The Lesson of Eugenics: "Perfection" Taken Too Far

The Lesson of Eugenics: "Perfection" Taken Too Far
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dnaeditingReprinted from the Press and Journal

The era of cheap housing may finally be upon us.

In China, the private firm WinSun is using 3D printers to produce up to 10 houses a day. Thanks to the decreased labor cost and cheapness of material, these abodes only cost $5,000.

That may seem overly cheap, and the raw substances used in constructing the homes might be of dubious quality, but this could be a major breakthrough in providing liveable shelter for the poor. It’s a start for the Third World – and as the nascent technology develops, it could become a reality in industrialized countries.

Computer programming is not only transforming our world, but it’s giving us the ability to personalize and customize our lives in never-before-thought-of ways. But when does this technology become too much and alter the human experience negatively? What happens when the process is irreversible?

The United Kingdom publication The Independent recently reported scientists are using a specialized, technological procedure to “edit” DNA and correct a variety of maladies in rats.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology successfully used what’s called the “Crispr” technique to alter a single letter in the genetic alphabet of rodents. Before, the mice were suffering from a genetic mutation in the liver. Through a number of intravenous injections, Crispr successfully altered a third of their liver cells, curing the mutation.

According to MIT professor Daniel Anderson, the affliction remedied “was a disease in the liver which is very similar to one found in humans.” The implication is the very same technology might soon be ready to use on people.

Prima facie, this may seem like a good thing. Curing debilitating disease and alleviating human suffering is wonderful. Where the world would be without vaccines and inoculations is up to question, but it most certainly wouldn’t be as healthy a place. The same goes for fixing basic injuries like broken arms or severe back pain.

Modern medicine has come a long way in lifting man out of a reality of continual hardship. Genome-editing may seem like the next big step, and the possibilities seem endless.

Even so, an endeavor like DNA alteration is one marked with extreme jeopardy and a sordid history.

Not more than a century ago, eugenics – the practice of improving the human species by wiping out undesirable races and ethnicities – was popular among leading scientists and progressives. During the 1920s, Harvard University was a veritable brain trust for the social philosophy. Nine members of the advisory council for the Eugenics Society were faculty members of the Crimson University.

Sidney and Beatrice Webb, founding members of the socialist Fabian Society in Britain, were huge supporters of eugenics. John Maynard Keynes, the father of what can be considered macroeconomics, served as the director of the Eugenics society for a time. Even conservative hero Winston Churchill once proclaimed his support of labor camps for the “mental defectives.”

As a philosophy, eugenics was supported under the guise of improving humanity. In practice, it was, as famed Harvard anthropologist Earnest Hooton once called it, a “biological purge” via forced sterilization.

In one famous case in Massachusetts, 26 underprivileged boys were castrated against their will in state-run hospitals. According to uncovered records released in a 2002 Boston magazine article, these teenagers were epileptic or diagnosed as kleptomaniacs, and thus deemed “in poor moral condition.” One state official even tried in vain to get hospitals to sterilize “defective” women without their explicit consent.

For anyone who believes in the intrinsic dignity of each individual, these stories are highly disturbing. But even more so, they are the height of hubris.

By what authority do we know what the perfect human code is? As imperfect creatures, how can we say there is a perfect race?

More importantly, will human genome transformation give way to the new eugenics?

Handing over the power of life and death to society’s upper strata should give pause. The free will of the innocent was already trampled on in the name of perfection.

Altering someone’s innermost code fundamentally and irrevocably transforms their nature. The great fear behind DNA-editing is the victims left in its wake – or better put: What could have been.

For every blemish wiped away, so are millions of specks of potential goodness.

If God is truly the author of our species, it seems arrogant to suppose we know more than Him. As Ecclesiastes 7:13 warns, “Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked?”

Rearranging the genetic alphabet isn’t the systematic elimination of “defective” people. But put in the wrong hands, it could very well become a weapon against our inherent imperfection.

Societal engineers often have lofty goals without recognizing their own fallibility. The unintended consequences of their actions can permeate far beyond what they initially imagine.

The choice is, as Matthew Hennessey of the Manhattan Institute writes, whether these new god of science gives deference to “the original intent of the author” or is simply “looking to rewrite every piece to suit their own ears.”

History and ideology say the perfect human is being sought. Whether we have the knowledge or ability to achieve such a thing is an open question.

We might have the ability to cost-effectively manufacture homes, but I’m less optimistic about our ability to re-manufacture ourselves.

Relieving pain through medicine is undoubtedly a welcome achievement. But there’s a price for everything. Let’s hope it’s not the loss of what truly makes us human: the humility in recognizing our own faults.

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James E. Miller is editor-in-chief of Mises Canada and a regular contributor to the Mitrailleuse . Send him mail

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