Picking a Mate: Eugenics, or just Nature?

As I read White Teeth by Zadie Smith, I was noticed an interesting irony in the topic of eugenics. During the war, Samad vehemently denounces the Nazi doctor for trying to produce a superior race of man (100). His opposition to the doctor’s views is obvious, as killing people is a grossly immoral act.

However, the irony I noticed about eugenics was more discreet. Earlier in the book, I was struck by a slight undertone of a connection between eugenics and arranged marriage. On page 83, Samad tells Archie of his arrangement to marry Alsana, explaining, “Oh, they are the best people. The very best people. Extremely good blood…. And as an added bonus, there is a propensity among their women — traditionally, throughout the ages, you understand — for really enormous melons.”

Though the second half of the statement utilizes an ironic voice to bring humor to the statement, it still brings up the point that arranged marriages have aims that aren’t completely removed from eugenics. Clearly racial cleansing as was done by the Nazis is an extreme and evil method, but choosing a mate in order to produce the “best” offspring has been extremely common throughout history. In fact, in many ways, it seems natural.

When we discussed the ethical concerns of genetically engineering children earlier in the semester, I never thought to consider the ethics of royal hierarchies only choosing to produce offspring with other royalty. Whether intentional or not, Zadie Smith prompted me to think about this relation.

The sharp social classes in Brave New World and Gattaca were so clearly fantasy and produced with futuristic methods, that I failed to connect them to the world we live in, and the world people have lived in for thousands of years.

Yet White Teeth made me realize that in a sense, genetically engineering children has the potential to produce distinct social classes, much like the caste system in India or the serf system in England. For me, the historical aspects of the novel influenced me to think more about the society we live in, and to put the ideas mentioned in a more historical context.

Overall, I personally don’t believe that picking a mate who you think will produce your idea of “best” offspring is nearly as much of an ethical dilemma as engineering an exact DNA-sequence to produce the optimal child. However, it leads me to wonder – maybe it’s not so bad to want to pass down the best genes possible to your children. The concern for posterity is one of the most carnal drives in a human, and I think this adds an interesting idea to the debate on the ethics of eugenics.

-Laura D.


~ by lauradolbow on April 18, 2010.

One Response to “Picking a Mate: Eugenics, or just Nature?”

  1. Interesting observation. I don’t think we necessarily pick mates who we think would make the best offspring. I think we pick based on what is aesthetically pleasing.

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