Science, Eugenics and Utopia. Comparing scientific humanism and liberal eugenics on human genetic enhancement

December 2006
Instituto de Políticas y Bienes Públicos (IPP) CSIC, Working Paper. 2006-14

Vincenzo Pavone

When we come across the word ‘eugenics’ it is impossible to avoid thinking of Hitler’s eugenics and racial project. The latter, however, is hardly representative of eugenics. According to the definition provided by the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, eugenics is ‘a scientific attempt to improve the human gene pool’, which includes not only genetic engineering technologies but also the practice of husbandry, which some scientific utopias proposed to extend to human reproduction already in the seventeenth century. This is the historical background inspiring the most important theories of eugenics of the twentieth century. In the paper, I will first outline and compare Huxley’s centrally planned eugenics to the liberal type of eugenics recently proposed by Nicholas Agar. In Huxley’s view, eugenics was a social science with a genetic background, which required both public coordination of genetic enhancement and social planning. In contrast, Agar argues that, as long as it is entirely left to market regulation, not only eugenics is compatible with the liberal ideology but it actually constitutes the ultimate fulfilment of liberal society. In spite of remarkable differences, Huxley’s and Agar’s eugenics share the same utopian dream of physical and social perfection, which arguably finds its origins in the philosophical shift that led Puritan medicine to switch from treating human diseases but to improving the performances of the human body. This conception later found different expressions, depending on the dominant political ideology of the time. As a result, Huxley proposed eugenics in a context of social planning and collective internationalism whilst Agar has recently reformulated eugenics in a context of liberalism, individualism and market economy. Yet, whether through social planning or radical liberalisation, eugenics keeps being a crucial issue in the contemporary political agenda, never ceasing to be an inspiring dream as well as a tragic nightmare.