Friday, March 11, 2011

Eugenics Didn't Die With Hitler [Anthony McCathy

Martin Harty, the Republican freshman state legislator from Barrington, New Hampshire has gone on record as being in favor of sending "defectives" to Siberia to freeze to death. Of course his age, 91, will be given to try to excuse his embarassing statement away, though I'd not be surprised to hear that a good many Republicans half his age would agree with doing, effectively, the same thing by eliminating funding for mental health services. You can freeze or starve to death in New Hampshire, you don't need -60 F temperatures to achieve that demented desideratum. It is, after all, what conservatives have attempted from time immemorial.

And it's not just the mentally ill, here's the list that one of his constituents quoted him as giving:

"I mean all the defective people, the drug addicts, mentally ill, the retarded — all of them."

Here's what the local, Republican, newspaper got him on record as saying:

"The population keeps doubling," he said. "It's not hitting us too hard yet; we're not running out of food and we're not running out of drinkable water. But we're getting damn close. The homeless people that every state has their share of are mostly mentally ill. You can't really help those people. You can keep them alive, but there's only so much you can do for those people."

Which, bottom covering revision, is somewhat more generous than much of the callous Malthusianism of present day Republican policy. In my neighboring state, the Republicans in charge are in the process of cutting off a huge part of those presently receiving medical care. In state houses around the country, "defectives" are being thrown off the sled every day. The Republicans and their media are in the business of convincing us that the United States can't afford The People, even the sound of mind and body and those not in the best of shape will be the first to go. As my ex-legislator put it before he lost reelection to a tea bagger, "People are going to die with the budget cuts we're making". And that a year ago.


Least anyone suspect that Harty is a stock religious fanatic, he says that Issac Asimov is a major influence on his thinking. While I doubt that Asimov would welcome the endorsement from Harty, a quick google search gives a few indications he said things that are quite close to endorsing eugenics.

'The advance of genetic engineering makes it quite conceivable that we will begin to design our own evolutionary progress'. Isaac Asimov

Considering the extremely tentative state of applied genetics today, not to mention when Asimov was alive, his "quite conceivable" idea of genetic engineering was, in fact, very speculative*. *

Risking setting off a storm, one which can't be avoided much longer, loose talk like that isn't absent from those taken as representing "science", even after WWII. Given that it was common among real scientists before the Nazis made the idea very unfashionable, you'd think someone who considered himself as smart as Asimov proudly did, would have known the possibility of someone so disposed using his words in an all too familiar way.

Having resumed the search recently, seeking, in vain, for strongly voiced opposition to eugenics in the major figures in evolutionary biology and genetics in the first decades of its existence, its links to the contemporary understanding of natural selection seems to be almost inescapable.

Eugenics' resurgence in recent decades, though seldom under its genuine label, is already influential in politics and societies around the world. It is a problem which will have to be addressed because its malignancy will make that unavoidable. People convinced that there are classes of "defective" people, which are a burden to maintain, carrying a danger of degrading "the genepool" tend to act on their convictions. It is essential to face the real history of the idea and its intellectual precedents. If more recent discoveries about the far more complex mechanisms of evolution aren't made more widely known, the most primitive view of natural selection, widely misunderstood and of an overblown exclusivity, will lead to the deaths of those seen as being "defective" as certainly as patriarchy does of girls and women now. Women are widely seen as "defective" and so disposible, though the popular voices in trendy science wouldn't be so vulgar as to use the term. Their fans in the general culture are often not always so fastidious.

I will write later on David Brooks' use of alleged, though commonly believed in, science in his political propaganda. You can hear him spouting ideas, which I would place on the edges of eugenics, in his current book tour.

* Here's what the geneticist Richard Lewontin said about his fellow geneticists overselling their subject several years after Asimov's death.

The entire public justification for the Human Genome Project is the promise that some day, in the admittedly distant future, diseases will be cured or prevented. Skeptics who point out that we do not yet have a single case of a prevention or cure arising from a knowledge of DNA sequences are answered by the observations that "these things take time," or that "no one knows the value of a newborn baby." But such vague waves of the hand miss the central scientific issue. The prevention or cure of metabolic and developmental disorders depends on a detailed knowledge of the mechanisms operating in cells and tissues above the level of genes, and there is no relevant information about those mechanisms in DNA sequences. In fact, if I know the DNA sequence of a gene I have no hint about the function of a protein specified by that gene, or how it enters into an organism's biology.

What is involved here is the difference between explanation and intervention. Many disorders can be explained by the failure of the organism to make a normal protein, a failure that is the consequence of a gene mutation. But intervention requires that the normal protein be provided at the right place in the right cells, at the right time and in the right amount, or else that an alternative way be found to provide normal cellular function. What is worse, it might even be necessary to keep the abnormal protein away from the cells at critical moments. None of these objectives is served by knowing the DNA sequence of the defective gene. Explanations of phenomena can be given at many levels, some of which can lead to successful manipulation of the world and some not. Death certificates all state a cause of death, but even if there were no errors in these ascriptions, they are too general to be useful. An easy conflation of explanations in general with explanations at the correct causal level may serve a propagandistic purpose in the struggle for public support, but it is not the way to concrete progress.