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The Eugenics Temptation

By Michael Gerson
Wednesday, October 24, 2007

James Watson, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who helped discover the structure of DNA in 1953, recently pronounced the entire population of Africa genetically inferior when it comes to intelligence. And while he hopes that everyone is equal, "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true."

Watson's colleagues at the Federation of American Scientists found his comments "racist, vicious and unsupported by science" -- all true. But they could not have found those views surprising. In 2003, Watson spoke in favor of genetic selection to eliminate ugly women: "People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would be great." In 2000, he suggested that people with darker skin have stronger libidos. In 1997, Watson contended that parents should be allowed to abort fetuses they found to be gay: "If you could find the gene which determines sexuality and a woman decides she doesn't want a homosexual child, well, let her." In the same interview, he said, "We already accept that most couples don't want a Down child. You would have to be crazy to say you wanted one, because that child has no future."

When it comes to the parents of disabled children, Watson has somehow confused "loving" and "courageous" with "crazy" -- the sign of a heart clearly inferior to the gentle hearts of children with Down syndrome. And most of us have met women who don't look like models and gay people who prefer being alive to the preferences of their parents.

"If you really are stupid," Watson once contended, "I would call that a disease." What is the name for the disease of a missing conscience?

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.

This creates an inevitable tension within liberalism. The left in America positions itself as both the defender of egalitarianism and of unrestricted science. In the last presidential election, Sen. John Kerry pledged to "tear down every wall" that inhibited medical research. But what happens when certain scientific views lead to an erosion of the ideal of equality? Yuval Levin of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a rising academic analyst of these trends, argues: "Watson is anti-egalitarian in the extreme. Science looks at human beings in their animal aspects. As animals, we are not always equal. It is precisely in the ways we are not simply animals that we are equal. So science, left to itself, poses a serious challenge to egalitarianism."

"The left," Levin continues, "finds itself increasingly disarmed against this challenge, as it grows increasingly uncomfortable with the necessarily transcendent basis of human equality. Part of the case for egalitarianism relies on the assertion of something beyond our animal nature crudely understood, and of a standard science alone will not provide. Defending equality requires tools the left used to possess but seems to have less and less of."

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.

michaelgerson@cfr.org

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