The Portrait of a Graduate series aims to publish pieces by recent graduates of classical Christian schools. Not only do we hope to encourage these students in future writing endeavors by publishing their pieces, but we also hope that the excellence shown in these pieces serves as a small portrait of what classical Christian schools hope their students will be able to do with a classical Christian education.
Mudbloods and Other Evils: Harry Potter and Chesterton in the Eugenics and Ethics Conversation
by Fiona Hubbard, School of the Ozarks, Class of 2016
Eugenics is a word often used with a negative connotation. In Greek, the word literally means “good blood” or “well-born”. It was a societal element even in ancient Sparta:
Parentage could even be oblique: since eugenics were paramount, elderly husbands could invite younger men to sleep with their wives if they felt that a good soldier would be the result. Babies were tested soon after birth for their potential, and deformed infants and weaklings were exposed to die, or even thrown down a gorge (Waterfield, 2004, p. 176).
This seemingly negative realm of eugenics may remind some of Hitler’s idyllic Aryan race and, in turn, the cruel strides taken by Josef Mengele in hopes of achieving that ‘pure’ race during the Holocaust. It may remind others of some young adult dystopian literature, in a world where quality of a person is based solely on their genes; for example, Veronica Roth created a world in her Divergent series in which normal, ‘flawed’ humans differed from the corrected, ‘divergent’ humans. In the famed Harry Potter series as well, the antagonist, Voldemort, seeks to eliminate anyone with any non-magic blood; he wants a universe of purebloods, which we will examine later. In its extreme, eugenics may seem to be irrelevant to today’s society. You may be thinking, Surely humanity would never reach a point of gene-based hierarchy; that’s absurd! But as technology advances, specifically in preconception science, eugenics is becoming a much more relevant topic than it may presently seem. It is not an easily answered issue, either; it extends into grey areas of the ethics of the common man. As time goes on, though, the need for a biblical and ethical response grows ever stronger. Both the Harry Potter series and notable author G. K. Chesterton’s writings on the subject, along with other various work of literature, provide a basis for analyzing eugenics and how to ethically approach such an unfortunate issue.
I will define eugenics, most basically, as the improvement of human genes. Nathaniel Comfort, a medical professor, acknowledged the returning practice and its appeal:
The eugenic impulse drives us to eliminate disease, to live longer and healthier, with greater intelligence and a better adjustment to the conditions of society. It arises whenever the humanitarian desire for happiness and social betterment combines with an emphasis on heredity as the essence of human nature. It is the aim of control, the denial of fatalism, the rejection of chance. The dream of engineering ourselves, of reducing suffering now and forever (as cited in Entine, 2016).
Today, that looks like editing the human genome. This can supposedly be done in various ways, though there is currently no successful, consistent practice. Currently, “a new genome ‘editing’ technique called CRISPR-Cas9 makes it possible for scientists to insert, remove and correct DNA simply and efficiently” (“UN panel,” 2015). This method, however, could also be used to alter the germ-line, which would allow access to choose eye color, gender, etc. as well as make those certain traits hereditary (“UN panel,” 2015). There is also “somatic-cell therapy [as opposed to germ-line therapy], in which the genetic material introduced into the patient’s body only affects that patient and cannot be passed down to succeeding generations” (Moreland & Rae, 2000, p. 290). I will argue that both of these ‘therapies’ ought to remain unpracticed by modern medicine. A different, more preventative method is called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), which “entails testing a three-day-old embryo, consisting of about six cells, to see if it carries a particular genetic disease. Only embryos free of that disease are implanted in the mother’s womb” (Naik, 2013). The ethics of this method are clearly objectionable as the diseased, living embryos are plainly discarded. The aim of these techniques, ideally, is to prevent diseases and disorders in humans. The overarching concern, however, with practicing modern eugenics is that altering genes for health’s sake (whether by ethical or unethical means) may easily turn into altering genes for vanity’s sake. Further, in that case, it would be the privileged and wealthy who would even have the chance to opt for their children (as gene editing is typically done in the embryo stage) to be genetically enhanced beyond general health, whether physically or mentally.
