Eugenics and ‘Newgenics’ Part 2: Separating science from pseudoscience

Monday, 10 March, 2008

Eugenicists considered that they were ‘applying biology’. The image to the left, from the second international eugenics conference, shows that eugenics was considered to have grown out of many fields of biology, plus some other fields of science and pseudoscience. Unfortunately, a lot of the time they got the biology completely wrong. As a result, many of the eugenic policies and actions were completely misguided, in addition to being morally unjustifiable.

The basic premise of eugenics – that humans could consciously guide their evolution – turned out to be correct. Even before the eugenics movement started, Gregor Mendel had bred his pea plants, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace had simultaneously expounded on a theory of evolution by natural selection and Thomas Henry Huxley had noted that it applied to humans as well as other life-forms. The past 150 years could have proved them all to be wrong, but the evidence for human evolution has grown to the stage where we can accept it as a fact. Even those who believe that humans were created separately from animals by a divine act of a designer must still accept that humans can indeed alter which genes are present in the population, just as could be done with animals and plants.

Though human evolution was known in the late 19th century and early 20th century, it wasn’t known was which characteristics were hereditary. DNA’s role in hereditary was not to be discovered until 1953, and the ability to sequence genes would not be feasible until 1977. In plants and short-lived animals, one could test heritability of a trait by mating experiments to see if a trait was passed on to the next few generations. But in humans, generations were so long that eugenicists came to rely heavily on historical records such as genealogies and prejudicial generalisations.

An obvious problem with trying to pinpoint which characteristics are inherited comes from the fact that the family environment and situation is often inherited too, and can have a profound impact on a person’s characteristics. In his recent work Babies by Design, Ronald M. Green writes of this thus:

[C]ontributing to the eugenic slide into tyranny was the bad, often harebrained science that underlay most eugenics. […] Any trait that ran in families was assumed to be inherited. Some examples of this radical simplification and confusion are amusing, like a study published in 1919 by Charles Davenport, head of the Eugenics Records Office and one of the leaders of the American eugenics movement, that claimed to have identified an inherited trait predisposing men to become naval officers. Davenport coined the term “thalassophilia” to describe this inherited “love of the sea.” He believed that it was a “sex-limited” (X-linked) trait found only in men. Of course, he failed to take into account two circumstances: that sons of naval officers often grew up in a seafaring environment and that women were traditionally barred from the navy.

Such reasoning was common for both negative characteristics, like vagrancy, alcoholism and prostitution, and positive characteristics, such as musical talent, literacy and adherence to traditional religious beliefs. Quite simply, due to the effects of upbringing and socioeconomic situation, the inheritance of a trait cannot be confirmed on this basis alone (though it is a good start – broken legs do not even seem to run in families, so we can safely conclude it is not being inherited). For many though, family history was not recorded, and so eugenicists ultimately just guessed based solely on how they looked, sounded or hailed from.

Presupposing a person’s inheritable characteristics based on their race or physical appearance was one of the major scientific flaws in eugenics. In almost all countries during the early 19th century, those from Nordic backgrounds were considered, by those very same people, to be superior in character to other races. Eugenics provided an application for the racism and xenophobia of the time, with scientific justifications being created to support them. Today, we know that some allelic combinations, such as those for certain skin complexions, facial structures and body morphologies, are roughly clustered together in the human population. However, there is so much genetic variability in humankind that discrete groups like “races” can be said to be non-existent (or at least valid only as very limited approximations). Therefore, even if one could say that some allele, such as the mutant delta-32 form of the chemokine (C-C motif) receptor 5 (CCR5) gene that effects (not a grammatical error) HIV immunity, is prevalent in Europeans, it does not mean that any given European person has that allele nor that any given Asian or African person does not. Even if an allele is present in 99.99% of a population, one cannot say for sure that it is present in a given person. To do so would be ignoring the real possibility of exceptions, thus the fallacious logic of ‘a dicto simpliciter ad dictum secundum quid‘ – Latin for ‘a saying taken too simply (i.e. an general statement) to a saying of what is (i.e. a specific case)’. Therefore, racial discrimination is at least scientifically wrong (the moral problems with it are being left until later).

Therefore, even though the eugenicists were correct about the ability for humans to guide the evolution of a population to a better end result, they did so too hastily and were too reliant on cultural prejudices to guide their actions instead of scientific evidence. But if the eugenicists had their science completely correct, would they then have been right (in a moral sense) to do what they did? I do not believe so – the explanation as to why will be elucidated in the next part of this series.

Part of a Four Part Blog Series:


One comment

  1. Reblogged this on Passive Aggressive Raven.

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