(Excerpted from 'History Through Horror: The Classical Eugenics Movement and Homo Sapiens 1900' published December 2013 by Jonathan Mozzochi. Full version available from Mozzochi.wordpress.com.)
There is a disconnect between our received notions of race, racial categories, and racism and all those advances in biotechnology with their specificity, scientific method and peer review processes. The certainty of our advances in knowledge concerning genes, chromosomes, DNA, genetic engineering, etc., is only matched by the sheer complexity such knowledge has uncovered, and continues to uncover. I’m reminded of the overused, yet still pertinent expression that there are more connections in our brains than stars in the universe. We are infinitely complex, a creature at once unsolvable and uncontrollable. And that’s good. With sufficient concentration of power, however, perhaps exercised through new biotechnology, we could become something else: Frankenstein’s monster, perhaps.
Human Directed Evolution (HDE)
If it is in American foreign policy that “the advisory imagination can roam–run riot, even–with a liberty impossible at home” (Perry Anderson, New Left Review, ‘American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers’, No. 83, Sept./Oct. 2013) it should come as no surprise that it is in the elite policy journal, Foreign Affairs, published by the Council on Foreign Relations, that the subject of eugenics can be broached. The biotechnologist Craig Venter of ‘mapping the human genome’ fame is now creating ‘synthetic life’, we are told, while biologists and geneticists are discussing ‘human directed evolution’. Let’s abbreviate that term ‘HDE’. (Laurie Garrett and Ron Noble, Foreign Affairs, “Biology’s Brave New World” Nov.Dec. 2013). That quote is correct–‘human directed evolution.’ How far is that from Galton’s shorthand definition of eugenics as ‘the control of natural selection’?
Venter is recorded gushing, “What we have done so far is going to blow your freakin’ mind” a comment that registers all the solemnity and pathos of a professional wrestling match. Venter’s ‘game-changing experiment’, as the authors describes it, unpacks as utopian overreach; perhaps shot through with a cult of innovation and an attendant celebrity worship. In keeping with the sports metaphors, I find such ‘cheerleading’ repugnant. The Foreign Affairs article, enmeshed as it is within the antiseptic confines of ‘national security’ considerations, fails to apprehend its subject matter, as worrisome a state of affairs as must have confronted Franz Boaz in his time.
Of course the prior eugenics movement had its cult of innovative scientists and utopian dreamers. Left to their own devices–and they often were–their programs paved the way for genocide. Do our contemporary paragons of innovation resemble so many oracles sifting through the entrails of a genetically modified cow so as to divine the next spasm of wealth creation and how to capture its inevitable flow upward? Will there be horrific unintended consequences as a result of their actions? Is there a new road to hell being paved?
History will tell.
What’s certain is that such scientific innovations as genetic engineering are taking place within a world of globalized consumer capitalism, in many places uprooting traditional forms of social cohesion and deepening social inequality. By harnessing a profit motive to poorly understood scientific innovations controlled by immensely powerful corporations, all within a context of deep racial and economic inequality, we could be witnessing the reemergence of a frightening, new eugenics movement.