December 27, 2012 | David F. Coppedge

Eugenics in Space

To “keep evolution on a favorable track,” spacefaring humans may want to cull bad genes, a futurist says.

Enter chief speculator, Cameron Smith of Portland State University, whose “day job” is teaching evolution.  In Elizabeth Howell’s post on Live Science, “Will Humans Keep Evolving on Ultra-Long Space Voyages?“, Smith was given free rein to fantasize about starship populations transporting human wretchedness across the light-years, to pollute other worlds some distant day.  One of the factors that he thinks can’t be overlooked is evolution.  A teacher of evolution at the university, Smith feels “evolution will continue on starships despite the best attempts to limit it.

“I believe that new pressure, breathing-gas compositions, gravity and radiation environments will act on the early stages of embryo and fetus development; this will be natural selection of new selective agents on the genome,” Smith told in an email after stating his views in a recent Scientific American podcast.

Precisely what new characteristics will be selected for or against, and spread or be deleted from the population, is very hard to predict, however.”

It might seem odd that a teacher of evolution equates natural selection with inheritance of acquired characteristics (Lamarckism) in the embryo, but Howell didn’t stop him right there.  Instead, she let him launch into unfettered prediction about what is very hard to predict, and to advise politicians he will never see about how to “keep evolution on a favorable track” —

To keep evolution on a favorable track, the early space colonists should be screened as much as possible for genetic problems, Smith said.

His advice primarily wobbled around the “founder effect” of a new population and the minimum population size to avert inbreeding, though he correctly noted that the single-gene disease notion is “melting away” under new discoveries of polygenic disease and epigenetics.  Interfering with evolution raises ominous thoughts about eugenics, so he wanted to make it clear he is not one of “them” —

He stressed that he doesn’t mean breeding a “super-race” of humans, which would open moral issues.

But if evolution is as evolution does, and if evolution brought humans to existence, what are morals?  Where did they evolve from?  Wouldn’t the rigors of space require a super-race of space travelers, with evolutionary biologists advising tyrannical captains and an ample supply of obedient peasants to do the work?  It’s unclear why Smith preferred the happy, cooperative Star Trek crew, when evolution produces anything that gets the job done.  Maybe that’s just his personal preference.

If Smith is feeling some sense of moral obligation, it might be described as a mutation interfering with the inexorable random track of evolution.  If natural selection produces a batch of obese slackers on the ship, as depicted in the Disney movie Wall-E (mentioned by Howell as some kind of bad outcome), who’s he to complain?  Why would anyone offer “best attempts to limit it”?  Evolve or perish; evolve and perish; nobody cares.

Question: what do you get when you subject embryos to “new pressure, breathing-gas compositions, gravity and radiation environments”?  You can find out with experiments on fruit flies in the space station.  Do you get “new selective agents” in the genome?  No; you get dead embryos.  But even for any that survive, they will not pass on their genes unless the selection occurs in the gametes.  A mutation in the embryo is too late; its phenotype is an evolutionary dead end.  Here we see a professor of evolution presenting Lamarckism as an example of how Darwinian evolution works.  Astonishing.

No, we’re not advocating a super race, Smith says.  We just want to keep the unfit from breeding.  Sound familiar?

Sometimes you just have to stand back and let the illogic of these people implode.  If it were that simple, everyone would see it, but the fact that and Live Science still put this illogic out there means we have to keep pointing it out until they fear the inevitable backlash from informed citizens.  Cameron Smith is defeating his own premise by desiring to guide evolution on moral grounds.  The key point of Darwinian evolution is that it is unguided.  If Smith wants to guide it to keep evolution on a “favorable” track, he’s promoting artificial selection – a form of intelligent design – on human beings, which is eugenics.  But the spectre of its dark past scares him, so he quickly backpedals, stressing that he doesn’t mean breeding a super-race, “which would open moral issues.”  Whose moral issues?  His?

If Smith is feeling a moral obligation to prevent the horrors of breeding a super race, that’s more than a personal preference.  That’s his conscience speaking.  If he were a consistent evolutionist, he would dismiss his moral feelings as irrelevant fluff.  But he can’t.  Deep down, he wants to see love, fairness, beauty and health continue on in a population maintaining genuine human nature.  He cannot escape the image his Creator implanted in him.



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