Toby Young, Eugenics, IQ, and the Poor (part 1)

By Iain Brassington

The response to Toby Young’s appointment to the new Office for Students has covered the whole range from “He’s not the best person for the job” to “He’s the worst person for the job”.  Some of the reasons offered have to do with unsavoury comments about women; some have to do with his general lack of qualification.  Writing in The Times, Janice Turner is – I think – balanced in her assessment of his qualities, but still finds him to be (to say the least) wanting.  But the thing that’s of interest to me here, on what is a bioethics-related blog, is one of the other sources of controversy: his public support for (a kind of) eugenics.  The mere fact that he could be associated with eugenics has had some people in paroxysms.  Taken more or less at random here’s a tweet from Vince Cable:

Note that “backs eugenics” is offered as being a reason in itself to object to Young’s appointment.  Cable is not, by a long way, the only person to make this sort of comment.

Is it justified, though?  Well, the article that’s generated the ire is this one, called “The Fall of the Meritocracy”, published in 2015 in Quadrant.  It’s a long piece, and the eugenics bit only comes about 80% of the way through, and for that reason I’ll only home in on a few details.  But it is worth looking in a bit more depth at some of those details.  I think that what he’s arguing is, in many ways, fairly unremarkable.  It’s mistaken in important ways, too; I’ll come to those in the next post.  But whatever problems there are with the piece do not flow from the use of the “E-word”.  And so, to the greatest extent possible, I’ll try to talk about it without mentioning eugenics.

Young spends a lot of his article talking about the links between IQ, social mobility, and wealth.  I’ll come back to those links in a little while – I think that this is where he gets into trouble, but looking at them will have to wait for a moment.  For the time being, let’s allow that there is a connection between them, such that those with a low IQ will have less good life-chances than the rest of the population in a way that is clearly attributable to their low IQ.  (I’m aware that the relationship between IQ and intelligence is also not clear, but I’m out of my depth there, so will leave it to one side for the sake of this post; it doesn’t make much difference here.)  Allow, too, the plausible-enough idea that genetics has at least something to do with intelligence.  Young takes these links, and suggests that it might be good if we could select embryos according to which, based on their genes, we expect to have the greatest intelligence:

[C]ouples wouldn’t be creating a super-human in a laboratory, but choosing the smartest child from the range of all the possible children they could have. Nevertheless, this could have a decisive impact.

[…] My proposal is this: once this technology becomes available, why not offer it free of charge to parents on low incomes with below-average IQs? Provided there is sufficient take-up, it could help to address the problem of flat-lining inter-generational social mobility and serve as a counterweight to the tendency for the meritocratic elite to become a hereditary elite. It might make all the difference when it comes to the long-term sustainability of advanced meritocratic societies.

Making use of technology to bring to birth embryos with the highest intelligence would, Young claims, ensure that everyone has a greater chance of social mobility – by which he means a greater chance of becoming wealthier – than they would otherwise have had.  Moreover, he points out, screening and selecting embryos based on their genetic traits is already fairly workaday.  If we’re willing to use IVF and screening to ensure that we can avoid certain health problems in our offspring, why not extend the principle?

What’s notable from a bioethicist’s perspective is just how familiar the arguments being presented here are.  It’s hard to read Young’s article without thinking of a good chunk of the work on genetic screening, and on enhancement, that’s been done over the past few years.  Notably, there’s more than a hint of Julian Savulescu’s work on procreative beneficence.  Here, for example, is what Savulescu was saying in 2001, a full 14 years before Toby Young:

Imagine you are having in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and you produce four embryos. One is to be implanted. You are told that there is a genetic test for predisposition to scoring well on IQ tests (let’s call this intelligence). If an embryo has gene subtypes (alleles) A, B there is a greater than 50% chance it will score more than 140 if given an ordinary education and upbringing. If it has subtypes C, D there is a much lower chance it will score over 140. Would you test the four embryos for these gene subtypes and use this information in selecting which embryo to implant?

Many people believe intelligence is a purely social construct and so it is unlikely to have a significant genetic cause. Others believe there are different sorts of intelligence, such as verbal intelligence, mathematical intelligence, musical ability and no such thing as general intelligence. Time will tell. There are several genetic research programs currently in place which seek to elucidate the genetic contribution to intelligence. This paper pertains to any results of this research even if it only describes a weak probabilistic relation between genes and intelligence, or a particular kind of intelligence.

