Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. I hope you’re all as well as you can be. I’m not so well. As I’m writing this, I’m in the throes of a hellish head cold. It’s just a cold, not covid; my lateral flow tests are negative and I’m double-jabbed, having levelled up to Autism Pro months ago (autistic in-joke). I’m also still struggling with the back pain from the same problem that saw me admitted to hospital last December, and which is coming back with a vengeance. A routine visit to the physio this week ended up with them telling me I’m getting an urgent referral for an MRI scan, as there is a suspicion the spine issue could be developing into something nasty. It’s not likely, but it has to be ruled out. I’ll let you know how that all pans out. On with the blog…
There’s something I’ve been wanting to talk about for a few weeks, but I’ve needed to let my mind work on it for a while. The reason for this is that every time I come to the subject, the ramifications of it sprout off in different directions. At least that’s what it felt like. But I’ve started to realise that this sprouting-off of ideas is building one wider but cohesive thought. This over-arching thought starts with… Eugenics. The subject of eugenics is very important to the autistic community, particularly in the light of recent developments around the Spectrum 10k project. But there’s a lot more to it than that. Come with me…
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Let’s start by talking about what eugenics actually is. The word, eugenics, feels and sounds similar to genetics, but let’s not get confused: Genetics is essentially the study of how characteristics are inherited by biological organisms from previous generations. In science, genetics expands to include areas of genetic sequencing, genetic engineering, and so on. But eugenics is not science. Eugenics is an ideology, the aim of which is to make improvements to the genetic quality of the human race. The term eugenics was coined by Victorian scientist and polymath, Sir Francis Galton. But he didn’t invent the idea of eugenics, just the name. The concept has been around a long, long time. Long before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, introducing the idea of evolution by natural selection to the public consciousness, people had been aware that physical characteristics are often passed on from one generation to another. This is why we talk about family resemblance. Throughout history, there have been societies that have practised leaving sickly babies to die, while helping strong, healthy ones thrive. This was done in the belief that a strong, healthy baby would grow into a strong, healthy adult, and produce more strong, healthy babies. This practice is eugenics in action, in its simplest form. While eugenics specifically refers to the selective breeding of humans, the idea is part of the wider biological landscape. Selective breeding generally works. This is why we have different breeds of dogs as wide in variation as the chihuahua and the great Dane, all of which evolved from wolves. It is also why we have the different types of flowers and plants that gardeners are so fond of. Selective breeding is a conscious decision to allow only the individuals of a given species with “desirable attributes” to reproduce, in the hope of perpetuating the said attributes. And if offspring are produced that do not have the necessary attributes, they are either prevented from reproducing, or are destroyed.
When species change or develop over generations, we call this evolution. Charles Darwin wrote about evolution by natural selection. By natural selection, we mean that certain attributes of living things are perpetuated from generation to generation, and others are not, due to external natural pressures such as predation, availability of food, environment, and so on. This occurs as living creatures in natural environments struggle to survive, some more efficiently than others. Selective breeding, by contrast, which occurs when an external organism (usually human) makes a conscious decision to encourage or prevent attribute perpetuation in another organism, can be called evolution by artificial selection. Artificial selection can be applied to humans just as it can any organism, and when that selective breeding is carried out on humans in order to match a particular set of ideals on a large scale, that is eugenics.
So, we know that artificial selection works, at least in terms of the mechanics of promoting certain characteristics and suppressing others. That’s why we have pugs and Labradors, and it’s why the carrots you buy in a supermarket are orange. Surely then, if we wanted to use artificial selection on a mass scale to make improvements to the human race; to make us better, that would be a good thing, right? I mean, if we stopped people prone to say, migraines, from reproducing, wouldn’t we create a race of super-humans immune to migraines? Well, like most things in life, it’s just not that simple. For one thing, we know that part of the process of evolution is the random generation of characteristics in living things due to natural mutation. This means that even if you think you have wiped out a characteristic through selective breeding, it could still make a reappearance in a subsequent generation. This would not deter eugenicists however, who would accept that the eugenic process would have to be ongoing to spot and weed out undesirable mutations as they appear. Furthermore, they might pin their hopes of a more permanent solution via the science of genetic engineering. Assuming these technical challenges were overcome, could we then say that improving the human race through eugenics would be a good thing?
