Eugenics is the philosophy and social movement that argues in favor of human advancement and engineering. Eugenics can be dated all the way back to 1883 with Sir Francis Galton who proposed being “well-born”, which is the idea of selective procreation with “desirable traits” (Genetics Generation, 2015). Eugenics is a highly debated topic and is somewhat frowned upon because of the actions taken in World War II and America. For example, Adolf Hitler was concerned with the concept of the “superior Arian race” which was originally stated in his book from 1934 titled “Mein Kampf”. This book made references to American eugenics and the “forced sterilization” incident (History, 2017). The idea of a superior race was first cultivated by American Eugenists in California which is the state most widely considered the epicenter of the American eugenics movement (Black, 2003). America was a part of a series of coerced sterilizations that affected immigrants, people of colour, the mentally ill, and people of lesser wealth. This was used to control people and considered a part of “undesirable” populations (Ko, 2016).
Sir Francis Galton
Early Eugenics consisted of specific breeding. It was a way to breed out or obtain birth traits such as: hair colour, eye colour, height, strength, and disease probability. Sir Francis Galton was the first person to coin the term Eugenics, defining it as “the science of improving stock, which is by no means confined to questions of judicious mating, but which a or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had” (Facing History). His beliefs were based on the fact that specific genetic conditions and attributes could be obtained by specialty breeding. Galton wrote a book in 1883 titled “Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development” which touches on the key points of his philosophy and key ideas on Eugenics. Plato was an Athenian Philosopher who lived during the classical period, in one of his many works, he wrote about creating a higher class society by procreating higher class individuals. He also suggested a series of mating rules for people to achieve this higher civilization. This is one of the earliest forms of Eugenics found in ancient writing, however, Galton gave little credit to Plato in his own works (History, 2017). Although these ideas of a perfect civilization and selected procreation were never acted upon, the research suggests that it was a good basis and origin of further ideas that were able to act on the idea. Comment by Calla Tomanek:
American and German Involvement
In 1909, the U.S Government. decided to do a large scale sterilization without the public’s full knowledge (Estrada, 2015). These unknown sterilizations were continued up until about 1979 and were performed mostly in California, they were performed on about 60,000 people with two thirds being in California and mostly consisted of minorities, immigrants, and less-wealthy people (Ko, 2016). A quote from professor Alexandra Minna Stern from the University of Michigan states, “Preliminary statistical analysis demonstrates that during the peak decade of operations from 1935 to 1944 Spanish-surnamed patients were 3.5 times more likely to be sterilized than patients in the general institutional population.” This statistic shows the racial divide and the form of eugenics present during that time. Now, it may not have been the direct intention of these sterilizations, but one could say that there was a small intent for it. Forced sterilization wasn’t the only thing that was forced upon Americans, in Connecticut in 1896, it was illegal to marry someone with epilepsy or who is considered “feeble-minded” (History, 2017). Eugenics has gotten a bad reputation over the years from, not only the U.S, but the most commonly known form of mass Eugenics which occured in World War II and Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler had his mind set on the “Superior Arian Race”, and his beliefs were based upon the idea that the perfect race could be achieved through the reduction of “Impurities” within the world. A very prominent part of the german eugenics was the T4-Program, an experimental program made to create a better society, that was run by Nazi Germany. Its aim was to kill incurably ill, physically or mentally disabled, emotionally distraught, and elderly people. The program was initially created in 1939 and was formally discontinued in 1942, but was covertly continued until about 1945 and ended completely with the defeat of Nazi Germany (Berenbaum, 2014). In October of 1939, Hitler ordered his physician and Chief of the Chancellery of the Führer to kill anybody who was not considered “suited to live” (Berenbaum, 2014). The orders can be dated back to September 1st 1939, the official day that World War II began. Dr. Karl Brandt and Chancellery Chief Philipp Bouler were officially “charged with responsibility for expanding the authority of physicians so that patients considered incurable according to the best available human judgment of their state of health, can be granted a mercy killing” (Berenbaum, 2014).
CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), is a simple yet highly powerful genome editing tool that is used to fix genetic mutations and edit the human genome. Before the CRISPR method was unveiled in 2012, it took years and hundreds of thousands of dollars, therefore CRISPR has made the process much cheaper and shorter. CRISPR has been proven to help fix problems that humans, plants, and animals have on the genetic level, and, although it is still in testing, it has been found to be an advancement in human genetic research. Although this research could be a huge advancement for the human race, questions and concerns are still circulating amongst the scientific community, such as: the history that eugenics has played on the world and what is the impact of CRISPR on people who are against genetic modification? The U.S national library of medicine touches on this issue with this statement, “Most of the changes introduced with genome editing are limited to somatic cells, which are cells other than egg and sperm cells. These changes affect only certain tissues and are not passed from one generation to the next. However, changes made to genes in egg or sperm cells (germline cells) or in the genes of an embryo could be passed to future generations” (U.S National Library of Medicine, 2019). The effects of the past will have a heavy impact on what goes on today in this field of research, but we must look to the future and see the benefit of change. The main focus of CRISPR is to not remove people with unwanted traits but change the traits to make the next generation stronger and better.
The past of genetic modification and Eugenics isn’t the most clean, but what we are developing today can benefit the lives of everyone. CRISPR research has improved the well-being of humans and the way we understand genetics. It is important to look to the future and create one without pain or suffering, to create a future that we can advance from and use to create a better society.
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- Zócalo Public Square. (2016, January 8). That Time The United States Sterilized 60,000 Of Its Citizens. Retrieved November 14, 2019, from HuffPost website: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/sterilization-united-states_n_568f35f2e4b0c8beacf68713
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- Berenbaum, M. (2018). T4 Program | Definition and History. In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/event/T4-Program
- Genetics Home Reference. (2019, May 14). What are genome editing and CRISPR-Cas9? Retrieved from Genetics Home Reference website: https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/genomicresearch/genomeediting
- The Politics of Female Biology and Reproduction. (2015). Retrieved November 14, 2019, from The UCSB Current website: https://www.news.ucsb.edu/2015/015287/politics-female-biology-and-reproduction