Eugenics: I. Historical Aspects

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The word "eugenics" was coined in 1883 by the English scientist Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin and a pioneer in the mathematical treatment of biological inheritance. Galton took the word from a Greek root meaning "good in birth" or "noble in heredity." He intended the term to denote the "science" of improving human stock by giving the "more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable" (Kevles, p. ix).

The idea of eugenics dated back at least to Plato, and discussion of actually achieving human biological melioration had been boosted by the Enlightenment. In Galton's day, the science of genetics had not yet emerged: Gregor Mendel's 1865 paper, the foundation of that discipline, was not only unappreciated but also generally unnoticed by the scientific community. Nevertheless, Darwin's theory of evolution taught that species did change as a result of natural selection, and it was well known that through artificial selection farmers and flower fanciers could obtain permanent breeds of animals and plants strong in particular characters. Galton thus supposed that the human race could be similarly improved—that through eugenics, human beings could take charge of their own evolution.

The idea of human biological improvement was slow to gather public support, but after the turn of the twentieth century, eugenics movements emerged in many countries. Eugenicists everywhere shared Galton's understanding that people might be improved in two complementary ways—to use Galton's language, by getting rid of the "undesirables" and by multiplying the "desirables" (Kevles, p. 3). They spoke of "positive" and "negative" eugenics. Positive eugenics aimed to foster greater representation in a society of people whom eugenicists considered socially valuable. Negative eugenics sought to encourage the socially unworthy to breed less or, better yet, not at all.

How positive or negative ends were to be achieved depended heavily on which theory of human biology people brought to the eugenics movement. Many eugenicists, particularly in the United States, Britain, and Germany, believed that human beings were determined almost entirely by their germ plasm, which was passed from one generation to the next and overwhelmed environmental influences in shaping human development. Their belief was reinforced by the rediscovery, in 1900, of Mendel's theory that the biological makeup of organisms was determined by certain "factors," which were later identified with genes and were held to account for a wide array of human traits, both physical and behavioral, "good" as well as "bad."

In the first third of the twentieth century, eugenics drew the support of a number of leading biologists, not only in the United States and western Europe but also in the Soviet Union, Latin America, and elsewhere. Many of these biologists came to the creed from the practice of evolutionary biology, which they extrapolated to the Galtonian idea of taking charge of human evolution. One of the most influential was Charles B. Davenport, the head of the Station for Experimental Evolution, a part of the Carnegie Institution of Washington and located at Cold Spring Harbor, New York, where Davenport established the Eugenics Record Office. Other eugenic enthusiasts included, in the United States, the biologists Raymond Pearl, Herbert S. Jennings, Edwin Grant Conklin, William E. Castle, Edward M. East, and Herman Muller; in Britain, F. A. E. Crew, Ronald A. Fisher, and J. B. S. Haldane; and in Germany, Fritz Lenz, who held the chair of racial hygiene in Munich, and Otmar von Verschuer.

Some eugenicists, notably in France, assumed that biological organisms, including human beings, were formed primarily by their environments, physical as well as cultural. Like the early-nineteenth-century biologist Jean Baptiste Lamarck, they contended that environmental influences might even reconfigure hereditary material. Environmentalists were mainly interested in positive eugenics, contending that more attention to factors such as nutrition, medical care, education, and clean play would, by improving the young, better the human race. Some urged that the improvement should begin when children were in the womb, through sound prenatal care. The pregnant mother should avoid toxic substances, such as alcohol. She might even expose herself, for the sake of her fetus, to cultural enrichment, such as fine plays and concerts.

Individuals with good genes were assumed to be easily recognizable from their intelligence and character. Those with bad genes had to be ferreted out. For the purpose of identifying such genes, in the early twentieth century eugenics gave rise to the fist programs of research in human heredity, which were pursued in both state-supported and private laboratories established to develop eugenically useful knowledge. The Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor was typical of these institutions; so were the Galton Laboratory for National Eugenics at University College (London), whose first director was the statistician and population biologist Karl Pearson, and the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics in Berlin, which was directed by the anthropologist Eugen Fischer. Staff at or affiliated with these laboratories gathered information bearing on human heredity by examining medical records or conducting extended family studies. Often they relied on field workers to construct trait pedigrees in selected populations—say, the residents of a rural community—on the basis of interviews and the examination of genealogical records. An important feature of German eugenic science was the study of twins.

