The professed goal of eugenics has always been the betterment of society. Think of it as cross-generational plastic surgery. Some genes are more desirable than others — aka, “adaptive” — so if you want a perfect world, a few bad eggs have to go under the knife.
Where bio-eugenics sought to raise our collective intelligence by snipping gonads, “cultural eugenics” goes directly for the brain. There are differences, of course, but the inherited attitude is obvious. Both derive from a primal need to make distasteful traits disappear.
In the early 20th century, American eugenicists on the left sought to sterilize the “feeble-minded,” the addiction-prone, and various violent genotypes to create a more peaceable society. Rooted in Darwinian theory, the idea was to cull the modern herd down to the fittest personality types. Eventually, you arrive at an MPR paradise “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”
The New England reformist Charles Davenport, who founded the Eugenics Record Office in 1910, spelled out the broader objective in his “eugenics creed”: “I believe in striving to raise the human race to the highest plane of social organization, of cooperative work and of effective endeavor.”
As always, progressives are eager to push society forward, but rarely concerned about the damage they leave behind. In retrospect, it’s easy to see that the flip-side of their utopian dream was a nightmare of forced castration and genocide. At the time, the enlightened called it “progress” — presumably in a haughty accent.
Even if bio-eugenic policies are now taboo (with the covert exceptions of selective abortions and pedigree sperm donors), the same intent survives in the ongoing purge of maladaptive ideas from the public mind. On the surface, it seems reasonable. Some cultures are healthier than others, and there’s always room for improvement.
As always, progressives are eager to push society forward, but rarely concerned about the damage they leave behind.
What alarms me about cultural eugenics is its hygiene-obsessed, technocratic ambition. Rather than persuade, or even conquer, it seeks to systematically cleanse.
Because the internet has penetrated the minds of pretty much everyone, online expression is a primary target for censorship. Tech giants have actively culled the “meme pool” for years now. We’ve seen sweeping Facebook bans, Twitter purges, and YouTube removals. Amazon is ramping up its book-burning campaign. Democrats are pressuring cable providers to drop Fox News, Newsmax, and OANN for spreading “disinformation.” Disney+ is restricting classic kid’s movies, while Dr. Seuss books are being tossed on the bonfire.
Mass censorship steers the culture in certain desired directions. Any personality types deemed unfit to survive in this new environment are to be neutered or eliminated.
A month before Project Veritas had their Twitter account permanently suspended, they released an undercover recording of the principal counsel of PBS telling it straight. PBS fired the guy, but really, he only voiced an arrogant cruelty that runs deep on the left:
Even if Biden wins, we go for all the Republican voters, and Homeland Security will take their children away.… And we’ll put them into re-education camps.… Americans are so f***ing dumb.
I assume he was half-joking, but the other half counts. It echoes the state’s case for forced sterilization argued before the Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell (1927): “These people belong to the shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South.”
The court ruled in favor of “salpingectomy,” with Justice Holmes delivering the opinion: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
As Darwin’s vision expands from finches to iPhones, theories of cultural evolution are gaining ground in high places. They attempt to establish consilience in the fields of biology, psychology, sociology, and technology. The best are remarkably coherent. A few are brilliant.
In this worldview, cultural information is analogous to the genetic code. Much like genes in the body, “memes” are expressed in society as myths, laws, and machinery. Programmed by various ideas and languages, our diverse ways of life compete and evolve much like biological forms. When selective pressures intensify — such as war, pandemics, or winter storms — only the best-adapted cultures will survive.
Mining that vein, a number of serious academics and best-selling authors advocate for conscious intervention in our own cultural evolution. Some want to remake society in the image of quaint New England towns. Others seek to excise the “god of war” from the human psyche.
None of these thinkers refer to themselves as “cultural eugenicists” any more than social justice warriors would call themselves “cultural Marxists.” But just as the latter shift Marxist critique from economics to identity, cultural eugenics shifts social engineering from the genome to our cultural DNA.
They approach society as a garden: we choose where to plant the best seeds, how far to trim the branches, and which weeds to pull.
One especially disturbing version comes from a 2016 corporate tract, The Social Organism, by Disney’s former head of innovation, Oliver Luckett. He describes human society as a superorganism. Each of us functions like a cell in its body, interconnected by cultural information. Because we all have to share one body, healthy people should band together like an army of genocidal T-cells to get rid of sick people — you know, MAGA types — or at least destroy their virulent ideas.
Luckett adopts the eugenicists’ lofty ideals, but elevates their tactics from sexual breeding to cultural reproduction. As the forward-looking Charles Davenport wrote in 1912:
The commonwealth is greater than any individual in it. Hence the rights of society over the life, the reproduction, the behavior and the traits of the individuals that compose it are … limitless, and society may take life, may sterilize … [and] may restrict liberty in a hundred ways.
The Social Organism identifies social media as a crucial step in humanity’s inevitable evolution toward a “global, borderless community.” Technology will cause our separate societies to become “more inclusive” so we can merge into one planetary superorganism. Luckett writes,
Not only does social media represent the highest evolved distribution system for human communication … it lives and breathes off the emotional exchanges … the magic sauce that makes us chase our loves, attack our hates, and forge the tenuous but vital bonds of community that give life its meaning.
According to his theory, we’re not just scrolling through goofy memes — we’re merging into a single “global brain” with neurons linked by fiber-optic cable. There’s a big problem, though. The pathogens of exclusivity and “hate” stand in the way of ultimate oneness.