Many people believe that research into the genetic contribution to intelligence should not be performed, and that if genetic tests which predict intelligence, or a range of intelligence, are ever developed, they should not be employed in reproductive decision-making. I will argue that we have a moral obligation to test for genetic contribution to non-disease states such as intelligence and to use this information in reproductive decision-making. […]

I will argue for a principle which I call Procreative Beneficence:

couples (or single reproducers) should select the child, of the possible children they could have, who is expected to have the best life, or at least as good a life as the others, based on the relevant, available information.

I will argue that Procreative Beneficence implies couples should employ genetic tests for non-disease traits in selecting which child to bring into existence and that we should allow selection for non-disease genes in some cases even if this maintains or increases social inequality.

Note those final eight words.  Now keep in mind that Young’s proposal was to be carried out for the sake of something like equality.  Young was proposing making selection available to the poor on the understanding that poverty had something to do with (low) intelligence, and that selecting for intelligence would therefore help alleviate poverty.  Savulescu doesn’t have this as his primary motive: he’s concerned with ensuring the best possible life for the child-to-be all things considered – and if that means less equality, then so be it.  There’s a difference of emphasis between the two.  If anything, Savulescu’s suggestion is more radical, and – I would suggest – is likely to be more troubling, just because he’s willing to bite the inequality bullet.  Young even suggests that selection should only be available to the least well-off, on the basis that making it available to all would merely cement inequalities:

After all, if people from all classes used it in exactly the same proportions, all you’d succeed in doing would be to increase the average IQ of each class, thereby preserving the gap between them. Wouldn’t it be better to limit its use to disadvantaged parents with low IQs? That way, it could be used as a tool to reduce inequality.


Of course, Savulescu’s paper has generated a small industry’s worth of critiques and defences in the academic literature, and another (slightly larger) industry’s worth of student essays and dissertations.  But such is the nature of academic publishing that it hasn’t generated quite the same response as Young’s.

I would note, too, that while the Principle of Procreative Beneficence has a normative element to it – the claim at its rawest is that we should select for desirable traits (including, but not limited to, intelligence) – all Toby Young is suggesting is that such selection should be made available, for particular reasons, and within a limited accessibility.  Whether or not we should be persuaded by his reasoning is a further question; I’ll address it more in the following post.

What matters for the time being is that there is not anything particularly radical about his suggestion: it’s pretty standard stuff in seminar discussions about screening; and nor is there anything that is obviously morally beyond the pale.  If we think that intelligence is a desirable characteristic, and if we have the means to ensure that future children – or, at least some of them – can have their intelligence maximised, then we have a reason to make use of that means.  If using this kind of technology furthers socially desirable ends, then so much the better.  For some people, we might even have a duty to use this sort of technique.  And if – and this is where Young and Savulescu come apart a touch – we want to promote certain ends and embryo-selection is the way to do it, then we have a reason to select.

If you want to call that eugenics, then go ahead.  Young, who is nothing if not a savvy provocateur, obviously does – it’s an interesting but not surprising cultural quirk that “eugenicist” is rarely used by people to describe themselves; but one doesn’t have to be a provocateur to class this as a kind of eugenics.  What does not follow from that automatically, though, is that there is anything too deeply morally troubling about the idea in its own terms.  (Indeed, if to describe something as eugenic is by default to describe it as wrong, and a phrase like “This is eugenic” is supposed to carry the weight of a full-blown moral argument, it would remain mysterious why someone like Young would describe what he proposes as eugenic: one would have to believe either that he failed to notice something obvious to everyone else, or one would have to believe him to be either a moral monster or a pantomime villain.  That would deny good faith, though, and there’s no reason to deny that.)

If what Young suggested can plausibly be described as eugenic – and it probably can – then, pace Vince Cable and quite a lot of the Twitterati, merely backing what we may or may not have decided to call eugenics is not obviously all that big a deal.  It might actually be a good thing in some circumstances.  There’s no indication in his article that anyone would be expected to make use of the technology, or that there should be any pressure to do so, or that there would be any penalty for not doing so.  Some eugenic practices, or practices carried out in the name of or while masquerading as eugenics, are morally repugnant; it doesn’t follow that they all are.  Young is not proposing that certain people should be prevented from reproducing, or forced to use IVF, or anything like that.  And while of course, it’s true that it may take only a few steps to get from “Wouldn’t it be good if this were available” to something rather more sinister, they are steps that would have to be taken, and that it is easy enough not to take.

Bluntly, whether or not Young’s arguments stand or fall is separable from whether or not they’re eugenic.  In the next post, I’ll moot a few reasons for why I think they do fall all the same.

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