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The Professor and the Madman

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While the establishment media look to fundamentalist Christianity and various right-wing sources to explain the ideology of Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Behring Breivik, they have completely ignored his virulent scientific fundamentalism and Social Darwinism, including a far-ranging proposal for a revival of eugenics inspired by Princeton University evolutionary biologist Lee Silver.

In his 1518-page “European Declaration of Independence,” Breivik reveals himself as an unapologetic champion of modern biology and the scientific worldview. Indeed, despite his right-wing views in some areas, he does not believe that the progress of science can be left to private enterprise. Instead, it requires lavish and permanent support by the state. He argues that 20% of government spending must be devoted to scientific research (pp. 1188, 1386), and he insists that funding science is more important than government help for the poor. “Welfare expenditure should not take precedent over the 20% fixed sum dedicated to science/technology, research and development.” (p. 1195)

Science also trumps religion according to Breivik: “As for the Church and science, it is essential that science takes an undisputed precedence over biblical teachings.” (p. 1403)

Breivik lists Darwin’s Origin of Species as one of the “important” books he has read (p. 1407), and Social Darwinism is never far from the surface in his discussions of social policy. At one point he laments that “Social-darwinism was the norm before the 1950. Back then, it was allowed to say what we feel. Now, however, we have to disguise our preferences to avoid the horrible consequences of being labeled as a genetical preferentialist.” (p. 1227) Breivik’s vision for “a perfect Europe” also involves Social Darwinism, which he identifies with “logic” and “rationalist thought”: “‘Logic’ and rationalist thought (a certain degree of national Darwinism) should be the fundament of our societies.” (emphasis added, p. 1386)

Breivik’s Social Darwinism rears its ugly head yet again in his discussions of global ecology and overpopulation. He argues that “radical policies will have to be implemented” to reduce the human population by more than half, or 3.8 billion people. (p. 1202) He writes that if “second and third world countries” cannot curb their production of human offspring, “nature will correct their suicidal tendencies as they are unable to feed their populations.” (p. 1202) He further argues that Western countries should not interfere in this natural process, even if it results in mass starvation. “If starvation threatens the countries who have failed to follow our [population control] guidelines we should not support them by backing their corrupt leaders or send any form of aid.” (p. 1202) Indeed, “[f]ood aid to 3rd world countries must stop immediately as it is the primary cause of overpopulation.” (p. 1203)

Perhaps the most blatant example of Breivik’s Social Darwinism is his endorsement of “reprogenetics,” a form of “positive” eugenics to allow human beings to take control of their evolution and produce better humans through genetic engineering. According to Breivik, “[t]he never-ending collective pursuit for scientific evolution and perfection should become the benchmark and essence of our existence.” (p. 1199) He explains further:

The Nazis destroyed the reputation of “eugenics” by combining it to scientific racism and mass extermination. But seeking biological perfection is still a logical concept and I don’t see why we should abandon it. We just have to make sure that we offer it as a voluntary option to everyone or at least start by legalising it (promotional voluntary reprogenetics or private reprogenetics). We should legalise reproductive technologies that will allow parents to create off spring with biological improvement (reprogenetics). This must be a non-coercive form of biological improvement which will be predominantly motivated by individual competitiveness and the desire to create the best opportunities for children. (p. 1200)

Breivik advocates “[t]he commercialisation and state/media encouragement of reprogenetics favoring the Nordic genotype” and “[t]he usage of large scale surrogacy facilities as a secondary reproduction option for countries to compensate for non-sustainable fertility rates. The donors of eggs and sperm will then exclusively carry the Nordic genotypes.” (p. 1192)

Breivik is clearly a madman and/or a moral monster, and his Social Darwinism did not “cause” his murderous rampage. Nor am I trying to suggest that modern Darwinists are somehow responsible for his heinous acts. Of course they aren’t.

But Breivik’s call for a new eugenics—as opposed to his murders—is another matter. The most disturbing thing about Breivik’s eugenics proposals is that they are not simply inspired by his own private demons. Instead, they largely spring from “mainstream” Darwinists, past and present.

The part that comes from the past is Breivik’s obsession about the preservation of the “Nordic” race, which he believes features “rare characteristics that have been acquired through an evolutionary process which has taken more than 1 million years.” (p. 1158) Breivik claims that new cultural attitudes toward “race-mixing” are leading people of Nordic ancestry to act unnaturally and undo what a million years of evolution has produced. Here Breivik is echoing the concerns of leading Darwinian eugenists from the early twentieth century like Madison Grant, who is cited by name in Breivik’s manifesto. (pp. 1152-1153)

In The Passing of the Great Race (1921), Grant denounced the American ideal of the “melting pot” and insisted that the inevitable result of race-crossing was the degeneration of the “superior” race. “The result of the mixture of two races, in the long run, gives us a race reverting to the more ancient, generalized and lower type.” Grant was especially concerned about the degradation of the “Nordic races,” because he believed that Nordics were naturally “rulers, organizers and aristocrats.” passingofrace.001.jpgAs I write about in Darwin Day in America, some contemporary scientists distanced themselves from part of Grant’s rhetoric, but on the whole he was far from a pariah in the American scientific community. He served as chairman of the New York Zoological Society, as a board member of the prestigious American Museum of Natural History, and as councilor of the American Geographical Society (in fact, you can find some of his articles in old issues of National Geographic). Grant’s book The Passing of the Great Race, meanwhile, went through multiple editions, each with a congratulatory preface by leading zoologist Henry Fairfield Osborn of Columbia University. Many of Grant’s concerns about race-mixing were echoed by leading evolutionary biologists of the era such as Edward East at Harvard and Charles Davenport, head of the prestigious research lab at Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island. East and Davenport were both members of the elite National Academy of Sciences, and Davenport is widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of the discipline of genetics. Fortunately, although Grant, East, and Davenport were not pariahs in the early twentieth century, they are now. But they are also an example of how “mainstream” Social Darwinism of the past can still exert a pernicious influence on the present.

