From Eugenics to Genetic Engineering: the Evolution of Scientific Racism

Angela Saini, author of Superior: the Return of Race Science, joined NC State professors Dr. Terri Long and Dr. Blair Kelley on a panel discussion in early October to discuss her book. Saini gave a brief summary of the major points in her book before the three women began their discussion. Superior focuses on the origins, legacy, and perpetrators of race science, from eugenics to population genetics. After attending this event, I reached out to Dr. Long and Dr. William Kimler, a professor of history at NC State, to get a deeper understanding of the history behind the book.

Ultimately, learning from those who came before and evaluating the risks of scientific work is the only way to ensure that scientific work is actually for the good of humanity.

Eugenics finds its origins with 19th-century naturalists, specifically Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin. Galton was a “careful ethnographer,” according to Dr. Kimler. Galton traveled as a young man, much like his cousin, and kept careful notes about the things he saw. But unlike his cousin, he was drawn to documenting human differences. “I think all those experiences left him with a sense of the range of human experiences” and traits, Dr. Kimler said. Galton has been celebrated as being instrumental in establishing sciences of measurement and statistics, but ultimately, he founded a population control movement that relied on the theoretical existence of a natural human hierarchy.

When Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species, was published, Galton saw the potential for controlling human evolution. “In England, at the time, the concern was more about social class than race,” Dr. Kimler said. He and his supporters believed that they were solving the problems of the age: overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and criminality, which were all attributes associated with social class at the time. They advocated for the pairing of “well-bred” individuals, rather than the horrific sterilization that comes to mind when someone says “eugenics.” The chilling fact is that these early eugenicists believed themselves to be working for the benefit of mankind. They did not consider the unintended consequences of an idea that would be subsequently used to justify the sterilization and killing of untold thousands.

A few decades later, eugenics migrated to the USA. In the beginning, it was more focused on immigration and mental health, but it quickly shifted to race in the 1910s and the 1920s. The eugenics movement was responsible for the forced sterilization of disabled people and BIPOC in the United States, with twenty-nine states actually passing laws to create a system to carry this out. Hitler even took inspiration from many laws in the country to form his own laws during World War II. 

Following the war, many scientists from the Nazi Party in Germany moved to the US and joined former eugenicists to continue their work. Saini says that, though these scientists generally had to wait for a few years, they were welcomed with open arms to the hallowed halls of American educational institutions. According to Superior, in the horror of the aftermath of World War II, UNESCO released a statement denying the biological existence of race and attesting to its scientific illegitimacy. A few years earlier, The Nuremberg Code, a set of restrictions that scientists must adhere to in their research, was published by scientists in response to the war crimes crimes committed by Nazi doctors. Though these restrictions were initially quite bold, they were weakened by interference from influential scientists who happened to have a soft spot for the field of eugenics.

Work by these scientists, though certainly seeping into mainstream journals both then and now, was generally so shoddy that they had to establish their own journal entirely. The Mankind Quarterly was founded in 1960 by several men, including Gates and Otmar Von Vershuer, a German geneticist who was a transplant from Nazi Germany. The publication, which continues to this day, regularly publishes what is often considered shoddy, largely irreplicable research that seeks to further reinforce racial differences that  are not supported by mainstream scientists.

During the panel, Saini, Dr. Long, and Dr. Kelley discussed the insidious ways racism is still perpetuated by scientists and journals. Though The Mankind Quarterly is an obvious example of this, there are certainly others. For example, in Superior, Saini writes that Black people under thirty-five are routinely prescribed BiDil, a medication used to treat heart failure, instead of a similar medication, not because of a difference in effectiveness, but because BiDil was only ever tested in Black people. Each patient is different, so while BiDil works fine for some, studies have shown that patients who were prescribed BiDil could have benefitted from a different medication, and vice versa.

Another example is the continued use of the phrase “race is a risk factor” for various diseases. While there are diseases that are more common in certain races, this is largely due to a systemic lack of resources, rather than any biological difference. Dr. Terri Long, a researcher and professor who spoke on the panel with Saini, said that she was fascinated by the disparities in breast cancer and diabetes in the Black community. “I had bought into the idea that this was largely genetic,” she said, “but there is a huge societal component to it. That realization was really eye-opening for me.” While acknowledging these health disparities is important, scientists and medical professionals need to be careful in how they talk about them. Language can and has led to widespread misconceptions that can have real world consequences.

Dr. Long believes that change within the scientific community is important for moving forward. “It’s so important to keep bringing young people into science, because [they] have fresh perspectives,” she said. Even when the need for change is clear, it can be hard to see where to begin. She thinks that scientists of all generations should work together to develop and implement new tools to “bring in societal context.” 

“It’s so important to keep bringing young people into science, because [they] have fresh perspectives,”

Dr. Terri Long

Scientists and educators can help by prioritizing the communication of historical and societal contexts. Striking the right balance between context and content can be difficult, but it is crucial to ensuring that future work doesn’t have unintended consequences. In previous centuries and decades, even mainstream scientists contributed to anti-Blackness and racism more broadly, so there is no reason to assume that it won’t happen again, or that it isn’t happening right now. Understanding the broader implications of scientific work, and who may be harmed by them, can help scientists evaluate their own work more effectively.

Toward the end of Superior, Saini touches on the topic of genetic engineering. Though there is certainly a lot of controversy surrounding the topic, and a lot of caution has been taken, she still warns that there are quite a few similarities between the conversations surrounding the eugenics movement and genetic engineering. Dr. Kimler agrees: “It feels a lot like the 1860s. The optimism is there… I mean, that’s part of the reason we do science.” Despite the parallels between the two, Dr. Kimler adds that “there seems to be much more awareness and caution.” Similarly, Dr. Long feels that it is important to use science and technology to improve the human condition, as long as “there are checks and balances” to make sure we don’t repeat history. Ultimately, learning from those who came before and evaluating the risks of scientific work is the only way to ensure that scientific work is actually for the good of humanity.