eugenics thought

I finally got around to watching ‘Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed’, by Ben Stein & co.

I won’t bother dissecting its entire content, but in passing, found it opportunistic in both persons interviewed and interview segments used.  On the atheist side of the coin, you had Michael Ruse being interviewed along with PZ Meyers and Richard Dawkins, of which Ruse has expressed embarrassment about one, and probably feels similarly about the other.  On the theist side, you have Alister McGrath and John Lennox being quoted as if having the same view of the issue as William Dembski and all the others – which I’m almost certain they don’t.

But the main thing that I thought post-worthy was the realisation that came to mind regarding eugenics.  The film is careful to repeatedly clarify that they don’t think Darwinian evolution leads necessarily to Nazism or eugenics, but had rather strong implications about its tendency to (which took far too much run-time anyway).

I was already well aware of the absolute necessity for an ideology (of whatever variety) to link biology and ethics, and of the rather basic distinction between (so-called) ‘Darwinism’ and social Darwinism.  But the thing that struck me tonight (in spite of what the film was trying to say about the riskiness of holding to evolution) was that if indeed the proponents of Nazi-style eugenics were intending it to be ‘self-directed evolution’, then they had missed a rather obvious thing about evolution.

The goal of their self-directed ‘evolutionary’ eugenics was to advance ‘health’ and ‘strength’ and to produce fitter and better humans.  The massive disconnect here is not only that biology has no teleology (evolution qua evolution has no ‘goal’ to do anything – nature is, as C.S. Lewis has put it a ‘dumb witch’), but rather that their goal for eugenics (“good generation”; from eu|ευ |’good’ + genea | γενεα | ‘generation’) was actually was contrary to the apparent result (remember, not ‘goal’!!) of evolution, namely a diverse, rich, variety of living organisms.

The evolutionary process produced (again, not ‘intended’) a mixture of symmetrical and less-than-symmetrical bodies, weak and more-than-weak muscles; all kind of hair and eye colour, etc.  And they took this as a massive detour from the ‘course’ (there’s the teleologically-loaded word) of evolution.  They wanted it to get ‘back on track’ (but there was no ‘track’ – to speak strictly in terms of natural biology) making ‘strong’ humans – in other words, to make all humans fit a single mould – in other words to bring about the opposite effect, namely biological uniformity, than that of evolution, namely biological diversity.

5 thoughts on “eugenics thought”

  1. A quick clarification – evolution by natural selection is a continuous and goal-less process. Evolution by other means is not.

  2. Evolution by natural selection and other mechanisms such as genetic drift is a goal-less process. Yes. But, having said that it seems at times to produce predictable outcomes such as; species diversity, species being well adapted to their ecological niche, species change or extinction upon environmental change, and similar biological solutions to similar physical or environmental constraints as demonstrated by convergent and parallel evolution. What is the role of contingency in evolution? Perhaps it just determines who can and who cannot reach a particular unforeseen destination and determines the pathway, wether direct or contorted, to that destination. Here is where I see a potential compatibility between evolution and theology. We could consider evolution as predictably brining about the Creators intentions.. namely species diversity, species adaptability and perhaps even strangely enough a species that is sufficiently reflective to admire the natural world, how it got here, and just what is all this about anyway?

    Also, as you are aware, there is such a thing as directed evolution or artificial selection. You want a plant to produce a greater yield, a dog to be bigger or smaller, a protein to catalyze a particular reaction? Then select the offspring showing the desired trait and repeat. You want a race that is all blue-eyed and blonde haired? Then do the same. Given sufficient generations it will work. But it may come with other trade-offs associated with a loss of genetic diversity.

    I guess the issue is an ethical issue. Should we arbitrarily choose to impose a course upon human evolution? Arguably we already are. People who would otherwise die without reproducing are kept alive by medical intervention. Babies who would not be born are done so by cesarean section. Deleterious mutations are allowed to accumulate in human populations without natural selection continually weeding out the “bad” stuff.

    Lynch is interesting in this regard:
    http://www.pnas.org/content/107/3/961.long

  3. Jonathan,
    EXCELLENT comments – very, very informed and helpful. I too think evolution and theology are wonderfully compatible :)

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