Thursday, January 10, 2013

Man....or Superman?

For no particular reason, I was reading about the philosopher Friedrick Nitschze.  Nitschze had various views that have been interpreted (or misinterpreted) as advocating that everything in society be given to the best, the ubermensch--the 'superman' or 'overman'.  The best naturally lords it over the rest, but that is good for society, that is in the very nature of things.

The idea that society should favor the Superman is not at all new.  Plato and perhaps others in the era of classical Greek and Roman philosophers, explicitly worried that a careless society frivolously sent its premier members off to fight, take risk, and die in combat for everyone else.  In his Republic, Plato advocated special breeding of the elite to help avoid the loss of societal vigor and quality that the elite's valorous role in combat entailed.

Justification of maintenance of privilege for the upper crust had many manifestations in western culture since them (nobles 'by divine will').  The privilege of leadership, secular and otherwise, led to warrior kings and crusaders for this or the other Faith.  Yet, the frail and sickly, the less educated and so on, remained safely at home--and, if you can believe it, perhaps even able to inseminate the damsels who otherwise might bear the flower of the next generation.

Things got serious when Darwin's time came along in the age of Natural law and materialist science in the 19th century.  It was obvious that the superior members of society were the ones sent off to war, the elite nobility bearing the brunt of risk.  Darwin noticed that civilizations had developed many means by which to keep the lesser-quality members of society alive and, as a result, give them a chance to breed.  As the inferior were numerous, the masses thus dragged down society.  As technology improved, the effect, the watering down of quality, would only be systematically greater.

One of the roots of eugenics in the 19th century had to do with the lower reproductivity of the elite, and Darwin's distant cousin Francis Galton coined the term 'eugenics' in thinking about remedies for this, based on selectively encouraging increased breeding by the Best.  This was, like Plato's Republic, designed as a positive and proactive encouragement of upper-crust increased reprocuction.  But things easily, one may say naturally, turned negative as well: why pay taxes to support the diseased, insane, incorrigible, criminal, low-lifing members of society?  From a Darwinian point of view, this would be the way that society could reverse its trend of protecting the weak, and systematically implementing the society driven by increased fractions of the capable Elite.

One of the many issues in Europe, particularly Germany, during WWI and thereafter, was the idea that (as had been said before), the weak had stayed at home while the hale and capable were being slaughtered like lambs at the front.  Not only that, the society had to pay the cost of caretaking of the weak, and thus lost those resources for nurturing what would make society better.  Among the excuses used by Hitler and the Nazis for picking on Jews and Gypsies was that the former had disproportinately stayed safely at home, while the latter--inherently inferior as everybody 'knew'--were parasitic low-lifers.

It must be stressed that in the century of eugenics, that this was not a secret evil plot by some mentally insane weirdos, like those who go shooting up schools.  To the contrary, eugenic theory and policies were advocated and implemented by the leading scientists and medical clinicians of their day, the science advisers to politicians, the leading authors of research, and the ideas and policies proposed with expressly beneficent ideas about the golden age for society that their actions would lead to.  

A new eugenics era?
These things were done with explicit invocations of Darwin's name.  For eons, natural selection had done its job in the past, weeding out the unfit in human society, as it had done since the birth of life on earth, and favoring the best people and the best societies, and justifying imperialism and war waged against the inferior.  Darwin was used to justify inequality from economic to colonial.

In 1926, when formal eugenics was in its flourishing state as a mainline theoretical part of Darwinian science, one of the reasons for Willliam Jennings Bryan's opposition to the teaching of evolution in schools--in the famous Scopes trial--was just that: Darwinism justified immoral inequality, racism, imperialism, and so on (he of course offered Biblical Christianity as the proper view).

After the overthrow of Naziism, the revulsion against biological inherentism, rationalized on a view of Darwinian evolution, led to science's shift to more of a focus on environment and experience in the making of people's traits and talents.

But a new generation has now taken over, with a short memory and made giddy by technology and a system that industrializes research 'productivity' the way General Motors produces cars (and one can debate who does a higher quality job of it).  Bioethics, a recently coined field for universities to hire faculty in, occasionally comments on the relevant issues, but most often is used as a way to smooth the road for genomics scientists to do what they want--to humans, to animals, for profit, etc.

Will this lead to genome manipulation on a purely salubrious way, to better health care, healthier babies, and so on?  Will genetically based therapy be more effective and less costly?  Or will it justify preventive negative measures against those with inherently inferior (that is, genomic) makeup?  This can take many forms, from societal pigeon-holing and discrimination, to selective fetal destruction, to labeling of potential addicts or criminals.  The picture will undoubtedly be mixed.  Certainly, one can hope that unlike the last time around, Darwinian inherency will have a better track record.  But you have to be rather blind to human history to be too optimistic.

But was it even right scientifically in the first place?
The 'obvious' fact is that society should be driven by its best if the Darwinian notion of 'survival of the fittest' is a law of nature.  If the most intelligent, wealthiest, and highest-status people were under-performing between the sheets, then clearly the Darwinian mandate was being over-ridden by modern societies.

It is obvious that society has always until recently favored its top strata.....isn't it?  The fact that the lesser masses reproduce better is an aberration.....isn't it?   Well, if that were so, why is there still so much genetic riff-raff around in societies?  Have we misunderstood?

Maybe it never has been, even in scattered tribal societies, that the most intelligent had the most wives and children.  Maybe modern societies are the way things have always been.  Maybe societies made up only of those with IQ's way over 100 would be better.

Or, maybe, just maybe, we've misunderstood both the strength of selection in the past and the fact that human societies as they are, made up mostly of the ordinary, have been spectacularly successful (there are, after all, 7 billion of us).  There is absolutely no evolutionary evidence that we are anything but very, very 'fit' as we currently are, even after thousands of years of medical and social care for the frail and elderly.

Maybe our idea of what makes for higher fitness doesn't match up with what the artists, intellectuals, musicians, scientists and other professors tell us.  Maybe, just like other justifications for inequality, it is those 'experts' who are mainly manipulating things to fit their particular interests and their world, as they see it from their tower of privilege, and doing so in the name of their particular theory (in this case, science, not religion).

Eugenics was not centrally based on the good intention of eliminating or reducing disease.  Instead, at its core, it was based not only on piously justified ideas of the good of society, that is, about social engineering, but based on a particular view of what Darwin's ideas about fitness and adaptation were all about.  In other words, even if one accepts Darwin's penetrating insights about diversity from common ancestry and the proliferation of what is suited to its circumstances, perhaps the filter of intellectual elitism distorted things from the beginning.  Passing off scientist's judgments about what was inherently best, as if they were Nature's judgments.  Even if one accepted that in our knowledgeable age we the scientists should take over our own evolution: will scientists' ideas about what's best, what makes the best society, turn out to be better than things already are? 

What do you think?


Josh Nicholson said...

I think you raise many important questions and points in this post. Scientists always seem to think they know what is best in terms of everything, including even religion! I think the scientists and the public trust of scientists would greatly benefit from scientists acknowledging their ignorance in the open.

I think the following paragraph explains why scientists will, however, not do this. We are to caught up in winning the race that we never stop to think about why we are running.

"But a new generation has now taken over, with a short memory and made giddy by technology and a system that industrializes research 'productivity' the way General Motors produces cars (and one can debate who does a higher quality job of it). Bioethics, a recently coined field for universities to hire faculty in, occasionally comments on the relevant issues, but most often is used as a way to smooth the road for genomics scientists to do what they want--to humans, to animals, for profit, etc.

Josh Nicholson said...

PS I think such a post deserves to be on a major newspaper and I am conflicted about how blogs have affected publishing.