However, social prejudices as well as dreams pervaded eugenic research, just as they did all of eugenics. Eugenic studies claimed to reveal that criminality, prostitution, and mental deficiency (which was commonly termed "feeblemindedness") were the products of bad genes. They concluded that socially desirable traits were associated with the "races" of northern Europe, especially the Nordic "race," and that undesirable ones were identified with those of eastern and southern Europe.

Eugenics entailed as many meanings as did terms such as "social adequacy" and "character." Indeed, eugenics mirrored a broad range of social attitudes, many of them centered on the role in society of women, since they were indispensable to the bearing of children. On the one hand, positive eugenicists of all stripes argued against the use of birth control or entrance into the work force of middle-class women, on grounds that any decline in their devotion to reproductive duties would lead to "race suicide." On the other hand, social radicals appealed to eugenics to justify the sexual emancipation of women. They contended that if contraception were freely available, women could pursue sexual pleasure with whomever they wished, without regard to whether a male partner was eugenically promising as a father. If and when a woman decided to become pregnant, then her choice of the father could focus on the production of a high-quality child. Sex for pleasure would thus be divorced from sex for eugenic reproduction.

In practice, little was done for positive eugenics, though eugenic claims did figure in the advent of family-allowance policies in Britain and Germany during the 1930s, and positive eugenic themes were certainly implied in the "Fitter Family" competitions that were a standard feature of eugenic programs held at state fairs in America during the 1920s. In the interest of negative eugenics, germ-plasm determinists insisted that "socially inadequate" people should be discouraged or prevented from reproducing themselves by urging or compelling them to undergo sterilization. They also argued for laws restricting marriage and immigration to their countries, in order to keep out genetically undesirable people.

In the United States, eugenicists helped obtain passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, which sharply reduced eastern and southern European immigration to the United States. By the late 1920s, some two dozen American states had enacted eugenic sterilization laws. The laws were declared constitutional in the 1927 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Buck v. Bell, in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes delivered the opinion that three generations of imbeciles are enough. The leading state in this endeavor was California, which as of 1933 had subjected more people to eugenic sterilization than had all other states of the union combined (Kevles).

At the time, a number of biologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and others increasingly criticized eugenic doctrines, contending that social deviancy is primarily the product of a disadvantageous social environment—notably, for example, of poverty and illiteracy—rather than of genes, and that apparent racial differences were not biological but cultural, the product of ethnicity rather than of germ plasm. In 1930, in the papal encyclical Casti connubii, the Roman Catholic church officially opposed eugenics, along with birth control. By the 1930s, a coalition of critics had helped bring a halt in most countries to the attempts of eugenicists to gain significant social and political influence. An exception to this tendency was Germany, where eugenics reached its apogee of power during the Nazi regime. Hundreds of thousands of people were sterilized for negative eugenic reasons and scientific authority joined with social hatred to send millions of the "racially unfit" to the gas chambers. Verschuer trained doctors for the SS in the intricacies of racial hygiene, and he analyzed data and specimens obtained in the concentration camps. In the years after World War II, eugenics became a dirty word.

In the 1930s, attempts to sanitize eugenics had been made by various British and American biologists. They wanted to maintain Galton's idea of human biological improvement while rejecting the social prejudice that had pervaded the conception. They realized that sound eugenics would have to rest on a solid science of human genetics, one that scrupulously rejected social bias and weighed the respective roles of biology and environment, of nature and nurture, in the making of the human animal. They succeeded in laying the foundation for such a science of human genetics, and that field made great strides in the following decades.

