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Outrageously bad “Chinese Eugenics” article published on Edge.org

In Edge.org‘s 2013 collection ‘What Should We Be Worried About?’, the first piece is ‘Chinese Eugenics‘ by Geoffrey Miller. It’s one of the worst nonsense-mines I’ve ever tumbled into. Apart from being classic, semi-racist “China is going to take over the world” fear-mongering, it’s also wildly inaccurate and misleading, and just completely wrong in many places.

Geoffrey Miller, author of 'Chinese Eugenics'

Geoffrey Miller, author of “Chinese Eugenics”

Irritatingly, the Edge.org interface doesn’t seem to let you comment directly on individual articles, so I’m making my response a full post here. Just to give you a taste of what Miller’s article is all about, here’s a quote from the first paragraph:

China has been running the world’s largest and most successful eugenics program for more than thirty years, driving China’s ever-faster rise as the global superpower. I worry that this poses some existential threat to Western civilization.

Total misrepresentation of the one-child policy

The main premise of Miller’s article is that there’s an orchestrated eugenics regime in China that’s been taking place on a huge scale for a few decades, but even before that this idea has been central to Chinese culture since the dawn of time. Now, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if there is / was eugenics research going on in China, even on a large scale (as there was in many countries in the 20th century, including the USA), but it’s nothing like how Miller tries to claim.

It would have been quite interesting if Miller actually documented or gave any evidence at all for “the world’s largest and most successful eugenics program” of which “China makes no secret … in either its cultural history or its government policies”. But he doesn’t – he just makes some vague hints about it and tries to link to to much larger, better known policies such as the one-child policy.

Miller seems to think that the one-child policy isn’t just about controlling China’s population growth (that is what it’s for), but also about somehow ensuring that better genes are passed on. He doesn’t give any evidence for this whatsoever, and doesn’t even explain quite how this would work scientifically. Each couple being limited to one birth doesn’t somehow make the children “higher quality” (Miller’s term).

What the one-child policy does do is reduce population pressure on infrastructure, health, education etc. etc. that the Chinese state is still struggling with anyway. It’s not like this is a mysterious area with little research – the whole world knows about the one-child policy and there’s masses and masses of research on it. There would at least be hints in academia if there was some sort of eugenics conspiracy or program wrapped up in the one-child policy.

The Chinese government also seems to be wrapped up in an internal debate about whether or not to relax the one-child policy, as it’s currently generating a dangerous side-effect: a top-heavy population with, to put it bluntly, too many old people and not enough young people. That doesn’t seem to me to be the expected result of a finely crafted mass-eugenics program.

The other thing that Miller totally glosses over (or is just ignorant of) is that the one-child policy is a) very badly implemented in many places and b) has had all sorts of terrible side-effects (other than the top-heavy population issue). The first point is that the one-child policy is not evenly implemented, and is very vulnerable to corruption, loop-holes, mismanagement etc. etc.

The second point is that the one-child policy is creating huge social problems, particularly a dangerous gender imbalance. China’s population is steadily moving towards a higher proportion of males, which is really dodgy territory for a society. Having too many males is generally regarded as a bad thing for a population.

Update: Pete pointed out in the comments that the one-child policy is actually set up in such a way that non-Han ethnicities and the rural poor have more children than Han urbanites. Again, this is the complete opposite of Miller’s argument.

A healthy babies conspiracy!

The “Chinese Eugenics” article also tries to claim that the concept of eugenics is not a modern addition to Chinese knowledge and culture. Apparently, this has long been a particular concern of the Chinese, and they’ve always made efforts to ensure that their babies are healthy and intelligent.

If that sounds totally normal and unremarkable to you, that’s because it is. Every culture everywhere since ever has been interested in healthy babies. It’s human nature. It’s not even just human nature, it’s just nature. There is nothing interesting about the fact that trying to create healthy babies is important in Chinese culture.

