How Can We Address That British Eugenics Scandal?

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been known to have an interest
<> in eugenics, but despite the persistence of
support for this discredited idea over the years, eugenics is a scientific
and moral failure.

In February, an adviser to Johnson resigned when some old racist posts he
wrote in 2014 emerged. The contractor, Andrew Sabisky, called himself a
“superforecaster” by trade and trafficked in theories of race and
Footage resurfaced of Boris Johnson talking about genetic inequality and IQ
<> in
2013. Articles announce that “eugenics is back” every few years (2018
, 2016
or 1989
so it is probably the case that eugenics never left. With the political
right in the ascendant in many parts of the world, it is inevitable that
the pseudoscience of eugenics would be on the rise with it.

Some academics will also follow, as they have from the days when
craniometry justified the British Empire. Richard Dawkins, a retired Oxford
biologist active on Twitter where he was called a “tedious old racist
in 2018, tweeted
<> in
February what was likely a reaction to Sabisky’s eugenics scandal:

*“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.”*

The comparison of human “races”
dog breeds is so pervasive that it should be answered comprehensively, and
the tweet should be picked apart in detail. The comparison has nothing to
do with science, as I will show, and should be abhorred by the
scientifically minded.

Dawkins’ posture is one where he claims to want to distance himself
<> from
eugenics “on ideological, political, moral grounds,” while suggesting that
the “facts” are in favor of eugenics. The “facts” in this trope aren’t a
matter of argument and evidence but some kind of secret magic that only
those with a strong stomach can handle. The less brave and bright resist
the “facts” out of fear that they will clash with our “ideological,
political” commitments. But as far as eugenics goes, there are no “facts”:
eugenics has been an intellectually corrupted project from its inception in
the 19th century. Eugenics comes to us from a time when the British Empire
was plundering the world and its proponents went looking for evidence to
prove racist conclusions they already believed. No one who understands
science fears that racists will abuse eugenicist “facts.” As anthropologist
Jonathan Marks writes
his book *Is Science Racist?*
“[T]here is no fear of potential abuse of knowledge. There is simply the
collection and dissemination of intellectually corrupted information. That
is the legacy of scientific racism.”

Like climate deniers who work in fields of science other than climate and
make public statements to try to pretend there is no consensus on the
topic, Dawkins used his authority as a retired biology lecturer to tweet
claims outside his area of expertise. A scientific organization that has
authority on the topic, the American Society of Human Genetics
<> (ASHG), made the following three points in a 2018
statement <>:

   - “Genetics demonstrates that humans cannot be divided into biologically
   distinct subcategories”
   - “Genetics exposes the concept of ‘racial purity’ as scientifically
   - “[T]he invocation of genetics to promote racist ideologies is one of
   many factors causing racism to persist”

Dawkins’ defenders might now argue that his tweet had nothing to do with
racism and that it is just about eugenics. That the entire pseudoscientific
history of eugenics, pervaded and corrupted with racism, is irrelevant to
his claims about “practice” and “facts,” by reference to other species.
Dawkins mentioned the breeding of “cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses.” There
are different flaws when each of these comparisons is put under the

Roses? Spraying fertilizer on roses helps them—does it help us? There is
almost nothing that works for the plant *Rosa gallicanae* that also works
for us, so that can be quickly dispensed with.

Cows and pigs are bred to be docile, to pack on as much edible meat as
possible in a short amount of time, and ideally to go quietly to their
deaths. Unless Dawkins envisions a cannibal future, cows and pigs are
irrelevant to this analogy with humans. (It is worth mentioning that these
are also two of the planet’s three most abused animal species—the chicken,
of whom 69 billion were slaughtered in 2018 compared to 1.5 billion pigs
and 302 million cows
wins this heart-rending competition.)

That leaves horses and dogs.

Horses were once our choice animal for transportation. Now that we use
fossil fuels, most horses today are involved in what the Equine Heritage
Institute calls “recreational horse use <>,” in which
the horse is made to carry a person on its back and run fast for our

With the other animals eliminated, Dawkins’ argument comes down to the
comparison between humans and dogs. Dog breeding has been done for many
thousands of years, and dogs have been bred for many jobs.

Does it “work”? Specifically, since the idea is if it works for dogs it
could work for humans, does breeding work for the species being bred (dogs,
or in Dawkins’ implicit proposal, humans)? Of course not. From the
perspective of the dog, it is a nightmare.

A couple of popular internet memes sum up what thousands of years of dog
breeding have achieved for the bred species. In one
<>, a stunning photograph of a
wolf is shown thinking: “Humans at a campfire… It’s cold and I’m starving,
maybe I should ask for some scraps. What’s the worst that could happen?”
Below, captioned “10,000 years later,” is a photo of a pug in a knitted hat
made to look like a birthday cake. Similarly, photos of a wolf and a pug
are used in another meme <>,
where the photo of the wolf says “product of evolution,” and the photo of
the pug says “product of intelligent design.”