The advances in human genetics boosted the new field of genetic counseling, which provided prospective parents with advice about what their risk might be of bearing a child with a genetic disorder. In the 1950s, the early years of such counseling, some geneticists had sought to turn the practice to eugenic advantage—to reduce the incidence of genetic disease in the population, and by extension to reduce the frequency of deleterious genes in what population geneticists were coming to call the human gene pool. To that end, some claimed that it was the counselor's duty not simply to inform a couple about the possible genetic outcome of their union but also to instruct them whether to bear children at all. By the end of the 1950s, however, the informal standards of practice in genetic counseling were strongly against eugenically oriented advice—that is, advice aimed at the welfare of the gene pool rather than of the family. The standards had it that no counselor had the right to tell a couple not to have a child, even for the sake of the couple's welfare.

At first, genetic counseling could draw only on family histories and could tell parents nothing more than the odds that they might conceive a child with a recessive or dominant disease or abnormality. Since the 1960s, as the result of amniocentesis and advances in human biochemical and chromosomal genetics, genetic counseling has become coupled to technical analyses that can identify whether a prospective parent actually carries a deleterious gene and can determine prenatally whether a fetus truly suffers from a selection of genetic and chromosomal diseases or disorders. If the fetus is found to be at such a disadvantage, the parents have the option to abort—at least in countries where abortion is legal, which in 1993 included the United States, Great Britain, and France.

Reproductive selection on a genetic basis—by screening of parents, abortion of fetuses, or both—has found support among liberal religious groups, secular ethicists, and many feminists. They regard it as enlarging women's freedom to control their lives and as contributing to family wellbeing. However, reproductive selection has been contested by the Roman Catholic church and fundamentalist Protestants, mainly because of their opposition to abortion for any reason. Some feminists have interpreted such selection as yet another among several recent innovations in reproductive technology—for example, in vitro fertilization—that threaten to reduce women to mere reproductive machines in a patriarchal social order. Others have pointed to the heavy emotional and familial burdens placed upon women by prenatal diagnosis that reveals a fetus with a genetic disease or disorder. Genetic selection also has raised apprehensions among some members of minority groups and among disabled persons that it will lead to a revival of negative eugenics that may affect them disproportionately. Handicapped people and their advocates have attacked the attitude that a newly conceived child with a genetic affliction merits abortion, calling it a stigmatization of the living who have the ailment and the expression of a eugenics mentality (Stanworth; Rothman, 1986, 1989; Duster; Cowan).

The Human Genome Project

These fears have been exacerbated by the Human Genome Project, the multinational effort, begun in the late 1980s, to obtain the sequence of all the DNA in the human genome. Once the complete sequence is obtained, it will in principle be easy to identify individuals with deleterious genes of a physical (or presumptively antisocial) type, and the state may intervene in reproductive behavior so as to discourage the transmission of these genes in the population. Such a policy could work special injury upon certain minority groups—for example, people of African origin, since the recessive gene for sickle-cell anemia occurs among them with comparatively high frequency. It could also threaten the disabled, since the only "therapy" currently available for most genetic or chromosomal diseases or disorders is abortion, and since identifying such fetuses as candidates for the procedure stigmatizes people who have been born with the handicap. In 1988, China's Gansu Province adopted a eugenic law that would—so the authorities said—improve population quality by banning the marriages of mentally retarded people unless they first submit to sterilization. Such laws have been adopted in other provinces and in 1991 were endorsed by Prime Minister Li Peng.

Negative eugenic intentions appeared to lie behind a July 1988 proposal from the European Commission for the creation of a human genome project in the European Community. Called a health measure, the proposal was entitled "Predictive Medicine: Human Genome Analysis." Its rationale rested on a simple syllogism—that many diseases result from interactions of genes and environment; that it would be impossible to remove all the environmental culprits from society; and that, hence, individuals could be better defended against disease by identifying their genetic predispositions to fall ill. According to the summary of the proposal: "Predictive Medicine seeks to protect individuals from the kinds of illnesses to which they are genetically most vulnerable and, where appropriate, to prevent the transmission of the genetic susceptibilities to the next generation." In the view of the European Commission, the genome proposal would make Europe more competitive—indirectly, by helping to slow the rate of increase in health expenditures; directly, by strengthening its scientific and technological base (Commission of the European Community).

