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Mind your genes! The dark legacy of eugenics lives on

by Natasha MillerABC [Australia]
August 8th, 2016

Amid the cultural genocide of indigenous peoples, immigration, sterilization, and other eugenic policies attempted to socially engineer Australia's gene pool.

Untitled Document

From enforced sterilisation to the fledgling foundations of education in Australia, eugenics left a dark stain on the 20th century. But have we learnt from the mistakes of the past? Natasha Mitchell reveals a story of misplaced power, misguided science and social engineering.

'Genes can have up to 80 per cent of influence on students' academic performance.' When I saw that headline recently, a shiver shot down my spine.

Researchers have found that our genetic makeup plays a surprisingly large role in how well or poorly we do at school. By studying pairs of genetically related twins—children who usually share the same home, school environment, and biological inheritance—they can work out what contribution our genes make.

I felt a similar discomfort when I first reported on research into the genetics of psychopathic behaviour in children. What does it mean to label a child a psychopath, or a genetic dunce, at the very start of their lives? What could the consequences of that be?

This isn't benign science. It has the power to shape social attitudes and individual destinies, and to drive prejudices and policy.

That said, I'm no fearmonger when it comes to genetics. As a science journalist, I've always been intrigued by our genes, those sophisticated biological machines hidden deep inside each of our cells: in how they help make the proteins that build every fibre of our physical being, and in the way the information they contain gets passed down between generations, linking us biologically to ancient selves, and other species.

I was excited to be given the hands-on opportunity recently to learn a new gene editing technique called CRISPR, thanks to the generosity of Australia's oldest medical research outfit, the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. They were open to showing a journalist the ropes. What could go wrong? Nothing did, thankfully.

CRISPR has been a game changer in labs worldwide, allowing scientists to delete and edit the genes inside cells more precisely and easily than ever before. This means they can better investigate the role that different genes play in diseases and development. It could also lead to new gene therapies and drug treatments.

Things are moving fast and the potential of CRISPR and genetic medicine is genuinely exciting. I have no doubt it will save lives, but it will change lives too—and, without some cautionary lessons from our past, not necessarily for the better.

Scientists are quick to point out that our genes are never the full story, and we now know that nature and nurture work in concert with each other. It's not a case of 'nature versus nurture' or 'genes versus environment' anymore. What we eat, how we're parented, the stresses we experience early on, even what our grandparents' lives were like, all affect what genes get switched on and off in our bodies.

But it's undeniable that some people seem to leap out the womb with the gift of natural genius, while the rest of us look on in awe, slogging away at our sums or wrestling with our reading.

Does the suggestion that genes influence school performance undermine the vital role that teachers and parents play in helping us achieve our best? Does it imply we should be left to lie fallow at the mercy of our genes? Clearly not.

'Some teachers have been reluctant to acknowledge the role of genes in school performance, perhaps because of an aversion to biological explanations—so-called "genetic determinism"—and perhaps because of the false impression that if genes matter, teachers don't,' write the team of scientists behind that opening headline.

'This ignores the fact that some students struggle because of biological constraints on learning that can be overcome to an encouraging degree, but only with special and adequate resources.'

I know their motivations are good, and they want to help children with learning difficulties, but that statement sets off alarm bells in my mind.

The very opposite happened in Australian classrooms all too recently.

In my research for this story, I discovered a eugenic impulse at the heart of our secondary school system and standardised school performance tests like NAPLAN. That's a controversial claim, but all the historical clues are there.

A practice that started long before the Holocaust

Eugenics was a social and scientific movement spearheaded by Francis Galton, Charles Darwin's cousin, around the turn of last century. It was based on a belief that certain traits, behaviours and lives were inferior—those in poverty or displaying criminal tendencies, feeblemindedness, licentiousness, promiscuity, or physical disabilities of all varieties.

