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The History and Philosophy of Eugenics, and the Way Out

The word "eugenics" is derived from the Greek, eu genea (or eu geneas), meaning "well born." (Cf. "euthanasia," meaning "good death.") In the most mundane sense, then, eugenics is the study of those who are "well born." Since the scientific term "genes" refers, today, to the DNA code that, in context, defines the structure of an organism from its origins to its death, we understand the term eugenics to be the study of "good genes," and how to get them. More particularly, the term eugenics refers to the study of improving the genetic complement of the human species. (For most of this preliminary information on eugenics, the reader should consult the Wikipedia article.)

There are many political styles in the eugenics movement. Some believe in what they call negative eugenics. Their chief aim tends to be ensuring that people who carry genetic diseases do not have offspring. Some believe in positive eugenics. The chief aim here is to breed people who have good genes, as evidenced by good health, longevity, intelligence, memory, physical prowess, beauty, etc. Apart from aims there is the matter of means. Some eugenicists believe in the power of education and persuasion. Others focus on coercion. Among the latter are found those who believe in naked, overt coercion and those who believe in more hidden means. Here we find people who send whole populations to the gas chambers and those who put sterilization or fertility suppression chemicals in food and water.

Finally, there is the matter of motivation. Some believe that the race of people they happen to belong to is superior to all others and they want to suppress or eliminate competing races. Some believe eugenics is the key to improving all mankind, and do not believe in the superiority (at least per se) of any one race or group of races. Some believe it is essential to improve the gene pool in order to ensure that humanity will be in firmer control of its population and its environment. These last appear to be the most common, and tend to make common cause with the population control movement and the green movement.

As we can already see from the above, the eugenics movement is a very complex and diverse one, having a complex history. We tend to think of eugenics as being a product of modern thinking, but, although the term "eugenics" itself seems to be modern, it turns out that many eugenic ideas are quite ancient.

It has long been known in human history that children tended to reflect the traits of their parents, and that, therefore, parents with superior traits tended to have children with superior traits. This picture, of course, has always been a bit clouded by such issues as recessive traits, mutation and prenatal damage. Nevertheless, the philosopher, Plato, recommended, in his Republic that the state should decide who gets married to whom and reproduces, the very eugenic program of Sparta, some might say, in a more humane form. Athens, Sparta and Rome where all known to practice infanticide for eugenic purposes. This kind of infanticide was carried out by exposure to the elements — a mindset that later survived in the form of "trial by fire."

It wasn't until the time of Francis Galton, Charles Darwin's cousin and scientific progeny, that there was an attempt to put eugenics on a sound scientific footing, founded in the statistical analysis of inherited traits. At the time, of course, the theoretical understanding of genetic inheritance was little better than that established by the work of Gregor Mendel on the inheritance of pea plants. It failed to account for the many complex dynamic influences of environment, especially in utero, on genetic expression, a phenomenon that has only come to be understood in the light of the modern work on mapping the human genome. (Since the project was initiated in 1990, there has been a series of announcements, first in 2003, then in 2006, etc., that the mapping of the human genome was "complete," a story reminiscent of President Bush's pictorial announcement in 2003: "Mission Accomplished." The history of the eugenics movement, like the history of the study of artificial intelligence, can be seen to be marked by a sequence of such premature announcements.)

It is possible to understand Darwin's scientific principle, "natural selection," as "the survival of the fit," but philosopher Herbert Spenser expressed it as "the survival of the fittest." To Darwin and his contemporaries, natural selection (one may even draw parallels, here, with Jesus' illustration of the God who trims the vine of fruitless branches [John 15:2, ff.], though the implications of the latter are primarily moral and spiritual, not genetic) was evidence of God's design of nature — a view that was compatible with the then prominent deistic view that God was the great "watchmaker," who created the universe, wound it up and let it go.

