Genetics research reignites debate over eugenics

Line between science and ideology is at center of DNA questions

Pennsylvania

March 05, 2004|By Marie McCullough | Marie McCullough,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA -- In the 1920s and 1930s, Americans were swept up in a movement that exhorted them to get fit.

But junk food and flab were not the problems.

Rather, the culprits were "unfit human traits such as feeblemindedness, criminality, insanity, alcoholism [and] pauperism," as a 1929 Kansas state fair exhibit proclaimed. Americans were urged to rid themselves of these evils through selective breeding, sterilization, segregation and restrictions on marriage and immigration.

In the annals of U.S. history, the eugenics movement stands out, both for its virulence and weirdness. People at all levels -- including scientists, lawmakers, clergymen, and Supreme Court justices -- firmly believed theories of heredity that were simplistic and silly.

Today, eugenics has been discredited as a shameful pseudo-science. Yet modern research into genetics and heredity touches some of the same controversial issues. Cloning, genetic testing, embryo selection and other technologies are reigniting ethical debates about social engineering, genetic tampering and human worth.

"The question is no longer whether we will practice eugenics. We already do," Christine Rosen, of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington wrote recently in New Atlantis magazine. "The question is: Which forms of eugenics will we tolerate and how much will we allow the practice of eugenics to expand?"

Professor's view

"If we are not to repeat the errors of the past, we will need to examine modern eugenic visions with intellectual rigor," University of Maryland education professor Steve Selden wrote.

In seeking perspective, Selden and other historians have turned to the American Philosophical Society, the Philadelphia nonprofit scholarly organization founded by Benjamin Franklin.

The stately building on South 5th Street in Philadelphia houses the records of the American Eugenics Society, once the nation's leading eugenics propaganda machine. When the Eugenics Society reorganized in 1972 as the Society for the Study of Social Biology, it sent more than 50 boxes of documents -- including photos of that Kansas fair exhibit -- to be catalogued and preserved in Philadelphia.

The philosophical society already had the country's premier historical archive on biology, genetics and other evolutionary sciences. Adding the eugenics records has given scholars a unique window on the intersection of science and ideology.

"The reason eugenics is interesting today is that it isn't all dark," said Paul Lombardo, a University of Virginia historian and lawyer. "There was a general notion of optimism, a belief that science can make things better. We still believe that in this country."

Eugenics still appeals, said M. Susan Lindee, a University of Pennsylvania professor of history and the sociology of science, "partly because it matches up with the general view of the perfectibility of the body that characterizes consumer culture in the U.S. and Europe."

Eugenicists were not the first to put a scientific gloss on bigotry. In the mid-1800s, for example, Philadelphia physician Samuel G. Morton collected and measured hundreds of skulls to prove brain size correlates with intelligence. His treatises, stored at the American Philosophical Society and loaded with fraudulent data, claimed that Europeans had the greatest brain capacity, followed by Asians, American Indians and, in last place, Africans and Australian Aborigines.

But it was not until 1883 that the word eugenic, from the Greek roots for "good" and "origin," was coined by British amateur scientist Sir Francis Galton, a distant cousin of Charles Darwin. Eugenics soon became an international buzzword.

The premise was that Gregor Mendel's laws of inheritance, which the Moravian monk developed using plants, could be applied to complex human behaviors. Human suffering and social problems could be reduced by encouraging "superior" people to reproduce.

Unfortunately, the flip side -- preventing "undesirables" from reproducing -- also was widely embraced in the United States, Scandinavia and Germany and inspired policies of forced sterilization, immigration restriction, and racial segregation.

Eugenics had many critics and skeptics, but at its peak, the movement had powerful allies. U.S. Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes -- the free-speech champion -- wrote a famous 1927 decision upholding Virginia's compulsory sterilization law in Buck v. Bell.

Carrie Buck, like her unwed mother, Emma, was judged promiscuous and feebleminded, mostly because she gave birth out of wedlock. Carrie's daughter Vivian was judged feebleminded at seven months. (Yet Vivian went on to make the honor roll in first grade, the year before she died.)

"It is better for all the world," Holmes wrote, "if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

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