Civil Rights, Eugenics, and Why It’s “Being a Good Human” to Kill Your Daughters

As Adam very kindly described, I appeared on Al Jazeera’s The Stream last week to talk about transhumanism with George Dvorsky and Robin Hanson. (Thanks to both the producers and my interlocutors for an enjoyable chat.) I’d like to expand upon a subject I mentioned on the show. Back in January, Prof. Hanson expressed support on his “Overcoming Bias” blog for sex selection — that is, selective abortion of female fetuses based on their gender. His reasoning was:

if male lives are more pleasant overall, it is good that we create more of them instead of female lives. Yes, supply and demand may eventually equalize the quality of male and female lives, but until then why not have moves [more] lives that are more pleasant?

I took the opportunity to ask Prof. Hanson about this on the air (my comments start around 14:45, and his response is at 16:30). Here is how he replied:

He’s right that that’s what I said, and I meant it. But we’re talking about individual private choice. We can think about parents choosing children, choosing high-IQ versus low-IQ children, choosing athletic versus less athletic children. I think it’s good if parents have the best interest of their children at heart, and choose children that they think will have better lives. I think that goes to the center of humanity; it goes to the center of being a good human — wanting the best for your children.

Reported Sex Ratios at Birth
and Sex Ratios of the Population Age 0-4:
China, 1953-2005 (boys per 100 girls)
Year Sex Ratio
at Birth
Sex Ratio,
Age 0-4
1953 107.0
1964 105.7
1982 108.5 107.1
1990 111.4 110.2
1995 115.6 118.4
1999 117.0 119.5
2005 118.9 122.7

This sounds sensible and compassionate for about half a second, until one realizes what it means: “having the best interest of your child at heart” means not allowing her to exist or killing her because she’s a girl. Tempting though it is, however, there are more clarifying ways to understand this issue than through the abortion debate — or through the trivial extension of Hanson’s logic to justify killing girls long after birth.Commentators on sex selection have been right to talk about the issue as in part one of women’s rights, since this is almost entirely a phenomenon directed against girls, with some 160 million worldwide barred from life due to being female. Whether you consider these to be actual lives or potential lives lost, the fact is that these societies are deeming women less worthy than men by increasingly preventing them from even entering into this world. Not in the least coincidentally, this happens overwhelmingly in countries where women are considered inferior to men, where they often lack basic rights like voting, driving, and full ownership of property, and where not only women but girls are frequently forced into labor, marriage, and prostitution. If nothing else, Hanson is right that, in these countries, women’s lives are generally a lot less pleasant than men’s.

Differing approaches to social uplift

Consider for a moment: what direction would Hanson’s arguments have pushed us in had they been made during past struggles for equality and civil rights? Women had to struggle for rights here in the United States, too — to gain the right to vote, and then later to gain equality in the workplace and in the broader culture. Women’s lives could have been considered a lot less “pleasant” than men’s at these times, too.Had Hanson and sex-selective technology been around at the time, his prescription would have been not to change laws, attitudes, and culture to bring a class of people out of oppression — but to just get rid of those people. This is exactly what Hanson is prescribing and celebrating in countries where women are abused and oppressed today.One can imagine how Hanson’s prescription would have applied to still other civil rights struggles from America’s past. And not just in imagination: the idea that certain classes of people had lives that were less worth living — either based on race, or, just as in Hanson’s criteria, strength and intelligence — was in fact the rationale behind eugenics programs that sought to eliminate those lives. Other practices recently proposed and praised by transhumanists include infanticide, compulsory drugging of populations to make them more “moral”, and massive programs of engineering the human race to control their greenhouse gas emissions.The path of moral progress we moderns tell ourselves we have been forging is toward a society of ever greater justice and equality, in which the individual cannot be denied her place by the prejudices of others, in which the weak are protected from the strong. Transhumanists, utilitarians, and self-anointed rationalists insist that they are dedicated to pushing us further down the path of enlightenment — toward “Overcoming Bias.” They insist that their dreams, when realized, will be a vehicle of moral progress and individual empowerment — the repudiation rather than the continuation of the twentieth century’s programs of social coercion. Isn’t it pretty to think so?

