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Roll Over, Beethoven

October 10th, 2006 · 2 Comments

OK, last thing from Dawkins, I swear, but this is one of those little factoids that has been around forever, and still seems to be making the rounds. Maybe you’ve seen it:

If you knew a woman who was pregnant, who had 8 kids already, three who were deaf, two who were blind, one mentally retarded, and she had syphilis; would you recommend that she have an abortion?

And then, the punchline: If you said yes, you’re told you “killed Beethoven.” I’d first seen some version of this years ago, but never bothered to check it out. Insofar as it’s supposed to be an anti-abortion argument—and sometimes it doesn’t seem to be that so much as a “don’t judge a book by its cover” story—it’s pretty patently silly even if true. Presumably there are lots of potential geniuses (or Stalins) who never get born because the hypothetical parents never meet, or never have sex, or don’t have it often enough. And if you think abortion is wrong for the separate reason that fetuses are people, isn’t it kind of creepy to trot this out as an example, as if the really salient thing in that case would be that it’s Beethoven and not some random blacksmith?

But, as it happens, the example’s a total fiction anyway. If you check out any biography of Beethoven’s family, you’ll see he was the oldest of his siblings, unless you count one prior child his parents had who died almost immediately after birth (as was common enough at the time). I don’t see any mention of any of his younger siblings, though many also did not survive infancy, being deaf, blind, or retarded. I can’t find any suggestion that his mother might have had syphilis—she died of tuberculosis when Beethoven was 16. In other words,k basically the only fact in this thing that’s accurate is the assertion that Beethoven had a mother.

That’s pretty impressive, when you think about it. Though the argument is stupid in principle, surely there are plenty of geniuses out there for whom you could at least have constructed a similar story using, you know, true facts.

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2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 apk01004 // Oct 11, 2006 at 4:07 pm

    Are there, though? If fake-Beethoven’s mother had given birth to 6 badly sick infants, and was syphilitic to boot, the obvious reponse is not to say, “well the Beethoven case may have been made up, but I see no reason that some other famous person couldn’t have been in the same position.”

    On the contrary, if 3/4 of your babies are congenitally sick, the odds that you will give birth to a genius are very low. There probably aren’t any geniuses in fake-Beethoven’s position.

    The odds are even smaller that a universally recognized, universally beloved genius would be in fake-Beethoven’s position. There are lots of geniuses, but some are like Edward Teller, whom we might have been better off without, and others who are too obscure for anybody to miss.

    I would be willing to bet that every genius who meets the above criteria had reasonably healthy older siblings. They had to make up this sickly-kids story about somebody, so hey, why not Beethoven?

  • 2 Sandy // Oct 12, 2006 at 8:48 am

    I’m guessing the Jesse Jackson example probably doesn’t poll as well among conservatives.