Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Welcome back, Mr Galton

Nothing to do with eugenics, but a note by Francis
Galton that messed up Eadweard Muybridge's career

I was recently reading for review Lone Frank's interesting book on gene tests and their implications, My Beautiful Genome. It makes a point that really hadn't occured to me before, raised in a discussion between Ms Frank and Armand Leroi, the author of another interesting human biology book, Mutants. And it concerns the dark side of genetics.

Many aspects of science have their dark sides. Nuclear physics - wonderful... nuclear bombs - not so wonderful. Similarly, genetics has transformed biology, but its dark side is eugenics, the brainchild of Victorian scientist Francis Galton.

Eugenics has a kind of logic, but most people find it distasteful. The idea is that genes alone should be enough to determine who will have the best children, and so you should use genes to determine who should breed and who shouldn't. (That's a vast oversimplification, but it gives a flavour.)

What Leroi pointed out to Frank is that despite the fact that eugenics is a dirty word, we operate a kind of neo-eugenics, that is generally not regarded as a problem unless it is given that loaded name. Thousands of abortions are carried out every year of fetuses that have some detected defect, physical or genetic. What is this if it's not a kind of eugenics?

I think what this illustrates is the important consideration that labels are not good ways of making decisions. 'Eugenics' as a label comes will all sorts of baggage, and at its worst, the concept is despicable. But the fact remains most people are comfortable with the process described above. Applying moral decisions to science and technology is rarely a black and white process, and should never be based on labels alone.

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