Eugenics: Not Well-Born

The the paper I’m critiquing is by Jonathan Anomaly entitled “Eugenics Defended: From Cryptic Choice to Conscious Selection.” It has already received a fair bit of criticism from philosopher Robert A. Wilson, among others, which is good to see. Still, there is a lot wrong with the paper not covered by those able critics.

Commitment and Eugenics

Let’s start at the very beginning (it’s very fine place to start):

Defending eugenics does not commit us to endorsing state-sponsored coercion, nor to the parochial views held by some advocates of eugenics in the early twentieth century. Likewise, defending eugenics does not commit us to genetic determinism, according to which genes determine every important aspect of our personality.

A lot of talk here about what a commitment to eugenics commits “us” to. But there is no indication of who the “us” is. The author? The political world in which the author is throwing his ideas? This is also a cheap maneuver to try to end run real criticism: “Unless you can show some kind of logical entailment of a pro-eugenic stance, your critique fails.” This ignores, of course, that a pro-eugenic argument may make it more likely that policymakers will adopt more coercive measures. And further ignores the ugly past of eugenics: “Not those eugenics! We are only ‘committed’ to the good eugenics.” Yet, there are no mechanisms offered to avoid those bad old days coming back. There are very good reasons to think that Anomaly’s proposed eugenic policies merely recapitulate the racist and classist eugenic policies that flourished before the war.

Fake Consensus

The scientific consensus is that virtually every trait that influences our personality and our likelihood of living a good life—including intelligence, health, empathy, and impulse control—has a substantial genetic component (Bouchard 2004; Polderman et al. 2015; Plomin et al. 2016).

Nope. There is no such consensus, as Wilson makes clear. Further, what is the significance of thus supposed “consensus?” Is is different from the scientific consensus that threw its weight behind the overtly racist 1924 Immigration Restriction Act? If we are going to base policy on science, we need to be quite clear about these questions.

Strawman Opponents

Portrait of a scarecrow
“If I only had a brain…..”

“Many academics after World War II began to deny that races exist, that genes matter, and that intelligence or impulse control are heritable traits that help predict the relative success of different people or groups (Pinker 2002; Cofnas 2016).

Wrong again. This is a very common tactic that eugenicists take, like their cousins in the race/IQ game: it makes it sound like the denial of these things was purely a political reaction to Nazi horrors and not scientific judgments based on empirical evidence. As it happens, The race/IQ argument collapsed on empirical and methodological grounds by the end of the 1920s. After the war, those that argued against the existence of socially defined races did so on the basis of modern population genetics a position affirmed in the 21st century by the American Society of Human Genetics. You’ll note that Anomaly cites no one holding the idea that genes don’t matter regarding intelligence. As Andrew Winston and I wrote:

The consensus among psychologists is that variations in behavioral traits are the product of both genes and environment. What is disputed is how we might answer such a question for such knotty human traits such as intelligence (Devlin et al., 2002Nisbett et al., 2012Richardson, 2017), whether the folk categories such as “White” and “Black” race are actual biological categories (Brace 2005DeSalle & Tattersall, 2018Jackson & Depew, 2017Marks, 2017Yudell, 2014), whether or not partitioning trait differences into “genes” and “environment” makes any sense, given the continuous interaction of the two (Goldhaber, 2012Keller, 2010Tabery, 2014Taylor, 2014), and, how certain we need to be of such knowledge as a basis for social policy (Frank, 2012Gillborn & Youdell, 2009Hilliard, 2012).

Rather than taking on these knotty questions, Anomaly simply offers an unevidenced strawman that scientists simply ignore genes. That is so much easier that to meet the dozens of telling critiques against their ideas.

Checking Footnotes: You’ll Know Them By The Company They Keep

Who does a eugenicist cite as sources to support the idea that eugenics, despite is horrific history, might be worth another shot? Respectable scientists? People with a terrific research record devoted to the pursuit of scientific truth and that alone? Of course not. Some of these cited sources betray the disturbing political agenda that eugenics represents.


