Where Science Meets Imagination: The Dark History of Eugenics | Genetics

IIt’s an anomaly in history that the foundations of modern biology — and, as a consequence, some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century — have to rely so heavily on peas. Bring your mind back to school biology, and Gregor Mendel, whose 200th birthday we’re celebrating next month. Although Mendel has always been described as a monk, his enormous legacy is not in Augustinian theology, but in mainstream genetics.

In the mid-19th century, Mendel (whose real name was Johann-Gregor was his Augustinian name) bred more than 28,000 pea plants, long crossed with short wrinkled seeds with soft, purple-white flowers. What he found in that forest of pea plants was that these traits separated in the offspring, did not mix, but reappeared in predictable proportions. What Mendel discovered are the rules of inheritance. Characteristics are inherited in separate units – what we now call genes – and the way these units flow through lineages follows elegant mathematical patterns.

These rules are taught in every high school as an essential part of how we understand basic biology – genes, DNA, and evolution. We know this history too, it’s a good story. Mendel’s work, published in 1866, was being completed at the same time that Darwin was formulating his greatest ideas. But this genius Moravian monk was ignored until both men died, only to be discovered at the beginning of the new century, which superseded Darwinian evolution with Mendelian genetics, and gave birth to the era of modern biology.

But there is a lesser known story that shaped the course of the twentieth century in a different way. The origins of genetics are closely related to eugenics. Since Plato suggested the pairing of “high-quality” parents, and Plutarch described Spartan adequacy, principles of population control have been present, perhaps in all cultures. But in a time of Victorian industrialization, with an ever-expanding working class, and in the wake of Darwinian evolution, Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, added scientific and statistical luster to the deliberate sculpting of society, calling it eugenics. . It was a political ideology that took hold of the new and immature science of development, and became one of the defining and most lethal ideas of the twentieth century.

The United Kingdom entered into a cycle of involuntary sterilization of “undesirables” as legislation, something Churchill had vigorously advocated for in his years in the Asquith government, but which MP Josiah Wedgwood successfully resisted. Despite this, in the United States, eugenics policies had been enacted since 1907 and over the course of most of the following century in 31 states an estimated 80,000 people were sterilized by the state in the name of purification.

American eugenics was faithfully married to Mendel’s laws – although Mendel himself had nothing to do with these policies. Led by Charles Davenport—a biologist and lover of Galton—the Eugenics Registry Office was established in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, in 1910 to promote a racist and capable ideology, and to reap the origins of Americans. With this data, according to Davenport, they could prove the inheritance of desirable and defective traits, thereby purifying the American people. Thus they can fight the perceived threat of The Great Substitution Theory Confronting White America: Undesirable people, with their unbridled fertility, will spread inferior genes, and the ruling classes will be wiped out.

Pedigree was a major part of the eugenics movement in the United States, and Davenport had held firmly to the Mendelian legacy to explain all sorts of human weaknesses: alcoholism, criminality, and mental (and oddly enough, a tendency to sail) mental weakness. He wrote in 1910 that heredity “stands as one great hope of the human race; savior from mystery, poverty, disease, and immorality,” and like all ardent eugenicists, he attributed the inheritance of these complex traits to genes—nature over nurture. From Davenport we have the first genetic studies of Huntington’s disease, which is strictly governed by Mendelian inheritance, and eye color, which, despite what we still study in schools, does not.

Deborah Calicak, the young woman whose family history Henry Goddard fabricated to support his theories.
Deborah Calicak, the young woman whose family history Henry Goddard fabricated to support his theories. Photo: Macmillan & Co. Publishing. 1912

A certain anecdote stands out from this era. Psychologist Henry Goddard has been studying a girl with the pseudonym Deborah Kalicak at his New Jersey clinic since she was eight years old. He described her as “a weak-minded, high-ranking, stupid, hurt, the kind of girl or woman who would fill our reforms.” In order to trace the origin of her problems, Goddard produced a detailed breed of Kalikaks. He is identified as the founder of this dynasty, Martin Calicac, who stopped on his way home from the War of Independence to his kind Quaker wife to impregnate a “low-minded but attractive waitress”, with whom he had no other contact.

In Goddard’s influential 1912 book, The Kalikak family: a study in the genetics of poor thinking, follows a perfect Mendelian pattern of good and bad traits. The legal family was hugely successful, while his bastard offspring spawned a clan of criminals and crippled “dissidents”, eventually concluding with Deborah. With this, Goddard concluded that the weakness of the Kaliac mentality is encoded in a gene, and a single unit of defective inheritance is passed down from generation to generation, just as in Mendel’s peas.

This contemporary geneticist would despise this for multiple reasons. The first was the term ‘mindfull’, which was an ambiguous and pseudopsychiatric diagnosis that we assume included a wide range of existing clinical conditions. We might also reject his Mendelian conclusion on the grounds that complex mental disorders rarely have a single genetic root, and are always strongly influenced by the environment. The presence of a particular gene will not determine the outcome of the trait, although it may contribute to its likelihood.

