On Eugenics Today and Its ‘Scientific’ Refutations

Geneticists, such as Adam Rutherford at University College London, occasionally claim that racism is false because genetic variance shows humans’ current preoccupation with melanin pigmentation, bone structure, and singular origin stories are but misapprehensions. The idea of ‘a race’ is a mistake since the appearance and character traits, social and bodily, within any population are changeable and incrementally changing all the time. Granted, it is good to hear there is no biological basis for judgements about race; the racist judgements nonetheless continue, albeit more subtly, for social reasons. (That at the level of learning can still be considered part-biological, because detecting and acting on differences happens in our bodies’.) Nonetheless race’s biological status has had fraught currency since 1778, when the first person to study skull sizes and coin still-used race terms like Caucasian – Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, with benevolent racism – claimed ‘the African negro’ individual to be as potentially capable as any member of the French Academy. Biologists at Unesco in 1950-51 released then-daring statements that there is no pure biological basis for race in the flurry of post-war rights movements and post-decoding the double helix.

And as far afield a group as literature undergraduates since the 1990s have had readings such as Kwane Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates’ critical essays on race, which spread the good news that genetic research had long-disproved any genetic basis for separate races. So, why do geneticists like Adam Rutherford continue to ‘reveal’ to the public at large that race is no objective fact, but a social development? For good intentions: to counter argue racists. But for bad reasons: the assumption that biological facts have primacy basis in how people, such as miseducated racists, treat one another. Sociological facts instead, such as personality, skin colour, accent, educational attainment, class, gender, nationality, ethnicity, looks, age, tabulated race, folk-psychology, personal-experience, status, and customs all go into determining how people treat one another. Think about it. Few racists consult a textbook, their doctor, or Radio 4 for advice or justification about what makes a population they dislike ‘the way they are’; disinformation forums in social media and in the darkest depths of the dark web are more hospitable venues. And in staking aggressive claims as Rutherford does in racists being his enemy and the enemy of science, he is liable to entrench and encourage in-and-out group divisions rather than broach cooperation and conversion to anti-racism. Consider how Nelson Mandela brought change through forgiveness, understanding, and peacemaking rather than treating others as ‘enemies’, for instance, he learnt the language, Afrikaans, of his oppressors in order to reach out to them. 

Most at stake with the premises of anti-racist geneticists arguing with racists by appeals to genetics, however, is that it implies that were genetic correllates found for race groups then sterotyping judgements would be legitimated as mostly correct, as an archetype. And presumably therefore ok. Such claims suggest that genetics has primacy over behavioural sciences and even ethics. 

Well-meaning commentators themselves tend to lapse into conflating biology facts with the ethical tribulations of social darwinism, eugenics, racism, ethnicity and xenophobia as well. Let us take a usefully broad brush here, just to remind ourselves. 

Social darwinism is the idea that social competition among people is the work of natural selection improving humanity. 

specifically : a sociological theory that sociocultural advance is the product of intergroup conflict and competition and the socially elite classes (such as those possessing wealth and power) possess biological superiority in the struggle for existence

Eugenics is the idea that altering and selectively matching parents or their alleles can improve humanity. 

With singular agreement. (The study of) the arrangement of human reproduction in order to increase the proportion of characteristics regarded as desirable (or to reduce the proportion regarded as undesirable) within a population or the species as a whole. Also: the advocacy for or implementation of policies and practices intended to influence human reproduction in this way.

Racism is the idea that people should be treated differently because of their skin colour traits.

Prejudice, antagonism, or discrimination by an individual, institution, or society, against a person or people on the basis of their nationality or (now usually) their membership of a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized

Ethnicity is the idea that a person belongs to and is part responsible for, and to, an extrafamilial kindred group they have associated with before. 

Status in respect of membership of a group regarded as ultimately of common descent, or having a common national or cultural tradition; ethnic character.

Xenophobia is a prejudice against an out-group, them, or their customs for their being different to an in-group, us, or our customs.

Dislike of or prejudice towards people, cultures, and customs that are foreign, or perceived as foreign.

Granted, the concepts are fuzzy in our contemporary world; and there is a family resemblance between all of them. They are linked. Nonetheless, geneticists arguing with racists by appeal to DNA in this light becomes questionable. Especially since racism predates genetics, and social darwinism predates genetics as well. Hearing too little of the genetic science is not, therefore, what is to blame for insidious prejudice. And recourse to genetics rather than ethics bears implications.

