View from
The Left

The Biggest Issue with Richard Dawkins’ Tweet

(Andrew Winning/Reuters)

“The latest of these Twitter controversies that I think warrants being addressed started with Professor Richard Dawkins expressing his opinion on the very delicate topic of eugenics.”

It is often a good idea not to give too much weight to Twitter controversies. They tend to have little impact in the real world, and the population of Twitter is decidedly not representative of the general public. However, I also believe that we cannot be entirely dismissive of everything that happens on the platform, especially given that influential individuals such as politicians, academics, and public intellectuals use it as their go-to outlet. In that sense, it is not so different from a television interview or an opinion piece in a newspaper or magazine. The latest of these Twitter controversies that I think warrants being addressed started with Professor Richard Dawkins  expressing his opinion on the very delicate topic of eugenics. His argument was that— while we can criticize eugenics on moral grounds—we cannot conclude that eugenics would not work with humans. Predictably, this generated considerable backlash. While it would be impossible to look at all the replies, most of them could be placed in one of two categories. The first is that of those who contest the factual claim Dawkins made; namely, the counterargument is simply that trying to influence artificially the genetic pool of humans would actually not have any positive effects. The second category is that of those arguing that an opinion such as this one misleadingly presents eugenics in a light that ignores decades of the troubling history associated with it.

I think there are problems with both of these lines of counterarguments because they miss what I think is the central problems with Dawkins’ claim, even if we grant that he is correct about the strictly scientific part—and we interpret the moral side of it it in the most charitable way possible. The issue with these counterarguments is that they miss something that I see as a more fundamental problem, which is frequently present when scientists engage with philosophical and social questions. I deeply sympathize and agree with natural scientists when they assert that philosophers should not make claims that involve scientific problems that are outside their purview of expertise. But this should be a two-way street, and I think this latest Twitter controversy shows why very clearly. Regarding the first kind of counterarguments, it is impossible for me to take sides since my knowledge of genetics is severely limited in comparison to any biologist who would take either position. So regardless of which side is correct, the problem is that trying to counter the original claim on purely scientific grounds has the same problem that Dawkins’ original claim has. We will get to that, but, first, let’s analyze the second kind of counterargument.

Science is meant to describe facts, and those facts are true regardless of how we feel about them; that much is true. But we are not infallible fact-gathering machines, and there is no such thing as raw sense-data.

These arguments are more complicated. First, it might, very well, be true that a claim like Dawkins’ really does present eugenics in a more positive light than it should. The problem with this line of criticism is that it depends too much on trying to assess a person’s intentions (or even assuming ill will), which is something that is effectively impossible to prove. In  a second tweet Dawkins added that he would deplore a policy based on eugenics, and I do believe that our first reaction—if trying to argue in good faith—should be to take him at his word. Dawkins argues that it is possible to place our thumb on the scale of human genetic make up in such a way that would make humans jump higher or run faster, but he adds, “heaven forbid that we should do it.” In other words, it is possible to influence human reproduction in such a way that desirable traits would be more common, but we ought not to do it because doing so would be inherently unethical. The last part is something that probably most people on either side of the argument agree on. But my claim is that the real issue with Dawkins’ claim is not ethical, but  metaethical. That is, we do not want to decide whether his moral arguments are correct according to this or that perspective but, rather, what are the ethical presuppositions, or what is the ethical paradigm that is implicit in his argument?

My point is that when Dawkins (or anyone else) makes these claims he is necessarily smuggling in certain ethical presuppositions. I want to be very clear about the argument I am making here. I am not trying to say that he is being misleading, facetious, or anything of the kind. What I am trying to argue is independent of intentions or any other problems that would fall inside the realm of psychology. The idea is that any sentence, as long as it has some ethical content, has implicit underlying assumptions that give it meaning. These assumptions are left unsaid—not because of duplicitousness but because laying them out every time would be too impractical and because these assumptions are usually clear from a given sentence. For example, take the following sentence: “Adequate nutrition is important for children because malnutrition can hinder brain development and negatively affect their performance in school.” If anyone makes this claim, we can infer that they believe that education is a good that we should value. Otherwise the statement would be meaningless. The value of education is what justifies that we can call nutrition “important” within this context. Otherwise, there could be other ways to argue that adequate nutrition is important, which is the central claim of the whole sentence. Here, the validity of the central claim depends on that implicit premise about the value of education.

