Human Exceptionalism

Washington Post Columnist “Gets” The Growing Problem with Liberalism

In “The Eugenics Temptation,” Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson hits some nails on the head about the odious James Watson and the new eugenics. He surveys some of the obnoxious, racist, and anti-disabled statements Watson has made over the years, and then connects some dots. (He also includes some wise quotes from my friend Yuval Levin.) From his column:

Watson is not typical of the scientific community when it comes to his extreme social application of genetics. But this controversy illustrates a temptation within science–and a tension between some scientific views and liberalism. The temptation is eugenics. Watson is correct that “we already accept” genetic screening and selective breeding when it comes to disabled children. About 90 percent of fetuses found to have Down syndrome are aborted in America. According to a recent study, about 40 percent of unborn children in Europe with one of 11 congenital defects don’t make it to birth.

No one should underestimate the wrenching challenge of having a disabled child. But we also should not ignore the social consequences of widespread screening of children for “desirable” traits. This kind of “choice” is actually a form of absolute power of one generation over the next–the power to forever define what is “normal,” “straight” and “beautiful.” And it leads inevitably to discrimination. British scientist Robert Edwards has argued, “Soon it will be a sin of parents to have a child that carries the heavy burden of genetic disease.” A sin. Which leaves disabled children who escape the net of screening — the result of parental sin–to be born into a new form of bastardy and prejudice…

Watson and many scientists assert a kind of reductionism–a belief that human beings are the sum of their chemical processes and have no value beyond their achievements and attributes. But progressives, at their best, have a special concern for the different, the struggling and the weak. When it comes to eugenics, they face not only a tension but a choice — and they should choose human equality over the pursuit of human perfection.


As a man once firmly ensconced in the political Left, who grew disillusioned by the devolution of liberalism away from protecting the vulnerable and toward hedonistic solipsism, I hope people pay heed to Gerson’s prudent warning. Science is not the be all and end all. Being is more important that function. Human exceptionalism and equal moral worth are the preconditions to universal human rights.

Gerson has it right: If “liberalism” (which too often ain’t anymore) continues down its current path it will be like the snake that ate its tail and become the very evil that it once so proudly opposed.

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