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The Birth of Environmental Eugenics?

Slate’s William Saletan provocatively comments on a recent report that parents are having their young children genetically tested to determine their innate athletic ability, so as to know what sports to steer them toward:

Eugenics was crude and brutal. It regulated survival and procreation. If the government decided you were unfit to breed, it could sterilize or kill you. The notion was that some families were better than others—and that these hereditary differences, not subsequent environmental factors, determined a child’s prospects.

The new mentality assumes the opposite: Good heredity isn’t enough. Without proper nurture, nature’s gifts will be wasted. We have to find the kids with the best genes and focus our resources on developing their talents. This isn’t regulation of heredity. It’s regulation of environments. I’d call it environmental eugenics, or envireugenics.

First of all, “environmental eugenics,” not to mention the ugly Greco-Latin hodgepodge “envireugenics,” is a misnomer, since eugenics (from the Greek for “well born”) involves selection for genes, not just selection of genes. The phenomenon Saletan is calling attention to is a form of “human husbandry” without selective breeding. Thus, a better term for the practice might be “genetic eupaideia” (from the Greek paideia, meaning “child-rearing”). Of course, the practice could in fact lead to selective breeding, whether or not as part of a government policy. Although Saletan doesn’t mention it, some have speculated that Chinese basketball star Yao Ming was the product of a eugenics experiment.

In any case, is this really a new mentality, as Saletan claims? Arguably, all societies have long been practicing genetic eupaideia—at least at the group level—without the need for genetic testing: perceiving innate average differences in ability between the sexes, they have simply encouraged males and females to go into different pursuits, and have provided different nurturing environments as a result. And, in some cases, they could do so with certainty approaching that of genetic testing. For example, if a tribe or nation had wanted to find and develop its best warrior talent for single combat, it would have been a waste of time for it to search among its female children.

Nonetheless, genetic eupaideia has so far tended to be far more probabilistic: males and females have long been seen as having different comparative advantages on average—that is, even if a woman can do everything a man can, in some cases a woman cannot do it as efficiently (whether in terms of physical, cognitive, or emotional energy). Think of the job of shoveling coal, for instance. Of course, the reverse is true as well: women can on average do all sorts of tasks more efficiently than men, such as reading emotions via facial expressions. The point is that, historically, taking biological sex into account has been used to reduce “search costs” for finding talent, at the expense of some talent never being discovered.

The looming challenge we face is a world in which genetic testing increasingly reduces such search costs enormously.



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