Charles Darwin was the first to suggest that the human species is subjected to laws of natural selection. After publishing his radical Theory of Evolution, science became the basis of human inheritance. Moreover, science could be used to encourage favourable traits in society. Based on Darwin’s work, Sir Francis Galton coined the term eugenics in 1883, which meant “racial enhancement through selective breeding” (Epstein, 2003).
Early geneticists of the 20th century took on board Darwin’s ideas in order to understand the mechanisms of inheritance. However, Galton’s definition of eugenics and it’s luring utopian dream – a dream to cure the human race from imperfections – quickly corrupted genetic research.
1. Eugenics applied Mendelian Genetics to humans
The rising popularity of Mendel’s principles of inheritance during late 1900s caused a boom in European genetic research, which laid the groundwork for eugenic thinking.
The work of English biologist William Bateson and his physicians colleagues on inherited disorders made Mendelian genetics mainstream in the European medical community (Harper, 2017). This development enabled previously published family studies on e.g. eye, skeletal and neural disorders to fall into patterns of mendelian inheritance. The field of population genetics and inheritance of unwanted mutations was further expanded by works of European geneticists J. B. S. Haldane on mammalian genetic linkage, and Archibald Garrod on metabolic disorders (Haldane, 1922).
The outbreak of WWI in 1914 in Europe shifted genetic research into the US. During the 1920’s, Thomas Hunt Morgan and colleagues established the first experimental approach to evolution and natural selection at Columbia University. Morgan investigated Mendelian inheritance in Drosophila flies and made two discoveries: genes could be mapped on chromosomes and they determined the sex of an organism (Kennedy & Borisy, 2009). Morgan et al. had discovered the chromosomal theory of inheritance and showcased the missing mechanistic link between heredity and evolution.
2. Eugenics was popular in academia
Eugenics was a serious scientific movement in the 1920’s, and it’s goal was to genetically improve the human race.
Universities taught eugenic ideologies and formed eugenic communities like the British Eugenics Society (est. 1907 and the American Eugenics Society (est. 1926) (Farber, 2008). The Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory funded biologists such as Charles Davenport to research human inheritance and race. Davenport teamed up with eugenicist Harry Laughlin and developed the office into a sub-department of the Experimental Evolution Department of the Carnegie Institution. Here, researchers could provide prompt scientific data for the eugenic movement.
However, the eugenic societies were made of ideological and political thinkers rather than scientists. Only one fifth of the 650 American Eugenics Society’s members had any medical background (Nature Publishing Group, 1938). In fact, some geneticists resisted the eugenics movement. Morgan himself accused scientists like Davenport and Laughlin of misunderstanding inheritance since their research focused on environmental rather than genetic factors (Morgan, 1925).
Regardless, eugenics grew into a social phenomena promoted by political leaders. The US government was first to put the ideas into government lead practice. New policies included preventing the reproduction of ‘unfit’ individuals directly using forced sterilisation, abortion, institutionalisation, and banning racial mixing, as well as indirectly through general stigmatisation, racial discrimination and quotas on immigration.
Between 1918-1939, these US laws became a standard model for global eugenic policy and sterilisation, which were adopted in 56 countries, including Nazi Germany (Barrett & Kurzman, 2004).
3. Hitler and Stalin had opposite Eugenic views
After the outbreak of WWII, inferences on genetics were cherry picked by extreme political parties for their own agendas.
Germany was one of the leaders in European genetics, with three famous geneticists Erwin Baur, Eugen Fischer and Fritz Lenz publishing a classic on human genetics in 1921, Human Heredity. However, Lenz, Fischer and other German geneticists became perpetrators of eugenic policies in Nazi Germany and their work supported Hitler’s politics. The Nazi ideology used eugenics to promote a supreme race with state sponsored discrimination and sterilisation. These efforts eventually caused the genocide of racial and cultural minorities, homosexuals, and mentally or physically disabled (Epstein, 2003).
In complete contract, supporters of mendelian genetics and eugenics were brutally massacred in Soviet Russia. Before WWII, Russian genetics was well established, spanning from population genetics and statistical studies on mendelian family disorders to diabetes. However, Stalin became more interested in the ideas of Trofim Lysenko, who believed in the malleable inheritance of acquired characteristics. Stalin personally disliked the work of the influential geneticist and communist thinker Hermann Muller on Drosophila gene mutations. After the abuses of eugenics in Nazi Germany were revealed, the entire field of classical genetics was banned in Russia and most leading geneticists were persecuted (Harper, 2017).
4. Eugenics is the same as genome therapy
Although outlawed in principle, 21st century genome technologies have unforeseen potential for eugenics.
CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing is one of the leading advancements, as now any lab can edit their gene of choice. CRISPR has the potential to correct mutations ranging from a single nucleotide variant in sickle cell anaemia to repeated mutant sequences in Huntington’s disease. Further, epigenetic CRISPR editing could theoretically correct complex disorders such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and depression by altering inheritable transcriptional notation (Kungulovski & Jeltsch, 2016). China and the US have both published papers on germ-line engineering (Connor, 2017). In addition, somatic cells can now be reprogrammed into germ cells (Ishii & Pera, 2016). These advances open the possibility of “embryo farming” humans with optimised genetic makeups, resembling eerily the bottle grown babies of Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World.
5. Eugenics is already happening in the clinic
Two gene therapies have already been approved in Europe, but for a high price: Glybera for rare metabolic diseases and Strimvelis for immunodeficiency disorders cost between $700,000-1 million per treatment. In the US, FDA is debating on approving their first treatment for congenital gene therapy – Luxturna by Spark Therapeutics – priced at nearly half a million per eye treatment (Mullin, 2017). Children without of inheritable disorders will therefore be born into rich families, creating a new genetic advantage to wealthy individuals.
Moreover, rising population growth makes prenatal screening with new DNA sequencing technologies increasingly tempting. As state strength is no longer linked to population size, countries like China hope to boost population quality over quantity by encouraging prenatal diagnosis and selective abortions. Aborting foetuses due to deficiencies such as Type 1 spinal muscular apathy is advised by doctors even in extremely conservative Muslim communities (Sasongko et al., 2010). Furthermore, genetic screening during in vitro fertilisation and mitochondrial replacement therapies enables parents to choose the genetic makeup of their children, giving infertile parents more medical freedom to their children’s genome than fertile parents (Palacios-González, 2016).
The enthusiasm of 20th century geneticists has caused some of the worst atrocities that humanity have ever faced. Although early geneticists aimed to study and improve the human population, their ideas became inseparable with eugenic folk knowledge and pseudoscience. These ideas justified class systems, slave labor and genocide in all parts of the globe (and still do).
Today, breakthroughs in genome editing and genetic screening could easily revive science based social stigmatisation. However, denying these technologies from children with fatal genetic disorders is equally unethical. Genome therapeutics should therefore be encouraged, but practical ethical guidelines are needed to raise global caution on this slippery slope of eugenic thinking.