Special Science Feature: Genetic Inheritance and Eugenics

Genetic Inheritance and Eugenics
by Cosima Herter, Science Consultant

Throughout antiquity we have been domesticating other species to comply with our wants and needs. Plant and animal breeders have long been aware that certain physical characteristics are inherited from parent to progeny, yet, historically, they’ve done so without knowing by what precise biological mechanism this happens. Animal husbandry is all about judiciously mating specific individuals with desirable traits in order that these traits are passed down to offspring – size, colour, strength, speed, plumage, and pelt are all qualities which can be highly manipulated by coupling the correct parents. Charles Darwin himself looked to breeders for the empirical proof he needed to provide validity to his theory of evolution. In the “Origin of Species,” he famously went to great lengths to buttress his theory of natural selection by comparing it to the process of domestication, or rather: artificial selection.

Cosima reads Darwin's "The Origins of Species."

Cosima reads Darwin’s “Origin of Species.”

But anyone who has heard the phrase, “the apple does not fall far from the tree,” knows full well that physical characteristics are not the only traits believed to be passed from parent to child. There is also widespread conviction that heredity not only determines physical attributes – like height, or eye, hair, and skin colour – but is also responsible for mental and behavioral ones as well – like mental capacity, musical ability, insanity, sexual licentiousness, and criminality. This notion really flourished in the late nineteenth century, particularly in England, when worker migrations into urban centres, massive population explosions, and devastating poverty spawned rampant fears regarding social decline, and fuelled anxieties that the human species overall was degenerating. Combined with various strains of burgeoning evolutionary theories, this fear generated a popular view that humans should choose their mates as prudently as animal breeders chose the stock they wanted to reproduce. Proper mating was seen in some circles as the key to culling the spread of deleterious traits throughout human populations, and successfully proliferating desirable ones.

The first person to give this theory a name was Charles Darwin’s own cousin, Francis Galton. In 1883, Galton coined the term “eugenics,” derived from Greek roots meaning “good,” or “noble” birth. Galton conceived of a science that would allow “the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable.” [1]

With correct, scientifically advised selection of a mating partner it was believed that we could consciously steer the direction of human evolution. A eugenic marriage was nothing less than a civic and moral duty. Choosing the wrong partner resulted in a “dysgenic marriage,” and could produce children that potentially multiplied traits injurious to the human race.

Now, when we think of eugenics, those thoughts are intimately wed with the horrors of the Third Reich. But eugencial principles, even before they were so named, have a long philosophical history going all the way back to Plato, where in The Republic he wrote, “The best of either sex should be united with the best as often as possible, and the inferior with the inferior as seldom as possible.” And previous to the Second World War, Progressivist era politics in North America were rife with eugencial strategies to correct moral and social delinquency on the one hand, and promote biological justification for class divisions on the other. Perhaps more than any other science, biology has consistently been employed as an accomplice to moral claims because it has tremendous social utility in translating scientific findings into political imperatives. The science of genetics – the various ways we attempt to interpret how genes work, and what kinds of traits fall under its purview – is particularly prone to being harnessed for political purposes.

Today, we are witnessing increasing concerns with the dangers genetics present through the prerogatives of biological determinism. Historian of science, Garland Allen, argued that the “decline in economic and social conditions” gives strong indications “of our potential to find eugenical arguments […] attractive once again,” albeit “clothed in the updated language of molecular genetics.” [2]

The social importance of genetics lies not only in how genetic research has contributed towards advances in biology (and undoubtedly it does in many, many beneficial ways – medicine not the least among them), but because we have yet to counter “simplistic claims of a genetic basis for our social behavior” with modern facts. [3]

"We are your biological imperative now." - Cosima

“We are your biological imperative now.” – Cosima

Our understanding of genetics has changed, but many of our social aspirations for its uses have not. Deeply embedded in the public consciousness is the hope that social problems can be solved with “scientific panaceas.”[4]

We may indeed have a richer understanding of the science of heredity and genetic mechanisms, but public attitudes as to their social relevance have changed very little in the last 100 years. And we might be well advised to remember that science can as easily act as an ally to existing institutions and justify pernicious prejudices – racism, sexism, homophobia, and class disparity to name but a few – as it can produce wondrous, beautiful, and beneficial fruits in the service of a better world where these prejudices could be overcome. Many of us still hold on to ambitions that we can build ‘perfect’ people and genetically engineer ‘perfect’ societies, yet do so without much pause as to how we measure what ‘perfect’ is, and what horrendous and inhuman costs this aspiration towards perfection might incur. Many traits we value, and are wont to consider ‘perfect,’ are historically plastic. And “genes are not rigid pieces of information”[5] that necessarily lead to a particular behavioral trait. If our definitions of many behavioral traits we study today are known to be highly subjective, then our attempts at studying the genetics behind them is likely to remain on precariously shifting grounds.

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[1] Galton, Francis. Inquiries into the Human Faculty. London: Macmillan, 1883, pp. 24-5.
[2] Allen, Garland, “The Social and Economic Origins of Genetic Determinism: A Case History of the American Eugenics Movement, 1900-1940 and its Lessons for Today.” Genetica, 99:77-88. 1997, pg. 85.
[3] Allen, 87.
[4] Allen, 85.
[5] Allen, 87.