It is commonly acknowledged that the science behind eugenics is becoming more prevalent in the modern age. Thus, world powers are discussing the issue and how humanity will handle it. Even as early as 2004, the United Nations (UN) addressed the rising question. At the thought of the ability to “pre-determine human characteristics,” then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan “cautioned,” “The greatest fear is that we may be trying to ‘play God,’ with unforeseeable consequences, in the end precipitating our own destruction” (“Advances in genetics,” 2004). While Annan did not acknowledge an outright ethical dilemma, the hesitancy is blatant. In 2005, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopted the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights; the avowal “recognizes the importance of freedom of scientific research” that ought to “occur within the framework of ethical principles set out in this Declaration,” but ultimately stresses that “the fundamental equality of all human beings in dignity and rights is to be respected so that they are treated justly and equitably” (UNESCO, 2005, Articles 2(d), 10). More recently, in 2015, “Warning that rapid advances in genetics make ‘designer babies’ an increasing possibility, a United Nations panel called for a moratorium on ‘editing’ the human genome” (“UN panel,” 2015). The UNESCO International Bioethics Committee (IBC) drew the line for practicing such ‘editing’: “Interventions on the human genome should be admitted only for preventative, diagnostic, or therapeutic reasons […] The alternative would jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of human beings and renew eugenics” (“UN panel,” 2015). This new science is fast approaching and, thankfully, world leaders are already discussing how to best preserve real human nature, regardless of blood.
In what is said to be “perhaps his most prophetic book,” G. K. Chesterton explicitly addresses eugenics (Ahlquist, 2014). Titled Eugenics and Other Evils, Chesterton’s work makes no mistake concerning his judgment that eugenics is a corruption of created nature. Chesterton began the work in 1910, long before most people had even thought about the reality of establishing a superior race. Ahlquist, in mirroring Chesterton’s work, wrote that, “Eugenics, like abortion, bases all its benefits on denying an entire class of humans their humanity. […] With eugenics it was the “unfit,” which usually meant the poor, the weak, or simply the ethnic-types who were just having too many children. […] As Chesterton says with chilling accuracy: ‘They seek his life in order to take it away.’” Chesterton largely wrote about eugenics in the sense that certain, ‘fit’ people were encouraged to procreate while other, lesser, ‘unfit’ people were discouraged, or even forbidden, to procreate. While modern eugenics looks slightly different, there is still a labeling of those who are fit and those who are unfit. And while most see that altering genes could be acceptable for people with deadly diseases or disorders, that line could easily be crossed by eager parents or overambitious scientists. Chesterton refers to different methods of eugenics, but his point remains relevant: eugenics establishes a new standard of humanity, Chesterton would argue, that humanity itself has no right to define. More practically, the monitoring of any eugenics would likely be under the control of the governing body, which he acknowledges as an extremely dangerous risk, as the government is liable to drastically change. Chesterton gave us almost one hundred years of a head start to decide on practical ethics on the topic, yet we have still been surprised by this ‘unthought-of’ issue. But Chesterton exposed to humanity the dangers of trying to play God in judging one human over another.
When humanity sets a standard of worth by which people are evaluated, opportunity becomes even more unequal, specifically for children. If eugenics progress, finances would be a huge factor of accessibility. This would mean unequal chances for children to be genetically ‘enhanced’ or ‘corrected’. The path of eugenics, while it may begin harmlessly, can easily lead down an unnatural and unethical route, as “eugenics and abortion is about the tyranny of the elite deciding who shall live and who shall die. And if it’s about the elite, it’s about money” (Ahlquist, 2014). There are “others” who say “there is nothing wrong with genetic enhancement; parents, they argue, should be free to endow their kids with the best start in life” (Naik, 2013). These “others” must not be proponents of Affirmative Action. Or equal pay between men and women. Or anything that seeks to give equal opportunity to people in terms of uncontrollable circumstances. If eugenics advances, who will decide what makes up a superior human? Chesterton and Ahlquist would most definitely argue that the elite would establish this. And through much of history, the superior human is the tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed, white male, an ‘ideal’ which sounds a little too familiar for comfort.