Pointless pinyin

There are many stupid things in Miller’s article, but one of the most stupid is his pointless insertion of pinyin (the standard romanisation system for Mandarin Chinese) for terms he uses. Inserting pinyin like this is fairly standard practice in academic literature, supposedly because it makes it easier for people to follow the terms being used and to look them up if necessary. However, this only makes sense if you’re quoting a translation of a Chinese source or are referencing actual Chinese terms.

If you’re not, then there is absolutely no point whatsoever in inserting the pinyin. Why not insert the terms in Arabic or French? Miller has randomly sprayed his article with the pinyin for translations of English terms he uses, but for no reason. We can look the terms he uses up in an English-Chinese dictionary if we want to know what they are in Chinese. Here’s an example:

For generations, Chinese intellectuals have emphasized close ties between the state (guojia), the nation (minzu), the population (renkou), the Han race (zhongzu), and, more recently, the Chinese gene-pool (jiyinku).

See how pointless that is? He’s not using Chinese terms or a quoting from a translation, he’s just inserting pinyin for his English, presumably because he thinks this makes it look more legitimate. Perhaps (yexu) we should all try this technique (zuofa), as it will certainly (kending hui) make everything we write (women suoyou xiede dongxi) seem more believable (kanqilai geng kexinde).

Hard and soft power

Moving on, Miller tries to claim that China is going from strength to strength with its hard and soft power abroad. One strategy for this is apparently “owning America’s national debt”. That China completely owns America’s national debt is a common misconception and a favourite of fear-mongering politicians (I wonder why Miller included it).

Unfortunately, it’s not true. China owns about 7% of America’s national debt. It’s still a significant chunk, but it’s nothing like what Miller implies by failing to give the real figure when he says “owning America’s national debt”. Plus debt is not a good investment, and if the US economy goes bad then so will China’s. This arrangement doesn’t give China any real ‘power’, hard or soft, over the US.

The idea that China is working its soft power influence across the globe is a complete joke. China does not have a good image in the vast majority of countries, and a lot of layers in its government seem to be trying as hard as they can to make this worse. See this, this and this for some quick-fire examples of hilariously bad soft power cock-ups from media and government organisations in China.

Total misrepresentation of China’s education system

Miller then decides to turn his attention to another area of modern China: its education system. I’ve written before about how badly the media in other countries misrepresents China’s education system. According to Miller, though, it’s producing a generation of intellectual, scholarly types who will go on to run the country due to their superb leadership skills and education (rather than, you know, political manoeuvring, family ties, party allegiance etc.).

Miller even references the gaokao. This is the widely-hated pre-university exam that is extremely unfair and showcases the worst of rote-learning-for-the-exam style education (no exam system anywhere has truly overcome those issues). It in no way fits in with Miller’s ridiculous idea of a concerted effort to produce a generation of super-children.

Ridiculous assertion of ‘co-operation’

That last point brings me on to what might be the most ridiculous sentence in Miller’s whole article:

There is unusually close cooperation in China between government, academia, medicine, education, media, parents, and consumerism in promoting a utopian Han ethno-state.

Where do you even begin with that? It isn’t just wrong, it’s at the complete opposite end of the spectrum to right. Co-operation between government, media, academia, education, media, parents, consumerism? That genuinely is a nice list of competing factions in China’s political landscape. Again, Miller makes no effort to provide any evidence for this wild assertion (because there is no evidence for it at all).

Miller than caps it off with the use of the term “utopian Han ethno-state” – it almost sounds like he’s swallowed a large quantity of internal Party memos and ended up believing it all. Sure, the CCP might dream of a “utopian Han ethno-state”, but it’s not going to happen.

China is not going to take over the world

Sadly, I think Miller’s whole article just boils down to a disgusting attempt to stir up some fear and hatred by promoting the worn-out idea that China is coming to get us. This is now an old, boring idea that really should be heading for retirement, but it keeps popping up in the media, probably because it sells newspapers and gets traffic.

