At the heart of the U.S. conservative movement, and most religious conservative movements, is a reproductive agenda. Old-style religious meddling in reproduction had a strong “make more of us” character to it– resulting in blanket policies designed to encourage reproduction across a society– but the later incarnations of right-wing authoritarianism, especially as they have mostly divorced themselves from religion, have been oriented more strongly toward goals judged to be eugenic, or to favor the reproduction of desirable individuals and genes; instead of a broad-based “make more of us” tribalism, it becomes an attempt to control the selection process.
The term eugenics has an ugly reputation, much earned through history, but let me offer a neutral definition of the term. Eugenics (“good genes”) is the idea that we should consciously control the genetic component of what humans are born into the world. It is not a science, since the definition of eu- is intensely subjective. As “eugenics” has been used throughout history to justify blatant racism and murder, the very concept has a negative reputation. That said, strong arguments can be made in favor of certain mild, elective forms of eugenics. For example, subsidized or free higher education is (although there are other intents behind it) a socially acceptable positive eugenic program: removal of one of a dysgenic economic force (education costs, usually borne by parents) that, empirically speaking, massively reduces fertility among the most capable people while having no effect on the least capable.
The eugenic impulse is, in truth, fairly common and rather mundane. The moral mainstream seems to agree that eugenics (if not given that stigmatized name) is morally acceptable when participation is voluntary (i.e. no one is forced to reproduce, or not to do so) and positive (i.e. focused on encouraging desirable reproduction, rather than discouraging those deemed “unwanted”) but unacceptable when involuntary (coercive or prohibitive) and negative. The only socially accepted (and often legislated) case of negative and often prohibitive eugenics is the universal taboo against incest. That one has millennia of evolution behind it, and is also fair (i.e. it doesn’t single out people as unwanted, but prohibits intrafamilial couplings, known to produce unhealthy offspring, in general) so it’s somewhat of special case.
Let’s talk about the specific eugenics of the American right wing. The obsessions over who has sex with whom, the inconsistency between hard-line, literal Christianity and the un-Christ-like rightist economics, and all of the myriad mean-spirited weirdnesses (such as U.S. private health insurance, a monster that even most conservatives loathe at this point) that make up the U.S. right-wing movement; all are tied to a certain eugenic agenda, even if the definition of “eu-” is left intentionally vague. In addition to lingering racism, the American right wing unifies two varieties (one secular, one religious) of the same idea: Social Darwinism and predestination-centric Calvinism. This amalgam I would call Social Calvinism. The problem with it is that it doesn’t make any sense. It fails on its own terms, and the religious color it allowed itself to gain has only deepened its self-contradiction, especially now that sexuality and reproduction have been largely separated by birth control.
In the West, religion has always held strong opinions on reproduction, because the dominant religious forces are those that were able to out-populate the others. “Be fruitful and multiply.” This “us versus them” dynamic had a certain positive (in the sense of “positive eugenics”; I don’t mean to call it “good”) but coercive flair to it. The religious society sought much more strongly to increase its numbers within the world than to differentially or absolutely discourage reproduction by individuals judged as undesirable within its numbers. That said, it still had some ugly manifestations. One prominent one is the traditional Abrahamic religions’ intolerance of homosexuality and non-reproductive sex in general. In modern times, homophobia is pure ignorant bigotry, but its original (if subconscious) intention was to make a religious society populate quickly, which put it at odds with nonre7uiproductive sexuality of all forms.
Predestination (for which Calvinism is known) is a concept that emerged , much later, when people did something very dangerous to literalist religion: they thought about it. If you take religious literalism– born in the illogical chaos of antiquity– and bring it to its logical conclusions, funny things happen. An all-knowing and all-powerful God would, one can reason, have full knowledge and authority over every soul’s final destiny (heaven or hell). This meant that some people were pre-selected to be spiritual winners (the Elect) and the rest were refuse, born only to live through about seven decades of sin, followed by an eternity of unimaginable torture.
