Holocaust Museum Exhibit Confuses Private and Coercive Eugenics

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Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race at the Holocaust Museum sounds like a fascinatng and disturbing exhibition on Nazi eugenics. Oddly, the Museum's introductory material declares, "Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race provokes reflection on the continuing attraction of biological utopias that promote the possibility of human perfection. From the early twentieth-century international eugenics movements to present-day dreams of eliminating inherited disabilities through genetic manipulation, the issues remain timely."

Setting aside the notion of "biological utopias," whatever they may be, surely today "eliminating inherited disabilities" means curing people of those disabilities, not eliminating the disabled. Ultimately, the Museum seems to conflating future private reproductive and medical choices with state-imposed eugenics. As Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom has correctly pointed out in his essay, In Defense of Posthuman Dignity:

Transhumanists argue that the best way to avoid a Brave New World is by vigorously defending morphological and reproductive freedoms against any would-be world controllers. History has shown the dangers in letting governments curtail these freedoms. The last century's government-sponsored coercive eugenics programs, once favored by both the left and the right, have been thoroughly discredited. Because people are likely to differ profoundly in their attitudes towards human enhancement technologies, it is crucial that no one solution be imposed on everyone from above but that individuals get to consult their own consciences as to what is right for themselves and their families. Information, public debate, and education are the appropriate means by which to encourage others to make wise choices, not a global ban on a broad range of potentially beneficial medical and other enhancement options.

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  1. “From the early twentieth-century international eugenics movements to present-day dreams of eliminating inherited disabilities through genetic manipulation, the issues remain timely.”

    Saying that the “issues remain timely” doesn’t sound like a condemnation of trying to eliminate inherited disabilities to me. Are you taking the term “timely” as a code for “taboo”? The issues are timely because the technology is advancing.

  2. Ultimately, the Museum seems to conflating future private reproductive and medical choices with state-imposed eugenics.

    There is a lot of confusion these days over where private choices stop and state-imposed decisions begin…

  3. Uri: I’m just puzzled why the Museum is apparently somehow connecting Nazi eugenics with the more extragavent hopes for modern biomedicine.

  4. Once again, I agree with Ron Bailey. The fact that neutral genetic manipulation is mentioned in the same breath as the phrase “Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race” is pretty incendiary, if you ask me. It’s almost like a blog troll was in charge of describing the museum exhibit.

  5. I have only one request: please find another word for “transhumanists.” The Transhumanist sounds like a new villain for the Fantastic Four.

  6. Karen,

    Cyborgs? Homo sapiens superior?

  7. Ron:

    Nazi eugenics was a deplorable evil and modern genetic engineering may be a great blessing. The two are connected naturally because they both deal with genetics, but they’re also connected because the Nazi experience makes everyone wary of projects involving genetics. Recognizing the connections between the two is not the same as equating them. To deny that Nazi eugenics continues to cast a shadow over genetics is to deny reality.

  8. Pro L: I’m kind of partial to “New and Improved,” but that’s because I watched a lot of TV in the early 70’s. Actually, I’m just in a bad mood today because I ate too much at our Admin Professionals cajun luncheon, and I can’t go take a nap.

  9. Uri: I hear you, but I want to insist that the issue is not “genetics,” it is state coercion. It would be easy (and I think important) for the Museum to make that point loudly and clearly, yet it doesn’t.

  10. Karen, is “Man Plus” too sexist?

  11. Ron:

    Given the horors of the Nazi eugenics program, nothing the museum could say would allay fears of some that any genetics project MAY go wrong. As we move forward in genetics–as we surely will–I don’t think its such a bad thing to keep the recent past in mind. Who needs reminding that the Nazi project involved state coercion? Have states disappeared? It would sound pretty silly if the museum said something like “The Nazis misused genetics, but we needn’t fear such misuse today. There is absolutely no possible connection between what the Nazis did and any use to which genetic engineering will be put now or in the future.” Are there any gaurantees in human affairs?

  12. Pro L: Man Plus works, although I’d probably say Human Plus. Actual, Man Plus is sexier. Human Plus sounds too much like something General Nutrition Center sells.

    Along those lines some kind of symbol for human with + next to it would work too. Kind of like Prince during his “I want to be known as an unreadable symbol” phase. Someone will have to teach me how to make a macro in Word for it. That will probably take as long as developing the enhancements did in the first place.

    I really, really need that nap.

  13. In addition to the problem Uri points out, there’s also the complication that there really is not bright line between genetic disabilities and norman genotypical variation.

