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What’s So Bad About Eugenics?

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Surprisingly, I have been asked that question on more than one occasion. I have had students ask me during class and once after a conference presentation. The last time I was confronted with this question was in my summer class, when an earnest young student asked, “If you take the racial prejudice out, what’s wrong with eugenics?” The student continued to press his point: “What’s wrong with a program that has the goal of improving the human race and now that genetics is so advanced, surely we could make sure that people have the best genes and traits. Wouldn’t that make for a healthier, happier population?”  Hmm. So much to think about here.  A program that uses cutting edge science to improve the human race by ensuring that individuals have only the best genes or traits so that people will be healthy and happy? Indeed, what is so bad about that? Who can say, “NO” to having the best genes, being healthy, and being happy? This is precisely the reason why eugenics was fairly easy “to sell” in the early twentieth century. For the sake of brevity, let’s set aside the vast complexity of the science of genetics and pretend that we could just pluck out the “bad” genes and insert the “good” ones on DNA strands so that in a few generations we might have a utopian world filled with people swimming in the luxurious, healthy, and happy waters of the “best” gene pool.  At this point, I have two questions. What determines which genes or traits are the “best,” and in this program of improving the human race, who makes the determination of which ones are the best? Me? You? Or what about a panel of experts? Afterall, we are talking about using science and a panel of objective scientific experts seems like an appropriate choice to make these important decisions. Or is it? While we ponder that for a moment, let’s take a look back.

In 1910 Charles Davenport, a Harvard-educated biologist and zoologist, opened the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. The ERO became a major research laboratory for the study of heredity and evolution of human beings and Davenport became one of the leadings experts on eugenics and genetics. Davenport envisioned a warehouse of “human pedigrees” of all families with thousands of traits sorted, categorized, and stored for possible “use by the state … in its work of regulating human reproduction.”[1] Between 1910 and 1924, the Eugenics Record Office trained 258 women and men as field workers.[2] These college-educated field workers, most of whom held degrees in various fields of science and medicine, trained at the ERO to become experts in the cutting-edge science of eugenics. They were tasked with identifying, sorting, and tracing the so-called “defective” traits of individuals and their families to construct family pedigrees. These traits were then incorporated into Davenport’s Trait Book.

The Trait Book was, in part, based on traits or “defects” observed by field workers and reported back to the ERO. Davenport wanted to amass and categorize every possible human trait—all of which he considered to be inherited—and he wanted all traits to be indexed as part of a standardized list to provide a common eugenics vocabulary for the use of those attempting the analysis of bodies and behaviors. Davenport wanted any physical, mental, behavioral, or social traits accurately documented. He believed it was necessary to be as specific as possible when documenting a trait. Davenport organized all traits into a complicated numerical system with each specific trait indexed and given a corresponding number. For example, if a field worker transcribed her interview notes into a report to send to the ERO and wanted to save space, she might jot down the following information for one female interviewee: 09791, 3135, 2281, 317921, 42114, 42496. These codes served to construct the following respectively: this woman was an artificial flower-maker, a moral imbecile with a high forehead, easily offended, had a love of colors, and was a stamp collector.[3] For this hypothetical woman, being labeled a “moral imbecile” became part of her medicalized identity, which meant being categorized as part of the unfit mass of the population. Thus, when individual case histories or pedigrees were created and these heritable “tainted” traits were included, individuals were deemed as “defective” or “diseased” and would be judged as unfit to reproduce.

How did eugenics field workers make these assessments? Field workers assessed their subjects and then constructed a biography, followed by a family pedigree. They began with visual observations of individuals, their family members, and their environment. Next, they conducted interviews with individuals and their families, neighbors, teachers, family physicians, or anyone else who claimed to have knowledge of the individual in question. All of the information collected went into the labeling of an individual as “fit” or “unfit.” More than mere descriptive adjectives, these labels essentially became part of an individual’s assigned identity because field workers gave labels currency by framing them within the medical-scientific discourse of eugenics and health. For example, one field worker documented that the subject of her inquiry was “noticeably defective to the casual observer,” and she “looked stupid.” Furthermore, noted the field worker, the young woman was “immoral and feebleminded” and overall, her appearance mirrored her home—both were “dirty and slovenly.” Another field worker noted that a woman was a “tall, big-boned girl with … large conspicuous teeth.” In addition, she had also reportedly been “loose with all the boys” and “wanted to be on the street at all hours of the night with them.”[4] These young women, determined to possess “defective” traits, were labeled unfit.