It remained for Friedrich Nietzsche to transform Spencer's formula into "the will to power" inherent in living beings, especially human beings. Spencer's formula may be seen as an application of natural theology under the assumption of deism, while Nietzsche's formula may be seen as a direct reaction against the Christian Gospel. (In the same way, Adler may be seen as an evolution of Freud.) In both Spencer's and Nietzsche's philosophies, the only important drama is the one that happens in the material universe. Nietzsche's philosophy, in turn, fully justified the programs of the most radical eugenicists, going beyond the programs of Galton, John Maynard Keynes (a director of the Galton Institute), George Bernard Shaw ("Back to Methuselah" and "Man and Superman"), H.G. Wells (a supporter of "negative eugenics") and Winston Churchill (who attended the first international eugenics conference in 1912) to the programs of Adolf Hitler and the German Nazi State.

Prominent American eugenicists included Alexander Graham Bell (a scientific advisor for the Eugenics Record Office), Woodrow Wilson, John Harvey Kellogg, Theodore Roosevelt, Oliver Wendel Holmes, Samuel Gompers, Margaret Sanger, Linus Pauling ("Eugenics for Alleviating Human Suffering") and Richard Nixon (see "President Richard Nixon said it was 'necessary' to abort mixed-race babies, tapes reveal"). In "Buck v. Bell", Oliver Wendel Holmes wrote for the majority when he declared,

We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.

Margaret Sanger, as is well known, founded (1921) the "American Birth Control League, which changed its name to Planned Parenthood Federation of America for the precise purpose of making artificial contraception available to the lower classes. In addition, the influence of the eugenics movement was felt in various state anti-miscegenation laws (background for the play "Showboat") and the Immigration act of 1924. It wasn't until the full impact of the eugenic philosophy played out in the Nazi horrors that it fell out of fashion, leading in 1944, to the closing of the American Eugenics Record Office. Nevertheless, Planned Parenthood's agenda (both nationally and internationally) remains largely eugenic in character, and just as private funding sources such as the Carnegie Foundation supported (until 1939) the Eugenics Record Office, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a major contributor to Planned Parenthood today.

A serious study of the philosophical antecedents of the eugenics movement reveals that it is a natural outgrowth of the secular humanism of the Enlightenment. Indeed, today, we can see this materialistic view of humanity played out in the atheistic branches of Existentialism, Communism, Humanistic psychology and the Human Potential Movement.

Not content with the slow pace of eugenics, even scientifically engineered eugenics, some biologists and cyberneticists have postulated the inevitability of something they call the technological singularity, when artificial intelligence succeeds and supplants mere human intelligence. Recognizing this "potential" some have argued that the real goal is to enhance human potential by artificial augmentation (including bioengineering and cybernetic enhancement), giving rise to the so-called transhumanism movement.

All of these movements focus on material human gifts, such as strength, speed, agility, and intelligence. They all assume that the fundamental goals of humanity are material. We also have in our era, however, what we might call short-sighted movements of a spiritual cast. I speak here of movements like "New Age," "Wicca" and the various flying saucer cults, all of which can be seen as forms of gnosticism. All of these movements, whether materialist or spiritual, are fundamentally reflections of what Nietzsche called "the will to power." To properly understand the significance of this connection, however, we need to grasp two things: (1) the eugenics movement, and similar movements, can be seen as un-self-centered phenomena, that is, the "will to power" is not primarily a will to personal power, and (2) the "will to power" is superseded in Christianity by what may be called the "will to communion."

[Cf. "Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God — International Theological Commission."]

The triune God has revealed his plan to share the communion of Trinitarian life with persons created in his image. Indeed, it is for the sake of this Trinitarian communion that human persons are created in the divine image. It is precisely this radical likeness to the triune God that is the basis for the possibility of the communion of creaturely beings with the uncreated persons of the Blessed Trinity. Created in the image of God, human beings are by nature bodily and spiritual, men and women made for one another, persons oriented towards communion with God and with one another, wounded by sin and in need of salvation, and destined to be conformed to Christ, the perfect image of the Father, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The fact that the eugenics movement is not simply a movement of the personally selfish with untrammeled ambitions and delusions of grandeur can be seen in the lives of its more prominent proponents. The best known example is, perhaps, Margaret Sanger (not because she is the best known eugenicist, but because her connection with the eugenics movement is well known). She, herself had an aversion to pregnancy, childbirth and child rearing, even though she believed in positive (as well as negative) eugenics and saw herself as a worthy specimen. Rather, her interest in eugenics can best be described as a selfless interest in improving the human race. Her belief that the genetically inferior could most often be found among the poor and downtrodden, especially racial minorities, strongly affected her policies, policies some believe were genocidal though few would argue they were overtly so. (For an important African American perspective on this, see Maafa 21.)

