Richard Dawkins Claims Eugenics Works. He’s Wrong.

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Last week, Britain discovered that they had a eugenicist advising the prime minister, and that caused a polite bit of upset for almost everyone, who agreed that eugenics is wrong. Well, almost everyone. Some people argued that while eugenics is wrong in the ethical sense but maybe in the scientific sense it’s not, well, wrong-wrong. And one of the people arguing that was (drumroll please) my old friend Richard Dawkins.

There’s only so much I can talk about one particular person in a lifetime so I was going to leave this one alone but then I polled Twitter and found that a very slight majority wanted to watch a video on the topic, and I am nothing if not forever eager to do the bidding of a very slight majority of people who follow me on Twitter.

Here’s what Richard Dawkins tweeted with his frail little old man fingers: 

“It’s one thing to deplore eugenics on ideological, political, moral grounds. It’s quite another to conclude that it wouldn’t work in practice. Of course it would. It works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses. Why on earth wouldn’t it work for humans? Facts ignore ideology.”

Hoo boy, where do we start with the type of edgelord comment you’re most likely to find posted by a 12-year old with the handle CuntSlapper88 on a subreddit for Nazi clown memes?

CuntSlapper88 . . . I’m sorry, I mean the honorable Professor Richard Dawkin . . . went on to clarify to you snowflakes that just HAVE to find fault with EVERYTHING whenever ANYONE says even the SLIGHTEST POSITIVE THING about eugenics, “For those determined to miss the point, I deplore the idea of a eugenic policy. I simply said deploring it doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work. Just as we breed cows to yield more milk, we could breed humans to run faster or jump higher. But heaven forbid that we should do it.”

“A eugenic policy would be bad. I’m combating the illogical step from “X would be bad” to “So X is impossible”. It would work in the same sense as it works for cows. Let’s fight it on moral grounds. Deny obvious scientific facts & we lose – or at best derail – the argument.”

Hmm, you may think. He has a point! An edgy point! Too edgy for you, snowflake! Eugenics works and that’s just a scientific fact. Were he correct about this, it would be, perhaps, a valid point. Let’s say that some politician were arguing for us to end the AIDS crisis by systematically executing every person with HIV or AIDS, and you fought back by saying “that would be morally wrong, Dawkins would be technically correct to say “Look, it’s one thing to deplore shooting every HIV/AIDS patient in the brain on ideological, political, moral grounds. It’s quite another to conclude that it wouldn’t work to end AIDS. Of course it would.” 

Technically he’s right, but he’s missing a lot of points. Like, would it work? In reality? How would you identify every single person who has HIV or AIDS?

People who make arguments like Dawkins is making are fond of saying that they are just elevating “facts” over “feelings” as an intellectual exercise, but in fact, they are not. They are actually elevating “facts” over “other, more complex, inconvenient facts.” 

Because the only way everyone can agree that it’s a “fact” that eugenics would “work” is if we agree that eugenics is selectively breeding humans for a certain specific trait. Yes! That will work. If you want to create a race of people with blue eyes, you could do that. That would “work.”

But this intellectual exercise ignores the more complicated facts, like the fact that eugenics isn’t simply selectively breeding humans to have a certain trait. It is selectively breeding humans to have superior traits, without severe negative consequences. And that, my friend, does not work.

Because first of all, what is a superior trait? Blue eyes aren’t superior to brown. In fact, light-colored eyes are more susceptible to cancer due to a lack of pigment that would otherwise stop UV rays. How about increased intelligence? We have a little data suggesting that some aspects of intelligence may be inheritable but a lot more data suggesting that diet and money are more important. 

And what about animals that we’ve selectively bred? Dawkins points to “cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses” as examples where “eugenics” has “worked.” First of all, that’s not eugenics — that’s selective breeding. But fine, let’s pretend that eugenics can apply to animals. Did it “work”?

Behold, the end result of centuries of man’s selective breeding of the noble dog: the pug. No, actually, you know what? That’s too easy. Let’s pick America’s most popular dog breed of the 1980s and a dog that I personally grew up with: the cocker spaniel. The cocker spaniel was selectively bred to be a hunting dog: good senses to identify woodcocks and other birds, a soft mouth for retrieving the body, high energy to run around for an hour or two, and loyal. Considering all those traits are, in fact, hallmarks of the cocker spaniel breed today, can we say that “eugenics” in this case was a success?

Dawkins says yes, but the cocker spaniel may beg to differ. It’s one of the unhealthiest dog breeds out there. Those big floppy ears are prone to infection. Their eyes, bred to be able to pinpoint a bird in a bush, are prone to progressive retinal atrophy, cataracts, patellar luxation, and glaucoma, many of which can lead to blindness fairly early in the dog’s lifetime. Their small legs are prime for elbow dysplasia. Their body shape leaves them at serious risk of gastric torsion, a twisted stomach that kills them in 10-60% of cases, even with treatment. Their brains are likely to have idiopathic epilepsy, experiencing seizures with no apparent cause that require a lifetime of medication to manage. Their hearts are prone to dilated cardiomyopathy, in which the heart becomes too weak to pump blood and gives up. They also have several less severe genetic diseases, like anemia and hypothyroidism. Dawkins says eugenics worked for dogs. I say humans fucked up a perfectly good wolf. If you want a healthy, happy dog, get one whose parents rejected selective breeding and just fucked in an alley somewhere in Oakland.

