavor was enough to get the scientists hounded off campuses by student protesters, who likened sociobiology to eugenics.  Though sociobiology has no political program, the late Stephen Jay Gould (whose own writings on evolution were often more admired by lay readers than by his colleagues) helped fan the flames by calling sociobiologists reactionaries (an online commenter, identifying himself as a student of University of New Mexico sociobiologist Randy Thornhill, once complained that Stephen Jay Gould was venerated as progressive while sociobiologists like Robert Trivers are called reactionary, yet Trivers was a Black Panther sympathizer and “Gould was sitting on his ass in Harvard, while Trivers immunized poor children in the Jamaican countryside!”).

What sort of ideas got the sociobiologists labeled right-wing?  Consider their Darwinian take on four hot-button subjects, as I look at them over the course of the next four days: moral intuitions, group identity, tradition, and economics.


jenny said...

well, gould did graduate from antioch college, which should account for something.

how do you feel about the gattaca-like trend toward prenatal testing for genetic abnormalities that we’re seeing today? “first eliminate cholera, then genetic disease” is a slogan i could possibly get behind. parents should be able to choose the children they wish to raise, within the bounds of science. (i’m also not overly upset about gender-preference abortion, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

Todd Seavey said...

Without getting sidetracked into an abortion debate (something I promise _never_ to devote an entire month of blogging to, gentle readers), I will just say that I am increasingly morally-wary of abortion as gestation progresses but do not think that genetic concerns influencing people’s decisions in the early-gestation phase when abortions may (arguably) acceptably occur makes abortion any _more_ troubling. Beats flipping a coin.

Dating/mating is also largely a function of rendering genetic judgments, obviously, and that doesn’t seem to bother anyone.

Long term, I hope genetic engineering — even to the point of enabling us to become completely different species — and even robotics employing transplanted consciousnesses will render the more clumsy business of saying yea or nay to whole fetuses obsolete (by, for instance, making it possible to turn mentally retarded people into functional geniuses instead of having to talk about whether to “weed them out of the gene pool” in some fashion).

(There, I’m sure I can’t have said anything in three such short paragraphs that will offend anyone.)

David said...

Okay, Todd, I’ll bite: what species are you longing to become?

Todd Seavey said...

We can be slaves — or we can be Lycans! Possibly even lichens.

(And with very little cybernetic enhancement, we can become people smart enough not to see the Underworld prequel.)

Todd Seavey said...

And who among us would not enjoy becoming Mister Tawky Tawny, the magical talking tiger who’s friends with Captain Marvel?