Book Review: An Unflinching Critique of the Eugenics Movement

Yves here. In our experiments with optimizing animals and vegetables for certain preferred characteristics, too often there are unanticipated costs. Specialized strains of corn are less robust than “wilder” versions, showing bigger output losses in less than ideal weather conditions and more vulnerability to pests. Many dog breeds have breeding-produced health problems, ranging from a propensity to bad hips in Labs to pugs that can barely breathe. In humans, the natural experiment of the Black Death led to a propensity toward sturdier immune systems…..along with greater incidence of autoimmune diseases.

By Elizabeth Svoboda, a science writer based in San Jose, California. Her most recent book for children is “The Life Heroic.” Originally published at Undark

In late 2018, a mother in China delivered a set of twin girls known to the world as Lulu and Nana. The birth itself was seemingly uneventful — the girls “came crying into the world as healthy as any other babies,” Chinese researcher He Jiankui reported at the time. What was disruptive was the manner in which the babies were created. When they were still embryos, He said he modifiedthe twins’ DNA with Crispr editing tools to give them genetic resistance to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, as the babies’ father was HIV-positive.

The experiment didn’t go as planned; HIV resistance genes never showed up properly in the girls’ cells, and the attempted edit caused other unexpected genetic changes. Yet He’s risky — and illegal — gambit shows how eugenics, the quest to improve the human race through selective breeding and more invasive measures, continues to emerge in new forms. In “Control: The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics,’’ geneticist and University College London researcher Adam Rutherford reckons with the millennia-long history of such engineered attempts to perfect humanity — and how that checkered past ought to shape our present scientific outlook. “To know this history,” he writes, “is to inoculate ourselves against its being repeated.”

BOOK REVIEW“Control: The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics,” by Adam Rutherford (W. W. Norton & Company, 288 pages).

Part of the seduction of eugenics, Rutherford argues, is that it stems from the seemingly worthy goal of bettering our lot. Eugenics’ Greek root words mean “good birth,” and its practice was presumed to advance the common welfare and, at times, was widely encouraged. “Until the Second World War,” Rutherford writes, “eugenics was a beacon of light for many countries striving to be better, healthier, and stronger.”

Most people are familiar with the grim apotheosis of eugenics, when the Nazi regime labeled hundreds of thousands of disabled and other supposedly undesirable individuals “Lebensunwertes Leben” (life unworthy of life) and killed them in gas chambers — all in the interest of strengthening the so-called Aryan race. Yet Rutherford reveals how eugenic ideas thrived for thousands of years before Nazi doctors’ murder campaigns. In “The Republic,” Plato proposed a utopian society in which all human breeding would be strictly controlled to yield best results. The British polymath Francis Galton, who coined the term “eugenics,” promoted Plato’s vision further in the Victorian era, calling for population control methods like keeping those he saw as unfit from reproducing. By “preventing the more faulty members of the flock from breeding,” Galton wrote, “a race of gifted men might be obtained.”

In outlining eugenics’ under-explored history, Rutherford tips over some longstanding sacred cows. He traces the eugenic lineage of IQ tests still widely administered today — tests which, less than a hundred years ago, were used to mark out “feebleminded” people for sterilization. And while Charles Darwin has been cleared of direct involvement in the Social Darwinism movement, which proclaims the biological superiority of powerful people, Rutherford notes that Darwin still held views close to his half-cousin Galton’s. “The weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind,” Darwin wrote in “The Descent of Man.” No one “will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.”

Darwin was hardly alone in his views: Teddy Roosevelt was an avid eugenics supporter, as was Winston Churchill.

As he moves closer to the present, Rutherford draws on his genetics expertise to convince readers that the concept is intellectually bankrupt. What feels freshest is his contention that eugenics is impossible to do effectively, at least at our current level of scientific advancement. A trait like intelligence, he explains, isn’t controlled by one gene or even several. It’s a product of complex interactions between hundreds of different genes, and even that is just the start: Only half of the intelligence variation between members of a population is thought to be of genetic origin, leaving ample room for other influences. “Your genome is a script,” Rutherford writes, “but the film of your life is played out in the countless forces that determine how that script is performed. Nature was never versus nurture; it is and always was via.”

That means, he concludes, that efforts to engineer human flourishing — whether through gene editing or brute-force population control — are little better than shots in the dark. “Eugenics is a busted flush, a pseudoscience that cannot deliver on its promise,” he writes. “Maybe that will change in time, as we anatomize our genomes ever more precisely.”