Now, it’s easy to look back and dismiss all of this as shoddy or pseudo-science that could never be repeated because of the scientific knowledge available today. However, at the time this was cutting-edge science based on the professional assessments of experts. As the field of genetics advanced, the science of eugenics was proven flawed because it was over simplistic. The ERO closed its doors permanently on December 31, 1939.  It seemed as if Davenport’s dream of establishing a warehouse of genetic information had died with the ERO closing. Eugenic ideology regarding the improvement of society through science continues to persist. Flash forward to 2008. On April 24, 2008 the president signed into law an amendment to the Public Health Service Act, the Newborn Screening Saves Lives Act. In a nutshell, this law includes provisions for the screening, counseling, or health care services to newborns and children at risk for heritable disorders by individuals with expertise in ethics and infectious diseases who have worked and published material in the area of newborn screening. It also provides for educational services, follow-up treatments, and specialty services.[5] While this bill and its appropriations can most definitely serve to save lives, it has also been called the “National DNA Warehouse” law because it allows for the blood taken for this program to become the property of the government and there is no consent required. In essence, DNA taken from newborns at birth becomes government property to do with what they wish—including genetic research. The blood is taken under the auspices of public health measures to provide medical services related to genetic disorders, although with no consent needed to conduct other genetic studies with the blood, the door remains wide open as how the warehoused DNA can be used in the future.

Another current-day reminder of Charles Davenport’s Trait Book is the Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man (OMIM) catalogue. This is a large, searchable, up-to-date database of human genes, genetic traits, and disorders. Each OMIM record contains bibliographic references and a summary of the scientific literature describing what is known about a particular gene, trait, or disorder. The following behavioral traits are included in OMIM and in the Trait Book: arm folding, alcoholism, and homosexuality. If Davenport had had access to the internet, this is what the Trait Book most probably would have looked like. For a comparative example, the reference number for “arm folding” in the OMIM is 107850, in the Trait Book, 0482; “alcoholism” in the OMIM is 103780, in the Trait Book, 0856; and “homosexuality” in the OMIM is 306995, in the Trait Book, 31761.[6] This online catalogue is a collection of behavioral characteristics that could possibly be inherited. And while the site states that, “no single gene determines a particular behavior,” because behaviors are “complex traits involving multiple genes that are affected by a variety of other factors,”[7] this fact often gets overlooked in media reports hyping scientific breakthroughs on gene function.

While the advancements in the science of genetics have been truly remarkable and offer hope to those with genetic diseases or disorders, we should be mindful about research and programs designed to “improve” individuals through the sorting of genetic traits. This process can easily be transposed into value-laden binary categories of “good” or “normal” traits versus “bad” or “abnormal” ones. So, the ever-important question remains, of course, of who decides what genes (traits) are “better” and what, or whose, purposes are served in making these distinctions.


Work Cited

[1] Eugenical News 3 (July 1918): 53-54.

[2] Amy Sue Bix, “Experiences and Voices of Eugenics Field-Workers: ‘Women’s Work’ in Biology,” Social Studies of Science 27 (August 1997).

[3] Charles Davenport, The Trait Book, 2nd ed., (Cold Spring Harbor: Eugenics Record Office, 1919).

[4] Charles Davenport Papers, Eugenics Record Office Records, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

[5] Newborn Screening Saves Lives Act of 2007, Senate 1858, 110 Cong., Congressional Record, http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/110/s1858.

[6] “Behavioral Genetics,” The Human Genome Project Information. http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/elsi/behavior.shtml; Charles Davenport, Trait Book (New York: Cold Spring Harbor, 1912), 23, 46, 48.

[7] Behavioral Genetics,” The Human Genome Project Information. http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/elsi/behavior.shtml.

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