Most worrying is the implication that were genetic correlates found for a population then – to follow the logic – the judgements would be correct, and thereby more reasonable. A reader may balk at that repeated suggestion: ‘eugenics is not genomics, old science is not science today’. You may say. But to think so diametrically of then-versus-now, fake-versus-real science, falls into what Dr Melanie Smallman, senior lecturer in Science and Technology Studies at UCL, calls the ‘science to the rescue’ phenomenon. (Full disclosure: Smallman has lectured me.) Whereby science equals always good, always warranted, always desirable. Even when it plays a hand in bad outcomes, more engineering, technology, and science are deemed exponentially required. And science, of course, is seldom blamed for, or accessory to, worse ethics. Indeed science is often used as an arbiter of ethics – per genome studies proving more variance inside groups than between them, proves race and by extrapolation racism to be ‘false’.

I refer to the corollary sensibility that science used to be bad but is now all good, as ‘the bad old days fallacy’, pertinent to old fashioned scientisim—the promotion of science as the best means to determine values and choices regardless of how wrong that approach has gone for what was called science in the past. Eugenics was an establishment science upheld by scientific luminaries. But even luminaries today use tools eugenicist scientists designed or refined. When you apply a scientific statistical tool like population, for instance, down to a family, a university cohort, or a single person’s genetic profile, judgments against and about people being correct have become accepted practice; and deemed a fact we should, somehow, submit to putting into further practice. For instance in matching career to genomic score or tailoring learning support or instituting rounds of psychometric tests ahead of a job interview. Despite the fact that sociology and environment contain the labs where discoveries in behavioural genetics are made and contingent tools like population analysis are applied—the environment and social debates have little epistemic prestige (and little funding money) by comparison to prestigious fields like genomics. Or even Machine Learning: Nature Communication published a paper in April 2020  dubiously assessing trustworthiness displays in paintings, as having been raised with Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a hypothesis ‘scientifically’ labelling those from poorer nations – perhaps inadvertently – as less trustworthy, on meager evidence. 

Or consider the case of Robert Plomin. A behavioural geneticist, at King’s College London. Plomin advocates that selective schools select students’ DNA within the successful students. And this is no off-hand remark: Plomin claims that in his book Blueprint (Penguin, 2017) and on platform at Google Talks. He goes so far as to say that the school attended makes negligible differences to life path; parents should not bother to seek out better schools and Ofsted – the UK school review organisation – should rethink its budgetary priorities about making schools achieve higher standards. Because some genomic scores are just better for attaining grades and desirable intelligence quotient (IQ) scores than others. 

Genomic scores determine as much as fifty and seventy per cent of the slices in the pie charts of IQ and educational attainment respectively. And the other social factors Plomin concludes are too random and too messy to address in any systematic way. Professor Plomin happily reveals his own academic achievement polygenic score to be “in the ninety-fourth percentile”. He also advocates that everyone should similarly learn to “grow into their genes” and consult their DNA profile to inform suitability for their path in life. Meanwhile, figureheads with much heated press sometimes openly celebrate the same fact infused sentiments. Boris Johnson, in a taped 2013 speech, declared that IQ differences between (“16 per cent below 90, 2 per cent above 160”) people determines who comes out-on-top and down-at-bottom in hierarchy—just as, in his bizarre analogy, “a well shaken cornflakes packet determines that some rise inevitably to the top”. (Maybe, a mistaken analogy to the Galton board? A device which demonstrates ‘normal’ distribution in balls running down a studded board.) 

Boris Johnson’s adviser Andrew Sabisky was fired in February 2020 for his eugenic sentiments; he advocated forced sterilisation and selective births. Sabisky was first endorsed by Dominic Cummings, who on his blog flirts with the idea that the NHS should pay for intelligently designed babies. Babies better able to serve the state in world competition. And clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson of Toronto University—who boasts 137 published papers—lectures with power-point slides ranking profession by IQ (and referencing scores) implores his audience to align their aims to their cognitive limitations. That audience is no paltry lecture room but 2,837,424 views on Youtube. Noteworthy is that these figureheads are themselves winners in this apparently genetic IQ lottery and hierarchy; a fact feminist theorists like Helen Logino opine as mistaken personal epistemy. Their lack of experience at the bottom likely renders them complacent about naturalising inequities. These eclectic characters, moreover, are not an eccentric fringe within The Establishment. Robert Plomin, for example, counts among the most cited psychologists in the world, and his genetics research bears implications for life and death decisions. 

