Gordon Rattray Taylor: “The Biological Time Bomb” — the remaking of society via eugenics, family planning, and education

Gordon Rattray Taylor’s 1968 book, The Biological Time Bomb, was referenced in the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court ruling as providing insight on future developments in America.  Taylor’s book was released at a time when the term ‘eugenics’ had not yet fallen out of favor.  Though he does not explicitly endorse many of the things he details, he implies throughout that they are at least worthy of discussion and conversation.   Indeed, he hopes very much that we do.

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What seems to be a veiled reference to using contraception to limit the number of black people is found in the opening paragraphs of chapter 2, titled, “Is Sex Necessary?”

The case of contraception is important as a paradigm of what other biological advances may bring.  The dual implications — at the personal and the political levels both — look like being a portent of what we shall experience elsewhere.

Contraceptive devices have begun to change the patterns of social behaviour in the west, making pre-marital sexual experience commoner as well as altering the size of families (notably in Catholic areas) and the spacing of children as well as the stage in the mother’s life at which they appear.  In addition to the effect on the individual, contraception has created political and demographic problems.  By making it possible to control the population explosion, it has created a responsibility to decide on levels, to obtain agreement on an international scale and to find means of inducing people — who may be  miserably poor or uneducated, or bound by age-old customs — to adopt the methods which biology has evolved. (pgs 22-23)

Implications of separating sex and marriage….

At the present time, most civilized countries impose on the father of an illegitimate child some obligation to support it.  This would seem to be based on two assumptions:  first, that the man alone could have avoided conception occurring, and second, that it is the task of the man alone to earn the money on which a household depends.  Both assumptions are obsolete.  Except perhaps in the case of rape, the conception of an unwanted child is as much the fault of the mother as of the father; and with the advent of ‘morning-after’ contraceptives, there is no longer any justification for illegitimate or unwanted births.

Apart from this, it seems reasonable to expect a further separation between marriage and sexuality.  Rightly or wrongly, premarital sexual experience is already common.  At least the decision to marry need no longer be based on shotgun procedures, or on conscience or fear of public opinion.

But, with a growing population problem, the state may come to regard the production of unwanted children as a social crime as it ceases to be a moral one.  Reliable contraception brings into realistic prospect the possibility of licensing procreation. (page 45)

[…]

… But the ‘pill’ of today is a mere forerunner of the more sophisticated methods of birth-control which are now under development, which will make the regulation of fertility easier and surer and more precise.  And at the same time, it is also becoming possible to increase fertility as we as to reduce or abolish it.  Thus we are moving out of the phase of crude ‘birth-control’ into a new era for which the term ‘fertility-control’ seems more appropriate. (page 46)

From the conclusion of chapter 2:

[personal issues related to fertility] are of minor significance with the gigantic social problem which birth-control has conjured up: that of deciding at what level we want the world’s population, and that of each country, stabilized.  This is generally depicted as a unique problem:  the outcome of two chance developments, the power to cut death rates and the power to limit birth rates.  Actually it is, as we shall see in later chapters, a paradigm of various similar social problems which biological advance is on the way to creating.  People’s reaction to the population problem is an indication of how they may react to these future problems.  Many of them try to deny that there is any problem at all.

[… The U.S. National Academy of Sciences produced a study proving that ‘such growth cannot continue indefinitely.’  Against this, the Rand Corporation said that new methods of making food would be created, until the world reached 8 billion people at the end of the century, and then ‘famine and disease or war or all three’ would check our populations.  “population grows geometrically, whereas agriculture can only be increased arithmetically.” …]

The mathematician Professor Fred Hoyle has pointed out that Malthus was wrong in assuming that starvation would hold the population at the subsistence level, at which everyone had just enough food to remain alive.  The evidence is that population levels decline abruptly, until a new rise starts.  He has calculated that such a crash is due in A.D. 2250 when, he thinks, world population will have reached 25,000 m. (from the current 3,000 m.).  It will fall to about 2,000 m., and the process will repeat itself every 300 years.

That is, if man fails to take the matter in hand — since, for the first time, he has the knowledge which can prevent or control such increases.  Hoyle’s dead-pan figures tells us that 23,000 m. people will die in each cycle.  Those who oppose the planning of conception may have such deaths upon their conscience. (pg 54-55)

[…]

The change which we are seeing is the birth of population control as a normal function of government.  To decide what is an optimum population level for human happiness and fulfilment is a task which the social sciences have not yet faced up to.  The political ambitions of some nations and some religious groups are expressed in the form of a desire to have the largest possible population, or at least a larger one than anyone else. … The day may be approaching when dictators will find their will-to-power best served by having the smallest possible population, provided it is a skilled, intelligent elite.

