From the theories proposed by Sir Francis Galton at the turn of the twentieth century, to the warnings illustrated by the movie Gattica at the turn of the twenty-first, the concept that mankind can somehow deterministically improve its genetic lot has been an undercurrent of political thought for a very long time. Yet, one has to wonder about this fascination. Certainly, we are the only species on this planet for which this is an innate concern, though undoubtedly this is linked, in no small part, to our ability to conceptualize sorrow with our current form and, thus, contrive some ideal to improve upon it. No other animal, after all, has ever gazed upon its reflection in a pool of water and been so enamored with perfection as our own. However, just because we can conceptualize an idea does not mean we have the intellectual capacity to properly act upon it.
Perhaps an examination of the stated purpose for pursuing eugenics – or, in its modern incarnation, genetic engineering – can provide an answer. At the most basic level, the purpose of eugenics is to “improve the race.” But this evokes two obvious questions: (1) which race and (2) what improvements? First, although there is but one race of humans, there are many variations of a theme. Thus, early attempts at eugenics revolved around the idealized form of some preferred lineage, defined by specific visual attributes – skin color, facial features, national heritage, and so on – and usually linked to the characteristics distinctive of the perceived “upper class” at the time; primarily because it was thought that those at the top of society were there because of some superior genetic makeup, while those at the bottom were there because of an inferior genetic makeup. A concept, by the way, that strongly persists even today.
In modern times, “improving the race” is generally understood to mean a body that is “defect free” or “genetically pure” regardless of the perceived sub-form, primarily because recent research suggests that there is no meaningful, scientific concept of a human “sub-form,” or if there is, it is exceedingly difficult to quantify at the genetic level. Thus, it is less important to be Caucasian or any other culturally defined racial classification, than to be the “best” human possible, no matter the heritage. However, this leads back to the second question identified above: what does it mean to be the “best” human possible?
Until relatively recently, the definition of “best” was almost always linked to perceived visual health and beauty – those who looked healthier and were representative of the conceptualized perfect form were considered to be genetically superior to those who did not. Thus, early eugenic breeding programs were initially developed to improve our genetic lot by breeding the “beautiful people” together in the mistaken idea that the offspring of two supposedly genetically superior people would result in genetically superior offspring, which could then be bred together to further improve the line, and so on. Now that we have the technology, through genetic engineering, to tinker under the hood, so to speak, this has currently taken the form of in-vitro screening, and research on “fixing” genetic abnormalities during fertilization or while in the womb. However, this discounts two fundamental considerations: (1) that humans are almost unimaginable genetically complex and (2) that genetic predisposition alone cannot operate in a vacuum that does not take into account environmental and sociological impacts. To this, I would add a third consideration: that the physical aspects of our genetic makeup are probably not the most important when considering what it is that has made us the dominant species on this planet.
When it comes to strict physicality, there are many species that are superior to ours. Thus, in evolutionary terms, creating the best physical specimen of humanity is irrelevant, because we cannot compete on that level without substantially altering what it means to be human. However, the characteristics that have made us dominant are arguably our intelligence, and our aggressive impulse to leverage that intelligence to become the dominant species in whatever clime we find ourselves. In short, no matter where we find humans on this planet, they are invariably at the top of the food chain not because they are faster and stronger, but because they are smarter and more aggressive.
On a sociological level, it has been proven repeatedly that genetic “superiority” is far less of a determinant of success than another inheritance from one’s parents: their wealth and social standing. Although a few are able to rise to the upper levels based on luck and intelligence, most are where they are, socially speaking, because they were born there. Thus, wherever we find humans at the top of the social order, they are invariably there because of better access to wealth, education, health care, and the rungs of power, rather than some genetic predisposition for success. Indeed, the only sociological purpose for modern “positive” eugenics is to reinforce the fallacy that the rich are so because they are a breed superior to the common man, and, therefore, deserve their place in society. Those who are able to break this pattern are, similar to evolution, able to do so in no small part because of intelligence and ambition.
The common theme for success, then, whether discussing evolution or society, seems to be a combination of intellectual capacity and the personal drive to succeed; neither of which are within the bounds of our current understanding of genetics. The best we can possibly do at this time is to provide a healthier body and an environment to house our great brain, and to confer to our offspring the education, tools, and will to prosper. All of which are far more effective than any so-called genetic purity we may be lulled into providing.
If we want to improve the lot of the human species, it is far better to focus on the sociological barriers to success – such as the concentration and perpetuation of wealth – than some pipe dream of the perfect human form. To paraphrase Nietzsche: The Eugenic Man is something that shall be overcome – by the Educated Man.