Toby Young, Eugenics and Genetic Screening

Whilst we’ve been talking about other things on, one of the big UK controversies has been about a guy called Toby Young who was appointed to the new Office For Students, provoked an outcry, was defended by some senior politicians, tried to stay in post before eventually giving in to the twitter storm and resigning.

The primary reason for the outcry and his eventual resignation was that Young has said some particularly unpleasant, offensive and sexist things on twitter. People had other reasons and to be sure, his right-wing politics and support for free schools probably had something to do with it. Young is also alleged to have made equally unpleasant comments about the working class, poor and grammar school background students. He denies the later claims insisting that he is himself a former grammar school pupil and through his engagement with Free Schools has encouraged greater accessibility into education.

There has been some debate about whether or not he should have been offered the post and subsequent to that “hounded” out. Those who think he should have stayed in post argue that we cannot simply exclude people from public office because we do not like some of their characteristics, behaviours etc. The important question is about ability. Now, my personal view is that actually, there is more to fitness for role that skills and gifting. Character does matter -and yes there are question marks over a man’s persistently lewd and offensive use of social media, not as some teenage indiscretion but as a supposedly mature adult.

However, the fascinating thing is that this links us in to another problem people have with Young. You see, he himself has argued in the past against the dangers of a narrow meritocracy. Meritocracy is meant to be a better option than a feudal class system because it is more egalitarian. Young however argues that in the context of limited government, that will be less egalitarian because it is the wealthy who are able to ensure that their children have the best education by paying for private education, hiring tutors or moving into catchment areas for higher performing schools.

And this is where Young gets himself into trouble. You see, Young’s solution is to consider a (at the time of writing only in science fiction) possibility where parents could have their embryo’s screened to identify factors likely to lead to high IQ.  He argues that because rich people would want to buy a greater advantage still for their children, then this should be limited to poor people and that it should be an option only, not compulsory.[1]

Now, that the article has come to light, a number of people have jumped on it. Here is Toby Young promoting eugenics. This is another example of his unsuitability for public office.[2]  Eugenics is all about theories and methods aimed at improving a population’s genetic stock. The concept is unsurprisingly toxic given it provided the foundational principles for the Holocaust.

Young’s response is to describe Polly Toynbee’s article as a “eugenics slur.” Once again, he claims, he has been misrepresented. The problem is this, when you read the article, he explicitly talks about “Progressive Eugenics.”

The problem with the moral outrage against Young, which he outlines in his Spectator response is that we are already in the process of making choices about embryos.

“I wasn’t proposing sterilisation of the poor or some fiendish form of genetic engineering so they could have babies with ‘high IQ genes’ or anything like that. Just a form of IVF that would be available on the National Health to the least well off, should they wish to take advantage of it.”[3]

He might also point out that we are increasingly concerned with screening babies in the womb. Information is increasingly available about gender, risk of physical abnormality, Downs Syndrome etc.  Why not add potential IQ into the mix.

This is the problem, a society that claims to emphasise a parent’s right to choose to the detriment of their offspring is a society that has already accepted the basic principles of eugenics that we can control and manipulate life and that some lives have greater value than others.

Young continues to claim that really this is about well-being: His recommendation is

“Just an option, a way of giving their children a head start.”

Except that it isn’t, is it?  This isn’t about the children’s needs and rights at all. It’s not about improving the potential opportunities for specific children. There are of course ways to do that and Young has crossed the Centre Right, limited government, market economics Rubicon by allowing for significant state intervention biased towards the working class here, so why not other forms of state intervention at other stages? No, the disadvantaged children don’t get a head start, they get eliminated. The only question is whether, you will have the potential IQ to be allowed to survive. To be sure, it’s optional but what other social and economical pressures will be placed on the parents?  This is not for the good of the child at all but to some extent the perceived good of the family and more so, the perceived good of society over all.

Now, the arguments I’ve made there are not new. They are the arguments that Christians make routinely about the problem with abortion and with euthanasia. They are sound arguments because they are rooted in the Biblical revelation that we are made in God’s image. They are rooted in the principle that God formed us and knitted us in our mother’s wombs so that life starts at conception not an arbitrarily defined date.

This is the point; Young’s defence may be effective against those who support abortion and euthanasia but two wrongs don’t make a right. If Young’s criteria for genetic selection shocks us, then it should highlight not just what is wrong with his view but how disturbing our whole approach to life, birth, death and disability is as a society.

I hope that this was his intention all along and that the article was a brilliant piece of satire.




[1] See

[2] See e.g