Still, there’s something disquieting about Rutherford’s claim that eugenics is suspect partly because it hasn’t yet panned out. That seems to imply that if it only worked well enough, a case could be made for it: that if we could bump each unborn baby’s IQ up by 10 or 20 points, with no attendant ill effects, it might be okay to do so. In theory, such optimized babies could turn out to have easier, more stress-free lives. But making that the objective would ignore the well-documented meaning people find in navigating natural strengths and weaknesses, as well as the resilience they gain in the process.

At times, Rutherford also lets us all off the hook too easily. He attempts to draw a bright line between eugenics and genetic testing that informs reproductive decisions, stating that he doesn’t see elective abortion of Down syndrome fetuses as eugenic. What his thorough history actually suggests, though, is that no such bright line can be drawn. Whether we call it eugenics or not, we continue to essentialize human value: To make judgments about which lives are more worthy or perfectible than others, and to use science to guide those decisions.

By telling stories like Lulu and Nana’s, Rutherford stresses how we’ve never given up trying to control humans’ biological future. But — perhaps because his primary expertise is in genetics — he sidesteps deeper philosophical inquiries into when, if at all, such meddling is justified. At a time when we hear clear echoes of Galton in calls to modify certain genetic traits with Crispr, those philosophical inquiries are sorely needed.

“We all want our kin, our tribe, our friends and compatriots to succeed in their endeavors, in their pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness,” Rutherford writes. “But what are we willing to do to ensure it?” While “Control” doesn’t supply clear guidance on how to answer that question, it continues to be one well worth asking.

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  1. KLG

    It is important to remember also that conventional frequentist statistics (correlation coefficients, p-values, etc.) developed out of the need to quantify eugenics. Galton started it and was followed up by Karl Pearson and RA Fisher. The latter wrote a classic of the Modern Synthesis of Evolutionary Biology: The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. The final chapters are a swamp of eugenic nonsense. Which is not say this kind of statistical analysis itself is tainted, but it is borderline useless for most of what it is used for, especially in classifying and ranking individuals, determining if drugs actually work according to the theory behind them…

  2. Hemanth Kumar

    Just an hour before I am reading this post, I was going thru a book and tweeted the excerpt from that book. “The Wayfinders” by Wade Davis:

  3. Raymond Sim

    So far as a I can tell, eugenics is misunderstood animal husbandry, misapplied, Races and/or classes of people get discussed as if they were breeds of livestock, while the fact that even a landrace breed is typically the result of generations of incest coupled with ruthless infanticide is (one certainly hopes) not understood.

    Meanwhile the notion that the superiority of improved livestock, if any could actually be discerned, might be entirely situational, doesn’t seem to have crossed many minds. I recall reading that in World War I the horses European armies had supplied themselves with proved unexpectedly vulnerable to the hardships they encountered, but the common stock they were forced to resort to for replacements faired better.

    I think Svoboda goes astray in treating “We shouldn’t meddle when we understand so little.” as a lower sort of morality than “We shouldn’t essentialize human life.” In point of fact, the latter can be seen as following from the former, while on the other hand, a person guided by the latter could make hideous errors if their understanding fell short of what they imagnined it to be.

  4. Questa Nota

    Sparta was a noted eugenics-based society. Unhealthy, weak or otherwise deemed unsuitable newborns were taken out to the wilderness to die from animals or exposure. Their society declined because it could not produce enough human beings to survive.

    We are Sparta They used to be Sparta.

    1. Daniil Adamov

      Except of course their society did survive. It declined, but that had more to do with societal dysfunction. Eventually their stupidest habits died out and the surviving people kept on living. It appears the descendants of the Spartans still live in and near Sparta today.

      1. hk

        But the Spartans we’re consistently outdone by it’s rivals, even in the specialty that they “bred” themselves for–warfare.

        Early on, Athenians outcompeted the Spartans and made themselves the premiere notary power in the Greek world…until their own arrogance and the distant Syracusans did them in, not so much the Spartans. Then the Spartans were thoroughly smashed by the upstart Thebans without such a warlike reputation. Then the primary military powers of the ancient world were first the Macedonians, then the Romans–both of whom were crazy militarist but nowhere near the Spartans–certainly not so “eugenicist.” “Spartans” the people may have survived, but the quasi-eugenicist Spartan society was swept into the dustbin of history more than 2000 years ago.