Perhaps surprisingly, predestination seemed to have more motivational capacity than the older, behavior-driven morality of Catholicism. Why would this be? People are loathe to believe in something as horrible as eternal damnation for themselves (even if some enjoy the thought for others) and so they will assume themselves to be Elect. But since they’re never quite sure, bad behavior will unsettle them with a creepy cognitive dissonance that is far more effective than ratiocination about punishments and rewards. The behavior-driven framework of the Catholic Church (donations in the form of indulgences often came with specific numbers of years by which time in purgatory was reduced) allows that a bad action can be cancelled out with future good actions, making the afterlife merely an extension of the “if I do this, then I get that” hedonic calculus. Calvinism introduced a fear of shame. Bad actions might be a sign of being one of those incorrigibly bad, damned people.
Calvinist predestination was not a successful meme (and even many of those who identify themselves in modern times as Calvinists have largely rejected it). “Our God is a sadistic asshole; he tortures people eternally for being born the wrong way” is not a selling point for any religion. That said, the idea of natural (as opposed to spiritual) predestination, as well as the Calvinist evolution from guilt-based (Catholicism) to shame-based (Calvinist) Christian morality, have lived on in American society.
Fundamental to the morality of capitalism is that some actors make better uses of resources than others (which is not controversial) and deserve to have more (likewise, not controversial). Applied to humans, this is generally if uneasily accepted; applied to organizations, it’s an obvious truth (no one wants to see the subsistence of inefficient, pointless institutions). Calvinism argued that one’s pre-determined status (as Elect or damned) could be ascertained from one’s actions; conservative capitalism argues that an actor’s (largely innate and naturally pre-determined) value can be ascertained by its success on the market.
Social Darwinism (which Charles Darwin vehemently rejected) gave a fully secular and scientific-sounding basis for these threads of thought, which were losing religious steam by the end of the 19th century. The idea that market mechanics and “creative destruction” ought to apply to institutions, patterns of behavior, and especially business organizations is controversial to almost no one. Incapable and obsolete organizations, whose upkeep costs have exceeded their social value, should die in order to free up room for newer ones. Where there is immense controversy is what should happen to people when they fail, economically. Should they starve to death in the streets? Should they be fed and clothed, but denied health care, as in the U.S.? Or should they be permitted a lower-middle-class existence by a welfare state, allowing them to recover and perhaps have another shot at economic success? The Social Darwinist seeks not to kill failed individuals per se, but to minimize their effect on society. It might be better to feed them than have them rebel, but allowing their medical treatment (on the public dime) is a bridge too far (if they’re sick, they can’t take up arms). It’s not about sadism per se, but effect minimization: to end their cultural and economic (and possibly physical) reproduction. It is a cold and fundamentally statist worldview. Where it dovetails with predestination is in the idea that certain innately undesirable people, damned early on if not from birth, deserve to be met with full effect minimization (e.g. long prison sentences since there is no hope of rehabilitation; persistent poverty because any resources given to them, they will waste) because any effect they have on the world will be negative. Whether they are killed, imprisoned, enslaved, or merely marginalized generally comes down to what is most convenient– and, therefore, effect-minimizing– and that is an artifact of what a society considers socially acceptable.
If we understand Calvinist predestination, and Social Darwinism as well, we can start to see a eugenic plan forming. Throughout almost all of our evolutionary history, prosperity and fecundity were correlated. Animals that won and controlled resources passed along their genes; those that couldn’t do so, died out. Social Darwinism, at the heart of the American conservative movement, believes that this process should continue in human society. More specifically, it holds to a few core tenets. First is that individual success in the market is a sign of innate personal merit. Second is that such merit is, at least partly, genetic and predetermined. Few would hold this correlation to be absolute, but the Social Darwinist considers it strong enough to act on. Third is that prosperity and fertility will, as they have over the billion years before modern civilization, necessarily correlate. The aspects of Social Darwinist policy that seem mean-spirited are justified by this third tenet: the main threat that a welfare state poses is that these poor (and, according to this theory, undesirable) people will take that money and breed. South Carolina’s Republican Lieutenant Governor, Andre Bauer, made this attitude explicit:
My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t think too much further than that. And so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior. They don’t know any better.
