Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The New Eugenics

By Michael Cook

In the last century eugenics involved sterilisation or murder. This century it is more likely to involve genetic enhancement.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge, an online bioethics newsletter.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

To understand the deep claims on our humanity that are central to bioethics, it can be helpful to turn to fiction. Two of the classic texts are Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. The first deals with the Promethean ambition of the scientist to reshape humanity. The second showcases the death of culture when sex is separated from reproduction.

Another of my favourites, too often neglected, is The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. Its power comes not from the whiz-bang gadgetry of time travel but the appalling vision of evolution. Homo sapiens has evolved into two separate breeds, the Eloi and the Morlochs. The feeble-minded Eloi live in sybaritic leisure on the surface of the Earth; the brutish Morloch skulk in subterranean caverns and feed on the Eloi.

The nightmare of genetic degeneracy has been a recurring theme ever since Darwinian evolution took hold of the popular imagination. Eugenics – the notion that the disabled, the retarded or the racially impure should not be allowed to breed – is discredited nowadays but was public policy less than 100 years ago. In 1927 one of the most influential justices ever to sit on the US Supreme Court, Oliver Wendell Holmes, wrote the majority opinion in an 8–1 decision legitimating compulsory sterilisation. However shocking they seem now, his words expressed the conventional wisdom: “Three...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.