The situation with Richard Dawkins’ claims about eugenics are analogous to my example. This is predicated upon two related aspects of his argument. The first has to do with the word “work.” It has an implicit value judgement, even if we thought about it in the context of something amoral like a machine. We would not say that a clock works simply because its hands move. We only say that a clock works if its hands move in the desired way. Similarly, saying “eugenics works” implies that the outcome would be desirable, or good, or other positive quality, and the reason we do not practice eugenics—despite its resultsis that the means are immoral because they are cruel, dehumanizing, coercive, etc. Incidentally, this is why I think countering the claim purely on scientific grounds (and saying that eugenic does not work) is not a great argument.

This leads me to the other problem, which is that this whole exercise is predicated on the idea—even if implicit—that there are certain traits that are more desirable than others. This could be seen as a bold claim, so I will explain further. The whole notion of eugenics is based on this idea. Even the name makes it clear, as it takes the Greek root “eu,” which means “good” (another example of this is eudaimonia, or good life). Again, if we interpret this in the most charitable way possible, it does not need to imply racism; though given the history of eugenics, it is entirely natural that people would interpret it this way. But these desirable traits could be randomly distributed among people of all ethnic groups. Even accepting this, however, one might question whether valuing specific traits more than others opens the door to then valuing the individuals who possess such traits more than others.

I think there is merit to those lines of criticism. I suspect someone who would defend Dawkins would reply that we should value all individuals equally regardless of their biological characteristics. Now, of course, I believe this is the case, and I believe everyone else should too. Now as I said, I think once we start saying that certain traits are more valuable, we already are in dangerous territory. But let us grant this argument that no value judgements we make about humans’ biological characteristics will ever translate into how we as people treat each other (and perhaps more importantly, into how the State treats its citizens). Even in this scenario there is one last underlying implicit assumption. This one, however, cannot be simply argued away because this is the one presuppositions on which everything else hinges, even if the rest of the moral upshots of the claim are interpreted in the best light.

The problem is that desirable traits are highly context dependent. We can argue endlessly about whether valuing certain traits will lead to valuing certain people more than others, but we cannot make the claim that a trait is desirable without knowing what context makes it valuable. For example, it is surely uncontroversial to say that—in pre-historic times—a trait such a higher muscle density that would allow humans to run faster would be highly desirable, if survival were a valuable outcome. Now, while that same trait might still be desirable in certain specific cases, it is safe to say that it is no longer as universally true as it were some millennia ago. Humans no longer need to be able to run away from predators or hunt for food, for the most part. That is the root of the issue. First, there is a practical matter. Whichever traits could be considered useful or valuable today are in no way guaranteed to always be considered as such. But, then, there is a more substantive matter. Eugenics means selecting specific traits so that they will be prevalent in future humans. If the desirability of traits is given by their context. We are notoriously bad at predicting the future, so there is no credible way that humans could be “planned” to adjust to future society—because the possibilities are endless. The only thing we could have to potentially plan how future humans should be is present society, under the assumption that it will continue to function more or less the same.

To summarize: Trying to design, so to speak, the biological characteristics of future humans is also a statement that society in its present form is essentially just. As I said earlier, it would be impossible to plan for a society that lies ahead of us anywhere beyond the near future, so if eugenics were to “work,” it would be on the basis of traits that make sense within the present context. There would be no reason to do this unless we thought society, as it is, needs no meaningful fundamental change. I think it is fair to say—as the current political climate indicates—that very few people believe that. And with good reason, even if few people agree what the future should look like.

