Darkness in El Dorado - Archived Document
Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
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Internet Source: Slate.msn.com, Oct. 24, 2000
Source URL: http://slate.msn.com/HeyWait/00-10-24/SideB04.asp


As Tierney might have uncovered in his 10 years of research, the notorious eugenics movement of the 20th century held that genetic diversity is to be arrayed along the dimension of superior-inferior, and that therefore the inferior races, classes, or individuals should be purged from the gene pool through forced sterilization (the view of Oliver Wendel Holmes Jr. and, until recently, Sweden), extermination (the Nazis), poverty (certain Social Darwinists), or economic incentives regulating reproduction (Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore). Neel, in addition to denouncing the old eugenics ("perversions"), opposed what he called "the new eugenics"—monkeying around molecularly with the genes of the next generation—because we wouldn't know enough for generations to mess around with our genetic legacy. His "eugenic" prescriptions were akin to Greenpeace's—i.e., to oppose the further release of radiation or chemical mutagens into the environment, because of the damage it does to human DNA.

Neel did also endorse genetic counseling and making abortion an option for parents facing the prospect of a fetus with a severe genetic disorder—which makes him like every other pro-choice doctor in the nation. But even here, he is in the cautious middle of the distribution. He wrote: "Few physicians or parents who have cared for a child with Tay-Sachs disease or thalassemia major would question the wisdom of terminating a pregnancy when this diagnosis was reached during the first trimester [emphasis added]. At the other extreme, one can visualize attempts at almost frivolous genetic justifications for pregnancy termination, such as polydactyly [additional fingers or toes], that would certainly be inappropriate." And, lest any of this be mistaken for the recommendation that some people not become parents, he tells the reader that he assumes parents who choose to abort because of a genetic disorder in a fetus will replace it with a new, healthy child.

As I've noted, Neel, like many population geneticists, analyzed the contrast between how natural selection operated during our evolutionary past and how it operates in modern societies, noting, for example, the effect of decreased mortality and sexual selection on the rate at which harmful mutations are eliminated. In the process, he occasionally generated a sentence that Tierney can give eugenics-movement overtones to by quoting out of context. For example, Neel in one paper says that the weakening of particular forms of sexual selection, "as well as the weakening of other vehicles of natural selection, is clearly a minus." But the sort of technical cost-benefit analysis Neel was here discussing is descriptive and mainstream, and his prescriptions (e.g., genetic counseling, being anti-nuke) ordinary. If the recognition that sexual selection operates on humans as well as other species constitutes "eugenics" as Tierney implies, then our biology and anthropology departments will have to be emptied out—and we would have to ensure that their replacements could not add, subtract, multiply, or divide, lest they stumble back to the same conclusion.