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Eugenics 2.0: Prometheus, Power & The Procreation Delusion

Does neo-eugenics represent a promethean form of enlightenment—a risk taken to avert imminent and irreversible disaster? Part One: Procreation, Afterlife and the Illusion of Choice

“Turning to the woman, God said, ‘Because you have sinned, childbearing will be very painful for you. Your desire will be for your husband, and you will be subject to him.’ Then God said to Adam, ‘Because you listened to your wife when you knew better and you ate fruit from the tree I told you not to eat from, you will live a life of toil. The soil will be hard to work and sorrow will follow you throughout your life. You will contend with thorns and thistles, and you will have to grow vegetables to survive. By the sweat of your brow you will have to earn your bread, and it will be a struggle to provide for yourself and your family. When your life is over, you will be buried in the ground out of which you were taken. You are made of dust and to dust you will return.’

“God said to His Son, ‘Man was like us, but he has changed. He now knows good and evil, so he’s infected with sin. If we leave him in the garden and he continues to eat from the Tree of Life, he will never die, and he and his descendants will live in sin forever. We can’t let this happen.’ So God sent Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden to till the soil. There they would live and work until they died. Near the garden He stationed angels whose beams of light looked like flaming swords, so people would not eat of the Tree of Life again.” [1]

Control the body, control the mind. Try to imagine a world with no offspring. You won’t get very far. Such a future seems inconceivable. Even the most dystopian of scenarios [2] employs the corpus as the locus of inscription—ethics and ego—with which to judge the past, predict the future and arbitrate over an ever mounting inventory of existential regret. The story of Eve, as a juxtaposition of innocence and beauty with darkness and isolation, lends itself well to matrimonial legacy—can’t live with it; can’t die without it. Companionship in Eden begins with suspicion and ends with mistrust and denial, from Adam blaming Eve to Eve blaming the serpent, to God, the master scientist, scapegoating his creation for the ills of a world He Himself created. Ages later, fire, electricity and the Internet expose the old order: follow the rules and find your mate and you’ll be fine; break them and you will find yourself alone with no-one to take care of you—doomed, banished from beauty and estranged from excellence. This could be why none of us wants to be alone.

Our sense of mortality is linked to our offspring. Personal legacy—along with vitality, civic responsibility and social status—is often presented in terms of how many children we have—as if a greater number of seeds in the celestial garden will somehow increase our chances of tilling the soil there. In Biblical terms, the privilege of procreation began as a curse, and our mortality became a prominent factor in aligning our temperament with what we expected from the world and from ourselves. Ever since Eve was banished from Eden for eating from the Tree of Knowledge, humans have wrestled with the concept of enlightenment; how much knowledge is too much knowledge? Ideas of mortality, immortality and the afterlife remain contentious, as does the institution of marriage itself, whose tenets often pull at our instincts, sometimes rationally, sometimes not. Yet, the profound sense of entitlement that came with the institution of marriage is stronger than ever, to those whose success is at least partially defined by it. Now, just as reproductive rights take center stage, it’s fitting for us to ask, what if our preoccupation with the afterlife suddenly vanished? If we had no choice but to embrace the “here and now”, what kinds of lives would we lead? Would we be more or less in tune with one another? Would we be more or less inclined to feel, to act, to move beyond fear in order to address inequality, injustice and evil?

If procreation (childbirth, legacy) represents the locus of choice (with all other choices as inferior), and the state champions the institution that legitimizes procreation (marriage, offspring, estates and assets), it would seem that individual choice (what is right for the individual) is supplanted by reproductive choice (what is right for the offspring). This represents a displacement of importance and responsibility from “self” to “future-self”. The concept of choice then becomes problematic, in that the absence of choice presents an obvious paradox when applied to global disparity and overpopulation. Further complicating the matter is the increasing inability of the human body, resilient as it may be, to carry our genes forward through space and time unscathed.

