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20th February 2020

Eugenics: The balance between morality and fact

How eugenics has become entangled with British politics and how education is easily confused with advocacy
Eugenics: The balance between morality and fact
Photo: U.K. Prime Minister @ wikimedia

The age-old eugenics debate has once again reared its ugly head in the headlines this week, prompted by the realisation that Boris Johnson’s recently hired personal advisor, Andrew Sabisky, holds controversial views regarding the topic.

Sabisky has since stepped down over the issue, however, it raises serious concerns about the integrity of Johnson’s office and begs the question: how did someone like this end up at the centre of British politics?

Senior government sources claim Sabisky wasn’t vetted, although this development comes at a very unfortunate time; the Prime Minister’s chief advisor, Dominic Cummings, last month invited “misfits and weirdos” to apply to advise the government, which has not put him in good stead with regards to addressing this issue.

Eugenics is the belief that selective breeding can be utilised to enhance certain characteristics in organisms, by excluding those with weaker traits and including those with stronger ones. It was one of the cornerstones of the Nazi Party’s ideology, involving the extermination or sterilisation of communities of people throughout Europe, to create a superior ‘Aryan’ race.

It is not a new ideology either; there is strong evidence supporting eugenics being practiced within both ancient Rome and ancient Greece, as well as being advocated by principled figureheads such as Plato.

Eugenics in the modern age spawned as a mutation of Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the term was coined by Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, who strongly believed in the practice. It would grow to become a worldwide movement and played a key role in the turmoil surrounding the world in the early twentieth century.

The issue today has been inflamed by eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins took to Twitter amidst the controversy to advocate the factual side of eugenics, stating that the practice is biologically feasible, however, this was widely misinterpreted by readers as Dawkins advocating the idea.

There is often a fine line between the education of issues such as eugenics and the advocacy of them. As students, we have a unique viewpoint to appreciate the importance of diversity within communities and its ability to broaden people’s perspectives.

The University of Manchester has an extremely diverse mix of ethnicities and peoples, with more than a quarter of its students being international. University is often the most enlightened periods of people’s lives, and the mix of learning and tolerance is what makes universities a brilliant melting pot to allow individuals of all backgrounds to assimilate into a cohesive whole.

With the rise of CRISPR and genome editing (dubbed ‘neo-eugenics’ by its sceptics), we must take extra care when dealing with these issues, as the line between morality and immorality is easily crossed.

The thing to remember is to never allow the pursuit of human progression to marginalise and isolate those deemed to be ‘unfit’ by the standards of the evaluators. Eugenics over-estimates the influence of nature over nurture, violates the right of people to decide their own future, and is a ‘cop-out’ for those who disregard the root cause of the problem: issues surrounding nurture, and social inequality.

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