      2. Tariq K

        Bret Devereaux has a wonderful series that dissects the Spartan mythos rather comprehensively.

        TL;DR Sparta was, even by the standards of its contemporaries, a state that practiced child abuse, infanticide and massive exploitation to the point where all it was good for was, essentially consolidating wealth into a smaller and smaller social class up to the point where it functionally collapsed into a theme park parody of itself for the Romans to gawk over.

        Sparta is an object lesson for states, with one lesson: Don’t be like Sparta.

  5. Watt4Bob

    What could go wrong?

    I’m reminded of the old joke about the very intelligent, but ugly man, who when asked why he married a beautiful but stupid woman, replied;

    “I want my children to be as beautiful as her, and as smart as me.”

    His kids turned out as ugly as him and as stupid as his wife.

    1. clarky90

      It seems to me that certain iterations of “wokeness” are, in fact, “Neo-Eugenics”. Flexible gender identities, body positivity, feminization of the ideal man…… The idealization of childlessness…….. Gender reaasignment, of young people/children, that may result in their sterilization.

      I am perplexed! Usually, the groups singled out to be “scientificially culled” do not enthusiastically promote (fight for) their own demise? But resist…… or retreat…

      I am not saying, but asking? How can this make sense? Is this a mass suicide inclination….?

      1. Daniil Adamov

        What makes you think those groups are singled out to be culled? More, what makes you think the people involved really think of themselves as members of those groups first, or that they are inclined to believe those groups must be propagated biologically? I’d venture that most of the people you speak of are individualists and/or have no interest in the biological reproduction of their “groups”, which is hardly unprecedented in the history of humanity (see also monks or Catholic priests, albeit with different motives or justifications).

  6. Carolinian

    It is well known that purebred dogs often have medical problems just as inbred Spanish monarchs of the Renaissance period had weird chins and other defects. Modern science understands that genetic diversity is nature’s way and therefore messing with nature is anti-Darwin even if Darwin himself didn’t necessarily agree. But then he was also a Victorian and may have been swayed by the party line.

    Meanwhile the valorization of IQ and perhaps the meritocracy itself could be argued to be lingering pentimenti of the eugenics movement. Intelligence is undoubtedly a thing but means little without the real world experience to guide heightened perception. Seems you can’t cook that up in a lab.

  7. Brooklin Bridge

    Perhaps the hidden benefit of random selection is that lacking agency or being truly random, it ultimately takes away the chance it initially gives a species to flourish. As in the inevitability of getting too smart for one’s own britches, or even farther out there, success is failure.

    In this case, it’s not so much that we should or shouldn’t tamper with our own genetics as that sooner or later someone (over time, many someones) will.

  8. JBird4049

    In the eugenics movement, often it is openly stated that saving money is a principle reason for sterilization and murder. The stated goal is always improvement with the prevention of suffering tucked away in the messaging. But without fail, money becomes a principle motivation; all though people in prison or the asylum cost money and means taxing you.

    The scientific “research,” dubious statistics, the contortions of legal reasoning, the appeal to the worst of emotions, and the often covert efforts to carry out the sterilizations and murder appears again and again. The often hidden, and later the frequently illegal, efforts in prisons, hospitals, medical clinics (plus the human experimentations both in the United States and by Americans overseas) means that it is not well reported or extent understood. Yes, the Nazis were far, far worse, but they got the justifications and methods from Americans.

    And poor children were still dragged off the streets into clinics and sterilized often with reason given being a checkup. Or people would go for one procedure and get something extra done without being told. From California to Appalachia to Wisconsin to the Mississippi Delta. Mental asylums, hospitals, clinics, prisons at the county, state, and federal level. Sometimes done ad hoc and sometimes organized by private foundations or government. It is almost certainly being done now. Don’t forget about the two million people incarcerated in our carceral state, often very, very poorly reported conditions with the prisoners being “those” people. Who listens to them?

    Yes, much of the eugenics movement has been harder to find since they found Buchenwald as they no longer do press releases, and people did become horrified and ashamed, but it has never gone entirely away. It still slithers about.

    Add in the sickening, nearly two centuries long history of human experimentation done in United States, done on Americans usually of the lowest classes, and it does makes the more extreme ravings(?) about Covid or vaccines (or eugenics) more plausible.

