Have we really exorcised eugenics from genetics?

Michael Cook
28 May 2011
Reproduced with Permission

The linkage between genetics and eugenics is an oft-told story, but it bears repeating again and again. This is an idea hammered home in latest issue of Annals of Human Genetics. This journal is a particularly appropriate platform for this message, because from its launch in 1927 until 1954, it was called Annals of Eugenics. The current editor has now made all of these volumes available on-line. And in a special issue, scholars reflect upon the dark chapters in the history of genetics.

In his contribution Garland E. Allen points out that eugenics did have many critics, although they did not have much impact upon public perceptions. He draws two conclusions:

"The first is that it is important for knowledgeable geneticists to examine claims about the inheritance of this or that trait (especially complex behavioural, personality and mental traits) when they are publicised today. We have been treated for several decades at the end of the 20th century to a barrage of claims about the genetic basis of a multitude of human complex behaviours, from I.Q. to criminality, aggressiveness, alcoholism, shyness, sexual orientation, manic depression, bipolar disorder and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder - even 'religiosity'. Many of these claims have not held up to careful scrutiny, and all have been criticised for the same faults for which the older eugenic studies were found guilty. ..

"This then leads to the second important lesson to come from the history of eugenics: the geneticists who evaluate the newer studies should also make their critiques public, and not restrict their publications only to technical journals…

In another article, historian Daniel J. Kevles contends that we must not feel complacent about a revival of eugenics, although of a do-it-yourself kind.

"But a publicly mandated eugenics is not the only type of eugenics we may see. The emergence of the biotechnology industry has established strong economic incentives to encourage consumers to pursue a kind of 'homemade eugenics'… Perhaps paradoxically, their right to reproductive freedom would assist them in such endeavours. And, they might also be encouraged by scientists. The lure of biologically improving the human race, having tantalised brilliant scientists in the past, could equally seduce them in the future, even though the expression of the imperatives may differ in language and sophistication. Objective, socially unprejudiced knowledge is not ipso facto inconsistent with eugenic goals of some type. Such knowledge may, indeed, assist in seeking them, especially in the consumer-oriented, commercially driven enterprise of contemporary biomedicine.

Other historians make a similar point:

"… the temptation seems ever-present. For example, China has policies related to sterilization that some feel resemble the classical eugenics era. And modern technology raises new societal issues about the use of genetic data. Technical sophistication does not prevent us from falling prey to our cultural biases today, any more that it did in Pearson and Elderton's time [the founding editors]. Prevention is unambiguously the better part of valour: things often seem harmless at the outset, but we must assume that there are still wolves in the world."

These articles are excellent background for contemporary debates about genetic determinism. - USA Today, Apr 24