Science Misapplied:
The Eugenics Age Revisited
By Garland E. Allen

Garland E. Allen is a professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., and a historian of science who specializes in genetics issues.
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Seeking relief from extreme economic hardships
after the First World War, Nazi Germany based its misguided
campaign to eliminate "unproductive" members from its society
on the fledgling field of genetics. Given similar economic pressures
and a renewed search for genetic roots to social problems,
what's to stop us from following
a similar course today?



In 1935, two years after the Nazi takeover, a German high-school math textbook was published that contained the following problem: "In one region of the German Reich there are 4,400 mentally ill in state institutions, 4,500 receiving state support, 1,600 in local hospitals, 200 in homes for the epileptic, and 1,500 in welfare homes. The state pays a minimum of 10 million RM [Reich Marks]/year for these institutions.

I. What is the average cost to the state per inhabitant per year?

II. Using the result calculated from I, how much does it cost the state if:

a. 868 patients stay longer than 10 years?

b. 260 patients stay longer than 20 years

c. 112 patients stay longer than 2 years?"

Another problem asked the students: If the construction of an insane asylum requires 6 million RM, how many housing units for normal families could be built at 15,000 RM apiece for the amount spent on insane asylums?

If the economic message from these problems were not plain enough, a pamphlet published by a member of the Nazi Physician's League the year before put it in unmistakably blunt terms: "It must be made clear to anyone suffering from an incurable disease that the useless dissipation of costly medications drawn from the public store cannot be justified. Parents who have seen the difficult life of a crippled or feebleminded child must be convinced that, though they may have a moral obligation to care for the unfortunate creature, the broader public should not be obligated...to assume the enormous costs that long-term institutionalization might entail."

The Nazis referred to those who required the continual expenditure of medical resources from the public treasury as "useless eaters" or "lives not worth living." Such terms were also applied to the elderly, the chronic poor, and the crippled. These "misfit" individuals, assumed to be the offspring of hereditarily defective parents, were deemed a burden on the rest of society.

In 1933 these concepts had been given legal status when the Reich Cabinet passed the "Law on Preventing Hereditarily Diseased Progeny," calling for involuntary sterilization of all those identified as bearers of hereditary disease. These "diseases" included not only clinically definable conditions, such as Huntington's disease, hereditary blindness, deafness, and epilepsy, but also more nebulous social and behavioral traits such as "feeblemindedness," "pauperism," and alcoholism.

What would bring a nation to the point of viewing its own citizens--its most unfortunate and helpless members at that--as useless lives, as nothing more than an economic burden on society? More important for us today, was this a phenomenon unique to fascist Germany, or could it happen in the United States?

To understand whether such attitudes could flourish here, it is instructive to examine the history of the science--in particular a branch of biology that came to be known as eugenics--that served as the foundation for the German ideology of "lives not worth living." Such a review will reveal, first of all, that a similar movement not only could, but in fact did occur in the United States. More significant, it will also show that the forces driving the original eugenics movement--a mentality that blames the victim for shrinking economic resources and a misguided faith in genetic science to label and formulate social policy about so-called unproductive members of society--may be at play once again today.

Breeding Better People

The term eugenics was coined in 1883 by Sir Francis Galton, Charles Darwin's cousin and an early pioneer of statistics, to refer to those born "good in stock, hereditarily endowed with noble qualities." More directly, according to Galton's U.S. disciple, Charles Davenport, eugenics was the science of "the improvement of the human race by better breeding." To both men, better breeding implied improving the quality of the human species using the findings of modern science, particularly the science of heredity. Eugenics was thus viewed as the human counterpart of modern scientific animal and plant husbandry. In fact, it seemed ironic to eugenicists that people paid so much attention to the pedigrees of their farm and domestic stock while they ignored the pedigrees of their children.

The purpose of eugenics, Galton wrote, "is to express the science of improving stock, which is by no means confined to questions of judicious mating, but which, especially in the case of man, takes cognizance of all influences that tend in however remote a degree to give the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had." In this brief definition, Galton lays out all the dimensions that came to characterize eugenics as an ideology and social/political movement during the first half of the twentieth century:

-- A firm trust in the methods of selective breeding as an effective means of improving the overall quality of the human species.