Let’s have a quick sidetrack down one very simple argument against eugenics, and artificial selection in general. There is a view that says evolution by natural selection is, well, natural; it’s about letting nature take its course, and nature is a good thing. On the other hand, artificial selection is tampering with nature; it is playing god; it is Frankenstein science, and thus a bad thing. This argument, however, will not wash. To start with it is foolish, and a well-known logical fallacy, to assume that because something is natural it is intrinsically good. There are plenty of things naturally occurring that most of us feel are bad, or undesirable; cancer, for example. But there’s something else, which we need to think about. Evolution by natural selection has brought about the current human race; beings that are capable of making conscious decisions about whether or not they, or indeed other species, will reproduce. The simple fact that we can engage in selective breeding or eugenics is an outcome of our natural evolution, and is, therefore, natural. So you can argue that when we approach the subject of eugenics, we are doing what comes naturally. But does the eugenics is natural argument mean that eugenics is then morally right? Let’s talk about that…
We need to pause here to look at the language I’ve used so far. We’ve looked at the definition of eugenics, which generally talks about making improvements to the human race by perpetuating desirable characteristics, and breeding out less desirable characteristics. Improvements are generally accepted to be good things that make us better, and in light of us understanding that using eugenics is a natural outcome of our evolution, we can argue that it is morally right. This all sounds very positive: Improvement, desirable, good, better, natural, morally right. Who could possibly object to such a positive set of aims? Well, to answer that, you have to ask a further question: Who gets to decide what counts as improvement, desirable, good, better, natural, and morally right? Simply asking this question without even looking for an answer should be enough to give any proponent of eugenics serious reason to stop and think. Unfortunately, stopping and thinking doesn’t always lead to great decisions, and this is why history is littered with examples of the awful outcomes of eugenics.
I want to talk briefly in general terms about how human beings come together in group behaviours. I’m going to come back to this again later with some uncomfortable thoughts, but for now we’ll go with this: For the most part, human beings tend to come together in societal groups. At some point in our evolutionary development, it emerged that successful reproduction was more likely in groups larger than immediate family. In other words, what we now call incest was shown to be genetically problematic when it came to reproduction; healthy offspring tend to be more likely with greater genetic variation in the pool. This is at least part of, and probably a major influence on, why humans adopted the practice of coming together in tribes, and then villages, towns and cities. We are herd animals. In our groups, we self-organise in a way that gives rise to culture, including codes of morality and law. These codes vary geographically and temporally. There are cultures in which it is more prestigious to have a male child than a female child. There have been cultures in which it has been so openly acceptable to have slaves that the management and trade of slaves was enshrined in law. Today, most of us would deplore that type of social coding. The point here is that morality and its partner ethics are not immutable, objective things. They vary from place to place and in time, in response to overriding cultural pressures, and they also vary within cultural subgroups, and of course, morality varies from individual to individual. This makes it very difficult if not impossible to fairly impose moral beliefs, ethical practices, and the laws that enforce them, on any population. That doesn’t stop people trying, however, and sometimes with the most horrific consequences. I don’t like invoking Godwin’s law, but we can’t escape it here…
The subject of eugenics will always be linked with the Nazis. The holocaust cast a horrific shadow over the twentieth century, and continues to do so in this century. And so it should. The incalculable evil inflicted by Hitler’s regime should never be forgotten, diluted or dismissed. So deep is the racial and cultural trauma inflicted by the events of the second world war that there is simply no getting away from it. One of Hitler’s ideals was to create a super-race of humans free of what he considered to be undesirable characteristics. Being Jewish or black, for just two examples, was undesirable to Hitler. The Nazi solution to eugenically breeding out these characteristics was mass murder. One thing that should really impress the deep horror of this is the understanding that Hitler and his supporters thought their eugenics program was a good thing. They were not cartoon villains twirling their moustaches and revelling in how evil they were; they thought they were the good guys, “improving” the genetic quality of the human race. Just let that sink in for a moment, and then ask yourself, what forces came into play over the thousands of years of human social development to get us to a place where one set of humans could outgroup another set of humans so catastrophically? How did we get there? We need to take a diversion for the answer…
