Sunday, June 15, 2008

Humility and Eugenics

This is a continuation of my commentary on Jim Manzi's article from the June 2, 2008 National Review.

In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton remarked that the problem with the modern world is not that it is vicious, but that its virtues have been "let loose", and "the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrific damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone." With respect to the virtue of humility, Chesterton says this:

"Humility was largely meant as a restraint upon the arrogance and infinity of the appetite of man. He was always outstripping his mercies with his own newly invented needs. His very power of enjoyment destroyed half his joys. By asking for pleasure, he lost the chief pleasure; for the chief pleasure is surprise. Hence it became evident that if a man would make his world large, he must be always making himself small. Even the haughty visions, the tall cities, and the toppling pinnacles are the creations of humility. Giants that tread down forests like grass are the creations of humility. Towers that vanish upwards above the loneliest star are the creations of humility. For towers are not tall unless we look up at them; and giants are not giant unless they are larger than we... But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to doubt - himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt - the Divine Reason."

Traditionally, humility followed from what man knew. He knew that there is a God; he knew that his own existence is but an undeserved gift from God. He knew that besides God, there are gods, and some of these gods are hell-bent on his destruction. In other words, man knew himself to be a "middle creature," greater than the beasts but less than the gods and certainly less than God. His "middleness" was also characterized by the peculiar synthesis of good and evil in man. Man was capable, like an angel, of the greatest goodness; but he was also capable, like a demon, of the basest evil. Most peculiarly, the individual man himself, through sin, embodied the dialectic between good and evil. The humble man did not doubt that all this was true. In light of its truth, what he did doubt was his own ability to "make a difference in the world", or "make the world a better place" through his own personal vision and work. For man's vision and work is always infected by sin, and it is not man but God Who makes the world a better place, through man's humble and faithful submission to God.

What I have just written may strike the ear of the reader as antique, obscurantist, and even a little blasphemous. A dogma of the modern world is that we can and should charge out and "make the world a better place." Our Churches have even embraced this vision; how many times have I heard in song and sermon that on leaving Mass, I should "make a difference" in the world? What has happened in the modern world, as Chesterton says, is that the virtue of humility has left the organ of ambition and settled on the organ of conviction. We doubt the existence of God or of any beings greater than man; this leaves man the greatest thing in the world, with no giants or gods to look up to. And we have left off doubting our own ambition, our ability to "make a difference in the world." And why not? If man is the greatest thing there is, how will things get better if not through his vision and work? And if man is to improve things, then certainly improving man himself will top the list... which brings me to eugenics.

Eugenics is wrong because man is a middle creature, one who did not create himself or determine his own destiny, and one who is thoroughly infected by sin. Eugenics is the attempt to usurp the role of the Creator, to create man in man's own image and establish his destiny as a matter of arbitrary will. It is a consequence of the sin of pride, and as an attack on the fundamental ontological relationship between God and man, can only have the most evil and serious consequences.

The argument I have just made is a "positive" argument; it is an argument that eugenics is positively wrong based on philosophically known truth. But suppose we wish to make an argument against eugenics that will appeal to the "modern" ear. The modern mind doesn't put much stock in philosophy; it finds it ambiguous and "iffy." What the modern mind believes in is science. Can we make an argument against eugenics in scientific rather than philosophical terms?

Jim Manzi attempts such an argument in his June 2 article, in the only way possible. Such an argument can only be an argument from ignorance rather than an argument from knowledge. For in a world where science is held to be the final arbiter of truth, the greatest thing in the world is necessarily scientific man, the voice of science and therefore of truth. What will be the brake on the ambition of scientific man? The traditional brake is gone, for scientific man is not a "middle creature;" his science acknowledges nothing greater than itself and therefore nothing greater than the scientific man who thinks it. We can only propose to scientific man that he doesn't know all he thinks he knows, and hope that the sense of his own ignorance will temper his ambition. In other words, we will move the virtue of humility from the organ of ambition to the organ of conviction. Jim formulates the argument this way:

"Despite their confidence in predicting future discoveries, however, our ignorance about humanity runs deep, and the complexities of mind and society continue to escape reduction to scientific explanation. This ignorance is one of the most powerful arguments for free-market economics, subsidiarity, and many of the other elements of the conservative worldview. Science may someday allow us to predict human behavior comprehensively and reliably, so that we can live in Woodrow Wilson's 'perfected, co-ordinated beehive.' Until then, however, we need to keep stumbling forward in freedom as best we can."

