Recent controversies show that an idea once considered inhumane and obsolete still persists.
The discovery that one of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s top advisors had dabbled in advocacy for eugenics and race science has brought to the fore two related strains of pseudoscience that were once thought dead.
In blog posts dating back to 2014, Andrew Sabisky, had advocated ‘mandatory contraception’ as a way of tackling the “permanent underclass” and that black people were less intelligent than those who are white.
In an unconnected controversy, geneticist and New Atheist ideologue Richard Dawkins, made the argument that eugenics would ‘work’ in humans, as it had it animals such as cows, dogs, and pig, among others.
Sabisky has since resigned and Dawkins has clarified that he is opposed to eugenics from a moral perspective but their comments show that strands of thought once considered obsolete and historically tainted, are lurking not far outside the paradigms of acceptable debate.
Eugenics and race science have had a co-dependent history ever since their development in the early nineteenth century.
After biologist Charles Darwin’s work, ‘The Origin of Species’, was published in 1859, scientists sought to apply his thinking to explain the apparent differences between races and looked for ways to remove perceived physical and mental defects to protect genetic populations.
In the case of the former, many leading thinkers in the west used race science to justify their own self-perception as being superior to other races and to reframe their colonial policies in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, as a natural consequence of that superiority.
With regard to the latter, eugenicists looked for ways to sterilise those most at risk of passing on what were considered harmful traits, such as physical disability, mental illness, and propensity towards criminality.
Race science was considered orthodoxy and belief in eugenics was considered a progressive value until their adoption by Nazi ideologues in the 1920s and 30s.
Under Hitler’s doctrine, the healthy existence of the German people was threatened by their mixing with so-called inferior races. The Nazis also set about a policy of genetic cleansing by exterminating those with disabilities.
The eventual outcome of their racial policy was their attempt to exterminate what they considered inferior races, such as the Jewish people and the Roma.
By the time World War II had ended, six million Jews had been killed, as well as millions of Slavs, Roma, and other supposed ‘undesirables’.
Despite their own racialist policies, the Nazi atrocities appalled much of the western world, leading to a decline in the popularity of race science and eugenics.
But the ideas were also repudiated from a scientific perspective. Later developments in genetics demonstrated that the differences in races were minuscule and no greater than the genetic differences between any two people of the same race.
With regard to the idea floated by Sabisky, that black people were inherently less intelligent than whites, sociologists have found stronger correlations between environmental factors than anything race-related.
Similarly, Dawkins can argue that eugenics ‘works’ with regard to pigs, dogs, and animals, but that is only with regard to their relation to humans. Domesticated animals may provide more meat, be more placid, and provide more services to humans, but also suffer genetic ailments that are not found in their wild counterparts.
While the attempts to bring back the debates surrounding eugenics and race science, particularly among the European right, cause a big reaction online, few scientists are willing to give them credence.
When it comes to eugenics, the opposition is so strong among the public, that the idea of non-destructive gene editing in babies, is also widely rejected even if it means the elimination of diseases.