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The Morality Of Eugenics

World renowned biologist Richard Dawkins tweeted on Feb. 16 that eugenics could be implemented for humans on a practical level, if one disregarded the moral and ideological controversies that surround the idea. 

“It’s one thing to deplore eugenics on ideological, political and moral grounds. It’s quite another to conclude that it wouldn’t work in practice. Of course it would. It works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs and roses. Why on earth wouldn’t it work for humans? Facts ignore ideology,” Dawkins said.

As expected, his tweet drew attention and criticism surrounding his definition of a working model of eugenics. Many argue that it is impossible for it to work when the idea of more “desirable” traits is embedded in morality itself; what makes one trait more desirable than another? 

One user tweeted in response, “Eugenics doesn’t work with humans because of the moral dimension, a dimension which is largely missing when we breed dogs, horses, roses, etc. You can’t separate morality from human eugenics.”

Several other people cited the negative consequences that selective breeding has had on species such as dogs and horses. M.D. Eugene Gu said, “We turned magnificent wolves into pure breed dogs with severe genetic defects causing joint and heart problems and cancer … Eugenics does not create superior species … We weaken the gene pool selecting for traits desirable for us but not for the subject.”

These claims are not wrong. It is true that we have selectively bred many dogs into genetic disorders and disabilities simply for the aesthetics and other superficial human reasons. Even turkeys have been selectively bred so much that they are unable to reproduce on their own. The ethics of eugenics are more lenient when applied to species under us in the food and evolutionary chain. But it’s different when it’s within our own species. 

CRISPR Technology is a gene editing technology that has been under fire for many years in the media, with many people concerned over the moral dilemmas it poses with “choosing” the genes we want to have or get rid of. As a result, the idea of a “designer baby” was cultivated; people would use CRISPR to choose their unborn baby’s hair color, eye color and possibly even influencing their height and weight. There are larger social problems that arise from this possibility, over privacy rights and class rights — would a technology such as CRISPR enable a dystopian society where the rich are genetically “advanced,” and the rest of us are left to fend for ourselves? 

In this instance, it is clear why eugenics for humans wouldn’t be desirable. But that does not take away from the fact that it could morally work. CRISPR has been used to improve genetic defects, treat and prevent the spread of diseases and even improve crops. There are many benefits to having a technology that allows us to edit the genomes of living organisms — and it’s being done. 

What teeters on the edge of immorality and the argument that eugenics would not work for humans, is human nature. It is easy to say simply that eugenics practically works. But that is not practical in itself. Believing that humans will use eugenics to only cure genetic defects and disorders is an unrealistic position to take on. Humans will always have to consult the ethics of a practice if it is to be practical. 

Alana Tse is an Opinion Staff Writer. She can be reached at alanat3@uci.edu.