Eugenics to Transhumanism: The Secular Religion of Progressive Perfectibility

The so-called ‘change agent’—capable of transforming the genetic sequence of living people—could radically alter the world as we know it. … This technology could well undermine the concept of identity itself. Who is who, personal accountability—these were until now the foundation of all law. And yet new live genetic editing technology may render such presumptions obsolete.

—Daniel Suarez, Change Agent

Eugenics to Transhumanism: The Secular Religion of Progressive Perfectibility

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.

—Karl Marx, Theses On Feuerbach

Marx’s statement above is the central dictum of progressive thought in politics, the sciences, and the humanities for the past two hundred years. Instead of limits and constraints as Kant imposed, the progressive spirit sought to abolish necessity and constraints in a revolutionary agon against the human condition. Someone who would take this progressive tendency in another direction was Francis Galton.

Francis Galton, Father of Progressive Transhumanism, sometimes known as Eugenics (i.e., our long history of the Genome and Genetics stems from this first flowering) – or, the Victorian Secular Religion of Improvement believed that eugenics would accelerate the process, would breed out the vestigial barbarism of the human race and manipulate evolution to bring the biological reality of man into consonance with his advanced moral ideals. According to Galton, “what Nature does blindly, slowly, and ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly, and kindly.” He found in eugenics a scientific substitute for church orthodoxies, a secular faith, a defensible religious obligation.

He’d read his cousin, Darwin’s Origin of the Species and become converted by evolutionary theory to the point that over a period of years he’d construct out of a hodge-podge of pseudo-scientific notions the new religion and social progressive movement of secular eugenics. Intent on making a true science of eugenics possible, Galton began trying to ferret out the laws of inheritance. He approached the problem through the infant science of statistics. At the time, no biologist dealt with any part of his subject mathematically; Galton’s remarkable methodological departure was of considerable long-term significance for the discipline. It originated, however, not in a conviction on his part that biology needed mathematics but, rather, in something that came naturally to him— counting, and pondering the resultant numbers. The word “statistics” denoted, in Galton’s time, “state” numbers— indices of population, trade, manufacture, and the like— the gathering of which aided the state in the shaping of sound public policy.1

All the barbarisms of the Nazi’s and the Fascia stem from such strange thought as Galton’s. One need only read of its terrorist manipulation and sterilization programs in America during the first decades of the twentieth-century to see how pervasive this actually was. So many people want to pretend that Nazism was an aberration, when in fact it was the end product of secularism as a religion of progress and modernity. It was the very notions of efficiency, improvement, technological and socio-cultural progress that produced and underpinned these horrendous racist ideologies. And, they were much more wide-spread than many would want to believe.

Even in our age it is the affluent middle class, the knowledge workers who are buying into the new wave of Eugenics known as Transhumanism that promises longevity, optimized intelligence, pharmakon, drug and gene therapies for anything from in vitro deletion or addition to their child’s genome for improvement or health, etc. Those who have money will take advantage of such technologies of life in the coming century. DARPA is investing millions into research for improved soldiers, etc. Military and Civilian use of these technologies is on the upswing and will produce new monstrosities down the pipe. We are setting the stage to manipulate the genome and begin artificial selection and mutant or mutational changes that will in the long run produce a new bifurcation and class warfare in the coming centuries.

As Yuval Noah Harari, in his Guardian article Are we about to witness the most unequal societies in history? – says,

With rapid improvements in biotechnology and bioengineering, we may reach a point where, for the first time in history, it becomes possible to translate economic inequality into biological inequality. Biotechnology will soon make it possible to engineer bodies and brains, and to upgrade our physical and cognitive abilities. However, such treatments are likely to be expensive, and available only to the upper crust of society. Humankind might consequently split into biological castes.

As the characters in Daniel Suarez’s recent Change Agent remark,

 “Some people want to edit embryos even when they’re not sick.”
“Why?”
“Because they want to make their kids taller or stronger or smarter than other kids.”

A Short History of a Dangerous Idea

“We may be the first generation to actually take control of our own biological destiny. It’s a chance to create a whole new world, full of better, healthier, and more intelligent people.”

