Eugenics: the week in review

It’s been a great week for eugenics fans. First, we learned that California has been involuntarily sterilizing pregnant prisoners for the last 15 years–a haunting coda to Alexandra Stern’s chilling research on California’s 20th century eugenics program. Then Jon Entine wrote that eugenics is coming back and that’s just fine–provoking a lively exchange with yours truly. And now Dhruti Shah publishes an article on the BBC site claiming of all things that the Nazis “undermined” eugenics. Damn! And it had all been going so well up until then!

I’m gathering my thoughts on this issue, so stay tuned. But two points immediately leap out at me. First, both Entine and Shah are either ignorant or Panglossian about the early history of eugenics. Entine writes that some imagined “negative wing” of the eugenics movement “was never widely embraced.” Historians of eugenics agree that on some level, almost everyone in the Progressive era was a eugenicist, in the sense of advocating or supporting eugenics. There was no “negative wing”–there was only positive and negative eugenics, which were seen as complimentary.

And Shah writes that the Nazis’ use of eugenics “ended up undermining its credibility as a science.” Actually, its credibility as a science had been undermined for quite some time. By 1933, few seriously trained geneticists were willing to do more than sigh longingly for the day when we would know enough to direct our own evolution without wrecking the gene pool, society, or both. Its popularity as medicine and as population control rose steadily through and beyond the Nazi period. Indeed, the Nazis’ experiment in scientifically rationalized genocide coincided with the peak in sterilization and compulsory birth control of Americans and Scandinavians, and with explicitly eugenic programs ranging from immigration control to race- and class-based family planning on every inhabited continent of the globe.

The second point that immediately comes to mind is that these reports and commentaries suggest that my argument, which I made in the conclusion of The Science of Human Perfection, about eugenics regaining respectability in the post-genome age, is correct (see also my article “The Eugenic Impulse“). Scientists, at least, really do seem to be more comfortable with the term “eugenics” as a name for what they are trying to do. And what they’re trying to do, in a nutshell, is engineer ourselves a better future. To control human evolution.

The argument is that “Sure, it was done wrong before–but that was because we didn’t understand the science well enough.” That’s always the argument. Eugenicists have always said “Now we know enough to do it right.” And the next generation always comes along and clucks its tongue at the naivete and ignorance of its forbears.

No, it’s not because we didn’t understand the science. It’s because we didn’t understand society well enough before. And for all the remarkable technological advances of the last century, there’s scant evidence that we understand society much better now.

The gene for hubris

A recent post by Jon Entine on the Forbes website leads with a complimentary citation of my book– and then goes on to undermine its central thesis. He concludes:

Modern eugenic aspirations are not about the draconian top-down measures promoted by the Nazis and their ilk. Instead of being driven by a desire to “improve” the species, new eugenics is driven by our personal desire to be as healthy, intelligent and fit as possible—and for the opportunity of our children to be so as well. And that’s not something that should be dismissed lightly.

Well, first of all, as the recent revelations of coerced sterilization of prisoners in California shows, “draconian, top-down” measures do still occur. Genetics and reproduction are intensely potent, and wherever we find abuse of power we should be alert to the harnessing of biology in the service of tyranny.

Second, there’s more than one kind of tyranny. Besides the tyranny of an absolute ruler, perhaps the two most potent and relevant here are the tyranny of the commons and the tyranny of the marketplace. The fact that they are more subtle makes them in some ways more dangerous. The healthcare industry does much good in the world, but it is naive to treat it as wholly benign.

Further, putting human evolution in the hands of humans, means accepting long-term consequences for short-term goals. The traits we value–health, intelligence, beauty–are the result of the action of many genes interacting with each other and with a dynamic environment. The entire system is contingent, inherently unpredictable. Yet we treat it as simple and deterministic. Until now, technology has been the major obstacle to guiding human evolution. It may be that now the major obstacle is our reasoning ability, our capacity for grasping contingency and probability and change. We’re tinkering with the machinery of a system whose complexity is still unfolding before us. The probability of unforeseen consequences is 100%. The only question is how severe they will be. We will only know in retrospect.

If we now have the tools to meaningfully guide our own evolution–as eugenicists have always wanted to do–we cannot take a blithe and Panglossian attitude. We have to be alert to the risks and take them seriously. That is not traditionally science’s strong suit. The public face of science is sunny, optimistic, fun. It strides boldly into the future, laughing and making striking promises. The industries behind science and health are wealthy and politically powerful. Not everything they do is benign.