Put simply, the argument is that we should not conduct eugenics because we do not (yet) know enough to do it right. I noted in an earlier post that the freedom supported by this argument is merely a "freedom of the gaps", a temporary and illusory freedom that will disappear as soon as science has filled in the blanks in determinism. Neither is the humility supported by the argument true humility, but a "humility of the gaps." For it is not based on a positive appreciation of our place in the universe, but merely on our temporary inability to fulfill our eugenic ambitions.

But the problem with eugenics is not that, in our present ignorance, we are incapable of wisely conducting it. The problem is that the eugenic vision is itself one of Hell rather than Heaven. Woodrow Wilson's vision of a 'perfected, co-ordinated beehive' should fill us with a deep horror, not wistful longing for that which we cannot currently obtain. (The classic, schlocky 1976 sci-fi "B" movie Logan's Run plays on the theme of the eugenic utopia that is really a hell.)

The unfortunate fact is that eugenics works. And you don't need a deep knowledge of genetics to make it work. Man has been successfully selectively breeding animals for thousands of years, most of that time in utter ignorance of genetics. There is no doubt that man can selectively breed himself as well. You breed tall men with tall women and you get tall children. You breed intelligent men with intelligent women and you get intelligent children. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and the eugenicists of the early 20th century were not wrong because their eugenics program didn't work; they were wrong because, even if it did work (and it does), the attempt itself is damnable. The reasons it is damnable, however, are philosophical and not scientific.

There is no scientific argument against eugenics, for even if we are too ignorant right now to make eugenics work, we may be knowledgeable enough in the future. Rather than retarding eugenic efforts, the appeal to ignorance is a spur to investigate them further, for science thrives on the challenge of the unknown. Ignorance is no barrier to eugenics; the only true barrier is knowledge, a knowledge of man's true place in the cosmos, and for that we finally need philosophy and not science.


Anonymous said...


I get your point. All I was trying to show in the article was that genetic maximalists fail even on their own terms. The comment about Wilson at the end was meant to imply that until and unless we know a lot more than we do, a social system established on the premise of a comprehensive biological understanding of human mind will be a Hell on earth. I understand that you believe we can know philosophically that we can never have such knowledge. I was trying to build a bridge to people by arguing that we lack such knowldge now, so that whether you think we will could in principle someday have it or you think we can never have it, in either case you ought to resist government efforts to act as if we have it today.

I also understand that breeding anumals, including humans, is an art that has been understood for a long time. The pseduo-science of early 20th century eugenics was premised on the belief that we have a scientific understanding - that is non-intutive, reliable basis for prediction beyond common sense and common practical knowledge. It was a false veneer that asserted much of what we believed could be stripped away and explained by evolution.

David said...


Yes, I see what you are trying to do. We disagree because I don't think the eugenicists (at least) fail on their own terms. Eugenics works, if not as completely as genetic maximalists might hope.

In one paragraph you cite the forced sterilization of 60,000 Americans. Yes, that is what eugenics is. Did it succeed in its own terms? You are silent on this point, but doesn't the scientific case against eugenics depend on it? The scientific anti-eugenics argument says that sterilizing 60,000 people is not wrong in itself, but only wrong because it doesn't (presently) work in achieving eugenic goals.

The bridge you've built goes both ways. The eugenics advocate can thank you for building it, then invite you to his side of the divide by pointing out that, in fact, sterizilizing 60,000 imbeciles is quite effective in reducing their number.


Joshua said...

Firstly, religious objections are very shaky moral arguments precisely because they are not based on something concrete. The best way these days to convince people is with evidence, which is why science does so well and why religions don't. A religious basis for why eugenics is wrong will only work on the religious, and cannot be applied universally as laws in a secular democracy.

Secondly, not only has man been selectively breeding animals, but many has actually been selective bred (as have almost all other animals). Evolution through natural selection and sexual selection has shaped the human body and mind to what it is today. Liberal eugenics, where people choose the optimum "Mr/Ms Right" to mate with, is the default state for all animals, humans especially.

I'm completely against state-sponsored eugenics solely because it violates the fundamental human right to control our own reproduction, but I can't see anything wrong with the human race getting better under our own free will.

David said...


I believe my argument is philosophical not, religious. I mention God, yes, but then I think a lot about God can be known through natural reason.

Since you only want to argue from science, what is your scientific evidence that human beings have a natural right to control their own reproduction?

Personally, I married my wife because I fell in love with her, not because I thought she would be a good candidate for a eugenics experiment. I pity the man who marries because he finds a woman "optimal."



Anonymous said...


Thanks, that's a very helpful response.

I assumed that readers would see forced sterilization as wrong, and didn't think I had to make the argument for why it is wrong. I agree that there are some people who see no problem with it, but they are, I think, a small minority.

Jim Manzi