Over the course of last couple of days, it’s emerged not only that number 10 appointed a believer in eugenics to the Cabinet Office, and that Dominic Cummings believes the same sort of drivel, but that a clutch of other people think this is all a perfectly respectable argument. Richard Dawkins tweeted:
It’s one thing to deplore eugenics on ideological, political, moral grounds. It’s quite another to conclude that it wouldn’t work in practice. Of course it would. It works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses. Why on earth wouldn’t it work for humans? Facts ignore ideology.
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) February 16, 2020
And ideology, it seems, obliterates evidence about eugenics, which we have in abundance. The ‘why’ is easy to answer. First, there is no evidence that the characteristics people like this would wish to foster can be arrived at by selective breeding. In the late 19th century, it was widely believed that poverty was the result of ‘degeneracy’, and that a series of social problems – crime, poverty, madness and disability – were inherited. This was all rubbish. The ‘scientific’ studies that were published were, by modern standards, fraudulent; the writers were so convinced it must be true that they didn’t mind a bit of embroidery.
Second, the characeristics that eugenicists want to stop are mainly socially determined. Andrew Sabisky, the Downing Street adviser at the centre of the storm, was arguing that
“One way to get around problems of unplanned pregnancies creating a permanent underclass would be to legally enforce universal uptake of long-term contraception at the onset of puberty.”
Teenage pregnancy occurs across the social classes, but poorer girls are more likely to choose to keep the baby – it’s a positive choice. Most girls in this position find a partner later, and partnering plays a major role in breaking any trend to long-term dependency. There is no permanent underclass.
Third, the methods of eugenic policies are repugnant – I’d recommend Carlson’s excellent history, The Unfit: history of a bad idea. Forced sterilisations and selective euthanasia were tried, notably in Virginia and later in Nazi Germany. There’s no defence for this. And there is no reason to suppose that in Dawkin’s sense, any of this ‘worked’. I admit freely that selective breeding of animals has led to more productive yields for those eating meat. When I next want to eat a better tasting baby, I’ll know who to call. I see no reason, however, to suppose that any amount of selective breeding will lead to more perceptive, morally considerate scientists – much as we need them.