[Paleopsych] John Derbyshire: Eugenics Alive: Coming soon to a country near you.
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John Derbyshire: Eugenics Alive: Coming soon to a country near you.
Mr. Derbyshire is also an NR contributing editor
February 27, 2001 9:10 a.m.
The current (March 5th) print version of National Review
carries an exchange between Dinesh D'Souza, a frequent NR
contributor, and Ronald Bailey of Reason magazine, about the
morality of "genetically enhancing" human beings, most especially by
way of custom-designing our children. The exchange follows on from a
long piece by Dinesh titled "Staying Human" in our January 22nd issue.
It's a fascinating debate, on a topic we should all be thinking about.
I'm not going to get into it here; I just want to make one point that
didn't get covered in those pieces.
Here is the point: Fretting about the ethics of these issues is a
thing that only Western countries are going to do. Elsewhere, eugenics
-- including "genetic enhancement" -- will not be fretted about or
debated, it will just be done.
To see what I mean, check out an article titled Popularizing the
Knowledge of Eugenics and Advocating Optimal Births Vigorously" by Sun
Dong-sheng of the Jinan Army Institute, People's Republic of China.
"An English translation of the article can be found on the web. The
translators note, in their preface, that: "The taboo on this subject
is not as strong in East Asia as in the West. One might hypothesize
that Asians, and more particularly the populations of the Han cultural
zone (Japan, North and South Korea, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong,
Singapore, and possibly Vietnam), take a more pragmatic, less
structured and ideological, and more far-seeing approach (eugenics,
after all, is, by definition, a long-run program) to the development
of human capital, than do Westerners."
Sun Dong-sheng takes a quick canter through of the history of
eugenics, not omitting the disgrace which the whole subject fell into
by association with Nazi "racial science." As the translators note,
though, Dr. Sun shows no sign of feeling that he is dealing with a
"hot" or taboo topic. He just goes right on into proposals for raising
public awareness of eugenics (in China, that is -- the whole piece is
intended for a Chinese audience) and reasons for including eugenic
policies as a part of "socialist modernization."
The progress of the argument is held up for a while by some
ideological shucking and jiving the author feels obliged to perform.
From the point of view of theoretical Marxist-Leninism and dialectical
materialism, still a compulsory part of the curriculum in Chinese
schools, the entire field of genetics is a bit suspect. In all
nature-nurture debates, traditional Marxists are the purest of pure
nurturists. What's the point of having a revolution if you can't
change human nature? (Remember Lysenko?) Dr. Sun easily negotiates his
way through this little patch of ideological white water, concluding
With genetics as its basis, the field of eugenics is established on
an objective, materialistic foundation.
So that's all right then, and we can move right on with:
As eugenic research becomes widespread and acquires depth, the
legal code of China will include more regulations concerning the
ways by which the idea of healthier offspring can be given reality.
Socialist modernization urgently needs a reduction or elimination
of genetic diseases and hereditary defects. Only by promoting the
births of better offspring can we improve the genetic quality of
I don't want to make too much of this document. I can't say that I
found it particularly chilling or offensive in any way; and some of
Dr. Sun's points cannot be disagreed with -- e.g. his call for an
attack on China's appalling levels of pollution so that
environmentally caused birth defects can be reduced.
The significance of the article is that it is perfectly ethics-free.
There is no discussion of the morality of eugenics and genetic
engineering. It is just assumed that to "improve the genetic quality
of our population" is a thing that everybody should support, and that
the methods of doing it can safely be left in the hands of scientists
and politicians. The mentality here is basically that of a cost
accountant, arguing that a poor country like China simply does not
need the extra burden of "useless mouths" -- the omniscient party, of
course, getting to decide who is "useless."
You do have to make an effort to remember, reading this piece, that
communist China is a nation whose government has not scrupled to
involve itself in its citizens' most intimate family affairs, that it
has imposed a draconian policy of compulsory family planning --
including forced abortions -- and that when Dr. Sun talks about "more
regulations concerning the ways by which the idea of healthier
offspring can be given reality," he means yet more state intrusion
into people's decisions about who to marry, and whether or not to have
A rough kind of eugenics has, in fact, been practiced in China for a
long time. Several years ago, when I was living in that country, I
mentioned Down's Syndrome in conversation with a Chinese colleague.
She did not know the English term and I did not know the Chinese, so
we had to look it up in a dictionary. "Oh," she said when she got it.
"That's not a problem in China. They don't get out of the delivery
As I said: While we are agonizing over the rights and wrongs of it,
elsewhere they will just be doing it.
Apology. I owe NRO readers an apology. In my February 22nd column I
said: "At 21, Pitt the Younger was Prime Minister of England." This
was a gross error. Pitt got into Parliament at age 21; he didn't make
prime minister until he was 24. I am sorry for the slip, and grateful
to the two readers who pointed it out (and a bit depressed, on behalf
of the educational system, that it was only two). This kind of thing
would never have got by the phalanxes of factcheckers that guard the
integrity of the print NR, but web journalism has up to now been a
more down-and-dirty business, and while our stuff gets a speedy
once-over from the editors before being posted, it is not factchecked
in detail. We have recently begun some initiatives to improve things,
to the degree that improvement is possible, given the speed and
transience of web postings. Look for an ever more polished NRO, with
fewer lapses like that one.
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