Engineering American society: the lesson of eugenics

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Engineering American society: the lesson of eugenics

Nature Reviews Genetics
Volume 1, November 2000
pages 153-158

David Micklos
DNA Learning Centre
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York

Elof Carlson, Professor Emeritus
State University of New York, Stony Brook

We stand at the threshold of a new century, with the whole human genome stretched out before us. Messages from science, the popular media, and the stock market suggest a world of seemingly limitless opportunities to improve human health and productivity. But at the turn of the last century, science and society faced a similar rush to exploit human genetics.  The story of eugenics—humankind’s first venture into a ‘gene age’ — holds a cautionary lesson for our current preoccupation with genes.

Eugenics was the effort to apply the principles of genetics and agricultural breeding towards improving the human race. The term “eugenics”— meaning well born —was coined in 1883 by Francis Galton, a British scientist who used data from biographical dictionaries and alumni records at Oxford and Cambridge Universities to conclude that superior intelligence and abilities were traits that could be inherited.

Most people equate eugenics with atrocities that were committed in Nazi Germany for the sake of racial purity. In this context, eugenics is easy to dismiss as purely aberrant behaviour. However, the story of eugenics in the United States is, perhaps, more important than that of Nazi Germany as a cautionary tale to take with us into our new century.  Here we describe the tale of the subtle ways in which the science of genetics was, by degrees, transformed from an agricultural experiment into a popular movement to engineer American society. The fact that eugenics flourished in the land of liberty, involved numerous prominent scientists and civic leaders, and made its intellectual home at the forerunner of the now prestigious Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory shows just how far America fell from grace during this period…

Race mixing. Laws against interracial marriage had existed in some states since colonial times, but their number increased after the Civil War. The idea that race mixing, or miscegenation, causes genetic deterioration was proposed by Joseph Arthur Gobineau and other anthropologists in the late nineteenth century. It is worth noting that eugenicists’ conception of race included the classic divisions by skin colour, as well as differences in national origin.  Most lay-eugenicists subscribed to the Biblical idea of ‘like with like’ and that the ‘half-breed’ offspring of parents from two different races were genetically inferior to the parental stock. Davenport’s compilation in 1913 showed that 29 states had laws forbidding mixed-race marriages.  Although these laws were not always enforced, heavy fines and long prison terms showed how seriously American society considered miscegenation to be at that time.

As in the case of immigration restriction, eugenicists were more than willing to provide a supposed scientific rationale for existing
racial prejudice. In his influential book, The Passing of the Great Race, Madison Grant warned that racial mixing was a social crime that would lead to the demise of white civilization. Eugenicists actively supported strengthening pre-existing laws and enacting of new ones, including the Virginia Racial Integrity Act of 1924. The Virginia Act and all other similar state laws were struck down by the United States Supreme Court in 1967 in Loving versus Commonwealth of Virginia

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