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Outgrouping does not happen only on such catastrophic scales as in the holocaust. It happens on a continuum, from the interpersonal, through social and peer groups, ethnic groups, and so on until you arrive at the horror inflicted by the Nazis. In England in the 1960s or 70s, if you were black or Irish and looking for somewhere to lodge, you would have become familiar with the signs on boarding houses reading, No blacks or Irish. A few years ago, an incident hit the headlines in the UK when a gay couple were refused entry to a bed & breakfast guest house, by Christian owners whose personal moral code included the belief that homosexuality was sinful. Outgrouping also led to the opinion that black people are inferior to white people, and therefore it was deemed acceptable to kidnap them, torture them, take away their names, and use them as slaves. Outgrouping led to the opinion that homosexual behaviour is wrong and should be punished by death, chemical castration, or social isolation, depending on when and where a gay person was unlucky enough to find themselves. At the individual or interpersonal end of the outgrouping continuum, many autistic people will be familiar with being socially ostracised by neurotypical people, sometimes completely unexpectedly. I have come across a number of autistic people describing these situations, and it’s happened to me several times. For example, when I was a youngster going to college, I made a group of college friends. Back then, I didn’t know I was autistic, and I didn’t have an understanding of how my behaviour could become erratic when I was overstimulated or struggling to navigate the vagaries of neurotypical relationships. Every day, I would go to college, and take my place at my desk with all my design equipment, sitting next to the same people, and across from the same people, who had their own regular spots. One day, I turned up and one of the other students was sitting in my spot. There had been a rearrangement of where the people I had considered to be my college friends were sitting, and I was outed. These people wouldn’t look at me or talk to me anymore. To this day, I have no idea what I did to provoke being outgrouped. The outgrouping traumatised me, and I ended up leaving college, course incomplete. This doesn’t only happen to autistic people. It seems to be a natural outcome of human culture that individuals or subgroups can become ostracised, or seen as undesirable by another group, for all kinds of reasons. There is something in the way humans group together at social levels, racial levels, and even individual personal levels, that makes them create them-and-us situations, outgrouping those who do not fit desirable criteria. This outgrouping seems odd, when you consider how humans naturally group together in tribes, villages, towns, cities, etc. At some point, the grouping turns to exclusivity, and it’s this that leads to outgrouping. The in-group then assumes the belief that their characteristics are the desirable characteristics, and the outgroup’s characteristics are undesirable. These undesirable traits are what would be out-bred in a eugenics program. It is possible to trace this in-group / out-group phenomenon to a historical root?
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Richard Dawkins, the well-known face of genetic evolution theory, and atheism, coined the term meme to describe the way ideas or cultural practices can be perpetuated through time and space, and can effectively evolve. Ideas and cultural practices evolve in the sense that some reproduce and perpetuate, and others don’t, and the ones that perpetuate might do so with gradual changes to their characteristics, much in the way we see idle gossip transform through so-called Chinese whispers. Most people like to think they are in control of their own thoughts, and possess considered opinions based on fact and experience. However, the truth is that we are all inculcated with ideas and opinions based on our upbringing, our families, our education, our social position, and memetic social practices. We all have internal, unconscious biases, and they are so deeply ingrained in us that simply knowing we have them is not enough to recognise and dispel the harmful ones. Thinking logically and objectively is really hard work, and even those of us who prize such thinking are painfully aware that we often fail to adhere to it, such is the power of the social and ideological pressures that have shaped us from birth. These pressures don’t only spring from the previous generation, because, of course, the previous generation were themselves shaped by such pressures, and so on back through the generations to the dawn of culture. Much like physical characteristics are passed from one generation to another by our genes, our opinions, ethics, moral codes and so on are shaped by the ever-evolving memetic pressures we are exposed to. When we consider how the tendency to group together, and then exclusively ingroup, and then ostracise and other outgroups, has become ingrained in human culture, it seems reasonable to suggest that the root of this social shaping must have been incredibly powerful to start with. What do we find if we look into the past to see what the most powerful shaping forces on human culture were?