J. K. Rowling, in the 7-installment Harry Potter series, examined eugenics in the extreme, under a scrutinizing light of negative connotation. And common ethics agrees with Rowling – there is no argument for Harry being the antagonist, that Voldemort is good and right in craving a master, pureblood race of wizards and witches. Voldemort’s behavior is clearly presented as wrong, unjust, and unethical. For example, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, a faithful Death Eater (willing servant of Voldemort) Bellatrix Lestrange reassures her master of their common goal, “We [Bellatrix and her sister Narcissa] have never set eyes on our sister [their other sister, Andromeda] since she married the Mudblood. This brat [her niece] has nothing to do with either of us, nor any beast [a werewolf] she marries” (Rowling, 2007, p. 10). Bellatrix deeply despises her sister for marrying and having children with a Muggle-born wizard. Voldemort later resonates with his faithful follower:
‘Many of our oldest family trees become a little diseased over time,’ he said as Bellatrix gazed at him, breathless and imploring. ‘You must prune yours, must you not, to keep it healthy? Cut away those parts that threaten the health of the rest.’ […] ‘And in your family, so in the world…we shall cut away the canker that infects us until only those of true blood remain…’ (Rowling, 2007, p. 11).
Voldemort reiterates his entire mission: to rid the world of any non-magic (‘Muggle’) blood, including witches or wizards born of non-magic parents, people labeled ‘Mudbloods’ (a derogatory label throughout the series). The thought of one person being genetically superior to another is displayed as preposterous and corrupt throughout the entire Harry Potter series; Rowling presents genetic hierarchy as a horrendous evil to be abolished.
Harry Potter deals with eugenics in such a way as to discourage any differentiation of ‘race,’ a term used in its own respect in Harry Potter, distinguishing purebloods from Muggle-borns, goblins from ghosts. Hermione, the primary Muggle-born character, as well as a central heroine, defies such labels in the final novel:
“I’m quite as hunted as any goblin or elf, Griphook [a goblin]. I’m a mudblood!”
“Don’t call yourself –” Ron muttered.
“Why shouldn’t I?” said Hermione. “Mudblood, and proud of it! I’ve got no higher position under this new order than you have Griphook! It was me they chose to torture back at the Malfoys’!”
Muggle-borns in Harry Potter are just as clearly magical beings as any pureblood. Hermione is the top of her class from the very beginning. There is no question of her capabilities, her character, her personality, or her values; there is only question of her blood. So it was she who the pureblood enemies tortured for information. Much like the arrogant government in the 1997 movie Gattaca, Voldemort and his following “don’t care where you were born. They only care how. Blood has no nationality” (DeVito & Niccol, 1997). The absurdity of judging any human solely by the circumstances of their blood (largely, their parents) is glaring. If ever blood defines each person to another, that means someone has labeled certain traits as superior to others. Not only do the Harry Potter books warn sharply against the extremity of eugenics, but they also beg the question of superiority. To practice eugenics, a goal has to be in place. An ideal has to be established. But who would establish such a life-altering standard? The Harry Potter series implicitly asks just what that ideal ought to be. Voldemort clearly established his ideal as a well-off, pureblood society that exists to serve him. Most basically, Voldemort wants to alter people so that he might have the utmost power. He wants to be in a situation of total power; surrounding himself by mostly fear-driven, pureblood servants places him in that position. Thus, purebloods become his utopia. But what might this look like in modern society? What if someone could choose the ideal human? Perhaps the ideal of modern eugenics would be intelligence or pleasing physical appearance. But the beauty of reality is that people look different. They know different things. They want different platforms. In Harry Potter, that’s the ideal of the protagonists: Muggles, Mudbloods, halfbloods, purebloods, squibs, goblins, elves – every race – living in peace alongside one another, not at all defined by their ‘race.’ The beauty and healthiness of cultural and genetic diversity is too precious a thing to risk by introducing eugenics.
