During the early 20th century, scientists following the notion that dominant/recessive traits get passed along from generation to generation developed what is now known as eugenics, or the improvement of human heredity. This movement led to the ridiculous identification of genes responsible for undesirable social behaviors/ deficiencies and the desire to eradicate these genes for the “good” of the human race. Years later, however, the obsession of blaming genetics is still just that: an irresponsible and reckless obsession.
Modern eugenics originated with Sir Francis Galton, the cousin of Charles Darwin.
Scientists in the U.S., Great Britain, and most notably, Germany conducted extensive surveys of families, towns, and generalized ethnic populations looking for “deleterious” traits within these groups.
According to eugenicists of the time, everything from pauperism to feeblemindedness, criminality, nomadism, drunkenness, and the love of the sea was genetically inheritable.
While scientists no longer favor such prejudiced scientific explanations, people still blame family lineage, heredity, and their genes for various defects. One week, I recorded everything that people said to me about genetics, and these are just a few examples:
Anonymous No. 1: “I feel so bad for John Doe. He can’t help that he has a tendency to drink – his father was an alcoholic, his grandfather was an alcoholic, it’s even on his mother’s side. And now he has to warn his children that they could have the disease too.”
Anonymous No. 2: “Some people say that being gay is a product of their environment, but Jane Doe has the most normal household. She has a lower voice and more hair than most girls, though – maybe being gay is something in her genes. After all, her brother’s gay too.
Anonymous No. 3: “I can’t help that I’m assertive and a little bit neurotic. Every woman in my family has that sort of personality.”
So what is all this language about genetics?
If you just pay attention, you’ll hear words like “tendency,” “predisposition,” and “it’s in the family” in reference to anything from a disease to personality to love of music. Contemporary culture no longer embraces radical eugenics like sterilization or genocide; still, genetic counseling, sperm and egg banks, prenatal testing, and discriminatory population policies are all subtly acceptable forms of eugenics in today’s society.
If a mother is pregnant with a baby who has Down syndrome, for example, she now has the ability to foresee this complication during pregnancy and opt for abortion.
In a landmark Supreme Court Case, Buck vs. Bell, the Court affirmed that a law allowing for the sterilization of people deemed feebleminded was constitutional. The precedent
was that compulsory vaccination is akin to compulsory sterilization; both are individual sacrifices for the good of the entire society.
Eugenics did not die with the Nazis. The truth is, biological and genetic determinism is still alive and well in our society. It’s not a matter of whether or not it exists; it’s a question of how society will use this scientific prejudice in directing the eugenics of the future.
Erin Cusack can be reached at