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On human self-domestication, psychiatry, and eugenics

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Author(s): Brüne Martin

Journal: Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine
ISSN 1747-5341

Volume: 2;
Issue: 1;
Start page: 21;
Date: 2007;
Original page

ABSTRACT
Abstract The hypothesis that anatomically modern homo sapiens could have undergone changes akin to those observed in domesticated animals has been contemplated in the biological sciences for at least 150 years. The idea had already plagued philosophers such as Rousseau, who considered the civilisation of man as going against human nature, and eventually "sparked over" to the medical sciences in the late 19th and early 20th century. At that time, human "self-domestication" appealed to psychiatry, because it served as a causal explanation for the alleged degeneration of the "erbgut" (genetic material) of entire populations and the presumed increase of mental disorders. Consequently, Social Darwinists emphasised preventing procreation by people of "lower genetic value" and positively selecting favourable traits in others. Both tendencies culminated in euthanasia and breeding programs ("Lebensborn") during the Nazi regime in Germany. Whether or not domestication actually plays a role in some anatomical changes since the late Pleistocene period is, from a biological standpoint, contentious, and the currently resurrected debate depends, in part, on the definitional criteria applied. However, the example of human self-domestication may illustrate that scientific ideas, especially when dealing with human biology, are prone to misuse, particularly if "is" is confused with "ought", i.e., if moral principles are deduced from biological facts. Although such naturalistic fallacies appear to be banned, modern genetics may, at least in theory, pose similar ethical problems to medicine, including psychiatry. In times during which studies into the genetics of psychiatric disorders are scientifically more valued than studies into environmental causation of disorders (which is currently the case), the prospects of genetic therapy may be tempting to alter the human genome in patients, probably at costs that no-one can foresee. In the case of "self-domestication", it is proposed that human characteristics resembling domesticated traits in animals should be labelled "domestication-like", or better, objectively described as genuine adaptations to sedentism.
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