1963 - An Interesting Exchange of Ideas
Human talents are widely disparate; much of the disparity (no one suggests all) has a genetic basis. The facts of human reproduction are all gloomy--the stratification of fecundity by economic status, the new environmental insults to our genes, the sheltering of humanitarian medicine [of] the once-lethal defects. Even if these evils were tolerable or neutralized or mis-stated, do we not still sinfully waste a treasure of knowledge by ignoring the creative possibilities of genetic improvement?The following excerpts are from a discussion among the symposium participants (transcribed in the same volume) on the subject of Eugenics and Genetics. Several references were made to Muller's idea. They are referring to Hermann J. Muller, Nobel-prize winning geneticist, and his idea of a repository of germinal material obtained from superior men to be used for artificial insemination. (Muller's idea later materialized into The Repository for Germinal Choice, founded by Hermann J. Muller and Robert Klark Graham, which began operations in 1979.)
Why bother now with somatic selection, so slow in its impact? Investing a fraction of the effort, we should soon lean how to manipulate chromosome ploidy, homozygosis, gametic selection full diagnosis of heterozygotes, to accomplish in one or two generations of eugenic practice what would now take ten or one hundred. What a clumsy job we would have done on mongolism even just five years ago, before we understood the chromosomal basis of the disease!
I certainly agree with what Dr. Lederberg has said about the extraordinary rate of increase in biological knowledge, particularly in some fields. What impresses me even more is the great lack of biological knowledge among ordinary people; the ordinary educated layman, and to some extent among scientists other than biologists. I also think it's deplorable the knowledge of natural selection is not taught properly in schools . . . .Pirie:
Lederberg and I have arrived independently at an idea (which I hope he does not mind me quoting) that the type of solution which might become socially acceptable is simply to encourage by financial means those people who are more socially desirable to have more children (this is not the idea favoured by Muller). The obvious way to do this is to tax children. This seems dreadful to a good liberal [a conservative or libertarian in the US] because it is exactly the opposite of everything he has been brought up to believe. But at least it is logical. There are various objections; there will be people who, however much the tax is, will have many children, but they may be a minority. It is unreasonable to take money as an exact measure of social desirability, but at least they are fairly positively correlated. Of course, it is perfectly clear that you could not take such measures, as Muller very rightly said, with public opinion as it is, and with the general lack of biological knowledge.
Now to come to Muller's ideas. Is it possible that his scheme is the best way to give this type of biological education to the public at large? If some individuals were allowed to choose the father in the way he suggests, this might make the population as a whole reflect on the social responsibilities of parenthood . . . . . [I]t might happen that one particular country would initiate a larger-scale programme than any of the others, and after 20, 25, or 30 years the results might be rather startling, if, for example, all Nobel Prizes began to go to, say, Finland because they had gone in for improvement of their population on an extensive scale! If there are advantages in these techniques, and one society or nation does adopt them with marked success, this will accelerate adoption elsewhere.
Taking up Crick's point about the humanist argument on whether one has a right to have children, I would say that in a society in which the community is responsible for peoples welfare--health, hospitals, unemployment insurance, etc.-- the answer is No. . . . What has always seemed to me the ideal contraceptive technique would be a situation in which people would normally be infertile, and should do something if on any particular occasion they wished to become fertile. If such a method were available, how much trouble would it cause in a community once the idea had penetrated?Francis Crick:
I believe that basically society has the right to decide, but what techniques can our society use to impose this to a reasonable extent (not necessarily 100%), without incurring some other costs? The proposal of licensing that I somewhat playfully suggested might, or might not, be acceptable in our present social system . . . .Joshua Lederberg:,
In answer to Dr. Bronowski's question about our motivation, I think that most of us here believe that the present population of the world is not intelligent enough to keep itself from being blown up, and we would like to make some provision for the future so that it will have a slightly better chance of avoiding this particular contingency. I am not saying that our measures will be effective, but I think that is our motivation; it is not the negative but the positive aspects of genetic control that we are dealing with here.Sir Julian Huxley:
On the other hand, I have serious doubts about the proposals for controlling reproduction that have been presented to us. The aspects of social control that seem to be necessary to make these proposals technically effective are I think extremely offensive and extremely dangerous. But leaving the matter to individual choice, which from a social standpoint is the most ideal, is certainly not going to be technically effective . . . .
. . .[T]he main thing is to aim at positive improvement. Much is possible and there are methods to do it. You need not start with drastic methods; nobody is going to solve the population problem by saying that a certain number of people are not going to be allowed to have any children. But you can make a start. At the moment many governments are encouraging people to have more children than they otherwise would by means of family allowances . . . . At the moment the population certainly wouldn't tolerate compulsory eugenic or sterilization measures, but if you start some experiments, including some voluntary ones, and see that they work and if you make a massive attempt at educating people and making them understand what is at issue, you might be able, within a generation, to have an effect on the general population. After all, our moral values evolve like everything else, and they evolve largely on the basis of the knowledge we have and share.Trowell:
. . . . I have never understood how the human race got over the biological hurdle of moving from polygamy to monogamy. Under the polygamous system the favoured and cultured person, the king or chief, sires a large number of people in the community, and under those conditions we ought to have intelligence building up more rapidly than under the conditions of monogamy. As far as I understand, the human race was polygamous for the best part of a million years, whereas it has been monogamous in varying degrees of stability for a very short time . . . .Francis Crick:
. . . [T]hose of us who are humanists have a great difficulty in that we are unable to formulate our ends as clearly as is possible for those of us who are Christians. Nevertheless there are some ends that we can all share, even though we have these differences. In is surely clear that good health, high intelligence, and general benevolence--the qualities Muller listed--are desirable qualities which we would all agree on. We would agree also that these qualities are not evenly distributed. There are people who are deficient in intelligence (I mention intelligence because this is something we can to some extent measure). Surely it is a very reasonable aim for us to try to increase that. Some of the arguments that nature is doing it all right may possibly be correct but they seem to me only to reflect conservatism and to have no real basis in fact . . .
Are the methods for improvement which we have at our disposal effective? Now there are difficult technical questions here, but my point, which Huxley made rather strongly, is that we are likely to achieve a considerable improvement--not perhaps as fast as we could do by other methods or even as fast as may turn out to be necessary--by using a very primitive knowledge of genetics; that is, by simply taking people with the qualities we like, and letting them have more children . . .
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