-- A strong conviction of the power of heredity to directly determine physical, physiological, and mental (including personality) traits in adults.

-- An inherent belief in the inferiority of some races and superiority of others--a view extended to ethnic groups and social classes as well.

-- A faith in the power of science, rationally employed, to solve pressing social problems, including ones so seemingly intractable as urban and labor violence, and to eliminate various forms of mental disease, including manic depression, schizophrenia, and feeblemindedness.

Steeped in such grandiosity and ethnocentrism, U.S. eugenicists pursued research on the inheritance of a variety of physical, mental, and personality traits. But since they primarily used family-pedigree charts, which were often based on highly subjective and impressionistic data collected from family members, the eugenicists' understanding of genetics was often simplistic and naive, even for the early decades of this century. For example, in a 1919 study based on analysis of pedigrees, Davenport claimed that thalassophilia, or "love of the sea," was a sex-linked Mendelian recessive trait appearing in families of prominent U.S. naval officers. That the trait must be sex-linked seemed clear, since in pedigree after pedigree only males in the various families observed ever became naval officers.

Other traits such as alcoholism, pauperism, prostitution, rebelliousness, criminality, feeblemindedness, ability to excel in chess, and even forms of industrial sabotage such as "train wrecking" were all claimed to be determined by one or two pairs of Mendelian genes. When one of Davenport's friends, a professional psychiatrist, criticized him for lumping complex human behaviors into single categories such as insanity, he dismissed the criticism as being "uninformed."

Such simplistic models for complex behaviors were extended to explain the differences between racial, ethnic, and national groups. In a study of the "Comparative Social Traits of Various Races" in 1921 (based on a series of questionnaires given to school children), Davenport concluded that Germans ranked highest on qualities such as leadership, humor, generosity, sympathy, and loyalty, while on these same traits Irish, Italian, and in two cases (loyalty and generosity) British people ranked lowest. The Irish ranked highest in "suspiciousness," while Jewish people ranked highest in "obtrusiveness." Davenport assumed, of course, that most if not all such traits were genetically determined, and the social behaviors of not only individual family members, but also whole nations, were genetically fixed at birth.

Not surprisingly, eugenicists also developed close ties with the newly emerging profession of psychometrics, the psychological theory of mental measurement, which was eagerly being employed to develop standardized IQ tests. Prominent psychometricians--such as Lewis Terman, who created the Stanford-Binet IQ test for preschool children, and Robert Yerkes, the psychologist from Harvard who designed and directed the administration of the Army IQ tests during World War I--believed the mental functions they were measuring were innate, or genetically determined, and therefore that training and education could accomplish only as much for certain social and ethnic groups as the "raw material" of their mental capacity would allow.

For their part, eugenicists welcomed the IQ test as an objective and quantitative tool for measuring innate mental ability. For example, on the basis of IQ tests given to immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, eugenicist Henry H. Goddard "discovered" that more than 80 percent of the Jewish, Hungarian, Polish, Italian, and Russian immigrants were mentally defective, or feebleminded. Goddard believed that such a defect was "a condition of the mind or brain which is transmitted as regularly and surely as color of hair or eyes."

Meanwhile, a host of organizations were formed to support eugenics research. In 1910, Davenport established the first major eugenics institution in the United States, the Eugenics Records Office (ERO), which served until 1940 as both a center for eugenics research, complete with an office staff and a battery of field workers, and as a repository for eugenic data (mostly family pedigrees). In 1913, the Eugenics Research Association was founded to bring together those interested in the latest eugenical investigations. In 1918, the Galton Society began meeting monthly at the American Museum of Natural History in New York to hear papers on eugenics and related subjects. And in 1923, the American Eugenics Society, which grew to include more than 1,200 members and branch organizations in 29 states by the end of the decade, was formally launched as a result of a proposal drawn up at the International Congress of Eugenics in New York in 1921. Elsewhere, J.H. Kellogg, the cereal magnate from Battle Creek, Mich., founded the Race Betterment Foundation in the years just before World War I, while eugenics education societies formed in Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Utah, and California.

