Is Richard Dawkins a Eugenecist?

Back in 2006, Dawkins wrote the following letter to the editor of Scotland’s Sunday Herald:

IN THE 1920s and 1930s, scientists from both the political left and right would not have found the idea of designer babies particularly dangerous – though of course they would not have used that phrase. Today, I suspect that the idea is too dangerous for comfortable discussion, and my conjecture is that Adolf Hitler is responsible for the change.

Nobody wants to be caught agreeing with that monster, even in a single particular. The spectre of Hitler has led some scientists to stray from “ought” to “is” and deny that breeding for human qualities is even possible. But if you can breed cattle for milk yield, horses for running speed, and dogs for herding skill, why on Earth should it be impossible to breed humans for mathematical, musical or athletic ability? Objections such as “these are not one-dimensional abilities” apply equally to cows, horses and dogs and never stopped anybody in practice.

I wonder whether, some 60 years after Hitler’s death, we might at least venture to ask what the moral difference is between breeding for musical ability and forcing a child to take music lessons. Or why it is acceptable to train fast runners and high jumpers but not to breed them. I can think of some answers, and they are good ones, which would probably end up persuading me. But hasn’t the time come when we should stop being frightened even to put the question?

Keep in mind that Dawkins is not a philosopher and neither was he writing for some obscure philosphy journal. Dawkins is an activist who was writing to the general public. When you keep that context in mind, one has to wonder WHY Dawkins felt it important to distance eugenics from Hitler. If Dawkins is a eugenicist, this would make sense. He can’t advocate for some eugenics approach because of its association with Hitler and thus begins the slow, gradual process of getting the general public to divorce eugenics from Nazism. If there is a better explanation, I am all ears.

In fact, Dawkins is less unsure of himself in a less public context when reviewing the book of Steve Jones, president of the Galton Institute, the lineal descendant of the Eugenics Education Society. Here is what Dawkins wrote (note my added emphasis):

“I’ve enjoyed Steve Jones’ recent book The Language of the Genes. He’s a little bit too eager to bend over backwards to be politically respectable, because of the unsavory history of genetics, and he rather goes out of his way to disown those aspects of genetics that are politically disrespectable. I feel that that’s over and done with now, and we can forget about it and get on, and I feel he’s still a little bit unnecessarily eager to distance himself from the bad aspects of the history of genetics. But I have a lot of time for him;I greatly respect him.”

Recently, Dawkins’ tweets have provided further evidence that Dawkins is a eugenicist:

Again, notice the context – these are not points made in an obscure philosophy journal; Dawkins is using social media to get people acclimated to the idea that eugenics already exists and is not that bad.

And now, as we all know, he let his guard down for a moment and showed us the dark side of eugenics:

Here he once again uses social media, this time to make it clear that people have a moral obligation to prevent Downs Syndrome babies from being born – “It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.” Such a moral imperative makes sense if one is coming from a eugenics perspective.

So is Dawkins a closet eugenicist? I can’t say for sure. But I have never known a person who is both opposed to eugenics and who

a. advocates that we need to dissociate eugenics from Hitler/Nazism

b. thinks that dark history of eugenics is something that is “over and done with now, and we can forget about it and get on.”

c. challenges the notion there is anything wrong with “designer babies”

d. declares it to be immoral to choose to give birth to a Down’s Syndrome baby.

These positions, taken together, are what I would expect a suppoter of eugenics to advocate.

One can only wonder what other eugenics-related opinions Dawkins has.

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9 Responses to Is Richard Dawkins a Eugenecist?

  1. Bilbo says:

    After his abortion comment I started to wonder the same thing. Thanks for doing the research.

  2. Another Steve says:

    Here’s a Tweet from 17 Mar 2013:

    “Eugenics”: What’s wrong with a nonrandom choice of a gene your child COULD have got from you at random, anyway, by normal genetic lottery?

  3. TFBW says:

    Another resource: Dawkins on Eugenics in the context of “intelligently designed morality”. (YouTube video, four and a half minutes.) His mention of “intelligent design” in this context has nothing to do with the contra-Darwinian theory — he just likes to hijack the term when promoting the philosophically naive idea that we can determine what’s morally right and wrong by dispassionate intellectual reflection upon the facts of a matter, with the implication that dissenting moral views are nothing more than a knee-jerk emotional response.

    At around 3:30 he suggests that the “idea of government-sponsored breeding programs is obnoxious to all of us for good consequentialist reasons.” Still, I presume he had “good consequentialist reasons” for asserting that it would be morally wrong to allow a Down baby to be born. If he had his druthers, would he see law enacted to require the abortion of Down babies in accordance with his moral stance? Or is it one of those minor points of morality which does not warrant a law, like lying about your weight?

    He’s also keen to blur the line between teaching and upbringing on the one hand, and eugenics on the other. They both share the common aspect of “shaping” the child, you see: one by environmental influences, the other by genetic selection. But that being so, what of Dawkins’ other remarks about teaching religion (specifically the doctrine of Hell) to children, which he infamously claimed was worse than physical abuse (specifically, “mild” sexual abuse). If he had his druthers, once again, would he not see children forcibly taken away from parents who teach the doctrine of Hell to them? And would this not be, by his own comparison, somewhat like a government-sponsored breeding program, only administered via the environmental aspect rather than the genetic one?

    Clearly, his claim that the “idea of government-sponsored breeding programs is obnoxious to all” is a bit of a wash — the politically safe generalisation to make about the subject. The devil is in the details. Details, please, Richard, starting with the Hell thing, and working back towards the abortion of Down babies, I think. What would and wouldn’t you approve of in terms of government intervention?

  4. Pingback: In dit moment ben ik euforisch: het probleem met internetatheïsme | Columnisten van Catan

  5. Larry Olson says:

    Oh boy you’ve really got him here, Nailed it man, Nailed it. Every time you eat a tomato, you are eating eugenics… Tomatoes of today are an artificial fruit that didn’t exist and were invented by man, manipulated plants to the way they wanted them. Hell every time you eat a loaf of bread, that’s eugenics for you. Ever eat Tortilla corn chips? Guess who modified the corn plant…. Doritos? Cheese puffs? All these were created by plant nazis. The gene gun was invented by a creationinst religious person… are creationists eugenicists? Wow, you’ve really got them here man, you’ve nailed it. You really know how to put together a website that “Gets them good”. You gottem boy.

  6. Larry Olson says:

    Whoopsie daisy, wait a moment, christians own purebred dogs. Ooops they just practices eugenics… sorry folks, we got em good this time. Shitzu dogs: evil christians own them. Eugenics are bad, dogs are good. Hypocrisy is great. Want a fast greyhound dog? You can’ be a christian and own one of those folks, because, that’s eugenics.

    Darn, I guess we just didn’t think deeply about this one. But animals don’t have souls anyway, so it’s all okay, just like Jews didn’t have souls either in Nazi germany.

  7. TFBW says:

    Larry, we’ve heard of Poes. If you’re trying to bait us into rolling our eyes at how stupid atheists are with your over-the-top stupid atheist act, you’re wasting your time.

  8. Doug says:

    @TFBW – on the contrary, his act is having precisely that effect on me :-/

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