Human Exceptionalism

I Retract My Claim that Richard Dawkins Supports Eugenics

Well, it seems that my post on Dawkins supporting eugenics was linked over at the Richard Dawkins official WEB site. In a comment to the post, Dawkins explains that the piece in the Herald was excerpted from an article he wrote in another forum. (It would have been nice if the Herald had explained that.) This means that Dawkins did not write the “Eugenics May Not Be Bad” headline, which is what caught my eye originally. Without that headline as a guide to interpreting his comment, his words take on a different tone.

Dawkins argues that the propriety of genetically enhancing progeny should be debated and states that scientists of the 1920s and 1930s–e.g., eugenics supporters–would not have found the idea particularly dangerous. He muses that today, in contrast, we are afraid to even discuss genetically enhancing our progeny because of Hitler. He notes we breed animals for certain attributes and wonders why it wouldn’t be acceptable to do the same to humans. He also suggests, without identifying them, that there are good arguments that could persuade him to oppose enhancement and suggests that the issue be tabled for debate. (Dawkins reaffirmed his quoted words, but does not elaborate about whether he opposes or supports genetically enhancing progeny.)

Without the headline as a guide, in good conscience I must retract my assertion that Dawkins supports eugenics. I suspect he would, since he apparently does not believe that human life has intrinsic value simply based on being human–the denial of which is also a fundamental premise of eugenics. But I don’t know that he would.

Still, it strikes me that debating a new eugenics through genetic engineering is about as respectable as debating a new racism through genetic engineering. A regime of genetic enhancing progeny would be a form of “positive eugenics,” of the kind originally pushed by Francis Galton. Eugenics is intrinsicly wrong in my view because it presumes the right to determine which humans are better and which worse based upon traits, talents, and characteristics. Making genetic engineering for enhancements respectable would eventually lead to oppression and exploitation of those deemed to have inferior traits and characteristics–just as the original positive eugenics led directly to America’s “negative eugenics” sterilization program, and Germany’s racial hygene attrocity.

Post Script: Here is a rich irony, considering Dawkins’ crusade to destroy religious belief (which is not an issue we discuss here at Secondhand Smoke). The primary supporters of eugenics in the first third to half of the 20th Century were scientists, the self described “free thinkers,” political progressives, and religious liberals. The opponents of eugenics were primarily, although certainly not exclusively, overt religionists of a decidedly orthodox persuasion. At least as to the that issue, the religionsts had it right.

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