    Spina bifida vs. semitic noses is an easy one, but what about dwarfism vs. short stature? How about if screening and aborting for homosexuality was availabe in 1950, fully at the discretion of the would-be parents, of course.

    An attempt to create a master race is evil, even if carried out by the hallowed private sector

    And finally, let’s not forget that there are hard and soft forms of coercion. Look at the (redheaded/short/pudgy/who-knows-what-will-be-denounced-in-30-years) freaks!

  14. I, for one, am glad sensible joe is posting and not troll-joe. 🙂

  15. joe,

    This is a rather bizarre volte face; months ago you were arguing that one’s body was inviolable by the government and you differentiated this from the limits on economic liberty you favored by arguing that Gawd ordained it so.

  16. joe,

    Um, sure, you’re right that “there really is not bright line between genetic disabilities and norman genotypical variation.” However, you’ll have to explain to me what that lack of clear distinction has to comparing “genetic manipulation” to Nazi eugenics cause I sure don’t get it. I’d say neither curing conditions with a bad name NOR undoing “normal genetic variation” involve killing anyone or any other type of coercion, nor do they have anything to do with creating a “master race”!

    Re: “How about if screening and aborting for homosexuality was availabe in 1950, fully at the discretion of the would-be parents, of course.” This has nothing to do with genetic medicine but rather with selective abortion. That’s an entirely different issue, no?

  17. There is a lot of confusion these days over where private choices stop and state-imposed decisions begin.

    Actually, I don’t see much confusion “over where private choices stop and state-imposed decisions begin.” Hell of a lot of disagreement, but I don’t think many people are confused.

  18. Karen:
    Cajun Lunch? Are you in a part of the country where that actually means something? I was in a restaraunt in Nashville where the cajun fries consisted of french fries with black pepper on them. The folks back here in Baton Rouge had a good laugh at that.

    I’ll stop being off-topic now.

  19. Larry,

    I was hoping that by saying people are confused, I would imply that my position is correct and theirs is wrong.

    More importantly, I was trying to get at the shift taking place in where people see “private” to end and “public” to begin. E.g., businesses are now considered “public” space just because they are open to “the public,” as if a business could somehow not do that and have customers. It’s a de facto declaration that commerce is inherently public in a way that makes it subject to the majority will — take smoking bans for example. Employees and customers, who by all standards of logic have full human capacity to not enter into an employee/customer relationship with business owners/managers, now have the right to determine whether smoking is allowed in a place that doesn’t belong to them, simply because that’s their preference.*

    * This word doesn’t quite do justice to the desire not to be around dangerous and irritating substances in the atmosphere, but in a free society the state mostly avoids differentiating between the outcomes of choices individual adults freely make that don’t infringe on the rights of anyone else. I.e., if you choose to be in a smokey room, that’s your bidniss, not the Man’s. Which also means he won’t rescue you from your own choice to make a living as a bartender: “Oh shit, there’s smoking in bars? Crap, that’s a surprise! Who tricked me into this? Dang, I can’t get any other job either! I’m stuck breathing in smoke! Government, help me!” (And don’t forget that many other professions have organized to improve working conditions.)

  20. Ultimately, the Museum seems to conflating future private reproductive and medical choices with state-imposed eugenics.

    Just like the pope.

  21. One day genetic engineering may allow us to fix some of God’s greatest mistakes like German people.

  22. An attempt to create a master race is evil, even if carried out by the hallowed private sector

    What a stretch! Choosing the preferred genetic characteristics of MY child has no effect whatsoever on whatever genetic choices another couple chooses for their child.

    I suppose my child could someday say “Because of your evil selfishness I’ll never get asthma” but that would beg the question of whether such stupidity is genetic or produced by the environment.

  23. Let’s see, rich and powerful people (same thing, really) have better houses, cars, clothes, and educations than the rest of us. With the advent of genetic engineering, aren’t they very likely to wind up with better genes, too? Why couldn’t a wealthy people decide to invest in genetically engineering a servant class? I know nature has already done that to some extent, but they could do it with more presicion.

  24. JParker:

    “One day genetic engineering may allow us to fix some of God’s greatest mistakes like German people.”

    I have to register my disgust at this racist remark.

  25. Jeremy-

    Whose children would they be engineering? We’re talking about people selecting characteristics of their own children. Selfish as some rich people might be, they’re likely to also be egotistical, and they wouldn’t want their own children to become the servant class.

  26. Gee, it certainly would be awful if we got rid of Tay-Sachs

  27. Ventifact:

    If people can select the characteristics of their own children, they can certainly do it for the children of others. It’s a question of power. It’s not hard–not for me, at least–to imagine unscrupulous people doing all sorts of weird stuff with genetic engineering.

