It seems that learning from the mistakes of history is not one of the strong points of many intellectuals. Although we can be taught so much by the study of history, especially truths about the avoidance of its past mistakes, it appears that some intellects live in a history-free bubble.
Consider the call to breed a superior race. Now where have we heard that sort of lingo before? I would not have thought that the mega-monstrosity of the Nazi programme took place all that long ago. The horrors of the third Reich really should be fresh in our collective memory.
How can we so readily forget what the Second World War was fought over? Have we no longer any idea of what the aims of the Nazis were? The idea of creating a master race, a race of superior beings, was at the heart of Hitler’s nefarious schemes.
He wanted to breed a superior race – the Aryans – while weeding out inferior races. Thus a combination of eugenics, selective breeding, mass killings, and compulsory sterilisation was used to create this master class. The whole world knows – or should know – about the horrors of such a vision.
While most people today shy away from any similar ideals or goals, the new biomedical technologies, coupled with secularist hubris and the desire to play God have resulted in newer, but equally sinister calls for a superior race. Indeed, new biotechnologies make many of the Hitlerian dreams of the past potential reality today.
Thus when we read about influential ethicists calling for the breeding of superior human beings, we all should shudder – big time. And that is exactly what one Australian-born ethicist is proposing. Here is how a news item in today’s press breaks the story:
“A leading Australian ethicist has advocated genetically screening embryos to create a smarter society of superior ‘designer babies’ with higher IQs. Melbourne’s Julian Salvulescu, now Oxford’s practical ethics professor, has said it is our ‘moral obligation’ to use IVF to choose the smartest embryos, even if that maintains or increases social inequality.
“Experts have criticised the Gattaca-style idea, saying the money involved could be better spent improving quality of life in Africa. They have also warned IQ screening could result in unintended results. But Dr Salvulescu has said we have a moral obligation to create a smarter society, thereby dramatically reducing welfare dependency, the number of school dropouts, the crowding of jails and the extent of poverty.
“‘There are other ethical principles which should govern reproduction, such as the public interest,’ Dr Salvulescu said. ‘Even if an individual might have a stunningly good life as a psychopath, there might be reasons based on the public interest not to bring that individual into existence. My own view is that the economic and social benefits of higher cognition are reasons in favour of selection, but secondary to the benefits to the individual. Cheaper, efficient whole genome analysis makes it a real possibility in the near future’.”
Strange, but I recall Hitler using moral arguments as he made his case for the creation of a superior race. Now we have a respectable ethicist calling for much the same. And of course Salvulescu has made headlines before.
Using the new genetics to create a race with enhanced capabilities may sound good on paper, but whenever it has been tried, it always comes with a cost. Even secular filmmakers have been quite aware of the inherent dangers in all this. And it is not only the important 1997 film Gattaca which speaks to these concerns.
Many other Hollywood productions have spoken to these dangerous prospects. Films such as The Sixth Day (2000) or The Island (2005) also come to mind. Of course it is not just those in the entertainment industry who have their misgivings about where we are heading with the new technologies.
Plenty of theologians, philosophers and ethicists have also been warning us for years about such risks. Many could be cited here. Let me focus on just one. Over two decades ago Richard John Neuhaus (who passed away two years ago) wrote a very important and influential essay entitled “The Return of Eugenics” (Commentary, April 1988).
In it he bemoaned where we were heading with the new biotechnologies, the secularisation of society, and the rise of the culture of death. He began his article with these words:
“Eugenics – that is, the movement to improve and even perfect the human species by technological means – arose in the late nineteenth century and flourished in this country and in Europe until the 1930s. Then it was challenged by scientific counter-evidence, and by growing uneasiness about its racialist implications. Later, or so the story was told, eugenics was definitely discredited by the Third Reich, which enlisted its doctrines and practices in support of unspeakable crimes against humanity. But now, in the journals and in the textbooks, the story is being told differently. The problem, it is said, was not so much with eugenics itself but with the Nazis: they abused eugenics, they went too far, they were extremists.
“Thus, in the longer view of history, the horror of the Third Reich may have effected but a momentary pause in the theory and practice of eugenics. For today, four decades later, eugenics is back, and it gives every appearance of returning with a vengeance in the form of developments ranging from the adventuresome to the bizarre to the ghoulish: the manufacture of synthetic children, the fabrication of families, artificial sex, and new ways of using and terminating undesired human life.”
He notes how the new eugenics can do far more damage than the old, simply because of the greater scientific and technological capabilities at our disposal: “The attempt to deny risk and suffering, the use and elimination of the unfit – these were all elements of the old eugenics. But what earlier eugenicists could only dream about can now be done; and, if it can be done, it likely will be done. In the technological possibility of creating ‘a new man in a new society,’ we have a vision that makes the similar ambition of political totalitarians seem modest by comparison.
“Of course there are serious people worrying about that ominous prospect. But it seems that soaring hubris, joined to technical capacity, has broken the bonds of moral restraint. That the bonds are broken is evident enough in the very efforts designed to impose limits.”
He concludes this way: “Perhaps the law, or maybe the remembrance of horrors past, will yet fend off the return of eugenics in its fullness. Perhaps popular moral judgment, drawn from older traditions of moral truth, will, through the democratic process, begin to erect fences. Perhaps our cultural leaders will rediscover modes of moral reason that appeal to a good beyond emotion. And perhaps not.
“And so, quite suddenly it seems, we are facing questions for which we have no ready answers. The questions are being answered, however. Most of us, probably because we want to live with a clear conscience, prefer not to think about the answers that are being given. Later, we can say that we did not know.”
Or we can say, in our self-defence, “I was just following orders”. Whether we bury our heads in the sand and plead ignorance, or whether we just pretend it will all go away, the new technologies – and the frightening prospects that they can generate – are upon us.
We either recall the lessons of history and act, or we allow the horrors of history to once again be unleashed upon us. But for the readers of this article at least, we cannot say that we did not know.