Eugenicists wanted to eliminate these traits to improve the human race. They used the emerging science of genetics to justify their claims, and to put in place insidious and influential laws. The result is a very dark phase of human history, which persisted right up until the 1970s.

Most of us associate eugenics with the sterilisation or murder of millions of innocent people, considered genetically inferior by the Nazis during World War II.

But long before Hitler's Holocaust and his quest to build a 'master race' (die Herrenrasse), eugenics had found its feet firmly on American and Australian soil. In fact, the Third Reich took their cue from a notorious US. Supreme Court ruling which resulted in the sterilisation of at least 70,000 Americans deemed 'unfit' by the moral arbiters of the time: judges, doctors, teachers, and social workers. Some of those targeted were simply young women who had got pregnant out of wedlock, or who, tragically, had been raped.

In Australia, as in America, eugenics was also cast as a progressive movement, and sparked an unholy alliance between educators, scientists, doctors, politicians and feminists, amongst other influential reformers at the time.

Professor Paul Lombardo, an eminent legal scholar and historian on eugenics, says we risk forgetting this history to our peril.

'We need to go slow, not in understanding, but in the way we take the insights we gain from science to try to make them into social policy,' he says.

'We want to wipe out disease, poverty and crime, but we should remember that we tried it before, and with a very heavy hand we did something we are ashamed of now.'

Adam Cohen, author of Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck, says we have reached another moment when genetics is 'really leaping forward'.

'There are going to be huge new scientific tools to effectuate eugenics if we want to, and we really need to think hard about how we use them,' he says.

But prominent and outspoken Australian philosopher Julian Savalescu, a professor at Oxford University, argues we shouldn't let the past get in the way of the future. 

He hopes we're on the cusp of an era of genetic enhancement—being able to tweak our genes in order to optimise our lives, not just fix diseases.

'This term "eugenics" is very misunderstood,' he says.

'What people have in mind is the enforced sterilisation of people deemed to be unfit to reproduce, and based on very bad science.

'But eugenics itself simply means having a child who has better prospects of a good life. That is essentially the goal of clinical genetics—it's just not called eugenics today.

'It's true we need to recognise the mistakes of the eugenics movement of last century, but that doesn't mean that we can't use our knowledge of biology and genetics to enable people to have better lives.'

A question of whether we should cross the line

Savalescu suggests people are terrified by genes.

'There is this sort of genetic exceptionalism; they think there is something extremely special about genes,' he says.

'Genes code for proteins that perform functions in the body. You can have exactly the same change by changing a protein, or giving a substance that mimics that protein, or by changing the gene.

'If I told you we had a natural substance to improve a child's concentration, you would say that's fantastic. Then if I told you that it's a natural substance that their own body produces, that's okay.

'I then distil that and produce it in a pharmaceutical company as a pill. People become more worried. But then I say I can alter the gene that produces that substance to improve that child's life. People say: "No, we should never cross that line."

'From a biological perspective these are all just parts of a chain, and at the end of that chain is our life—our minds, experiences, our hopes and our dreams—and in my view those are the things that matter. How we get there is irrelevant. What matters is how well our lives go.'

In 1995, two influential sociologists of science, the late Dorothy Nelkin and M. Susan Lindee, wrote in their prophetic book, The DNA Mystique, that the gene had 'become a cultural icon, a symbol, almost a magical force.'

'The biological gene—a nuclear structure shaped like a twisted ladder—has cultural meaning independent of its precise biological properties,' they wrote. 'Both a scientific concept and a powerful social symbol, the gene has many powers.'

They added: 'Infused with cultural meanings, the gene has become a resource that is too readily appropriated, too seldom criticised, and too frequently misused in the service of narrow and socially destructive ends.'

They're strong words. But two decades on and 15 years since scientists first announced they'd mapped the human genome, they're still salient.

See also Natasha Miller's acccompanying four-part podcast, including learning how to use CRISPR in the lab to edit genes and pondering: Is this the 'new eugenics'?

Image via Wikimedia



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