—Greg Cox. Kahn – The Eugenics Wars 1 – The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh    (Star Trek)

In 1986 Walter Gilbert would remark that “[The Human Genome Project] is the grail of human genetics … the ultimate answer to the commandment, ‘Know thyself'”. In 1988 the U.S. Congress funded the HGP (Human Genome Project) which for four decades of genetic research on DNA had brought together journalists, scientists, engineers, politicos, technocrats, corporations, military, think tanks, academic and philosophical talents to bare on the need to map the human condition that seemed to be bound to this small data bank of life much like quantum physics sought the Holy Grail of quarks and other exotic particles.

In the early stages of the emergence the sciences Francis Bacon, the seventeenth-century apologist for scientific inquiry, wrote a short fable on the subject, and it turns into a cautionary tale. “Sphinx, says the story, was a monster,” Bacon begins. After briefly retelling the Sphinx story, he jumps headlong into interpretation.

The fable [of Sphinx] is an elegant and a wise one, invented apparently in allusion to Science; especially in its application to practical life. Science, being the wonder of the ignorant and unskilful, may be not absurdly called a monster. . . . Again Sphinx proposes to men a variety of hard questions and riddles which she received from the Muses. . . . when they pass from the Muses to Sphinx, that is from contemplation to practice [emphasis added], whereby there is necessity for present action, choice, and decision, then they begin to be painful and cruel . . .3

For Bacon the point of this cautionary tale is that if the Sphinx was a monster, then science is a monster also—presumably of our own creation. We do not expect such a view from Bacon. But he explains himself clearly. As the Sphinx grafts a human head onto a lion’s body and combines the contemplative questions of the Muses with “painful and cruel” choices posed by its own riddles, so science must pass “from contemplation to practice.” Roger Shattuck in his Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus To Pornography comments:

Bacon wants us to know that the Sphinx exists and represents the menacing side of science. Though they form an unnatural combination of parts, the dreaming human head cannot be separated from the lion’s menacing body. That graft constitutes precisely the monstrousness of the creature, of which we should beware. For the imaginings of the mind will inevitably be given “present action” by the attached body: a monstrous union, symbol of the bond between science and technology.4 (186)

This notion that scientific knowledge is tethered to the menacing body of a lethal technics and technology has always been a part of the two-edged sword of the sciences. In his 1984 book The Limits of Science, Nicholas Rescher reminds us that “There seems to be no knowledge whose possession is morally inappropriate per se. Here inappropriateness lies only in the mode of acquisition or in the prospect of misuse. With information, possession in and of itself—independently of the matter of its acquisition and utilization—cannot involve moral impropriety.”5 This division between pure and applied sciences has a long history, and the ethical implications have yet to be defined or expressed in legal or socio-cultural terms.

As we look back on the history of genetics and eugenics from Mendel and Galton to now we see this admixture of pure and impure use and abuse of the sciences for various menacing applications with dire consequences. One need only be reminded of the scientific battle over the use of and construction of the Atom Bomb and the history of the Manhattan Project during WWII to gain an idea of this ethical war that is now being presented in our time in the use or possible abuse of the so called NBIC technologies. I this post I’m looking back at the dark side of this in the history of Eugenics. Genetics would emerge and distance itself from this dark heritage, but the very taint of its principles even now haunt us as we contemplate the options of posthumanist and transhumanist projects.

Even as early as 1973, apprehensions about recombinant DNA had increased enough to justify two closed meetings of molecular biologists at the Asilomar conference center (near Monterey, California) and at New Hampton, New Hampshire, to discuss what steps to take. After the Gordon Conference in New Hampshire, the chairman represented a number of participants in a letter to the president of the National Academy of Sciences. This statement stands alone as a paragraph.

“Certain such hybrid molecules may prove hazardous to laboratory workers and to the public. Although no hazard has yet been established, prudence suggests that the potential hazard be seriously considered.” (Shattuck, 194)

The invention or grafting of viral systems onto the existing genome of certain bacterium, like E. coli, found in the digestive tract of mammals, including man could be used for military or nefarious purposes opening a whole gamut of unknown ethical and political consequences not to mention survival consequences for the human species itself. The notion of biological warfare is always in the background of such dark predictive thoughts, and will haunt us for decades to come.

