When society rejects a practice considered repugnant sometimes we throw out the baby with the bathwater. This was brought home to me recently while watching the BBC Documentary “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.”
It’s hard hitting – dealing with the way terms like “social Darwinism”, “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest” have been used to advocate inhumane social policies. Of course the justifications have been purely opportunist and erroneous. One such social policy the documentary discusses (in Part 2: Body and Soul) was eugenics.
This had its widest acceptance in the early decades of the last century. While the racist and genocidal actions of the Nazis in Germany are the most blatant example we shouldn’t forget that milder versions, such as forced sterilisations and detention to prevent reproduction, were carried out in countries like the USA and New Zealand. “Racial purity” was used as one justification even in these countries.
Eugenics, far form being “Darwinist” as the creationist try to tell us, was simply based on what we know from our long use of selective breeding with domestic animals. As the dictionary definition says eugenics involves:
“the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a human population, esp. by such means as discouraging reproduction by persons having genetic defects or presumed to have inheritable undesirable traits (negative eugenics) or encouraging reproduction by persons presumed to have inheritable desirable traits (positive eugenics).”
While “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” describes the negative effect of eugenics in the UK, USA and Germany it does provide one example of it’s positive use. Strangely enough in a Jewish population badly affected by German eugenics.
Tay-Sachs is a genetic disorder with an increased prevalence in the Eastern European Jewish (Ashkenazi) population. And this population has effectively itself adopted an eugenics approach to eliminate it, and other heritable diseases, within its own population. The Committee for Prevention of Genetic Diseases (Dor Yeshorim) offers genetic screening to members of the worldwide Jewish community.
But this is quite different to a state imposed, public identification of carriers. Testing is voluntary and anonymous, offered through Jewish newspapers and high schools. Samples are linked with the individual only by a PIN number.
A couple contemplating marriage can provide their PINs to the organisation. If this indicates they are both carriers of the responsible gene (indicating a 25% chance of affected offspring) it is still up to the couple to decide whether or not to continue with the relationship. No public identification or compulsion.
According to the documentary some communities have largely eradicated this particular disease using the programme.
Just shows that one has to be careful of moral absolutism. We should always make out moral decisions taking into account the real environment and consequences.