To be a critic of that public-relations machine–of hype, in other words–is not to be a critic of health or knowledge or progress. Genetic science has the potential to bring us enormous benefits in health and well-being, and as they do, I stand in line with my fellow humans for my fair share. But that science also carries huge and unforeseeable risks, the root of which, perhaps, is arrogance. It’s one whose consequences are painfully evident in the historical record.


Eugenics? In California?

Pacific Colony hospital in California, where they used to perform the sterilizations.

[UPDATE: Changed the link from the Sacramento Bee article to the longer report from cironline. h/t Alex Stern.] A quick note on today’s report from the Center for Investigative Reporting that at least 150 pregnant inmates in prisons in Corona and Chowchilla, CA, were sterilized against their will. Between 2006 and 2010. That’s TWO THOUSAND six. Another hundred or more may have been sterilized in the 10 or so years before that. (See also this HuffPo piece from last month.)

In an earlier post, I noted that when I applied for my marriage license in California, my betrothed and I received a state-sponsored booklet called “Your future together.” It was heavily gene-centered and mentioned that one can obtain free birth control and sterilization, paid for by the state. The historian Alexandra Minna Stern has written about the racial politics of California sterilization (see my review of her latest book–and then buy the book). Not surprisingly, the largest number of people sterilized are poor Mexicans, often illegal immigrants. Those surgeries, however, are at least nominally voluntary. Involuntary sexual surgery on prisoners sounds like something from the 1910s, not the 2010s.

In my book, The Science of Human Perfection, I note that eugenics is alive and well, though it often travels under an assumed name. The principles of informed consent can be–and as this report shows, are–used to mask persuasion. When that persuasion includes being made to “feel like was a bad mother if I didn’t do it,” it grades into coercion. Further, the ethics of sterilizing minority women in prison are even more complex than doing it outside—one wonders, for example, how many of those women were impregnated by prison guards. We should not let the drawing of apparently bright ethical lines allow us to become complacent about the gray, unlit areas where that good ol’ time eugenics can still flourish.

Hilary Rose on eugenics & genetic medicine

Just saw this clip of an interview with the inveterate science critic Hilary Rose with The Guardian. She expresses beautifully and forcefully the idea I try, however awkwardly, to trace in The Science of Human Perfection and, often more humorously, here on Genotopia. She discusses how eugenics has always had a strand of preventive medicine, and how that strand runs continuously down to today’s genetic medicine. And that doesn’t make modern genetics evil. However, we have to be honest about what it is we’re up to. E.g.:

“Preventive [genetic] medicine is eugenics. Now, I’m not going to say I’m totally against eugenics. I just think we need to say what we’re doing.”

Rose is often a fairly radical critic, but this strikes me as a balanced and fair reading. I am ordering the new book Genes, Cells, and Brains, by Hilary Rose and Steven Rose. I expect to post more on it.

How good it would be to see some momentum gather for an honest, non-polemical critique of genetic biomedicine, one in which the aim was not to strap ourselves to the gears and wheels and levers of the machine* but rather to steer it in a positive direction—one that maximally benefits those it is meant to serve.


*paraphrase of a favorite quote from my hometown history

Taking counsel (Review of Stern, Telling Genes)

I just read Alexandra Stern’s fine new history of genetic counseling, Telling Genes (Johns Hopkins, 2012; $40 cloth/$25 paper/ $15 Kindle). Though Alex is my friend, I review her book here because her subject relates so closely to the themes of Genotopia. Alex and I played leapfrog around some of the same archives as we researched. Telling Genes and The Science of Human Perfection are complementary—and I mean that in the nicest possible way. With that warning of possible conflict of interest, I want to examine her history of genetic counseling with the same “critical and sympathetic” analysis (3) that she applies to the history of genetic counseling itself.

Like medical genetics, the history of genetic counseling is intimately bound to that of eugenics. And like medical geneticists, genetic counselors have been trying to shake off these eugenic associations for many years. Stern, though highly sympathetic to today’s genetic counselors, won’t let that historical firewall stand. Unflinchingly, she drives home the eugenic connections in every chapter.

One of the most contentious issues in this history is where the history begins. Almost all genetic counselors today are Master’s level professional GCs. A Whig history of genetic counseling, then, might argue that the history began in 1969, with the founding of the first Master’s degree program in genetic counseling at Sarah Lawrence College. In contrast, a radical interested in showing the continuities with the darkest side of eugenics, might argue that the history began in 1910, with the founding of the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor. ERO staff advised people about many of the same things—likelihood of disease, of perpetuating family traits, of a particular racial parentage—that GCs still do today.

