Edge published a book on Dangerous Ideas.

Steven Pinker notes that science seeks to discover what reality is. Dangerous ideas are discoveries about reality that destroy pleasant fantasies and delusions. He phrases it more politely, of course.

The term “political correctness” captures the 1960s conception of moral rectitude that we baby boomers brought with us as we took over academia, journalism, and government. In my experience, today’s students ā€” black and white, male and female ā€” are bewildered by the idea, common among their parents, that certain scientific opinions are immoral or certain questions too hot to handle.

I’ve always noticed that “political correctness” is intellectually shallow and opposes scientific inquiry. Creating a moral and political system around an ideal that does not exist is deeply unstable and harmful. I view “political correctness” as a barbaric idea from the Dark Ages (circa 1960-1979) that is more dangerous than any idea by a geneticist.

Richard Dawkins wrote the afterword. He mentioned a dangerous idea that was so dangerous it wasn’t mentioned by any of the authors: Eugenics.

Are there any dangerous ideas that are conspicuously under-represented in this book? I have two suggestions, both of which can be spun into either the ‘is’ or the ‘ought’ box. First, I noticed only fleeting references to eugenics, and they were disparaging. In the 1920s and 30s, scientists from the political left as well as right would not have found the idea of designer babies particularly dangerous ā€” though of course they would not have used that phrase. Today, I suspect that the idea is too dangerous for comfortable discussion, even under the license granted by a book like this, and my conjecture is that Adolf Hitler is responsible for the change. Nobody wants to be caught agreeing with that monster, even in a single particular. The spectre of Hitler has led some scientists to stray from ‘ought’ to ‘is’ and deny that breeding for human qualities is even possible. But if you can breed cattle for milk yield, horses for running speed and dogs for herding skill, why on earth should it be impossible to breed humans for mathematical, musical or athletic ability? Objections such as ‘These are not one-dimentional abilities’ apply equally to cows, horses and dogs, and never stopped anybody in practice.

I wonder whether, sixty years after Hitler’s death, we might at least venture to ask what is the moral difference between breeding for musical ability, and forcing a child to take music lessons. Or, why is it acceptable to train fast runners and high jumpers, but not breed them? I can think of some answers, and they are good ones which would probably end up persuading me. But hasn’t the time come when we should stop being frightened even to put the question?

There’s always been an urge to apply the lessons of animal husbandry to humanity. There are references to good breeding by the ancient Greeks. Eugenics is nothing new.

A top-down Government-planned eugenics program was and will be disastrous. The old 20th century programs, popular amongst statists of the time, acted on idealist and often racist notions without knowledge of DNA. Even with knowledge of DNA, centrally planned reproduction would still be absurdly cruel and ineffective.

Yet today, we’re seeing decentralized individually planned eugenics. Sometimes it is so subtle that we don’t realize it.

I speculate that there is greater mate selection today than in the past. The decline of arranged marriages means individuals have greater autonomy to select mates based on quality factors – like height, intelligence, etc.

Abortions have also played a role in this new eugenics movement. For instance, few children are born with Down’s Syndrome because doctors can test for prenatal defects. As we learn more about genetics, we will be able to select which types of children are born. We know that nearly all parents want their children to have grandchildren – does this mean they would weed out homosexual children? Would they prefer mathematically talented children over lower-IQ children?

Can we design babies? Not yet. But we’re at the point where we can select which ones live. Perhaps we’ll be able to ‘enhance’ or ‘upgrade’ some as well. Why can’t we have a discussion on this issue? I take no moral stance on this issue, because I never dealt with the issue personally and have seen no discussion of the consequences.

Advertisements