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By JohnGlad . Published by Hermitage Publishers , Schuylkill Haven , PA , USA , 2006 . Available free of charge at http://www.whatwemaybe.org .

Reviewed by Colin Butler, National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, Australian National University, Australian Capital Territory

I recently attended a meeting in Berlin, once capital city of the Third Reich, a regime that will long remain infamous for its racist and eugenic practices. This conference focused on the relationship between global population policy and human rights. My paper discussed in part the ideas of Thomas Malthus. I soon discovered at this meeting that Malthus remains a seven-letter word, barely mentionable even at a population conference. Yet the inhibition about eugenics is stronger than that for Malthus.

This book by John Glad would horrify many of the colleagues I met in Berlin. It opens the can of a thousand squirming taboos. Ultimately, even for this open-minded reviewer, this book reinforces my perception that those who campaign for eugenics are very peculiar. But let me be clear. My difficulties with this book are not because eugenics has no place in our world. Even though the taboo over this term is so strong that few will admit it, modern society uses many practices that are effectively eugenic. The most obvious form is the screening of fetuses for an increasing number of genetic traits that are perceived as undesirable, from Down syndrome to Tay-Sachs. In many parts of Asia it is the absence of genetic material – the y chromosome – that triggers fetal killing (or child neglect). A form of social eugenics is also practised each time a normal child is aborted, whether for an economic or psychological motivation.

This book, probably one of the most openly pro-eugenics published in recent times, goes much further than advocating the selective termination of unwanted fetuses. The author argues that our social, technological and genetic knowledge will soon be sufficient to engineer a society which, if not perfect, will at least be much better than that which we have now. Glad calls the emerging species that will fulfill this capacity “homo autocatalyticus”. He suggests future humanity can and should use eugenics to bootstrap itself to a higher genetic plane.

Chillingly, a recommended step in this direction is that “low IQ” women should be paid to accept the transfer of higher-quality embryos. If such women do not accept such implants then their ongoing financial support should be made contingent on their “consent” to be sterilised.

There is much of interest in this book. The author's claim that eugenics was once widespread and respectable (including within Australia) is persuasive. Glad also claims that many Jewish intellectuals supported eugenic arguments in the period between the two World Wars, the heyday of eugenic respectability. He documents numerous eugenic practices in modern Israel, from the state supply of carefully screened sperm to the “routine” use of amniocentesis for women aged over 35.

But the book ultimately does more to harm than to build support for any expansion in the scope of modern eugenics. Perhaps Glad's most fundamental error is his simplistic preference for genetic rather than social or environmental explanations in the complex causation of the phenomena of ability, self-awareness, value and pleasure that we recognise as constituting the experience of being human. But, even if we accept that genetic factors are the main determinant of intelligence, do we really know how to identify the relevant genes? Should the life of every fetus that is below par be terminated before birth? Where (and who) would draw the line?

I am not recommending we discard the baby with the bathwater. I do not think all human life is equal, once created. But the pace at which we move towards the selective breeding of humans using the latest knowledge, rather than our ancient customs, needs to be very cautious, and much slower than advocated by Glad.

Those who genuinely seek to improve human society, including the measurable intelligence of the poor, are likely to be better served by work to improve equity, minimum employment standards, nutrition, early childhood education and so on. But hold on. Glad is critical of genetic “panmixia”, claiming instead that ethnic and tribal differences should be preserved. Would he consider that greater equity would promote a form of social “panmixia”, a shift towards greater global social homogeneity that is somehow undesirable?

Could not Glad's ideas be abused to develop a society similar to that imagined by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World? Who will perform the menial, repetitious, and dangerous work in Glad's imagined utopia? If all “low IQ” women are impregnated with embryos sired by Nobel laureates, could paradise really be closer? Or might reasons be found to create a servant or soldier caste, whose personalities and IQs are deliberately manipulated using a genetic lens, thought clear by its proponents, but gradually revealed as clouded as knowledge advances yet again? Who will administer this genetic police state? It sounds like a nightmare to me.