This is a modern understanding of the extreme complexity of the human genome, which is perhaps the richest data set in the known universe. But accurate contemporary analysis is not required even in the case of Kallikak, because the waiter was not present at all.

The Kalikak family tree, from a 1955 textbook.
The Kalikak family tree, from a 1955 textbook. Photography: Macmillan & Co Publishing 1912

Martin Calicak’s legitimate family was already full of famous achievements – men of medicine, law, and clergy. But Goddard invented the illegitimate branch, mistakenly identifying an unrelated man named John Wolverton as the illegitimate son of Kalikak, and his waitress mother’s dream. There were people with disabilities among Wolverton’s grandchildren, but the photographs in Goddard’s book show some children with facial features linked to fetal alcohol syndrome, a condition that is determined not entirely by genetic inheritance, but by exposure to high levels of alcohol in the womb. Although the family tree is completely wrong, this case study remained in psychology textbooks until the 1950s as a model for human legacy, and a justification for forced sterilization. The Kalikak family became the founding legend of American eugenics.

The German eugenics movement had also begun at the beginning of the 20th century, and grew steadily during the years of the Weimar Republic. By the time of the rise of the Third Reich, principles such as Lebensunwerteto build Life is not worthy of lifeIt was an essential part of the national eugenics ideology to purify the northern stock of the German people. One of the first pieces of legislation passed after Hitler took power in 1933 was the Prevention of Offspring With Hereditary Diseases Act, which required sterilization of people with schizophrenia, deafness, blindness, epilepsy, Huntington’s disease, and other conditions considered. It is clearly hereditary. As with the stubborn but misguided American grip on genetics, most of these conditions are not straightforward Mendelian, and in one case where the disease is — Huntington’s — the disease becomes circulating after childbearing age. Sterilization had no effect on heredity.

The development of Nazi eugenics programs was supported intellectually and financially by American eugenicists, who were falsely obsessed with finding single Mendelian genes for complex traits, and mapping them to lineage. In 1935, he released a short propaganda film Das Erb (Inheritance) issued in Germany. In it, a young scientist noticed two stag beetles. Confused, she consults her professor, who sits on her to explain Darwin’s struggle for life – and shows her a movie about a cat catching a bird, roosters arguing. Suddenly she realized it and cried out with a laughing voice: “Animals pursue their own racial policies!”

The muddled propaganda is clear: Nature cleanses the weak, and we must too.

Still image from the 1935 Nazi propaganda film Das Erbe, which mixes natural selection with eugenics.
Still image from the 1935 Nazi propaganda film Das Erbe, which mixes natural selection with eugenics. Photo: YouTube / ORF2

The film then shows the origin of the hound, the kind you might get from the Kennel Club today. Next, an animation of the Kallikaks family tree is shown, on one side Erbgesunde Frau On the other hand, EarnCrank FrowGenetically healthy and genetically defective women. On the sick side, the attitudes of all the miscreants and perverts come to life to show the flow of undesirables through the generations, the voiceover explains. Das Erb It was a film to promote public acceptance of Nazi eugenics laws, and what follows exactly the fictional Kalikak family tree is its sure legacy: shocking images of seriously disabled people in asylums, followed by a healthy Nazi rally, and a message from Hitler: “He who is physically and mentally unsound and unworthy, It is not permissible for him to perpetuate his suffering in the body of his child.” Nearly 400,000 people have been sterilized under this policy. The scientific lie became a pillar of genocide in just 20 years.

Science has been and always will be politicized. People turn to the power of science to justify their ideologies. Today, we see the same pattern, but with new genes. After the school shooting in Buffalo in May, there was heated debate in the genetics communities, with the killer citing specific academic work in his dysfunctional manifesto, legitimate papers on the genes of intelligence and the genetic basis of Jewish ancestry, along with persistent pseudoscience of the great alternative.

Science strives to be apolitical, to transcend the dirty realms of politics and the psychological prejudices that burden us. But all new scientific discoveries are within the culture they were born into, and they are always open to abuse. This does not mean that we should ignore and accept that our scientific endeavours are imperfect and can be injected with a nefarious purpose, nor does it mean that we should censor academic research.

But we must know our history. We teach a version of genetics that can be easily simplified to the point of error. To some extent, the “laws” of biology tend to be fraught with qualifications, complexities, and caveats. biology It is messy by nature, and evolution preserves what works rather than what is simple. In the simplicity of Mendel’s peas there is a flag that can be easily coaxed to choose, grouped into a racist and fascist ideology, as was the case in the United States, in Nazi Germany and in dozens of other countries. Knowing our history is vaccinating ourselves against its repetition.

  • The Control: The Dark History and Disturbing Present of Eugenics By Adam Rutherford Posted by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£12.99). to support guardian And the observer Request your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply