July 25, 2004
Eugenics Debated In Germany

Eugenics is considered in many circles to be morally repugnant. Among Germany's political elites this attitude is especially prevalent as a reaction to Nazi killings and sterilizations which were motivated in part by ridiculous Nazi genetic theories (though a ruthless tribalistic view of the other was a powerful motivation as well). As a reaction to Nazi era practices pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PIGD) of defects in babies conceived in test tubes is against the law in Germany even though it is legal in almost all other Western countries. In spite of elite views most Germans favor the practice of PIGD to avoid defects in offspring.

The procedure, called pre-implantation genetic diagnostics (PGD), is forbidden in Germany but has been used in fertility clinics elsewhere since its invention in 1989.

The latest firestorm erupted last month at a Berlin conference on human reproduction, when researchers released a survey indicating that 4 in 5 Germans approve of PGD to prevent genetic diseases.


The findings seem to fly in the face of the consensus among politicians. A parliamentary commission reexamined the legality of PGD in 2002 - and unanimously decided to keep PGD strictly forbidden.

Pre-Implantation Genetic Diagnostics (also sometimes abbreviated PIGD) is legal and used in most Western countries. Therefore it can be argued that eugenics is already being widely practiced with little opposition by many people who are using in vitro fertilization to start pregnancies. Also, the genetic testing of couples before conception in order to provide advice about risks of having a baby amounts to eugenics as well. The use of knowledge of genetics of prospective parents or embryos to decide whether to proceed with a pregnancy is eugenics. Eugenics is not defined as something only governments carry out. Whether individuals use genetic technology to alter genetics of offspring or governments mandate the use of technology for eugenic purposes either way the use of genetic knowledge to alter reproductive outcomes is a form of eugenics.

I expect to see the practice of eugenics to become more widespread as the cost of genetic testing drops, as the expanding body of genetic research allows us to derive increasing numbers of useful insights from genetic tests, and as it becomes possible to do gene therapy on eggs, sperm, and embryos. While most eugenic decisions in the West will be left to individuals I also expect to see laws passed to discourage or even to forbid the passing along of certain genetic variations - and not just variations that cause what are widely held to be defects. For instance, when genetic variations that make a person very likely to be highly violent are identified then I expect most people to eventually favor the outlawing of knowingly passing along those genetic variations to future generations.

As eugenics becomes something that larger numbers of individuals can practice for their own benefit the stigma associated with the term eugenics is going to fade. As it becomes possible for individuals and couples to make more decisions about the genetic make-up of their offspring it is going to become necessary to remove the general taboo associated with the term eugenics so that the costs and benefits to society as a whole for particular genetic variations can be debated. Some parents will inevitably select genetic variations that make their children more problematic for the rest of us (for example, by reducing the impulse to carry out altruistic punishment). Since I think it unlikely that most governments will ban eugenics entirely we will need to come up with criteria for which genetic variations are allowable.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 July 25 10:39 AM  Biotech Society

John Hammond said at July 25, 2004 1:41 PM:

I agree that a personal decision to improve one's children's genetic endowment is not typically controversial, albeit could be called eugenics.

I disagree that "we" -- meaning, I beleive from the context, "most governments" -- "need to come up with criteria for which genetic variations are allowable." At this point we cross the line into government-sponsored eugenics, which should rightly sound the claxons.

The analogy is to censorship. One dictionary definition of censorshp is "to examine in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable" -- something each of us (purportedly) does before we speak. Only were Congress to break its vow to "make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech" (again) would this suppression or deletion raise alarms.

Even now the deaf mime a hue and cry over doctors performing prenatal tests to detect deafness (they take umbrage when it's called a defect). Can you imagine the political correctness in a government bureaucracy regulating your child's "allowable genetic variations" -- presumably run by some politically-appointed Genetics Czar requiring Senate approval? Political paralysis would freeze any progress, and the whackos from both right and left would swamp any rational discussion.

Randall Parker said at July 25, 2004 2:41 PM:


Should it be legal for a person to genetically engineer an embryo that will absolutely grow up to be a psychopath who enjoys killing?