    And really, all these institutionalizations, sterilizations, murder, and experimenting is more about the perceived disposability and worth of human beings measured by money than by anything else isn’t?

    1. Carolinian

      Malthus wasn’t an American and he had a lot to do with the drive to eliminate the “useless eaters.” I don’t think the Nazis were imitating America although they did ape some of our race laws. Eugenics was heavily promoted by the intellectual classes in England and America.

      1. flora

        Mathus was an English cleric. He wrote his famous (or infamous) 1798 book “An Essay on the Principle of Population.” Mathus wrote with serious earnestness his ideas about population growth leading to the inevitable and unimprovible degradation of the lower classes, ideas like that Jonathan Swift had savagely satirized 70 years earlier.

        See Jonathon Swift’s 1729 satire “A Modest Proposal.”

          1. Hayek's Heelbiter

            This summer, my lovely local park was leased by the Council to a festival promotion company for two weeks and closed to the general public. The company had to have made between £18m and £20m on tickets and concessions, for which they rewarded the Council with the princely sum of £200k.
            As a joke a I put up posters with big black letters, “ENCLOSURE ACT OF 2022”.

            The public is hereby given notice that it is illegal to trespass on any of the fields enclosed by the concentration camp fences recently erected in Xxxx Park.
            Failure to pay private contractors a large sum of money for permission to use these heretofore free fields (paid for and maintained by public funds) will result in fines, arrests and possible imprisonment.

            The kicker was that none of my British friends had any idea what the Enclosure Act was.
            Maybe lack of knowledge like this is how the Normans have been able to maintain rule over England for the past 850 years.

      2. JBird4049

        Modern eugenics could be said to have started with Francis Galton’s coining of the world eugenics in the late 1800s. Some of the ideas relating to it has been around in European civilization since at least Greek times. You can see modern British justifications for it during the Irish and Indian famines of the same century before the word was coined.

        Each decade, more countries would join the movement and expand on the ideas. It constantly changed. It continually got expanded, more detailed, with more ruthless methods suggested, and in the in United States implemented, until Nazi Germany started to get truly serious, but started by copying the American. Pre 1800s- the British 1900- Americans, then everyone else with the Germans particularly interested. 1930- Expansion in the United States and the industrialization in Germany after 1933. The organized mass movement just died after 1945. About fifty from crystallization to collapse. Or fifty years from Galton suggested using financial incentives to get the right people to marry to the Holocaust. Galton refused to suggest using anything other than financial incentives and did not go much further with the movement. Maybe, he could see ahead?

        Really, it was a popular pan-European-American movement, it started with the British, then became popular with the Americans who “improved” and expanded it, and then the Germans became infatuated, just before the First World War. The French and Belgians were also very interested in. Any European empire with overseas colonies was; it was after the First World War war when the Nazis took power that it was codified into law with full scale industrial eugenics was implemented, but they were just expanded on what the Americans had been doing for over thirty years. It was a difference in scale, not intent.

        Although the overseas genocides particularly by the Germans pre-1914 might be considered the same. Of course, the Japanese used some of the same racial superiority garbage to justify their war crimes. Each empire uses the supposed superiority of its culture and central race to at least do a cultural genocide in its conquests.

        1. Carolinian

          Well we could debate what the “intent” was under Jim Crow or the Nazis but the real impetus for Eugenics per se was surely the misuse of Darwin’s theory to put a scientific gloss on the Malthusian ideas about population and society. I don’t think America had much to do with it although a professor has put forward a popular (these days) theory that the Confederates were somehow responsible for Hitler’s holocaust. Hitler himself pointed to the Turk massacre of the Armenians as his model. It seems ethnic hatred is easy to find everywhere.

          1. MaryLand

            I thought the Nazis studied the way we treated Native Americans: reservations, using subterfuge (diseased blankets), and outright murder. I think I read they also studied our military prisons of the Civil War.

            1. JBird4049

              I don’t know about studying military prisons, but Hitler specifically mentioned (with admiration) the Native American genocides, Jim Crow, the American laws on and use of sterilization. The Nuremberg (race) Laws were explicitly modeled on the various anti miscegenation laws commonly found in American states.

          2. JBird4049

            >>>but the real impetus for Eugenics per se was surely the misuse of Darwin’s theory to put a scientific gloss on the Malthusian ideas about population and society.

            Ideas that we would label eugenics adjacent were floating around Great Britain before the voyage of the Beagle. Malthus and Darwin were convenient excuses for the near genocide of the Irish or restricting public aid to a very select group of the “deserving poor.”