From chapter 6, “The Genetic Engineers”

The desirability of improving the human stock has long been recognized, and the fear that it could deteriorate in the absence of such a policy is equally ancient.  Thus Plato proposed an eugenic programme, putting into the mouth of Socrates the words: ‘In the same way, if we want to prevent the human race from degenerating, we shall take care to encourage union between the better specimens of both sexes, and to limit that of the worse.’  In the ideal city proposed by Campanella at the beginning of the seventeenth century there was even a Ministry of Love.  Hitler actually attempted to put a limited eugenic programme into practice, establishing Ordensburgen where selected young SS men of ‘Aryan’ appearance were to live and encouraging ‘Aryan’ maidens to undertake to bear children by them in the interests of the Fatherland.

Man has long had the power to attempt to improve the stock by the methods of the plant and animal breeder, but it has proved difficult to persuade people to mate for eugenic reasons.  [New technology, such as contraception and artificial insemination, “could simplify matters.”] Thus it becomes possible to introduce an eugenic policy without interfering in people’s choice of mate or a marital partner. (page 158-159)

The new eugenics (page 173)

Some scientists feel strongly that we should employ these techniques without delay.  As the late Herman J. Muller, of Indiana University, one of the earliest workers in the field of genetics, has emphatically said:

The means exist right now of achieving a much greater, speedier and more significant genetic improvement of the population, by the use of selection, than could be effected by the most sophisticated methods of treatment of the genetic material that might be available in the twenty-first century.

Page 174

Eugenics is sometimes regarded as divided into ‘negative eugenics’ and ‘positive eugenics.’

[…]

To discourage people carrying a known defect from transmitting it is clearly desirable. Moreover, if this can be done consistently, the defective gene will, at the end of one generation, vanish from the gene pool.

[…]

page 175

Today sensitive tests for most of these conditions exist, so marriage counselling is feasible.  Advice of this kind is no doubt already given by some doctors in civilized countries; but there is no compulsion to take it, and some cases may not come to the doctors’ attention.

[But do we want to discourage an Einstein or a Bach just because they have a defect?… etc]

In asking this question, we have really moved into the area of positive eugenics, since to discourage the propagation of low intelligence is the same as to encourage the propagation of high intelligence.

[…]

According to the doubtless apocryphal story, when the dancer Isadora Duncan proposed to George Bernard Shaw that they should have a baby, arguing, ‘Think of a child with my body and your mind,’ he declined, saying, ‘Ah, but suppose it had my body and your mind!’ The animal or plant breeder can throw away his poor results, but human beings cannot so easily do so.

Until the day of gene surgery, therefore, eugenics must be a hit-and-miss-business. […] Indeed , there are some who believe that[the genetic standard] is currently deteriorating and that the people with poorer heredity are procreating more numerously than those with good heredity.  Dr. William Shockley, famous as the inventor of the transistor, believes that this deterioration can be coupled with war and famine as the third great world problem.  As we have no means of measuring total heredity, or comparing the value of one trait with another, such a contention is impossible to prove.  But if it is true it certainly makes the case for some eugenic policy even stronger.

page 176

[Herman Muller proposes using sperm banks which couples could use, getting advice from geneticists, etc]

It seems reasonable to suppose that a number of progressive people would take advantage of such a facility … They would be motivated as much by the desire of having above-average children (and this is a strong motivation) as by public spirit.

page 177

Today the note is changing from one of advice to one of warning.  Lederberg, for instance, fears that decisions may be taken hastily, on the basis of popular approval or disapproval of particular individuals who lend themselves to eugenic or other biological experiments.

However, Dr. Bronowski has pointed out that ‘multiplication of what we choose to call the fit can really have very little effect on the presence of recessives’ — that is, of those genes which only show up when both parents carry them.  Long ago, J. B. S. Haldane used the same argument to show that sterilization of the unfit, which was then being advocated, would not in fact eliminate the qualities objected to.

Professor Luria, while discounting the notion that genetics promises either a millennium or enslavement, told fellow biologists two years ago: ‘What we, in anticipation of the remarkable advances that may soon be forthcoming, can do is attempt to create some machinery by which the social implications of our work can be debated rationally and openly, so that any important decision as to its application can be arrived at by an informed and well-advised public.  I would not think it premature, for example, for the United Nations as well as the National Academy of Sciences of the United States to establish committees on the genetic direction of human heredity.’

So far, neither organization has shown any signs of taking the hint.

page 178

[…] Lederberg thus offers us a glimpse of a future in which man will control his own evolution in a far more radical way than was even dreamed of until genetic engineering became, anyway, a theoretical possibility.  Remote as it may seem now, when even conventional eugenics is still viewed askance, it needs only successful demonstration of such techniques in animal breeding for the question of their application to man to begin to be raised in earnest.

