This series of videos is a very interesting discussion on our ability to select for traits in children. With the advent of genetic engineering and rigorous guidelines for sperm and egg donation, it is more and more possible to “build” a more perfect offspring. As the seen in the video, the majority of people would not object to selecting for a child with regards to good looks and a high SAT score, but when asked the same question about selecting for a deaf child, only one third felt that this was acceptable. The speaker then brings up the very important point that the distinction between the two situations was that the audience felt as if being deaf was a significant disability and the child was being harmed in this way.
The speakers go on to discuss the way genetic selection is symbolic of an increasing commercialization in the way children are being conceived as well as the ethical implications of selecting for a so-called “designer baby”. With respect to eugenics, one can say that it is in the spirit of eugenics for parents to be able to choose only the best traits for their children, but this brings up the issue of the idea that in doing so potential parents are now treating their children as commodities; objects to tailor to their own preferences, as opposed to offspring to love unconditionally.
It is doubtful that many would oppose the idea of selecting against a child having a disability, and less would oppose selecting for a perhaps a taller or more physically fit child, but where should the line be drawn? With regards to traits like eye color or facial features, how can it said objectively which traits are “good” or “bad” for the gene pool?
At the University of Florida the student body is extremely diverse, and this is apparent through simple observation. When I look around on campus, I can see that there are students from all walks of life; handicapped students being no exception. Considering that the University of Florida is a fairly reputable institution, it is safe to say that the students here have a lot of potential and will contribute significantly to society. With this in mind, I cannot help but wonder if some of these students would still be here if the eugenics movement of the 1900’s took place today- it is impossible to say that these students are not intelligent and extremely capable, yet by the standards of eugenics they technically are labeled “unfit”. It also brings up the debate of what constitutes “fitness” with regards to “survival of the fittest”. While we may see their so-called disabilities to be a major inconvenience, clearly they are just as capable as the rest of society despite their “handicap”. In the case of the deaf community, many do not consider themselves to have lost anything at all- rather they are 100% as capable as anybody else, simply differing in their primary mode of communication.
In our modern society, we are able to detect and even select for certain traits before a child is even born. Through many available tests and analytical equipment, it is exceedingly easy for a parent to become aware of their child’s potential disability, whether it be Downs Syndrome or deafness. As such, modern eugenics is far more powerful and effective in that we have the hard science to provide legitimacy to the idea of preventing an undesirable trait from being passed down. When it can be said with high accuracy that a child born will have an undesirable trait it is easier to, for example, decide to not follow through with the birth; compared to in the past, in which the traits of a child were more of a guessing game with regards to the traits of the parents.
With this ability however, lies the question of ethics. How can we determine which traits reduce fitness to an extent where they should be selected out of the population? Who are we to determine if a trait is a disability? The “handicapped” population remains able to make significant contributions to society despite their perceived limitations- the handicapped students, CEOs, and entrepreneurs across are proof of this. Imagine if these people were terminated before they were born on the basis of fitness. Today, it is important to weigh the ideals of eugenics against the potential cost of following them blindly, the line between fit and unfit is increasingly less obvious making decisions regarding genetic selection more and more difficult.
In our most recent class, we discussed ideas about population ecology and the way that different species interact in an ecosystem. One part of the discussion which stood out to me was the fact that even among ecologists, there are shifts in schools of thought with regards to what factors are considered most important in studying species interactions. We learned that for a time, competition seemed to be the defining type of interaction, but as time went on and ecologists gained more insight, they came to believe that predation was the most important.
With regards to eugenics, it led me to question the validity of older principles of eugenics as well as to look into the way that eugenics has developed up until today. Without a doubt the climate regarding eugenics has changed drastically since its origin- after World War II the ideas presented by eugenics are seen in a far more negative light. The thought of putting those who are “unfit” down would largely be seen as offensive and politically incorrect in our times. However, it is also important to look into the way science has changed and it’s effects on eugenics, not just the way our culture has changed in it’s thoughts on eugenics.
One of the most significant changes in scientific understanding since the beginning of eugenics is our new found grasp of genetics and of how traits are passed down between generations. In the case of the eugenics movement in the 1900’s, the limited science of the time led proponents of eugenics to cite the need to “breed out” those who were predisposed to become thieves and murderers as well as mentally disturbed. Of course now with our current understanding of DNA and heritable traits, it appears clear that the quality of “being a criminal” is impossible to predict solely through one’s lineage. Not only this, but it seems laughable that they sought to predict such broad characteristics using only the shapes of people’s heads and faces. Even some mental diseases have been determined to be not completely determined by heredity. For example, although developing schizophrenia is correlated to whether or not one’s parent’s have it, there is also a distinct external environmental component to developing it. These sort of discoveries demonstrate how difficult it is to pinpoint a single root cause for any human behavior and simply remove it from the gene pool with selective breeding.
In a scientifically advanced society such as today, it appears that it is increasingly more difficult to apply eugenics practically. How can we be completely sure that a certain behavior is genetically linked? How likely must it be that a person with a certain gene will express this behavior before one can safely say they should not pass on their genetic material? Regardless, the leaps and bounds science has made also has innumerable benefits for eugenics as a whole; as the potential for rigorous testing and experimentation make for an atmosphere that is dominated by science and reason as opposed to speculation and pseudoscience.