Stern takes a middle ground, beginning the history in 1941, with the founding of three independent research and counseling institutes for medical genetics: the Heredity Clinic in Ann Arbor, MI; the Family Record Office and Department of Medical Genetics at Wake Forest, and the Dight Institute of Human Genetics, in Minneapolis. These were conceived as Eugenics Record Offices attached to medical schools; collectively, they are known as the heredity clinics. At one of them (the Dight), the term “genetic counseling” was coined, by director Sheldon Reed, in 1947. Beginning here with these hybrid institutes—part ol’ time eugenics office, part modern genetic counseling facility— allows Stern considerable interpretive room. She allows the ambiguity and the tensions between individual and population to hang in the air, creating that kind of awkward pause in a conversation that makes a reflective person stop and think.

Timeline of genetic counseling
A (very) rough chronology of major events in the history of genetic counseling.

Stern does not, however, narrate the history chronologically. Rather, the history unfolds in a series of oscillations and resonances, in a series of analytic chapters organized by central concepts and problems in genetic counseling. Taking a thematic rather than chronological approach buys her a great deal of analytical substance, but it sacrifices narrative continuity. The arc of genetic counseling over the second half of the twentieth century doesn’t emerge until the end, and the reader must do the work of pulling out the major events and arranging them chronologically. Although the first chapter is titled “History,” it covers mainly the debate in the 1970s over the professionalization of the field. This is the only significant misstep in the book. A brief narrative account of the field—from the establishment of the Heredity Clinics in the early 1940s through the neo-eugenic 1950s, the emergence of genetic screening in the ‘60s, with the first Master’s level program at the end of the decade, through the profesionalization of the 70s and ‘80s, would have set the stage better for her later thematic analysis. I read the book with two graduate students, and both of them felt the lack of a chronological narrative to be a hindrance.

The remaining chapters cash in marvelously, often brilliantly, on the thematic organization. Chapter 2, “Genetic Risk,” looks at Huntington Disease, tracing the “shifting risk calculus” of the disease “as it crossed the transom of genetic testing and genetic counseling” (31). Stern notes that in lieu of effective therapies, more information and more precise diagnostics do not lessen—and perhaps increase—apprehension about the disease. Chapter 3, “Race,” focuses on questions of the population and the individual. Thinking in terms of populations, she argues, carries many tacit racial considerations into human genetics: “Population was never a neutral biogeographic term.” A harrowing and perceptive section on the methods of “racial matching” at the Dight Institute of Human Genetics in Minnesota and the Heredity Clinic in Michigan excavates a remarkable series of notebooks from the director, Sheldon C. Reed. Stern observes Reed simultaneously advocating publicly a liberal stance toward miscegenation as a solution to racial tension and advising adoptive parents on the goodness of fit of mixed-race children into a white family. Reed used an implicit “one drop rule,” At Michigan, James V. Neel—one of the pioneers of noneugenic medical genetics—also classified babies, according to a sort of Pantone series of skin tone. Stern allows this ambiguity to hang in the air, neither damning nor defending their inconsistency. These medical-genetic pioneers helped bring the field forward, but they were flawed, and Stern makes no apologies for them.

Chapter 4, on disability, focuses on the evolution of Mongolism to Down syndrome. In the 1940s, she shows, genetic counseling was built around a code of prevention (97). Gradually that code shifted to focus more on adaptation and adjustment, as families and patients’ rights groups have pressed for the acknowledgment of the disabled. These groups have understandably expressed concern over reproductive technologies and prenatal genetic screening, perceiving mandatory screening laws as an attack on the very existence of the disabled.

In chapter 5, “Women,” Stern relates the history of the founding of the Sarah Lawrence program in genetic counseling. Established in 1969 by Melissa Richter, it was brought to maturity by Joan Marks, who ran the program from Richter’s death in 1974 until 1998. Though mythologized as a moment when genetic counseling at last threw off its eugenic shackles, here too eugenic concerns mingle with sure-footed movements toward autonomy and informed consent. Richter, for all her sunny optimism and prescience, was a “neo-Malthusian,” couching her program proposal in the language of population explosion and mounting genetic “load,” Hermann J. Muller’s term for the accrual of mutations. Richter’s signal contribution was in establishing women as the foundation of modern genetic counseling—a startling echo (unnoted by Stern) of the long tradition of female “field workers” at the Cold Spring Harbor Eugenics Record Office in the teens and twenties. The medical community fought bitterly against the establishment of Master’s level genetic counseling, but the persistence of Richter and others persuaded physicians to cede jurisdiction over this critical but “softer” aspect of genetic medicine.