But! The papers cited in those footnotes weren’t published in the trashy Mankind Quarterly! They were published in the mainstream journal, Intelligence. So, they are peer-reviewed and therefore trustworthy, right? Well, not so fast. The editor of Intelligence apparently has no problem publishing racists. It shows, since Mankind Quarterly writers know they can make the transition to Intelligence and thus buff up their otherwise disreputable images. In a recent survey of intelligence researchers published in Intelligence it was found that intelligence researchers generally distrusted the media in covering their work. There were only three bright spots:

Only two media outlets received positive ratings, the blogs of Steve Sailer (M = 7.38, N = 26 ratings) and Anatoly Karlin (6.10, N = 10 ratings). Unfortunately, the survey did not consider James Thompson’s blog Psychological Comments, which was just beginning when the survey was administered. All three blogs are currently hosted by The Unz Review.

The Unz Review is a racist website that promotes, among other things, Holocaust denial. The three authors mentioned, Steve Sailer, Anatoly Karlin, and James Thompson, are notorious for their promotion of racist science.

In another recently published paper in Intelligence two authors try to make the claim that there is a “taboo” on race/IQ research. To prove their point, they trot out segregationists, avowed fascists, unqualified hacks, pretty much anyone who things Black people just aren’t as smart as white people. Here’s how Andrew and I described their findings:

To make the case for a “taboo” against hereditarian research Carl and Woodley do not discriminate between the objective scientific research they claim to stand for and simple racist statements. If we narrow the field to controversies occurring after publication of The Bell Curve, they offer, as hereditarian research, demonstrably false statements, statements made without any supporting scientific evidence, statements made by unqualified individuals, and statements explicitly offered in support of authoritarian and racist political agendas. In reading the same sources, they use to document their claims, we find that in case after case hereditarians’ thoughtless and ill-advised statements were met with completely justified objections.

These are the people admired by those who referee Intelligence. No wonder Richard Lynn can still publish there. These are not the people from whom we should be taking advice about how to enact eugenic policies as Anomaly urges us to.

Confusion About Eugenics

“Confused PC” by Luigi Rosa is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Wilson argues persuasively that Anomaly misses the key to eugenic thinking:

The greater and best-known part of the history of eugenics, however—in theory, practice, policy, and legislation—was not about producing people with traits that enable them to thrive, as this characterization of eugenics suggests. It was instead about eliminating people with undesirable traits or preventing their birth, e.g., through sexual sterilization or immigration restriction policies. Eugenics is not only about intergenerational human improvement but about doing so by differentially intervening on the variation in human populations.

Anomaly consistently mistakes technologies, like birth control, for eugenics (in this he’s like Clarence Thomas). As Wilson points out, he mistakes parents wanting to care for their children, or parents unable to care for their children as a eugenic concern. But eugenics is not about individual children, it is about eliminating undesirable traits in entire populations that exist only in future generations. No where is Anomaly’s ignorance about eugenics more stark than in his proposed policies.

First, Anomaly writes that contraception should be free because, “This is one of the most cost-effective measures governments can take, and it can be justified by its ability to enhance individual autonomy and social welfare,” he is not defending eugenics at all. He must prove that such measures will help the future generations of “the race” , And his citing of Margaret Sanger in the 1920s is hardly evidence it will do so.

Second, Anomaly supports increased genetic education and counseling. He shows no knowledge of the history of genetic counseling and its relationship to eugenics (see here, here, here, or here for examples of this literature). Nor does he explore the enormous literature in bioethics that explores this very question (see here, here, here, here, or here). Instead, Anomaly cites a free market economist and a political theorist. I cannot imagine how the editors of a bioethics journal published a paper defending eugenics when that paper cited no bioethics literature or addressed any of the complex issues surrounding the relationship between genetic counseling and eugenics.

Third, Anomaly explores “incentives and penalties.” He starts with the concern, that “The current demographics of Western countries are troubling, as people with a higher IQ, more education, and greater income reproduce at relatively low levels.” Why is this troubling? He never explains, actually. Why is this a problem? What assumptions does one have to have to think this is a problem?

