On Eugenics

I hope that you will tolerate this post, as it is mostly me thinking out loud. Thinking out-loud, whats more, about a potentially distressing subject, namely that of the relationship between the history of biology, genetics and statistics (which are, after all, tied tightly together) and eugenics – the project of increasing the fitness of the human gene pool, by controlling the breeding or death rates of various parts of the population.

The problem I have is that many people that I would call my heroes, or at least people along whose intellectual footpaths I wander (Ronald Fisher, Francis Galton, Karl Pearson, John Maynard Keynes) supported the eugenics movement. Am I to assume that all these people, while intellectual giants, were monsters or fools? Can we (you and I, for by embarking on this journey with me you too, kind reader, must shoulder my burden) find where these people went wrong, and what can we learn by looking at those people who shunned eugenics?

The Genetic Makeup of a Eugenicist

The eugenics argument can, by applying the infinite power of the Rule Of Three, be broken down into a trinity of points:

  1. There are characteristics of people that are ‘problems’, either for a society or for the individuals themselves. These can range from the obvious (disease susceptibility, severe mental health) to silly Victorian anachronisms (‘feeble-mindedness’, ‘moral weakness’)
  2. These features stem from an individuals hereditary genetic makeup, rather than social or environmental factors (such as, perhaps, poverty, lack of education, lack of health care, or other daft suggestions)
  3. To avoid these negative genetic traits propagating through the population, we should find ways to prevent these, such as preventing the ill from marrying, or forced sterilization, or killing

It would be nice to feel that these arguments stem from compassion, a desire to lessen the suffering of humanity by removing those genetic obstacles that stand in their way of happiness. However, this feels less plausible than we may like, as taking a look at the writings of the eugenicists on the topic leaves a sour taste in your mouth.

Ronald Fisher, father of the New Synthesis of evolution, wrote extensively in Eugenics Review, for instance his article Some Hopes of a Eugenicist. Reading his writing, it is all talk of Human Progress, removal of Imperfections in the Human Race. Statistician, and father of eugenics Francis Galton was slightly better, being at least slightly positive about the promotion of good traits, rather than just talking about removing undesirables, in his Preface to Hereditary Genius, but I think you’ll agree that it is still hardly lactating the milk of human kindness. An even more unpleasant residue is left by the writings of Erwin Baur, discover of plasmids, in which he discusses the genetic decay of the German people, largely the flow of inferior genes from immigrants, or by numeric taxonomist Charles Davenport’s decrying of ‘miscegenation’ (interracial breeding).

The Rebels

To avoid sowing a misconception into the delicate mind of my noble blogventurer (as you shall henceforth be known), I must say that eugenics was by no means universally held among the fathers of modern biology. And because I am nothing if not a triplophile, I will mention three dissenters, one for each of the three numbered points mentioned above.

William Bateson, discoverer of genetic linkage, argued against the notion that we could meaningfully assign value to individuals (with the exception of those who are clearly very ill). He insightfully noted that, even if in theory we could, the sort of people who would make such choices would breed in favor of conformity; “By ridding our community of mania we might leave it gravely infected by dullness”. To him, society needs diversity, polymorphism, not cultural or genetic uniformity. This argument in illustrated nicely in Rosemary Harvey’s article on Bateson and Baur’s correspondence.

Thomas Hunt Morgan, father of fruit fly research, argued against the inheritability of ‘mental feebleness’. In “The Inheritance of Mental Traits,” from Evolution and Genetics, he argued that eugenicists were seduced by the inheritance of mental illness to believe that ‘mental feebleness’ was Mendelian. He noted that until we have a good idea of how poverty and ‘demoralizing social conditions’ (which runs in families, after all) effects intelligence, we cannot comment on their heritability.

Finally, to the final point. It is a recurring theme, (one you may well see again in the future, if you remain with me on your blogventure) that to find prescient moral guidance that chillingly foreshadows the actions of future generations, we can turn to Charles Darwin. He addressed the argument in The Descent of Man:

We civilised men… do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. [...]

[However, we could not] check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil.

Eugenic Lessons

So we have seen that eugenics was very popular amongst early geneticists and statisticians, but many of the greats argued strongly against it. If we so desired, we could fish for some potentially spurious correlations in the small sample we have collected. What appears to stand out is that the anti-eugenics camp are experimentalists, but the eugenicists tend to be statisticians and theorists (but Baur bucks the trend). Perhaps by experiencing the complexity of biological systems the experimentalists were immunised against the neat, simple measures of heredity that seduced the biometricians?

There is definitely some merit to the argument that eugenics, or at least the portion of it that declared ‘mental feebleness’ and such things to be a spreading genetic trait, was merely a pseudoscience, held by people who wanted to believe it, and who should have known better (with parallels drawn to Newton’s belief in alchemy, for instance). In that case, it is just another example of how clever people can believe silly things. Perhaps, gentle reader, you expect me to put this forward as some sort of warning to examine all beliefs we hold for our own biases? Meh. Woe unto those who need to look to Nazi Germany to learn such a simple lesson. If anything, it tells us that there are no heroes, just people with differing degrees of admirable intellect and prejudice-ridden stupidity. Except for Darwin, of course.

As for why you, my much harried reader, should care about such anachronisms, note that the argument on eugenics has been rekindled in recent years, in a very different form. Progress (or the potential for progress) in the genetics of disease (c.f. the Wellcome Trust Case-Control Consortium) has given up the promise of identifying genetic causes of diseases, such as diabetes or coronary heart disease. While the primary aim of these is to pin down the genetic mechanisms of disease in order to develop new treatments and preventions, it also raises the possibility of promoting protective forms of the genes. Should a parent selectively implant or abort embryos have ? Should we, socially or legally, encourage or discourage such behaviour? What happens if we start finding genes that contribute to smartness, of genes for looking like this? Despite the aims being very close to the three points noted above, a completely different set of arguments applies.

Perhaps we should talk about that when we are feeling somewhat more rested?

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2 Responses to On Eugenics

  1. “f we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit,”

    The problem with these arguements is the way people define ‘benefit’. Stephen Hawking, for example is by physical standards weak and helpless, however he has made a huge benefit to scientific thinking.

  2. Certainly got us thinking here are work, expect a few replies later.

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