Friday, October 26, 2007

Gerson on Eugenics

Michael Gerson's column today espouses tolerance and inclusion as an outgrowth of faith:
The portion of "The Deathly Hallows" in which young Harry realizes that he is "marked for slaughter" and accepts the necessity of his own death for the sake of love is moving -- and that love becomes a kind of magic that is stronger than death itself. For every reader, this is an affirmation of friendship, loyalty and courage. For my children, it is also the symbol of a greater sacrifice.

These, of course, are central themes of religion, particularly Christian religion. And the question naturally arises: How can a book series about tolerance also be a book series about religion? This represents a misunderstanding of both tolerance and faith. For many, tolerance does not result from the absence of moral convictions but from a positive religious teaching about human dignity. Many believe -- not in spite of their faith but because of it -- that half-bloods, werewolves and others should be treated with kindness and fairness. Above all, believers are called to love, even at the highest cost.
This makes all the more puzzling his Wednesday column on eugenics. After summarizing various eccentric viewpoints endorsed by James Watson, Gerson writes,
Watson is not typical of the scientific community when it comes to his extreme social application of genetics. But this controversy illustrates a temptation within science - and a tension between some scientific views and liberalism.
One might start out by reminding Gerson that Watson's non-scientific beliefs don't imply any tension between science and liberalism, as they are not premised upon either. But what Gerson's appears to be trying to do is to imply that abortion rights translate into a form of eugenics, an increasingly popular semantic game of the political right.

The overwhelming majority of abortions occur with no genetic testing, and even where genetic testing occurs abortion remains an individual choice. Selectivity in your partner is much more likely to affect the future genome than is abortion - is it "eugenics" for somebody with a hereditable disease to choose not to procreate, or for somebody else to reject such a person as a partner? And if we are concerned about "designer children" or even gender selection, the technologies behind such concerns are applied before implantation, or even before fertilization. Gerson makes the odd statement,
Watson is correct that "we already accept" genetic screening and selective breeding when it comes to disabled children.
Are the two equivalent? And if so, what does Gerson propose as a solution to, well, people choosing their sexual partners at the expense of the disabled (or unattractive, or uneducated, or unaccompished...)? Sorry, Michael, but selectivity in dating has occurred since the dawn of time and while, yes, those icky liberal types will probably continue to advocate "marrying for love", at least in this country most conservatives are likely to resist any alternative you propose.
The left in America positions itself as both the defender of egalitarianism and of unrestricted science.... But what happens when certain scientific views lead to an erosion of the ideal of equality?
The logic of that.... "The left in America positions itself as anti-war and supportive of unrestricted science, but what happens when the scientist develop weapons technology?" "The left in America positions itself as pro-environment and supportive of unrestricted science.... But what happens if scientific discoveries are polluting in nature?" Perhaps notions of "ethics" and "common sense" are lost on Gerson, but my guess is that "the left in America" will apply them to such minor conundrums and not suddenly become tied in knots.

The counterpoint to this is also interesting. Is it a virtue of the left that it supports egalitarianism? Gerson appears to believe so, given his endorsement of the all-inclusive tolerance, kindness and affection ("Love thy werewolf as yourself") that he ascribes to faith. Is he asserting that the political right does not support egalitarianism? If we assume, as Gerson seems to believe, that acceptance of "human equality" is a virtue, is he trying to argue that both "the left" and "the right" support egalitarianism, but that "the right" somehow avoids the tension between egalitarianism and "unrestricted science" by restricting science? Is that a virtue?

In Gerson's mind, does the political right endorse only a restricted, hamstrung version of science? If so, in Gerson's mind, how crippled should right-wing science be? Anything goes, as long as it doesn't conflict with the literal text of the Bible? Or is this simply code for opposing stem cell research (or Bush's vacuous half-measures on that subject). If Gerson is satisfied with the manner in which President Bush has reconciled egalitarianism and science, I don't think he has any room to criticize the political left.

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