Anomaly’s reasoning is quite clear as he explores his eugenic ideas. Consider this passage:

States might improve the situation by mandating paid parental leave in the workplace, so there are fewer costs to temporarily leaving work to take care of children. Sweden has among the most generous paid parental leave laws in the world, and it is among the few developed countries with a replacement birthrate. Some studies suggest that strong family leave laws are the primary reason for its demographic stability (Hoem 2005). But the evidence is tainted by the fact that native-born Swedes have below-replacement fertility, and foreign-born immigrants from Somalia have more children, thus bringing Sweden close to replacement levels (Tollebrant 2017). This makes the effect of family leave laws a little unclear.

These immigrants are, presumably, taking advantage of Sweden’s parental leave policies which should be great, right? What is the problem? Is it that someone who immigrated from Africa isn’t really Swedish? Is it that someone who’s parents immigrated from African isn’t really Swedish? Anomaly seems to believe Somali-born people are a eugenic threat to Sweden. Why would he think that, do you think? Maybe because the Anomaly-approved Richard Lynn thinks Africans are mentally retarded and thus lower the IQ of a nation?

Anomaly’s proposed scheme to have state-issued licenses for parenting is a nightmare. Anomaly rejects that the state should subsidize childraising so it wouldn’t be a hardship for poorer people to have children: “It would be more cost-effective to prevent unwanted pregnancies than treating their consequences.” This is the exact same stance that the American Eugenics Society took in 1926:

Q. How much does segregation cost?

A. It has been estimated that to have segregated the original “Jukes” for life would have cost the State of New York about $25,000.

Q. Is that a real saving?

A. Yes. It has been estimated that the State of New York, up to 1916 spent over $2,000,000 on the descendants of these people.

Q. How much would it have cost to sterilize the original Jukes pair?

A. Less than $150”

How expensive is too expensive? Anomaly doesn’t say. But after we’ve rejected the idea that society should care for its children and opt for prevention, what happens next? Anomaly’s answer is: “One way to enforce licensing is to impose fines or other costs on those who have children without a license.” So, if you are poor woman who gets pregnant without a license, not only will society not help you in any way (not “cost-effective” you see), but it will fine you as well. What about the child this policy was designed to help? There, Anomaly is silent. Of course, if you are rich and have an unlicensed child, you pay your fine and go about your merry way, even if you are a rotten parent with bad genes.

To summarize this paper:

  • The empirical evidence Anomaly cites is roundly rejected by the scientific mainstream. It is from disreputable sources that ally themselves with the racist right-wing of American politics.
  • The ethical stance it takes is completely uninformed by a vast literature in bioethics that deals with the complexities of the issues Anomaly supposedly addresses.
  • Anomaly’s proposed policy solutions are not only unworkable, but would be extremely punitive towards the most vulnerable in society.

Eugenics didn’t work in before World War II and Anomaly’s suggestion that we return to them is contemptible.

Alana Lentin has pointed out that Anomaly frames his eugenic ideas in “viewpoint diversity” terms. This is a version of the old “equalitarian conspiracy” argument that scientific racists offer. Eugenicists and race scientists often couch this as: “Look, this view might not be popular, but the search for truth should not be fettered by emotion or politics! We should welcome provocative ideas! You are the totalitarian close-minded one!” Don’t believe them when they say this. Modern eugenicists and race scientists will do anything to close off discussions about the well-documented history of their reliance on the racist right. They get angry when we bring it up. They ignore it when they can. Arthur Jensen cited a neo-Nazi do define “race” in his infamous 1969 article? Silence. IQ/Race research started as a way to justify racial segregation in the US? Silence. Glayde Whitney, the former president of the Behavioral Genetics Association gave an antisemitic speech at a Holocaust Denial conference? Silence. Viewpoint diversity does not cover the horrific histories of race scientists and modern eugenicists with reactionary politics. But that doesn’t mean that history is not relevant to judging their work as shoddy and dangerous.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

3 thoughts on “Eugenics: Not Well-Born

  1. It saddens me that you probably believe what you’ve written here.
    Alas, the only argument needed in favor of eugenics is the existence of people like yourself.
    May we one day overcome motivated reasoning and live in truth.

    Liked by 1 person

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