            If one could give an official intent for Eugenics Movement, it was to improve humanity and make a better future, a utopia perhaps, by breeding people like one would sheep. But yes, whatever the intent or goal was, it, people like Malthus, provided the reasoning for things like Hitler’s Lebensraum and his partially completed Holocaust*, as Darwin was used in the United States for sterilizations of the poor, blacks, and the institutionalized. Really, people took what they needed the most out of the ideology of eugenics and used that part to defend different actions.

            It is not an accident that the governments of countries with colonies, the British, Americans, German, Belgians, Dutch, French, and later the Japanese, were all interested in using the ideas in Eugenics, but not necessarily the popular Eugenics Movement itself, which was rather disturbingly… utopian; the governments in their own aims were more pragmatic and ruthless.

            I think it more that people want want to use other people, or just steal their stuff, and are happy to use what ever convenient ideas are around. If they are not around already, they are cobbled together from legitimate beliefs, theories, and discoveries to create pseudo-theories like Social Darwinism to excuse slavery, genocide, and theft.

            Even if I was dumb enough to believe in eugenics, I have read far too much history to not see that ideas like it are most often used, not in explanation, but in exculpation. Most often when the bodies are still warm.

            *(The Poles and much, probably the majority, of the people in the Soviet Union west of the Urals were to be next, which makes the fondness by some Ukrainians for Hitler, interesting. The history of the planned genocides is not new or hidden. Unless, you just don’t want to see them?)

    2. chris

      It is measured more by money in the US because the costs of losing the genetic lottery are so high. My family supports and encourages adoption, fostering, and families who want to welcome babies with challenges like Down Syndrome. We have helped these families with food, finances, and respite care when the parents needed a break. But as much as we support making these decisions about life, we never judge those who decide they can’t accept a child with profound disabilities and choose to terminate the pregnancy.

      That includes children who will be born with Down Syndrome. Those kids can have enormous challenges that unless you have significant resources and a full time stay at home parent most families can’t handle on their own. It’s one thing to think of cute babies who wear “I make this extra Chromosome look good” onesies and quite another to handle teenagers who can’t eat solid food and need to find some way to support themselves if they’re able. Many kids with Down Syndrome have it much worse. Many public programs fail these families. And there’s only so much charity to go around.

      So while I agree with this review and other’s comments that there is no bright shining line between eugenics and acting on the results of genetic counseling, my sympathy and my support goes to the people considering these difficult choices.

  9. Chas

    Vermont began a eugenics persecution of the Abenaki people in the 1920s and ran for about 20 years until fading out. It was run by a fascist professor at the University of Vermont and the author Eudora Welty was involved. The program involved forced sterilization of Abenaki women, discouraging their language and making the kids go to Vermont schools. The Abenakis withdrew into the woods where there were logging camps and they were given some cover by the local French-Canadian population. They survived however and then about 20 years ago Vermont felt ashamed of itself and granted tribal status to the Abenaki. Then earlier this year something strange happened. Abenakis from Quebec, where they had been allowed to have a reservation came down to attack the Vermont Abenakis as not being pure Abenakis. They were given a forum by UVM, the same university that led the eugenics program that had been primarily responsible for any lack of purity by the Vermont Abenakis. Why is this happening? Some of the Vermont Abenakis say Hydro Quebec is behind it, that they want a to run a powerline down through Vermont and want to cut off any argument the Abenakis might make about destruction of tribal cultural areas.

  10. Michaelmas

    With due respect to all, let me raise some issues here —

    Svoboda: ‘…there’s something disquieting about Rutherford’s claim that eugenics is suspect partly because it hasn’t yet panned out. That seems to imply that if it only worked well enough, a case could be made for it: that if we could bump each unborn baby’s IQ up by 10 or 20 points, with no attendant ill effects, it might be okay to do so.’

    What exactly is this ‘something disquieting’ about Rutherford’s claim? Why would it never be okay to bump up each unborn baby’s IQ if there were no attendant ill effects? Svoboda never says — never actually provides any reasoned arguments. Rather, she does what precisely what she accuses Rutherford, the author of the book reviewed, of doing: she “sidesteps deeper philosophical inquiries into when, if at all, such meddling is justified.”

    Let’s turn to the real world and see if we can do better. For instance –

    [1] The most common cause of hereditary breast cancer is an inherited mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. We could detect that mutation relatively easily and cheaply during childhood and suppress its expression across the population.

