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Larson&Ruse Chapter 8--Eugenics, Genetics, and Playing God

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Monday, December 11, 2017

Larson now traces the sordid story of eugenics from its original proponent, Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton, to its heyday in the early twentieth century.


“In fact, what Galton proposed was little more than plant or livestock breeding applied to people, which European royal families had practiced for years, but he made it sound scientific. It is amazing what an Oxford degree and a self-assured, upper-class manner can do to make utter claptrap seem true, especially to those who are inclined to believe it anyway.” (p. 214)


“Based on its spiritual commitment to the sanctity of all human life regardless of biological fitness, the Roman Catholic Church emerged as the first major organization to challenge eugenics doctrines.” (p. 218)


“Protestant opponents of eugenics generally did not articulate their position as clearly as Catholics, but it still had an impact…Taken as a whole, these objections reflected a view that God controls human reproduction, and neither science nor the state should interfere.” (p. 219)


“In response, eugenicists actively courted the favor of liberal clerics…God wouldn’t have given humans the power to enhance nature if it wasn’t for us to use, many maintained.” (P. 219)


“More than any issue at the time in Europe and America, eugenics rekindled perceptions of conflict between science and religion.” (p. 221)


“Eugenicists thought that they could easily identify hereditary disabilities…In fact, beginning in the 1930s, the scientific case for eugenics fell apart almost as fast as it had come together three decades earlier. First, social scientists reestablished the role of environmental factors in many of the conditions being subjected to eugenics. Then geneticists increasingly realized that…most genetic traits being targeted by eugenics involve multiple genes and thus could not be effectively propagated or prevented by eugenic selection. Finally, the specter of Nazi abuses discredited compulsory eugenic practices. By the 1950s, eugenics had seemingly been relegated to the dustbin of history or become the refuge of racists and mountebanks. Respectable geneticists no longer publically endorsed it, and its religious critics appeared vindicated. Indeed, may cited eugenics as an example for the ongoing value of religion to regulate science, with science establishing what could be done and religion guiding what should be done.” (p. 227)


“Biology may create a physical or mental condition, but only societies or individuals can interpret it as normal or abnormal, ability or disability. However much the modern Western mind favors “objective” scientific definitions of disability, cultural subjectivism inevitably intrudes.” (p. 228-229)


Larson then references Lutheran theologian Ted Peters, quoting his statement in the PBS series Faith and Reason, “So I hesitate to think of [DNA] as sacred, holy, special…If we have the power to alter it in such a way as to make human health better, to relieve human suffering, I think we have a moral responsibility to do that.” (p. 243-244)


“Under a theology such as Peters’s, genetic engineering, even of people, becomes a gift from God through science. Many geneticists embrace this view as well, but as a gift of a purely human scientific enterprise…Yet on this, at least for now, most scientists agree. It does not mark a conflict between science and religion as much as show common ground.” (p. 244)

Tags:  Larson  On Faith and Science  Ruse 

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