Miller pretends that he’s spreading this bullshit out of some sort of weird concern for ‘the West’ and for China in his final paragraph, which begins: “My real worry is the Western response.” It ends with:

A more mature response would be based on mutual civilizational respect, asking—what can we learn from what the Chinese are doing, how can we help them, and how can they help us to keep up as they create their brave new world.

What a complete crock of shit.

  • Harland

    Good job! The Striesand Effect is in play here. Who would have read the article if you didn’t bitch and moan about it?

    • http://eastasiastudent.net/about Hugh Grigg

      I’m not trying to stop anyone reading it – I’m all for free speech, including as a way for people to reveal their true colours.

      Also, I doubt that East Asia Student is going to account for a significant proportion of the traffic to Edge.org anyway.

  • Pete

    You missed a bit – the OCP is relaxed for ethnic minorities, who get 2 kids. Enforcement is also laxer in the poor rural areas. The Han elite have therefore create a eugenics program which is practically designed to get rid of the Han elite. Obviously they haven’t planned it very well.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net/about Hugh Grigg

      Excellent point. I’ve linked to your comment in the article.

  • http://www.nciku.com Kevin P

    The main point is nonsense, but if you follow up the article’s claims, it seems like eugenics really is (are?) practiced in China. The Maternal and Infant Health Law the author mentioned exists, and it says almost what the article claims it does – people who have “been diagnosed with certain genetic disease” are only allowed to get married “after taking long-term contraceptive measures or performance of ligation operations” (translations from the All China Women’s Federation: http://www.women.org.cn/english/english/laws/09.htm , see Article 10).

    • http://eastasiastudent.net/about Hugh Grigg

      Well, that is true, but like you say it isn’t even close to the outrageous claim that Miller makes in his article. If that is what Miller is referring to, then it’s pretty disgusting to claim that the Chinese government trying to eliminate those people from the gene pool is “a threat to Western civilisation”.

    • Guilherme Verri

      Sorry, but I think you miss the point of the article. It’s pretty simple:

      People with heritable mental or physical don’t breed.
      Regular parents are only allowed one child.
      The brightest can pay for a “social fostering fee” to have an extra child.
      They are running an intensive research hunting for sets of sets of IQ related alleles. This would allow them to select the babies with the highest predictable intelligence.

      If you know darwinian and dawkinian evolution you know what this means.

      • http://abnormaldiversity.blogspot.com Ettina

        “The brightest can pay for a “social fostering fee” to have an extra child.”

        I thought it was the *richest*, not the *brightest*, who got to do that.

      • http://eastasiastudent.net/about Hugh Grigg (葛修远)

        I think you’ve missed the point of the article here. I’m well aware of what Miller is trying to claim about eugenics in China.

        The debate surrounding this has got quite tangled, as there are actually three separate issues:

        1. Is China conducting eugenics?
        2. Is eugenics scientifically sound?
        3. Is eugenics morally acceptable?

        It seems that you object to me not giving the second issue much coverage here. I assumed that most people today were aware how flawed eugenics is as an idea, but I’ll re-link again here for your benefit.

        The argument you make above about “mental and physical [flawed? defective? undesirable?]” vs “brightest” is pretty meaningless. How do you define what is desirable when it is so complex? With IQ – that’s a complete joke in the face of defining intelligence.

        Aside from that: how can you be sure you’re not inadvertently breeding in more serious genetic problems? Even if you can identify and consistently breed in intelligence to the population, are you sure that will benefit the population or the society? With a large enough population, are you not naturally going to have a good supply of very intelligent people anyway? Is intelligence so heavily based in genetics – aren’t upbringing, education, nutrition, etc. etc. one million other factors also very important?

        As you can see, in just 10 seconds of slight consideration you can see how flawed the whole idea is.

  • http://duanzhengzi@163.com Denzel Duan

    Hugh, what does “eliminate those people from the gene pool ” mean???

    • http://eastasiastudent.net/about Hugh Grigg

      Hi Denzel.

      I think it’s something like “把那些人的基因从基因库彻底消除”. Sorry for the bad translation but hopefully you can get the idea of it from that.