    Some of the rich are already doing this for their children. But under the existing FDA regime and the non-preventative, for-profit healthcare industry that the rich maintain in the US for their enrichment, is it likely that this therapy will be made available except at great expense to the vast mass of Americans? No, it is not.

    [2] I suggest that vague arguments like Svoboda’s about “eugenics” and “the well-documented meaning people find in navigating natural strengths and weaknesses, as well as the resilience they gain in the process” will be part of the propaganda wheeled out to keep in place the non-preventative healthcare industry that US kleptocracy favors. Meanwhile, emerging biogenetic technologies will be made available to the rich even as they’re denied to the mass of Americans.

    Can I provide specific real-world evidence to support my claim. Sure.

    Moderna, responsible for the anti-COVID mRNA vaccine, is thought of as a Big Pharma company by NC readers. This may seem like insider baseball, but Moderna is not; it’s a biotechnology company that’s one among fifty-some others created and controlled by Flagship Pioneering, a VC partnership of leading genetic engineers recruited from places like Harvard and MIT. Flagship exclusively concerns itself with developing bleeding-edge biogenetic technologies into profitable companies. Moderna’s mRNA vaccines are probably one of the most conservative things they’re doing.

    A more representative Flagship company is Ohana –

    ‘….Ohana is embarking on a fresh approach to the field of reproductive medicine with the creation of the industry’s first sperm biology platform, a major shift from the traditional path of focusing on egg biology. Since Ohana’s founding in 2016, its platform has yielded product opportunities in fundamental areas of reproductive health based on insights into sperm biology. Those opportunities include improving fertility rates, reducing pregnancy complications, inherited disease, and developmental disorders, and delivering non-hormonal contraception.’

    In other words, as Yves has referenced in the past, we’re seeing an uptick in Asperger syndrome and autism, and one big reason is older fathers producing sub-standard sperm. Thus, the elevator pitch for Ohana, as one Flagship partner presented it to me: “The initial market is a Chinese millionaire/billionaire in his sixties who’s just married his third wife in her twenties, and who’s about to have his first kid with her.”

    Essentially, the technologies involved sort a client’s sperm to select the most viable individual specimens, then bring to bear various treatments to enhance that sperm. In fact, from the literature and results I saw, Ohana walked all the way up to being genetic enhancement for humans without literally being genetic enhancement for humans via CRISPR.

    The optics of that prompted Flagship’s CEO, Noubar Afeyan, to shut down Ohana once Moderna hit the jackpot last year and he became a billionaire. Probably a smart move.

    “Ohana is winding down, cutting staff to “minimal operations,” CEO Amber Salzman said in an email to the Business Journal. Salzman said the company’s board of directors made the decision when Ohana was “unsuccessful at securing continued financing.”

    Still, the various technologies underlying Ohana remain viable. Other VCs – not in the limelight as Afeyan and Flagship now are – are looking at taking them forward either whole or in part. And what Ohana is/was doing, moreover, pales next to — for instance — the far more transformational possibilities existing with regards to in vitro embryogenesis, which we can do in animals and which is probably 6-9 years away in humans.

    I submit that that’s the likely future. The rich will exploit these emerging biogenetic technologies for themselves and their children, even as the masses will be disadvantaged and denied access to them. And it’s precisely vague, specious claims like Svoboda’s about “eugenics” and “the well-documented meaning people find in navigating natural strengths and weaknesses, as well as the resilience they gain in the process” that will be deployed to do that.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I don’t see any evidence for your claim about Aspergers. Hungarian men, long before the last decade, generally got married when older. My Hungarian grandfather got married at 37 and didn’t have kids until he was 42. That was not unusual. If your thesis were valid, I think it would be likely that a higher frequency of Aspergers and autism would have been noticed among Hungarians long ago.

      The alternate claims I have seen are environmental, chemicals (we test only for toxicity of single chemicals, not in combination; even the WSJ has pointed out that microexposures in combination could be deleterious) as well as the observation among the California PMC that mathy women married to mathy men seem to have a higher propensity to produce kids with Aspergers.

      1. Kouros

        In the early 2000s I got an offer for a trip to Florida, with cruise to Bahamas and other stuff. Getting off of a contract with some money, i thought to take my son in a trip for his birthday.

