The Anglo-American Threat of a Eugenics Revival
The resignation of a junior advisor to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson
for advocating eugenics sparked discussion on both sides of the Atlantic,
and highlighted the worrying trend that eugenics may be becoming normalized

By Pete Shanks <> | 02.21.2020
Biopolitical Times

[image: Eugenics]

The resignation
on February 17 of Andrew Sabisky, a recently hired junior advisor to
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson sparked a “shock and horror” response
on both sides of the Atlantic. The reason: A couple of years ago, he had
publicly endorsed eugenics
and made what he considered practicable suggestions
for implementing it.

Dominic Cummings, who hired and supervised Sabisky, is still employed.

Of course he is. Cummings, who is frequently
as Boris Johnson’s brain
has been an open eugenicist for years, notoriously advocating for genetic
IQ tests: “We should give this ~2% a specialist education
Given the sheer quantity
of press coverage
in the UK
and US <>, it’s
possible that on this occasion Cummings might be in trouble
Unfortunately, scandals like this tend to be largely performative.

It is a thoroughly good thing that outbreaks of eugenics advocacy prompt
immediate push-back,  (1
3 <>, 4
It is a bad thing, however, that they still need to. And a remarkable thing
how frequently this occurs.

It happens that February 16th, the day before Sabisky resigned, was the
birthday of Francis Galton, the man who coined the term *eugenics*, and the
universally acknowledged father of the concept. The Royal Society saw fit
to commemorate it in this 1:15 a.m. tweet

In 1822 #OnThisDay, Sir Francis Galton was born. His scientific career was
based on his fascination with statistics, however his most intensive
research was devoted to human physical attributes such as height, chest
width, arm strength and colour vision. #Science

By the end of the day, following complaints, the Society confessed (again,
on Twitter) that “This tweet
<> was not up to
our usual standards” and “Any discussion
<> of Galton
should acknowledge the historical wrongs of his enthusiasm for eugenics.”

So that’s all right, then.

A couple of hours before the Royal Society’s first Galton tweet, Richard
Dawkins, the author of *The Selfish Gene* and many other titles, now a
retired Oxford Professor, tossed off this late-night tweet
<>, possibly
inspired by the Sabisky news, to his 2.8 million followers:

It’s one thing to deplore eugenics on ideological, political, moral
grounds. It’s quite another to conclude that it wouldn’t work in practice.
Of course it would. It works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses. Why on
earth wouldn’t it work for humans? Facts ignore ideology.

Eyebrows were raised. Enough of them, quickly enough, that at 7:10
<> the
following morning, and again at 8:41
<>, Dawkins
clarified his position:

For those determined to miss the point, I deplore the idea of a eugenic
policy. I simply said deploring it doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work. Just as
we breed cows to yield more milk, we could breed humans to run faster or
jump higher. But heaven forbid that we should do it.

A eugenic policy would be bad. I’m combating the illogical step from “X
would be bad” to “So X is impossible”. It would work in the same sense as
it works for cows. Let’s fight it on moral grounds. Deny obvious scientific
facts & we lose — or at best derail — the argument.

There are multiple problems with this. To begin with, talk about
“breed[ing] humans to run faster or jump higher” is offensive. Then there
is the question of who decides what “improvement” to implement — *if any*.
That is the central question of today’s debates about whether the heritable
genetic modification
of people should be allowed. Too often the assumption is made that it’s
going to happen and the issue is how to regulate it; that’s not even
relevant until a decision is made about whether it should happen at all —
which is a social, political and ethical question, not a scientific one.

Besides, eugenic breeding of farm animals and pets has never been an
unalloyed success. For one thing, the “failures” tend to be discarded, if
they even survive. Also, to take a familiar domestic example, many breeds
of dogs are chronically unhealthy
<>. Moreover, the more we learn
about human genetics and anatomy
the less we seem to understand about polygenic effects
(traits influenced by many genes). To claim that “of course” eugenics would
work in people is scientifically unsupportable in any real-world kind of

But that’s not all. That statement is made in a social context. This gets
very personal. Dawkins —like myself — was born in a British colony, as part
of the white ruling class. We know of discrimination, of racial profiling,
of sterilization, eugenic murders and all the rest, we know they happen —
but not to us. And, as Adam Rutherford has explained in an excellent Twitter
thread <>:

Furthermore, to subsequently opine about policy or social implications
without considering that the consequences are not directed at you
historically or in the present is deeply problematic. 5/n

That does not necessarily imply that Dawkins supports eugenics; he insists
he does not. But he is detached from the issues, “decoupled” as Tom Chivers
explains, in a way that a commentator like Charles M. Blow
<> can never be.
Dawkins assures us he meant no harm, he does not approve, he was merely
discussing the scientific possibilities.

So that’s all right, then.

These outbreaks of support for eugenics, or at least for its plausibility,
are certainly not confined to Britain. Why, here in the USA, “race science”
has over the last few years had an unwelcome revival
In 2020, Charles Murray, the co-author of *The Bell Curve*, has a new
book: *Human
Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class*. To quote a headline in *The
New Republic*
Charles Murray Is Never Going Away. The review in *The New York Times*
by Parul Sehgal sums it up nicely:

This book is for the believers. Rigorous readers, skeptics, the
unindoctrinated — you won’t be persuaded by “Human Diversity,” but why
should that matter? You’re not even invited. How’s that for a safe space.
How’s that for an orthodoxy.