The hydra of the American right wing has many heads. It’s got the religious Bible-thumping ones, the overtly racist ones, and the pseudoscientific and generally atheistic ones now coming out of Silicon Valley’s neckbeard right-libertarianism and the worse half of the “mens’ rights” movement. What unites them is a commitment to the idea that some people are innately inferior and should be punished by society, with that punishment ranging from the outright sadistic to the much more common effect-minimizing (marginalization) levels.
How it falls down
Social Calvinism is a repugnant ideology. Calvinistic predestination is an idea so bad that even conservative religion, for the most part, discarded it. The same scientists who discovered Darwinian evolution (as a truth of what is in nature, not of what should be in the human world) rejected Social Darwinism outright. It has also made a mockery of itself. It fails on its own terms. The most politically visible, mean-spirited, but also criminally inefficient manifestation of this psychotic ideology is in our health insurance system. Upper-middle-class, highly-educated people suffer– just as much as the poor do– from crappy health coverage. If the prescriptive intent behind a mean-spirited health policy is Social Calvinist in nature, the greed and inefficiency and mind-blowing stupidity of it affect the “undesirable” and “desirable” alike (unless one believes that only the 0.005% of the world population who can afford to self-insure are “desirable”). The healthcare fiasco is showing that a society as firmly committed to Social Calvinism as the U.S.– so committed to it that even Obama couldn’t make public-option (much less single-payer) healthcare a reality– can’t even succeed on its own terms. The economic malaise of the 2000s “lost decade” and the various morale crises erupting in the nation (Tea Party, #Occupy) only support the idea that the American social model fails both on libertarian and humanitarian terms.
Why do I argue that Social Calvinism could never work, in a civilized society? To put it plainly, it misunderstands evolution and, more to the point, reproduction (both biological and cultural). Nature’s correlation between prosperity and fecundity ended in the human world a long time ago, and economic stresses have undesirable side effects (which I’ll cover) on how people reproduce.
Let’s talk about biology; most of the ideas here also apply (and more strongly, due to the faster rate of memetic proliferation) to cultural reproduction. After the horrors justified in the name “eugenics” in the mid-20th century, no civilized society is going to start prohibiting reproduction. It’s not quite a “universal right”, but depriving people of the biological equipment necessary to reproduce is considered inhumane, and murdering children after the fact is (quite rightly) completely unacceptable. So people can reproduce, effectively, as much as they want. With birth control in the mix, most people can also reproduce as little as they want. So they have nearly total control over how much they reproduce, whether they are poor or rich. The Social Calvinist believes that the “undesirables” will react to socioeconomic punishment by curtailing reproduction. But do we see that happening? No, not really.
I mentioned Social Calvinism’s 3 core tenets above: (1) that socioeconomic prosperity correlates to personal merit, (2) that merit is at least significantly genetic in nature, and (3) that people will respond to prosperity by increasing reproduction (as if children were a “normal” consumer good) and to punishment by decreasing it. The first of these is highly debatable: desirable traits like intelligence, creativity and empathy may lead to personal success, but so does a lack of moral restraint. The people at the very top of society seem to be, for the most part, objectively undesirable– at least, in terms of their behavior (whether those negative traits are biological is less clear). The second is perhaps unpleasant as a fact (no humanitarian likes the idea that what makes a “good” or “bad” person is partially genetic) but almost certainly true. The third seems to fail us. Or, let me take a more nuanced view of it. Do people respond to economic impulses by controlling reproduction? Of course, they do; but not in the way that one might think.