Of course, there is the possibility that all that Dawkins intended to say was simply that it is possible for humans to place the thumb on the scales of natural selection regardless of whether there is any ultimate purpose to it. That may very well be true; again, I do not have the necessary knowledge of genetics to say otherwise. But that does not really fit the definition of eugenics. If this were the case, then none of this added metaethical baggage would be present, but if we try to be as unambiguous as possible and use the most precise language we can, then we need to take the term with every implication that it carries. Science is meant to describe facts, and those facts are true regardless of how we feel about them; that much is true. But we are not infallible fact-gathering machines, and there is no such thing as raw sense-data. Everything that we can describe is necessarily mediated through our conceptual schemes, which can only be expressed in language. Neither these conceptual schemes nor our languages can ever be freed from context, connotations, or any other number of nuances. This idea is not even some “post-modern” anti-rationalist or extreme subjectivist construct. Versions of it have been defended by philosophers as central to the Enlightenment as Immanuel Kant in the  Critique of Pure Reasonor  Rudolf Carnap, one of the prime exponents of logical empiricism. Carnap wrote about language in terms of constructed formal languages—not the ones we use in everyday speech. But if, even in such cases, facts are put into created conceptual categories, there is all the more reason to understand that—when we use natural language—concepts themselves will be subject to imprecision, cultural connotations, and countless other sources of confusion. Science intends to describe reality, but, when talking about reality, we should not forget that whatever we do, we use language that is significantly more imperfect than physical reality requires.

Néstor de Buen holds an M.A. in social sciences from The University of Chicago. He has previously written at Quillette.

11 thoughts on “The Biggest Issue with Richard Dawkins’ Tweet

  1. “…would reply that we should value all individuals equally regardless of their biological characteristics. Now, of course, I believe this is the case, and I believe everyone else should too.”
    “Value” means “try to keep alive”, yes? An article from 2009, “Down Syndrome Births Are Down in U.S.”, says that 92 percent of all women who receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome choose to terminate their pregnancies.

    Do you believe they shouldn’t?

    (Personally, I have no opinion on this. If it ever becomes relevant to me, my view would be influenced by the views of others.)

    Edit: for some reason, I had an image of the pile of skulls at the start of the movie 300 (2006).

    1. You have no view on this? 92% of handicapped babies killed, and you can’t even muster an opinion. “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.” All that death…and right who cares?

      1. Is this a time of moral crisis? Are people hotly debating the topic of whether unborn babies with Down syndrome should be kept alive? Is it more important than unborn babies of any type being killed; i.e. Roe vs Wade in the US?

        Some people feel strongly about it.

        Some people also say that half of the population’s view does not matter at all with this issue, and they should not even voice an opinion. Should half the population be condemned to eternal torment?

        1. Anyone who asserts that is flat out wrong, just as if they argued that someone of the first race has no right to way in if someone of the second race kills a fellow member of the second race. To not be able to form a basic moral opinion (and be able to justify it) about as essential of moral matters as that one is to relinquish the very basic functions of being a human being

          1. Using “way in” instead of “weigh in” was confusing.

            If these are your views. What do you think about Iraq killing hundreds of protestors in recent months? 500 up to 21 Dec 2019 ( At least a dozen last month.

            Would you criticize Iraq the same way you presumably would if it was Iran, Russia, or northern Korea that these protests were taking place in? Or do you only care about unborn babies being killed, and not adults?

          2. Of course, I would. Are you dense or something? Why would anyone think it is okay for a country to kill its citizens? I think you need a basic lesson in moral calibration. Are you in that X% of the population that has no moral compass whatsoever and has to imitate other people to see what they do so you can pretend you also have a basic functioning ethical system?

          3. No, I’m in the 0.00001% of the population that says “we can fix these problems, and I have offered a solution, but people don’t care, so I will just stop caring so much.”

            I linked the solution in another comment. It doesn’t explain how it will fix most problems, but if you’re at least a little intelligent, you can guess. How much violent crime is economically motivated?

            If you don’t share it, my apathy towards babies with Down syndrome being killed is justified.

          4. I’m with Tim, man. You are a seriously morally lacking person. I wish you well having such an empty conscience

          5. Right, just withdrawal from the public discourse because you don’t get what you want and be indifferent to the murder of babies with disabilities. Yeah, that’s a good citizen and decent person…not!

  2. “Trying to design, so to speak, the biological characteristics of future humans is also a statement that society in its present form is essentially just.”

    Would you use this same argument against laws that put people in prison?

    As to whether society is just, prison or not, note that around 1 in 4 people in the world have paid a bribe for public services in the past 12 months:

    If society is not just, should we get rid of prisons?

    1. I’m trying to edit this, and I somehow managed to edit my other comment, but I can’t get this one be edited. (Don’t see a ‘submit edit’ button.)

      Trying to add this, although I know linking it won’t accomplish anything:

      (The solution to most problems:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.