Pursuing the educational front, eugenicists promoted the science through popular accounts such as Mankind at the Crossroads by E.G. Conklin (1914), Passing of the Great Race by Madison Grant (1916), The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy by Lothrop Stoddard (1920), Applied Eugenics by Paul Popenoe and Roswell Johnson (1923), and The Fruit of the Family Tree by Alfred E. Wiggam (1924). These and other works presented the spectre of race degeneration and the takeover of modern society by degenerates and "foreigners" who were all out-breeding the staunch, established white Anglo-Saxon stock.

Finally, several textbooks, including Genetics and Eugenics by W.E. Castle (1916, 1923) and Evolution, Genetics, and Eugenics by H.H. Newman (1921, 1925, 1932), took the technical message of eugenics to the classroom. By 1928, the American Genetics Association boasted that there were 376 college courses devoted exclusively to eugenics. High-school biology textbooks followed suit by the mid-1930s, with most containing material favorable to the idea of eugenical control of reproduction. It would thus have been difficult to be an even moderately educated reader in the 1920s or 1930s and not have known, at least in general terms, about the claims of eugenics.

The Search for Order

Though the eugenics movement eventually became a worldwide phenomenon--with contributions from scientists and laypeople in England, France, Italy, Scandinavia, Latin America, and Russia--by far the most work occurred in Germany and the United States, whose eugenicists had formed a particularly strong and direct bond, especially after the Nazis came to power in 1933. As early as the mid-1920s, American eugenicists such as Davenport and Harry H. Laughlin, superintendent of the Eugenics Records Office, were already well known to German authorities such as Fritz Lenz, professor of racial hygiene at the University of Munich. Indeed, in 1928 Lenz requested permission from Laughlin to reprint his article "Eugenical Sterilization" in the Archiv für Rassen und Gesellschaftsbiologie (Archive for Race and Social Biology). Laughlin responded enthusiastically: "I should feel highly honored to have this paper appear in the Archiv. Your many American friends trust that some time in the near future you will be able to visit the centers of eugenical interest in this country."

More directly, the Nazis used a model Laughlin had devised as the basis for their own sterilization law in 1933. In recognition of this critical role, Laughlin was given an honorary doctorate of medicine degree from Heidelberg University in 1936, which he enthusiastically accepted at the time of the university's 550th anniversary celebration. Meanwhile, Davenport, a Harvard alumnus, arranged for a delegation of German eugenicists to participate in Harvard's 300th celebration later the same year.

Other U.S. eugenicists were keenly interested in how the Nazis were progressing with eugenical programs, from sterilization legislation to popular education. In fact, a number of Americans visited Germany in the 1930s to meet with their colleagues and visit the "eugenic courts," which the Nazis had set up to pass judgment on cases where compulsory sterilization was recommended. The visitors included the secretary of the American Public Health Association, the president of the Eugenics Research Association, and a representative of the Sterilization League of New Jersey, as well as geneticist T.U.H. Ellinger and racial theorist Lothrop Stoddard, who met with leading eugenicists such as Lenz and high-ranking Nazi officials such as Heinrich Himmler.

Frederick Osborn, the secretary of the American Eugenics Society who also followed eugenical developments in Germany with great interest, wrote a report in 1937 summarizing developments in the German sterilization program. His memo is instructive in demonstrating the general enthusiasm American eugenicists felt for the Nazi program: "Germany's rapidity of change with respect to eugenics was possible only under a dictator....The German sterilization program is apparently an excellent one...recent developments in Germany constitute perhaps the most important experiment which has ever been tried."

Nazi eugenicists and their American counterparts shared more than a set of scientific beliefs and social programs; indeed, the most fundamental basis of eugenic arguments in both countries grew from a common economic and social experience. The period between the World Wars brought considerable upheaval to most of the countries in the capitalist West. The task of gearing down from a wartime economy was superimposed on a set of problems that had been developing long before the onset of World War I itself: boom-and-bust economic cycles, periods of raging inflation, rising unemployment, sagging rates of profit, and labor unrest. To many, the traditional fabric of society appeared to be unraveling.

In both Europe and the United States, the response to these conditions by those with economic and political power was to search for ways to bring a laissez-faire economy (which operates with relatively little governmental interference), and the political and social practices attached to it, under control. Historian Robert Wiebe of Northwestern University has termed the period from 1890 to 1930 as "the search for order."