This latter meme reveals the irony that Dawkins of all people should make
the eugenicist claim that dog breeding “works.” In *The God Delusion* as
well as much other work, Dawkins’ principal argument against the existence
of God is that evolution can produce more complex forms of life (including
human intelligence) than any divine intelligence could. Similarly, the
artificial selection of dog breeding has—as the humorous memes
demonstrate—propagated traits that are disadvantageous to dogs compared to
what natural selection was able to do for the wolf.

The 2008 BBC documentary “Pedigree Dogs Exposed
<>” investigated the UK’s Kennel
Club and the breed standards that have led, by breeding exclusively for
appearance, to a dog population with hundreds of genetic diseases. What is
called “breeding” to achieve these traits is better called “inbreeding
with brother-sister, mother-son, father-daughter, and father-granddaughter
matings regularly made—there are no incest taboos, no health
considerations, and no concern for genetic diseases made in awarding prizes
at dog shows. Perfectly healthy puppies—like Rhodesian ridgeback puppies
<> that don’t have the
ridge, which actually brings with it additional health risks—are killed at
birth to maintain the “purity” of the breed. Kennel Clubs and breeders were
offended by comparisons of dog breeding to racism, but the shared history
is beyond dispute. Kennel Clubs were founded in the late 19th century,
after Carl Linnaeus, Comte de Buffon, and Arthur de Gobineau
<> had laid the intellectual
foundations of scientific racism, and there was the freest exchange of
ideas between eugenicists and dog breeders
Also in the late 19th century, Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A.
Macdonald, whose statues have had travails in Montreal
Toronto leading to scolding
 and arrests
, said
“the Aryan races will not wholesomely amalgamate with the Africans or the
Asiatics… the cross of those races, like the cross of the dog and the fox,
is not successful.”

In “Pedigree Dogs Exposed,” the documentarians show old photos of breeds
like German shepherds and bulldogs that had long legs and upright postures,
contrasting them with the top dogs in those breeds today, whose legs get
shorter and shorter as their mobility decreased. Those are the “show dogs.”
But “working dogs” aren’t beyond question either. Bulldogs were bred, as
the name indicates, for fighting with bulls for entertainment. Pit bulls,
for fighting one another. Dobermans, for protecting a rent collector. Is
this work that should be done? In reality, breeding dogs for these jobs was
of dubious benefit to human society; trying to make the case that it was
beneficial to the dogs, as a species, is preposterous. And if that is true
for dogs bred solely for work, how much sadder is it for the pedigree dogs
bred solely to meet circular aesthetic criteria (one breeder, asked about
the morality of killing puppies who lack the ridge, responded: “Well, if it
doesn’t have the ridge, it’s not a ridgeback, is it?”)?

Perhaps Dawkins envisions a well-funded eugenics department that could
overcome incest taboos and ethics reviews, as well as the small matter of
human reproductive freedom, to use inbreeding to create human breeds. But
what most eugenicists are really interested in is not such a scientific
project. They are interested in the idea of racial differences in

But dog breeds provide no insight into how this aspect would work for
humans either. Dogs, the outcome of artificial selection, have breeds that
can be identified by their genotypes. A paper
the differences between dog breeds and human “races” that appeared in the
journal Evolution: Education and Outreach in July 2019 stated that about 27
percent of dogs’ genetic variation could be explained by breed. Humans are
the outcome of natural selection, and most genetic variation occurs within
human groups. Classifications of humans by genotype don’t match up with
what racists think of as the different human “races.” The closest science
can get to the racist position is the trivial point that people who are
close together geographically are (relatively) close together genetically.
And even this regional variation can explain only 3.3-4.7 percent of human
genetic variation, according to the paper.

It is this regional variation that is being exploited by mail-order
genetics companies like 23andMe
which Marks calls “science-lite
because its users accept the findings they like and reject the ones they
don’t, which is probably the intended way to use the test. As for “race,”
there is no such thing
except for racism, which is the unscientific belief that there are such
things as distinct human “races.”

So, is dog breeding successful? Dog breeding has been disastrous for the
dog as a species. Does dog breeding provide evidence that eugenics could
work? The analogy between dog breeds and human “races” is broken.

If racists want to push eugenics, the rest of us should realize that they
do so without the backing of science, which has moved on, leaving the
detritus behind.

*Justin Podur *Independent Media Institute

*This article was produced by Globetrotter
<>, a project of the
Independent Media Institute.*

By Justin Podur <> posted
on September 13, 2020
About Justin Podur

*Justin Podur* is a Toronto-based writer and a writing fellow at
Globetrotter <>, a
project of the Independent Media Institute. You can find him on his website
at and on Twitter @justinpodur <>.
He teaches at York University in the Faculty of Environmental Studies. He
is the author of the novel *Siegebreakers*