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From the archives:

"Grade A: The Market for a Yale Woman's Eggs" (September 2002)
When a Yale undergraduate explored becoming an egg donor for a wealthy couple willing to pay top dollar to the right candidate, she didn't realize how unsettling the process of candidacy would prove to be. By Jessica Cohen

"Cloning Trevor" (June 2002)
Granted rare access to the labs of Advanced Cell Technology, the only U.S. group openly pursuing human cloning research for medical purposes, our correspondent spent six months tracking highly experimental work on the cells of a young boy with a life-threatening genetic disorder. By Kyla Dunn

"What Price Valor?" (June 2002)
Bravura displays of reproductive technology may shortchange the children. By Caitlin Flanagan

"Jack or Jill?" (March 2002)
The era of consumer-driven eugenics has begun. By Tish Durkin

"Moving Toward the Clonal Man" (May 1971)
Is this what we want? By James D. Watson

"On Living in a Biological Revolution" (February 1969)
"There is a new eugenics in prospect, not the marriage agency kind, but a form of 'biological engineering.'" By Donald Fleming

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "The Life (and Death?) of Cloning" (May 22, 2002)
Kyla Dunn, the author of The Atlantic's June cover story, talks about the state of therapeutic-cloning research and why it should not be banned.

Interviews: "Attack of the Clones" (June 5, 2002)
Articles by James Watson and Donald Fleming offer a look back at the evolution of the human-cloning debate.



Flashbacks
 
Faster, Stronger, Smarter...

March 31, 2004
 
e have entered an age in which we are attaining an ever greater ability to replicate and manipulate the genetic code that determines our biology. In the not so distant future, we will likely possess the technology to modify our DNA to make us bigger, faster, stronger, and smarter. But the prospect seems as terrifying as it does exhilarating. Since long before the debut of Dolly the cloned sheep in 1997, genetic research has incited worldwide controversy. At the crux of the biogenetic debate lies the central question: How far should we go to refine humanity through science?

In his April 2004 cover story, "The Case Against Perfection" Michael J. Sandel, a professor of political philosophy at Harvard, explains that we now live in an era in which "science moves faster than moral understanding," and that people confronted with the imminent development of genetic enhancement procedures "struggle to articulate their unease." Sandel attempts to elucidate some of the sources of our discomfort. In mapping the terrain of our "ethics of enhancement," he traces the moral implications of our recent genetic discoveries, and expresses the arguments that underlie our ambivalence about exploiting our newfound knowledge to better our lives.

Procedures geared toward the perfection of the human species, Sandel argues, such as gene therapy to boost muscle mass, or the creation of made-to-order fetuses, could radically alter the face of humanity. He contends that our abilities, talents, and physical characteristics could come to be perceived as achievements rather than biological "gifts," and that we might no longer perceive our traits as blessings, but as obligations:
One of the blessings of seeing ourselves as creatures of nature, God, or fortune is that we are not wholly responsible for the way we are. The more we become masters of our genetic endowments, the greater the burden we bear for the talents we have and the way we perform. Today when a basketball player misses a rebound, his coach can blame him for being out of position. Tomorrow the coach may blame him for being too short.
The debate over how science can be employed to improve humanity has its roots in the eugenics movement, which emerged in the late nineteenth century as the vision of the British mathematician and scientist Sir Francis Galton. Galton defined eugenics as the "study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, either physically or mentally." While Galton advocated a systematic, circumspect inquiry into the impact of social institutions upon the overall health and well-being of human populations, his devotees often espoused eugenic theory as a quick fix for social problems by way of biology. In the early twentieth century, eugenics surged in popularity in the United States as a philosophy that prescribed a program of selective reproduction to breed out "defective genes" thought to be responsible for disease, feeble-mindedness, and pathological behavior.

During this time several Atlantic writers debated the merits of the eugenics movement and the ethics of putting its principles into practice.

In "Eugenics and Common Sense" (September 1914), H. Fielding-Hall condemned the principles of eugenics as dehumanizing. He noted that eugenicists often likened the process of cultivating fit, intelligent human beings to the process of breeding plants and horses. Fielding-Hall found such comparisons utterly inappropriate:
Do the higher qualities of brain and emotion count for nothing at all? There seems no objection to Eugenists classing themselves with cabbages and dogs and cats, but does the rest of the world accept this for itself? Are you content to be described and treated as a beast, and a beast only? Each reader will answer that for himself no doubt, and I need not elaborate the point. It is the cheerful and veracious foundation of Eugenics.
Furthermore, Fielding-Hall asserted, it would be inaccurate to class the much-touted experiments in plant and animal breeding as unqualified successes. More often than not, he pointed out, in selecting for certain desired traits, breeders inadvertently produced offspring that were deficient in other unanticipated respects. Breeding roses to maximize their aesthetic virtues, for example, had produced flowers too frail to survive in the wild without human intervention. He speculated about what might happen to a nation of people who had been subjected to a eugenics program for several generations:
They would be tall, broad, muscular, beautiful, delicate to a degree, useless save for athletic contests or beauty shows, always in the doctor's hands,—Eugenic doctor of course,—brainless, incapable of affection, almost wanting in courage, to a great extent sterile; and in the end, if the state did not die of inanition first, some more virile and intelligent race, say the Hottentots or Andamese, would come and eat its inhabitants. The Eugenic Utopia would end in the digestive apparatus of a savage.
In "Some Misconceptions of Eugenics" (February 1915), a rebuttal of Fielding-Hall's piece, S. J. Holmes disagreed with this appraisal of the eugenics movement. Holmes acknowledged that scientists' knowledge of the vagaries of gene inheritance was quite incomplete, but he did not believe that that should preclude the application of eugenic principles in circumstances where previously they had proved successful. He cited the case of the people of the Dora Baltea valley of northwest Italy, who disproportionately suffered from cretinism and goiter. But when the population was compelled to engage in exogamous unions through a segregation policy, incidences of these illnesses in future generations nearly vanished. Had the admonitions of critics been heeded, Holmes wrote, "the idiots and imbeciles would still be with us."

