(Amanda Smith) Eugenics is inextricably linked in the public consciousness to Nazi policies of sterilisation and euthanasia. But the concept of hereditary human improvement didn’t vanish after the war. Is gene editing technology its modern manifestation? Amanda Smith investigates.
Going back to the ancient Greeks, it was all about breeding. In his Republic, Plato suggests that people should only be allowed to marry under controlled circumstances.
Plato, you see, regarded people much the same as livestock: you breed the best ones and not the others.
There’s a new group out there who are unashamedly saying it’s not that eugenics was wrong, it’s that it was done wrong. Nathaniel Comfort
‘A lot of people trace the idea of eugenics back to that,’ says Nathaniel Comfort, author of The Science of Human Perfection. ‘It has a certain logic to it.’
The term ‘eugenics’ was coined by 19th century British polymath Francis Galton.
‘At first he called it viticulture, and then he decided that eugenics was a more euphonious word,’ says Comfort. The root of the word is the Greek eugenes, meaning ‘well born’.
Galton was the cousin of one Charles Darwin. Where Darwin applied the principles of plant and animal breeding to nature—hence natural selection—Galton applied them to people.
He believed in taking control of evolution by trying to produce the best individuals possible.
Although eugenics later became racial in its most extreme form under the Nazis, Galton’s idea of eugenics was as much about class as race.
‘For Galton, eugenics was an alternative to simply letting the poor, the infirm, the diseased and the bottom strata of society just starve and live on the streets,’ says Comfort. ‘In his mind, [eugenics] was a humanitarian effort.’
To Galton it seemed like a slam dunk.
‘He believed that if you simply explained to people why this was in their best interest, then society’s best members would have as many children as they could and society’s worst members, the lower classes, would voluntarily restrict their reproduction,’ says Comfort.
Unfortunately for Galton, this approach did not catch on.
‘It did not work at all!’ Comfort says. ‘He just couldn’t get a whole lot of public support behind it, people couldn’t be persuaded to not have kids.’
But eugenics didn’t end with Galton. Across the Atlantic, in late 19th and early 20th century America, the idea of human hereditary advantage gained a different kind of traction.
‘This is a time of great racial tension in the United States, and so whereas in Britain the society’s worst members were considered to be the lower classes, in the United States the “worst” members of society were blacks and immigrants,’ says Comfort.
Eugenics was used in the US to bolster arguments against interracial marriage.
‘There already were some anti-miscegenation laws, but eugenics seemed to offer a scientific basis for those laws, and it strengthened them,’ says Comfort.
Up until this point, human bodies had been eugenically manipulated through the (comparatively) benign measures like selective marriage and procreation.
In early 20th-century America, however, eugenics shifted towards biological engineering with the advent of enforced sterilisation for those regarded as ‘feeble-minded’.
In the US, sterilisation laws were passed at state level—beginning with Indiana in 1907. Frustratingly for American eugenicists, these initial laws were later ruled unconstitutional.
In 1922, Harry Laughlin—second in command at the Cold Spring Harbor Eugenics Record Office, America’s eugenic epicentre—drafted a sterilisation law designed from the ground up to be constitutionally bullet-proof.
‘Turned out, it was,’ says Comfort.
The case was called Buck v. Bell.
After being raped and giving birth to a child, Carrie Buck—a young woman with a mental disability—was ordered by the court to undergo sterilisation.
The order was appealed in the US Supreme Court, which found in 1927 that sterilisation was in the state’s interest, since Buck, along with her mother and her child, were all considered feeble-minded. The notorious judgement concluded: Three generations of imbeciles are enough.’
This ruling paved the way for what Comfort ironically refers to as the golden age of eugenic sterilisation.
‘In the 1930s, tens of thousands of people in the United States alone were sterilised under these laws,’ he says.
‘Most of them were inmates in institutions—not all, but the majority.’
By the start of the Second World War, 30 American states had eugenic laws, with California’s especially robust. According to Comfort, these laws influenced the development of Nazi Germany’s mass sterilisation program.
What’s more, according to Comfort, eugenic theorists on both sides of the Atlantic were in lockstep.
‘Hitler and Mengele and a number of the top brass in the German army were well read in American eugenics—[they] took that as a model and used knowledge of the California sterilisation law in drafting the sterilisation law of the Nazi regime.’
Today, the term ‘eugenics’ is inseparable in the public consciousness Nazism, though enforced sterilisation of vulnerable groups continued in the United States until well after WWII.
The idea of hereditary human improvement has changed over time and continues to change. Francis Galton saw it as the voluntary restriction of marriage and procreation for an implied social good.
In the United States, hereditary human improvement enforced through the medical control of reproduction.
Today, biological technologies hold the promise of reshaping hereditary improvement through personalised gene editing.
One of the most promising of these new technologies is called clustered regularly-spaced short palindromic repeats, or CRISPR.
‘What CRISPR enables you to do is to modify genes in a way that’s more precise, more accurate, and much, much easier than it has ever been able to be done before,’ says Comfort.
In theory, CRISPR allows for the ‘editing out’ of genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis and Tay-Sachs disease, as well as the ‘editing in’ of desirable features such as height or strength.
Predictably, concerns have been raised about whether personalised gene editing constitutes a new form of eugenics.
‘There’s a new group out there who are using the term eugenics in public and unashamedly saying, “It’s not that eugenics was wrong, it’s that it was done wrong,”‘ Comfort says.
‘Their view is that it’s the state control part that makes eugenics wrong.’
According to proponents, as long as we are able make our own decisions, there’s nothing wrong with the concept of eugenics—people ought to be able to have the best children they can.
What concerns Comfort is the possibility of intolerance towards children with Down’s syndrome or a severe disabilities, for example.
‘The family absolutely loves that child and thinks that the child contributes just as much as anyone else; they have the character to overcome and do great things in their lives. But those kinds of things might be socially unacceptable in a world where you can just fix it.
‘I think we need to move forward very carefully, and we need to think through the ethics of it and ensure that we make the best possible use of this really powerful technology.’
Comfort’s unease is an interesting counterpoint to his view that humans have an innate eugenic impulse.
‘I think there’s something very deep in us that makes us want to improve ourselves, improve society, and I think that that impulse is a basically noble one.’
He sounds a final cautious note, however: ‘At the technical level, and at the level of social engineering and personal choice and a real-world free market economy, [this] becomes very problematic.’