Economics may well prove to be a powerful incentive to a new negative eugenics. In the United States, the more that healthcare becomes a public responsibility, paid for through the tax system, and the more expensive this care becomes, the greater the possibility that taxpayers will rebel against paying for the care of those whose genetic makeup dooms them to severe disease or disability. Even in countries with national health systems, public officials might feel pressure to encourage, or even to compel, people not to bring genetically affected children into the world—not for the sake of the gene pool but in the interest of keeping public health costs down.

However, a number of factors are likely to offset a broad-based revival of negative eugenics. Eugenics profits from authoritarianism—indeed, almost requires it. The institutions of political democracy may not have been robust enough to resist altogether the violations of civil liberties characteristic of the early eugenics movement, but they did contest them effectively in many places. The British government refused to pass eugenic sterilization laws. So did many American states; and where they were enacted, they were often unenforced. Awareness of the barbarities and cruelties of state-sponsored eugenics in the past has tended to set most geneticists and the public at large against such programs. Moreover, persons with handicaps or diseases are politically empowered, as are minority groups, to a degree that they were not in the early twentieth century. They may not be sufficiently empowered to counter all quasi-eugenic threats to themselves, but they are politically positioned, with allies in the media, the medical profession, and elsewhere, including the Roman Catholic church, to block or at least to hinder eugenic proposals that might affect them.

The European Commission's proposal for a human genome project provoked the emergence of an antieugenic coalition in the European Parliament that was led by Benedikt Härlin, a member of the West German Green Party. The Greens had helped impose severe restrictions on biotechnology in West Germany and raised objections to human genome research on grounds that it might lead to a recrudescence of Nazi biological policies. Guided by Härlin, the European Parliament's Committee on Energy, Research and Technology raised a red flag against the genome project as an enterprise in preventive medicine. It reminded the European Community that in the past, eugenic ideas had led to "horrific consequences" and declared that "clear pointers to eugenic tendencies and goals" inhered in the intention of protecting people from contracting and transmitting genetic diseases or conditions. The application of human genetic information for such purposes would almost always involve decisions—fundamentally eugenic ones—about what are "normal and abnormal, acceptable and unacceptable, viable and non-viable forms of the genetic make-up of individual human beings before and after birth." The Härlin Report also warned that the new biological and reproductive technologies could make for a "modern test tube eugenics," a eugenics all the more insidious because it could disguise more easily than its cruder ancestors "an even more radical and totalitarian form of 'biopolitics'" (European Parliament, Committee on Energy, Research, and Technology, pp. 23–28).

The Härlin Report urged thirty-eight amendments to the European Commission's proposal, including the complete excision of the phrase "predictive medicine" from the text. As a result of the report, which won support not only from German Greens but also from conservatives on both sides of the English Channel, including German Catholics, the European Commission produced a modified proposal that accepted the thrust of the amendments and even the language of a number of them. The new proposal called for a three-year program of human genome analysis as such, without regard to predictive medicine, and committed the European Community in a variety of ways—most notably, by prohibiting human germ line research and genetic intervention with human embryos—to avoid eugenic practices, prevent ethical missteps, and protect individual rights and privacy. It also promised to keep the European Parliament and the public fully informed via annual reports on the moral and legal basis of human genome research. Formally adopted in June 1990, the European Community's human genome program will cost 15 million ECU (about $17 million) over three years, with some one million ECU devoted to ethical studies (Kevles and Hood).

In the United States, apprehensions of the ethical dangers in the Human Genome Project found expression in the Congress across the political spectrum—from liberals who had long been concerned about governmental intrusion into private genetic matters to conservatives who worried that the Human Genome Project might foster increased practice of prenatal diagnosis and abortion. Among the Americans most sensitive to the eugenic hazards and the ethical challenges inherent in the project were a number of its leading scientific enthusiasts, particularly James D. Watson, the first head of the National Center for Human Genome Research, who considered it both appropriate and imperative that the American genome program stimulate study and debate about its social, ethical, and legal implications. In 1988, Watson announced that such activities would be eligible for roughly 3 percent of the National Center's budget. He told a 1989 scientific conference on the genome: "We have to be aware of the really terrible past of eugenics, where incomplete knowledge was used in a very cavalier and rather awful way, both here in the United States and in Germany. We have to reassure people that their own DNA is private and that no one else can get at it" (Kevles and Hood, pp. 34–35).

