In Our Cells or Ourselves?

There is a problem with medicalizing, biologizing, and geneticizing personal attributes such as alcoholism, mental illness, mood, political affinity, and vice and virtue. To be sure, there is little doubt that alcohol use disorder is a medically diagnosable condition, that a variety of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are associated with neuroanatomical and neurochemical abnormalities, that both licit and illicit substances can alter mood, and that damage to parts of the brain associated with threat and disgust can shift people from conservative to liberal outlooks. A Genetic Virtue Project has been proposed as an attempt to advance the moral excellence of future generations. Yet there is a difference between allowing that medicine, biology, and genetics have a bearing on how we experience and act in the world and asserting that they should become primary levers by which we seek to influence judgment and conduct. To fail to respect this difference is to lapse into one of the principal errors of the eugenicists of a century ago, mistaking our cells for ourselves.

While the term eugenics was only coined by British polymath Francis Galton in the 1880s, practices strongly resembling it are found in ancient writings. For example, in the Book of Exodus, a nervous Pharaoh proposes to reduce his nation’s rapidly growing Israelite population by ordering midwives to kill newborn males and later commanding his Egyptian countrymen to do the same. In Book V of Plato’s Republic, Socrates, reasoning that the best city will only be possible if it is populated by the best men and women, imagines a regime in which the best will be encouraged to mate frequently with the best, the worst will be discouraged from mating, and when births do occur from the union of inferior individuals, their offspring will be taken to “unspeakable and unseen places,” a veiled reference to infanticide. In both cases and many others, rulers seek to increase the number of desirable people and reduce the undesirable by snatching up the reins of human reproduction, transforming largely unregulated mating patterns into rational processes of manufacture and quality control.

More recently, eugenics spread from its English birthplace to many countries around the world, including the US, where it became quite popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Proponents cited its utility in controlling the spread of unwanted minority groups, as defined by such categories as race, ethnicity, national origin, and religion. Others sought to reduce the number of criminals and “degenerates,” individuals who deviated excessively from norms of both public and private behavior. Still others saw eugenics as a means of reducing the number of people with physical and mental disabilities. And some thought that individuals could be scientifically stratified using methods such as intelligence tests, putting policies in place to promote procreation among the intelligent and discourage it among the “feeble minded.” Implicit in all such accounts is a notion memorialized in the title of one of Galton’s best-known books, Hereditary Intelligence. Eugenicists argued that altering the frequency of such traits in members of subsequent generations represented the key to human betterment.

Critics of eugenics included Franz Boas, GK Chesterton, and Pope Pius XI. Boas argued that the very categories that eugenics takes as its starting point, including race, ethnicity, and intelligence, are not given biological realities but social constructs. Consider race. Originally introduced to denote people who share a common tongue, it later shifted to national identity. But by the 17th century, race was being used to refer to physical characteristics, such as skin, hair color, and facial features. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, eugenicists began basing policy proposals on matters as widely varied as sterilization, miscegenation, and immigration on it. By contrast, Boas argued that biology plays a relatively modest role in shaping a human being. He therefore condemned the eugenic dream of creating a superior race of men by wresting the levers of heredity from nature. In the Scientific Monthly in 1916, he wrote

Eugenics should, therefore, not be allowed to deceive us into the belief that we should try to raise a race of supermen, nor that it should be our aim to eliminate all suffering and pain. The attempt to suppress those defective classes whose deficiencies can be proved by rigid methods to be due to hereditary causes, and to prevent unions that will unavoidably lead to the birth of disease-stricken progeny, is the proper field of eugenics. How much can be and should be attempted in this field depends upon the results of careful studies of the law of heredity. Eugenics is not a panacea that will cure human ills, it is rather a dangerous sword that may turn its edge against those who rely on its strength.

Chesterton attacked from a different angle, publishing Eugenics and Other Evils in 1922, an era when eugenic ideas were not only tolerated but celebrated by many leading figures in American society. These included eminent scholars, statesmen, and titans of industry. Its success in America would soon attract the attention of Adolph Hitler and his Nazi party, which drew on American arguments to build a theory of “race hygiene” and a killing machine to enforce it.