Chapter 6, on ethics, focuses on the shift from directive disease-centered eugenic counseling to nondirective, client-centered counseling. Here Stern takes us back to before the Heredity Clinics, to the psychologist Carl Rogers, who coined “nondirectiveness” in developing a new approach toward counseling victims of violence and abuse. She brings forward much fascinating and new material here, although her inference that Lee Dice and other Heredity Clinicians were borrowing directly from Rogers is circumstantial and, to me, not entirely persuasive. However, her analysis of the erosion of the concept of nondirectiveness is fascinating. She shows, surprisingly, that “nondirectiveness” has had a relatively short life. It didn’t enter the genetic counseling lexicon until the 1980s, and already by the 2000s it had begun to recede as the discipline’s gold standard, in favor of a more nuanced discussion about the strengths and limits of autonomy and consent.

The final chapter shifts categories to look at a recent methodological development: prenatal genetic diagnosis and its uneasy marriage with genetic counseling. This provides her with a vehicle for examining developments in genetic counseling since the 1970s. Her analysis of the rise of amniocentesis is a valuable contribution to literature by Rayna Rapp, Ruth Schwartz Cowan, and Robert Resta, among others. A conclusion briefly examines current-day practices and, in an original analytical move, closes by considering the possibility that the history of genetic counseling may be drawing to a close. As genomic medicine works to treat all disease as genetic in origin, the concept of genetic disease is gradually eroding. If genetics dissolves into biology, what exactly will genetic counselors counsel about? Stern closes with a call for genetic counselors to examine their history as a means of ensuring their future.

Yet if the juggernaut of geneticization continues unabated, there will always be a need for a medical-genetic middleman—or middle-person. Someone with serious genetic training but also skilled in psychology, ethics, and education. Someone whose time is not metered in quarter-hour increments (and billed in C-notes). Telling Genes is unflinching in tracing our hereditarian past, but sympathetic toward and highly supportive of those compassionate professionals who guide the rest of us into an ever more genetic future. It should be widely read, by genetic counselors, by clinicians, by future parents, and by anyone who is or knows someone who is affected by genetic disease.

New findings suggest scientists not getting smarter

Certain critics of rigid genetic determinism have long believed that the environment plays a major role in shaping intelligence. According to this view, enriched and stimulating surroundings should make one smarter. Playing Bach violin concertos to your fetus, for example, may nudge it toward future feats of fiddling, ingenious engineering, or novel acts of fiction. Although this view has been challenged, it persists in the minds of romantics and parents–two otherwise almost non-overlapping populations.

If environmental richness were actually correlated with intelligence, then those who live and work in the richest environments should be measurably smarter than those not so privileged.  And what environment could be richer than the laboratory? Science is less a profession than a society within our society–a meritocracy based on an economy of ideas. Scientists inhabit a world in which knowledge accretes and credit accrues inexorably, as induction, peer review, and venture capital fuel the engines of discovery and innovation. Science has become the pre-eminent intellectual enterprise of our time–and American science proudly leads the world. The American biomedical laboratory is to the 21st century what the German university was to the 19th; what Dutch painting was to the 17th; the Portuguese sailing ship to the 16th; the Greek Lyceum to the minus 5th.

According to this view, then, scientists should be getting smarter. One might measure this in various ways, but Genotopia, being quantitatively challenged, prefers the more qualitative and subjective measure of whether we are making the same dumb mistakes over and over. So we are asking today: Are scientists repeating past errors and thus sustaining and perhaps compounding errors of ignorance? Are scientists getting smarter?

Yes and no. A pair of articles (12) recently published in the distinguished journal Trends in Genetics slaps a big juicy data point on the graph of scientific intelligence vs. time–and Senator, the trend in genetics is flat. The articles’ author, Gerald Crabtree, examines recent data on the genetics of intelligence. He estimates that, of the 20,000 or so human genes, between 2,000 and 5,000 are involved in intelligence. This, he argues, makes human intelligence surprisingly “fragile.” In a bit of handwaving so vigorous it calls to mind the semaphore version of Wuthering Heights, he asserts that these genes are strung like links in a chain, rather than multiply connected, as nodes of a network. He imagines the genes for intelligence to function like a biochemical pathway, such that any mutation propagates “downstream”, diminishing the final product–the individual’s god-given and apparently irremediable brainpower.