Michael Rogers in the Rolling Stone (June 19, 1975) article “The Pandora’s Box Congress,” mentions the possibility, raised in the course of the wide-ranging debate at that time, of “the creation of novel biotypes never seen before in nature”—that is, monsters, more politely referred to as chimeras or chimerical plasmids. Such artificial manipulation of the evolutionary process, Rogers suggests, “will represent as profound an expulsion from the Garden as the human intelligence has thus far managed.” (Shattuck, 195)

The use of religious metaphors would be used in earlier and even more hideous forms during the Eugenics Era.

The Dark Heritage of Eugenics

During the early decades of the American Century over nine thousand people were sterilized up to 1928. Widely endorsed by biologists and prominent philanthropists, eugenics sought to develop an improved breed of the human species by restricting births from the “unfit” and by encouraging births from the most fit. And the case also concerns one of our most renowned justices.

Opponents of eugenics mounted a strong attack on the practice as unscientific and ineffectual. State courts began declaring such laws unconstitutional on various grounds. After three years of appeals, the Supreme Court heard Buck v. Bell, a case in which all previous decisions sustained the Virginia sterilization statute and its application in these circumstances. Carrie Buck, the illegitimate child of a feebleminded mother and adopted at age four, became pregnant at age seventeen and was committed to the State Colony for Epileptic and Feebleminded in Lynchburg, Virginia. The superintendent petitioned to have Carrie sterilized. Carrie’s attorney fought the petition and carried the fight to the courts. The Colony, represented by Aubrey Strode, a lawyer of eugenicist convictions and author of the Virginia statute, prepared a case based in part on expert testimony from Harry Laughlin of the Eugenics Records Office in Cold Spring Harbor. They declared that Carrie and her mother were feebleminded and promiscuous and that Carrie’s baby was also feebleminded. Another expert declared, “The blood is bad.” Carrie’s attorney pleaded due process, cruel and unusual punishment, and equal protection. (Shattuck, 204)

The Court’s opinion was written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, an enthusiast of science as a guide to social action, who managed to find a link between eugenics and patriotism: “We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices … in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence.… The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.” With deliberate punch Holmes asserted: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” (Kevles, KL 2536-2541)

This notion of the State’s power to enforce sterility as well as begin promoting selective or artificial breeding programs for military and civilian reasons would bring human kind into a new dangerous era beyond the natural contracts of natural law and right. From that period on the Artificial Century would emerge, an age that would bring the technocratic state with its socio-cultural, scientific, and technological deterministic tyranny into the light of day.

Herman Muller more than any other American scientist,represents a multiple shift in biology in the early era of the 1920s and 1930s: focus for him was no longer on the organism or cell but on the gene as the unit of life; understanding the gene as carrying information, a crucial code to be cracked; and welcoming a Frankenstein-like manipulation of the processes of life in order to achieve particular social goals. His 1935 book, Out of the Night, preached “entelegenesis,” or eugenic breeding by the use of artificial insemination and the creation of test-tube babies. The book made little impression in the United States and then received resounding endorsements in England from G. B. Shaw, C. P. Snow, J. B. S. Haldane, and Julian Huxley. (ibid., 210)

That the major players in the scientific community of that era saw no moral conflict is telling. Even now when DARPA can dream of cat-eyed soldiers with extraordinary light spectrum enhancements, etc., the notion that biotechnology will allow for the creation of entirely new organisms, while adding new capacities (or “features”) to existing ones — including humans becomes an almost forgone conclusion. As this articles suggests: “Imagine a soldier who never needs to sleep, requires minimal sustenance, or who has cat-like infrared vision. Artificial chromosomes could pave the way towards this kind of future — technologies that could eventually trickle into the civilian domain (much like the Internet and GPS has — both military innovations).”

The clumsy dreams of eugenics lives on in our ultra-advance military-industrial complex as if the science fiction of yesteryear were but an engineering feat for today’s unregulated hyperindustrial and accelerationist era. One need only go back to Muller’s statements, and the enthusiasm of Bernard Shaw and Julian Huxley to understand and see this ultra hyperstitional message emerging even now in other guises. As Muller would say in the 1930’s: “How many women, in an enlightened community devoid of superstitious taboos and of sex slavery, would be eager and proud to bear and rear a child of Lenin or of Darwin! Is it not obvious that restraint, rather than compulsion would be called for?” (Muller, 122). Shaw and Huxley did not hesitate to promote these ideas of separating human reproduction from both sexual love and family bonds. Eugenics could reach a long way into social reform. (Shattuck, 211)

Muller at the Seventh International Congress of Geneticists in 1939 in Edinburgh, appearing in Nature (September 16), would present a lecture that has come to be known as “the geneticists’ manifesto.” (Shattuck, 212):

The most important genetic objectives, from a social point of view, are the improvement of those genetic characteristics which make (a) for health, (b) for the complex called intelligence, and (c) for those temperamental qualities which favour fellow-feeling and social behaviour rather than those (today esteemed by many) which make for personal “success,” as success is usually understood at present.