  28. Ventifact: Excellent point.

    I just wish more people were “confused.” At least they’d think about both sides, instead of using the “I don’t like it so ban it” argument.

  29. please find another word for “transhumanists”

    Posthumanists?

  30. If people can select the characteristics of their own children, they can certainly do it for the children of others. It’s a question of power. It’s not hard–not for me, at least–to imagine unscrupulous people doing all sorts of weird stuff with genetic engineering.

    Huh?? >Sigh< Your ‘rich and powerful’ people would have to engineer others’ children one of two ways: cooperatively or coercively. If it’s coercive, we would oppose it. If it’s cooperative, then those cooperating with them would be getting something out of it and it would be a far cry from Nazi eugenics. Now, if you’re saying that the advent of a technology would create some sort of deterministicly uncontrollable temptation to use it nefariously, what you’re saying begins to have some meaning, except that it’s a ridiculous stretch. You may as well outlaw all technology because it can all be used nefariously.

  31. Jeremy, your ‘rich and powerful’ people would have to engineer others’ children one of two ways: cooperatively or coercively. If it’s coercive, we would oppose it. If it’s cooperative, then those cooperating with them would be getting something out of it and it would be a far cry from Nazi eugenics. Now, if you’re saying that the advent of a technology would create some sort of deterministicly uncontrollable temptation to use it nefariously, what you’re saying begins to have some meaning, except that it’s a ridiculous stretch. You may as well outlaw all technology because it can all be used nefariously.

  32. “Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race provokes reflection on the continuing attraction of biological utopias that promote the possibility of human perfection. From the early twentieth-century international eugenics movements to present-day dreams of eliminating inherited disabilities through genetic manipulation, the issues remain timely.”

    They must have hired a bioethicist to write that.

  33. Fyodor:

    Who on earth favors coercion? I’m opposed to rape and murder, but they’re an abiding feature of life. I’m just being realistic about our species. I don’t want to ban nuclear power, but that’s not to say it may not some day destroy the planet. Humans will surely find a way to do mischief with genetic engineering. Given our history–as a species–the mischief will probably be really horrific.

  34. fyodor,

    Admittedly, I’m still working my way around this issue, but bear with me a little here.

    What would we think of someone who raised funds and organized a large campaign to pay every black male in American a few grand to have an irreversable vasectomy, in order to “clean up” our genetic stock, eugenics style.

    No coercion, just people given choices to decide for themselves. And yet, I can’t help but think it would be incredibly evil.

  35. >The fact that neutral genetic manipulation is mentioned in the same breath as the phrase “Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race” is pretty incendiary, if you ask me.

    It definitely smacks (ahem) of bias.

  36. From “Libertarianism Makes You Stupid” http://www.spectacle.org/897/finkel.html

    Libertarian proselytizers will preach some warm-and-fuzzy story such as

    We believe that respect for individual rights is the essential precondition for a free and prosperous world, that force and fraud must be banished from human relationships, and that only through freedom can peace and prosperity be realized.
    Now, how many ideologies have you ever heard state anything like
    We believe that disrespect for individual rights is the essential precondition for a free and prosperous world, that force and fraud are good things in human relationships, and that only through slavery can peace and prosperity be realized.

  37. I just read “Libertarianism Makes You Stupid”. Although the author makes a couple of reasonable criticisms, the rest is just BS. I love how his math examples are wrong. Dude needs to go back to school (e.g., you can’t divide by zero!). What a stupid ass!

    And you think this is good, joe?

  38. Seth claims to be a programmer. I’m not hiring him. He also twists himself into pretzels trying to claim that, even taken on a very charitable reading of Gore’s “took the initiative to create the Internet” claim, Gore wasn’t trying to claim overmuch credit.

    And yeah, actually, if you substitute “protection from dangerous ideas” for thought control and “ensuring jobs for everyone and no shirkers” for slavery, there have been more than a few regimes that have claimed just that.

  39. What would we think of someone who raised funds and organized a large campaign to pay every black male in American a few grand to have an irreversable vasectomy, in order to “clean up” our genetic stock, eugenics style.

    We’d probably think he was a racist asshole. A stupid racist asshole, too, since the only men who’d sign up for this would be ones who never wanted to have kids anyway. C’mon, joe, you can come up with a better nefarious plan than that. Put your Dr Evil hat on.

  40. btw, joe – I wasn’t calling you stupid for a hypothetical idea that took you about 10 seconds to think up while you were trying to prove a point, but if an actual racist attempted something like this, putting hundreds of hours to organize, etc., without ever realizing the point I mentioned, it would be stupid in addition to evil.