First, let’s talk about economic stress. Stress can be good (“eustress”) or bad (“distress”) but in large doses, even the good kind can be focus-narrowing, if not hypomanic or even outright toxic. Rather than focusing on objective hardship or plenty, I want to examine the subjective sense of unhappiness with one’s socioeconomic position, which will determine how much stress a person experiences and which kind it is. Likewise, economic inequality (by providing incentive for productive activity) can be for the social good– it’s clearly a motivator– but it is a source of (without directional judgment to the word) stress. The more socioeconomic inequality there is, the more of this stress society will generate. Proponents of high levels of economic inequality will argue that it serves eustress to the desirable people and institutions and distress to the less effective ones. Yet, if we focus on the subjective matter of whether an individual feels happy or distressed, I’d expect this to be untrue. People, in my observation, tend to feel rich or poor not based on where they are, economically, but by how they measure up to the expectations derived from their natural ability. A person with a 140 IQ who ends up as a subordinate, making a merely average-plus living doing uninteresting work, is judged (and will judge himself) as a failure. Even if that person has the gross resources necessary to reproduce (the baseline level required is quite low) he will be disinclined to do so, believing his economic situation to be poor and the prospects for any progeny to be dismal. On the other hand, a person with a 100 IQ who ends up with the average-plus income (as a leader, not a subordinate; but with the same income and wealth as the person with 140 above) will face life with confidence and, if having children is naturally something he wants, be inclined to start a family early, and possibly to have a large one.
What am I really saying here? I think that, while people might believe that meritocracy is a desirable social ideal, most people respond emotionally not to the component of their economic outcome derived from natural (possibly genetic) merit or hard work, but from the random noise term. People have a hard time believing that randomness is just that (hence, the amount of money spent on lottery tickets) and interpret this noise term to represent how much “society” likes them. In large part, we’re biologically programmed to be this way; most of us get more of a warm feeling from windfalls coming from people liking us than from those derived from natural merit or hard work. However, modern society is so complex that this variable can be regarded as pure noise. Why? Because we, as humans, devise social strategies to make us liked by an unknown stream of people and contexts we meet in the future, but whether the people and contexts we actually encounter (“serendipity”) match those strategies is just as random as the Brownian motion of the stock market. Then, the subjective sense of socioeconomic eustress or distress that drives the desire to reproduce comes not from personal merit (genetic or otherwise) but from something so random that it will have a correlation of 0.0 with pretty much anything.
This kills any hope that socioeconomic rewards and punishments might have a eugenic effect, because the part that people respond to on an emotional level (which drives decisions of family planning) is the component uncorrelated to the desired natural traits. There is a way to change that, but it’s barbaric. If society accepted widespread death among the poor– and, in particular, among poor children (many of whom have shown no lack of individual merit; i.e. complete innocents)– then it could recreate a pre-civilized and truly Darwinian state in which absolute prosperity (rather than relative/subjective satisfaction) has a major effect on genetic proliferation.
Now, I’ll go further. I think the evidence is strong that socioeconomic inequality has a second-order but potent dysgenic effect. Even when controlling for socioeconomic status, ethnicity, geography and all the rest, IQ scores seem to be negatively correlated with fertility. Less educated and intelligent people are reproducing more, while the people that humanity should want in its future seem to be holding off, having fewer children and waiting longer (typically, into their late 20s or early 30s) to have them. Why? I have a strong suspicion as to the reason.
Let’s be blunt about it. There are a lot of willfully ignorant, uneducated, and crass people out there, and I can’t imagine them saying, “I’m not going to have a child until I have a steady job with health benefits”. This isn’t about IQ or physical health necessarily; just about thoughtfulness and the ability to show empathy for a person who does not exist yet. Whether rich or poor, desirable people tend to be more thoughtful about their effects on other people than undesirable ones. The effect of socioeconomic stress and volatility will be to reduce the reproductive impulse among the thoughtful, future-oriented sorts of people that we want to have reproducing. It also seems to me that such stresses increase reproduction among the sorts of present-oriented, thoughtless sorts of people that we don’t as much want to be highly represented in the future.
