The Sinister Return of Eugenics in the Age of Big Tech

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From The New Statesman: “Adam Rutherford, [in Control: The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics], writes that ‘though wildly popular across political divides…plenty of people vocally and publicly opposed the principles and the enactment of eugenics policies in the UK and abroad’. This may be so, but very few of the active opponents of eugenics were progressive thinkers. During the high tide of eugenic ideas between the start of the 20th century and the 1930s, no leading secular intellectual produced anything comparable to Chesterton’s Eugenics and Other Evils (1922), a powerful and witty polemic in which he argued for the worth of every human being.

. . . Awkwardly for today’s secular progressives, opposition to eugenics during its heyday in the West came almost exclusively from religious sources, particularly the Catholic Church . . . For the secular intelligentsia in the first three decades of the last century, eugenics – ‘the deliberate crafting of a society… by biological design’, as Rutherford defines it – was a necessary part of any programme of human betterment . . .

The discovery that six million European Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, along with hundreds of thousands of people with physical disabilities, mental illnesses or other characteristics – such as simply being gay – that supposedly made their lives ‘unworthy of living’, was a rupture in history. Ideas and policies that had been regarded by an entire generation of thinkers as guides to improving the species were seen to be moral abominations. Eugenics had enabled an unparalleled crime. An earlier generation’s understanding of progress was not just revised. It was rejected, and something more like its opposite accepted.

This reversal should be unsettling for progressive thinkers today. How can they be sure that their current understanding will not also be found wanting? Rutherford, who shares much of the prevailing progressive consensus, seems untroubled by this possibility. As he notes on several occasions, he writes chiefly as a scientist. He has little background in moral philosophy, and at times this shows.

. . . There is a direct line connecting early 20th-century eugenics with 21st-century transhumanism. The link is clearest in the eugenicist and ‘scientific humanist’ Julian Huxley (1887-1975) . . . in 1951 . . . he had coined the term ‘transhumanism’ to describe ‘the idea of humanity attempting to overcome its limitations and to arrive at fuller fruition’ . . . But . . . he illustrates a fundamental difficulty in both eugenics and transhumanism. Who decides what counts as a better kind of human being, and on what basis is the evaluation made?

. . . The fundamental ethical objection to eugenics is that it licenses some people to decide whether the lives of others are worth living. Part of an intellectual dynasty that included the Victorian uber-Darwinian TH Huxley and the novelist Aldous, Julian Huxley never doubted that an improved human species would match his own high-level brainpower. But not everyone thinks intellect is the most valuable human attribute. General de Gaulle’s daughter Anne had Down’s syndrome, and the famously undemonstrative soldier and Resistance leader referred to her as ‘my joy’, and when at the age of 20 she died he wept. The capacity to give and receive love may be more central to the good life than self-admiring cleverness.

. . . The likely upshot of transhumanism in practice – a world divided between a rich, smart, beautified few whose lifespans can be indefinitely extended, and a mass of unlovely, disposable, dying deplorables – seems to me a vision of hell. But it may well be what is in store for us, if the current progressive consensus turns out to be as transient as the one that preceded it.”

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Who wrote the lead in to the Article referenced from New Stateman? For the very prejudice and destruction held by the eugenicists of earlier times was conveyed in the reference and questioning of DeGaulle’s humanity to realize love for a daughter. Could the living architecture on Ash Wednesday along with the other days of the year, bring to the surface, that instead of ashes realized from wood, that the particles of light, the structure of research that reveals more deeply exactly what we are made of and not mad from, is indeed a way to recover? Do We, having experienced or witnessed the deaths that occur inside mental hospitals, the abuse require us to file for office, just to show We even have the rights to not only vote, but also file for public office and refuse the public money, the PAC monies? For the funds seemingly are being laundered through the legal framework of real estate, trusts and so forth. Just because an entity of nature’s neural network fires off at different speeds, an awareness at this level seemingly calls for better questions to be asked. And Histories to be rewritten, though caution needs to be exercised in the update to realize better scholarship (cite and write) with the facts.

  2. Though the author cited, Adam Rutherford, is a geneticist, he is mainly a science journalist. So I am surprised that he is willing to deal with this subject in his new (though not yet published) book.

    The author of the article, however, is John Nicholas Gray, a philosopher. He is considered by Wikipedia to be a “pessimist.”

    Interestingly Gray dumps this problem squarely in the laps of “secular progressives” as he assumes they have attained global control and will maintain it. Yet, if this assumption is correct, why should they worry about medical ethics? They don’t when it comes to mental health. Many argue that they also disregard this subject in the field of public health. So why should the field of genetic engineering be any different?

    Gray’s article includes a very informative historical rundown. But he leaves us with the unsettling (though we here are already greatly unsettled, aren’t we?) conclusion that eugenics did not in fact die, but simply went dormant for a while, waiting for a new term and concept to latch itself onto. Transhumanism? Perhaps. This is very popular with some Big Tech honchos and is even endorsed by the Dalai Lama.

    Gray notes that Rutherford asserts that basic human rights are “fictions” (or noble lies). Though I could consider God to be such an idea, I don’t consider human rights in that way. Yet here we see how the door has been opened to a future where human rights as we think of them no longer matter, as Big Brother always knows best.

    The problem with Eugenics in particular, of course, is that it doesn’t work. Rutherford’s book covers that fact. But in the great cauldron of political ideas, since when did workability matter? This is an activity governed by the principles of PR, marketing and propaganda, not utility or even morality.

    We in our struggle to reform (or remove) the Mental Health System must realize what a frail bridge we walk across if we do not, in the process, lay to rest the whole materialist idea of brain equals mind and death equals the end. They don’t, they never did and they never will. And in that small revelation lies the seed of an answer to the question of why people feel so much better when they are free to decide for themselves.

    • Much of the discourse is across the spectrum of disciplines, though if our perceived discourse functions (?) or not under the rule of law, then where are the legal scholars and practitioners operating to realize the justice? Seems as if verdicts emerge from a constant rebalancing of the prevailing mind of the legal system. To realize a cogent legal response seemingly needs more than an ear to hear, rather the volume and along with the nature by which our efforts to heal and have a life are thwarted by the bias and misuse of power, in and outside of politics.

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