Evolution and Eugenics

Eugenics, ‘the science of using controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics in a population’ (Oxford English Dictionary). Is this ethical? And if so, what does a human ethic of eugenics look like?

This was the question under debate last week, that I have finally got around to blogging about…

Last Tuesday I attended a meeting of the local Teilhard de Chardin association that was devoted to this subject.

The association is a group of half a dozen people who meet to dicuss the works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), a Jesuit palaeontologist and theologian probably best known for his book ‘The Phenomenon of Man’. (Incidentally, the French title of this book ‘Le phénomène humain’ is more inclusive than the English one, for a change.)

As a scientist, Teilhard de Chardin studied the evolution of homo sapiens. As a philosopher, he observed the evolution of human society. And as a theologian, he turned his phenomenological approach on Christianity as well. Teilhard attempted to organise his observations into a holistic theory that made sense of the data he collected from his scientific research and from his religious experience. The result is something poetic, mystical, and well worth reading. Among others, Teilhard impressed C. S. Lewis; the influence of ‘The Phenomenon of Man’ can be felt in a number of Lewis’s writings.

For Teilhard, evolution organises matter into patterns of increasing complexity; from the single-celled organism to more complex life forms; from reflex to intelligence to the capacity for self-reflection that is found in human beings (leaving open the question of whether it can also be found in other species).

Having observed that natural selection tends to produce organisms of increasing complexity, culminating in intelligent life with the capacity for reflection, Teilhard asks what the next stage of evolution will be.

Normally, we tend to answer this question with a vision of super-human strength, longevity, and intelligence (in other words, with physical or intellectual goals in mind). Eugenics then appears to be a means towards hastening such “improvements” – to give evolution a helping hand. This was the approach adopted by the Nazis.

It is emphatically not Teilhard de Chardin’s answer!

For Teilhard, the trajectory of complexity incorporates interiority – intelligence and self-reflection – and then goes on to include the social within its scope. Natural selection gives us bodies, minds, and society. Bodies reflect on their own existence and so do societies. This is culture. Because complexity gives meaning and order, Teilhard sees it as tending towards a final goal, which he calls the ‘Point Omega’. For him, this will be reached when human beings live together harmoniously in a world full of love, worshipping the universal Christ who reveals this apex of evolution in his perfect humanity. Thus, the next stages of evolution are the development of an increasingly self-aware and co-ordinated human society reaching beyond national boundaries and selfish units (thus emphatically not Nazi) towards a world-wide society of peace and love.

Naturally, Teilhard’s vision is hopelessly modernist and optimistic in its yearning for a paradise on earth. Yet his holistic approach to the mind/soul/body – seeing them as one thing – is spot-on. And he entertains the question of eugenics at a time when it was rejected out of hand by the Church.

So what do we think? Should selective breeding and genetic manipulation be allowed? Do they tend towards the development of a peaceful human society, alive to the beauty of the world and the love of God? The question is at least interesting…