Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Life Unworthy of Life?

As I was taking the bus today, I happened to find myself sitting across from a lady with two children, one of whom clearly had Down Syndrome. I've always felt it extremely impolite in such circumstances to stare, and I kept the facade of complete indifference one usually does when one has to share closely confined space with strangers while using public transport. Nevertheless, watching the lady and her son interact with the disabled daughter, what struck me most was just how high functioning the girl actually was, how human in every respect. This was no vegetable, no automaton with a passing resemblance to a member of our species, but a curious, socially engaged person with an ability to know laughter and suffering just like any other individual walking down the street.

With the awareness of the humanity of this child in mind, my thoughts naturally turned to that dark era in the not so recent past when individuals like her would have been judged unfit for life and sent off to die by state officials in white coats. How was it possible for these men to do what they did? The individuals who had the ultimate say in such matters interacted with the patients they marked for death, and yet were unable to realize the innate humanity binding them to their victims; how was such a thing possible? By what tortuous process of rationalization did these murderers justify to themselves the crimes they carried out? There were a few sociopaths to be found amongst the doctors of death, to be sure, Josef Mengele being perhaps the best known, but the great majority of them seem to have been ordinary individuals, family men, upstanding pillars of society. The only conclusion I can come to is that men are easily swayed by ideology to commit the most heinous deeds.

It's easy for most of us to imagine that "mercy" killings of those deemed "unworthy" of life are somehow indicative of a uniquely German pathology, but the truth is a lot more worrisome; the use of state power to foster "eugenic" goals occurred in every single "civilized" Western state, with the notable exception of Great Britain, and America was at the very forefront of the movement. While outright murder of the "unworthy" wasn't adopted outside Germany, forcible sterilizations of the mentally ill, the "feeble minded", gypsies, blacks, "loose" women and "vagrants" was both widespread and long-standing, ending in many cases only in the 1970s. If there is one devastating illustration of the dangers of state power, I'd have to say that the shameful record of government support for such brutal scientific quackery has to be it; one would like to believe that most of one's fellow men are decent enough to refrain from abuse of the vulnerable, but the evidence for such a belief isn't good, and it is a terrible idea to support a system of government that depends on men being angels.

One final thought that occurs to me is that the world would have seen far less suffering had many of the simplistic notions peddled by the eugenicists been more vociferously challenged. The men of that era at least had the excuse of not knowing where it would all end, but I think we who have the benefit of hindsight would be remiss in not contesting the sorts of tendentious claims being made by the modern-day champions of genetic determinism. Genes clearly do matter, and their frequency distributions do vary across groups, but the truth is that we know precious little at present about how genetic variation is tied to differences in human abilities and behavior. As such, and in light of the dreadful past of of research in this field, one would think researchers with bold claims to make (as opposed to dilettantes and propagandists) would go to great lengths to be meticulous in their work, to avoid relying on dubious data, to seriously consider alternative hypotheses, to generally do their damndest to knock down their own theories before letting them out into the world, not because of some "political correctness" bogeyman, but out of a recognition that serious consequences can follow from the claims they make; this sort of due diligence is what sets the true scientist apart from the crank with a political axe to grind.