Fortunately, the body politic has a cultural “immune system” to defend against “offensive ideas.” Luckett writes, “These unwelcome parasites, along with the human cells associated with them, are swiftly rejected and purged.”
The concept belongs to a venerable lineage. In 1860, sociologist Herbert Spencer published an essay entitled “The Social Organism” — the year after Darwin’s On the Origin of Species appeared. Drawing on Plato’s Republic, Spencer argued that human society comprises a single organic body, produced by harsh evolution. A decade before, he wrote in Social Statics:
The poverty of the incapable, the distresses that come upon the imprudent, the starvation of the idle, and those shoulderings aside of the weak by the strong, which leave so many “in shallows and in miseries,” are the decrees of a large, farseeing benevolence.
With this process in mind, he coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.” Contrary to popular portrayals, Spencer was actually a pacifist and committed altruist. But his descriptive work would inspire more activist approaches to “social Darwinism,” where maladaptive individuals are treated as bio-waste.
Of course, Luckett never mentions this intellectual heritage. As a corporate booster, his job is to move product, not gaze into the abyss.
Does anyone in power take this grand vision seriously? Ray Kurzweil, founder of Google’s Singularity University, gave The Social Organism the highest praise. Disney’s executive chairman Bob Iger said every business leader should read it. Arianna Huffington called it “a deeply convincing theory.”
One imagines Silicon Valley CEOs and social media influencers closing the book and saying, “Indeed. We must evolve as a species.”
The Social Organism may offer a creative biological metaphor, but as a philosophy, it’s hopelessly incoherent. Because Darwinian evolution has no goal or direction — at least, in theory — Luckett strives for objectivity and moral relativism. Try as he may, though, his own tribe’s values are always on the right side of history.
At least Luckett advocates a decentralized purge of the social organism, where digital mobs — i.e., cells in the cultural “immune system” — do all the public shaming and statue-toppling. Obviously, Big Tech companies prefer a more top-down approach. From their cerebral position in the social body, they reserve the right to cull the meme pool at will.
Scrolling through Luckett’s Twitter account today, you’ll find recent Lincoln Project retweets, but no protest against Big Tech censorship of conservative voices. No mention of the Lincoln Project’s recent grooming scandal, either. Perhaps he evolved to a new level of inclusion.
Even so, throughout The Social Organism, the author’s malice is palpable. Reading certain passages, you have to wonder if Luckett is trolling, or if he just lacks self-awareness. His disdain for Confederate symbols reveals a glaring lack of inclusivity. In fact, from the very first sentence, he draws a deep line in the sand:
In March 2013, my boyfriend Scott and I traveled from our Los Angeles home to Joshua Tree National Park for our yearly digital detox and fasting retreat at a quirky spa called WeCare, a sanctuary we lovingly call Colon Camp.
He references this relationship about as often as he uses the epithet “redneck.” Considering that tension, his subsequent comparison of #BlackLivesMatter memes to HIV is mind-blowing:
In taking over [T-cells], the virus doesn’t just disable the body’s defenses against HIV; it destroys the immune system’s ability to defend against any attack. Once it has completed this nefarious role and its victim is riddled with AIDS, it’s not HIV that kills them but something else: cancer, meningitis, pneumonia, you name it.
Now, think of the words “black lives matter” as a similar broad-based attack on … a flawed, anachronistic system that has not yet evolved to an optimal state of race-blind inclusion and fairness.… If HIV is a super-virus, then [#BlackLivesMatter] is surely a super-meme.
That’s certainly a new spin on the viral power of positivity. America’s black community must be thrilled to have this guy as an ally.
Intolerant cultures evolve to fend off invaders and protect the brood from weirdos. In this view of life, natural competition is the true origin of “good versus evil,” and those MAGA hats are just cultural antibodies.
Progressives are notoriously blind to their own intolerance. In their mad quest to achieve cultural purity, they demand we eradicate any ideas that resemble fundamentalism (“God is good”); racism (“green eggs and ham”); sexism (“my wife is beautiful”); xenophobia (“immigration lowers wages”); homophobia (“survival of the species”); transphobia (“that boy seems troubled”); and especially hate (“sounds evil to me”).
Wisely, Luckett left “eugenics” off his own list of defective memes to purge. Otherwise, he’d have to burn his own book.
Personally, I think his biological metaphor has real value. On the whole, the paradigm of cultural evolution has tremendous descriptive power — even if the temptation to apply cultural eugenics naturally follows. If we’re going to purge any ideas, let’s start with guilt by association and self-righteous condemnation.
[T]he goodness or badness of character is not absolute, but relative to the current form of civilization…. All creatures would agree that it was better to be healthy than sick, vigorous than weak, well-fitted than ill-fitted for their part in life; in short, that it was better to be good rather than bad specimens of their kind, whatever that kind might be.
There are a vast number of conflicting ideals, of alternative characters, of incompatible civilizations; but they are wanted to give fullness and interest to life.
Any aspiring cultural eugenicist should know — if human life is really about the social organism’s survival — religious fervor, immigration barriers, and strict sexual norms are just manifestations of a traditional society’s “immune system.” Intolerant cultures evolve to fend off invaders and protect the brood from weirdos. In this view of life, natural competition is the true origin of “good versus evil,” and those MAGA hats are just cultural antibodies.
A relative view doesn’t matter, though, when someone wants their own way. Even if the whole world shares the same soul, progressives remain convinced that they’re good and the rest of us are evil. They need absolute power, because it’s up to them to root out the bad seeds.