Arguing with Transhumanists

Yesterday, our co-blogger and New Atlantis senior editor Ari Schulman discussed transhumanism on The Stream, a social-media-based show on Al Jazeera English. Hosts Imran Garda and Malika Bilal did a good job of kicking off the discussion, and plenty of viewers commented and asked questions in real-time via Twitter. Several video clips were interspersed throughout the show, including a snippet of Regan Brashear’s documentary Fixed, which we previously discussed here on Futurisms.Ari debated two outspoken advocates of transhumanism*: Robin Hanson, a professor at George Mason University (whom we have frequently written about here), and George Dvorsky, a blogger and activist. If that sounds unfairly lopsided to you — two against one — well, it was unfairly lopsided: Ari clearly had the better of the conversation.The conversation touched on many subjects, and there wasn’t time to deal with anything in great depth, but I’d like to highlight three items.First, Ari pointed out on the show something that Hanson said recently — that “if male lives are more pleasant overall, it is good that we create more of them instead of female lives.” (Hanson wrote this in response to a New Atlantis article; we blogged about it here.) When confronted with his own words, Hanson didn’t retreat; he stood by those remarks. Today, one of Hanson’s blog readers took him to task: “You totally let yourself look like you’d support sexism…. You made us look bad and … I doubt you’ll have an opportunity to repair the damage your mistake caused.” I certainly agree that Hanson’s comments make transhumanism look bad — not because he misspoke or misrepresented his views, but because his forthright comments revealed the heartless calculation that underlies much transhumanist thinking.Second, Dvorsky and Hanson both objected to one of Ari’s comments: that transhumanism shares with the twentieth century’s eugenics movement a deep dissatisfaction with human nature. When we sometimes make this comparison, transhumanists accuse us of smearing them — after all, who would want to be compared to a movement that was responsible for forced sterilizations and that inspired some of the worst Nazi atrocities? But Ari’s remarks were measured and careful, and the comparison is apt: both eugenics and transhumanism are rooted in a profound dissatisfaction with evolved human nature. That does not mean (as Dvorsky claimed) that we think that human nature as it now exists is perfect. To the contrary, we think that human beings are flawed, and some of us might even say fallen, creatures. But for this very reason, as Ari said, we are skeptical of grand schemes that promise or pursue perfection.Dvorsky also bridled against the comparison to eugenics for another reason. He said that eugenics was a “top-down imposition,” wherein terrible decisions were made by “either the state or certain groups in power.” By contrast, Dvorsky said,

transhumanism is absolutely opposed to any of those ideas. In fact, it’s very much a hands-off type of a philosophy. If anything, it’s bottom-up, where we give the benefit of the doubt to individuals who are informed individuals, in conjunction with their doctors, their fertility clinics, and so on, who will make the decisions that are right for themselves. So everything from their reproductive rights, their morphological rights, and their cognitive rights as well.

But as Ari rightly noted on the show, not all transhumanist proposals pleasantly envision free, autonomous individuals pursuing the good as they see it. Julian Savulescu, for example, recently proposed that we should compel people to take behavior-altering drugs to make them more “moral” (as our colleague Brendan Foht mentioned here last month). And just because Dvorsky and some of his confreres think that the transhumanist future will be “hands-off” and “bottom-up” doesn’t mean that it actually will be. Who’s to say that we won’t see dictatorships of (or backed up by) Unfriendly AI? And even if somehow the transhumanist future were accomplished without obvious coercion, that doesn’t mean (as we have pointed out many times here on Futurisms) that “individuals who are informed individuals” would be free to abjure the enhancements that society is pressuring them to accept.All in all, a fine television performance by Ari; anyone interested in hearing more such intelligent criticism of transhumanism should poke around here on Futurisms and read some of the articles we’ve linked to the right.* To be clear, Hanson doesn’t consider himself a transhumanist, and during the program he said that he thinks “it’s somewhat premature to either advocate for or oppose these changes, because we don’t actually know very much about the context in which they’ll appear.” But since he is a vocal proponent of cryonics and he believes that many of the things that transhumanists embrace are at least plausible and in some cases desirable, I think it’s not unfair to put him on the transhumanist side of these debates.UPDATE: See Ari’s follow-up on his exchange with Robin Hanson about sex selection.