I realize that speaking so boldly about eugenics (or dysgenic threats, as I have) is a dangerous (and often socially unacceptable) thing. To make it clear: yes, I worry about dysgenic risk. Now some of the more brazen (and, in some cases, deeply racist) eugenicists freak out about higher rates of fertility in developing (esp. non-white) countries, and I really don’t. Do I care if the people of the future look like me? Absolutely not. But it would be a shame if, 100,000 years from now, they were incapable of thinking like me. I don’t consider it likely that humanity will fall into something like Idiocracy; but I certainly think it is possible. (A more credible threat is that, over a few hundred years, societies with high economic inequality drift, genetically, in an undesirable direction, producing a change that is subtle but enough to have macroscopic effects.)
Why, at a fundamental level, does a harsher and more inequitable (and more stressful) society increase dysgenic risk? Here’s my best explanation. Evolutionary ecology discusses two reproductive pressures, r- and K-selection, in species, which correspond to optimizing for quantity versus quality of offspring. The r-strategist has lots of offspring, gives minimal paternal investment, and few will survive. An example is a frog giving birth to a hundred tadpoles. The K-strategist invests heavily in a smaller number of high-quality offspring with a much higher individual shot at surviving. Whales and elephants are K-strategists with long gestation periods and few offspring, but a lot of care given to them. Neither is “better” than the other, and they each succeed in different circumstances. The r-strategist tends to repopulate quickest after a catastrophe, while the K-strategist succeeds differentially at saturation.
It is, in fact, inaccurate to characterize highly evolved, complex life forms such as mammals as strong r- or K-selectors. As humans, we’re clearly both. We have an r-selective and a K-selective sexual drive, and one could argue that much of the human story is about the arms race between the two.
The r-selective sex drive wants promiscuity, has a strong present-orientation, and exhibits a total lack of moral restraint– it will kill, rape, or cheat to get its goo out there. The K-selective sex drive supports monogamy, is future-oriented, and values a stable and just society. It wants laws and cultivation (culture) and progress. Traditional Abrahamic religions have associated the r-drive with “evil” and sin. I wouldn’t go that far. In animals it is clearly inappropriate to put any moral weight into r- or K-selection, and it’s not clear that we should be doing that to natural urges that all people have (such as calling the r-selective component of our genetic makeup “original sin”). How people act on those is another matter. The tensions between the r- and K-drives have produced much art and philosophy, but civilization demands that people mostly follow their K-drives. While age and gender do not correlate as strongly to the r/K divide as stereotypes would insist (there are r-driven older women, and K-driven young men) it is nonetheless evident that most of society’s bad actors are those prone to the strongest r-drive: uninhibited young men, typically driven by lust, arrogance and greed. In fact, we have a clinical term for people who behave in a way that is r-optimal (or, at least, was so in the state of nature) but not socially acceptable: psychopaths. From an r-selective standpoint, psychopathy conferred an evolutionary advantage, and that’s why it’s in our genome.
Both sexual drives (r- and K-) exist in all humans, but it wasn’t until the K-drive triumphed that civilization could properly begin. In pre-monogamous societies, conflicts between men over status (because, when “alpha” men have 20 mates and low-status men have none, the stakes are much greater) were so common that between a quarter and a half of men died in positional violence with other men. Religions that mandated monogamy, or at least restrained polygamy as Islam did, were able to build lasting civilizations, while societies that accepted pre-monogamous distributions of sexual access were unable to get past the chaos of constant positional violence.
There are many who argue that the contemporary acceptance of casual sex constitutes a return to pre-monogamous behaviors. I don’t care to get far into this one, if only because I find the hand-wringing about the topic (on both sides) to be rather pointless. Do we see dysgenic patterns in the most visible casual sex markets (such as the one that occurs in typical American colleges)? Absolutely, we do. Even if we reject the idea that higher-quality people are less prone to r-driven casual sex, the way people (of both sexes) select partners in that game is visibly dysgenic. But to the biological future (culture is another matter) of the human species, that stuff is pretty harmless– thanks to birth control. This is where the religious conservative movement shoots itself in the foot; it argues that the advent of birth control created uncivil sexual behavior. In truth, bad sexual behavior is as old as dirt, has always been a part of the human world and probably always will be; the best thing for humanity is for it to be rendered non-reproductive, mitigating the dysgenic agents that brought psychopathy into our genome. (On the other hand, if human sexual behavior devolved to the state of high school or college casual sex and remained reproductive, the species would devolve into H. pickupartisticus and be kaputt within 500 years. I would short-sell the human species and buy sentient-octopus futures at that point.)
