Saturday, October 31, 2015

Eugenics: Plato’s Farm.

“I see that you have in your house hunting-dogs and a number of pedigree cocks. Have you ever considered something about their unions and procreations?”
“What?” he said.
“In the first place,” I said, “among these themselves, although they are a select breed, do not some prove better than the rest?”
“They do,” [he said.]
“Do you then breed from all indiscriminately, or are you careful to breed from the best?”
“From the best,” [he replied.]
“And, again, do you breed from the youngest or the oldest, or, so far as may be, from those in their prime?”
“From those in their prime,” [he replied.]
“And if they are not thus bred, you expect, do you not, that your birds and hounds will greatly degenerate?”
“I do,” he said.
“And what of horses and other animals?” I said; “is it otherwise with them?”
“It would be strange if it were,” said he.
“Gracious,” said I, “dear friend, how imperative, then, is our need of the highest skill in our rulers, if the principle holds also for mankind.”


The dialogue above comes from Plato’s Republic (459a-459e). Among other things, Plato argues that in an ideal human society, reproduction should be controlled following the same general principles of animal husbandry farmers apply to their livestock.

Unlike in animal husbandry, to run the human farm Farmers (as opposed to the conventional farmers) would have to bamboozle their herd (“our rulers will have to make considerable use of falsehood and deception for the benefit of their subjects”, 459d).

Think of the distinction between bulls and steers/stags, for instance; more traditional farmers can easily sterilise less valuable stock by castration; that unfortunately may prove a hard sell for male humans. This is where deception was of the essence.

For one, deception is required to mislead losers in the selection process about their true status. For another, to fool them about the fate facing whatever progeny they accidentally engender:
“The offspring of the good, I suppose, they will take to the pen or créche, to certain nurses who live apart in a quarter of the city, but the offspring of the inferior, and any of those of the other sort who are born defective, they will properly dispose of in secret, so that no one will know what has become of them.” (460c)

Plato may not have used the word, but he rightfully could have: etymologically eugenics comes from the Greek eugenes, meaning “well-born, of good stock, of noble race”. It fuses eu- “good” and genos “birth”. Euthanasia has a similar etymology, only thanatos “death” replacing genos.


In the popular imagination -- shaped by elite-inspired myths -- eugenics is inextricably linked to Darwinism. Roughly speaking, the idea is that once Darwin discovered evolution by natural selection, other thinkers, like his cousin Francis Galton -- who coined the word eugenics -- applied Darwinism to Homo sapiens. In short, that Darwinism precedes and implies eugenics.

In reality, the origin of eugenics is much humbler and less scientific. Plato did no appeal to experimental science, which would only be devised millenia later. By contemporary standards, the facts Plato deployed seem lacking in rigour, of unproven scientific value and curiously “anecdotal”, coming as they did from mere farmer’s experience.

The relationship between Darwinism and eugenics seems rather the opposite of what is popularly imagined: if anything, eugenics historically preceded and inspired Darwinism. We shall have more to say about this in the future.


Plato’s proposals raise several questions. For one, who would be the Farmers?

As the passages above indicate, they would be “our rulers”.

That position had several job requirements: for one, rulers should be able to bullshit the rest of the community -- “for the benefit” of them, obviously.

Among themselves, however, rulers must speak frankly, reasonably, coolly, based on solid facts, with clear logic, to decide what’s best for the community. Why, rulers must be surprisingly like Glaucon (Plato’s probably fictitious counterpart in the dialogue), or Plato himself. Not for nothing Platonic rulers were also known as Philosopher Kings. (History is full of weird and wonderful coincidences and in subjects like eugenics and social stratification, this particular kind of lucky coincidence is pervasive.)

Who would be the Cattle?

Here Plato seems more vague, but ancient well-born Greeks, of good stock and noble race -- like Plato -- knew that livestock by many names, among them banausos: “mechanics”. (In another coincidence, four centuries later Marcus Terentius Varro -- a well-born Roman, of noble race and good stock -- would call the same quality of people "talking tools".)

At any event, the Cattle were the usual suspects: manual workers, helots, you know.

Cattle have no say in farmer’s decisions, nor should banausos have a voice in Philosopher Kings' deliberations.

Why not?

24 centuries later, a well-born Englishman -- also of good stock and noble race, plus a polymathic intellect -- explained his dislike for the British Labour Party:
“I do not believe that the intellectual elements in the Labour Party will ever exercise adequate control; too much will always be decided by those who do not know at all what they are talking about
Although its author seldom wrote about eugenics, Plato would have recognized his ideas infusing that passage, from Lord Keynes’ 1925 essay "Am I a Liberal". 

Whether by inborn incompetence or acquired inability due to their manual occupations, banausos, talking tools, or boorish proletarians (Keynes' own contribution) cannot possibly have a say on the community’s destiny: they lack the time, ability or inclination to decide their own future. Or so Plato and Keynes assured us.

More importantly, nor should they attempt to acquire them.

They just got the short straw, naturally. (That is another pervasive historical coincidence.)

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