May 30, 2024

The dark past of genetics unveiled

Hi there,

We have been warning about the dangers of
do-it-yourself eugenics for some time now. So it is gratifying to see BioEdge’s
misgivings supported by scholars in the history of eugenics.

Until 1954 the respected journal Annals of
Human Genetics was published as the Annals of Eugenics. It was a sign of the
seriousness with which scientists took “the scientific treatment of racial
problems in man” as the inaugural editorial in 1927 put it. Recently those
older volumes have been made available on-line by its editor, Andrés Ruiz
Linares of University College London. In a special
, he invited historians to reflect on the dark past of genetics. (The
articles are free.)

One theme came through loud and clear: we
could be duped again. And sometimes we are. The popularity of “gene of the week”
articles in the media suggests that genetic reductionism is deeply rooted in
academia as well as among the general public.  As one of the authors puts it, “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.”

We will continue to monitor this theme in
bioethics. The disasters which a eugenic mindset created allowed the extermination
of Jews, Gypsies and disabled in Nazi Germany and the sterilization of
“imbeciles” (as US Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr put it in 1927)
in the US, Canada and other democratic countries. Fool me once, shame on you.
Fool me twice, shame on me. 

We are slowly making some changes in the BioEdge newsletter and website. From today, you can comment directly on the editor’s message in a new blog, “Pointed Remarks”. Thanks to everyone who has contributed to our fund-raising drive. We’ll give a report soon. 


Michael Cook