Public Lecture by Rob Wilson
The Feeling of Eugenics
A public lecture by Rob Wilson, Professor of Philosophy, La Trobe University and 2018 UWA Institute of Advanced Studies Visiting Fellow.
Familiarity with the eugenic past, particularly that associated with the Holocaust, has primed a wariness about the potential misuse of new ventures in biology, such as the Human Genome Project and the emerging gene-editing technology of CRISPR. That critical perspective, shared by academics and lay persons alike, has sometimes cast a skeptical shadow over future uses of existing reproductive technologies both to create designer babies and to discard embryos or fetuses that do not measure up to some ideal or standard of normality. In his preface to the second edition of In the Name of Eugenics, the historian of science Daniel Kevles cautioned that the “specter of eugenics hovers over virtually all contemporary developments in human genetics”. And in his Backdoor to Eugenics the sociologist Troy Duster viewed contemporary technologies utilizing individual choice as a pathway to a eugenic future. The message here has been clear: understand past eugenics, critique present eugenics, avoid future eugenics.
Yet, for Professor Wilson, eugenics doesn’t feel like that. Not because it’s not a danger, but because its more than a mere possibility lurking in current and future technologies. That feeling stems in part from his work in oral history with eugenics survivors in the Canadian province of Alberta over the past ten years.
In this talk Professor Wilson shared his reflections on eugenics, disability, and attitudes towards human variation, adopting what he calls a standpoint eugenics, eugenics from the standpoint of those who have survived it.
Rob Wilson returned to Australia as professor of philosophy at La Trobe University in 2017 after teaching previously at Queen’s University and the University of Alberta in Canada, and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in the United States. His philosophical work ranges across the cognitive, biological, and social sciences, as well as metaphysics, ethics, and the history of philosophy. Amongst his award-winning books are Boundaries of the Mind (2004) and The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences (1999), of which he was general editor, together with the developmental psychologist Frank Keil. Graduating with first-class honours from UWA in 1985, Rob completed his PhD at Cornell University in 1992. In 2009, Rob’s contributions to academic philosophy were recognized with his election to the Royal Society of Canada. Over the past ten years, Rob’s time and energy has been invested primarily in a number of community-focused philosophical initiatives, including founding Philosophy for Children Alberta (2008-2015), serving as the principal investigator for the internationally recognized project Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada (2010-2016), and most recently organizing the Melbourne-based network Philosophical Engagement in Public Life (PEiPL). His most recent book is The Eugenic Mind Project, published by the MIT Press in March 2018.