The nightmare of genetic degeneracy has been a recurring theme ever since Darwinian evolution took hold of the popular imagination. Eugenics, discredited nowadays, was public policy less than a hundred years ago. The disabled, the retarded, or the racially impure should not be allowed to breed. In 1927 one of the most influential justices ever to sit on the US Supreme Court, Oliver Wendell Holmes, wrote the majority opinion in an 8-1 decision legitimating compulsory sterilization. However shocking they seem now, his words, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough" expressed the conventional wisdom.
After the atrocities of the Nazi era, though, eugenics fell upon hard times. But the Nazi era ended more than 60 years ago and once again fear of genetic decline is on the rise.
Just few days ago, in the journal Trends in Genetics (here and here), Professor Gerald Crabtree, a developmental biologist at Stanford University, warned that civilization is slowly making us dumber.
“We, as a species, are surprisingly intellectually fragile and perhaps reached a peak 2000–6000 years ago,” he claims. “A hunter–gatherer who did not correctly conceive a solution to providing food or shelter probably died, along with his/her progeny, whereas a modern Wall Street executive that made a similar conceptual mistake would receive a substantial bonus and be a more attractive mate. Clearly, extreme selection is a thing of the past.”
Crabtree bases his pessimistic analysis on a study of the accumulation of mutations in the genome which are no longer eliminated by competitive pressure for survival. Life in society allowed a degenerating gene pool to thrive. We no longer needed to be brainy because we lived in high-density, supportive societies “that made up for lapses of judgment or failures of comprehension”.
Not even Crabtree himself wants to give up flush toilets and video games for the genetically vigorous life of a spear-brandishing mammoth-killer. But our cushy lives, he thinks, are inexorably turning us into Eloi. The process will take thousands of years, but a day will come when the world’s population will be “docilely watching reruns on televisions they can no longer build”.
Crabtree’s analysis has been ridiculed by science journalists. But its appearance in a leading journal suggests that something is afoot. What will the new eugenics look like? In the last century, the fashion was to eliminate “degenerates” through sterilization or murder. In the 21st century, eugenicists may call for physical and intellectual genetic enhancement. Those who cannot afford it will drop behind, doomed to become mere drones. For a peek into the year 2144, take a look at the genetically-engineered fabricants in the new film, “Cloud Atlas” (see below). It’s terrifying.