In the United States, this search was tied to a movement known as "progressivism" and its political incarnation, the Progressive Party, whose representative, Theodore Roosevelt, held the presidency from 1901 to 1909. Progressive ideology, which called for rational planning and scientific management of every phase of society, was seen as the new and "modern" approach, and hence "progressive" by the standards of the day. For laissez-faire views it substituted an emphasis on state intervention and promoted the use of trained experts in setting economic and social regulatory policies. And it preached the doctrine of efficiency, which applied cost-benefit analysis and emphasized solving problems at their root, rather than after a crisis has arisen, for example, as in preventive medicine.

Eugenics was first embraced politically as a scientific means of halting the rising stream of "defective" immigrants who came to the United States from 1880 to 1914 seeking relief from the economic problems besetting Europe. These new immigrants arrived principally from Eastern and Southern Europe, the Balkans, and Russia. Many were Jewish. And all were ethnically and culturally distinct from earlier waves of foreigners, such as those in the mid-nineteenth century who had migrated mostly from Anglo-Saxon countries of Western Europe such as Germany, England, Ireland, and Scotland. To many Americans these new immigrants were considered "the dregs of humanity," unassimilable, mentally deficient (as confirmed by tests such as those Goddard administered at Ellis Island), socially radical (many had been involved in trade-union activities in Europe), and willing to work for low wages, thus taking jobs away from hard-working Americans.

Calls for restricting immigration grew so dramatically after the war that in 1921 Albert Johnson, head of the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, held a series of hearings preparatory to introducing a bill that would seriously limit immigration, especially from the areas characterized by the new immigrant groups. Because any restriction had to appear to be fair, not singling out particular countries or ethnic groups as targets, Johnson appointed Laughlin of the Eugenics Records Office as "expert eugenics witness." In this capacity, Laughlin testified twice before the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization. In 1922, he cited IQ data, Army test results, and family pedigree analyses of institutionalized persons to demonstrate the defective biological nature of the new immigrants. His message was that biology, specifically genetics, was crucial in considering such social and political questions as those surrounding immigration, and that little or no attention had been paid to this in the past.

Laughlin's point seemed eminently rational: it was inefficient and wasteful of taxpayers' money to care for the world's socially inadequate all their lives; better simply to prevent them from entering the country in the first place. For legislators worried about the nation's budget and facing staggering social problems of rising unemployment, labor strikes, and inflation, Laughlin's emphasis on the eugenical point of view as rational and efficient management was seductive.

In his second official testimony--in 1924, shortly before the immigration bill went to the floor of Congress--Laughlin presented data showing that prisons and mental asylums housed a disproportionate number of immigrants from the very geographic areas that many nativists wanted to restrict. Two committee members, representing largely immigrant constituencies, protested that Laughlin's information was subject to a variety of interpretations, and in response another biologist, Herbert Spencer Jennings from Johns Hopkins University, was called to comment on Laughlin's data and conclusions. Jennings thought Laughlin's analysis of the immigration data was grossly overstated, but Jennings was given only five minutes to testify on the last day of the hearings, and thus had almost no impact on the subsequent immigration legislation.

The Johnson Act, as it was called, duly passed in 1924, restricted annual immigration from any region to 2 percent of the number of residents from that region already living in the United States as of the 1890 census. Since the vast bulk of the new immigrants had arrived after that date, the Johnson Act, as hoped, restricted these groups most heavily. Immigration from Eastern Europe fell from 75 percent of the total immigration in 1914 to 15 percent after 1924. Laughlin and U.S. eugenicists in general considered the passage of the immigration act a great political triumph.

Managing Reproduction

Eugenicists similarly argued that if unemployment and crime resulted from the behavior of genetically inadequate persons, then clearly the most rational solution was to prevent those types from being born in the first place. It was inefficient, they contended, to allow the biologically degenerate and unfit to reproduce, merely to fill the insane asylums, hospitals, and prisons with defective people that the state must support the rest of their lives.

Such efficiency arguments permeated eugenic literature. For example, eugenicists pointed out that it would have cost less than $150 in 1790 for the state of New York to have sterilized Ada Juke (the pseudonym of a young woman whose impoverished descendants were the subject of one of the first eugenic studies by American sociologist Richard Dugdale in 1874), while the estimated cost of caring for her descendants by the 1920s had topped $2 million.

