Will the 2020s Be the Decade of Eugenics?

Bret Stephens. Photo: William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC Newswire/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

Once narrowly defined as the belief that human beings could breed selectively to weed out disease and crime, eugenics no longer forms the basis of laws permitting the forcible sterilization of the poor. But as 2019 mercifully ends, eugenics is having a moment. Bret Stephens is only one symptom. In a piece touting the genius of Ashkenazi Jews, the New York Times columnist cited a study co-authored by the late white supremacist anthropologist, Henry Harpending, who promoted pseudoscientific ideas about the heritability of intelligence. The Times later retracted the reference, and attached an editor’s note to the column — not the first major correction they’ve attached to Stephens’s work, and at this rate, not the last.

Only Stephens knows for certain how he came to cite a white supremacist in his work. One increasingly plausible theory suggests that he spends approximately three seconds on Google to research his articles. Looking up a study’s co-authors might have tacked on an extra minute or so to his workload, an intolerable effort. But no matter how it happened, the cumulative effect of Stephens’s argument, and his citation of Harpending, evoked the debunked ideas of the eugenics movement.

For his trouble, Stephens can only blame himself, or perhaps his editor. The general thrust of his piece — arguing that one ethnic group is uniquely accomplished in comparison to others, and advancing a reason for it — clearly merited extra caution, though the columnist and his editor apparently disagreed. Older comments about Palestinians also weaken his claim to any benefit of the doubt. He once called anti-Semitism “a disease of the Arab mind,” and separately compared Palestinians to a “four-million-year-old mosquito” in “ideological amber.” The idea that the “Arab mind” is prone to any specific pathology is not as distantly removed from the ideas of men like Henry Harpending as Stephens would surely like us all to think.

Nevertheless, Stephens has his defenders, and they don’t all work for the Times. Claire Lehmann, the founding editor of the reflexively contrarian Quillette magazine, first defended Harpending himself:

Lehmann was, of course, completely wrong. Harpending believed that white Europeans had bred for superior traits, like high intelligence and improved work ethic. As for everyone else? “I’ve never seen anyone with a hobby in Africa. They’re different,” he said at a 2009 conference on “preserving Western civilization.” Harpending was as close to a textbook definition of “white supremacist” as a person can probably get. Though Lehmann later admitted that Harpending did “promote racist views,” a beat short of calling the anthropologist a racist or white supremacist, she also doubled down on her defense of Stephens. Liberals are the real eugenicists, she’s implied over and over, an argument first devised by the anti-abortion movement some decades ago.

Meanwhile, at Quillette, Lehmann provides a space for authors to explore questions of “genetic diversity,” as she called it in one pro-Stephens tweet. Others have called it scientific racism: a descendant of eugenic ideas first popularized in the early 20th century. As Donna Minkowitz previously noted in a piece for The Nation, Quillette regularly publishes writers associated with the Human Biodiversity Movement, a glossy new name for old beliefs: namely, that some behavior patterns are inborn, and are specific to certain ethnic groups. Early eugenicists would recognize the gist. The magazine has also published, and defended, Noah Carl, a British academic who lost a Cambridge University fellowship over credible accusations that he has links to far-right groups and holds eugenic views.

Quillette hardly shoulders responsibility for keeping eugenic ideas alive on its own, but it’s a useful and prominent example both of the evolution of eugenics over time, and the persistence of its basic tenets. Nobody totes around calipers these days; the era of “fitter family” contests at county fairs is over. After much struggle, people with disabilities achieved rights in the U.S. that would have shocked the eugenicists of the 20th century. But we never stopped sorting people into categories — healthy or high risk, superpredator or safe — and the quest to justify these labels continues. Though it’s obscured, often, by a more pervasive if nebulous form of social Darwinism, eugenics has always periodically reemerged as the purest version of itself. Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, to name one key example, gave it new life in 1994, when they published The Bell Curve and asserted to the world that scientifically, certain races just happen to be more intelligent than others. Recently, eugenics seems to spend even more time in the open, perpetuated by President Trump and his obsessions with “the right genes” and the criminality of immigrants.

But scientific racism is not the only way that eugenics manifests itself in the dying light of the decade. Advances in gene editing and gene therapy promise new treatments for life-threatening illnesses, but they also introduce ethical concerns that once only inhabited the realm of science fiction. In a recent interview with 60 Minutes, Harvard geneticist George Church described his plans for a dating app that would allow users to screen potential partners based on their DNA, all to reduce rates of hereditary illness. Sure, parents could use in vitro fertilization to select healthy embryos, but as Church puts it, why let things get that far? “If you do it after you have already fallen in love, it’s mostly bad news by that point. A quarter of kids will be diseased,” he told the MIT Technology Review. (In the interest of full transparency, if my parents had accepted the recommendations of an app similar to the one proposed by Church, I would not have been born. I have a hereditary condition that damages my red blood cells.)

Church is keen to stress that his app can’t be eugenicist because it isn’t “coercive.” Once perfected, people could freely use it or not. But innovation doesn’t happen in isolation, untainted by social and political concerns or by history. “The eugenic principle is, that ‘the fit only shall live.’ This does not mean that the unfit must die, but that only the fit shall be born,” announced one pamphlet, The Eugenic Marriage, in 1914, a sentiment still audible over a century later. Coercion, too, is still with us, even if it no longer takes the form of forcible sterilization: The American health-care system pressures families in ways that Church thinks his app would not. It’s costly to birth any children at all, let alone children with disabilities, a fact that disadvantages families without means. Church’s ideas don’t subvert that coercive pressure; instead, they work neatly within it.

The year that ends at midnight doesn’t offer much reason for optimism. Neither, for that matter, does the decade to which it belongs. Born in the wake of a serious recession, marked by uninterrupted war overseas, worsening income inequality, and eventually the resurgence of open white nationalism, the decade that ends today suggests pivotal political battles wait in the years to come. The fight to consign eugenic ideas to the footnotes of history will be one of them.

This post has been updated for clarification.

Calipers Are Out of Fashion, But Eugenics Isn’t