In October of 2009, at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas held at the Sydney Opera House in Australia, Dr. Julian Savulescu presented a paper entitled ‘Unfit for Life: Genetically Enhance Humanity or Face Extinction,’ which appears as a couple of videos on Vimeo (vimeo.com/7515623 and vimeo.com/7681585).
Dr. Savulescu is presently a philosophy professor at Oxford University and the Director of Oxford’s Centre for Neuroethics. In his paper Dr. Savulescu argues that we ought ‘to consider’ taking immediate steps to engineer better human beings, human beings who, in his words, are more “Fit,” that is, “wiser and less aggressive.” We ought to consider, he claims, genetically altering human beings in order to weed out those he categorizes as the Unfit, by which he means the psychopaths and terrorists among us, as well as the ‘freeriders, fanatics, criminals, sociopaths, and, finally, the anti-social types.’ He also argues that we humans ought to consider rethinking the idea of liberal democracy, as it facilitates the existence of the Unfit among us.
Savulescu spends more time basing his conception of who should be considered ‘Fit’ by pointing out who should be considered Unfit—of which he provides countless examples. For instance, in his response to a question after his talk, he approvingly cites the infamous Marshmallow Experiment as an indicator of who should, and who should not be considered Fit. The Marshmallow Experiment was carried out in the US in 1972 by Walter Mischel at Stanford University. A group of four-year-olds were given a marshmallow and then promised another, only if they could wait 20 minutes before eating the first one. Approximately 30% of the children could wait, while the other 70% could not. Mischel’s research team then followed the personality development of each child into adolescence and claimed to demonstrate that those with the ability to wait were better adjusted, more dependable and smarter, that is, socially “fitter,” especially according to their parents.
The Marshmallow Experiment itself can be viewed as an analogue of Savulescu’s argument. On the basis of this argument, for example, the likes of a Vincent Van Gogh, Emily Carr or Friedrich Nietzsche would never have existed if Savulescu’s vision of proper genetic Fitness had been in place at the time of their births. And as for terrorists and criminals, well, Western civilization is full of such ‘Unfit’ humans: Socrates, Oscar Wilde, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, etc. This is the lacuna in Savulescu’s argument.
In passing, one is puzzled by Julian Savulescu’s use of the phrase “Unfit for Life,” which was the official Nazi term for those who had no right to live. Such “Unfit” types were deemed Lebensunwertes Lebens, “Life Unworthy of Life,” or simply Unwertes Leben”, ‘Unfit for Life.’ The National Socialist concept of Unfit for Life led to the “Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases” in 1933, targeting the mentally and physically disabled, epileptics, the blind, the deaf and, finally, severe alcoholics. Between 1933 and 1939, the Chairman of the National Socialist Medical Association, Dr. Gerhard Wagner oversaw the extermination of 200,000 so-called ‘Unfit’ German citizens, in buses equipped for gassing, or in specially designated buildings, such as the Hadamar Psychiatric Institute. The efficiency and success of this eugenics program formed the logistical basis for the Final Solution, and hence the use of the phrase Unfit for Life, is both historically and symbolically associated with the diabolical—not the merely rhetorical.
The philosophy of eliminating the so-called Unfit from the equation of what it means to be human is simply a form of bad philosophy. Dr. Savulescu brings out an unsavoury aspect in the voice of Transhumanism, as espoused by the type of Transhumanist who wears the H+ as an armband of sorts.
PolyesterThought rates Julian Savulescu’s concept of “Unfit for Life: Genetically Enhance Humanity or Face Extinction ” as one of the top-ten worst ideas of the 21st century, to date.