  41. joe,

    One neat thing about the genetics revolution, is that as the cost of sequencing DNA decreases, your scenario (@ 8:03pm) becomes even much more unlikely than it already is. I suspect it won’t be too long before people start recording for posterity all sorts of sequences. Currently sperm is stored outside the body in, IIRC, liquid nitrogen.

    How long will it be before the cost-efficient way to store sperm is to sequence it and keep the bits around, with a way to produce “viable sperm” from the bits? Bits are a lot easier to preserve, catalog and transmit than anything that needs to be kept extremely cold.

  42. OK, SmokingPenguin, fine: I’ll never make it as a James Bond villian. 😉

  43. If I was the villian on “24,” it would be called “2 and a Half.”

  44. What would we think of someone who raised funds and organized a large campaign to pay every black male in American a few grand to have an irreversable vasectomy, in order to “clean up” our genetic stock, eugenics style.

    That money would be better spent sterilizing some of my white cousins.

    If I was the villian on “24,” it would be called “2 and a Half.”

    If I was the villain on 24 it would be called “Jack Bauer’s Vacation” because I’d wait until he was out of the country before unleashing my evil scheme. But then Chuck Norris would show up and kick my ass.

    Actually, I’m pretty sure that I’d make a good 24 villain, because my evil scheme would undoubtedly be way, way more complicated than it needs to be.

  45. Here’s another interesting critique of libertarianism. Only non-conformist libertarians should check it out, though.

    http://world.std.com/~mhuben/faq.html#what

  46. I went to the “Libertarianism Makes You Stupid” site. It was really dumb but humorously so, and so I read on for a ways. I couldn’t keep reading after this little passage melted my brain though:

    That’s a wild definition of freedom. If you voluntarily contract to sell all your future income for $1, they then oppose all government “interference” with your “right” to do this. It’s a completely twisted, utterly inverted, perfectly Orwellian statement, almost exactly “Freedom is Slavery”.

    Yep, there’s nothing as “Orwellian” (and he was complaining about rhetoric) as allowing people to do whatever they want. Is he honestly saying the government should force me not to give away my stuff to other people? Is he honestly suggesting that for some reason, someone else needs to make sure I deal with my money properly? And we’re not even talking about, say, retirement investing as in the Social Security privatization debate, where lots of people assume no ordinary Joe Schmoe could handle saving his own money — we’re talking about a clear (over-the-top type clear) example where someone must know what they’re doing in making the choice to give away their income. But I suppose Seth should be running that guy’s life instead … or maybe just the benevolent government.

  47. to joe

    Now, how many ideologies have you ever heard state anything like “We believe that disrespect for individual rights is the essential precondition for a free and prosperous world, that force and fraud are good things in human relationships, and that only through slavery can peace and prosperity be realized.”

    Such ideologies are generally called either “conservative” or “liberal”. They both put it a little differently than you wrote, however:

    Conservative version:

    We believe that extreme individual rights are a threat to family and children, that force and fraud are necessary to keep order, and that only through strength can peace and prosperity be realized

    Liberal version:

    We believe that people are too stupid to bear individual rights and that we know better, that force and fraud are good things in human relationships if perpetuated by benevolent egg-heads and if the “right” people benefit from said coercion, and that only through limiting freedom in order to protect people from themselves can peace and prosperity be realized

    Frankly, no matter how pissed I get a Republicans lately, if I dare look at the Democratic party platform, I want to vomit. “The lesser evil” hardly suffices in this case.

  48. I’ll elaborate on my 11:42pm comment (since I find myself with remarkably little to do).

    Note that Seth does not give any description of the hypothetical person “voluntarily contract[ing] to sell all [his] future income for $1.” He doesn’t make the complaint that libertarians would let a mentally disabled person, a child, or someone in duress enter into such an unusual contractual arrangement. That’s because he doesn’t consider the person’s condition relevant.

    Seth complains that we could think that there exists any person, regardless of their motivations and state of mind, with the right to make that free decision. Simply because he doesn’t think it should happen (or because the majority doesn’t think it should happen), no one should get to do it. Now that’s a vision for a free society: third parties forcing on us their value judgments over personal choices that only affect consenting, adult, free parties.

  49. Okay, so I’ve read the “Non-Libertarian FAQ.” The guy lists a bunch of really stupid arguments that no intelligent libertarian would ever make (seriously). These arguments should be easy to rationally refute, but, strangely, the author resorts to circular logic and assertion to “refute” most of them. This guy basically believes that everything is government property. He’s simply an authoritarian through and through.

