Last month Lord Robert Winston delivered the Physiological Society summer lecture entitled, ‘Shall we be human in the next century?’ You can watch it in full here (the stream starts working around 5”30 onwards). In the lecture, Lord Winston discusses the history and misuse of gene science and eugenics, and points to the potential resurgence of this way of thinking, made possible by advances that would allow us to genetically enhance human beings by modifying their nonpathological traits. Winston would be classified as a ‘bioconservative’ in the contemporary enhancement debate, and below I examine the case for caution that he puts forward in this lecture.
The lecture began with a discussion of Francs Galton, the Victorian professor of eugenics at UCL. He was the half-cousin of Charles Darwin, and was highly inspired by On the Origin of Species, developing a particular interest in the heritability of intelligence. He believed that society could be improved by better breeding – that the best people should be encouraged to breed with each other, and the least able should be prevented from breeding. Winston then moved onto a discussion of Carrie Buck – a young woman who was sterilised for being “feeble-minded” under the Virginia eugenics programme, in 1924. After becoming pregnant as a result of rape, Buck was sent for sterilisation on ‘mental grounds,’ but it transpired that she was of average intelligence and there was no evidence of her impaired mental capacity. The move to sterilise her was also taken under the Racial Integrity Act, which prevented miscegenation, an indication of the ulterior and malignant motivation behind the state’s eugenics programme.
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