Inheriting the Rubble – Eugenics and Behavior

| July 5, 2010

As a radical agnostic (sorry, can you repeat the question?) named “Christopher” (φέρω, pherō: to carry. You work it out….) I only have sympathy for those named “Eugene”. Lord help them if it’s meant specifically, these are our “good genes”, or wishfully, here’s to the utopian promise of good genes, or somehow both.

Carriers and heredity. What are the named to do?

So, aaaanyway… I’ve been reading Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior, by Jonathan Weiner. And you might have guessed I’ve gotten to the whirlpool at the center of it, the question of Eugenics.

We seem to have inoculated ourselves well against the history, imagining it went under with the Nazi’s and never-mind where they got it from. Nowadays we speak in post-social code: stem-cells and health modification. Meanwhile the behaviorists countered the naturalists, taking over the discourse of schools. We are all blank slates of culture. Now let’s behave already.

But we learn hard. Isn’t the larger challenge that we are a sucker for the dichotomies, but don’t like to dig too deep.

As Weiner points out, traumatized physicists, after the Manhattan Project, turned to biology for solace, “as if they were turning from sin to virtue, from darkness to light.”

“In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no over-statement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin,” Robert Oppenheimer said after the war…. But biologists had lost their innocence long before the war. The study of genes and behavior was born in sin, and the possibility of sin would cling to it.

We prefer to miss the deeper narratives that drive us, imagining we can just change the subject. But doesn’t it run deeply through our dreams? Light and dark.

Thus the backlash of utopia through good genes, turns into behaviorism, utopia through environmental control. We think we can leave behind the common denominator.

It hardly takes much. We even pride ourselves on our caution, our level headed good-will. Weiner captures the absurdity of Francis Galton, the grandfather, so to speak, of Eugenics:

We must free our minds of a great deal of prejudice before we can rightly judge of the direction in which different races need to be improved,” [Galton] wrote in the opening pages of his Inquiry into Human Faculty in 1883; but having said that, he felt “justified in roundly asserting that the natural characteristics of every human race admit of large improvement in many directions easy to specify.” Everyone knew, for instance, that women are “capricious and coy”—airheads. Everyone knew that Jews are double-dealing misers. And so on.

Stunning. But surely the shift to the blank slate of behavior leaves all of that behind, like physicists moving on to the study of fruit flies.

It’s not our genes, but our environments that code our dystopia, counter the culturalists. But does this keep it from being the same story, the displacement of race onto place? “Place-ism” you might say. “Urban Education” is a typical euphemism, used by right and left.

Galton established the link, at least metaphorically. Weiner writes: “He thought the construction of our bodies and minds must be like the construction of houses he had seen in Italy, many of which are built from the pieces of older houses that had been pillaged or torn down.” In Galton’s own words:

Suppose we were building a house with second-hand materials carted from a dealer’s yard. We should often find considerable portions of the same old houses to be still grouped together. Materials derived from various structures might have been moved and much shuffled together in the yard, yet pieces from the same source would frequently remain in juxtaposition and may be entangled. They would lie side by side ready to be carted aways at the same time and to be re-erected together anew. So in the process of transmission by inheritance, elements derived from the same ancestor are apt to appear in large groups, just as if they had clung together in the pre-embryonic stage, as perhaps they did.

Would this not explain his own failure to leave behind his own biases and racisms? The wiping aside, itself becomes part of the process, allowing us to think things are fresh, sins absolved.

Is this not the lesson from Descartes? After the process of radical doubt, in which everything is brought down to the bedrock, we find a rapid re-development in which, as has often been noted, whole chunks of the rubble seem to remain intact. Both genetics and behaviorism escape the dilemma by focusing on the elemental particles themselves. But in a way this was Descartes’ strategy as well. Dreaming of razing the messy cities of Europe to the ground to build them on solid foundations, and proper grids, Descartes restricted himself to the elemental particle, himself. The mind as synecdochal city. The city, as stand in for the inhabitants. Philosophy, the secret razing.

Education: the domain having to do with the relationship between interior and exterior. The dream: that things will be carried over well.