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Is Eugenics Making a Comeback?

There have been persistent rumours of prominent eugenicists meeting secretly in various parts of the world including in London. The important question is: did Eugenics ever go away? Or is it a theme which has always been there, and which is revisited from time to time?

Professor Allan Buchanan, the James B. Duke Professor of philosophy and professor of law at Duke University joins the program.

Professor Buchanan starts off the program by explaining what Eugenics is understood to be now: "It is generally understood to be a movement and an accompanying doctrine that is committed to improving the character of future populations or at least preventing the deterioration of future populations. It would be a mistake to think that Eugenics is the efforts of any two particular parents to influence the use of some biotechnology that's not eugenics. We're talking about a population or large group."

"So we're talking about a large population and programs that can only be run by governments?", asks host John Harrison.

"That's exactly right there has to be enough authority and political control to bring this about."

"What is wrong with the eugenics in the first place?"

"I don't think there is anything wrong with it in principle, everything has to do with how it is done; the principals involved and whether people's rights are infringed or not. There is no reason to believe that if we do nothing, that evolutionary processes alone will bring about the required results….It all depends what the environment is like, if the environment changes too quickly and evolution may not be able to keep up. It is not a question that anything that human beings might do beyond evolution is bad, that's the wrong way to think about it. It is how it is done is what is important."

"There are a lot of people in the alternative media accusing right wings of parties of linking their policies to eugenics is there any truth in this?"

"I think there is definitely a kind of a resurgence in white supremacist discourse, there is no doubt about that. I think that there are some ideas in the background which are at least connected to eugenics. If you are a white supremacist you think that white people by their nature, biologically, are superior to other people. That is a current theme in the eugenics because eugenicists thought that some people had inferior genes. There is another theory in common with eugenicists and white supremacists — that is that the view that there is a kind of parasitic class of human beings in society, what the Germans call people who were not productive and were an enormous drain on resources. They thought that these people, these inferior people reproduce at a much higher rate and something has to be done about that, otherwise people would be swamped by the insatiable demand for resources of these people. This current comes to the surface from time to time in white supremacist discourse and it is very much a eugenicist idea.

"I think for evolutionary reasons, human beings generally have a tendency to sort other human beings into groups and adopt a hostile attitude to people they regard in another group. This tendency towards ingroup/outgroup thinking has been hijacked by people who know how to manipulate other people's perceptions for their own purposes. The classic example is Nazi Germany. But it was also true in the United States. Many people don't know, but there was a eugenic program in United States which preceded the Nazis, and which the Nazi leaders commended as being pioneering for what they would do. In United States, about 65,000 people were compulsory sterilised in the name of eugenics between about 1920 and 1973. So, it's not just a Nazi phenomenon there were eugenics movements and quite robust ones which took place in the liberal democracies of the time with the exception of the UK."

As to whether eugenics is making a comeback or not, professor Buchanan says that he is not sure because: "eugenics is a constant theme which is always running through society, it's just becomes more explicit at certain times. It might be becoming more explicit now…. I think it becomes more explicit at times of economic difficulties.

"I think that the power that eugenics has comes from its power to convince people that we have a kind of public health emergency. If you can convince people of this then they are willing to accept more restraint than they would normally do. In the early 20th century they played the idea of a public health emergency very strongly. They said you can think of the horizontal transmission of disease as one thing, but there is also the vertical transmission of disease; the increase in the proportion of the human population of unwanted genes that is literally going to destroy society. If you can convince people of that, then they are willing to trample on anybody's rights.

"In times of extreme stress, one of the things that governments can do is to try to relieve those stresses, they can try to perform a legitimating function for a particular ideology. One way to perform a legitimating function for an ideology is to have a narrative about who is responsible for what is bad in society and who is responsible for what is good in it. That's where the ingroup/outgroup idea comes in. If you can scapegoat certain people as being the source of all serious social and political problems, them this relives pressure on the question of legitimacy of the government or of the ruling class. And you can divert energies which might have been very disruptive to societies and social order as a response to inequality, you can divert those energies into demonising and oppressing the group that has been scapegoated."

Professor Buchanan is the co-author of the influential book: ‘From Chance To Choice: Genetics and Justice'. He has a new book coming out shortly from OUP called: ‘The Evolution of Moral progress, a Biocultural Theory.'

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