Beginning in 1865, the polymath Francis Galton fretted that Englishmen were getting dumber. In his Hereditary Genius (1865) he concluded that “families are apt to become extinct in proportion to their dignity” (p. 140). He believed that “social agencies of an ordinary character, whose influences are little suspected, are at this moment working towards the degradation of human nature,” although he acknowledged that others were working toward its improvement. (1) The former clearly outweighed the latter in the mind of Galton and other Victorians; hence Galton’s “eugenics,” an ingenious scheme for human improvement through the machinations of “existing law and sentiment.” Galton’s eugenics was a system of incentives and penalties for marriage and childbirth, meted out according to his calculations of social worth.This is a familiar argument to students of heredity. The idea that humans are degenerating–especially intellectually–persists independently of how much we know about intelligence and heredity. Which is to say, no matter how smart we get, we persist in believing we are getting dumber.

Galton was just one exponent of the so-called degeneration theory: the counter-intuitive but apparently irresistible idea that technological progress, medical advance, improvements in pedagogy, and civilization en masse in fact are producing the very opposite of what we supposed; namely, they are crippling the body, starving the spirit, and most of all eroding the mind.

The invention of intelligence testing by Alfred Binet just before the turn of the 20th century provided a powerful tool for proving the absurd. Though developed as a diagnostic to identify children who needed a bit of extra help in school–an enriched environment–IQ testing was quickly turned into a fire alarm for degeneration theorists. When the psychologist Robert M. Yerkes administered a version of the test to Army recruits during the first world war, he concluded that better than one in eight of America’s Finest were feebleminded–an inference that is either ridiculous or self-evident, depending on one’s view of the military.

These new ways of quantifying intelligence dovetailed perfectly with the new Mendelian genetics, which was developed beginning in 1900. Eugenics—a rather thin, anemic, blue-blooded affair in Victorian England, matured in Mendelian America into a strapping and cocky young buck, with advocates across the various social and political spectra embracing the notion of hereditary improvement. Eugenics advocates of the Progressive era tended to be intellectual determinists. Feeblemindedness–a catch-all for subnormal intelligence, from the drooling “idiot” to the high-functioning “moron”—was their greatest nightmare. It seemed to be the root of all social problems, from poverty to prostitution to ill health.

And the roots of intelligence were believed to be genetic. In England, Cyril Burt found that Spearman’s g (for “general intelligence”)—a statistical “thing,” derived by factor analysis and believed by Spearman, Burt, and others to be what IQ measures—was fixed and immutable, and (spoiler alert) poor kids were innately stupider than rich kids. In America, the psychologist Henry Goddard, superintendent of the Vineland School for the Feebleminded in New Jersey and the man who had introduced IQ testing to the US, published Feeblemindedness: Its Causes and Consequences in 1914. Synthesizing years of observations and testing of slow children, he suggested–counter to all common sense–that feeblemindedness was due to a single Mendelian recessive gene. This observation was horrifying, because it made intelligence so vulnerable–so “fragile.” A single mutation could turn a normal individual into a feebleminded menace to society.

As Goddard put it in 1920, “The chief determiner of human conduct is the unitary mental process which we call intelligence.” The grade of intelligence for each individual, he said, “is determined by the kind of chromosomes that come together with the union of the germ cells.” Siding with Burt, the experienced psychologist wrote that intelligence was “conditioned by a nervous mechanism that is inborn, and that it was “but little affected by any later influence” other than brain injury or serious disease. He called it “illogical and inefficient” to attempt any educational system without taking this immovable native intelligence into account. (Goddard, Efficiency and Levels of Intelligence, 1920, p 1)

This idea proved so attractive that a generation of otherwise competent and level-headed reserchers and clinicians persisted in believing it, again despite it being as obvious as ever that the intellectual horsepower you put out depends on the quality of the engine parts, the regularity of the maintenance you invest in it, the training of the driver, and the instruments you use to measure it.