A more widespread understanding of biological principles will bring with it the realization that much more than the prevention of genetic deterioration is to be sought for, and that the raising of the level of the average population nearly to that of the highest now existing in isolated individuals, in regard to physical well-being, intelligence and temperamental qualities, is an achievement that would—so far as purely genetic considerations are concerned—be physically possible within a comparatively small number of generations. Thus everyone might look upon `genius,” combined of course with stability, as his birthright. As the course of evolution shows, this would represent no final stage at all, but only an earnest of still further progress in the future.

This notion of using the State to improve health, intelligence, and control the application of and prevention of “genetic deterioration” in the population as if the technocrats of the scientific technocracy and its experts could guide humanity to some technological and genetic utopia was pervasive during this age. Aldous Huxley brother of Julian Huxley would base his novel Brave New World on many of these pervasive ideas within the accepted eugenics and genetics literature and sciences. As the Director of a near future eugenics factory will spout in Huxley’s novel:

“My good boy!” The Director wheeled sharply round on him. “Can’t you see? Can’t you see?” He raised a hand; his expression was solemn.
“Bokanovsky’s Process is one of the major instruments of social stability!”
Major instruments of social stability.
Standard men and women; in uniform batches. The whole of a small factory staffed with the products of a single bokanovskified egg. “Ninety-six identical twins working ninety-six identical machines!” The voice was almost tremulous with enthusiasm. “You really know where you are. For the first time in history.” He quoted the planetary motto. “Community, Identity, Stability.” Grand words. “If we could bokanovskify indefinitely the whole problem would be solved.”6

The problem of the human condition, the cloning and breeding on a grand scale of a world of workers like the hivemind of some vast machine. One imagines a new Huxley like novel updated with an almost Star Wars motif of a million cloned soldiers fitted with the latest genetic updates for physical, mental, and empirical power templates all segmented into the various transhuman biological castes of a near future society of scientists, scholars, and warriors. One need only be reminded of Frank Herbert’s Dune works, and those of his son that would outline where such a hypergenetic breeding program of cloned citizenry and soldiers would lead.

The Bene Gesserit sisterhood would after the Butlerian Jihad against intelligent machines would guide the vast galactic sprawl of humanity under a genetic system of selective intervention. Many have seen the Jihad as an echo of Samuel Butler, whose 1872 novel Erewhon depicted a people who had destroyed machines for fear they would be out-evolved by them. From Erewhon, Chapter 9,

“… about four hundred years previously, the state of mechanical knowledge was far beyond our own, and was advancing with prodigious rapidity, until one of the most learned professors of hypothetics wrote an extraordinary book (from which I propose to give extracts later on), proving that the machines were ultimately destined to supplant the race of man, and to become instinct with a vitality as different from, and superior to, that of animals, as animal to vegetable life. So convincing was his reasoning, or unreasoning, to this effect, that he carried the country with him and they made a clean sweep of all machinery that had not been in use for more than two hundred and seventy-one years (which period was arrived at after a series of compromises), and strictly forbade all further improvements and inventions”

What would happen in Herbert’s novels against the machines would happen in the Star Trek series against the genetic improvement of humans into a superior race of Overmen. In Greg Cox’s SF novel The Eugenics Wars: The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh Captain Kirk and team would confront Khan and his advance genetic followers.

The first volume deals mostly with the Chrysalis Project, which was how Khan Noonien Singh and the rest of the superhumans were created. The genetically engineered “Children of Chrysalis” were mentally and physically superior to ordinary men and women. The scientists of Chrysalis desired for their creations to take over Earth. When Gary Seven and Roberta Lincoln begin to learn about this project, Roberta goes undercover as a scientist that wants to join the Chrysalis Project. The members of Chrysalis are convinced that she is who she claims to be, and she is allowed to join. Roberta heads out to an underground complex beneath the Thar Desert in India where the project is housed. Once there, Roberta begins to work out a way to stop the project.

