Eugenics, Mormonism, Transhumanism, and John A. Widtsoe

Eugenics is the theory and practice of improving the genetic quality of humans.  It has two major components:

  • the improvement of human genetic traits through the promotion of higher reproduction of people with desired traits (positive eugenics) and
  • the reduced reproduction of people with less-desired or undesired traits (negative eugenics).

The past Mormon practice of polygamy might be viewed as an example of positive eugenics.  Abhorrent Nazi practices are examples of extreme negative eugenics.

Who Decides Who Passes and Who Fails?

Who Decides Who Passes and Who Fails?

In the early 20th century there was a strong Mormon interest in eugenics.  According to Cassandra Clark writing for juvenileinstructor.org (28 Sep 2013):

My initial research unveiled copious amounts of accessible materials relating to [Mormons and] eugenics.  I discovered a record of family traits completed by George Albert Smith in 1917.  Smith sent the form to Charles Davenport, director of the Eugenics Record Office stationed at Cold Harbor Springs NY who proceeded to exchange letters with Smith discussing the results.  I uncovered communication between key eugenic leaders and prominent members of the Church hierarchy, including the president of the Utah Agricultural College, now known as Utah State University, John A. Widtsoe.  [Widtsoe was later to become an Apostle in the LDS Church.]  I also discovered communication between church leaders and Widtsoe about interest in organizing a Utah-based eugenics society.  In summation, eugenics was an important part of northern Utah Mormon ideological thought in the early 20th century.

My first reaction to this was one of sadness.  I’ve long admired Widtsoe‘s work, and I immediately wondered how he could have possibly been interested in a movement like eugenics?  But  I’ve decided that this was all before the experiences with Nazi Germany, and the extreme downside of eugenics was poorly understood.

While today, eugenics has a negative connotation, some of its principles may be having a rebirth in radical-life extension movements like transhumanism.  Today, high-end health care is largely parceled out to those who can afford it (those who are either rich or have insurance).  If radical-life extension (something that will be expensive) is viewed as an advanced form of health care, won’t it only be provided to those who can afford it?  Might this not be viewed as a form of positive eugenics?

There has also been concern voiced about genetic research and its medical implications.  UC Berkeley sociologist Troy Duster claims that modern genetics is a back door to eugenics.  And according to wikipedia:

This view is shared by White House Assistant Director for Forensic Sciences, Tania Simoncelli, who claimed in a 2003 publication by the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College, that advances in pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) are moving society to a “new era of eugenics,” and unlike the Nazi eugenics, modern eugenics is consumer driven and market based, “where children are increasingly regarded as made-to-order consumer products.”

Technology needs to be meted out on an ethical and equitable basis.

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This entry was posted in mormonism, Religion, Social Justice, Technology, transhumanism. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Eugenics, Mormonism, Transhumanism, and John A. Widtsoe

  1. Allen says:

    I’m not familiar with the history of eugenics and Mormonism, but I’m guessing that the Mormon interest was related to a common belief in the 20th century that polygamous families resulted in strong, bright, and healthy children. I remember as a youth being taught that — not as an official doctrine of the LDS church but as a “fact” that people believed true. People I knew as a youth believed that the pioneers who settled early Utah were strong people who were in polygamous families. Further research might be needed to determine if the 20th Century Mormon view of eugenics was that of a positive view of human reproduction.

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