The geneticist Hermann Joseph Muller was not obsessed with intelligence, but he was obsessed with genetic degeneration. Trained at the knobby knees of some of the leading eugenicists of the Progressive era, Muller–a fruitfly geneticist by day and a bleeding-heart eugenicist by night–fretted through the 1920s and 1930s about environmental assaults on the gene pool: background solar radiation, radium watch-dials, shoestore X-ray machines, etc. The dropping of the atomic bombs on the Japanese sent him into orbit. In 1946 he won a Nobel prize for his discovery of X-ray-induced mutation, and he used his new fame to launch a new campaign on behalf of genetic degeneration. The presidency of the new American Society of Human Genetics became his bully pulpit, from which he preached nuclear fire and brimstone: our average “load of mutations,” he calculated, was about eight damaged genes–and growing. Crabtree’s argument thus sounds a lot like Muller grafted onto Henry Goddard.

In 1968, the educational psychologist Arthur Jensen produced a 120-page article that asserted that compensatory education–the idea that racial disparities in IQ correlate with opportunities more than innate ability, and accordingly that they can be reduced by enriching the learning environments of those who test low–was futile. Marshaling an impressive battery of data, most of which were derived from Cyril Burt, Jensen insisted that blacks are simply dumber than whites, and (with perhaps just a hint of wistfulness) that Asians are the smartest of all. Jensen may not have been a degenerationist sensu strictu, but his opposition to environmental improvement earns him a data point.

In 1990, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray published their infamous book, The Bell Curve. Their brick of a book was a masterly and authoritative rehash of Burt and Jensen, presented artfully on a platter of scientific reason and special pleading for the brand of reactionary politics that is reserved for those who can afford private tutors. They found no fault with either Burt’s data (debate continues, but it has been argued that Burt was a fraud) or his conclusion that IQ tests measure Spearman’s g, that g is strongly inherited, and that it is innate. Oh yes, and that intellectually, whites are a good bit smarter than blacks but slightly dumber than Asians. Since they believed there is nothing we can do about our innate intelligence, our only hope is to “marry up” and try to have smarter children.

The Bell Curve appeared just at the beginning of the Human Genome Project. By 2000 we had a “draft” reference sequence for the human genome, and by 2004 (ck) “the” human genome was declared complete. Since the 1940s, human geneticists had focused on single-gene traits, especially diseases. One problem with Progressive era eugenics, researchers argued, was that they had focused on socially determined and hopelessly complex traits; once they set their sights on more straightforward targets, the science could at last advance.

But once this low-hanging fruit had been plucked, researchers began to address more complex traits once again. Disease susceptibility, multicausal diseases such as obesity, mental disorders, and intelligence returned to the fore. Papers such as Crabtree’s are vastly more sophisticated than Goddard’s tome. The simplistic notion of a single gene for intelligence is long gone; each of Crabtree’s 2,000-5,000 hypothetical intelligence genes hypothetically contributes but a tiny fraction of the overall. If you spit in a cup and send it to the personal genome testing company 23AndMe, they will test your DNA for hundreds of genes, including one that supposedly adds 7 points to your IQ (roughly 6 percent for an IQ of 110).

Thus we are back around to a new version of genes for intelligence. Despite the sophistication and nuance of modern genomic analyses, we end up concluding once again that intelligence is mostly hereditary and therefore also racial, and that it’s declining.

Apart from the oddly repetitious and ad hoc nature of the degeneration argument, what is most disconcerting is this one staring implication: that pointing out degeneration suggests a desire to do something about it. If someone were, say, sitting on the couch and called out, “The kitchen is sure a mess! Look at the plates all stacked there, covered with the remains of breakfast, and ick, flies are starting to gather on the hunks of Jarlsberg and Black Twig apples hardening and browning, respectively, on the cutting board,” you wouldn’t think he was simply making an observation. You’d think he was implying that you should get in there and clean up the damn kitchen. Which would be a dick move, because he’s just sitting there reading the Times, so why the heck doesn’t he do it himself. But the point is, sometimes observation implies action. If you are going to point out that the genome is broken, you must be thinking on some level that we can fix it. Thus, degeneration implies eugenics. Not necessarily the ugly kind of eugenics of coercive sterilization laws and racial extermination. But eugenics in Galton’s original sense of voluntary human hereditary improvement.

And thus, scientists do not appear to be getting any smarter. Despite the enriched environs of the modern biomedical laboratory, with gleaming toys and stimulating colleagues publishing a rich literature that has dismantled the simplistic genetic models and eugenic prejudices of yore, researchers such as Crabtree continue to believe the same old same old: that we’re getting dumber–or in danger of doing so.

