by Mary Harrington
Monday, 17
February 2020
Idea
09:24

Without God, it’s harder to defend against eugenics

All but the most contorted Christian perspectives would affirm that the notion of making humans ‘better’ via selective breeding is nonsensical

The first of Dominic Cummings’ ‘weirdos’ came in for his inaugural round of public hazing over the weekend, as journalists dug through the internet footprint of young ‘superforecaster’ Andrew Sabisky in search of nonstandard utterances with which to evidence their fears about Britain’s slide into fascism.

Prominent among their discoveries was a 2016 interview Sabisky gave to Schools Week on the subject of forecasting, which quoted his view that human cognitive ability is largely hereditary. In this interview Sabisky uses the dreaded word ‘eugenics’, asking provocative questions about why, given the choice to select between a number of embryos for the most intelligent, one would not do so?

This has been taken as evidence of his devotion to eugenics in practice. Buzzfeed reporter Alex Wickham reports that other spads are now saying they will refuse to work with him, while Labour MP David Lammy calls his appointment ‘deeply sinister’ and declares that he should be ‘nowhere near government’.

Humans are animals, and thus it is likely that were we to try and breed humans selectively for specific traits we could encourage the prevalence of those traits. But humans are also thinking, ethical creatures. As such, which traits should be considered ‘better’ would inescapably be a political and moral matter, as is the question of whether treating humans in this way is acceptable. Sabisky’s detractors skip over the question of whether there is any evidence of him holding the kind of worldview from which one might argue the human species could (or should) be ‘improved’.

There is in fact ample online evidence of Sabisky’s moral framework, as he is co-presenter of the Young Tractarians theology podcast. And while it is not impossible to be Christian and pro-eugenics, it is difficult. Historically such viewpoints have tended to come from modernising, ‘progressive’ branches of the faith. Sabisky, on the other hand, has provided interested listeners with some 23 hours of his adherence to the ‘Tractarian’ Oxford Movement, more traditional than which it is difficult for an Anglican to get without going full Roman Catholic.

Weighing Sabisky’s ultra-traditionalist, High Anglican faith against his willingness to explore provocative questions, I was struck by a turn of phrase used by Richard Dawkins, the other prominent voice to get a drubbing over the weekend for mentioning the ‘E’ word.

In his clarifying tweet, Dawkins said (my italics) that “Just as we breed cows to yield more milk, we could breed humans to run faster or jump higher. But heaven forbid that we should do it.” Dawkins of course is well-known as an abrasively militant atheist. Thus his use of ‘heaven forbid’ is intriguing, as from an atheist perspective heaven does not exist and therefore, in fact, cannot forbid the pursuit of eugenics.

For a Christian, we are all God’s children and of equal worth. All but the most contorted Christian perspectives would affirm that the notion of making humans ‘better’ via selective breeding is nonsensical, not to mention an insult to the dignity of our fellow humans and a blasphemous attempt to usurp God Himself.

But without God to tell us why it is wrong to breed humans like cows, it is (though, again, not impossible) far more difficult to argue against it. Dawkins’ resort to the phrase ‘heaven forbid’ underlines the way in which our post-religious abandonment of any shared source of moral authority leaves us struggling for concise language in which to reject moral atrocities such as eugenics.

An atheist progressive worldview is, in fact, considerably more vulnerable than a Tractarian one to the humanity-improving blandishments of eugenic arguments: even one of the Four Horsemen of Atheism is reduced to invoking heaven to explain why he feels eugenics is beyond the pale.

The progressive Twittermob coming after Sabisky might consider whether it is he they are attempting to persuade that eugenics is unacceptable, or in fact themselves.

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