John Hammond said at July 25, 2004 3:40 PM:


Should we outlaw butter knives because some psychopath might hurt someone with one someday? Should we round up all people with fragile-X syndrome and throw away the key? Should we burn books or ban videogames that might tip psychopaths over the edge? What if there only a fifty percent chance of killing joy? Or 2%? What if there were a statistical correlation between high intelligence and the likelihood of being a mass murderer?

It's an awfully slippery slope. Let's just join Kass and Fukuyama and outlaw it all. Someone somewhere might be doing something that we don't like.

Randall Parker said at July 25, 2004 4:04 PM:


The argument that there are slippery slopes is not an argument for doing nothing at all.

Rob Sperry said at July 25, 2004 6:30 PM:

Its ironic that the largest running genetic screening-eugenics program is run by the Jewish comunity trying to minimize the occurance of tay sachs.

Randall Parker said at July 25, 2004 7:34 PM:

Rob, Jewish eugenics: It is funny. But follows on a tradition that stretches back centuries to select for for desired traits.

Remember that Barbra Streisand movie Yentl where the guy can't marry Amy Irving's character because of some mental problem with his uncle or great grandfather or some such? That was eugenics in action, right there on the silver screen.

Eugenics is going to become rehabilitated in the public eye. Too many people want it. Humans have been making mating decisions to have better kids for eons. That is not going to change. The particular Nazi form of eugenics is just one of many different forms it can take. People are going to lose interest in the Nazi example once they can see benefits for themselves.

Invisible Scientist said at July 25, 2004 10:17 PM:


When it becomes possible to control the mental abilities and physical beauty of
the offspring, there will be competition. Is an IQ of 666 safe enough? Suppose that
the gentle and affectionate baby is given such a high IQ, and later gains a lot of
power in the world. If he or she decides that to do harm, there will be no limit to
the untold destruction this can cause. Psychology is a very unpredictable business, and
even if you make it illegal to add aggression genes, once you allow high IQ genes without
limit, the super-intelligent creature may decree that destroying the rest of the population is
not a terrible sin...

Fly said at July 26, 2004 12:45 AM:

Advanced technology puts more power in fewer hands. Somehow our society has to deal with that fact. Today a few terrorists can kill thousands. In twenty years it might be millions. We won’t be talking about abusing “butter knives”.

For our own survival we may have to alter human nature to significantly reduce the probability of “terrorist” behavior.

Invisible Scientist: “once you allow high IQ genes without
limit, the super-intelligent creature may decree that destroying the rest of the population is
not a terrible sin...”

One option would be to push a multitude of IQ and mental enhancement technologies. There wouldn’t be one type of super smart person. Different entities might specialize in different mental capabilities. Communication technology would facilitate the formation of group minds. These group minds would have links throughout the World Wide Brain and those links would ensure loyalty to that community. The group minds would have an effective intelligence higher than any single individual.

(I envision a group mind as an extension of the blogging phenomenon.)

The community would be continually improving all its elements. Better hardware, better biology, and better software.

Garson Poole said at July 26, 2004 6:39 AM:

There is an interesting article in the New York Times of July 21 about eugenics as it is practiced currently in the U.S.: "As Gene Test Menu Grows, Who Gets to Choose?"

Here is a quote: "many people (are) demanding to know why screening tests for certain genetic conditions, including deafness, mental retardation and breast cancer, are not being offered to them - even, in some cases, when they ask."

On the topic of genes and violence there was a recent article illustrative of the difficulties of determining the relationship between genotype and phenotype: ""Bad Behavior" Mutation Found"

Here is a quote: "A gene linked to depression has now been linked to bad behavior, but its effects appear to be neutralized by good parenting."

grmorrison said at October 8, 2009 12:53 PM:

I think the conquest of biology by Fascism was inevitable. Can anyone offer a good reason why 2% of the population with the means should be prevented from eliminating the remaining 98%. The only people we need now are the specialists of scientific and technological expertise. we would do well to sterilize a small contingent of service personel to maintain the physical plant but the economy should not be burdened with people it no longer needs. most animal species are of equally little use to us. So we should streamline nature to make better use of it. I can see no reason for there to be spiders, snakes, cockroaches or mosquitos. I personaly favor blonds and can think of no good reason for feeding and sheltering brunettes. I believe it is time to pursue the ideal and abandon the imperfect. No more mistakes and no more accidents! Eugenics uber alles!!!

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