The BBC documentaries in October this year on the subject of eugenics were very informative.  Eugenics in the 19th century was proposed as a system of improving the ‘quality’ of the human species.  Over the millennia, dog, pigeon and plant breeders had taken major steps, by cross-breeding, to select for desirable traits in their subjects. It meant that not only could homing pigeons fly home from greater distances, but that plants could become more productive of the food we need to survive.  Dogs, well, it seems that you can never have enough different sorts to appeal to their devoted ‘owners’.

When it comes to humans, however, it all becomes a little more difficult.  Assuming a similar type of breeding and selection to be possible, to which there may be a certain natural resistance, we still have to ask why we would want to do so – after all, the breeding cycle for humans tends to be quite long. It seems unlikely that we’re talking about breeding humans with a better taste or higher protein content, or humans who can learn to ‘fetch’, even though limited improvement might be possible in a relatively short period of time. But what if we were to breed, on a necessarily longer term, for what may be regarded as a more complex, but useful trait in today’s society – maybe giving helpful answers in call centres? This ability may not be quite so useful a hundred years hence, when the breeding programme had finally attained its aim, but when computers had long since taken over the job in any event.

No, instead, eugenics in human beings was, or became, an investigation as to how they could distinguish those humans who were useful to society, who could assist it to ‘progress’, from the others who were seen as a drain on its resources. This was with a view to discouraging the latter from breeding and so continuing to weigh down the ‘progress’ of humanity.  The ‘research’ such as it was, started just after Darwin published his ‘Origin of Species’, mainly led by his cousin Francis Galton. He was no doubt a very intelligent person, but he was trying to discover complex genetic information before we actually knew how genetics actually worked.  So then, he and his successors used the data and the received wisdom that was available to him.  Prior to Darwin’s publication, phrenology had become very popular amongst the middle classes as a means of discerning people's psychology and intelligence.  So then it is hardly surprising that Galton continued with this theme, investigating what we now know to be his subjects completely irrelevant physical traits. These were not only the detailed head shape, but the shape and colour of the eye, the colour of the skin and hair and other visible characteristics.

He used this to try to find statistically relevant connections which would enable judgements to be made about whole groups in society. He was undoubtedly the father of statistics, but his application of them in pre-double helix times was doomed to failure.  He was looking at the wrong datasets. And so, instead, he succeeded only in reinforcing his prejudices and those of other similar people about the rest of society. He assumed that the ignorant and the poor and people of other ‘races’, were incapable of becoming the sort of person that he was, neglecting the influence on his life of the privileged conditions that he had benefited from. So then it was an early failure to recognise that it is not only nature which is important, but also nurture. Later on, eugenics was used to reinforce people's prejudices on a much grander scale, with its adoption by the Nazis with a view to creating the ideal Aryan race, of which Hitler himself was such a perfect example!

But the ideas behind eugenics, as the documentary made clear were mainstream thinking in the rest of Europe and America into the second part of the 20th century. And of course they still are.  We still have the idea that race is something of importance, when in fact, race has no significant genetic meaning. To define race, we fixate on skin colour or facial features of some sort, which are a minuscule part of our total genetic make-up.  Indeed we now know that, statistically, the genetic variation between people of different so-called races is no greater than that between people of the same race.  So then, to use it as a means of claiming that one ‘race’ is better than another or in some way intrinsically different is complete nonsense.  But it still happens.  If only Galton had known.

At various points in the programmes, however, the presenters and their interviewees went to another extreme. They seemed to take for granted that genetics mattered very little in determining peoples’ abilities, whether intelligence in its various forms or more physical capabilities.  And this is equally wrong.  Studies of identical twins, raised apart from each other, in fact demonstrate that about 75% of intelligence is a result of our genome. Certainly, other matters such as personality, are more susceptible to our nurture, but generally speaking there is a 50/50 split between the effect of nature and nurture.  This may, however, be over-simplistic because our nurture can affect how our genes work. So-called epigenetics, outside influences, can cause genes to be turned off or on and so cause genetically produced differences even though coming from ostensibly the same genome.  So then, nurture acts as a key which turns parts of the genome on and off - but the genome is nonetheless at the centre of it all.

Quite understandably, the participants in the programmes, some of whom had mental difficulties or would have been regarded as freaks in the ‘good old days’, were horrified at the thought that they might have been incarcerated for life in ghastly institutions to prevent them breeding and so prevent the human species from ‘deteriorating’ further. 

But the question nowadays is in what way we can and should use our knowledge of genetics to prevent people being born with the horrendous disadvantages in life which can come with a genetic abnormality. 

One reaction was that simply to do so would mean that those now living with such problems should not be valued, should not be alive.  But to think in this way is to look at things far too simplistically. None of us are in perfect condition, not even me. I would certainly have preferred it if some steps could have been taken to make genetic adjustments to me prior to birth in order to avoid my having to have, for instance, major open-heart surgery. That was not a possibility, but I still feel entitled to be a part of the human race.  And, so far, no-one has suggested to the contrary, at least not out loud.

The more difficult decision is where we are capable of selecting between potential embryos to choose those without the undesired genetic defect, rather than curing it.  Despite the ‘Right to Life’ lobby, I don’t think that a tiny group of embryonic cells can be said to have any particular right to develop into a human being.  If this is so, then it leaves the parents in the position of deciding whether they want to bring up a baby with obvious health problems or pick one which appears to have everything in order.
Most people do not want to bring an unlimited number of children into the world. Neither, given the choice, would they wish to be compelled to look after a possibly severely disadvantaged child. Surely, therefore, it would make sense to choose to give life to an embryo without all those obvious potential disadvantages. But it doesn’t mean that a defective embryo, which by mistake got through the process, should be less highly regarded or supported as a living being.  As a society we should be better than that.

Paul Buckingham

12 October 2019

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