Roberta and Gary Seven finally decide that they should blow up the nuclear reactor that runs the underground complex. Of course, being humanitarian, they do not wish anyone to be harmed, so they give all of the scientists plenty of time to leave and Roberta uses Gary’s matter transporter to get the children (including the then young Khan) to safety. The complex is destroyed, along with the project’s head and Khan’s birth mother, Sarina Kaur, who refused to leave her life’s work.

This was not the last time Khan would have to deal with Gary Seven and Roberta Lincoln, however. Gary Seven kept tabs on Khan and initially hopes to train Khan as his successor. But, at the end of the book, Khan betrays Gary and Roberta and the hopes that Khan could be Seven’s apprentice are completely shattered. (Wikipedia)

The other two novels would follow the course of Khan until Kirk abandons him and his progeny / followers on a desolate planet.

Transhumanism: A New Mask for Eugenicists?

We imagine posthumans as humans made superhumanly intelligent or resilient by future advances in nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science. Many argue that these enhanced people might live better lives; others fear that tinkering with our nature will undermine our sense of our own humanity.

—David Roden, Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human

Nietzsche would envision the stability needed to create a master race of superior physical and mental Overmen as the slow establishment of a homogenized species that would serve a “higher sovereign species” on that “stands upon the former and can raise itself to its task of ruling.7 The superior ones would have its own “sphere of life, with an excess of strength for beauty, bravery, culture, manners to the highest peak of the spirit; an affirming race that may grant itself every great luxury — strong enough to have no need of the tyranny of the virtue-imperative, rich enough to have no need of thrift and pedantry, beyond good and evil; a hothouse for strange and choice plants” (ibid.).

For many critics Transhumanism is an extension of the dangerous belief in human perfectibility derived Social Darwinism and eugenics, which flourished in the early twentieth century under the sponsorship of the Rockefeller Foundation, before achieving notoriety through the horrors of the Nazi regime.8 That Nietzsche’s sister and husband were anti-Semitic and followers of the Wagnerian and degrading forms of this religious and political system are well known, that she would abuse her brothers later works and intervene into his notebooks has slowly emerged as well. The eugenicists of Germany following from their American rivals would instigate the twisted version of Nietzsche’s program.

This twisted version would extrapolate and fictionalize Nietzsche’s notion of a revolutionary New Man of the future, the Übermensch or “Superman,” who would strip away all values of conventional weak morality, including equality, justice and humility, the so called “revaluation of all values” in which the man of the future must be a beast of prey, an “artist of violence’’ creating new myths, new states based upon the essence of human nature, which Nietzsche identifies as Wille zur Macht, the “Will to Power” being a “a will to war and domination.”

And, yet, the Anti-Semitic ploy that our current crop of critics turn too is such statements as this in Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals (1887, I: vii, ix):

. . . it was the Jews who started the slave revolt in morals; a revolt with two millennia of history behind it, which we have lost sight of today simply because it has triumphed so completely . . . Let us face facts: the people have triumphed – or the slaves, the mob, the herd, whatever you wish to call them – and if the Jews brought it about, then no nation ever had a more universal mission on this earth.

For Nietzsche the Enlightenment and modern democracy as bolstered in Europe and America was non other than the triumph of slave morality. One can see how such thought would siphon down into the Fasci and Hiterlist cults of Fascism and become malformed and used to justify the holocaust and other terrors and genocides.

But as Dan Stone reminds us it was Oscar Levy, not Nietzsche or his sister who would impact the rehabilitation of these ideas within the eugenics movement. physician. Levy not only drove forward the reception of Nietzsche in Britain in the face of widespread indifference (though on the basis of the earlier efforts of others), but also wrote much and contributed more to the intellectual development of a whole ‘school’ of thinkers, centred mainly around A. R. Orage and the avant-garde weekly journal, the New Age. His diagnoses of civilisation, penetrating and controversial, not only landed him in trouble with the authorities in the wake of the anti-alien backlash of the post-First World War period, but are still worthy of consideration for their early insights into the coming European cataclysm.9

