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Building a Better Human


Claire shows me the goods at the Cold Spring Harbor Labs

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 mental exams administered by a team of doctors. Top families win trophies while all contestants with a B+ or better receive a medal reading, "Yea, I have a good family."


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."

Daphne and I traveled to Cold Spring Harbor, New York to visit the laboratories that were at the center of eugenics research from 1910 to 1939.


Full Serve Only…my tip was refused…

So how did the eugenics movement get started, anyway? In the early 20th century, scientists were starting to test the ideas of evolution. From doing experiments on domestic plants and animals, some scientists thought they could apply the same ideas to humans. If we can build a better tomato, why not build a better human?

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

To build a better human, eugenicists wanted to both encourage people with 'good genes' to reproduce, and stop people with 'bad genes' from having more children. Genes, you know, carry your traits and are passed down from parents to children.

Back then, people thought that single genes could be responsible for problems like poverty, criminality, alcoholism, and mental illness. Today we know how important the environment is in determining how people turn out, and how complex genes are.

David Micklos, the director of the DNA Learning Center

Scientists studying eugenics looked at many traits. Their traits were very complex and often strange. For example, they looked at sense of direction, golfing abilities, and musical composition skills. Can you imagine counting your piano skills under scientific information? The research was not really very scientific, but it was used as proof for eugenic theories.

Eugenic field workers filled out pedigrees and medical histories

Once accepted by many people, eugenics was used to justify racism and intolerance. Eugenicists promoted laws against interracial marriage, claiming that mixing races caused inferiority. They pushed for sterilization of women and men they considered unfit to reproduce, usually those in mental asylums and prisons. Under their sterilization laws, 50,000 people were sterilized. Eugenicists also worked to bar immigrants from coming to the United States, especially ones that looked different than white Europeans.

A DNA sequencing lab at Cold Spring Harbor

Why did eugenics come to a stop? 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 by killing those they thought inferior. Most of us know this as the Holocaust. Nobody in the United States wanted to be associated with such a program.

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

So what can we learn from the past? Back then, scientists took pretty poor data and used it to push their own ideas. People didn't stop to think about the consequences, or where it could lead. Today, we are living in a time of great genetic discovery. We have glow-in-the dark monkeys and cloned sheep. We also have the ability to test embryos for genetic purposes. But we have to be careful. Could we be entering an era of made-to-order babies? Do you think this is a good idea? Through all of this technology, we must remember to celebrate diversity. Let's be honest: every family should be able to win at the state fair competition.


Please email me at: neda@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Jennifer - Evolution's gonna make a monkey's uncle out of you!
Irene - Making a run for the border