Friday, January 28, 2011

A Genetically Modified World

In Galton's writings on eugenics, he made it clear that he believed civilization should be more carefully constructed to the extent where birth is dependent upon the worth of the bloodline. In this work the goal of eugenics was “to represent each class or sect by its best specimens” (80). Is it ethical to control the manner in which the average individual chooses to procreate? What would be the result of eugenics as a "religion"(83)? By equating eugenics with religion, Galton has disturbed me on a whole new level. What kind of chaos did he hope to ensue with this text? If we were to begin breeding a group of people in order to preserve or to make widespread certain qualities deemed “useful” then what will become of the section of the population considered to be unworthy? For if there are people who are deemed to be “the best” then of course there are those who failed to make the cut.

Today eugenics has a different spin on it with its central focus being to improve the health of individuals. Genetic engineering may grant us a possible respite from various genetic illnesses and stem cell research may lead us to cures to diseases like Alzheimer’s. We are all aware of the possible benefits of genetic engineering and they cannot be denied, but what of the negative consequences? If allowed to get out of hand genetic engineering has the potential to be as dangerous as it seemed in Galton’s writings (despite the fact that he was writing in favor of it). Galton also saw benefits of eugenics in relation to health, but he essentially wanted to change humanity, not simply improve the health of all individuals. Who would be left after Galton’s rampage if he had been allowed to spearhead his eugenics campaign? His aim may not have been malicious, but he used fanciful reasoning to support his ideas and held that the “useful” classes would need to contribute the seed of their success to future generations. He did not take into account the subjectivity of perfection as he made such statements. Who would define usefulness in Galton’s ideal society? What other characteristics besides health and strength would be used?

It was made clear that the privileged classes would be the primary subjects of Galton’s investigation of “good” families. The “best” offspring, in his opinion, would be the children who excelled above their peers. The upper classes would have a far better chance to produce the best offspring because they have superior resources to educate their children. Thinking about today’s society and the already significant gap between the rich and the poor, how much more severe would this problem be if the upper classes were given yet another advantage over the lower classes in this manner? This gap would only continue to become exaggerated at a more alarming rate, leaving the poor with no means to improve their social status. How would the criteria for gene replication be decided if we were to allow genetic engineering to proceed and develop freely based on Galton’s ideas? We have already seen the result of the abuses of eugenics in Germany during the early 1900s. If we began to breed humans as well, even if it began under the guise of a voluntary process, how long would it be before people were openly coerced into participating in reproducing with “genetically superior” partners? And would others who were considered to be less “useful” eventually be forced to stop having children altogether? Or is this actually a fairly safe process that should be allowed to develop at its own pace for the benefit of all mankind?


  1. Anne,

    First of all, if you haven't seen the movie Gattaca you need to. It asks just about every major question that you ask here.

    I have also been thinking about many of these questions since reading Galton. Although the entire article is shocking, it was most striking to me how he took no account of environmental factors when speaking of the "superior" classes. In other words, he assumed that the higher classes in society were more genetically superior because they were more successful. He seemed to not even consider that most of the success of the higher classes was actually due to their better access to nourishment, medicine, and education. A person born with a high intelligence can have it ruined if not properly cared for as a child.

    Ultimately, it becomes clear that Galton's Eugenics is an attempt to vastly over simplify human "success," although the questions you pose about breeding and the possibility of genetic stratification are still pressing in regards to modern science.


  2. I'm not sure if "breeding" the "best" individuals of a people would really be successful in any capacity. I'm sure we all know kids who seem more capable than their parents, and vice-versa. In my experience, at least, it seems that the environment plays a larger roll in one's abilities. As Colin stated, the individuals in the upper class have better resources at their disposal.

  3. Galton has an interesting take on how we should create a more "successful" society, and he believes that this is the best way. His problem, of course, is that he has rigged the game by literally taking those who are not currently successful out of the gene pool. This is a huge flaw, and if Darwin's theories hold then it could be that every person is a success insofar as neither they nor their ancestors have been eliminated from the gene pool prematurely. Surely the measure of "success" here is far greater than most people give it credit for. Eugenics is essentially playing God, and Galton understood this. He simply was acting out a fetish of the times.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.