What do you get if you cross George W. Bush, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump and Geert Wilders?
Ehm… an ethics professor at Oxford University???
I have read a few of Julian Savulescu’s papers and they are certainly all very eloquently written. That said, not only did I sense a vague underlying fear as motivation for some views he expressed in a particular article (Procreative Beneficence: Why We Should Select the Best Children), those views scared me.
Then I ran into a report of a talk he gave in Japan in 2011 and it provided some clues. It appears that he is worried that the human species won’t survive much longer and believes that the solution lies in (tinkering with genes but also) ensuring that persons with so-called undesirable genes no longer come to life.
He is not wrong regarding his fears for the human species. Unfortunately, some of his argumentation is flawed, resembling the kind of reasoning that is sometimes presented by, say, the Daily Mail or the Daily Express and then attacked by scientists for being biased, incomplete and unbalanced.
This gives some of his argumentation a strongly irrational tinge and that is probably why some of his views scare me. He works at the University of Oxford (and was previously based at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne). I expect a lot more from someone in his position and I certainly expect a lot more from academic papers. He has a responsibility to do much better and is surely capable of it.
For example, eradicating the incidence of asthma by eradicating asthmatics – which he proposed in that paper I refer to above – is like making sure that house fires no longer happen by demolishing all housing.
Bad air quality – one of the factors that play a role in asthma – is generally not caused by asthmatics and so eradicating asthmatics won’t improve air quality. As I am sure he knows, other factors include stress, certain medications, and allergies for wheat and other foods. Poverty – living with mold-covered walls and ceilings – is also a major factor. We should address those issues first, also because they are linked to other negatives and would help ameliorate those as well.
I agree with him that we humans face huge challenges, but I believe that there are currently much better ways of tackling them than eugenics. As two examples, I recommend the TED Talks by his learned colleagues Jane McGonigal and Rutger Bregman. The former has very attractive – and very up-to-date – ideas for how we can boost our problem-solving skills and the latter knows how we can lift the IQs of a very large group of people by roughly 14 points and save a lot of money in the process without too much trouble. It would also help make things better for asthmatics. Both are much more elegant scenarios than the scenario of eugenics (by any name).
His Procreative Beneficence article includes a table that lists 13 traits under the heading “behavioural genetics”:
I feel it is best to refrain from comment on that table. It speaks for itself.
Next, I wanted to take a look at the book he and his Swedish colleague Ingmar Persson published in 2012 (Unfit for the Future) and my jaw dropped when I read the summaries on the Oxford Scholarship site. Literally.
In it, they use the phrase “weapons of mass destruction” many times. They list “weapons of mass destruction” under the heading “catastrophic misuse of science” and combine it with keywords like “xenophobia” and “multiculturalism” but also “biological weapons,” “nuclear weapons” and “terrorism”. They write that “the multiculturalism of current liberal democracies make it likely that they will contain groups of people hostile to their ideology.”
They appear to think that “it might be possible for a well-organized terrorist group” “or even single individuals” to construct “weapons of mass destruction” and that this should be addressed by administering the hormone oxytocin, which they consider a drug. To me, this sounds like a combination of George W. Bush, Nigel Farage, classic Donald Trump and Geert Wilders speaking. I was astonished.
Persson and Savulescu put the cherry on the icing by the following two sentences:
“However, it is admitted that research into biomedical agents of moral enhancement is still in its infancy and that it is too early to judge its fruitfulness. There is also the general difficulty that means of moral enhancement have to be administered by morally imperfect people.”
Will this be developed into the next James Bond film, I wonder?
The book summary starts with the following sentence: “It is easier for us to harm each other than to benefit each other, e.g. easier to kill than to save a life”. That statement does not sound particularly healthy to me and I wonder what a psychologist or psychiatrist might make of it. I see people save other people’s lives on a daily basis and I don’t live that far from Oxford so my environment can’t be that different from Savulescu’s, though there is likely more poverty in my neck of the woods than in and around Oxford. People saving other people’s lives may happen more frequently than he and Persson think, even in countries like Syria.
Thankfully, I found some common ground in half of the chapters. Our planet is in trouble. I agree with that. But is it true that families with babies – young parents tend to produce a lot of oxytocin – are better for the environment than the rest of us?
What would happen if you throw in a bit of extra testosterone, another hormone that seems to be taking the world by storm as a bioenhancer at the moment? Testosterone is linked to aggression, after all. Would that cancel out the effect of the oxytocin? And for women, a bit of progesterone may be better than oxytocin but then again, estrogen is better for memory even though it tends to make women cranky. Less sweet. Testosterone on the other hand generally is not that good for memory.
Coffee is, though, particularly for people at more advanced ages and coffee has a number of other benefits. It is very good for the liver, even helps diseased livers recover, for instance, and it is a mild bronchodilator that works for about four hours after administration.
What does oxytocin do for memory? And, might it cause many women to lactate?
And could the unbridled practice of eugenics negatively influence oxytocin production in parents? Would it pitch hubris (such a powerful word!) and consumerism versus humility and gratitude? Could it push society toward psychopathy on the human diversity spectrum that ranges from extreme altruism to psychopathy?
I don’t think there is a one-pill-fits-all solution for the problems the world faces, with or without administration by morally imperfect people.
I did something similar. I went the other way and wrote a deliberately provocative essay – “We need to talk about this” – that highlights some of the downsides of eugenics. (The booklet has its limitations; I am working on a second edition.) I am just an ordinary educated citizen who believes in embracing (bio)diversity – also because there are good reasons for it – and in inclusive solidarity. I am not a professor at Oxford University. Maybe that’s a good thing.
I have also communicated the above to professor Savulescu, via ResearchGate. I don’t expect to hear back from him.
I would like to add a few words about what the BBC posted on its website on 24 May. Attacks like the one in Manchester – note that this does not involve the biological or nuclear weapons of mass destruction Persson and Savulescu are worried about – take expertise that is difficult to come by and require a lot of planning and preparation, which increases the chance that agencies like MI5 will find out about such plans long before they can be executed, the BBC wrote. The type of individual required– not the type that Persson and Savulescu are concerned about, as that would be much rarer – is “very rare” according to the BBC.