Thus, the "will to power" need not be selfish. It may be, instead, universal, or it may be tied to clan, social class, country, ethnicity, race or any other grouping. In this connection, it may be instructive to compare Richard Dawkins' thesis, The Selfish Gene.

In this connection, many Christian writers promised that Christians who obeyed the will of God would ultimately be "divinized," and this may be understood, at least on the surface, as a variant of the will to power. This is not, however, the perspective taught by Jesus and his apostles. Indeed, we cannot understand the teaching of Jesus unless we take his words, "Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit" with ultimate existential seriousness. In fulfilling the words of Psalm 22 ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"), Jesus demonstrated that abandoning the human self to annihilation for the sake of God's will is the ultimate form of unselfish love and obedience, whereas all forms of seeking personal power (at any rate, power for its own sake) are the work of the Devil. [Cf. Matt 4:1-11] (See also, Philippians 2.)

This "will to communion" is certainly paradoxical, as a reading of Philippians 2 shows, for its satisfaction seems to imply, as well, satisfaction of the "will to power." If we are to understand Christianity, then, as distinct from these other forms, we must see these various "wills" as belonging to a hierarchy, with the "will to communion" at the pinnacle and other wills beneath. Furthermore, the "will to communion" is, first and foremost, a will to communion with God, while communion with other human beings is regarded as secondary. We must also understand that the will to power, like the will to pleasure, must be tamed and put in a subordinate place.

We would be mistaken, too, if we regarded the will to communion as an innovation in the teaching of Jesus. On the contrary, the will to communion can be seen in the joyful excitement of a toddler at the approach of a friendly dog, no matter how big. We can see the will to communion in many of the words of the biblical prophets. (Cf. Isaiah 11.) Finally, we can see in the will to communion not just a desire to be in communion with God, other human beings and animals, but also in the desire to be "one with nature" or "one with the sword." We can, perhaps, understand the "will to communion" as a desire to overcome the limitations of space, time and matter, not for the sake of power, but for its own sake. This is particularly the case when we view space, time and matter as modes or dimensions of separation one from another. Thus overcoming "separation" is the very promise of the resurrection.

We cannot fully comprehend, then the chasm that separates secular humanistic thinking, particularly as it is expressed in movements like the eugenics movement, the human potential movement, the transhumanist movement and the New Age movement, and Christian thinking, particularly in its Roman Catholic form, unless we understand these differences in the hierarchy of values. Catholics who understand their faith see in all forms of the eugenics movement and its cognates at least a distraction from the real work of love or at worst the work of the Devil. A similar perspective can be found in the world's other great religions (at least in some forms). What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world, yet lose his soul? The chief work of the Christian (and of many other religions) is to build up the capacity (power) to love, and Jesus, himself, is the paradigm.

Finally, to fully comprehend the divide, we need to understand the thinking of the average American vs. the Catholic tradition. Americans, in a recent poll, were found to be mostly pro-life. But what is the basis for that stance? Is it fundamentally a materialist basis, such as the sense that each human being has something unique to contribute, or is it fundamentally a spiritual sense, such as the sense that every human being is a loving creation of God from the moment of conception?

Why is it so easy for Americans to value artificial contraception, in-vitro fertilization (including the culling of embryos), embryonic stem-cell research, abortion in the case of rape or incest, and even physician-assisted suicide when there is no hope for a cure? The answer, it seems to me, is that the vast majority of Americans live according to a materialist metric. The genuinely Catholic mode of thought is truly foreign to them. The one thing in favor of the pro-life movement is the visceral reaction of Americans (and, indeed, of all people) against things that manifestly destroy communion. The balance of power, however, remains in the hands of secular humanists. The American public philosophy, lingua franca, and domain of discourse is materialist. It is the language of both the Republican and Democratic parties. It is the language of both conservatives (at least of neo-cons and of most fiscal and monetary conservatives) and liberals.

The way out is a deeper appreciation of the true nature of reality and of the human person, including the plan of God for ultimate divine-human communion. Only then is it possible to recognize the folly of all forms of materialist human potential movements.

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