If humans have two sexual drives, it stands to reason that those drives would react differently to various circumstances. This brings to mind the relationship of each to socioeconomic stress. The r-drive is enhanced by socioeconomic stress– both eustress and distress. Eustress-driven r-sexuality is seen in the immensely powerful businessman or politician who frequents prostitutes, not because he is interested in having well-adjusted children (or even in having children at all) but to see if he can get away with it; the distress-driven r-sexuality has more of an escapist, “sex as drug”, flavor to it. In an evolutionary context, it makes sense that the r-drive should be activated by stress, since the r-drive is what enables a species to populate rapidly after an ecological catastrophe. On the other hand, the K-drive is weakened by socioeconomic stress and volatility. It doesn’t want to bring children into a future that might be miserable or dangerously unpredictable. The K-drive’s reaction to socioeconomic eustress is busyness (“I can’t have kids right now; my career’s taking off) and its reaction to distress is to reduce libido as part of a symptomatic profile very similar to depression.
The result of all of this is that, should society fall into a damaged state where socioeconomic inequality and stress are rampant, the r-drive will be more successful at pushing its way to reproduction, while the K-drive is muted. The result is that the people who will come into the future will disproportionately be the offspring of r-driven parents and couplings. Even if we reject the idea that undesirable people have stronger r-drives relative to their K-drives (although I believe that to be true) the enhanced power of the r-strategic sexual drive will influence partner selection and produce worse couplings. Over time, this presents a serious risk to the genetic health of the society.
Just as Mike Judge’s Idiocracy is more true of culture than of biology, we see the overgrown r-drive in the U.S.’s hypersexualized (but deeply unsexy) popular culture, and the degradation is happening much faster to the culture than it possibly could to our gene pool, given the relatively slow rate of biological evolution. Some wouldn’t see any correlation whatsoever between the return of the Gilded Age post-1980 and Miley Cyrus’s “twerking”, but I think that there’s a direct connection.
The Social Calvinism of the American right wing believes that severe socioeconomic inequality is necessary to flush the “undesirables” to the bottom, deprive them of resources, and prevent them from reproducing. Inherent to this strategy is the presumption (and a false one) that people are future-oriented and directed by the K-selective sexual drive, which is reduced by socioeconomic adversity. In reality, the more primitive (and more harmful, if it results in reproduction) r-selective sexual drive is enhanced by socioeconomic stresses.
In reality, socioeconomic volatility reduces the K-selective drive of most people, rich and poor. The reason for this is that a person’s subjective sense of satisfaction with socioeconomic status is not based on whether he or she is naturally “desirable” to society but his or her performance relative to natural ability and industry, which is a noise variable. It enhances the r-selective drive. Even if we do not accept that desirable people are more likely to have strong K-drives and weak r-drives, it is empirically true (seen in millennia of human sexual behavior) that people operating under the K-drive choose better partners than those operating under the r-drive.
The American conservative movement argues, fundamentally, that a mean-spirited society is the only way to prevent dysgenic risk. It argues, for example, that a welfare state will encourage the reproductive proliferation of undesirable people. The reality is otherwise. Thoughtful people, who look at the horrors of American healthcare and the rapid escalation of education costs, curtail reproduction even if they are objectively “genetically desirable” and their children are likely to perform well, in absolute terms. Thoughtless people, pushed by powerful r-selective sex drives, will not be reproductively discouraged, and might (in fact) be encouraged, by the stresses and volatility (but, also, by undeserved rewards) of the harsher society. Therefore, American Social Calvinism actually aggravates the very dysgenic risk that it exists to address.