Genetics Journal Reveals Dark Past

April 24, 2011

"Three generations of imbeciles is enough," thundered Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., in the 1927 Buck vs. Bell court decision, legalizing forced sterilizations nationwide. ...

A triumph of the "eugenics" movement, which aimed at breeding "better" humans, the decision was embraced by dozens of states, from Virginia to California, leading to more than 60,000 forced sterilizations by the 1960's. The sterilizations were aimed at ensuring no offspring for poor people exhibiting "feeblemindedness, epilepsy, criminality, insanity, (and) alcoholism," among other "unfit human traits," in the words of Yale historian Daniel Kevles.

And much to the shame of science, eugenics was embraced by leading researchers, perhaps none more notable than mathematician Karl Pearson.

Whatever statistics you've learned are most likely Pearson's handiwork, or descend from his thinking. Founder of the first university statistics program at University College London, he pioneered the " Chi-Square" and " P-value" probability statistical tests that researchers everywhere use even today to validate their results. Pearson in 1925 also founded the journal, Annals of Eugenics, "which shall devote its pages wholly to the scientific treatment of racial problems in man."

But in 1954, the journal adopted a new name, Annals of Human Genetics, which it still bears today. And the current issue represents a housecleaning for the publication. The journal's editor, geneticist Andrés Ruiz Linares of University College London, has opened its archives from 1925 to 1954 to researchers, and is running reports by historians on the journal's past embrace of scientific racism and targeting of the disabled.

"It shouldn't be forgotten," Linares says, by e-mail. "Since the social implications of a lot of current human genetics research are enormous it seems important that in judging what human genetics is doing now we maintain awareness of the history of this discipline."

A cousin of Charles Darwin" href="http://content.usatoday.com/topics/topic/Natural+and+Physical+Sciences/Biological+Science/Charles+Darwin">Charles Darwin, Francis Galton" href="http://content.usatoday.com/topics/topic/Francis+Galton">Francis Galton, coined the idea of eugenics, which literally means, "well or truly born" in 1883, lamenting that British intellectuals were marrying later and producing fewer children. The idea was "intimately connected" to Darwin's theory of natural selection, note Penn State anthropologists Kenneth Weiss and Brian Lambert, in one of the journal's reports on its history. But the idea also has deeper roots, to the Rev. Thomas Malthus, who in 1798 had suggested breeding so that, "a certain degree of improvement, similar to that among animals, might take place among men."

Pearson was a leader in the United Kingdom in pushing new discoveries about heredity to espouse eugenics. "In an evolutionary view so naive and confused that it's hard to believe intelligent persons could hold it even in the 1920s," Weiss and Lambert write, Pearson proclaimed that the "racial history" of England bred sailors while Germany bred soldiers, and that elsewhere, "some of these races scarce serve in the modern world any other purpose than to provide material for the history of man." In other words, he thought they were better off dead.

In the United States, the scientific leader of the eugenics movement was Charles Davenport, who headed the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y. Pearson and Davenport sparred over eugenics for decades. Davenport and his disciples concocted "heredity charts" of poor people showing them to be unfit to reproduce, while Pearson favored statistical analyses to identify the most "fit" people by their physical traits and to define races, so that the "fit" could be encouraged to produce more children, and so that the "problem," in his view, of unfit immigrants crowding England's shores could be prevented.

For anyone wondering, eugenicists made any number of mistakes. They ignored poverty, disease, under-nutrition, ignorance and other problems that its proponents linked to "feeble-mindedness" or "criminality" among the poor. The idea rested on a simple theory of genetic inheritance of personality traits totally at odds with how genes really work. Simply put, eugenicists believed character, which they felt fully fit to judge, was inherited as surely as blood type, or coat color in guinea pigs, and nothing could alter it, notes biologist Garland Allen of Washington University in St. Louis, in one commentary.

"Eugenics is often dismissed as a crank movement energised by pseudoscience, but we need to bear in mind that science is in any day what scientists do and defend," writes Kevles, in another commentary. "Eugenics fell squarely in the mainstream of scientific and popular culture," he writes. Many biology journals today have roots in the era. The journal Social Biology, devoted to demographic health trends research, started out as Eugenical News, for example.

Everyone from socialists, such as Pearson, to conservatives such Sen. David Reed, R. — Pa., who sponsored the 1924 law severely limiting U.S. immigration by Catholics, Jews and Asians (Reed called for "keeping American stock up to the highest standard") supported eugenics, notes Paul Lombardo, author of Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell. Their positions on the issue were confusing to folks used to the right-vs.-left face-off of today's politics.

Supreme Court justice Holmes, for example, who approved the sterilization of a poor Virginia woman named Carrie Buck" href="http://content.usatoday.com/topics/topic/Carrie+Buck">Carrie Buck, was a champion of free speech. (Buck vs. Bell was a railroad job from beginning to end, Lombado has shown in his book, with Buck's lawyer conniving with her opponents to lose the case.) "Who supported eugenics, and why, was complex," Lombardo says. "Not least among scientists."

In fact, analysis of the past archives of the Annals of Eugenics suggests that most of its contributors, aside from Pearson, ignored eugenics, instead looking simply for statistical evidence of inherited diseases, say Weiss and Lambert. "Such papers are found today in many journals." Many researchers of the day, such as J. B. S. Haldane, one of the fathers of population genetics, strongly criticized eugenics.

Nevertheless, "It is clear that scientific criticism did not have much effect on 'mainline' eugenicists," Allen writes. Eugenics flourished as a discipline in the early decades of the 20th Century, until Hitler's embrace of its theories of " racial hygiene" culminated in the Holocaust during World War II and discredited the movement. Many journals changed their name as did the Annals of Human Genetics.

"Still, even today, the shadow of eugenics hangs over the torrential advance of human genetics, including the human genome project," writes Yale's Kevles. "If genetic enhancement of, say, children becomes a technical reality, then those better-off in talent and resources will only grow more advantaged."

Making the archives of the journal available allows historians to see just how such questions were tackled a century ago, Lombardo says. Many botched ideas about genetic inheritance still linger in the public mind in ways discredited by science, he notes, leftovers from the eugenics era. The 2006 comedy movie Idiocracy, for example, suggested that an average American sent 500 years into the future, would be regarded as a genius because of high IQ folks today skipping kids for their careers, while less brainy ones multiply.

"The eugenics movement of the early 20th century has rightfully been totally discredited, and the contribution it made to horrendous social policies implemented at the time is well known," Linares says. "People interested in the history of human genetics necessarily need to look at the dark period of eugenics."

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