        Nobody mentioned that part of the trip consisted on having to stand in twice for a sales pitch for vacation homes (the two weeks scam). It was really a scam, showing you some hotels on the beach, and selling some room in some run down motel one mile from the beach.

        Almost fell for it but my better angel shook me and I stopped short of signing. The corporate wirlhwind was unleashed on me, with this old guy in his 75 trying to convinced me to change my mind. That I can do anything I put my mind too, look at him with his young Taiwanese wife and two little daughters (pictures shown).

        I think that is the age group Michaelmas was referring to.

      2. Michaelmas

        Yves: I don’t see any evidence for your claim about Aspergers.

        Here you *go*.

        Thousands of studies via the link, but just a couple off the top —

        ‘Ageing of the male germ line’

        from the abstract: “…mounting evidence links paternal age to chromosomal damage and genetic problems in the children of older fathers. The frequency of de novo mutations increases markedly with age, leading to increased risk of breast cancer, cardiac defects, developmental disorders, behavioural disorders, and neurological disease in the children of older men. The current trend towards fathering children at a later age raises concerns regarding the risk of offspring developing complex multigene diseases.”

        ‘Elemental composition of human semen is associated with motility and genomic sperm defects among older men’

        From the abstract —
        “The older group also showed reduced motility as well as increased sperm DNA fragmentation, achondroplasia mutations, DNA strand breaks and chromosomal aberrations.’

        And so on. Yves, you’re smart enough that you know single nucleotide polymorphisms appear with increasing frequency in every other human organ and tissue as we age and our cell replacement mechanisms deteriorate, and there’s no reason sperm production would be an exception.

        Re: Aspergers specifically ….
        There’s a recent cultural tendency to valorize and romanticize autism generally and Asperger syndrome specifically, as many individuals who demonstrate high intellectual performance in some spheres — forex, ‘mathy people,’ as you put it — have it.

        So to be clear: Asperger syndrome is a form of autism, and autism is essentially a very wide category covering any human individual with a CNS that has one or more neural circuits that can’t function to process incoming information up to real-time speeds. It could be, forex, visual information about human facial expressions or, perhaps as likely, the different speeds of cars on a road/freeway.

        Regarding the question of environmental chemical causative factors as opposed to hereditary defects/mutations, it’s of course both. Like you, I suspect environmental chemical factors are an increasingly frequent cause.

      3. Raymond Sim

        Stickiing with my “Eugenics is bad animal husbandry.” line, it’s notable that eugenicists seem to be interested almost entirely in the quality of the broodstock, but not the state of the barn or whether the feed is moldy.

    2. KLG

      “[1] The most common cause of hereditary breast cancer is an inherited mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. We could detect that mutation relatively easily and cheaply during childhood and suppress its expression across the population.”

      A minor point on the biology: BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations are indeed very easy to identify, but BRCA1 and BRCA2 are tumor suppressor genes, albeit somewhat different from others of this class (Retinoblastoma/RB1gene being the exemplar). Females inheriting a mutant BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene from either parent are susceptible to inherited breast or ovarian cancer when the other, i.e., normal, copy is mutated in the breast or ovary. Thus, cancer associated with BRCA1/BRCA2 is not due to the expression of aberrant gene that could be suppressed, and there is no reliable mechanism to deliver a normal copy of the mutated gene to the tissues in which it is required. The current intervention is grim, and I have two friends/colleagues who have had this done.

      However, this does not mean the strategy could not work for other inherited cancers, although they don’t come readily to mind at this hour and the chasm between theory and practice is likely to be wide and deep. It is certainly true that preventive therapies likely to work will be the province of the very rich. As it is, the private-jet class has vampiric members who transfuse themselves with the “fresh” blood of the young and virile. Not that there is any good evidence this is anything but stupid for the rich man and lucrative for the blood donor, who also usually has a really high SAT score.

      Which reminds me, does anyone besides me remember this book, which made a big splash upon publication? Lippincott Williams & Wilkins is still a major publisher of medical textbooks. Go figure. A lot of the stuff VC will be touting is in the same category, which could be called CryptoBioMedicine.

      1. Michaelmas

        KLG: A lot of the stuff VC will be touting is in the same category, which could be called CryptoBioMedicine.

        In the real world VCs are in business to make money, however — and must show a profit to stay in business. There are two ways to do this.

        [1] A bright researcher(s) comes to a VC partnership with an idea which, if developed for a cost of $40-500 million, produces a molecule that will, say, target and treat seventeen cancer types. That will be worth billions.

