March 5, 2024

Have we really exorcised eugenics from genetics?

he 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.

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

Michael Cook