We seem closer to genetic manipulation to ensure our offspring have the best possible characteristics. The prospect of super humans, genetically manipulated to be perfect doesn’t seem all that far off.By Kiran Manral
Scientists in the USA recently managed to remove disease causing mutations at the genetic level in human embryos. The implications of this are astounding and worrying. For one, we can all hope to eventually someday be able to eradicate hereditary diseases from the next generation. For another, there is the fear that those with the money to pay, can have their embryos genetically altered to enhance desirable traits, including appearance. Is it time to look at what science holds for love?
Well, humans have been doing this for a long time, albeit outside the laboratory. We choose good looking partners most times, if we can. We look at family history, caste and religion. We make discrete inquiries into family back grounds. Now, we seem closer to genetic manipulation to ensure our offspring have the best possible characteristics. The prospect of super humans, genetically manipulated to be perfect doesn’t seem all that far off.
THE ARYAN COUPLE
Sometimes, the state interferes in the mate selection process. In his desire to build the perfect Aryan race, Hitler created a ‘marriage loan’ program where they made interest free loans of 1,000 marks available for men and women intending to marry each other if they could ‘prove’ their Aryan heritage. This was to encourage ‘strong and pure’ Aryans to have more children, according to the historian Richard Evans. The “weak and racially impure” under the Nazi rule were sterilised. This was perhaps, a natural outcome of Adolf Hitler’s ideas about the ‘superiority’ of the Aryan race. In 1925, he wrote in Mein Kampf, “Everything we admire on this earth today—science and art, technology and inventions—is only the creative product of a few peoples and originally perhaps one race [the “Aryans”]. On them depends the existence of this whole culture.
If they perish, the beauty of this earth will sink into the grave with them.” For each child born to the ‘strong and pure’ Aryan couple, a quarter of the original loan amount was forgiven. It took four children from each couple, for the entire loan amount to be written off, therefore, encouraging Aryan couples to propagate. Finally, for each child born to the couple, a quarter of the loan amount was forgiven. Therefore, if the couple had four children, they would not have to repay any of the original loan amount. In this way, the program encouraged healthy “Aryan” couples to have more children and reinforced what the Nazis believed was the proper role of women in society.
This state supported breeding of a so called superior race would be perhaps an early practice of positive eugenics, balanced out by negative eugenics which prevented people who were considered ‘genetically inferior’ from reproducing. The government forcibly sterilised people who had diseases like low IQ, mental illness, epilepsy, alcoholism, and more.
Interestingly, they were not the only government at the time to have such a law, the United States too had compulsory sterilisation laws in many states and thousands of women were sterilised. They also banned marriages between white and coloured people, including African Americans, Native Indians and Asians.
Behind the Iron curtain too, reports of state sponsored eugenics continue to keep emerging into public domain. In 2006, we learnt that the 228 centimetre tall Yao Ming was bred by china to be their basketball hope. He was forced into the sport by the government, suffering years of experiments to increase his height, and harsh training through his childhood in terrible camps with other children who had shown sporting potential.
In the book Operation Yao Ming, written by journalist Brook Larmer, the story of how Yao Ming was the product of a totalitarian state controlled breeding programme set up under Mao Zedong focussed on medals on the international athletic stage became public. The sports officials had been tracking his family through generations, Yao’s grandfather was one of Shanghai’s tallest men, his son was forcibly taken into the system to train for basketball and he was then married off forcibly to the china women’s captan Fang Fengdi, who was 182 cm herself with the goal being that they should produce tall children.
LEAVING THEMSELVES ON THE SHELF
The ex-Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew suggested something quite radical back when he was leading the country. He was focused on remaking Singapore into a country which could lift itself out from its colonial past and become a nation to be reckoned, for that he wanted to remake its citizenry. For this, he had suggested the graduate mothers scheme, one that came in for a great deal of controversy but actually ended up completely overhauling how people chose their life partners. Like most patriarchal Eastern societies, Singaporeans too had a situation where the higher educated girls were being left behind in terms of marriage. The graduate men were marrying non graduate women, and the better educated women were having fewer children when they got married. In 1983, in his national day rally address which was televised live, Mr Lee announced a plan to breed talent amongst the Singaporeans, an eugenistic scheme if any, which advocated including women graduates in the breeding pool, instead of “leaving them on the shelf.”
If the men continued to not marry women graduates, he stated, “… you would end up a more stupid society … So what happens? There will be less bright people to support dumb people in the next generation. That’s a problem.”
This speech became the Great Marriage debate. It raised hackles. It was the state interfering in the bedroom. He followed up this speech with incentives for men to marry graduate women. He gave graduate mothers priority for admission in the best schools for their third child. This was a radical decision, dividing both the people and the cabinet, antagonising the egalitations, outraging the electorate. The backlash resulted in a drop in the vote share, and this scheme was soon dropped.
The result of his thoughts and policies was The Social Development Network set up in 1984 which sought to help men and women graduates interact and hopefully get married to each other. A variant of the tradition of family matchmakers
One measure of this era that did survive, however: The Social Development Unit (now called the Social Development Network), set up in 1984 to facilitate socialising between men and women graduates. While the Government’s matchmaking efforts drew some ridicule over the years, Mr Lee averred: “Traditional methods of choosing marriage partners had been ruptured by universal education. The Government had to provide alternatives to the family matchmakers of old.”
the Parsis are being encouraged to marry and reproduce through a rather confounding campaign that speaks of old age alone and passing on one’s wealth to one’s servants
How did these experiments with state promoted eugenics pan out in the end? While the result in terms of development in Singapore might seem self evident, and in Nazi Germany, alas, the end of the Nazi regime put quite an end to that experiment. In India, the Parsis are being encouraged to marry and reproduce through a rather confounding campaign that speaks of old age alone and passing on one’s wealth to one’s servants.
At the other end of the spectrum, is the need to terminate pregnancies when the fetus is found to have congenital abnormalities. Or the need to sterilise people with mental retardation. There is always space for compassionate eugenics. State sponsored eugenics whether enforced, or softly encouraged, is always a slippery slope. The ethics of eugenics is fiercely debated all around, a consensus about which still has to emerge. What remains to be seen is how these impacts the institution of marriage as the science around it advances.