Early humans and their ancestors would most likely have been primarily concerned with survival. As we see with wildlife today, existence is a battle to find food, stay safe from the elements and predators, keep warm, and procreate. It has been theorised by many that the origins of religion stem from humanity’s early battles to survive in an environment that was often hostile, and in which the elements could be unpredictable. This can be seen in the various religious practices tied to elemental gods, shamanic practices such as praying for rain, and the creation of sacred calendars as a means of trying to understand the cycles of the seasons. The powerful forces of the elements would have seemed awesome and capricious, and we humans tend to anthropomorphise, leading us to attribute the workings of the natural world to gods who could be angered or pacified. Throughout history, droughts, famines, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, plagues, and more have been attributed to angry gods. People would group together under the auspices of a god, or gods, to appease them with various offerings, rituals or sacrifices. Religion continues to be shaping factor today, and people will often group themselves by religious belief. Most religions then, by definition create in-groups so powerfully enticing that their influence has lasted many thousands of years, ingrained into the fabric of human culture. Depending on your religion, you might be considered enlightened, or part of god’s people, or the chosen people, or the saints, or whatever other terminology might be employed. Similarly, the outgroup will be known variously as unbelievers, sinners, infidels, the damned, the unholy, or whatever. Religion, with its in-groups and out-groups, has been so deeply influential that wars have been fought over it. Religion was also used as a justification by many for the white-European trade in black African slaves; they were bringing Christ to the heathens, it was argued, and saving their souls. There is no doubt that religion has been one of the most, if not the most, powerful shaping forces on human culture and ethics. And by its very definition, religion creates in-groups and out-groups; the belief that some people are the chosen, the holy ones, god’s people, and are thus superior to the sinners who are only good for damnation and eternal torment.
Disclaimer: I should point out here that I can see religion from both sides of the fence. As a young teenager, I used to be a member of something called the House Church, which met on Sundays at the United Reformed Church building in the centre of Sheffield. I then joined the Pentecostal Holiness Church, which met in Pitsmoor, Sheffield. I was a passionate Christian, who believed the end times were nigh, and that humanity was about to enter the thousand-year tribulation period of Satan’s reign, before the final coming of Christ and the end of the world. I had to be a good Christian so I could get called up into heaven before the tribulation kicked off, but it wasn’t a simple process, and I feared I would be stuck on Earth living through a nuclear third world war as the Anti-Christ rose to power. I read the bible, both old and new testaments, from cover to cover, studying some parts in great detail, and like all good Christians, I chose to ignore or explain away what did not fit with my desired belief system. My drift away from belief was slow and drawn out, starting with seeing the hypocrisy, and finishing with improving my education. Arriving at a passionately atheist destination, for a while I was quite angry at religion. Now, while I am still very atheist, I have mellowed in the sense that I can understand how people are lured into religious belief, and how seductive it is. This blog is not an atheist blog; it is a blog about the autistic experience, and I have no intention to push an atheist agenda here. It just so happens that, as you can see from the way my argument has proceeded, that the subject of eugenics necessarily has its in-group / out-group roots in religion.
So, what do we have here? We have early human society self-grouping under primitive religion, and over thousands of years, in-groups becoming culturally formalised and exclusive, initially under religious concepts of a chosen people. The in-group / out-group idea evolves naturally in the manner of Dawkinsian memes, resulting in the normalising of in-group / out-group behaviours across a broad range of social activities and ideologies. These outgrouping behaviours occur on a continuum from the personal scale to the globally horrific, starting with interpersonal outgrouping (being ostracised as the only autistic kid in the classroom, for example), through the social (no blacks or Irish allowed here, or no gays in this hotel) through the legally sanctioned racial (the white European trade in black African slaves) and the horror of the holocaust. Each in-group has an ideology consisting of what is desirable in a racial and/or social and/or neuro- type. The idea that the in-group is superior to the out-group, and that the sum total of desirable characteristics in humanity can be increased by helping the in-group characteristics perpetuate, and suppressing the perpetuation of out-group characteristics, is the basis of eugenic ideology.