        But only if that molecule passes through the rounds of animal-human trials the FDA imposes, and demonstrates that it truly does what’s claimed to a reasonable degree of effectiveness.

        [2] Alternatively, the entity providing developmental capital may be like Masayoshi Son’s SoftBank (and others) or regular Big Pharma. Both of these can deploy various techniques and connections with politically powerful individuals to create artificially inflated valuations around more or less spurious concepts.

        In the case of Softbank and entities like it, the aim is to create Ponzis, essentially, like Uber, WeWork, and Theranos by blowing bubbles that draw in politically powerful individuals as investors — and the rich and investment bankers can be incredibly stupid — till a TBTF situation is created. Meanwhile, in the case of Big Pharma companies, they’ve got the connections and deep pockets to pay to get drugs that don’t actually work fast-tracked through the FDA.

        For SoftBank and its like, Ponzis always end, and a reckoning ultimately comes.

        For Big Pharma’s brand of corruption, reckonings can unfortunately be put off far longer. Alas, too, the instigating executives behind a specific phoney drug project get rewarded for bumping up shareholder value in the short-term although the phoney drug ultimately fails on the market.

        Nevertheless, for a normal VC partnership Big Pharma’s repertoire of behaviors is mostly not feasible. Meanwhile, SoftBank-style Ponzi creation always ends in some kind of collapse and there’s no guarantee that getting out with one’s ill-gotten gains will be personally possible.

        So it’s far better to be in business as a VC in category [1], investing in an idea which, if developed for a cost of $40-500 million, produces a molecule that really will treat seventeen cancer types. .

  11. Tom Stone

    Involuntary sterilizations were still being performed here in Sonoma County in the early 1970’s…
    You can always find a Doctor or a Psychologist who enjoys self righteous sadism.
    It’s a smaller percentage in the case of MD’s IMO, and it’s far from a majority in either field but they do a lot of harm.

  12. Ana

    Regarding eugenics, may I point out Buck v Bell. A U S Supreme Court decision upholding the sterilization of persons who may or may not have had developmental delays. This was, back in the old days, not just just popular but also the law of the land.

    Today though we pretend not to do these things. But we do. Now it’s typically a withholding of medical treatment approved by families and done by doctors. I have had adult friends killed in this way. Nothing much has changed.

    Ana in Sacramento

    1. Patrick Donnelly

      It has affected many large programs.

      Having police officers in fear of their lives, and ensuring that high IQ applicants are denied entry, means more deaths.

  13. GramSci

    I was appalled to see my woke inlaws crowing about granddaughter #2 scoring 130 on her IQ test. As if one could meaningfully measure the ‘intelligence’ of six year olds who can’t really read yet. Already, within a year, I see her developing a superiority complex in the thinly masked admiration of her teachers and relatives.

    Nature red in tooth and law. That’s how they roll in DC.

  14. Patrick Donnelly

    I’m surprised that no one referred to the families studied in England and likely elsewhere, that have violent propensities with histories over several generations. Traits are known to be inherited and scientific people will continue to correlate ’23 and me’ and other sources to see what turns up.
    Surveillance for eugenic purposes is inevitable.

    All the bloviating about how eugenics was and is failing, neglects certain successes. They will not stop. Are we trying to reassure that it is fading away?

    Trying to get faster workers by selecting for IQ, is just one aspect of the forces arrayed against the unsuspecting.

    Loyalty to a flag for example, suggests that emotion will overcome reason and people will ‘join up’ ie behave like the crowds of others that the patriotic media tell them are enlisting. Glory! Medals! Bonds! Comradeship!

    TikTok may seem to have spawned many dangerous games. Deaths resulted. The pressure to get the best selfies means people fall off cliffs. We even joke that some deserve Darwin Awards for dying before procreation.

    Democracy was forbidden in Athens to those who owed money and therefore were working off that debt. Modern societies seem to delight in placing hurdles in front of citizens for various stated reasons, but each one takes a toll. Suicide is now quite common and is no longer a bug.

    More extensive is supplying drugs via Govts black bag agents or by overprescribing. Making addicts is not the end game for such things, a hotshot is the aim. Direct self removal.

    Herding the easily led is now a common tactic for NGOs and international agencies. Being ‘super smart’ these experts all are familiar with the needs of their past and future bosses and current theoretical eugenic needs and goals.

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