Godwin’s Law Alive and Well

This is an old rant of mine I posted to Facebook back in March 2013, during my time in Edinburgh. Being not-totally-averse-to-a-bit-of-controversial-argument and with my connections to Germany and interest in history, I often find myself trying to explain the finer points (admittedly both to myself as well as others) of the difference between being a Nazi sympathiser and arguing that not everything Germany did between 1939 and 1945 was inherently, unavoidably evil. The following is a result of my exasperation at for the 72,500th time in my life seeing “the Nazis did that” used as an argument, this time, disappointingly, in an academic setting;

In the course of my online Biotechnology, Law and Society classes we have discussed a not-particularly-surprisingly-large number of controversial topics, such as stem cell research, hybrids and chimeras, genetics and race, genetics and criminal law, eugenics and post-humanism. I have now explained Godwins Lawand Reductio ad Hitlerum a number of times, and that I don’t generally consider these kinds of arguments to be clever big-boy-academic arguments. This led me to this rather fun little rant I posted in the online discussion today regarding the assertion that eugenics is bad because the Nazis did it, and also that they were very well organised. Two things I took exception to.

One think I’ll kind of have to take issue with is the general trend for people using ‘Look at Nazi Germany’ as a reason why augmentation or eugenics is bad. I’m aware I’m going off the point a little bit here, but I think it’s important when you look at how people often use slippery slope arguments or dredge up “The Nazis did it” as an argument-ender, which detracts from reasonable debate on such topics. I’ve no problem when people explain how there is a valid similarity, but often it seems enough to mention the correlations and not point out any link in causation. The Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi of Rwanda knew little to nothing about genetics, eugenics or augmentation and managed to kill half a million people in 100 days – a level of genocidal efficiency the Nazis be proud of.

Yes, the Nazis had aspirations for a master race, and yes, they did a lot of work into genetics and eugenics to further these goals (much of this research we’ve now built on today), however they never really got there. There were some successes and pretty OTT breeding programs looking to create übermensch families, but this is not why the Nazis did so well, this is not why WWII happened, it was an aside, a never fully realised goal that came ‘after’ and ‘in addition to’ all of the war and atrocities. It is getting the cart before the horse to say, “Oh, eugenics is dangerous, look at the Nazis, they took over Europe because they had created/wanted to create a master race”. Rather, the Nazis took over much of Europe because of some extremist political ideologies, popular support due to post WWI resentment, and military superiority, not because of eugenics. Eugenics was a side project. You know what else was a Nazi side project and a personal passion of Hitler’s? Animal welfare and environmentalism. This does not mean that either are evil by association.[1]

Another point I question is that Nazi Germany was “an extremely well organised society”; that may be the general impression, but it seems that large aspects of Nazi policy and even the military were chaotic at best. It’s generally accepted that Hitler’s autocratic nature and God-complex made him loathe to delegate power and duties, which only got worse with time. People were often promoted or had positions created for them for a myriad of different reasons, with oft overlapping or contradictory mandates to similar pre-existing positions/organisations. Even the fabled Nazi German economy is presumed to have only worked because of militarisation, war and appropriation of resources – not exactly sound long term economic strategies.[2]

So I do not believe that being well organised or toying with genetics and eugenics would make us similar to the Nazis, and if it did, I certainly don’t think they are the ‘dangerous’ similarities – I find such research and developments certainly in need of oversight, but no more inherently evil nor dangerous than Volkswagens, Space Programs, Family Values, Environmentalism, Animal Welfare, Historical Revisionism, Archaeology or Neo-Classical Architecture.[3]

[1] See the Nazi German 1993 Law on Animal Protection; and Boria Sax, Animals in the Third Reich: Pets, Scapegoats, and the Holocaust, (2000) Continuum International Publishing Group, Also Frank Uekötter, The Green and the Brown: A History of Conservation in Nazi Germany, (2006) Cambridge University Press,

[2] See and; A Tooze The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (2007) Penguin Publishing,

[3] See “Top 10 Things the Nazis Got Right” at Somewhat reminiscent of “What’ve the Romans ever done for us?”

Though perhaps not the best defence of eugenics I could have mounted, this was an impassioned reaction to what I thought were overly-simplistic oppositions to a very controversial area of biotechnology. The point I was trying to get across, in this brief, frustrated interlude to an academic discussion on ethics and eugenics, was that eugenics neither started nor ended with the Nazi atrocities of the 1930s and 1940s. Preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), AmniocentesisAFP screening, and even IVF itself could all be seen as common modern day developments in eugenics – a term coined by Francis Galton in 1883 and a concept variously supported by Winston Churchill,   Theodore Roosevelt, George Bernard Shaw, John Maynard Keynes, as well as the biochemist and peace activist Linus Pauling.

Perhaps population control through eugenics, whilst dystopian sounding, would significantly benefit mankind in this age of overpopulation and overconsumption. Perhaps humans could or should be genetically engineered to better suit first world sedentary lifestyles, or hostile climates, or even outer space. Perhaps it is okay for a couple with three sons to decide that they want their next child to be a daughter. I do not know the answer to any of these questions. But I firmly believe they deserve reasoned debate, free from sensational and emotive claims that such a subject is “off-limits” and inherently evil, not by nature of its content, but its historical connotations.

But, at least for now, Gowdin’s Law shows little sign of being struck down.

~ Shane


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