However, Breivik does not simply draw on Darwinian thinkers from years gone by. His proposal for “reprogenetics” comes from a mainstream evolutionary biologist currently on the faculty of one of America’s most prestigious Ivy League institutions.

The biologist’s name is Lee Silver. He is a Professor at Princeton and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Silver is the scientist who coined the term “reprogenetics,” and his 1997 book Remaking Eden: How Genetic Engineering and Cloning Will Transform the American Family features prominently in Breivik’s lengthy manifesto in a passage that appears to have been cut and pasted from Wikipedia:

Reprogenetics is a term referring to the merging of reproductive and genetic technologies expected to happen in the near future as techniques like germinal choice technology become more available and more powerful. The term was coined by Lee M. Silver, a professor of molecular biology at Princeton University, in his 1997 book Remaking Eden.
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In Silver’s formulation, reprogenetics will involve advances in a number of technologies not yet achieved, but not inherently impossible. Among these are improvements in interpreting the effects of different expressions of DNA, the ability to harvest large numbers of embryos from females, and a far higher rate of reinsertion of embryos into host mothers. The end result, according to Silver, is that those parents who can afford it will be able to pick out the genetic characteristics of their own children, which Silver says will trigger a number of social changes in the decades after its implementation. Possible early applications, however, might be closer to eliminating disease genes passed on to children.

According to Silver, the main differences between reprogenetics and eugenics, the “science” of improving the gene pool which in the first half of the 20th century became infamous for the brutal policies it inspired, is that most eugenics programs were compulsory programs imposed upon citizens by governments trying to enact an ultimate goal.

Reprogenetics, by contrast, would be pursued by individual parents, who would be trying to improve their children with the same motivations that compel them to purchase expensive courses in preparation for standardised testing (e.g. the SAT).

Unlike Breivik, Silver does not advocate using genetic engineering to preserve the “Nordic” race. But he does argue that “reprogenetics” will allow human beings to take control of their evolution and evolve themselves into higher beings. Although he is concerned that wholesale genetic engineering could lead to a chasm between those who can afford genetic enhancements and those who cannot, Silver spends much of his book dismissing most objections to the new eugenics, which he regards as “hollow.” As he explains in his prologue:

Throughout, I will explore the ethical arguments that have been raised against the use of this technology. In most instances, I will attribute opposition to conscious or subconscious fears of treading in “God’s domain.” Indeed, I will argue that nearly all of the objections raised by bioethicists and others ring hollow… (Remaking Eden, p. 13)

In his chapter on “The Designer Child,” Silver sounds like eugenists from a century ago, arguing that we now have it in our power to direct our own evolution and asking why we should not seize that power:

While selfish genes do, indeed, control all other forms of life, master and slave have switched positions in human beings, who now have the power not only to control but to create new genes for themselves.

Why not seize this power? Why not control what has been left to chance in the past? Indeed, we control all other aspects of our children’s lives and identities through powerful social and environmental influences and, in some cases, with the use of powerful drugs like Ritalin or Prozac. On what basis can we reject positive genetic influences on a person’s essence when we accept the rights of parents to benefit their children in every other way? (Remaking Eden, p. 277)

Silver does add a caveat that “[t]he effects of these technologies seem beneficial in the here and now; it is the future consequences that are worrisome.” But, again, he spends most of his book discounting objections to “reprogenetics” other than the disparities that will result between rich and poor because of a lack of equal access to genetic technologies. Moreover, in the epilogue to his book, he offers a utopian vision of the future that would make even some earlier eugenists blush. Writing a hypothetical history of reprogenetics from an undetermined date in the future, Silver discusses how man has been able to use genetic engineering to evolve himself into a God-like creature:

It was a critical turning point in the evolution of life in the universe. For when the first generation of cognition-enhanced GenRich matured, they produced among themselves scientists who greatly outshone geniuses from all previous epochs. And these scientists made huge advances in further understanding the human mind, and they created more sophisticated reprogenetic technologies, which they then used to enhance cognition even further in the GenRich of the next generation. In each generation hence, there were quantum leaps of this kind. Throughout it all, there were those who said we couldn’t go any further, that there were limits to mental capacity and technological advances. But those prophesied limits were swept aside, one after another, as intelligence, knowledge, and technological power continued to rise.

A special point has now been reached in the distant future. And in this era, there exists a special group of mental beings. Although these beings can trace their ancestry back directly to homo sapiens, they are as different from humans as humans are from the primitive worms with tiny brains that first crawled along the earth’s surface. It took 600 million years for those worms to evolve into human beings. It has taken far less time for humans to self-evolve into the mental beings that now exist.

It is difficult to find the words to describe the enhanced attributes of these special people. “Intelligence” does not do justice to their cognitive abilities. “Knowledge” does not explain the depth of their understanding of both the universe and their own consciousness. “Power” is not strong enough to describe the control they have over technologies that can be used to shape the universe in which they live. (Remaking Eden, p. 293)

While the murderous rampage of Mr. Breivik is obviously not the responsibility of Prof. Silver, the same cannot be said about Breivik’s chilling call for a new eugenics. There Prof. Silver served (albeit via Wikipedia) as an intellectual mentor to Breivik, who embraced Silver’s program of “reprogenetics” wholesale as well as his scientific utopianism.

Ideas really do have consequences.