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The more things change, the more they stay the same

Twentieth-century eugenicists used government power to forcibly prevent parents from passing on traits they deemed deleterious. Now 21st-century eugenicists contend the government should require parents to risk passing along genes that the parents think are deleterious to their children, whether they want to or not. What sort of horrors are parents who want to take advantage of modern gene editing likely to impose on their hapless offspring? Fixing genes that increase the risk of ill health and perhaps adding those that boost their chances of having more vigorous bodies, nimbler brains, and greater disease resistance.

Individuals may not always make the right decisions with regard to reproduction, but parents are more trustworthy guardians of the human gene pool than any would-be eugenicist central planners. Government diktats about what sort of children people can have are always wrong.

Ronald Bailey, making many excellent points why the state needs to stay away from this entire subject… which of course it will not. Fortunately in this era of cheap air travel, genetic engineering can and will be done in a clinic pretty much anywhere if the market for that service exists, which it will.

19 comments to The more things change, the more they stay the same

  • Eugenicists? Again? Where’s a firing squad when you really need one?

  • Paul Marks

    The state – the more harm it causes, the more active it becomes.

  • Runcie Balspune

    Consider the worst of government involvement in human reproduction ever – China’s one-child policy. An aging population with no one to support them and a massive gender imbalance. An unfolding disaster that will take generations to recover from. Apologists for this policy might belittle the percentage differences as small, but in a country as large as China it accounts for millions of lives affected.

  • staghounds

    Every responsible parent is some sort of eugenecist, even if she just lays off whisky for nine months.

  • Nicholas (Excentrality!) Gray

    I wonder if the complimentary saying is- “The more things stay the same, the more they change’.

  • Alisa

    Yes, staghounds – but that is, or should be, limited to parents, ideally responsible ones.

  • Watchman

    I wonder who the eugenicists think they are serving here? If they seriously think everyone will want blond-haired, blue-eyed children or whatever then they seem to have missed the fact that people do not have a single ideal of what makes a perfect child, and also they seem to have failed to understand that we can’t actually control physical appearance genetically (because the gestation of the embryo plays a part as well, and frankly because we don’t understand how to do this yet…).

  • Consider that the current leader of North Korea looks whiter and more feminine than his grandfather. While I doubt we’ll see a Nigerian couple asking for a blonde child, intergenerational trends lead in that direction.

    That said, I think genetics is best marketed in the marriage market. We keep sort of glossing over the risks of actually engineering. The sue-happy culture of America renders it practically impossible- any laws against it are probably superfluous.

    I’ve got this image in my head of moms perusing potential matches for their children while they are still in diapers. May sound crazy, but there are go-getter parents in America insisting that their little ones learn Mandarin because that’s supposed to be where things will be happening in the globalist future. No doubt, if given the right information, they could obsess over genetics too.

  • Julie near Chicago


    Arranged marriages!

    I recently watched the BBC’s series I, Claudius. The acting was excellent, the sets exquisite, and I noticed that the thing must have been shot over an 80-year period as some of the characters appear to have aged that much from their first appearance to death (it was obvious that the aging was real and not the product of cosmetic or cinematographic artifice). But besides the production values, there were two most important life-lessons in it:

    That Evil is most certainly the Product of Woman: there was hardly a female in the entire thing who wasn’t intent upon some evil project that ended up killing all those dummkopf Roman males from Emperors to nobodies.

    And that a good deal of death & destruction might have been avoided had there been none of this arranged-marriage nonsense.

    So parents present and prospective, hear me well! Don’t go trying to arrange your children’s lives. They will cause themselves plenty of trouble all alone, without any help from you. 🙂

  • Watchman


    I think the trend towards light skin might die down when the non-predominantly white-skinned bits of the world catch up in terms of wealth – sucess will look less like a racial characteristic then.

    As to the marriage market, that is what keeps producing these undesirable (and fixable) genetic problems. The point of engineering however is to fix certain issues, not construct an entire made to order child, which is impossible anyway – the case here is the cloned Dolly the sheep, which did not look like its genetic source (another sheep whose name is not popularly remembered, perhaps unfairly – I shall christen her proto-Dolly for now…) because the genetic recipe cooked up differently in a different womb with different conditions. Without growing embryos outside of the human body we cannot control things that well, and even if we could do that we would not know what we were doing.

    Incidentally, I suspect that the helicopter parents trying to impose forced marriage you envisage would run into a minor problem – their little molicoddled darlings having had all the schooling and entitlement they can take in would, if being told on leaving college (only a good one of course) that they had to marry someone of their parents’ choice would likely say no at the least… You can see the same thing happening with some immigrant communities in the UK where arranged marriage has gone from being a fait accompoli, to being an audition of potential partners, to now being almost a fiction as the partners select each other then tell their parents to arrange it, often regardless of caste or even ethnicity (horrifyingly for the grandparents I suspect…). I can’t see western culture going the other way to be honest, especially if any genetic disadvantages of marriage can be overcome by engineering instead.