Family plan

The proposition that we should inaugurate genetic policies right away [raises issues that some people, like Muller and his sperm bank idea, skirt over, but others like Kingsley Davis confront head on]

A state or national pedigree board would be required to decide who would be [sperm] donors.  The natural desire of most people to bear their own children would lead to bootlegging of spermatozoa and possibly eggs, and, to make the programme work, non-donors — the bulk of the population — would probably have to be sterilized.  But perhaps women of good hormonal constitution would be needed to serve as hosts or adoptive mothers to implanted, fertilized eggs.  Whether people would learn to accept non-biological children as their own, as fully as they do their biological children, is an unanswered question.

Donors, presumably, would be free to produce biological children and this would make them an elite group.  It would be a matter of status to belong and bribery, evasion, and sperm-substitution would occur.  The question of whether all couples are equally fit to bring up children would also arise, since the adult (as the psychologists and anthropologists have so forcibly argued) is the product of environment as well as heredity.

page 179

Furthermore, it is difficult to see why the sterilized individuals should be held to monogamy, or even why those adjudged unsuitable to rear children should trouble to maintain any domestic life at all.  The family is already being eroded by the intervention of school and state, and this might be its coup de grace.

As Dr. Robert S. Morison of Cornell puts it: ‘Once sex and reproduction are separated, society will have to struggle with … defining the nature of interpersonal relationships which have no long-term social point … [and] seek new ways to ensure reasonable care for infants and children in an emotional atmosphere which lacks biological reinforcement. …’ The language is a bit abstract, but the point is a strong one.

But the fact is, people are very much committed to the maintenance of the family, which remains an important source of emotional rewards and of security.  They are unlikely to give voting approval for any plan which threatens to demolish it.  As Kingsley Davis says, ‘An effective system of eugenic control would involve profound changes int he very web of relations that organizes and expresses the personal lives of moderns.  It would overthrow the existing system of rewards and punishments, the present interpretations of reality, the familiar links between the person and social status.’ And he concludes, as I do, that the introduction of genetic control in the near future, though theoretically possible, is unlikely.

But that is not the whole story.  We are faced, as a result of medical progress, with a population explosion the violence of which is still not generally understood.  Many believe that new scientific methods of agriculture, including sea-farming and the conversion of inorganic substances like petroleum to protein, will suffice to feed the additional mouths.  But even if we leave aside the social consequences of an excessive population density, and the frustrations and disturbances of body-chemistry which result, it is clear that the projected populations cannot be fed.  In mid-1967 President Johnson received reports showing that world-wide famines are inevitable before food production can possibly catch up.  The question, therefore, of regulating the right to reproduce is certain to arise, quite apart from eugenic considerations.

Today, the idea of licensing procreation still gives rise to merriment or ridicule.  Our laws and our morals were evolved in a period when to increase the population was a prime necessity: they go back to the ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ of the Bible.  Abortion is both a theological sin and in most countries a legal crime.  Birth-control, where it is allowed, is allowed as a matter of private convenience, rarely as a matter of public policy.  Marriage is an ‘unlimited franchise to procreate.’

page 180

Meanwhile, we have eliminated many of the forces which selected the strong from the weak, and we are coasting on the genetic selection of the past.

It is virtually certain that this total failure to face the biological realities created by our own scientific advances will cause such disaster that there will be a sudden reversal of policy.  And once the right to bear children comes under regulation, the use of those powers to improve the genetic stock rather than to degrade it could follow relatively easily. […] In short, it must be concluded that, sooner or later, genetic regulation will be adopted.

This does not mean that it will be adopted in Britain, the U.S.A. or even in Western Europe or the Commonwealth.  It seems more likely that some eastern country will be the first to try the experiment — it might well be China.  If it is seen to bestow advantages, the countries which are slow to make social experiments may be driven to follow.

Taylor ends with warnings about retributions against scientists themselves.  On page 221 he admits that biologists do not say in public what they really think, reserving their views for closed meetings or expressed in highly technical language.  He fears, even, that citizens and their elected representatives will become as children, and democracy itself will not be up to the task.  (page 221)

Perhaps, he contemplates, there are some things better left unknown.

On page 226 he writes, “If the biological revolution is allowed to develop unsupervised it will create social conditions causing just as much misery in the twentieth century, which later generations will have to struggle to undo –if there are any later generations, and if they have the needed resources.”  He fears the creation of “biological slums.”

On page 228 he refers approvingly to “the Delphi technique developed by the Rand Corporation” ” to reduce errors and biases and to refine their forecasts.”

He closes with remarks on social engineering and a consumer society.

 

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  1. […] Gordon Rattray Taylor’s The Biological Time Bomb (1968) pgs 179-180.  This book was cited by the Majority in Roe vs. Wade.  Separating ‘sex […]

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