Eugenics isn’t something that could just happen in the future if we are unwary. It has already happened. The United States of America has a history of anti-miscegenation laws. In the UK, brilliant scientist Alan Turing was not the only man subjected to what was effectively chemical castration, rendering them impotent (and therefore unable to reproduce) for the “crime” of being gay. At different times, many nations around the world have legalised the enforced sterilisation of certain social groups. Legendary UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill was in favour of the enforced sterilisation clause of the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act. The United States, again, has had various laws enforcing the sterilisation of, for example, the “feeble-minded”. In any in-group, there will be the danger of someone wanting to be rid of the out-group and this will often be via suppressing the reproduction of individuals in the out-group.
Genetic science, including advances in genetic screening and genetic engineering techniques such as CRISPR, has added a new dimension to the looming shadow of eugenics. Genetic screening is currently used to spot serious medical issues in foetuses, as a result of which some people terminate their pregnancies. As genetic screening advances, it may become possible to screen for many different kinds of genetic characteristics, rather than just a handful of serious conditions. The fear here is that if a given in-group maintains a malicious public campaign that suggests certain genetic differences are in some way undesirable, and if genetic screening for those differences is available, prospective parents may choose to abort such pregnancies that they would have otherwise wanted to take to term. In other words, people would terminate healthy pregnancies purely as a result of ideological pressure from an in-group. This is one of the fears of the autistic community in the light of the Spectrum 10k project, which has set about a program of collecting DNA samples from ten thousand autistic people, which it will combine with other studies looking at another ninety thousand samples. Spectrum 10k have denied they are pursuing a eugenics program, but have nevertheless included Daniel Geschwind, well known for his desire for a cure for autism, on a team headed up by Simon Baron-Cohen, who is even more famous for his pathologising of autism, and cultural dehumanising of autistic people. In the eyes of the autistic community, presenting our neurotype as undesirable, problematic, and in need of a cure, represents a malicious public campaign that will influence the decisions of prospective parents, leading to the unnecessary termination of pregnancies due to an ideologically inculcated, and unfounded, fear of autism. The concerns are real.
In the Actually Autistic community, our outrage at the notion of eugenics being used to eradicate our neurotype is genuine. Broadly speaking, autistic people are considered to be more tolerant of different social groups than the general population. We like to think of ourselves as being more open to gender issues, racial equality, and of course, neurodiversity, than the general position of society. Bearing in mind that out-grouping can start at the small, interpersonal ends of the continuum, we need to hold on to our openness and inclusivity, and check our own behaviour regularly because we, like anyone else, are prone to unconscious biases. Furthermore, the autistic community, like any community, will self-group and, perhaps unintentionally, self-regulate into smaller sub-in-groups and sub-out-groups . As a social minority oppressed by the majority neurotypical culture, it is vital we check ourselves and guard against drifting into our own sub-exclusivities. I’ve seen signs of it happening now and again. Either without intention, or sometimes with good but misguided intentions, I have seen people within the actually autistic community out-grouped, and hurting. Fortunately for me, I haven’t experienced it myself, but I’ve seen it happening from a distance, and the pain inflicted is genuine. As a community, we autistic people need to recognise that our individuality matters, and disagreements will occur – this is a natural part of being human. But those disagreements don’t have to be the end of relationships; we still have so much in common as an oppressed minority, and in common with other minorities. We also need to guard against creating “pleasant” in-groups that leave other autistic people of the periphery or outside, feeling like they are not autistic enough, or not popular enough, or just not good enough. There is a movement afoot that is aimed at eradicating us, and so we must value each other; every individual, and keep each other close.
That’s all for this week. Until next time, take care, be good, stay proud.
Why Do I Write This Blog?
When I first found out I was autistic, I was a middle-aged adult and I knew nothing about autism. I quickly learned that there was a serious shortage of information and resources for adults in my situation. With this blog, I aim to inform about autism and autism-related issues as I learn, hopefully helping people who are on a similar journey of discovery. Like anyone who writes a blog, I want to reach as many readers as possible; if you like what I’m doing, please share it with your friends and followers. I will never hide this blog behind a paywall, but running the website does incur costs. If you would like to support, feel free to make a small contribution at BuyMeACoffee.Com.
You might also be interested in David Scothern’s blog, Mortgage Advisor on FIRE, which covers a range of topics including mental health issues and financial independence.