Human Genetics in a Market Economy

Despite the specter of eugenics that some see in the Human Genome Project, many observers hold that its near-term ethical challenges lie neither in private forays into human genetic improvement nor in some state-mandated program of eugenics. They lie in the grit of what the project will produce in abundance: genetic information. These challenges center on the control, diffusion, and use of that information within the context of a market economy.

The advance of human genetics and biotechnology has created the capacity for a kind of individual eugenics—families deciding what kinds of children they wish to have. At the moment, the kinds they can choose are those without certain disabilities or diseases, such as Down syndrome or Tay-Sachs disease. Although most parents would now probably prefer just a healthy baby, in the future they might be tempted by the opportunity—for example, via genetic analysis of embryos—to have improved babies, children who are likely to be more intelligent or more athletic or betterlooking (whatever such terms might mean). People may well pursue such possibilities, given the interest that some parents have shown in choosing the sex of their child or that others have shown in the administration of growth hormone to offspring they think will grow up too short. In sum, a kind of private eugenics could arise from consumer demand.

Many commentators have noted that the torrent of new human genetic information will undoubtedly pose challenges to social fairness and equity. They have emphasized that employers may seek to deny jobs to applicants with a susceptibility—or an alleged susceptibility—to disorders such as manic depression or illnesses arising from features of the workplace. For example, around 1970, it came to be feared that people with sickle-cell trait—that is, who possess one of the recessive genes for the disease—might suffer the sickling of their red-blood cells in the reduced-oxygen environment of high altitudes. Such people were unjustly prohibited from entering the Air Force Academy, were restricted to ground jobs by several major commercial air carriers, and often were charged higher premiums by insurance companies. Life and medical insurance companies may well wish to know the genomic signatures of their clients, their profile of risk for disease and death. Even national health systems might choose to ration the provision of care on the basis of genetic propensity for disease, especially to families at risk for bearing diseased children (U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment; Kevles).

In response to these threatening prospects, many analysts have contended that individual genomic information should be protected as strictly private. However, legal and insurance analysts have pointed out that insurance, and insurance premiums, depend on assessments of risk. If a client has a high genetic medical risk that is not reflected in the premium charged, then that person receives a high payout at low cost to himself or herself but at high cost to the company. The problem would be compounded if the person knows the risk—while the company does not—and purchases a large amount of insurance. In either case, the company would have to pass its increased costs to other policyholders, which is to say that high-risk policyholders would be taxing low-risk ones. Thus, insisting on a right to privacy in genetic information could well lead—at least under the largely private system of insurance that now prevails in the United States—to inequitable consequences.

American legislatures have already begun to focus on the genuine social, ethical, and policy issues that the Human Genome Project raises, particularly those concerning the use of private human genetic information. In the fall of 1991, a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee held hearings on the challenge that such information posed to insurability. About the same time, the California state legislature passed a bill banning employers, health service agencies and disability insurers from withholding jobs or protection simply because a person is a carrier of a single gene associated with disability. Although California Governor Pete Wilson vetoed the bill, it was a harbinger of the type of public policy initiatives that the genome project no doubt will increasingly call forth. The Human Genome Project, like most of human and medical genetics, is less likely to foster a drive for a new eugenics than it is to pose vexing challenges to public policy and private practices for the control and use of human genetic information.

daniel j. kevles (1995)

bibliography revised

SEE ALSO: Eugenics and Religious Law; Genetics and Human Behavior; Genetics and Human Self-Understanding; Genetics and Racial Minorities; Holocaust; Human Nature; Judaism, Bioethics in; Minorities as Research Subjects;Race and Racism; and other Eugenics subentries


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Eugenics: I. Historical Aspects

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