We are, at this very moment, redefining democracy, autonomy and privacy, as we navigate a digital age governed by concerns around mobility, transparency and accountability. As an obstacle to biotechnological innovation, the sanctity of birth presents a Kobayashi Maru—a “no-win” scenario—for those who would seek to contain population growth while at the same time ensure the current conditions of production, not to mention preserve the overall genetic fitness of the species. Because popular religious notions of procreation and mortality seem impervious the change, the greater lot of humanity is presented with the illusion of choice.

Reproductive choice then becomes an entry point for discussion around the viability, power and mechanism of a resurgent eugenics movement. Take fetal rights and homosexuality, for example. Would you change the genetic makeup of your unborn child, if you could, to prevent him or her from having to grow up gay? If given the choice, some parents would say yes. As bioethicist Francis Fukuyama suggests, a new “kinder, gentler eugenics” may result from seemingly compassionate choices like this one, made by parents and other guardians who wish to spare their offspring any unnecessary discomfort or pain an unsympathetic world might offer [3].

Analogous to the story of Eve is the myth of Prometheus, further illustrating how the gods do not take well to knowledge-seeking and innovation. Neo-eugenics represents a promethean form of enlightenment—a risk taken to avert imminent and irreversible disaster, but also one that represents a permanent dismantling of the species, should it fail. Assuming current projections are accurate and we jump from 7 billion to 8 billion by the year 2025 [4], how practical is it for us to continue having children?

To reach any consensus on childbirth restriction, we must circumvent a resurgence of eugenics in the traditional sense and break free from antiquated religious beliefs. But how might the social landscape look without marriage, the nuclear family and a solid model for procreation? Is such a future even possible? Furthermore, how will artificial intelligence, A-life and longevity affect our desire for progeny, our concept of mortality?

(Part 2 of this article considers Xq28, the “gay gene”, and how neo-eugenics is likely to be expressed through a new form of promethean science.)



[1] The Bible, Genesis 3:16-24

[2] The 2006 novel by P.D. James, Children of Men, describes an infertile future where suicide, despair and conflict escalate, just as the last generation to be born becomes adult. The premise was so disturbing Hollywood made it a movie the same year.

[3] Fukuyama, Francis. Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (2002) Picador: New York p. 87

[4] United Nations - or - Washington Times



[1] Adam and Eve, Sistine Chapel: Expulsion from Eden, 340 KB (Michelangelo, Wikimedia Commons)

[2] Overpopulation, 88 KB (unknown, LAF)

[3] Prometheus, 68 KB (Theodoor Rombouts, Wikimedia Commons)



KEYWORDS: afterlife, childbirth, China one-child policy, choice, curse, eugenics, gay gene, immortality, knowledge, Kobayashi Maru, liberal eugenics, mortality, neo-eugenics, power, prometheus, punishment, reproduction, sanctity, scientific progress


Christopher de la Torre writes about science and cyberculture. Follow him on Twitter @urbanmolecule.


I’ve given this some thought and I think some of the problems with previous attempts at Eugenics are:

1. A limited definition of the “ideal human” that is promoted using pseudoscience in insulting ways.
2. Coercive groups forcing participation.
3. The threat of a significant reduction of diversity in the human genome or “monoculture”.

I think these obstacles can be addressed by creating a totally optional program that people can explore themselves while maintaining their privacy. Since it would be opt-in only, it would resist a single ideal being   enforced by a coercive authority. It would also preserve more diversity since we can expect that large parts of the globe will not participate. We can also require clinics to save DNA samples of all participants such that their code can be reintroduced into the population should some catastrophe occur through loss of diversity.

I imagine it working something like this:

1. A couple that is considering having a child can purchase a take home kit that will analyse DNA samples from them both.
2. The kit may be able to immediately signal if there is a high risk of an unhealthy baby being born without compromising the privacy of the couple. It could test for things like Alzheimers, retardation, common physical deformaties etc.
3. Potential parents that feel the risk is too high, could contact a special clinic that could discuss options for embryo selection or some equivalent procedure that would raise the probability of their offspring being born healthy.
4. Both parent’s DNA would be preserved in case there is some DNA monoculture catastrophe in the future.
5. Some official body could create a measure of how much genetic diversity is lost each year due to these procedures in order to estimate the threat of a monoculture forming. They could also report on the long term efficacy of selecting offspring using these methods.