  • QET

    I’m with August (if I understand him correctly). At the moment the technology does not seem certain enough to commence consumerizing it. As with thalidomide which was consumerized as a morning sickness treatment, the primary moral issue at this stage seems to me to be not which agency decides on the particular genetic compositions but whether it is moral to risk the “production” of children with chronic and debilitating physical and/or mental health problems resulting from genetic processes not yet fully understood.

  • I don’t think the trend is due to success or race, but a preference that men tend to have for women slightly more light skinned than they are, even within their own race. Much like women are attracted to musculature, but most tend to mate within their own race rather than choose based on musculature alone.

    I tend to think much of what we see today is the side effect of pro-growth, fiat money, progressive nonsense, and that things like betrothal, being once the norm in much of Europe, certainly could be so again, especially if it were apparently we could reap more benefits than the aristocracy of Europe ever dreamed. I have noticed too, a trope in science fiction, where the supposedly genetically ideal match was one where the people had no chemistry, no interest in each other. I think that is total bull, too. Attraction is biologically based. All this “But, mommy, I don’t want to…” would hit a dead stop if the two were past puberty and got near each other.

    Genetic engineer can not only produce a thalidomide type problem, it could well produce a transmittable problem. Monsanto’s seed already ends up on farms where it isn’t wanted- and Monsanto often sues them for patent infringement to boot!

  • Julie near Chicago

    August, re Monsanto: Nails it!

    Don’t know that it’s just Monsanto. Anyway, your seed infiltrating my land is a whole lot worse than somebody’s EMR that’s detectable only with special equipment passing across my property. Libertarian theory says I’m justified in pressing charges. (Well, if the particular libertarian recognizes such a thing as “charges.”)

    If the seed companies can’t keep their seeds corralled, tough for them.

  • OldFan

    Take a look at Robert A. Heinlein’s “Beyond This Horizon”, which covered the exact same ground in about 1947. He also came to the conclusion that genetic editing technology can only be entrusted to parents – who have bonds of love and responsibility to their offspring – and never to governments [the author provides two historical and one plot-current example of what happens if you do]

    Note that not single self-proclaimed “bioethics expert” has ever given any sign of having read this work – to my knowledge.

  • The sue-happy culture of America renders it practically impossible- any laws against it are probably superfluous.

    I agree. I have long assumed that would mean places like Switzerland, Japan and Hong Kong will probably be where the genetic engineering “industry” actually takes off.

  • Watchman


    I am not sure why you think genetic engineering would cause thalydimide-type problems if done in the way it is now possible (altering a single gene sequence known to cause a certain factor). Indeed, by definition if genetic engineering is done properly it will have controlled results, since it should only be done on genetic sequences we understand (which makes designer babies very difficult). Also there is a difference between seeds travelling and engineers being hired (and contracted – in the US they will have good contracts if they are smart) to make a specific change. This all sounds like risk aversion and technophobia to me – two things that libertarianism should oppose.

    And if you’re going to cite the slightly dubious evidence for lighter-skinned wives being favoured historically then please do also cite the historical argument for this that paler skin normally indicates less exposure to outside work and therefore better breeding. None of this is actually particularly plausible – we know what men look for in women, and this can be summed up as suitability for child bearing (including in age) and cultural expectations which may include, as in many contemporary societies, lighter skin. The cultural expectations and increasingly personal taste element of that are what are likely to determine whether people are attracted, and that cannot be predicted by genetics unless you actually believe our personalities are purely genetic and nothing to do with environment.

    As to bethrothal, there is a reason that no longer normally exists. It’s called individual freedom: what you seem to be proposing is a system where parents can actually pressure adult children to do the parents’ will. And bethrothal was never generally about producing good children, but about finding good links for the parents (it was almost always associated with political alliance or with transfers of wealth between families) – note that it was never the norm in medieval peasantry for example, where marriage was often contracted later than amongst nobles and the wives of tradesmen (nobles all married young, tradesmen achieved mastership then married a younger woman, ideally from a family in the same trade). It is in short a collectivist device for promoting the family (generally extended) over the individual and for perpetuating closed networks to the exclusion of others.

  • QET


    Until the babies with birth defects were born, no one knew about this consequence of using thalidomide. Not even libertarians are omniscient. While obviously genetic technology can, should and will be further developed, the pursuit of technological development and the stage at which a technology can be safely offered as a consumer good are two different matters. So far as I know there is no canon of libertarianism that categorically excludes risk aversion altogether.

  • Watchman,

    You can tell by what I wrote that I do not assume the parents would have to be coercive. The pheromones from a superior match would do the convincing. There is a strong genetic component to personality, but more importantly, in this case, there is a stronger genetic component to attraction.

    Families, however, are important. If you want a free world, you need conditions under which good property owners are fruitful and multiply, while wastrels and the sort of scoundrels who create oppressive governments find themselves at an evolutionary dead end.

  • Rich Rostrom

    “parents are more trustworthy guardians of the human gene pool than any would-be eugenicist central planners…”

    Some parents would be. Some parents would not be. In a large collection of individuals, there will always be a few complete fools.

    Consensus rules enforced by state power will never be optimal – but they are very unlikely to be as bad as the worst individual choices.