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Path to self improvement

LiveMint logoLiveMint 25-07-2017 Rahul Matthan

According to the theory of natural selection, when individuals within a species compete for scarce resources, variants that are better suited to that environment are “naturally selected” to propagate the species. This is the principle of survival of the fittest that Darwin first outlined in his treatise—The Origin of Species—through which he explained his theory of evolution. 

In 1883, Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s lesser known half-cousin, decided to take his famous relative’s ideas to the next level. Galton believed that if nature could achieve such remarkable results through natural selection, the same principle could be used to improve humankind. If humans were selectively bred to deliver only the strongest, smartest or most beautiful possible offspring, in a matter of decades, we could achieve what it nature took millennia to create. He called this process eugenics—yet another way to show man’s mastery over nature just as man had done with agriculture and animal husbandry over the years.

He had support from many of the greatest thinkers of the age—people such as H.G. Wells, who had already written about these principles in some of his stories of the future. But Wells was concerned that selective in-breeding would do more harm than good and preferred selective elimination of the “weak” by sterilisation. 

Galton died before he could see his ideas come to fruition but in 1912, at the World Eugenics Conference, it was clear that the rest of the world had bought into his philosophies. Germany had developed a program called “race hygiene”; the Americans had created a eugenics-focused research centre and a Eugenics Record Office. Of the two, the American efforts at eugenics were the most advanced. In eight states of the country, including Pennsylvania, Kansas, Idaho and Virginia, laws were enacted to allow the sterilisation of “unfit” men and women—people suffering from epilepsy, deaf-mutes, dwarves, schizophrenics—and criminals. These efforts were given a further fillip with the decision of the US Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell in which justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing for the 8-1 majority, ruled, “It is better for all the world that instead of waiting to execute a degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the fallopian tubes.”

Across the Atlantic, the Germans were similarly developing the concept of Rassenhygiene or racial hygiene and looking up to Galton and the scientists in the US as pioneers to be emulated. Their program was designed to confine and sterilise genetically defective men and women with a view to eventually eradicating those genes from the bloodline. When the Nazis came to power, they gave strength to these ideas by enacting The Law for the Prevention of the Genetically Disabled Offspring and creating special eugenics courts with the power to order sterilisation and ensure it is carried out even against the will of the person to be sterilised.

It didn’t take long before sterilisation was replaced by euthanasia—after all, there is no better way to cleanse the gene pool than to eliminate defective variants. The Nazis started out by killing defective children under the age of three. By 1939, this was expanded to adolescents and eventually to adults. The definition of who was “genetically sick” also evolved over time—starting with those who had disease and deformity and quickly extending to the criminally delinquent and eventually all people of certain specified races. This was what eventually led to the death of six million Jews in gas chambers during the Holocaust.

This is how the theory of evolution, so fundamental to our understanding of life on earth, was, in a relatively short period of time, subverted to justify one of the worst genocides in human history. But this is the tightrope we walk every time we discover new science. 

Today we stand, once again, at the crossroads of a remarkable new frontier in genetics. Thanks to CRISPR/Cas9 technology, we have a viable means to selectively alter our genes, allowing us to replace the flaws in our genome that cause fatal hereditary diseases. At the same time, this technology allows us to improve ourselves, transforming ourselves into stronger, more intelligent human beings capable of doing things that our ancestors simply could not. 

Science has, once again, given us the opportunity to accelerate the process of natural selection and take our evolution into our own hands, guiding humanity along a path most beneficial to the species. As we consider which path to follow, we would do well to remind ourselves of the lessons of our past. 

Lest we be condemned to repeat it.

Rahul Matthan is a partner at Trilegal. Ex Machina is a column on technology, law and everything in between.

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