Using the argument for national efficiency, eugenicists successfully lobbied for the passage of a number of state eugenical sterilization laws in the 1920s and 1930s. Eugenical sterilization was aimed specifically at those individuals in mental or penal institutions who, from family-pedigree analysis, were considered likely to give birth to socially defective children. Sterilization could be ordered any time after a patient had been examined by a eugenics committee, usually composed of a lawyer or family member representing the individual, a judge, and a doctor or other eugenic "expert."

In the end, more than 30 states had enacted such compulsory sterilization laws by 1940. And between 1907 (when the first such law was put into effect in Indiana) and 1941, more than 60,000 eugenical sterilizations were performed in the United States. Moreover, most state sterilization laws were not repealed until after the 1960s.

Logical Conclusions

Other countries--most notably England, France, and Italy--had their own versions of progressivism, but nowhere did the ideology of efficiency and scientific planning hold greater sway than in Germany. After World War I, restrictions imposed on the defeated nation in the Treaty of Versailles, enormous public and private pre- and postwar debt, the loss of overseas colonies and of the iron- and coal-rich regions of the Rhineland, and heavy reparations payments all converged to heighten the already existing problems of prewar inflation, unemployment, and the growing strength of organized labor. When the terms of Versailles became known, Germany experienced a series of upheavals that threatened to equal or surpass those of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917. General strikes and immense loss of morale made Germany a more-than-likely candidate for another communist assumption of state power.

In the face of such upheaval, the newly established Weimar Republic, without a Kaiser and modeled on British-style parliamentary rule, was relatively ineffective. During its 15-year reign following the first World War, the Weimar government seemed increasingly unable to take the strong steps necessary to bring the economy under control. And the stock market crash of 1929 hit a more vulnerable Germany perhaps hardest of all. Tough management was the order of the day, and if fascists stood for nothing else, it was strong-arm control.

Facing drastic state budget cuts, the newly installed Nazi government viewed "wards of the state" as both costly and expendable and thus took eugenics to its ultimate end--sterilization and genocide. In fact, during the whole of the Nazi period, somewhere around 400,000 institutionalized persons were involuntarily sterilized; the majority of these were during the first four years of the sterilization law's existence (1933-1937). In some areas, such as the state of Baden-Wurttemberg, more than 1 percent of the entire population was sterilized. However, as the war effort accelerated and resources became tighter, "euthanasia" was increasingly substituted for sterilization.

Sheila Weiss, a historian at Clarkson University, emphasized recently that from an efficiency standpoint, a racial policy such as the euthanasia program is not without its logic, as morally perverse as that logic may appear. "Throughout its history, race hygiene was a strategy aimed at boosting national efficiency through the rational management of population," she says. "Although the extermination of millions of European Jews cannot really be viewed as a measure designed to boost national efficiency, the interpretation of the Jews as an unfit, surplus, and disposable group is not unrelated to the emphasis implicit in German race hygiene regarding ‘valuable' and ‘valueless' people. Hence, when all is said and done, it is the logic of eugenics far more than its racism that proved to be the most unfortunate legacy of the German race hygiene movement for the Third Reich."

The advent of eugenic solutions showed that under varieties of emotional and financial duress, ordinary individuals, not just misguided or demagogic political figures, can succumb to the logic of what can be seen in a calmer light as an abhorrent solution. Indeed, according to Oxford historian Michael Burleigh, many individual families hardest hit by economic conditions in Germany were sometimes "relieved" to have their mentally ill or dependent relatives committed to institutions, sterilized, or even subjected to euthanasia, rather than persist in the expensive and emotionally draining experience of maintaining them in home care.

The whole Nazi eugenical and sterilization effort, of course, was misguided from the outset, based as it was on a simplistic notion that complex behavioral and personality traits could be reduced to single labels or categories. It could not have worked even if the "thousand-year Reich" had lived out its millennium. Germany's problems were hardly the result of a significant increase in deleterious genes within its population.

Meanwhile, in the United States the eugenics movement declined somewhat in importance by the mid-1930s, for reasons that are complex and controversial. Most scholars of the subject agree that failure of eugenicists to keep abreast of rapid developments in Mendelian genetics was not, as formerly claimed, a major factor. Similarly, apparent links between American and Nazi eugenics in the 1930s appear to have played only a minor role in bringing eugenics into disrepute.

