The term “eugenics” (from Greek for “well-born”) was first used by Sir Francis Galton, in 1883. Galton believed that desirable character traits are heritable and that selective breeding could improve the human race.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, eugenics movements spread throughout Europe and North America. While Galton’s focus was on propagating positive character traits, subsequent eugenicists focussed on eliminating the undesirable ones. The most pernicious of the resulting policies lead to forced sterilizations of “unfit” individuals, meant to prevent them from passing on their negative traits. At one time, a total of thirty-three US states and two Canadian provinces had sterilization programs.
Early supporters of the movement included Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, and Irene Parlby. They might have had good intentions. However, the inherent paternalism and the erasure of the basic human rights of those affected made the programs morally reprehensible long before they were taken to the horrible excesses in Nazi Germany, where Hitler used eugenic principles to justify the Holocaust. That terrible “wake-up call” put an end to most eugenics movements. Seventy-five years after WWII, most informed people agree that the science behind eugenics was deeply flawed. Furthermore, most of us agree that, even had the science been correct, sterilizing people against their will can never be justified.
Nowadays, virtually no one has to worry about eugenics. Yet in recent decades, a movement I call intellectual eugenics (because of some alarming parallels it has to genetic eugenics) has swept academia. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins might have inadvertently provided the impetus for this movement when, in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, he coined the term “meme.” Dawkins proposed that ideas spread through (intellectual) populations based on meme-transfer, which, he said, is similar to gene-transfer.
The idea is that in the age of mass media, and now social media, good memes will out-compete bad memes and quickly propagate throughout large populations. But while the natural environment provides the competitive battleground for genes, it is less clear which ideas, if any, are inherently good. One might assume that the intellectual elites are best equipped to determine which ideas are worth spreading and which ought to go extinct. Indeed, universities have always been places where ideas (or memes) battled for supremacy and the winning ideas were passed on to the next generation of students, and then often propagated in the wider population. Selection by university processes might be seen as roughly analogous to Galton’s idea that guided selection would increase positive traits in a population.
However, the last few years have seen more and more parallels to the darker sides of eugenics. Forced sterilization, for instance, has its parallel in the forced elimination of bad ideas. Especially after the election of Donald Trump, many academics concluded that it is essential to silence ideas they deem dangerous. Those ideas are often lumped together as fascist ideas that will cause great harm if they spread from mind to mind. From the popular “Punch a Nazi” movement to the deplatforming of conservative speakers, any means, including physical violence, has become a quasi-legitimate tool to stop the spread of fascist or merely disagreeable ideas.
Just last August, in the Globe and Mail, University of Toronto philosopher Mark Kingwell took the analogy between bad ideas and physical illness to the next level. Alleging that there is “no rational engagement possible” with Trump supporters, Kingwell proposes that instead of debate our response ought to be akin to “inflicting benign behavioural modification,” a technique that has been used in addiction treatment.
Kingwell seriously claims “that political belief is also an aspect of human behaviour in need of external control.” For Kingwell, people who hold political beliefs he disapproves of suffer from “conviction addiction.” They are susceptible to “gateway” drugs the use of which, “if unchecked,” will lead to “deadly Nazi hatefests.” He rejects the liberal idea that bad ideas ought to be challenged by better ideas because “[t]he mental market is far more irrational than the one governing wealth.” Thankfully, Kingwell does not propose electric shock therapy or selective brain surgery as treatments for the conviction addicted. However, his actual proposal is chilling in its own right: “Let’s recognize the conviction-addictive quality in all of us, and stop imagining that free public discourse will bend toward reason. Curbs on speech and strict rules of engagement – no interruptions, no slogans, no talking points – may be the right answer here. We already, in this country, ban hateful speech. Let’s go farther and insist on discourse rules, limits on public outrage and aggressively regulated social media. We could even ban media panel discussions … let’s have more constraint, less conversation.”
It is unclear who the “we” Kingwell refers to is. But it would seem only national governments have the power to regulate social media or to ban panel discussions. It is also far from clear whose ideas Kingwell is targeting. On the one hand, he specifically talks of Nazism and names “Richard Spencer or David Duke …[and] the Twitter feed of POTUS 45.” On the other hand, he refers to “Americans who voted Trump” and those “on the other side.” So potentially anyone who disagrees with Kingwell on anything ought to be constrained by law.
Of course, once even a democratically elected government has been given license to implement such hopelessly underspecified and far reaching censorship, it is impossible to predict where things will end. For example, the GDR government won roughly 60% of the votes in the 1946 elections and had broad support among the public to suppress fascist ideas. However, rather quickly the existence of a very small group of actual (and unteachable) Nazis was used as an excuse to impose censorship on the ideas of all political opponents. It did not end there.
Once the government places strong enough penalties on the expression of disagreeable ideas, those ideas will no longer be expressed in public. However, it is impossible to know whether ideas that are never expressed in public have been eliminated or continue to propagate in secret. For that reason, the GDR government felt the need to instal a massively invasive surveillance system that constantly monitored what people thought privately. But even that seemed not enough, and, in 1961, the GDR government erected the Antifascist Protection Bulwark, better known as the Berlin Wall. In the name of protecting them from fascism, this wall imprisoned 17 million people for 28 years!
Kingwell is presumably sure this would never happen in Canada. Perhaps. But as late as the spring of 1961, East Germans were equally sure it would not happen to them—or they would have got out while they still could. And even once the wall was in place, few believed it would be there for almost three decades. But this is what can happen when a government is given license to regulate what ideas citizens can express. There is no guarantee that, if so empowered, the Canadian government will never decide that Kingwell’s own ideas are symptoms of a “conviction addiction” that needs to be eradicated.
The recent deplatforming of extremely vocal Trump critic Richard Dawkins should serve as a stark reminder that thought policing already extends to places extremely distant from hard-core Nazism. Unless we are willing to learn from history we risk repeating it.
- Dawkins, Richard (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press.
- Ian Dowbiggin (2003). Keeping America Sane: Psychiatry and Eugenics in the United States and Canada, 1880–1940. Cornell University Press.
- Kingwell, Mark (2017). “Don’t bother trying to understand those on the other side,” The Globe and Mail.
- “Left Hook: A Brief History of Nazi Punching in America: Forty years of leftists fighting neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and assorted white supremacists,” Mother Jones.
- “The Early Days of Eugenics,” Scientific American.
- “The New York Times covers Dawkins’s deplatforming,” Why Evolution is True.