In Levy’s The Revival of Aristocracy (1906), he adumbrates a theory of degeneration, arguing that philanthropy, extended to the benefit of ‘the feeble, commonplace, pitiable, unsound, and helpless’ to the exclusion of the ‘best’, had led to the point at which, by the late nineteenth century, ‘only a harmless flock of sheep was left surviving, mutually innocuous and useless’. Levy believed that a way out of this dangerous situation could be found in the teachings of Nietzsche: ‘man might be regenerated; conceivably might a new shepherd be found for this straying herd of waifs; an aristocracy might be established to counterbalance that equalized and contemptible rudis indigestaque moles’. (Stone, 3)

In this work Levy would promote the concept of ‘stock’ which meant above all ‘breeding’ in the sense of class position; a biological aristocracy. Thus although Levy praised ‘that young and promising Eugenic Party’, he also noted that ‘the successful “breeding” of men can only be brought about by religious or philosophic faith’, and that therefore one needed Nietzsche more than Galton. And hence he felt able to laud Gobineau in rather expansive terms:

Gobineau’s [unlike Chamberlain’s] was an honest Antisemitism, it was, like Nietzsche’s, an historical Antisemitism: it had nothing whatever to do with modern Antisemitism, that movement born from fear, envy, and impotence … [i]t is an upright, a genuine, a gentlemanly Antisemitism, it is the Antisemitism of the aristocrat, who sees his very blood threatened by revolutionary religions. Both Nietzsche’s and Gobineau’s Antisemitism, therefore, included of course Christianity. (Stone, 4)

This notion that one could through some slippery conceptuality present and defend a case of cultural-historical Anti-Semitism, while at the same time excluding and excoriating the racial and demented form in the current literature of his time seems to us now a little hypocritical. As Stone will comment Levy shies away from arguments that proceed from the belief that modern Europe can only be rescued from degeneration by the creation of racial homogeneity through eugenic measures, arguing instead for a kind of pre-nationalist aristocratic vision of a pan-European ruling caste;24 on the other hand he accepts Nietzsche’s claim, primarily expounded in the Genealogy of Morals, that the people who have led Europe to the moral abyss which has sought equality at the expense of health, vigour and achievement are the Jews. (Stone, 4)

Even poets as reputable as W. B. Yeats, for example, was a mystical nationalist and eugenicist, and in On the Boiler (1939). Another important figure of that era to bring Nietzsche and eugenics to the fore was Anthony Mario Ludovici. In 1915, Ludovici published his first major work not devoted solely to Nietzsche, A Defence of Aristocracy: A Textbook for Tories, but one that would claim that democracy bred weakness by ceding power to the masses, a familiar refrain as was his assertion that true leadership could only be undertaken by an aristocracy set apart from the rest of the people. This was an argument that had been put forward by other thinkers attempting to revive Tory thinking. (Stone, 11)

Biopolitics and Biological Elites

With rapid improvements in biotechnology and bioengineering, we may reach a point where, for the first time in history, it becomes possible to translate economic inequality into biological inequality. Biotechnology will soon make it possible to engineer bodies and brains, and to upgrade our physical and cognitive abilities. However, such treatments are likely to be expensive, and available only to the upper crust of society. Humankind might consequently split into biological castes.

– Yuval Noah Harari, Are we about to witness the most unequal societies in history?

Traian Herseni, a committed eugenicist and racial scientist, who discarded a moderate left-wing stance to embrace fascism, and parted ways with Gusti over his support for the Iron Guard. A leading functionary and ideologue of the fascist National Legionary State, and a figure of cultural and political importance under dictator Ion Antonescu, he proposed the compulsory sterilization of “inferior races”, and wrote praises of Nazi racial policy. Indicted by the communist regime in 1951, he spent some 5 years in prison. He made a slow return to favors as a researcher for the Romanian Academy, participating in the resumption of sociological research, as well as experimenting in social psychology and pioneering industrial sociology.

