Richard Dawkins occupies a strange place in culture. He started out as an avatar of what’s sometimes called “New Atheism”, which strikes a far more aggressive stance against religion and theism than older (and most newer) iterations of atheism. Dawkins is undoubtedly a smart guy in many ways — it’s often forgotten that he coined the word “meme” in his book The Selfish Gene — but lately, he’s become far more famous for foot-in-mouth disease online.
He resurrected that trait over the weekend, launching a tweet that — taken on its own — sure sounded like a defense of eugenics.
“It’s one thing to deplore eugenics on ideological, political, moral grounds,” Dawkins tweeted. “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.”
The story of eugenics is long and one of the more lamentable in human history, involving the idea that people with traits deemed “desirable” should reproduce with each other while those with traits deemed undesirable should be discouraged from reproducing.
The societal definition of “desirable” here is fluid but has invoked all manner of racist and ableist argumentation. In that sense alone, it’s an open question as to what Dawkins means here. Even if one tables the ideological, political and moral considerations, like he asks, what exactly does he mean by eugenics “working”?
There are plenty of ways and reasons to disagree with Dawkins here, and the internet wasted no time in finding them.
For one thing, Dawkins’ own premise flounders from the jump, because eugenics hasn’t worked in any appreciable way on many dogs, causing a complex and often sad array of health problems for many purebreds that weren’t common in their lupine ancestors.
For another, eugenics was dismissed as a science not only on moral or ideological grounds — though that would be enough — but also scientific ones. Scientists who experimented in eugenics believed the now-discarded theory that all desirable qualities were correlated. In other words, eugenics was built on the idea that, say, being tall and broad-shouldered also meant being smarter and more morally competent. (It probably goes without saying that many of these scientists also held that things like whiteness and “not being a Jew” were also “desirable” attributes).
This was how “fitness” was defined — that there is one optimal type of human being and any deviation from the norm was a mutation from the whole. This theory of humanity has since been rightfully discarded, along with the theory of eugenics. Dawkins’ whole notion that eugenics would work if not for moral considerations is simply not accurate.
Nevertheless, he attempted to clarify his tweets on Twitter, assuring his followers that he knows “a eugenic policy would be mad.”
“For those determined to miss the point, I deplore the idea of a eugenic policy,” he tweeted. “I simply said deploring it doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work. Just as we breed cows to yield more milk, we could breed humans to run faster or jump higher. But heaven forbid that we should do it.”
“A eugenic policy would be bad,” Dawkins continued. “I’m combating the illogical step from ‘X would be bad’ to ‘So X is impossible’. It would work in the same sense as it works for cows. Let’s fight it on moral grounds. Deny obvious scientific facts & we lose – or at best derail – the argument.”