I get an email from Aporia Magazine titled “You’re probably a eugenicist” — provocatively suggesting that we all favor good genes, and that we, all-knowing moderns, imbued with science, know what good genes are.

I take umbrage with Aporia for their short-sightedness. This scientific positivism, that we all believe in keeping genes ‘good’ because we agree that there are and have always been in every culture and across species taboos on sex and reproduction with relatives, is fallacious. Evolutionary, biological taboos which are time-tested, are very different than recent experiments showing grounds for racism, which unfortunately is where some of the strands of sociobiology have ended up. Diana Fleischman for Aporia writes:

It’s estimated that the children of sibling incest have a greater than 40 percent chance of either dying prematurely or being born with a severe impairment. By comparison, first cousins have  around a five percent chance of having children with a genetic problem—twice as likely as unrelated couples. In the UK, first cousin marriages are legal and these unions make up a disproportionate number of babies born with birth defects including those who die shortly after birth, likely numbering thousands per year. In the US, most states have outlawed first cousin marriage for eugenic reasons. For instance, in states like Arizona first cousin marriage is allowed, provided the cousins are infertile or over the age of 65. If you agree that people who are genetically related should not have children, or should see a genetic counselor, congratulations, you’re a eugenicist. https://www.aporiamagazine.com/p/youre-probably-a-eugenicist

Yet, to conflate evolutionary biology/psychology/sociology for eugenics is to give a shove down a slippery slope which isn’t as slippery as Aporia would make it out to be. For relatives to not breed together is not eugenics, it is natural law — even many other animals follow this. Humans are one of the only species that for weird reasons has dared to transgress this natural norm. When we speak of normative by nature, we are talking about something immune from the treachery of eugenicists, but something which occurs whether or not science dictates it.

The author continues, writing:

Eugenics, a literal translation of the Greek for “good birth,” aims to improve the population through interventions. Positive eugenics aims to increase “good” and “desirable” traits, whereas negative eugenics aims to reduce “bad” or “undesirable” traits. The scare quotes are meant to indicate that there are and have been divergent views on the meaning of these words in the history of eugenic interventions. The taboos attached to even the most rational and objective discussion of eugenics only aggravates the confusion, promoting a widespread ignorance of even the definition of eugenics. Eugenics is actually an expansive concept with which most people agree in principle, but disagree with some of the terrible ways it’s been implemented. We are all eugenicists—but in selective, inconsistent, and often hypocritical ways.

Yes, we can have desires for healthy populations, and then understand that genes are a reductive way to achieve this. Genes are the end, not the beginning. They are downstream, not upstream.

What do I mean by that? Well, maybe sociobiology should learn about socioecology, and then it would have some notion. Our biological outcomes are conditioned by our ecological surroundings, which include the ways in which we consider ourselves and each other. That is, our ecologies – built and born – are products of relating. How we relate to our surroundings, the cultural customs we inhabit, build out the decisions that we create which then, many dominoes later, affect our genes.

But genes are not the locus of decision-making, or power. Environments are. That is why I am not a eugenicist, but rather an epieugenicist. I think we should have good euepigenetics — good environments. Surroundings with elders which help us make good decisions for the collective, who help us become free from our delusions, will help us cultivate better genes. But genes really are an afterthought. They are the result of good euepigenetics. So focusing on environment is what we really should be doing if we actually care about having good genes.

You could gene-edit billions of bodies and still have a sick population. While, you could create evolutionarily conducive environments, and sooner rather than later, people would start being healthier, making better decisions, and over time, the entire gene pool would improve. But, that would not be the goal. The goal would be for human flourishing. The genes would merely be the recipients, the repository, the epiphenomena of the euepigenetic environments we (re)created.

So, my advice would be: if you care about genetics, work towards clean air. Work towards strengthening community bonds. Work towards universal basic income and making billionaires obsolete.

We know that financial (and ergo power) inequalities at the magnitudes that we currently have (not enjoyed by the most god-like Pharaoh or king), cause brain damage to everyone. Yes, inequalities create brain damage to the entire population.

This is because the rich have private ways of cordoning themselves off from the effects of the diminishing default comments, but everything they interact with interacts with the default commons. which means that all of the privatized efforts we have to solve collective action problems actually make the situation worse for everyone whether they believe it to be the case or not. An example of this: I was recently at a festival that is known to have dirty water so we brought all of our own water. But the food we got at the festival was also prepared with that water, and the dishes were cleaned with that water, and because the dishes were not cleaned very well and still were wet when we received them, we got sick from the contaminated water. So even those who try to protect themselves from failed public goods, end up getting sick by the public goods. That’s the thesis.

Hence, the only way to deal with this problem is to actually address the collective action problem, and improve the quality of the public goods and the commons for everybody. I know I know, we don’t want to have to have the same type of goods as the commoners were to have the same level of service as the masses. We want our luxury, exclusive versions, which make us feel pampered and safe and comfortable and insulated and incubated. But it’s precisely this fear of being exposed to sub-quality, substandard goods that perpetuates the existence of sub quality, substandard goods for all. Which inevitably makes its way back to even the most guarded and fortressed billionaires.

So the efforts that we make to try to protect ourselves from common harms end up backfiring. This is not the most spectacular thesis. But it is something that so far all of our elites have coward against rather than address squarely. we want things to get better we need to make our environments better. And then you get a cascading up benefit for all. This is the exact opposite of the trickle down effect which has been shown not to work.

We also know that inequalities make people more afraid of each other, which also raises cortisol levels, and makes everybody adopt a hermeneutics of suspicion against the other. Living in a society where you’re constantly afraid of, everybody else makes us collectively much less intelligent than we otherwise would be. And it makes us less willing and able to address the sort of collective action problems, which are at the center of our malaise.

In our current world of burgeoning obesity epidemics and mental health crises, we need to address the underlying problems of this more than ever. If we want to do that, we shouldn’t waste all of our time and energy on eugenics. Instead, we need to look at what is driving these problems — yes our genetic material is breaking down, but only because our environments are breaking down, and our social structures are breaking down and our ability to trust our neighbors is breaking down. Did we really think that we could destroy our physical environment and not destroy our mental environment? Did we really think that we could destroy our physical environment and build an artificial one and that there would be no remainder, no cost, no consequence? Did we really think that we could treat living beings as machines, and that they would be able to withstand that without going insane collectively as humanity and especially the most industrialized countries are evidencing in real time? This is much harder than eugenics, but euepigenetics is far more important.

Including for those who care about eugenics.