Cells are indeed an essential part of every human being, but our full selves are still richer and more worthy.

Chesterton attacked eugenics on numerous fronts. First, he branded it materialistic, effectively equating humanity with the highly organized materials, such as nucleic acids and the proteins for which they encode, that make up a human being. Second, he attacked eugenics as deterministic. It supposes that we can foresee a person’s path in life before the journey has even begun. Third, it is inherently despotic, supposing as it does that by controlling heredity it is possible to control the future of humanity. Yoked to the coercive power of the state, Chesterton dreaded the effects of eugenics on liberty, writing

The thing that really is trying to tyrannize through government is science. The thing that really does use the secular arm is science. And the creed that really is levying tithes and capturing schools, the creed that really is enforced by fine and imprisonment, the creed that really is proclaimed not in sermons but in statutes and spread not by pilgrims but by policementhat creed is the great but disputed system of thought which began with evolution and has ended in eugenics. Materialism is really our established church; for the government will really help it to persecute its heretics.

Another prominent critic of eugenics was Pius XI, who objected to the methods eugenicists called for to achieve their ends. In the papal encyclical Casti Connubii, he argues that by preventing so-called “unfit” people from marrying, the eugenicists are in effect punishing innocent people who have committed no crime, writing that doing so would have the state “arrogate to itself a power over a faculty which it never had and can never legitimately possess.”  With respect to forced sterilization, he continues

Public magistrates have no direct power over the bodies of their subjects; therefore, where no crime has taken place and there is no cause present for grave punishment, they can never directly harm, or tamper with the integrity of the body, either for the reasons of eugenics or for any other reason.

From the church’s point of view, the human person and the family are prior to the civil authority in the order of creation, and their dignity exceeds that of the state. Nations are not at liberty to encroach upon such domains without a compelling interest, in comparison to which “the norms and conjectures” of eugenicists who anticipate the birth of defective offspring fall short.

Boas, Chesterton, and Pius XI offer powerful reasons to doubt any attempt, scientific or otherwise, to treat biology, heredity, or genetics as destiny. Boas regards eugenics’ thoroughgoing biologism as ill-supported scientifically, suggesting that social and cultural factors shape the course of human lives to a greater extent than heredity. Chesterton sees in its materialistic determinism the seeds of a dehumanizing totalitarianism. And Pius XI argues that eugenics is fundamentally unjust, holding people responsible and requiring them to submit to punishments for states of affairs over which they have no control—namely, their own pedigree.

Boas suggests that instead of attempting to control human mating patterns, those who seek to improve the lot of humankind should focus on social and cultural conditions, doing away with institutions such as slavery and bigotry that severely constrain human potential. To preserve human freedom, Chesterton suggests, we must affirm that to be human is to make choices, and that such choices, though perhaps biologically influenced, are not biologically determined. And Pius XI calls for a reaffirmation of the inherent dignity of every person and family.

These century-old discussions have a powerful bearing on contemporary life. If it is fundamentally problematic to set expectations and make judgments about persons based on their supposedly hereditary traits, then extreme caution is called for in lumping people together into categories according to race, ethnicity, and intelligence. The moment we do so, we place ourselves on a slippery slope that can rapidly degenerate into racism, ethnic hatred, and the ridicule or persecution of those judged to be inferior.

Categories such as oppressor and victim can begin to dominate our discourse in ways that blind us to the character and life narratives of real, flesh-and-blood human beings—realities far richer than any categories to which we might assign them. To suppose that we can determine merely by glancing at a photograph whether a person merits our dismissal or engagement, disdain or encouragement, enmity or affection is to commit a grave error—an intellectual lapse, a moral blunder, and perhaps even an offense against the order of creation itself. Cells are indeed an essential part of every human being, but our full selves are still richer and more worthy.


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