  50. Here’s another interesting critique of libertarianism. Only non-conformist libertarians should check it out, though.

    http://world.std.com/~mhuben/faq.html#what

    yes, Mike Huben’s anti-libertarian FAQ is pretty intelligent, and has been around for a while. It is worth reading.

    Detailed rebuttal by David D. Friedman here:

    http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Libertarian/response_to_huben.html

    (Also includes links to a rebuttal of the rebuttal, and a rebuttal to the rebuttal of the rebuttal.)

  51. There is a more chilling point. The Nazis did not invent the eugenics program with forced sterilization. The U.S. did. They improved it with Germanic efficiency, but here judges ordered the “unfit” to be sterilized when Adolf was only a corner street preacher.

    This under both Democratic and Republican Administrations.

    Evidently democracy is not a safeguard enough.

  52. This issue comes down to one simple fact for me:

    My son was born with a genetic deformity that has taken many painful surgeries and serial casting to allow him to even walk. If there had been a simple test that could have detected this and corrected for it in the embryonic stage, as a parent I would have been cruel not to do so.

    The comparison of this technology to the Nazi past is simply a smokescreen the “bioethicists” throw up to further their warped ideology. It is THEY who are the inheritors of fascist thinking. Under loons like Peter Singer, my son would have been euthanized at birth because he would have consumed more medical resources than his life was “worth.”

  53. What would we think of someone who raised funds and organized a large campaign to pay every black male in American a few grand to have an irreversable vasectomy, in order to “clean up” our genetic stock, eugenics style.

    Sounds more ethical than locking up black males on ridiculous drug possession charges.

    And I can envision a bi-partisan House committee introducing a bill covering welfare reform and slavery reparations to suggest just such a plan.

  54. Mike Huben’s anti-libertarian FAQ is pretty intelligent, and has been around for a while.

    You’re welcome to your own opinion, but one of the reason I’ve found it laughable has to do with it being around so long. I remember when the Asian economic crisis hit and he quietly removed an entire section on how heavy government involvement in investment in “Asian tiger” countries showed how the unbridled free market just couldn’t keep up with those clever central planners.

  55. (Personally, my biggest beef with the thing is the most obvious one – it’s not a list of Frequently Asked Questions, it’s a “list of talking points on why and how those libertarians – oooh, I hate them! – are so wrong, evil, and dumb”. “Why Libertarians Suck” would at least be more honest about the intent.)

  56. it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what “orewellian” means if you’re confusing doing something stupid without coersion and what “freedom is slavery” actually meant in the context of 1984.

    yeah yeah, i know blah blah etc disclaimer blah etc.

  57. Libertarians reacting to criticisms of libertarianism remind me of Scientologists. Why do people so desperately need dogmas to defend? I guess that’s the secret of the Catholic church’s staying power. That and the ritual. If you guys had some elaborate rituals to go with your dogmas, you could make some headway.

  58. People reacting to criticism remind me of insert unpopular group here.

  59. Eric- That doesn’t make any sense.What you mean to write is the following:

    People reacting to criticism of (insert target group here) remind me of (insert unpopular group here)

    You mean to imply that this formula somehow negates the charge that Libertarians are as dogmatic as Scientologists, but nobody will understand what you’re getting at unless you get the formula right.

  60. That doesn’t make any sense. What you mean to write is the following:

    If the statement didn’t make any sense, how were you able to rephrase it?

    Egad. You’re…you’re psychic!

    *runs to fetch tinfoil*

  61. Stevo: Mike Huben’s anti-libertarian FAQ is pretty intelligent, and has been around for a while.

    Eric the Demi-Bee: You’re welcome to your own opinion, but one of the reason I’ve found it laughable has to do with it being around so long. I remember when the Asian economic crisis hit and he quietly removed an entire section on how heavy government involvement in investment in “Asian tiger” countries showed how the unbridled free market just couldn’t keep up with those clever central planners.

    Oops! And also: Haw haw haw! Good catch!

    Well, maybe I should have said, “It’s a relatively intelligent critique, compared to 99% of what’s out there.” At least he didn’t just say all libertarians are just arrested adolescents who want to smoke crack, traffic in child prostitutes, and subsidize pollution.

  62. Libertarians reacting to criticisms of libertarianism remind me of Scientologists. Why do people so desperately need dogmas to defend?

    Aside from your accusation of desparation, which is strictly the way you see it, your rhetorical question makes no sense. Why shouldn’t people defend their beliefs?

  63. Eric and Fyodor:

    Good points. Geez, I always get shot down in these debates!

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