Initially the DNA tests may be of the mail-in variety such as those available today, however, it isn’t too far off to imagine that an internet connected microarray could be purchased someday from a drug store that could analyze your DNA at home using the latest research available on the web to determine risk factors for you and your partner’s offspring.

It seems that in the long run many genetic disorders would almost totally be eradicated since even if someone’s parents chose to refrain from screening, children suffering from a disorder almost certainly would not. No coercion needed!

This seems ethical and effective.

“To reach any consensus on childbirth restriction, we must circumvent a resurgence of eugenics in the traditional sense and break free from antiquated religious beliefs.”

I fail to see why should even consider childbirth restriction, at this historical moment. For which purpose? All the statements about human overpopulation are either scientifically controversial, or plain false. We have plenty of space, food, and resources on our blue planet for everyone. The problem is improving the access to these resources to the disadvantaged ones. Saying that sometime in the future we are going to be 8, 9, or 10 billions does not imply a catastrophic outcome. Why should it?
So, to promote something useless and unethical like childbirth restriction, we have to find prettier names for medical practices banned since Nuremberg trials, and get rid of religious principles that attribute sacredness to life? No, thanks.

“As bioethicist Francis Fukuyama suggests, a new “kinder, gentler eugenics” may result from seemingly compassionate choices like this one, made by parents and other guardians who wish to spare their offspring any unnecessary discomfort or pain an unsympathetic world might offer”

Should parents have the possibility to design beforehand personality traits of their children? There is nothing “kind” about such an extreme violation of human auto-determination. Who said that homosexuality is a negative personal trait, something that should be counter-selected? And how? By suppressing each zygote that displays the Xq28 gene? What for? To prevent people like Michelangelo, Oscar Wilde, or Alan Turing to come to life?

Andre, you raise some great points.

In response: first, our religious beliefs are more deeply connected to production and consumption than we realize. The close ties between Church and State are enough to suggest this; it’s a complex relationship that has a lot to do with ideology, faith, and compliance—compassion, not so much.

Second: I agree that our planet has everything 8, 9 or 12 billion people need to thrive. The problem is that our business habits have led to disparity, environmental disaster and a general hoarding of resources. Improving access to resources, as you suggest, is not a viable answer, unfortunately (not yet)—because improving access cannot necessarily guarantee profit, at least not in the sense that drives free markets today. We must change our habits to do what you propose. For now, we will choose the path most in line with viable modes of production and consumption, lest the entire system collapse in on itself. It’s also helpful to consider the “antiquated” before “religious beliefs” as key.. let’s figure out together what that means. To get the ball rolling: google “Africa, Vatican, birth control, AIDS” and work from there.

and finally: re Fukuyama and “kind” eugenics. I believe the word was placed in quotes to signal irony, in that such choices made on behalf of the individual, from outside of the individual, can never be kind, only calculated. These types of decisions have been made for us since before we were conceived—how transparent the process is another story altogether.

Also, with regard to designer babies: I happen to agree with you, but be careful what you champion; regarding your earlier statement, many of those religious principles that “attribute sacredness to life” are the same principles that would have justified embryo screening and genetic manipulation for Michelangelo, Oscar Wilde or Alan Turing, had they been available at the time. For my thoughts on Alan Turing, father of computer science, see my opinion piece for The Huffington Post, just out today, here:

Thanks for keeping me on my toes, and for keeping the discussion going!

Jasoncstone, interesting proposition, although a bit scary in terms of commercialization. Privatizing health care introduces a myriad of problems, given that the primary goal of any business is to make profits. As we see today, ethics often takes a back seat to the bottom line if not regulated correctly. I’m interested to see where this goes, can you link me to your research?

urbanmolecule, I haven’t done any peer-reviewed research in this area. I just posted some of my thoughts about how to approach genetic technology in an ethical way.

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