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  • Mick Dee

    Glad to see your criticism. I just linked to the Edge article via a MetaFilter post.

    I was interested in what he had to say as an expert on the subject, but he lost all credibility when he claimed “[Chairman] Deng had long understood that China would succeed only if the Communist Party shifted its attention from economic policy to population policy.”

    • http://eastasiastudent.net/about Hugh Grigg

      It almost seems to me like he assumed that no-one who knows anything at all about China would be reading his article, so he could just pull material like that out of nowhere and no-one would spot it.

  • Anonymous

    Thankfully someone said this. I was extraordinarily surprised such poorly substantiated trash was included on Edge.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net/about Hugh Grigg

      I was too, normally their content is very good.

  • Grad Student

    A gender imbalance is good for a society, genetically speaking. Intelligence is largely heritable, and it is closely tied to personal success in life. Even though the correlation is less strong on an individual level, it is extremely strong on a group level. Therefore, China will have a significant advantage because less intelligent genes (from unsuccessful males) will be eliminated from the gene pool. Group intelligence is very important when considering outcomes for nations. Actually, the author is very in tune with Chinese perspective. I am from China, and I am living in the US for 5 years now.

  • Anon.

    @Grad Student: Going from what I’ve been taught concerning evolution, gender imbalance is bad news for any population human or otherwise. According to Fisher’s principle 1:1 is the only evolutionary stable sex ratio unless there is a large difference in the cost (in terms of investment) of females compared to males, or vice versa, which isn’t the case in humans. It sort of sounds as if you are thinking of China as a super-organism more like an ant colony than a human population.
    Intelligence is such a complex issue, the idea that there are simple “intelligent genes” is hugely oversimplified. Even though intelligence in the form of IQ tests (unsure if this is the best measure) has been correlated with inheritance based on studies of identical twins it’s not 100% and is often a lot lower. http://www.nature.com/mp/journal/v16/n10/full/mp201185a.html this study came out fairly recently saying genes explain 40-50% of the differences in “intelligence” between participants. Not only does the environment have an impact on it’s own but also often provides the trigger to “switch on” genes: it’s the idea of nature via nurture. There are so many different genetic and environmental aspects of intelligence each with a small individual effect.
    “Less intelligent genes (from unsuccessful males) will be eliminated from the gene pool”- while it is possible that lower intelligence correlates with low social economic status and the possibility that this will decrease their chances of finding a lady friend and having children the only way to bank on “elimination from the gene pool” is if China sterilized all males they considered to have “less intelligent genes”. Maybe you just haven’t mentioned it but are you assuming the influence on intelligence of any genes from the mother is nothing?

    • http://eastasiastudent.net/about Hugh Grigg

      Thanks a lot for explaining that. I suspected that Grad Student’s comment wasn’t very accurate but didn’t have the expertise to refute it.

  • http://eastasiastudent.net/about Hugh Grigg

    More on the “China owns US debt” myth from China Hearsay: http://www.chinahearsay.com/chinas-dollar-assets-and-the-persistent-myth/

  • fried genes

    Hey man,
    the fearmongering about China is one aspect of this, although to be fair there are some sentences in the end that suggest Miller’s fear mongering is more like an idealisation of what he fancies to be the Chinese state and culture.

    I thought the strangest part of his piece is he takes it for a given that eugenics work, and the only reason it is not done in the west is some kind of backward political correctness.

    The man is a proper nazi. That would be my main problem with him.

    By the way, selective breeding on livestock did produce more milk producing cows and more obedient dogs, but all these races are hopelessly unadapted to the changing natural environment and would not stand competition with their natural counterparts outside their human protected enclave. I think it would be the same if some people played with selecting people’s genes to maximise one trait at the expense of other traits.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net/about Hugh Grigg

      “I thought the strangest part of his piece is he takes it for a given that eugenics work, and the only reason it is not done in the west is some kind of backward political correctness. The man is a proper nazi.”

