Continuing to think about eugenics.
I’ve emphasized the words which imply some sort of value judgment because I wonder how one knows who is “wellborn” and who is “unsuitable”, and how one is to know whether one has “improved” the human race.
If you’re a plant or animal breeder, you’re selling an end product – timber, fruit, flowers, meat, leather, etc. – and you’ll be guided by the market. If people want red roses, you’ll grow lots of red roses, and look to produce rose bushes which are laden with roses galore. But when you’re raising children, you’re not selling them to anybody, so there is no market, and no guidance.
And throughout human history, people have always been selective breeders. In Greece and Rome deformed or disabled or sickly infants were very often allowed to die. Parents wanted strong sons and daughters (and more often sons than daughters) who would be able to assist them in their work, and fight in their armies, and care for them in their old age. Life was simply too hard for people to bear the burden of a handicapped child who would never be a useful and productive member of society. If we in our modern world no longer do this, it is because life has become easy enough for many people in the developed world to welcome all human life, able or disabled.
And even if we were not being selective breeders, the processes of natural selection which operate on all living things would ensure that the disabled and the sickly would succumb, and the able-bodied and healthy survive. If there is no obvious reason to intervene, why not let nature take its course? I often wonder how we came to be hairless bipeds with opposed thumbs and tiny little teeth.
Above all, how can we know, in advance of the event, what is or isn’t an improvement? Can we ever say that large men are an improvement over small men? Or that thin men are an improvement over fat men? Who knows what seemingly trivial and unimportant human trait might emerge one day as the key to human survival? Surely, in the face of an unknown human future, we should encourage the greatest diversity of human types, and not set out to fit everyone into a single ideal – particularly when that ideal is simply what has been seen in a mirror. Is it very surprising that blonde, athletic, nordic types tend to prefer blonde, athletic, nordic types?
In Darwin’s “struggle for existence”, in which the fittest survive, exactly who are the “fittest”? Darwin himself seems to have thought they were the strongest and fastest and most rapidly reproducing. But that was perhaps because Darwin regarded the struggle for existence as an unrelenting and ubiquitous War of Nature, the war of eveything against everything else. Translated to human life, this was the war of all men against all other men, and the ideal man was a physically fit, athletic soldier who could be counted upon to march hundreds of miles, and swing a sword or axe.
The ideal “healthy” human that modern lifetstyle medicine desires would seem to be something exactly like that. They want to produce soldiers. Big, strong, athletic soldiers. Soldiers without the vices of smoking and drinking and easy living. Soldiers who will unthinkingly obey orders.
Is that really what we need? How do they know? Maybe what we really need is more computer programmers. Or rock and roll bands. Or hair stylists. Perhaps it’s the continuing influence of Darwin, plus the experience of two world wars in which large numbers of civilians were conscripted into armies, and many were found to be physically unfit. If nations are going to fight colossal wars every few decades, perhaps it makes sense to try to make sure that the population from which these future soldiers are to be drawn are as “fit” (in the military sense) as possible.
But are large scale wars inevitable? And if there are wars, will they require millions of men to dig trenches and fire rifles at each other, as happened in the First and Second World Wars? Isn’t it rather more likely that any serious global war will see the use of nuclear weapons? The technology of war is always in a process of rapid development, and every new war is different from the last war. Does it not follow that the ideal soldier will also change as the technology of war changes? It doesn’t help for the pilot of a plane to be large and muscular. On the contrary, it’s a hindrance. Large and muscular is what’s needed with swords and spears and axes, and we don’t use those much any more.
The Darwinian view of life was one of perpetual war, and it may well be that the eugenic view of life really boils down to social preparedness for war. We must have fit, strong, athletic men and women who can be pressed into service in their millions, just like in the previous two world wars. The “ideal” Body-Mass Index is quite likely a military ideal. It’s probably in an obscure military handbook somewhere. And of course it goes without saying that the ideal soldier is of an ascetic character, neither drinking nor smoking nor engaging in any other vice, and able to live off beans and lentils and bread and water. It’s much cheaper that way.
Maybe what terrifies the military, when they see ever fatter civilians on the streets, clutching bottles of beer and smoking cigarettes, is the prospect of having to shape millions of these unpromising conscripts into fighting soldiers within the space of a few weeks.
Eugenic society may simply be military (and perhaps even militaristic) society. In a society at peace, its demands make little or no sense at all, because it doesn’t really matter at all whether civilians smoke and drink and get fat on steak and chips. “Lifestyle medicine” really only starts to make sense in a time of war, when physical fitness is at a premium, and luxuries are absent. It’s really got nothing to do with “lifestyle” at all.
But is there a global war on the horizon? Perhaps there is, but I can’t see it. The previous two world wars were well advertised in advance. The First World War came at the end of a long arms race which saw the Germans and the British constructing large navies well in advance of the outbreak of war. So also a great many people could see the Second World War coming years before its outbreak, as Germany re-armed. The wars we fight now all seem (to me at least) to be wars of choice, sometimes fought just to try out the latest military hardware (e.g. laser-guided bombs) and to keep the military in practice.
If anything, the prospect of war greatly diminished with the demise of the Soviet Union 20 years ago. The Western world (or at least its military establishment) had to find a new enemy to justify its existence. And this arrived in the form of militant Islam, Al Qaeda, and all that. And when they’re gone, it’ll be rampant polar bears or something.
In fact it’s surprising that there’s so little rumour of war these days. Back in my teens in 1960 or so, us kids would wonder when the next world war would start, and who would start it. Would it be the Russians? Or the Chinese? Or Israel? We were all quite sure we’d be fighting in trenches in a few years time. Or being incinerated by atomic weapons. In a world in which there is near hysteria about the threat of passive smoking or carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, even the Greens seem to be nonchalant about war – which historically has been a far more terrifying prospect than anything else. Funny that. They usually never miss a trick when it comes to painting scary future scenarios.
Anyway, the problem with eugenic thinking, as I see it, is that it pretends to know what is an “improvement” or what is “suitable” before the event. It’s like all those things you put in your bags when you go on holiday to some unknown destination, and then you arrive wish you’d brought something else. You never get it right. And you never can get it right.
And this is as much true of war as it is of foreign holidays. Neither the First World War nor the Second World War went “according to plan”. The plans were the first casualties.