In other words, sometimes the data don’t seem to matter. Prejudices and preconceptions leak into the laboratory, particularly on explosive issues such as intelligence and/or race, regardless of how heredity is constructed. Plenty of scientists are plenty smart, of course. But rehashing the degeneracy theory of IQ does not demonstrate it.

The Science of Human Perfection

I’ve started a new page–it will stay in the header bar above–for my forthcoming book, The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine, due this summer from Yale University Press. The book is a history of the promises of genetic medicine, from the late 19th through the late 20th centuries. It shows how genetics went from being a backwater of agricultural science to the core of biomedicine. Eugenics, I find, was not a hindrance to genetics going medical, but the vehicle by which it went medical.

I’ve posted a link to the Preface, and will post news about it there as it comes in. Enjoy!

Thalassophilia unmasked

There is no gene for thalassophilia—yet, anyway.

My satirical post last week about scientists finding a gene for love of the sea was intended to make a point about how we view genomics today—and a historical point about how we smugly congratulate ourselves on being so much more sophisticated than early human geneticists and eugenicists. Most people got that it was a spoof, but I thought it would be worthwhile to discuss some of the deeper issues at stake.

Charles Davenport was a real scientist, and the quotes from him are real. Davenport was a geneticist in the first half of the 20th century and the leader of the American Eugenics movement during the Progressive Era. He is often demonized as wrong-headed, misguided, and simple-minded. Indeed, he could be all of these things. Davenport really did believe there was a recessive, male-linked trait for the love of the sea. Thalassophilia has become a classic example of how eugenicists could ignore obvious environmental explanations in favor of the hereditary. When I told my 11-year-old daughter about Davenport’s thalassophilia, she immediately saw the fallacy: the sons of ship captains learn their love of the sea, they don’t inherit it.

My larger point is that simplistic analyses like Davenport’s can be masked by numbers and fancy technology.

For years, medical genetics involved the search for genes underlying genetic disease. Diseases that were caused by a defective gene, and not, say, by a germ or some other environmental factor. But that distinction has been erased. We used to think of genetic traits and non-genetic traits. Now, non-genetic traits are called “complex”—i.e., partly genetic and partly environmental. In other words, all diseases, and indeed all traits are understood as partially genetic.

There are sound reasons for thinking this way. I’m not arguing that those genes don’t exist. I don’t question the data—I’m happy to believe that there really is a genetic association with all of these traits. Indeed, I think it’s becoming possible to find a real, verifiable genetic basis for almost anything you like.

The advent of genome-wide association studies (GWAS) has made it vastly easier to examine traits with smaller and smaller genetic contributions. In essence, you can pick your trait, sample the DNA of a large group of people, and scan their genomes for bits of shared sequence.

As a consequence, we have the recent bloom of studies describing the genetic component of all sorts of “complex” traits, from religiosity to getting drunk and beating people up. We’re only limited by our imaginations, and by the kinds of traits we’re interested in today.

Thinking about these recent studies, it occurred to me that these traits were not fundamentally different from Davenport’s old favorite, thalassophilia. I bet, I said to myself, that if sailing were as culturally important today as it was in 1919, people would be doing GWAS to find the genetic basis of sea-lust. And I bet they’d find it.

Of course, there are big differences between human genetics in 2011 and human genetics in 1919. Davenport advocated sterilization laws and immigration laws to manage and shrink what he saw as the swelling populations of the “unfit.” That would be inconceivable today. I don’t think we’re returning to a “new eugenics” in any meaningful sense.

But cutting across the cultural differences are some continuities. One of them is the desire to believe there is a simple genetic explanation for our tastes and talents. That I think is a dangerous view. So on the one hand, I think we should be careful to evaluate 1920s science by the standards of the day, rather than by those of the 21st century. And on the other, we must not delude ourselves that modern science is completely objective. Mechanistic explanations are not proof against cultural bias.

My spoof was intended as a word of caution, a way to inject a note of skepticism about genetic explanations of human nature. C.M (“Call Me) Ishmael, the journal Genetic Determinism Today, MysticGene, the 4C (“for sea”) variant, the salt-stained polo shirts and the sailing widows—all that was pure balderdash. As the motto of this site goes, “Here lies truth”— in roughly equal measure.

So, keep your heads up, folks—and watch for the keyword “Satire” in the Categories section of this blog. Thanks for reading.

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