In 2017 disability rights advocate Frank Stephens testified to the US Congress against proposals to cede National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding away from Downs Syndrome research; the proposals to cede funding were predicated on trends for fewer Downs Syndrome births making it past genetic screening, (nevermind the celebrated utility of would-be CRISPR Cas-9 gene-edits in future). Stephens even felt the compunction to appeal to the economic and scientific ‘justification’ for Downs Syndrome funding: Downs Syndrome is a useful case study for the investigation of Alzhimers; rather than those with Downs Syndrome having a right to life as a given. 

Therefore the assumption that genetics has wholesale moved on from the bad old days is mistaken. However nice its geneticist practitioners and however nice its health uses, technology and science feed into politics, and politics feeds into technology and science – in worse ways as well as better ways. For leftist or rightist aims. Most horribly pertinent is China’s 1988 Gansu province law which ended with 5000 sterilised citizens who recorded IQ scores below 90. And in 2021 Uighur citizens are being forcibly sterilised – so reports The New York Times – in a concerted attempt to use eugenics to oppress race, ethnicity, and religion; Han men are encouraged to absorb the different populations of Xinjiang women—and Xinjiang women are rewarded for ethnically and racially ‘correct’ choices of husband with a car or a flat. (I say Xinjiang women because there are many oppressed minorities there, not just Uighur.) Scholars who know about eugenics recognise these as two cases of eugenic approaches, ones previously used in the USA: one is called ‘negative eugenics’ which refers to preventing the procreation of undesirables and the other ‘positive eugenics’ which refers to encouraging the procreation of desirables. As late as 2010 imprisoned Californian women were forcibly sterilised – an example of negative eugenics. As recently as 2021 fewer disabled Britons were permitted resuscitation – another example of negative eugenics, albeit tacit. 

Eugenics therefore happens in some of the most influential countries like China, the USA, and UK, in the 21st century.

In the more banal scientific industry, too, misuse of genetics reigns amid the most noble of aims and fanciest of research projects. The BRAC-1 and BRAC-2 genes which predict bad case breast cancer were patented by a genetics company, Myriad, in 2001 thanks to hardworking geneticists in its labs. It took the US Supreme Court to overrule its patent in 2013 which, before then, accrued extortionate amounts of money in ownership fees for health insurance companies to test whether someone had the undesirable genes. Without regard to whether that precluded treatment for poorer persons’ with BRCA 1 or 2 variants. Even the justification The Supreme Court gave was based on the implausibility of patenting a ‘natural’ gene which leaves open to interpretation and debate the future of synthesised and CRISPR-CAS 9 modified genes. Especially given the dynamics of different nations embracing cutting-edge tech competitively; who knows what the future of artificial genes holds. What begins in moral repairs, may slide to dubious upgrades. In the future people with my ASD disorder profile may be prevented from birth; the line between pathology and health, such as in a spectrum disorder, is far from clear-cut. The creators of  CRISPR-CAS-9 themselves worry about what traits their ‘genetic scissors’ might cut out of the future.

Instead of lamenting the misuse and abuse of science as behind us, we should look to the past and the very real present of eugenics within genetics today, to best guide us. Genetics technologies will be used for worse, neo-eugenics, and better, social fairness, aims depending on how we regulate tech, patents, and ideas now—democratically. Initial conditions have an outsize impact later; ignoring the issue as most of the news cycle does is no solution and merely allows its flourishment. We may repeat the same mistakes as our shamed forebears. From the viewpoint of Frank Stephens, the anonymous Uighur victims, the disabled patients who were accorded non-resuscitation status more than able Britons, Americans sterillised by California in 2010, we already are practising eugenics. To overlook these examples as somehow beyond science, devices, and circulated authoritative ideas (such as genome-centred arguments racism is a science error rather than a values problem) is to ignore, in Stephens’ words, “the canary in the eugenics coal mine”. 

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