Holmes also addressed the common objection that, despite the good that might be accomplished, adopting a eugenics program would violate individuals' natural rights. Many critics, he conceded, were apprehensive about who would ultimately determine what constitutes the "eugenic ideal." Holmes countered that the purpose of eugenics was not to impose any specific conception of the ideal person, but to celebrate the diversity of humanity by representing "each class by its best specimens." In striving to improve society, Holmes asserted, there should be "sufficient consensus of opinion" in what traits we should selectively breed for. He gave a brief outline of society's wish list:
Health, good nature, moral stability, social sympathy, and intellectual ability, I think almost every one would agree, we could well have in much greater measure than at present. We want more of such stock as the Lowells, the Lees, the Edwardses, the Adamses,—the stocks that have given us our authors, statesmen, educators, and successful men of the world; and we want less of such stock as the Jukes, the Tribe of Ishmael, the Kallikaks, and other degenerates who help fill our almshouses, insane asylums, and jails.
In his view, the practice of eugenics was a moral duty—the fulfillment of our obligation to "eliminate our hereditary defectives" and to perfect the human race. Eugenics was an integral step toward refining the process of human evolution, Holmes argued, to be enacted where natural selection had proved unsuccessful.

While S. J. Holmes foresaw promise in institutionalizing eugenics, Vernon L. Kellogg remarked in "Eugenics and Militarism" (July 1913) that a social institution—the military—had been practicing eugenics for centuries, to the detriment of the human species. Kellogg contended that militarism was a form of eugenics, as it segregated the most able-bodied men from society and sent them to war, where they were more likely to perish from injury or disease in combat. The most physically fit men were thus excluded from the breeding pool. Kellogg claimed there was a striking correlation between military selection and the deterioration of the racial stock of populations that had been at war. He cited the detailed nineteenth-century medical records kept by the French as evidence of this connection:
From these figures, it may be stated with confidence that the average height of the men of France began notably to decrease with the coming of age, in 1813 and after, of the young men born in the years of the Revolutionary wars (1792-1802), and that it continued to decrease in the following years with the coming of age of the youths born during the wars of the Empire…. The average height of the annual conscription contingents born during the Napoleonic wars was about 1625 mm; of those born after the wars it was about 1655 mm.
Kellogg also noted a striking correlation between warfare and mortality rates in France:
The mortality tables of France show that there has been a steady decrease since 1800 in the death-rate of children under five years with the exception of one period. In the decade 1815-1824, immediately following the terrible man-draining wars of the Revolution and the Empire the annual death-rate of children under five was higher by one and one half per cent than in the highest other period.
Militarism," Kellogg bluntly concluded, "encourages bad breeding."

Finally, in "The New Science," (December 1912), Samuel George Smith took a step back from the debate surrounding the consequences of eugenic practices, and instead questioned the supposition that science holds the key to humanity's dream of a utopian society. People who once envisioned the ideal state as the realization of Plato's republic or as Thomas More's utopia were now embracing a eugenic paradigm of the perfect civilization. "It has remained for our time to make a definite effort to take the dream of the nations," Smith wrote, "rob it of its poetry and its hope, and interpret it in terms of biology."

Smith believed that scientific theories of genetic inheritance could never account for the diversity that characterizes the human species. The unique abilities, personality traits, and fingerprints of every individual human being, he argued, were a testament to the complexity of heredity—a phenomenon defying simple calculation:
Even from the basis of the materialist, such is the number of the organs of the human body and so vast the number of brain-cells in a human brain, that the possible combinations are beyond any computation. This leads irresistibly to the conclusion that the result of human mating is beyond mathematical computation. Its laws may not be discovered, and it can never be determined.
Smith believed that the primary result of eugenic theory was to propagate an ethos of fatalism, by implying that one's prospects in life were fixed by one's pedigree. But nothing could be further from the truth, Smith wrote, citing the accomplishments of great men like Abraham Lincoln and Robert Burns, who came from humble backgrounds. Eugenics, he emphasized, should not be considered a panacea for a flawed society. Instead of focusing on breeding perfect children, he wrote, "the important field for practical Eugenics at the present time is in the social effort to see that every child has a fair chance." It was not poor breeding that threatened society, he argued, but the "moral paralysis" engendered by a resurgent belief in predestination. After all, Smith suggested, it is far easier to blame society's ills on poor genetics than to shoulder responsibility for society's failures.

—Sanders Kleinfeld


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Sanders Kleinfeld is an editorial Web intern for The Atlantic Monthly.

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