Monday, November 11, 2013

Eugenics and all that

Knowledge on the whole is a good thing, but one does not know how new knowledge will affect the society that it arrives in.  The recipient of knowledge always has a history and practices and tendencies.   A simple example is the gender determination of fetuses.  In India and China, it turned out to be a deleterious thing.  I don't know about China, but in India, regulation has been insufficient to curb the problem.

We worry about an Iran getting the knowledge and capabilities centered around nuclear fission - not because knowledge is bad, but because we do not know what use their ideology will make of this knowledge and capabilities.

We may worry less about the arrival of new industrial processes in countries that have effective environmental protection agencies than in those that have none.

The United States has a long history of eugenics.  Eugenicists gave their ideas a scientific sheen.   Tens of thousands of people were compulsorily sterilized under these laws.  The eugenics movement closed the doors on immigration for "inferior" peoples.  Eugenics was apparently the ideology behind widespread IQ testing, and the US remains an IQ-obsessed country till this day.  Eugenics was supposedly discredited by Nazism, but states had laws on the books till even the early 1980s.

Further the forces that are behind these kinds of ideas are not dead, they are dormant; they may be senescent, but they may spring back with full vigor.  We see this already in the movement that was soundly defeated a hundred and fifty years ago - the Confederacy reawakens, perhaps because of the catalyst of a black President.   Maybe when Obama retires, this will go away.  Maybe not.

One must therefore worry about what the effect of finding genes that correlate with intelligence will have on the American society.   It is knowledge in the abstract that is good; but knowledge, I repeat, always arrives in a specific social, political, economic, ideological context, and people interpret and act on knowledge not as purely rational beings, but rather, conditioned by their circumstances; and can lead them into huge blunders and even atrocities.

PS: for example. 

PPS: some bad typos corrected.