We in America are, for the most part, living through the age of Trump, when
facts are no longer, as John Adams would have us believe, stubborn things.
President Trump is unquestionably both a racist and a eugenicist
He claims to have the best genes. He’s “proud to have that German blood.”
He calls himself “high-IQ.” Of course he does. When pressed on Twitter to
account for how high, he simply retorted
<>, “the
highest, asshole!”

It is telling that one of Trump’s favorite insults is “low-IQ,” which he
to an extraordinary number of distinguished individuals including Joe
Biden, Rep. Maxine Waters, actor Robert De Niro, former President George W.
Bush, and Rick Perry, his Secretary of Energy. Others, such as “the squad”
of progressive US Representatives elected in 2018 (Alexandria
Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib — all women
of color) are “not very smart.” His first Attorney General is a “dumb
Southerner.” His first Secretary of State is “dumb as a rock.”

No wonder he is trying to implement the most restrictive and racist
immigration policies since 1924—the heyday of eugenics.

A century ago, eugenics was a mainstream, international phenomenon. The
policies it inspired spanned the political spectrum: harsh immigration
laws permitting involuntary sterilization
<> of those
authorities deemed “unfit
and “positive eugenics
efforts that relied largely on cultural
persuasion to encourage the “fit
to have more children
It was invented in Britain, developed in the United States, and taken to
its most hideous extreme in Germany. After World War II, most people
thought that eugenics as national policy had been utterly discredited.

So that’s all right, then.

Consumer-driven techno-eugenics, however, has been a developing problem for
at least two decades: That’s the proposed production and sale of “designer
babies” specified and built for “enhancements” such as blue eyes, light
skin, athletic or musical ability and even intelligence. Make no mistake,
this is a very live question right now. The controversy about heritable
human genome modification
<> is
at a boiling point. Some proponents contend that this technology (which
they heroically assume will be successful) should be used only in the
extremely rare instance where there’s no other way for a couple to have a
genetically related and unaffected child. Others are frankly interested in

Of course, there is some academic cover for these efforts. A mutually
supportive circle includes controversial North American and British-based
academics such as Robert Plomin and Stephen Hsu, as well as the likes of
Murray and the noted transhumanist Julian Savulescu. Both Plomin and Hsu
were involved in the Chinese search for “genius genes,” which were said to
be three months away
seven years ago; that effort has since been abandoned.

The bulk of genetics researchers, however, view the search for actionable
IQ genes to be more or less a wild goose chase. For example, Dr. Danielle
Posthuma, a Dutch geneticist, and her colleagues discovered 52 genes that
they think affect intelligence — each by a miniscule fraction
of an IQ point. Jonathan Pritchard of Stanford and colleagues have even
suggested that the genetics of complex traits is not just polygenic but
omnigenic <> —
essentially, affected by the entire genome.

So that’s all right, then?

Sadly, no. A renegade sector of the fertility industry is already trying to
sell the selection of embryos
for particular traits; they cannot guarantee results, but they claim to
improve the odds. The company pushing the envelope hardest and fastest
seems to be Genomic Prediction <>, co-founded
by Hsu. They claim, among other things, to be able to identify genomes at
the extreme tail ends of the IQ curve. So far, they refuse to offer embryo
selection for the high end “for ethical reasons” but are selling selection
of embryos with, allegedly, “intellectual disability
<>” — which would
therefore not be implanted. (Sound marketing: if a genius were discarded,
no one would ever know.) They also claim to select against the few
monogenic disorders (cystic fibrosis, for instance) and a number of
polygenic ones, including heart attack risk, breast cancer and “idiopathic
short stature.”

This is precisely the melding of capitalism with eugenics. It is supported
by modern marketing culture, it relates to the whole self-improvement
industry, and it amplifies the pressures on parents to invest in “the best”
for their children. All this while reinforcing the power of perception
about biological superiority.

No, this is not all right.

Trump of course denies his racism, as does Johnson his, but that doesn’t
deter white supremacists too much. After all, some of them have managed to
rationalize away evidence
from their own DNA that they don’t strictly qualify to join their own
exclusive group.

It’s easy to make fun of this, but it’s a deadly serious issue. In the
United States, we’ve endured horrifying mass shootings perpetrated by
individual gunmen with explicit white supremacist ideologies. And we are
already seeing people — brown people, of course — being refused the chance
even to apply for asylum, despite horrifying abuses in their home
countries. This is against national and international law, as well as
normal human decency.

It’s also the next step in the evolution of eugenics.

There is a rise in right-wing nationalism across Europe and the United
States. Immigration
especially from Muslim and Central American countries, is increasingly
controversial. In this context, Britain and America could once again be
leading the way to world-shaking eugenic tragedies. Johnson is settling in
for a long term as Prime Minister, and Trump may even be re-elected, so it
is vitally important to denounce and oppose both the revival of old-school
eugenic attitudes and the introduction of new high-tech and consumer-driven
varieties of eugenics.