      Very good point. I didn’t really go anywhere near that because I thought refuting what Miller says doesn’t even require going there. But what you say is totally true. It’s sick.

  • http://21tiger.com Michael A. Robson (required)

    Reminds me of the hate mongering ‘Tiger Mom’ stuff from a few years back. Great post, there’s so much stupidity in here, he’s bordering on Glenn Beck, (“Let me tell you about the ‘GAO KAO’.. oh you don’t know about that? Well you may want to sit down for this. Because the Commies are coming for your guns. And it all starts with the GAO KAO and the HANZU clan.”)

    Anyway, let’s just hold off on the ‘China taking over the world’ stuff, until at least, the Chinese system is a success IN CHINA. Anyone who’s been here for 10 mins knows what a shitshow it is here, and the richest citizens invariablly get the F out of here (even many high school students see government officials sending their loved ones abroad to live in UK/Aus/EU/Can/USA, which tells you just what they think of China).

    So what is China ‘taking over’… well for the idiots who listen to this ignorant BS, yes, China is taking away your low paying job. Yes, you, working at that minimum wage POS job. Yes you. China is going to make your job disappear. Instead of getting mad, maybe you should get a college degree.

    Or maybe all of this (like the Tiger Mom stuff) is just sad angry disingenuous clickbait, in which case, we should just laugh at it.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net/about Hugh Grigg

      “And it all starts with the GAO KAO and the HANZU clan.”

      Wow, what a sentence…

  • epep

    i think the present people in the CCP are too ignorant to know anything about eugenics. the present people in the CCP are too busy stealing from the chinese people.

  • epep

    about eugenics.

    there are 2 possible future scenarios with eugenics.

    one scenario is that some people ( the elite with wealth to buy genetic enhancements ) will get healthier, physically beautiful, athletic and more and more intelligent.

    another possible scenario is that as people continue with eugenics into generations into the far future, people will probably discover that there will be side-effects. probably there are mechanisms in nature that does not allow people to be too physically and mentally perfect. and there is probably an intelligence level limit that people will reach. and probably individuals can not have all the desired traits all at the sametime. meaning probably individuals can only have a few desired traits per indiviudual. meaning if you have high height the mechanisms of nature will probably not allow you to have much intelligence. and if you have much intelligence then natures’ mechanism will probably not allow you to have high height or physical beauty.

  • epep

    having said that, if people can find ways to genetically enhance next generations people without hurting people then i think people should do those eugenics methods ( which can genetically enhance next generations people without hurting people ).

    and if people can find ways to genetically enhance next generations people without aborting fetuses then i think people should do those eugenics methods ( which can genetically enhance next generations people without aborting fetuses ).

    i am not pro-eugenics in which the eugenics methods consist in methods that hurts people.

    i am not pro-eugenics in which the eugenics methods consist in the abortion in fetuses.

    i am cautious about if it is okay, even for early abortions of fetuses with inherited diseases.

    i am cautious about if it is okay, even for early abortions of any fetuses ( whether those fetuses have no inherited diseases or inherited diseases ).

    and i definitely believe that it is immoral in late abortions of fetuses with inherited diseases.

    i definitely believe that it is immoral in late abortions of any fetuses ( whether those fetuses have no inherited diseases or have inherited diseases ).

    but i do think a soft form in eugenics should be allowed.

    such as i would encourarge intelligent chinese people to breed with intelligent chinese people. so that they will produce intelligent chinese people. so China can advance in science and technology so China can defend itself.

    and i think it okay for chinese couples ( that have very severe inherited genetic diseases ) to use healthy sperm and healthy eggs from healthy chinese people so that they ( the chinese couple with severe inherited genetic diseases ) can have children ( without severe inherited genetic disseases ).

  • dave

    I read Millers article on the edge when it came out last week. It seemed kind of suspicious and got my crap detector tingling. I was googling eugenics when I found Hugh’s article. I was wowed I found a direct challenge to the very article I was checking into. because the larger article was things to be worried about in 2013 I have to say that this is a blatant piece of fear mongering. Nice post, Hugh.