My own view is that the older, harsher, more simplistic eugenics of Davenport and his generation declined because it had outlived its political usefulness. With immigration restrictions in place and sterilization laws on the books in many states, the eugenics movement had achieved about as much as could be expected at that time.

Eugenics Today?

How close are we today to embracing a modern form of eugenics? Will we in the United States someday soon re-walk those paths of trying to solve our social problems with scientific panaceas? I am sorry to say that I think the answer may be yes. A new eugenics movement would, of course, be called by a different name, but an era of similar economic and social conditions and a similar political response--our current philosophy of "cost-effectiveness" or "the bottom line"--has already arrived.

Witness the decline in our own economic and social conditions in the past two decades as an indicator of our potential to find eugenical arguments (clothed in the updated language of molecular genetics) attractive once again: Average weekly earnings have fallen 16 percent since 1973, and median income of families with children (under 18) has declined 32 percent. Meanwhile, the top 1 percent of the population controls almost 48 percent of household wealth and income, while the top 20 percent controls 94 percent. Unemployment has hovered at the 5 to 7 percent figure for the past four years, and analysts complain that these figures fail to include a whole category of "underemployed" (part-time, occasional) workers, or those who have simply given up on the job market and no longer report to unemployment offices.

A parallel between the economic and social milieu of the United States today and that of Germany in the Weimar and especially Nazi periods emerges in the debates over health care. Then as now, the discussions centered on decisions about who should receive what kind of health care and for how long. Indeed, in Germany medicine was considered a national resource to be used only for those individuals who showed the greatest prospect of recovery and future productivity.

In the "cutback" atmosphere that dominates our discussions of other social policies, the mood seems similarly exclusionary and bitter. For example, legislation that proposes to limit welfare recipients to five years over a lifetime, the suggestion that welfare mothers with more than two children be given Norplant (an antifertility drug), the idea of "three strikes and you're out" (three convictions mean a life sentence), and increasing calls for the death penalty--all run a striking parallel to the mood in late Weimar and Nazi Germany that called for reduction of rations for, and later elimination of, the aged, those with terminal diseases, repeat offenders, and the mentally impaired. Such extreme measures were justified in Germany by the policy of efficiency and scarcity of resources. Our current focus on "tough love" may be just a euphemism for what may somewhere down the road become "lives not worth living."

It is important not to underestimate the degree to which economic and social stress can lower our sensitivity to each other and to moral and ethical values. To a family already stressed by pay cuts, increased workload, rising costs of living and reduction in benefits, the use of tax dollars to maintain what is portrayed as a large population of dependent, nonproductive citizens is not likely to engender much sympathy. Witness the success of California's Proposition 187, which denies public services--health care and schooling, for example--to "illegal aliens."

If we are willing to contemplate severely restricting public assistance now, leaving a whole segment of the population to live at less-than-subsistence levels, is it too far a step to consider such people "expendable"? Historian of science Diane Paul of the University of Massachusetts puts it succinctly: "One clear lesson from the history of eugenics is this: what may be unthinkable when times are flush may come to seem only good common sense when they are not. In the 1920s, most geneticists found the idea of compulsory sterilization repugnant. In the midst of the Depression, they no longer did....Over time, noble sentiments came increasingly to clash with economic demands. Charitable impulses gave way to utilitarian practices."

I do not want to sound alarmist. We are not, after all, in anything like the severe stage of economic decline Weimar Germany experienced in the 1920s. But it would also be unwise to fail to anticipate how we might respond if we found ourselves in such dire straits. Contemplating our potential for accepting fascist solutions is particularly important at a time when it might be possible to alter our course.

On another front, genetic determinism--the notion that genes have the power to determine social and personality traits such as criminality and aggressiveness--is becoming as rampant today in both scientific and lay circles as it was in Weimar Germany in the 1920s. The United States has devoted considerable resources to research on the genetic basis of many such traits. For example, the National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse has allocated $25 million for research on the genetic origins of alcoholism. The National Institute of Mental Health has awarded even larger sums for the study of the genetics of schizophrenia and manic depression. Three years ago, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) proposed bringing much of the criminality research under the umbrella of a $400 million, government-funded "Violence Initiative" that would coordinate studies on the biological basis of violence in inner-city youth. Other recent studies have attempted to find a specific genetic basis for conditions such as shyness, novelty seeking, risk taking, proneness to anger, impulsivity, attention deficit disorder, and the like.

