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A Science Odyssey: Eugenics

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Eugenics Archive



Building a Better Human

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Full Service Only... my tip was refused...

Come one, come all, to the state fair! Enter our breeding contests and win great prizes for the best genetic stock!

No, this is not a search for the fattest pig, best-groomed dog or fastest horse. This is a contest for the fittest family. To compete, each family member is given a letter grade based on physical and psychological exams administered by a team of doctors. Top families win trophies while all contestants with a B+ or better receive a medal reading: "Yes, I have a goodly heritage."

Now what kind of bizarre and twisted state fair would have contests for the best breed of people? Why, a state fair in America during the 1920s of course! This was all part of eugenics, an early 20th century movement whose goal was to "breed better people." Intrigued, Daphne and I traveled to Cold Spring Harbor, New York to visit the laboratories that were at the center of eugenics research from 1910 to1939. With the help of an archivist named Claire, we checked out some of the materials from the Eugenics Research Office and also interviewed David Micklos, the director of the DNA Learning Center.

Claire shows me the goods at the Cold Spring Harbor Labs

So how did the eugenics movement get started, anyway? Well, this was a time when experiments were being done on domestic plants and animals to test the theory of evolution and breed better crops or livestock. For some people, the next logical step was to use breeding science to improve the human species. If we can build a better tomato, why not build a better human? Eugenics can take two routes. It can encourage the "best and the brightest" to reproduce, or attempt to prevent reproduction among those with "bad genes." Of course, those who were deemed most fit ended up being the white upper and middle class.

The next question is, how did eugenicists decide who had good or bad genes? Scientific thought at the time was that bad genes were the sole reason for problems like poverty, criminality, alcoholism, mental illness and poor physical health. In fact, it was thought that single genes could determine all behaviors and traits, from intellect to emotions. The influence of environment was completely ignored.

If being poor were something in our genes, then would we find cases of people who started off in poverty but went on to achieve greatness? I'm sure we can all think of examples -from Oprah to Cesar Chavez-of those who have beat the odds and who have shown that we can not have such a simple view of human behavior. Today, of course, we know that environment plays a crucial role in who we become, that many genes work together to produce various traits, and that complex traits like behavior are very difficult to explain.

Is Neda's sense of direction based on a gene?

To gather "scientific research" in support of eugenic claims, a group of field workers, mostly women, went out and conducted interviews, just as census takers do today. They filled out forms that ranged from Family Pedigree Charts to Individual Analysis Cards and asked about everything from church membership to success in life, from sense of humor to sense of direction. Some of the other, more outlandish traits studied included golfing abilities, feeble-mindedness, and musical composition skills. Information was gathered from insane asylums, hospitals, prisons and circus "freak shows", and also from people who were perceived to be from good families and breeds.

The research had major scientific flaws, but it was used as proof for eugenic theories. The eugenics movement became mainstream and accepted-- a science that could be found everywhere from high school biology textbooks to, as I mentioned before, state fairs. Once it was seen as authentic, eugenics was used as a scientific justification for racism and intolerance, which were displayed in three main areas of law: immigration, inter-racial marriage and sterilization.

David Micklos, the director of the DNA Learning Center

As David Micklos explained, by the turn of the 20th century, certain racial groups (such as the Chinese) were already being excluded from the United States. The main worry of European-Americans concerned immigrants who didn't look like them, namely Southern and Eastern Europeans. This was also around the time when the government was trying to stamp out communism (the Red Scare) and labor activists were worried about losing jobs to immigrants. Eugenics "data" were used to show that eastern European countries were sending over a high proportion of genetic defects. This evidence bolstered the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, which severely limited immigration from those regions of Europe.

Laws against interracial marriage, although often already in existence, were also reinforced by eugenicists who claimed that mixing races caused inferiority. The idea was that the genes of other races would dilute the good genetic stock, meaning that of northern Europeans.

Getitng twisted with some DNA

The idea of sterilization was uniquely the work of the American eugenics movement. Laws were passed in 30 states to allow involuntary sterilization of those with unfit genes. Once again, this often meant people in mental hospitals and prisons. Have you ever jokingly called a friend a moron or an imbecile? Well, during the eugenics movement, these phrases were enough reason to prevent a person from reproducing. How would you like it if someone gave you an IQ test and then decided that you would not be allowed to have children? Under these laws, 50,000 people were sterilized - half of them in California, and the majority of them young women who posed the greatest danger of reproducing.

Eugenic field workers filled out pedigrees and medical histories

Was everyone in favor of eugenics at the time? Although it was in the mainstream, there definitely were some scientists who were opposed to it from the start and others who became critics as the movement grew. Even those who were uneasy or outright opposed, however, were not able to stop it at a popular level. The exact reasons for the downfall of eugenics are controversial, but what is clear is that once people became aware of what was going on in Nazi Germany, eugenics in the U.S. was rapidly abandoned. The Nazis were trying to achieve racial purity through a more radical form of eugenics that involved killing those deemed inferior. Most of us know this as the Holocaust. Nobody in the United States wanted to be associated with such a program and hence the American Eugenics Movement fell to the wayside. Frighteningly enough, Hitler got many of his ideas from American eugenicists.

Does this mean that eugenics has vanished from our society, that it is solely a piece of our past, contained in neat archives at Cold Spring Harbor? Not according to Micklos. "Everyone is a eugenicist," he claims. "That's what evolution is all about." Micklos makes the point that when we look for a mate, we are searching for someone with good traits that we would like to pass on to our kids. Parents generally want to boost their kids to be the best they can be. "I would say that's eugenics in every sense of the word."

Yes, of course it's only natural to wish the best for your children. But ethical problems arise when these wishes are turned into laws-laws that dictate who can reproduce, laws that favor the elite. Problems also arise when these beliefs are used to make certain people seem less worthy of being here.

A DNA sequencing lab at Cold Spring Harbor

We are living in a time of great genetic discovery, when glow-in-the dark jellyfish genes can be inserted into monkeys and cloning is all the rage. We live in a time where people advertise for egg donors with specific qualifications: "Must be at least 5'10". Athletic. SATs over 1400." The technology is available to fertilize eggs in test tubes and then run tests to find out which is most genetically fit (e.g. which is not carrying a specific disease). Are we entering an era of made-to-order babies? "Yes, I would like one with brown hair, striking intelligence, and a stunning sense of fashion." Do you think this is a good idea?

Neda wishes she was taller but realizes we should learn to celebrate our diversity

Don't get me wrong. Technology has obvious benefits, and the doors being opened by genetic research can be utterly amazing. But with each new discovery comes a new set of ethical questions. How do we prevent abuses of this information? How do we ensure that the technology is available to everybody, not just rich people who can afford it?

If we really are eugenicists, then how do we strive for a better American family? The trick is to strive for the betterment of all people, not just the richest or the smartest or the most European. The trick is to use this technology in a positive and fair manner so that certain groups of people are not excluded. The trick is to celebrate diversity so that we are not trying to conform to one ideal but that we can appreciate our differences. Let's be honest: whether short or tall, rich or poor, we should live in a society where we can all be winning trophies and medals at the state fair.


Please email me at: neda@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Jennifer - Evolution's gonna make a monkey's uncle out of you!
Stephanie - The KKK: breaking the cycle of hate
Jennifer - The talking walls of Angel Island
Irene - Making a run for the border
MAD - TV: A giant slushie for your brain