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Eugenics is quietly returning; what does this mean for future humans?

We don’t get to choose which of our genes we pass on.

Eugenics is quietly returning; what does this mean for future humans?

Every conception is a roll of the dice.  But that could be about to change with emerging technology called “preimplantation genetic testing for polygenic disorders.”

A technology that allows parents who can afford the cost of the procedure to select which embryos should be allowed to survive based on their desired traits.  In humans, selective breeding is called eugenics. 

Could this new eugenics movement eventually result in a new breed of elitist humans that are sufficiently genetically distinct from the rest that the two populations are no longer genetically similar enough to interbreed?

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The following is paraphrased from the article ‘The quiet return of eugenics’ written by Louise Perry and published by The Spectator.

Testing of a foetus or embryo is already common. Prenatal Down’s Syndrome tests, for instance, are so widespread that in some Scandinavian countries, almost 100 per cent of women choose to abort a foetus diagnosed with the condition, or – if using IVF – not implant the affected embryo. The result is a visible change to these populations: there are simply no more people with Down’s to be seen on the streets of Iceland and Denmark.

Until now, these prenatal tests have been available only for some conditions. 

Preimplantation genetic testing for polygenic disorders (“PGT-P”), hereafter “polygenic screening,” is a genetic test designed to screen for multiple genes associated with a polygenic disorder, which is a condition caused by the interaction of multiple genetic and environmental factors. This test is typically performed on embryos created through in vitro fertilisation (“IVF”) and aims to identify embryos with a lower risk of developing a polygenic disorder.

Polygenic screening allows parents to take a batch of embryos conceived through IVF, have a report compiled for each one, based on their genetic risk factors, and then use these reports to decide which embryo to implant.

Such reports give a very full picture of the adult that embryo could become, including their vulnerability to an enormous number of diseases – heart disease, diabetes, cancer – and their likely physical and psychological traits: height, hair colour, athletic ability, conscientiousness, altruism, intelligence.

The list is long, and ethically fraught. Polygenic screening permits parents to choose the very best children, according to their own preferences, almost entirely removing the role of luck in the normal genetic lottery.

The screening itself is expensive, but not prohibitively so – probably in the region of £7,000-£12,000, which is less than a year of full-time daycare in London. Equally expensive, and far more physically onerous for the mother, is the IVF process.

But think of what’s on offer: the opportunity to offer your children the best possible chance in life. Why would the kind of upper-middle-class parents who think nothing of spending vast sums on their children’s education not opt for polygenic screening? My bet is that they will, and soon.

A New Eugenics Movement is Born

If the word “eugenics” has sprung to mind while reading this, you’re not alone. What we’re talking about here can best be understood as a new kind of eugenics.

The video below was not included in The Spectator’s article. You can find a transcript for the video above HERE.

Eugenics is a science that has, within living memory, been used to justify many evil deeds. The horror most modern people feel when they hear the word is justified by the atrocities associated with the first movement. The extermination programmes of the Nazis, for example, were directly inspired by the eugenics movement of the Anglosphere, not least the programmes permitted by American eugenic legislation that saw more than 64,000 individuals forcibly sterilised between 1907 and 1963, disproportionately African-American and indigenous women.

The fundamental claim behind the first eugenics movement in Victorian and Edwardian times is that our genetic inheritance affects – often to a large degree – not only our physical but also our psychological characteristics. It is therefore possible to manipulate the characteristics of a population by encouraging or discouraging the reproduction of some genes – which historically meant, in practice, the reproduction of some people.

Does it all come down to genes? Is human behaviour, personality and development primarily shaped by genetics (nature) or environmental factors (nurture).  On the ancient question of “nature or nurture” by far the most defensible scientific answer is both – the interaction between nature and nurture is crucial in shaping who we are and how we behave.

One technology the first eugenicists made use of was abortion. When criticism of eugenics came, it was mainly from Catholics, in part because most eugenicists vigorously endorsed the use of both birth control and abortion to further their goals.

Today, the practice of aborting foetuses likely to be affected by Down’s Syndrome is eugenicist.

Another modern-day form of eugenics is seen in some homosexual couples who choose to have children.  As Fleischman writes: “Gay men and lesbian women in the US often use gamete donors from egg and sperm banks to have kids in a process that is transparently eugenic … Organisations that recruit egg and sperm donors don’t just recruit for fertility, they also screen for mental and physical health, height, education and criminal history – because that’s what their clients want and expect.”

Is it inevitable that eugenic programmes will be used to justify evil deeds? Does a widespread belief that some genes are better or worse than others lead to the widespread conclusion that some people are better or worse than others? And does this conclusion always lead to some very dark places?

We are about to find out. The new eugenics will shortly be with us, although it will not describe itself as such. It will be described with euphemisms such as “genetic enhancement” or “genetic health.”

And unlike the first eugenics movement – which attempted to harness the power of the state to determine who should and should not be encouraged (or forbidden) to reproduce – the new version will not concern itself especially with government policy. Rather, it will mostly take the form of private individuals quietly opting for new commercial services like polygenic screening – and, in the future, more radical biotech. These individuals will typically spend large sums of money on these services because they will have reached the conclusion that socially desirable traits such as intelligence and beauty are heavily influenced by genetics.

Some countries may well subsidise polygenic screening. Israel already offers its citizens free IVF services, and China has recently announced its intention to do the same. Laws that permit or incentivise the use of these biotech services can accurately be described as eugenic laws, albeit not ones written with the intention of manipulating the gene pool at scale.

It is worth noting that the technology has challenges and limitations other than the expense.  In the context of polygenic disorders, for example, there is still a limited understanding of the genetic and environmental factors that contribute to the disorders, which can make it difficult to identify all the relevant genes.  And there is a risk of false negatives ( embryos that are misclassified as unaffected) and false positives (embryos that are misclassified as affected).

Eugenicists Then and Eugenicists Now

What is often forgotten about the first eugenics movement is how extraordinarily influential it was in its day, particularly among the self-defined “progressive” upper-middle classes of Britain and America. And even after Nazi atrocities were made known, it took some decades for the word “eugenics” to fall entirely out of favour (the American Eugenics Society did not change its name until 1973).

The best contemporary comparison is perhaps the environmentalist movement. Like environmentalism, eugenics was endorsed by the most prestigious scientific associations and journals. Like environmentalism, it found passionate advocates among celebrities and the socially conscious middle classes.

It wasn’t popular only among Wasp conservatives. Black progressives Kelly Miller and W.E.B. Dubois were eugenicists, for example, as were some of the leading socialists of the day. For the Fabian reformer Sidney Webb, the first eugenics movement combined perfectly with his famous injunction to ‘Interfere! Interfere! Interfere!’ Moulding a healthier and more intelligent population was regarded as not just a virtuous cause, but a duty.

Ethical Implications of the New Eugenics Movement

Jonathan Anomaly is one of the few philosophers thinking seriously about the ethical implications. In his 2020 book, ‘Creating Future People, he explored the many practical and moral problems that might result from the widespread use of polygenic screening, including the risk of what evolutionary biologists call “speciation”: that is, a group becoming so genetically distinct from the rest of its species that the two populations are no longer genetically similar enough to interbreed.

Strange as this may sound, the run-away use of polygenic screening by an elite group could result in just such an outcome. The social and political differences between the two human species would then become so enormous that the fracturing of polities would be likely, with genetically enhanced people eventually forming their own nation states that exclude the non-enhanced people.

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