Perhaps Not Everything is Eugenics
spoiler: people who never read discovered a word that feels powerful
One of the things I discovered early, in my little political niche, was the obsession with magic words. Leftists were forever throwing emotionally loaded terms around, like when the coffeehouse didn’t have raw sugar and they called it fascism. It’s not really hard to understand why: when you have no power, you resort to mysticism. You instill words with powers they can’t really have because you’re desperate to feel in control of something, anything. That’s what “eugenics” has become online; it’s not much different from your average depressed wine mom talking about Mercury being in retrograde. They all just want to feel a little bit of power.
Eugenic beliefs go back a very long time, but are often associated with the early 20th century. Eugenics entails belief in a program for orchestrated, top-down, and directed change of the human genome with the intent of creating a population with more “desirable” traits, such as intelligence or physical fitness, typically through sterilization of those believed to have “undesirable” trains and forced breeding of those whose traits the eugenicists want to spread. Eugenicists, famously the Nazis but more prototypically the early 1900s American Progressive movement, thought that society would be improved by eliminating undesirable traits from the collective genome and attempted to orchestrate that as policy. Unsurprisingly, these beliefs are all tied up with pseudoscientific racism and justifications for imperialism. It should go without saying that eugenics is bad.
However, not everything is eugenics. Some things that are not eugenics include
The observation that differences in our genomes have consequences for our personalities, our tendencies, our strengths, and our weaknesses
Attempts to quantify those relationships
Discussions of what policies and philosophies are correct in light of those relationships
The empirical observation that a given strain of a virus hospitalizes and kills at different rates than other strains
The empirical observation that people with different traits, such as preexisting conditions, suffer or die from a given disease at different rates
The empirical observation that a strain of a disease may be so transmissible as to overwhelm any of our attempts to stop its spread
People making good-faith calculations about what the appropriate level of restriction on behavior may be to contain such a disease, taking in light the unclear benefits of certain restrictions and the social, cultural, and economic costs of restrictions
The recognition that society constantly makes choices that increase likelihood of death in some domains, given complicated cost-benefit math, such as in permitting the use of automobiles, licensing the practice of cosmetic surgery, allowing the sale of alcohol, or not forcibly restricting people with infectious diseases into strict quarantines
Choosing to eat certain foods out of a concern for your health or appearance
Getting horny for one person and not for another
The final tweet is just factually wrong, for the record. “Passive eugenics” is not a thing because absent deliberate manipulation the genome still evolves. That’s pretty much the only thing the genome does, change over time! In fact, it slowly and fitfully evolves towards eliminating those traits that are not fit, that is, traits that lower the likelihood of living long enough to have offspring. The glory of being a human in the modern world is that we have medical science and all manner of other tools to ensure that people who would otherwise die at an early age are able to live and flourish and contribute to society and pass on their genes. But to talk of passive eugenics is to get religious, frankly. Are indigenous tribes that lack modern medicine practicing eugenics when their children die of disorders that would be treatable in the modern world? Who is the evil force to which we should ascribe the malevolent intent that is a prerequisite of eugenics? It’s a bizarre idea.
I think there are very big questions about changing the genome ahead of us, but they aren’t about trying to eliminate people with disabilities but to further exacerbate inequality. We are likely approaching an era of direct embryo editing for desired traits, and some are already selecting IVF embryos for height, health, or intelligence, albeit crudely. It’s very likely that within 50 years people will walk among us who are taller, healthier, smarter, and more attractive thanks to some form of gene editing. These tools could conceivably be used for a widespread eugenic purpose, but I doubt it. It’s far more likely that only the children of the rich will enjoy these advantages, at least at first, and the problem will not be any organized effort to eliminate those with traits perceived to be undesirable. The problem will be that the wealthy will have opened up an even bigger advantage on the rest of us, and they can pass privileges of talent down to their offspring more reliably than they already can. I will again ask that we start the conversation about this now, because people genetically engineered to be smart are coming.
Also, if we’re defining eugenics as broadly as these people want to, I have bad news for them: they’re practicing eugenics every time they choose someone to have sex with. What they’re attracted to is, in part, a function of their lizard brain’s assumptions about evolutionary fitness, about which potential partner will produce the healthiest offspring. And that’s just the unconscious parts of their brains. If they’re consciously thinking about that person’s ability to provide for a family or to be a nurturing parent - and they are, if we’re being honest - that is also selecting for genetic fitness. By the (very) loose terms of how they define eugenics, that would certainly qualify. Are you going to tell me they aren’t going out in the world and being naturally attracted to people, or thinking about who to marry based on what’s best for their children? Please. Of course that’s an absurd standard to hold people to, but then so are those in the tweets.
Finally: the contemporary inability to parse the is/ought distinction astounds me. It may very well be the case that we can’t stop Omicron or future strains from moving through the population despite our best efforts. I don’t know; I’m not an epidemiologist. Nor can I tell you what type of precautions we should take in light of the immediate scenario. What I can tell you is that if Covid-19 continues to sweep through our country and kills a lot of people who are vulnerable because of preexisting conditions, that will be a terrible tragedy. But we’re already there, and it didn’t take eugenics. It didn’t take any evil intent. It happened because we live in nature and we’re still subject to its whims. This is real Intro to Humanities, “why do bad things happen to good people?” stuff. I don’t know, and neither to you. It’s a pandemic. It’s an immense tragedy. Everyone is trying to figure out the right thing to do. You can argue for what you think is best, passionately. But saying that merely recognizing the epidemiological fact that Omicron kills less frequently than Delta is not the same as trying to sterilize people with cognitive disabilities. It just isn’t.
Again, it comes back to control. Many of the people who are acting this way, I suspect, were raised in comfortable and affluent homes by helicopter parents. There was always some authority they could demand justice from, some wise counsel to explain the world. Now the universe has said, “there will be a plague,” and millions of innocent people have died for no reason. For a lot of people it’s their first tragedy. They can’t deal with it, and they’re looking for villains.