Herseni would promote a biopolitics of a new biological elite, rather than social and political institutions, one that would become the basis of a new State. In keeping with his scientistic conception of the national life, Herseni reaffirmed his commitment to a eugenic biopolitical programme in unambiguous terms:

Once the change in mentality concerning the physic-racial phenomenon has occurred; once the evaluation and social selection based on racial qualities has been achieved, the most difficult action – but also the most efficient through its qualitative and long-lasting results – must follow: eugenics, which is the improvement of the race through heredity. We need eugenic laws and eugenic practices. Reproduction cannot be left unsupervised. The science of heredity (genetics) demonstrates clearly that human societies have at their disposal infallible means for physical and psychical improvement – but for this to happen there can be no random reproduction and thus the transmission of hereditary defects; and those possessing qualities cannot be left without offspring. Those dysgenic should be banned from reproduction; inferior races should be completely separated from the [Romanian] ethnic group. Sterilisation of certain categories of individuals should not be considered an affront to human dignity: it is a eulogy to beauty, morality and perfection, in general. The biological definition advocated by eugenics and biopolitical nationalism thus became the norm, rather than the exception in 1940s Europe.10

In order to “denounce” the deep roots of some eugenic concepts, Jeremy Rifkin deliberately begins the chapter headed “A Eugenic Civilization” of The Biotech Century with a “shocking” quotation:

Some day we will realize that the prime duty, the inescapable duty of the good citizen of the right type, is to leave his or her blood behind him in this world; and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type. The great problem of civilization is to secure a relative increase of the valuable as compared with the less valuable or noxious elements in the population. […] The problem cannot be met unless we give full consideration to the immense influence of heredity. […] I wish very much that the wrong people could be prevented entirely from breeding; and when the evil nature of these people is sufficiently flagrant, this should be done. Criminals should be sterilized and feeble-minded persons forbidden to leave offspring behind them. […] The emphasis should be laid on getting desirable people to breed.12

Already China and other countries are experimenting in the new gene therapies and techniques. The use of stem-cell technology to generate artificial eggs and sperm raises exciting future prospects for the treatment of infertility, if also some highly controversial issues, but it seems likely that it will be some time before anyone considers this a safe approach for the treatment of this disorder. The question of whether genome editing of human embryos might be used for clinical purposes requires more immediate consideration. The news that scientists in China have used the CRISPR/CAS9 approach to correct a gene defect in a human embryo—albeit one that could never have developed into a person—shows how rapidly research is progressing in this direction.11 (246).

Gilbert Meilaender, another member of the Presidential Council on American Bioethics, wrote in 2001: “Our present condition is this: we have once more entered a eugenic age. Science that tries to meliorate the hereditary characteristics of the species, the same that fell so suddenly out of fashion after World War II and the Nazi physicians, now peremptorily resurfaces to gain respectability.”13 As Francis Fukuyama in Our Posthuman Future would remark “Today, genetic engineering is used commonly in agricultural biotechnology to produce genetically modified organisms such as Bt corn (which produces its own insecticide) or Roundup Ready soybeans (which are resistant to certain weed-control herbicides), products that have been the focus of controversy and protest around the world. The next line of advance is obviously to apply this technology to human beings. Human genetic engineering raises most directly the prospect of a new kind of eugenics, with all the moral implications with which that word is fraught, and ultimately the ability to change human nature.”14

Isn’t this the central point of the past two hundred years in Progressive ideology in politics, the sciences, and socio-cultural thought: human perfectibility, the need to change both ourselves and our circumstances. That humans have not been satisfied with their place in the scheme of things, the natural order of the universe. That humans – must we repeat it again – do not want to be animals, that they think of themselves as special, as different, as an exception in the scheme of things? As Nathaniel Comfort admonishes us

The eugenic impulse arises whenever the humanitarian desire for happiness and social improvement combines with an emphasis on heredity as the essence of human nature. It is the dream of control, of engineering ourselves, of not leaving our future up to cruel fate. This impulse is noble in spirit but, unleavened by an equal impulse to improve the conditions of life, it is deceptive and ultimately impoverishing. Human happiness is overdetermined— more than one set of causes can provide a complete account of it. Even a full molecular explanation of health or intelligence or personality would not preclude an equally complete explanation in terms of upbringing and training. Heredity trumps environment by collective decision, not natural necessity. We choose to explain human nature in terms of heredity because it offers technological solutions that, challenging and expensive as they may be, are ultimately easier and sexier than social solutions. The greatest risk of hereditary determinism may be not the results it produces but the alternatives to which it blinds us. It obscures the power of diversity, the beauty of chance, and the virtues of tolerance, by creating an illusion of perfectibility.15

