Eugenics: Impractical and Indefensible

Children Dancing in Circle

Via io9 Why Eugenics Will Always Fail

I don’t think I’m taking a bold stance by saying that any real attempt at eugenics is indefensible. Practically speaking, though, eugenics is just as much of a bust as it is morally. We can’t positively select for “better people,” and we may face dire consequences if we try to weed out genetic problems, too…

…One of the primary arguments for practical eugenics resides right in a number of people’s homes. There’s no denying the effects of selective breeding on a species. Over only a few thousand years, humans have managed to breed in, or out, any number of traits when it comes to dogs. Certain breeds are smarter, stronger, faster, or bigger. It’s proof of concept that selective eugenics can produce desired results.

But humans aren’t dogs. In fact, almost no animal is a dog when it comes to its genetic plasticity. Everything about them makes them more practically suited to selective breeding. In canine DNA are specific sequences known as SINEC_Cf elements. These are sequences of DNA that are especially prone to wandering, whole from one part of the DNA strand to another. In dogs, they often insert themselves into stretches that act as regulatory agents on processes, vastly but for the most part safely changing the expression of genes. Dogs have about 11,000 of these sequences, and they go back to their wolf ancestors. Humans have less than one thousand. Dog DNA is also shown to have strange repeating segments more often than humans. They’re prone to benign mutation. They’re also, unlike many animals, prone to develop in a way that allows for more biodiversity. The skull of a puppy often doesn’t much resemble the dog it will grow into, whereas other animals have juvenile forms that are more templates of their adult selves. Starting from a basic pattern and drawing on variation from there developmentally allows dogs a huge plasticity of form that cannot be copied by other animals, humans included.

Selective eugenics cannot do otherwise but have an effect…

While searching for this article I learned that there had been a community not to far from our lake house, in Oneida, New York, that experimented with eugenics. That experiment failed:

In 1869 the Oneida Community began a eugenics experiment in the selective breeding of human beings that Noyes called stirpiculture and produced 58 children from couples chosen by a committee on the basis of their spiritual qualities. In preparation for the baby boom, a new wing called the Children’s House was added, where youngsters would be raised communally in nurseries and dormitories set apart from the private bedrooms of their parents. But parental feelings undermined complex marriage, unleashing desires for romantic love, courtship and monogamous marriage among the younger generation

Both of my great-great-aunts participated in the eugenics experiment. In 1873, Emma gave birth to a son, but Mary’s two pregnancies, in 1873 and 1877, ended with stillbirths. In 1877, the stirpiculture committee refused Mary’s request to have a child with an Oneidan named Victor Hawley and insisted she mate with a man of their choosing. After her second stillbirth, the committee told Mary she would not be allowed to try again. Within months, Mary Jones and Victor Hawley left the Oneida Community to marry, presaging what was to come.


About marypmadigan

Writer/photographer (profession), foreign policy wonk (hobby).
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