On Saturday, February 16th, biologist and noted public intellectual Richard Dawkins tweeted the following:
Dawkins provided no context. No ongoing dispute he was inserting himself into. No obvious interlocutor. And certainly not anything as convenient as a few previous tweets to set the stage for this surprising announcement. As someone interested in science communication, genetics, and ethics, I find it worth exploring how he screwed up, how he didn’t screw up, and what any of this means for science.
The history of eugenics
Eugenics, meaning “well-born,” was the science of manipulating human reproductive patterns to achieve some desired result and had its heyday in the early 20th century. Just what the desired result should be was hotly debated. Should they try for smarter people, healthier people, kinder people, whiter people? But it was more than a fringe science movement. Geneticists and eugenicists were all but interchangeable back in the day, and many were intensely involved in politics and governance. The state proved all too willing to channel the worst impulses of the worst eugenicists. In America, this led to involuntary sterilization of the “feebleminded”, lower class people, and people of color to get their allegedly deficient genes out of the gene pool. Indiana had the first involuntary sterilization law in the nation. Eugenicists also influenced immigration policies to keep the white race pure. In Nazi Germany, eugenics often meant euthansia. Hundreds of thousands of those perceived as a burden on society, such as the disabled, or otherwise unworthy of life, like homosexuals, were killed, with hundreds of thousands more involuntarily sterilized. Many other countries have their own tales of inhumanity.
Given these atrocities done in the name of eugenics, the twitter outrage that ensued in response to Dawkins’ tweet was only to be expected. For instance:
Or more humorously:
An especially popular motif in response was pointing to domesticated animals as an argument against the idea that eugenics would obviously “work”.
Ironically, a major concern of many early eugenicists was in fact that humans had basically domesticated ourselves into something pathetic and that we needed eugenics to breed ourselves back to our virile “true” nature. Regardless, it is certainly not the case historically that facts had no role in critical discussions of eugenics. One of the pivotal insights in the history of genetics was that many allegedly deleterious traits may be genetically recessive and therefore could not easily be eliminated just by stopping people from reproducing. The traits associated with recessive genes do not manifest if they are paired with a so-called dominant gene, and therefore many problematic recessive genes could be circulating invisibly in a population. This was a heavy scientific blow for many eugenicists. Moreover, some of the harshest criticisms of race-based, class-based, and Nazi eugenicists in fact came from left-wing eugenicists and geneticists who opposed the practices on both factual and moral grounds, including former IU geneticist and Nobel Prize winner Hermann Muller (1890-1967). Moral opposition is great, but all kinds of opposition mattered.
After watching the hubbub, Dawkins did eventually step in to provide some clarification:
To give a charitable read, Dawkins may have meant that humans *could*, hypothetically be subject to selective breeding for specific traits just like any other animal. (As opposed to implying that the human race could be made straightforwardly “better” by structured breeding.) While not a particularly fun thing to contemplate in the morning, this at least is a claim that no serious biologist would dispute.
Consequently, his argument continues, opposition to selective breeding of humans should be on moral grounds, not on scientific grounds. Fair enough…but who exactly was he arguing with? As someone who studies both bioethics and eugenics, I am unaware of a raging debate between people who want to systemically breed humans to jump higher, and those arguing it is impossible on scientific grounds.
Now, there is a potential broader context for a debate about modern-day eugenics. Up and coming technologies like genetic screening, pre-implantation diagnosis, and gene editing raise old questions, and there is plenty of room for discussion about how these new practices should be understood in relation to past atrocities. Are they the same? Are they different? Is selecting traits for our children okay if it’s a matter of personal choice rather than state choice? But the briefest look at the thread makes it abundantly clear that IF this is the discussion Dawkins wanted, it’s certainly not the discussion he got. And for obvious reasons.
Perhaps, as his tweets hint, his point was about the denial of scientific facts and the pernicious effects this can have on argument. On the one hand, this is a good thing to call attention to. We should not just pretend that the theory of evolution is false, because that would be more religiously convenient. But Dawkins is not calling attention to anyone specifically who made this kind of error. Nor, again, was this potentially productive dialogue the discussion that actually occurred.
Most insidiously, this kind of “facts don’t care about your feelings” talking point is often used as a rhetorical bludgeon, regardless of the actual facts. And by company I suspect Dawkins would not want to be associated with. It is also extraordinarily difficult to figure out what we should even consider the facts to be. Professor Chris ChoGlueck, on this blog, has talked about the complex relationship between facts and values.
The role of Twitter
Ultimately, there is only so much benefit to be gained by speculating on the precise motivation behind a somewhat trollish tweet. Stirring up controversy is no stranger to Dawkins who, in the public consciousness, is probably best known as one of the Four Horsemen of Atheism and the author of the God Delusion. The very next day Dawkins was idly tweeting about how if we can make lab-grown beef, then presumably we can make lab-grown human meat too. He seems to just be “that guy.”
Whatever the motivation, his eugenics tweet does successfully raise at least one broader concern. Twitter is, among other things, a giant experiment in science communication, 280 characters at a time. It’s a common complaint that few Americans know or interact directly with any scientists. Suddenly though, scientists can have an interactive public presence as never before. But that also provides new opportunities for individual scientists to misuse the power and authority of science — whether out of foolishness, malice, or even simply the intense structural hostility of a snippet style of communication to nuanced discussion. I for one am curious how exactly this experiment in science communication will turn out.
Thanks to Ann-Sophie Barwich and J.j. LaTourelle for interesting discussions which motivated this post and to Nick Zautra and Sarah Reynolds for finding the best tweets. I have cribbed freely from all of them. I have no idea if any of them agree with what I said here.
Stern, A. (2007). “We Cannot Make a Silk Purse Out of a Sow’s Ear”: Eugenics in the Hoosier Heartland. Indiana Magazine of History.