Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Racism and eugenics 

Andy Ho has a commentary in The Straits Times today criticising racism. It is a response to a reader who seems to be justifying “racial purity”.

Ho objected strongly to the concept of racial purity. He warned of the prejudices and injustices that accompanied such notions in the past, including the Holocaust in Adolf Hitler’s Germany.

Ho’s unease about racial purity is perfectly understandable. However, when he moves on to eugenics, he becomes confusing.

Ho says: “Through the mid-1920s, virtually all members of the UK and US scientific communities supported eugenics or scientific racism.” Why “eugenics or scientific racism”? Why not “eugenics, or more specifically, scientific racism”? The way it is actually written could be interpreted to mean that eugenics is all about racism, and that eugenics is solely used to achieve racial purity, that one necessarily leads to the other.

Indeed, further in the article, he seems to say a similar thing about the study of genomics: “Today, widely hyped advances in genomics are promoting a resurgent interest in the issues of inheritability and, thus, race.” Again, why “and, thus, race” and not “and, particularly, race”?

In reality, genomics is not just about race, and eugenics is not used solely to achieve racial purity. As Ho himself defines it, the goal of eugenics is “to improve the human species through reproductive selection”. This improvement is not necessarily limited to traits relating to race. In fact, Ho himself cites a programme involving the mentally ill and criminally insane. The Wikipedia entry on eugenics mentions some modern uses of eugenics in controlling genetic diseases such as thalassemia.

Is Ho aware of these? If he is, why does he write about eugenics in such an imprecise — and potentially misleading — manner?

At the very end of his article, Ho says: “There is no such thing as humane, sensitive, or sensible eugenics.” Now, I can’t tell exactly what he means by that. Or is that precisely the point?


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