The current (March 5th) print version of National Review carries an exchange between Dinesh D'Souza, a frequent NR contributor, and Ronald Bailey of Reason magazine, about the morality of "genetically enhancing" human beings, most especially by way of custom-designing our children. The exchange follows on from a long piece by Dinesh titled "Staying Human" in our January 22nd issue. It's a fascinating debate, on a topic we should all be thinking about. I'm not going to get into it here; I just want to make one point that didn't get covered in those pieces.
Here is the point: Fretting about the ethics of these issues is a thing that only Western countries are going to do. Elsewhere, eugenics — including "genetic enhancement" — will not be fretted about or debated, it will just be done.
To see what I mean, check out an article titled "Popularizing the Knowledge of Eugenics and Advocating Optimal Births Vigorously" by Sun Dong-sheng of the Jinan Army Institute, People's Republic of China. An English translation of the article can be found on the web. The translators note, in their preface, that: "The taboo on this subject is not as strong in East Asia as in the West. One might hypothesize that Asians, and more particularly the populations of the Han cultural zone (Japan, North and South Korea, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and possibly Vietnam), take a more pragmatic, less structured and ideological, and more far-seeing approach (eugenics, after all, is, by definition, a long-run program) to the development of human capital, than do Westerners."
Sun Dong-sheng takes a quick canter through of the history of eugenics, not omitting the disgrace which the whole subject fell into by association with Nazi "racial science." As the translators note, though, Dr. Sun shows no sign of feeling that he is dealing with a "hot" or taboo topic. He just goes right on into proposals for raising public awareness of eugenics (in China, that is — the whole piece is intended for a Chinese audience) and reasons for including eugenic policies as a part of "socialist modernization."
The progress of the argument is held up for a while by some ideological shucking and jiving the author feels obliged to perform. From the point of view of theoretical Marxist-Leninism and dialectical materialism, still a compulsory part of the curriculum in Chinese schools, the entire field of genetics is a bit suspect. In all nature-nurture debates, traditional Marxists are the purest of pure nurturists. What's the point of having a revolution if you can't change human nature? (Remember Lysenko?) Dr. Sun easily negotiates his way through this little patch of ideological white water, concluding that:
With genetics as its basis, the field of eugenics is established on an objective, materialistic foundation.
So that's all right then, and we can move right on with:
As eugenic research becomes widespread and acquires depth, the legal code of China will include more regulations concerning the ways by which the idea of healthier offspring can be given reality.
Socialist modernization urgently needs a reduction or elimination of genetic diseases and hereditary defects. Only by promoting the births of better offspring can we improve the genetic quality of our population …
I don't want to make too much of this document. I can't say that I found it particularly chilling or offensive in any way; and some of Dr. Sun's points cannot be disagreed with — e.g. his call for an attack on China's appalling levels of pollution so that environmentally-caused birth defects can be reduced.
The significance of the article is that it is perfectly ethics-free. There is no discussion of the morality of eugenics and genetic engineering. It is just assumed that to "improve the genetic quality of our population" is a thing that everybody should support, and that the methods of doing it can safely be left in the hands of scientists and politicians. The mentality here is basically that of a cost accountant, arguing that a poor country like China simply does not need the extra burden of "useless mouths" — the omniscient Party, of course, getting to decide who is "useless."
You do have to make an effort to remember, reading this piece, that communist China is a nation whose government has not scrupled to involve itself in its citizens' most intimate family affairs, that it has imposed a draconian policy of compulsory family planning — including forced abortions — and that when Dr. Sun talks about "more regulations concerning the ways by which the idea of healthier offspring can be given reality," he means yet more state intrusion into people's decisions about who to marry, and whether or not to have children.
A rough kind of eugenics has, in fact, been practiced in China for a long time. Several years ago, when I was living in that country, I mentioned Down Syndrome in conversation with a Chinese colleague. She did not know the English term and I did not know the Chinese, so we had to look it up in a dictionary. "Oh," she said when she got it. "That's not a problem in China. They don't get out of the delivery room."
As I said: While we are agonizing over the rights and wrongs of it, elsewhere they will just be doing it.