There it is that word again: tolerance. This Enlightenment notion of leveling everything to the egalitarian encompassment that disperses difference in a non-hierarchical world of utopian desire. Problem with tolerance is that it forgets all those other intolerant creatures who will not only trounce on such utopian notions, but bring the house of egalitarian values crashing down in the hopes of gaining an advantage in the ranking world of exceptionalism. Tzvetan Todorov in the Imperfect Garden: The Legacy of Humanism would offer another view on such scientific and human aspirations of perfectability:

Scientism does not eliminate the will but decides that since the results of science are valid for everyone, this will must be something shared, not individual. In practice, the individual must submit to the collectivity, which “knows” better than he does. The autonomy of the will is maintained, but it is the will of the group, not the person. The followers of scientism act as if there were a continuity between the constraints that man endures at the hands of nature and those that society inflicts on him, effacing the boundary between two kinds of freedom: freedom that is opposed to necessity and freedom that resists constraint. Postulating the absence of the one, they conclude the desirable absence (for the individual) of the other. (34)

The Enlightenment project sought to universalize this perfection of the human into the artificial worlds of our posthuman and transhuman perfectibility. With its roots in dissent and Puritanism the perfectibility of man was always central, along with the deterministic sense of Providence. The Progressive spirit of improvement and continuous change and mutation, metamorphosis and revolution has been central to this driving theme at the core of capitalist society. We are entering an age when the ghosts of future past are haunting us with this movement between necessity and constraint, perfectibility of the man or the machine. Which path will we take? Is the human condition condemned to limits and finitude as Kant to Heidegger would tell us, or are we about to overthrow the whole heritage of humanistic limits and become freed of natural necessity and constraints? Only time will tell…


  1. Kevles, Daniel J.. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (Kindle Locations 323-328). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  2. Daniel Suarez. Change Agent (Kindle Locations 398-400). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  3. Francis Bacon (1561–1626).  Of the Wisdom of the Ancients.  1857. http://www.bartleby.com/82/28.html
  4. Shattuck, Roger. Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus To Pornography. St. Martin’s Press; 1st edition (August 15, 1996)
  5. Rescher, Nicholas. Limits of Science (Pittsburgh Series in Philosophy and History of Science). Univ of California Pr; First Edition, First Printing edition (December 1984)
  6. Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World (Kindle Locations 101-107). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
  7. Nietzsche, Fredrich. Nietzsche: Writings from the Late Notebooks (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy) Cambridge University Press (March 10, 2003)
  8. Livingstone, David. Transhumanism: The History of a Dangerous Idea (Kindle Locations 212-214). Unknown. Kindle Edition.
  9. Stone, Dan. Breeding Superman: Nietzsche, Race and Eugenics in Edwardian and Interwar Britain (Liverpool University Press – Studies in European Regional Cultures)   Liverpool University Press (June 1, 2002)
  10. Turds, M. Modernism and Eugenics. Palgrave Macmillan; 2010 edition (November 15, 2010)
  11. Parrington, John. Redesigning Life: How genome editing will transform the world. OUP Oxford (August 18, 2016)
  12. Vaj, Stefano. Biopolitics: A Transhumanist Paradigm (Kindle Locations 2097-2106). La Carmelina Edizioni. Kindle Edition.
  13. Meilaenderm, Gilbert, “Designing Our Descendants,” in First Things, January 2001.
  14.  Francis Fukuyama. Our Posthuman Future (Kindle Locations 1296-1300). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
  15. Comfort, Nathaniel. The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine (Kindle Locations 4367-4375). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

4 thoughts on “Eugenics to Transhumanism: The Secular Religion of Progressive Perfectibility

  1. Hickman, take a break. You’re overwhelming. Yeah, I get it. I don’t get this seeming urgency of your posts. Are you obsessed? Smoke a joint and take a walk into the woods.

    Like

    • I’ve been obsessed for years about many things. I’ll assume you haven’t been following me for too long? I go through cycles, this just happens to be one in working through the history, sociological, scientific, philosophical, and religious imaginal of eugenics and its relation to transhumanism… oh, and, yes… I take many walks in the morning and evening, pop the pipe when needed, and plunge my naked ass in the river with my lady from time to time. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ignore the ‘take a break’ nonsense… It sounds like something Ahab’s crew would have said. I appreciate the authenticity of your posts. I have a sense that this generation will make decisions that will affect the entire species… Whether it’s how we deal with climate change or biogenetics what we do now, will affect those who come. Keep it up, channeling Cassandra it’s a noble calling.

    Liked by 1 person

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