Acknowledged in both history and in literature, eugenics, when it has reached extremity is, without a doubt, wrong. But is it then right to deny the good that may come from it before it reaches extremity? Is it worth risking a despicable end to achieve the potentially beneficial means? Satan has far too strong of a grasp on humanity for us to trust that the line will be drawn where it needs to be drawn. It is too dangerous to alter genes; humanity cannot afford to risk the extreme, even if that risk would be taken for the present good. The values and ends of mankind are too skewed from truth to put any eugenic science into practice. Just like a toy in a group of children – if one person abuses the toy, it has to be taken away from all the children. Of course, there are those who could rightly use eugenics to prevent deadly diseases and disorders that decrease or eliminate any level of functioning, but, most likely, the moment that begins, rich parents want to choose the eye color of their baby, or the gender, then eventually the IQ, and a superiority is born along with the ‘perfect,’ designer baby. As Chesterton warned,
It is no good to cry out after you are hurt; especially after you are mortally hurt. People talk about the impatience of the populace; but sound historians know that most tyrannies have been possible because men moved too late. It is often essential to resist a tyranny before it exists. It is no answer to say, with a distant optimism, that the scheme is only in the air. A blow from a hatchet can only be parried while it is in the air. (Chesterton, 1922, p. 3)
This is not an issue that people may look back on as a (mostly) harmless mistake. Regardless of if the somatic cells have been edited or if the germ-line has been edited, a superiority complex will still exist, whether in one generation or many. Once ‘edited’ genes become available, they are likely to be used to continue to enhance new generations, creating an irreversible divide in humanity.
I will assert that altering genes for the sake of preventing diseases and disorders that cause premature death is ethically valid; after all, humanity ‘tampers’ (as dissenters label the action) with the body all the time, in something as simple as a medicated treatment. From this perspective, it logically follows that altering genes to lessen the chances of a disease or disorder that may decrease life quality or expectancy is ethically acceptable. Although ‘editing’ human genes is ethically acceptable and could be beneficial to humanity, it is not worth the inevitable abuse of such power which could lead to genetically superior beings and thus unethical inequality in humanity.
Some may say this sounds like a fallacious slippery slope argument, but it is not: I am not arguing that the negative effects necessarily follow; even so, there is a line to be drawn in any practice. As Chesterton said, “Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere;” there is a line to be drawn – that genes should not be altered beyond preventing diseases or disorders, if the parents consent to do so. In a utopia, the legal imposition ought to be something to that effect. Though in actuality, all laws will be broken – which is why it is wisest to avoid genetic “editing” at all. If this becomes legally acceptable, the extreme of genetically superior, designer babies will not necessarily follow. But the likelihood of the science being abused and, eventually, normalized is too great a risk to take.
As there are indeed scientific advances being made concerning eugenics today, it is important as Christian members of society to enter the conversation. Chesterton argues that even the root of eugenics is evil; while modern science could potentially utilize eugenics in a positive way so as to prevent deadly diseases and disorders, there may yet be other unforeseen problems and humanity is bound to take that power too far, as it is so often known to do. The Harry Potter series illustrates the disgust of eugenics in the extreme – essentially, orchestrating the birth of a master race. This not only puts humans in the position of establishing good from bad, fit from unfit, etc., but also destroys general human dignity and equality, having been made in the image of God. Little by little, eugenics may work its way into normalized society. So what can you do? Do not stand idly by. Learn about this relatively new realm of science. Analyze your presupposed ethics. Let not humanity ever reach the point of labeling people based off of their genetic makeup; let there never be such despicable appellations such as Mudbloods or Purebloods. After all this, identity is found in blood; not in our blood, but rather in the blood of Christ, who created us in His image and redeemed us that we might once more reflect that image as it was intended.
Ahlquist, D. (2014). Lecture 36: Eugenics and Other Evils. The American Chesterton Society. Retrieved from http://www.chesterton.org/lecture-36/.
Chesterton, G.K. (1922). Eugenics and Other Evils [Kindle DX version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com.
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