Meanwhile, the publicity given to each new or preliminary report on the genetics of human behavioral traits has grown even faster than the research itself. Every major popular magazine--Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, and the Atlantic Monthly, to name only a few--as well as most major newspapers have carried stories about the newest discovery of a gene for a given disease or trait. Moreover, all the accounts have been presented against the backdrop of the Human Genome Project, whose legitimate discoveries about the location of DNA segments for Huntington's disease and cystic fibrosis, among other conditions, have lent an aura of authenticity and prestige to the general field of human genetics that further validates the more hyperbolic popular reports.

Lessons from History

What can we do to prevent a resurgence of a Nazi-like mentality? One of the most important weapons we have is the knowledge that Nazism did occur once in recent history. Our understanding of that experience can provide powerful lessons, if we are willing to learn from them, about how simplistic science can be perverted to socially destructive ends.

We also have a far more sophisticated understanding of genetics today than did our counterparts in the 1920s and 1930s. While this knowledge does not guarantee that simplistic claims of a genetic basis for our social behavior will not be put forward, it does mean we can counter such arguments with modern facts. Indeed, researchers have had great difficulty establishing any satisfactory claim that specific genes cause complex human social behaviors. Virtually none of the studies claiming such links have been duplicated by independent researchers. And many have been withdrawn after the first flurry of excitement surrounding their publication in professional journals.

One reason for the difficulty in verifying such claims is that the process by which embryos grow suggests that genes are not rigid bits of information that invariably lead to the same outcome. Changes in the chemical, physical, and biological conditions can turn genes on or off or change their degree of expression at critical periods in the developmental process. In this respect, the genes affecting human behavioral and personality traits, the most plastic to begin with, are the most influenced by environmental input.

The fact that today's researchers have had no greater success in rigorously establishing the genetic basis for social behaviors than did their counterparts 70 or 80 years ago suggests that the whole question is misconstrued. Although simplistic claims are still being and probably will continue to be made, trying to sort out how much genes as opposed to environment shape human behavior is ultimately a scientifically meaningless undertaking.

Such studies would be virtually impossible, given our unwillingness to subject ourselves and our children to the rigorously controlled, multigenerational experimentation that would be necessary to begin to tease apart the relative contributions of heredity and environment in the development of special behavioral traits. If the environment cannot be controlled--if we cannot know clearly what influences acted with what intensities at all periods of development--then we have no real way of determining the relative influence of heredity and environment in the interaction.

Defining human behaviors also involves a high level of subjectivity. What is a "criminal" or "violent" act? What is alcoholism? We can make up arbitrary definitions for legal, psychiatric, or clinical purposes, but this does not mean we are dealing with behaviors that have the same causal roots. If researchers cannot agree on the nature or definition of a trait, they have little hope of rigorously studying its genetics.

Yet another advantage we have at the moment is experience, both in the scientific and lay communities, showing that open opposition to genetic determinist ideas can affect the degree to which they are accepted. Geneticists and other biologists did not stand up publicly to oppose eugenical claims in the 1920s and 1930s the way some of their counterparts are doing today. The NIH Violence Initiative might have moved into place unnoticed had not Maryland psychiatrist Peter Breggin, who is head of the Center for the Study of Psychiatry and Psychology in Bethesda, Md., made a cause célŹbre of the Institute's proposal to study the biological basis of violence in innercity youth. The claims of Arthur Jensen, Richard Herrnstein, and William Shockley 20 years ago about a genetic basis for racial difference in IQ might have become quietly incorporated into mainstream biology, sociology, psychology, and educational theory had not the scientific claims been disputed publicly by knowledgeable geneticists such as Richard Lewontin and psychologists such as Leon Kamin.

Finally, and most fundamentally, if economic and social conditions ultimately determine the support and the publicity awarded to genetically deterministic ideas, then it is clear we must also work to change those conditions and create an economically more humane and egalitarian society--a desirable goal in its own right. Only by exposing the flaws of naive genetic determinism, while also attending to basic problems in our economic and social system, can we avoid repeating the worst errors of our predecessors.


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