you already live with eugenics (maybe)

At some point, maybe a year ago or a little more, I began to get panicky emails that said that people were saying that my book was a race science book. (Interesting in part because the book did not really exist yet.) They did not have to worry. As I state repeatedly (some of my editors might say repetitively) in the text, race science is incorrect, obviously racist, and incompatible with the arguments of my book, which are in part about genetic influence on individual outcomes but do not at any point argue for genetic influences on groups. Here is one brief passage from many that I could choose from that discuss these issues.

I have also received questions about whether my book is “eugenicist,” which if words have meanings would indicate that I advocate for selective breeding of intelligent people to create a smarter society. As I’m sure anyone in good faith would guess, the answer is no.

If anything this charge is even further from the mark. The eugenicists thought that intelligence was the greatest and most important virtue in the world, and they called for increasing the privileges and the power of the most academically successful people. Their explicit interest was to make intelligence (or the perception of intelligence) an even-more important criterion of one’s position in life. The bedrock argument of my book, its absolute intellectual foundation, is to argue that academic ability plays far too great a role in our economy and our society, and that we should make radical changes to empower and enrich those who do not do well in school. I call for tearing down structures that advance the interests of the academically successful over the interests of others. I want people who not only didn’t go to Harvard but who didn’t go to college to have the opportunity to become national political leaders, for example. I want us to stop paying so much attention to “smart.” That’s the elevator pitch for the book! I don’t know how much less of a eugenicist argument my book could possibly be.

The other thing to say is that, by the loose definition of eugenics that people use, we’re already a eugenicist society. You’ve missed that boat. This Daily Beast article expresses fear about this dating startup by whiz-bang science guy George Church. The idea is to match people genetically so that you can be confident you’re partnering with someone who won’t have a high risk of passing on genetic diseases. This is admittedly creepy, on its face. But is Tinder really that different? Assortative mating is a real and growing phenomenon. People already select partners with an eye to genetics, and aggressively; it’s just that they don’t really come out and say that that’s what they’re doing. Every time you do a swipe on a Bumble because of where that person works and went to school, you’re subconsciously making a calculation about their genetic fitness. And of course people have argued for a very long time that physical attraction is a matter of your physiology alerting you to potential partners who will produce healthy babies who will in turn pass on genes that produce healthy babies.

And consider the purpose of avoiding genetic mismatches for a second, rather than the method. People don’t often consider their propensity to have kids with such diseases when choosing a partner, but fetuses that would develop into children with such diseases are aborted all the time. Of course women have every right to abort any pregnancy at any time for whatever reason they choose. But what really is the moral difference between deciding not to mate with someone out of a concern that you’ll produce children with genetic disorders and terminating such pregnancies before they’re brought to term? The point is not that the dating app is harmless; it’s at least somewhat disturbing. The point is that we’re all already implicated in this kind of thinking.

What’s the alternative to this kind of lumpen eugenics? Should you start feeling guilty about what you find physically attractive, or avoid learning about someone’s education or employment before you go out with them? Doesn’t seem likely. What you might consider instead is that when we, in the way of our modern world, turn the term eugenics – a program of selective breeding and sterilization for the purpose of creating a genetically superior populace – into an abstraction of such ill-defined borders that people apply it to a book that argues for the literal obverse of what eugenics calls for, we have perhaps done more harm than good, that we have perhaps made that manner of thinking harder to fight, not easier. Perhaps.