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Excerpt: Darwin’s Dilemma as told by Bertrand Russell, from Designing Babies

From Designing Babies: The Brave New World of Reproductive Technology by Roger Gosden.  W.H. Freeman and Company, New York.  1999.  Page 3-4

According to Darwin’s theory, natural selection decides which individuals are fit to survive and breed.  So powerful was this idea that it quickly engaged not only fellow biologists but also intellectuals who were more bent on human social improvement than studying worms and barnacles.  In Europe and America, social Darwinists argued that the unrestrained breeding habits of the lower orders would dilute a society’s finest qualities generation by generation.  Their remedy for this ill-conceived threat was eugenics, which discriminated in favor of those from middle- or upper-class backgrounds, like themselves, who were judged fit to reproduce.  The rest were urged to exercise reproductive restraint.  Had Darwin lived to see what had been made of his theory, he would have been dejected.  He was a liberal by inclination, and eugenics was inimical to his compassion for the underdog.  Yet there was a real dilemma, which the philosopher Bertrand Russell summed up:  “The doctrine that all men are born equal, and that the differences between adults are due wholly to education, was incompatible with [Darwin’s] emphasis on congenital differences between members of the same species.”  Science tells us what we can do, not what we ought to do, and not for the first time it had produced a harvest of unintended consequences.

In the aftermath of political purges of physically and mentally disabled people and “aliens” early in the twentieth century, the technological applications of genetics and reproduction became greatly feared.  The Nazis had no time for human rights in the hubris of eugenics for shaping national destiny.  The political danger may have passed, but these two sciences are still blamed for harming a healthy society and undermining time-honored human relationships, even though the traditional nuclear family has been breaking down for many years.  Of all their applications, interference with the process of human procreation itself has been held to be the most baleful–an arrogant pretense at playing God.

That is why I chose to begin this book with the fictional story of Victor Frankenstein, who epitomizes our notions of the “evil scientists.” Unlike Dr. Frankenstein, who performed his experiments surreptitiously, most scientists work for the public good in the full glare of peer scrutiny and publicity. Yet still, just as he was damned for recreating life ex utero, they have had to endure public horror every time a breakthrough is announced–from the first tentative steps in the 1960s to fertilize human eggs in vitro to genetic testing of embryos and cloning today.  Childless couples may welcome news that brings them a better chance of having a normal baby, but many in the media prefer to conjure up nightmarish images of clones or weird embryos in serried ranks out of Huxleyan laboratories or weird embryos growing in artificial wombs.  While these images can be faintly amusing, most observers are left perplexed and the researchers hurt at being dehumanized for their search after truth.  We cannot be sure that the fruits of science will never be misappropriated, but surely it is self-evident that knowledge must always be better than ignorance.

Editor:  Gosden goes easy on Darwin, as many do.  There is, in fact, ample evidence that Darwin approved of a great deal of the eugenic program, just not under that name, which was not even coined until after his death.  Even so, Russell’s point stands and remains a valid criticism of contemporary liberals who, to a man, are ardent Darwinists.

The last sentence in this excerpt is very interesting.  Is it really “self-evident that knowledge must always be better than ignorance”?  A sentence earlier, he sought pity for the poor researchers “being dehumanized” but surely it is self-evident that knowledge gained through dehumanizing or inhumane means and methods is not self-evidently better than ignorance?  We have a great deal of knowledge, thanks to the Nazis, that could only be gained through experimentation on people who were still alive.  Do we wish to suppose that Gosden then endorses experimentation on unwilling human subjects?  I doubt it very much.  But then the only way we can reconcile that statement with his own liberal sensibilities is to drop the phrase “must always.”

Once that has been done, it becomes immediately obvious that the pitiable researchers are just going to have to bear up under the ‘dehumanizing’ scrutiny on “their search after truth.”  For, it is clear, then, that we do not believe that truth is to be sought at all costs, and as a corollary, the rest of us are perfectly justified in keeping a watchful eye on them.

I found the phrase, “the full glare of peer scrutiny” to be somewhat amusing, as if this presents a genuine check on the divine aspirations of scientists.  A bit like having the fox guard the hen house, isn’t it?

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