Matters of life and death: Rowan Williams and John Gray in conversation

They discuss, several things here, including the possible resurgence of eugenics.

Can you explain more and give some salient quotes?

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“Last weekend, Rowan Williams and John Gray, two of Britain’s foremost intellectuals (who are also old sparring partners and NS writers), appeared at the Cambridge Literary Festival. In front of a rapt audience at St John’s College – among whose alumni are three martyred saints and William Wordsworth – I moderated a freewheeling discussion of Christianity, atheism and ethics. These are subjects they approach from opposite poles: Williams as an Anglican clergyman, theologian and poet; Gray as an atheist, philosopher and historian of ideas. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation, which started with the results of a recent survey showing that, for the first time, more than half the population of Britain claims to have no religious adherence.”

Here’s part about eugenics.

" Rowan Williams: And one of the instances which various people, including yourself, have picked up on is the almost universal consensus in the interwar period about eugenics – that the scientific breeding of human beings is perfectly reputable. It is coming back now and we’re stuck with the same round of issues, I think, because insofar as we have greater control over our genetic profile, we are faced with a choice which we’ve not had before: what kind of human beings do we want to generate, to nurture? What worries me most is that we have the capacity, but an alarmingly deficient imagination of what that might be. We have tools for the “enhancement” of our human experience which, at the far end of the spectrum, takes us to post-humanism, the idea that there’s something of our humanity which could survive in non-organic form. So, will you breed out certain kinds of human experience and existence? If you know that you are able to select against X, Y and Z, how far does that extend? And I think that’s where we do face a real imaginative challenge which we’re very ill-equipped to manage, because people speak, again, as if the answers were obvious, somehow.

John Gray: I think most people who support eugenic engineering now have a very simple view about who the good people are: people like themselves, but more so. If only the world was filled with people all like me, but even more like me than I am! Well, I find that a completely horrifying prospect. No Gypsies, no poets, no one disabled. Everyone would be somewhat thinner, I suppose. We’d all live a bit longer, we’d all be more virtuous. My god! It’s not the kind of world that I would want to live in.

Of course, it begins with what might very well be legitimate concerns, because people can say, “Well, don’t we all want to eliminate very bad inheritable illnesses or disorders which can cause great pain in a human life or shorten it needlessly and so on?” Well, yes, perhaps we do, but it’s very easy to move on from there to having a particular conception of human wellbeing which you then feel able to universalise. And that seems to me one of the great challenges coming up: it’ll be a practical challenge, if science continues to develop. It’s not just a science fiction challenge; it’s not just the kind of thing that Aldous Huxley discussed in another form with Brave New World when it wasn’t really possible. There were attempts by the Nazis, even in the Stalinist period of the Soviet Union, to tinker about with human genetics, but there was no real theory; there weren’t adequate technologies. When Stalin got involved in it, it is said that the person he consulted was a Tsarist horse-breeder. Stalin said, “I want a new type of soldier that can eat less, sleep less and be less prone to human sympathy than regular human soldiers are.” So he had a very functional account of the sort of human being that he wanted.

I find the idea of one human generation deciding on a narrower range of human possibilities than those that actually come up naturally – which include a wide range of talents, abilities, good and bad lives, people who are abled in some ways and not abled in other ways – horrific, even disgusting. And yet, the question remains: what kind of imaginative grip are we going to have on these possibilities and where do we get them from? It’s not necessarily harder for atheists, but it’s a more acute and obvious difficulty."

Not the kind of eugenics you probably thought about. Should have been more specific.