  • ANON

    Why didn’t you comment on the study being done compiling the genetic codes of genius level individuals. This is the part of the article the most interests me. I feel you are right about the rest of the article though. He unloads a lot of sensationalist rhetoric with no facts, and probably misunderstands or is ill informed about much of Chinese History. But his lack of citations may be due to the format of the article. If you scroll down these are generally short blurbs, and are written in genrally unscientific language. I like your skeptisism though. Made me look twice.

  • John

    Hey, thanks a lot for writing this… happpened to find it while Googling for the Edge article. It’s really too bad they don’t let you comment on those!

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  • David Lloyd-Jonese

    Good work — but note that his pretentious self-translation is *not* in Pinyin. Pinyin comes with accents to mark the tones, and this clown is too lazy to learn the alt-keys that give you the accents.


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  • pangloss

    Manipulation of genes to produce better outcomes for the individual and group is one point. The other is the environment the these supposendly enhanced individuals will work and live. If there is no openness in society – the freedom to think – freedom from a top-down confucian society where you are always deferring to someone “higher” on the power scale, the effect will be naught. I have yet to see any nobel prizes awarded to Chinese researchers. Eventually they will be of course but my bet is that they will be working in foreign laboratories in a different society.

  • Jon

    Couples who are both only children can also have more than one child under the One Child Policy (the term One Child Policy itself is a bit of a misnomer as the Chinese for the program is 计划生育 planned birth or, if you like, Planned Parenthood).

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  • Nan
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  • Commentperson

    Wonderful down-to-earth commentary on what I thought was a totally ridiculous edge.org article.

  • learningmyhanzis

    Maybe the most hilarious bit is found in the pinyin nonsense. One of the terms Geoff tries to pass as fine mandarin is zhongzu as race (han race to add salt to the wound). Well, a little research show us that zhongzu, (种族) is a neologism used to point races in a fantasy settings: LotR, D&D….. You know, elves, dwarves and so on.

    The proper word for a human race is renzhong (人種), indeed.

    Blessed google translator, what a lovely funny times you provide me with.

    Cheers mate, nice piece.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net/about Hugh Grigg (葛修远)

      I think the word 种族 can actually refer to human ‘races’ or ethnicity as well, e.g. in 种族主义.

  • learningmyhanzis

    It’s true.

    But mostly used in neologisms pointing western introducted concepts (genocide, ethnic cleansing) or mythical races of western origin, i.e mongoloid race, negroid, hobbits and orcs.

    In case of ethnic groups based in some scientific basis the proper word has to be 人種 or 民族.

    And if you are talking about a cultural object that gives unity to the national identity of China, the word is 中华民族.

    Of course, no one in China thinks of the Han as a 种族.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net/about Hugh Grigg (葛修远)

      Good point about the Western concepts. So many words you learn in Chinese are like that – translations, not concepts native to the language.

      I wouldn’t really know about 汉 being a 种族, intuitively I would’ve thought it was, but perhaps not then!

  • learningmyhanzis

    Well, China is big enough to have all kind of opinions and words use, you can see/hear Han refered as 种族 in forums or in very unsophisticated real life interchanges. But using this word applied to Han in a academic setting will make some eyebrows raise for sure.

    Not is the word you will find used by the government, nor in the main stream media.

  • Singaporean

    This is a belated comment but the Edge’s article — and your commentary on it — cracked me up. You’re right, it’s utter bullshit and any kid having studied History at the lower secondary level (that’s twelve to thirteen year olds) in my country would have been able to tell the Edge so.

  • Zhu Bajie

    I would suggest the use of, for lack of a better word, stripped down pinyin (without tone marks) was also used to emphasize alieness. Those who words are not our in-group (Anglophones) makes them the suspect out-group (Chinese speakers). Typical of application through the millennia to distinguish us-them by most if not all cultures unfortunately.

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