Selecting Humans: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Gökçe Senger shares her ethics & society case study, which she completed as part of our Young Scientist Program.

The term eugenics is derived from the Greek term Eugene, meaning ‘well-born.’ In 1883, it was first used by Sir Francis Galton, a British scholar and cousin of Charles Darwin1. He realized that high-quality intelligence and abilities were inherited through generations with an efficiency of 20%1. He then theorized that the human population could be improved by selecting individuals with desirable traits and encouraging them to have more children1. Because eugenics tends to kill human diversity, create extreme discrimination and has the possibility to increase genetic mistakes rather than prevent them, I do not support the approach and do not believe that eugenics can be a solution to improve human genetic quality.

Genetic diversity depends on whole genetic characteristics in the genetic make-up of a species and plays an important role in the adaptability and survival of a species. Studies show that bad behaviors are due to faulty mental processes found in the brain2. Eugenicists support the idea of altering genetic make-up of babies by which mental processes can be controlled and help to create better individuals–more generous, hardworking, smarter, talented etc. However, genetic diversity is also critical for a species to evolve. Genetically controlling new generations of humans causes a decrease in the human diversity. Here we have two options: one is creating individuals with desirable traits and the other is protecting human diversity. When we take the dilemma into account in terms of consequentialism, we can conclude that eugenics always will come with a price! I do not believe that we can absolutely guarantee excellent individuals only by changing DNA make-up. Environmental factors also will be effective on individuals’ characteristics. In the perspective of consequentialism, eugenics results in worse outcomes instead of creating a super-human population! The importance of human diversity and the reason why we should not interfere to offspring are can be emphasized with Dr. Richard Lankau’s, a plant biologist, statement, “If any one type is removed from the system, the cycle can break down, and the community becomes dominated by a single species.”

Selecting the fittest members while eliminating bad ones always creates discrimination even if we try to only eliminate individuals with a deficiency. How do we define what is best and what is worst? Of course many non-objective thoughts will give us a direction in the selection. Moreover, selection is going to create a huge difference between the best and the worst and that is exactly what we should be afraid of, what we should avoid from. At any given time and any situation we cannot be the angel of death or God himself by deciding who is going to live or die.

Most of the traits that eugenicists are interested in such as alcoholism or criminality are not only controlled by genetic factors but also they are influenced by environmental factors. Moreover, many diseases actually result from complex interactions among genes. Furthermore, eugenicists have to overcome ‘pleiotropy,’ which means that one gene can control more than one unrelated phenotypic trait. So it is obvious that many genes which encode desirable traits can be repressed while trying to eliminate undesirable traits. To add further complexity, it is hard to fix individuals who are deemed ‘the fittest’ based on eugenicists’ belief. However, changing the activity of a particular gene will affect many other mechanisms and may cause to genetic errors rather than prevent them.

In conclusion, improving human intelligence and abilities by eliminating individuals with bad genetic background while selecting individuals with good genetic background should not be an option. If we select the option, we will destroy human diversity, create extreme discrimination, and may cause many unpredictable genetic mistakes. Environmental and social factors should be taken into consideration instead of eugenics. As a start, educational systems should be given importance if we want to improve the human population.

1. Norrgard K., (2008), Human Testing, the Eugenics Movement, and IRBs, Nature Education 1(1):170
2. Tracy N., (2012), Is Mental Illness an Excuse for Bad Behavior?, published in Healthy Place America’s Mental Health Channel

I would like to thank U. Can Erdem for the critical reading of the paper.