When our latest baby began to lose plumpness and to develop the scrawny neck of childhood, even I felt broody. And I suspect that, if health questions had not intervened, our five children would rapidly have turned into 10. This feeling of special care for the very young may not be universal but it is certainly spread widely through the human race.
The instinctive emotion extends beyond our own young and can be strongly focused on pets and other young animals, particularly if they are blessed with large eyes and the vulnerable appearance which reminds us of our own young.
Evolution is at work here. The instinct of caring for young is necessary for the human race to survive, just as it is for many species of animal. But, as an emotional instinct, reason is not involved. And valuable though it is, the discovery that care for our young is also a moral obligation is a different process involving reason and moral judgment. The instinct is nature’s fallback to support or replace our rational choice of necessary action.
The problems can arise when we allow our emotions to overcome our rational judgment. I fear that we are very good at this.The outstanding example of our time arose when ultrasound scans of babies at the foetal stage began to be published, and used as part of the abortion debate. Not unexpectedly the proponents of abortion cried, “foul”! This was an unfair use of emotion to manipulate the putative mother’s choices.
But it had been an emotional question throughout. The very invisibility of the baby had formerly checked the incipient maternal feeling, allowing other issues such as the problems of unmarried motherhood or the size of the family to remain in command. This was perhaps most extreme when babies who were viable could be aborted up to the moment before birth for a relatively minor imperfection.
I have often wondered how a population of really quite good and intelligent people can sit back, sometimes with a regretful sigh, and permit a slaughter which under other circumstances would be ruled as perhaps the most massive crime against humanity which the world has ever seen. And of course the answer lies in allowing emotion to trump reason – enabling us to do evil and yet to feel good about it.
There are plenty of other examples. For instance, the much-married celebrity who in fact is as much hooked by the sensation of “being in love” as any other drug taker, and who can cause as much damage. Or that splendid feeling of righteousness at the doings of tabloid telephone hackers or MPs who fiddle their claims. If only people were as scrupulous with their own consciences as they are with others the world would be a much better place. Perhaps I should refer to “us” rather than “people”, for few of us would survive a sincere examination of conscience.
I am not attacking emotions. To begin with, we would scarcely be moved to accomplish anything without the boost of emotion. We are not cold-blooded machines. And, since they are products of evolution, emotions are very good at indicating what is good and what is harmful. It is only when they get separated from the moderation of reason that they are dangerous. And we live in a world where this danger is welcomed with open arms.
In this context I want to recommend a new book Unnatural Selection by Mara Hvistendahl (Perseus Books £16). It is a truly frightening exploration of to what extent many countries, legally or illegally, go in for selecting boy babies over girls. Once this was done by infanticide; this was succeeded by amniocentesis prior to abortion, and nowadays – and in huge numbers – by ultrasound scan followed by abortion. To give you one figure, there are more females missing though abortion in Asia than the entire female population of the United States.
The consequences of this man-manoeuvred plague are potentially disastrous. Far from putting women on a pedestal it will, as always happens, put them into social slavery. And the streets of the world will be ridden by surplus males full of unused testosterone, looking to escape drought in a world of climate change. I, however, shall be dead, but my grandchildren won’t.
And lest we should feel that western countries are innocent, we may remember that much of this has been financed in the past by the West as part of a policy of population control. Thus the contraception and abortion campaign financed by the Americans in post-war Japan has had appalling consequences in terms of age balance in the population. Ironically, wealthy women in the US are able to dodge abortion by selecting the embryo with only the desired characteristics for implantation. They, however, opt for girls.
Eugenics is an unfashionable notion now. Its modern history starts with the Darwinian survival of the fittest and, by the beginning of the 20th century, much respectable opinion championed the approach of improving human stock through its means. The Americans were enthusiastic, and about 60,000 unsatisfactory people were forcibly sterilised up to 1981. The Germans, however, took it a mite too far.
But eugenics by any other name will smell as rank. And the threat is even greater as we learn new methods of engineering the human race. In fact the true lesson of Darwinism is that, on the whole, nature is the best regulator of human breeding. We should be wary indeed when we propose to modify it. Here be dragons!