How much do you know about the history of eugenics Mark? I say that not as a put-down, but as someone who has personally been surprised by how widely it was accepted, including among leading scientists.

As you probably know, it was invented by Francis Galton, the cousin of Charles Darwin, who very much appreciated his cousin’s work. Galton also pioneered statistics, along with his colleague Karl Pearson, another eugenicist

Eugenics was also supported by Nobel prize winning scientists like Jonas Salk (the discoverer of the polio vaccine) and Herman Muller. Other scientists who were committed eugenicist include Julian Huxley and JBS Haldane – probably the two most influential biologists of their generation. Richard Dawkins still says eugenics obviously works. In a tweet of Feb 15 he said ‘of course it works’.

What you’re trying to do (it seems to me) is insist on a clear division between ‘Science’ – which you want to see as always a reliable force for good in the world – and ‘folk-science’ or ‘pseudo-science’ which is bad and harmful. But in fact throughout history very good scientists have allowed their biases and prejudices and their good intentions to lead them into bad and harmful ideas and practices, particularly when they are given too much unaccountable power over others’ lives. This has happened repeatedly.

Eugenics was perhaps the most harmful scientific idea of the 20th century, but many of the scientists who supported it never recanted. Many still believe that with the right technology, scientists can dramatically improve the genetic quality of…if not the whole of humanity, then certainly an elite part of it.

And you’re trying to draw a line between eugenics and genomics – again, there is no clear line. Certain genetic initiatives, like the attempt to enhance human capacities like intelligence, are clearly in the tradition of eugenics.

Your attempt to defend Science (always good) from folk-science (bad) could be interpreted as an example of religious, faith-based tribalist thinking, very common among Skeptics for whom Science is the Ultimate Good. You are not as rational as you think we are – no one is.

Written by

Fellow @ Centre for the History of the Emotions. Author of Philosophy for Life, Art of Losing Control, and new book Breaking Open

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