That’s just one example of a “success” story. Dawkins also brings up dairy cows several times — the road to breeding a cow that produced more milk than usual was a long one that’s still going on, and one unintended consequence of it was that we accidentally made it so the cows experienced fertility problems, which led to (you guessed it) less milk overall. These days breeders tend to go more for general overall health in breeding, because identifying these specific traits and then focusing on breeding only for those resulted in fucked up animals.

These aren’t my “feelings.” These are facts. We try to selectively breed some really basic traits into animals with no rights and it ends up being kind of a fucking disaster. But edgelords like Dawkins don’t want to deal with those facts because they’re too complicated and require too much thinking. You can’t get a lot of attention by talking about them 280 characters at a time on Twitter. And that’s what people like Dawkins want: attention, without needing to do any bothersome thinking.

Here are some more facts: eugenics has been used throughout human history to subjugate marginalized people in the anti-scientific and bigoted belief that it works. You can ignore that fact if you want to just have a discussion on whether or not it works, but once that discussion is done and you realize it doesn’t work, you have to deal with the fact that you just told your audience of millions of people that it does work, making it so that the only thing standing in the way of the next eugenics program is a little moral quandary. So now when a politician introduces a plan to, say, require people under a certain IQ to get a permit to reproduce, he will be able to glide right past the question of whether or not this will “work” to make a smarter population because the great scientist Richard Dawkins told him it will work. Now we only need to debate the ethics, and in a world where children are kept in cages because they were born in the wrong town, and where people die of preventable diseases because their jobs didn’t give them healthcare, are we comfortable believing that ethics will save the day?

I just want to end by saying thanks to all the smart scientists I follow. Particularly, check out Adam Rutherford on Twitter, who pointed out that eugenics works so well that “following the murder of 2-300,000 people with schizophrenia in the Holocaust as part of their eugenics programme, by 1975 the numbers in a Germany had returned to pre-war levels.” Huh. Adam’s new book Arguing with Racists is out now and I can’t recommend it enough.

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Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Sorry to rely on memory, but I recall once reading that NONE of the dogs in the Iditarod teams were actually Huskies, Samoyeds, or any other ‘purpose bred’ sled dogs. Mutts simply provided better pulling with fewer health and performance problems. Obviously not RANDOM mutts, but still.

  2. I’d say Dawkins should stay in his lane, but he’s spent so much of his life careering all over the road, colliding with everything in his path, that I’m not sure what his lane even is any more. Maybe he should just park and let someone else drive.

  3. My reading of Dawkins’ tweet is that he is equating eugenics with selective breeding, which you acknowledge would “work” (n the narrow sense that the selected trait would be more common, or more extreme, in the bred population than in the general population). I would be shocked if he disagreed with you regarding the potential for unintended consequences (sometimes quite harmful to the individuals) that can occur when we breed for a particular trait. In other words — my sense is that you and Dawkins are talking past each other, operating with different definitions of eugenics.

      1. Really? That’s what you think I said? Interesting. I guess I didn’t make my point very clearly. Or — Cathy Newmanism. and QED Whichever it was — Have a good day.

    1. I don’t think it’s talking past someone to acknowledge that their opinion is uneducated and meant to grab headlines. Eugenics is terribly dangerous when even talked about regarding humans. I think the dog example is great actually, because guess what, Dawkins, pontificating and publicly allowing himself to be cited saying short-cited things, and unfortunately is still being cited as an expert. He is old, out of the loop and out of touch; shredding any semblance of reputation he may have had left. As Rebecca notes, there are unforeseen consequences.
      What is particularly dangerous is the average reader isn’t going to be skeptically minded and because he is being presented as an authority may accept his incredibly shortsighted opinion as fact.

  4. Selecting for any trait will also select for any dysfunctional alleles which are associated with it in the gene grouping. That’s why harmful traits persist in a population. You would think that an evolutionary biologist would know that. So, then I ask, what was Dawkins’ purpose in posting such a tweet? He has to be aware of its bullshitness.

  5. “The cocker spaniel was selectively bred to be a hunting dog: good senses to identify woodcocks and other birds, a soft mouth for retrieving the body, high energy to run around for an hour or two, and loyal. Considering all those traits are, in fact, hallmarks of the cocker spaniel breed today, can we say that “eugenics” in this case was a success?
    Dawkins says yes, but the cocker spaniel may beg to differ. ”

    This is inaccurate. While pedigree dogs like cocker spaniels have been selectively breed for hunting in the past. In modern times Cocker Spaniels and many other pedigree dog breeds have been breed mainly for looks at the expense of all else this is a major cause of many of the health problems in modern dog breeds.

  6. This talk of dog-breeding reminds me of the “We’re ten and one” speech in Stripes, and the virtues of diversity in the form of the all-American mutt.

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