The Quest for Perfection and the Legacy of Eugenics

Imagine a perfect human being: physically strong, immune to disease, intelligent, law-abiding. Eugenics, the science of better breeding to improve the human race, aimed to create a race of such ideal humans. Sir Francis Galton first coined the term in 1883, and it quickly gathered widespread support across the world. [1] Although the term eugenics has fallen out of favor in recent years, the issues it raises are still relevant in today’s world, as stem cell research, genetic engineering, and biotechnology raise the possibilities of curing diseases, eliminating inherited disabilities, and creating “designer babies.” [2] As research continues, scientists, politicians, and the public must be aware of the history of eugenics ideas, and be conscious of how scientific ideas can be misused to take away individual freedoms and rights.

Sir Francis Galton.
Sir Francis Galton.

In 2004, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum explored these issues in the exhibit Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race. Through artifacts, documents, and audio-visual programs, the exhibit aimed to tell the story of Nazi eugenics programs in order to “reflect on human motives and behavior during the Holocaust, and in the process, to consider our own moral choices and responsibilities.” [3]

Deadly Medicine opened with an history of eugenics in both Germany and the United States, showing how in the early twentieth century, support for eugenics was widespread among scientists, doctors, and politicians. The next segment explained how the Nazi party accepted eugenic ideas and put them into practice with efforts to raise the birthrate among ideal “fit Aryans”, marriage restrictions, and, most disturbingly, mass sterilization programs of those declared “hereditarily defective.” [4] The final section detailed Nazi euthanasia programs, culminating in the mass murder of millions of Jews, Roma, the disabled, homosexuals, and others. This exhibit powerfully explained how eugenics ideas contributed to the horror of the Holocaust; in their view, Nazis were performing a public service by removing “undesirable” people from the gene pool. They believed they were helping to improve the human race.

Visitors to the exhibit quickly made connections between historical events and contemporary issues. After viewing the sterilization display, one doctor commented, “One can only wonder: At what point would I have turned away?” The idea of engineering a perfect human is so appealing that it is easy to lose sight of the damage done in the process. Similarly, a disability rights advocate reflected on a memorial to children with disabilities killed by Nazis: “Looking at the photos of doomed children, I see my old crowd. They could be us. We grew up knowing we were a category of person that the world did not want.” [5] This sobering comment prompts us to pause and consider how easily the quest for perfection ignores those who don’t fit the mode of the ideal person. Eugenics assumes that those with disabilities, mental illnesses, or other “undesirable” traits are not worthy of life, but that couldn’t be more wrong. These individuals are more than capable of living fulfilling, meaningful lives, and deserve the right to make their own choices about how to live and whether to reproduce.

United States Eugenics Advocacy Poster. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:United_States_eugenics_advocacy_poster.jpg
United States Eugenics Advocacy Poster. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

Recent scientific advances such as germline gene editing are bringing us closer to the possibility of eliminating inherited diseases. [6] While this is a major breakthrough and offers hope to many people living with serious diseases, scientists must remember that the same idea of eliminating “bad” genes is a key feature in eugenics ideology, and led to forced sterilizations, marriage restrictions, euthanasia programs, and the oppression of millions of people. As one visitor to the Deadly Medicine exhibit wrote, “If left unchecked, science can be destructive.” [7] As powerfully illustrated in this exhibit, we all have a duty to be aware of the legacy of eugenics in order to respect the human dignity of all individuals, and tread cautiously in the future.

Notes:

[1] Chloe S. Burke and Christopher J. Castaneda, “The Public and Private History of Eugenics: An Introduction,” The Public Historian 29, no. 3 (Summer 2007): 6.

[2] James Gallagher, “’Designer babies’ debate should start, scientists say,” BBC News, last modified January 18, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/health-30742774.

[3] Susan Bachrach, “Deadly Medicine,” The Public Historian 29, no. 3 (Summer 2007), 21.

[4] Ibid., 19.

[5] Ibid., 26, 29.

[6] David Cyranoski, “Scientists sound alarm over DNA editing of human embryos,” Nature, last modified March 12, 2015, http://www.nature.com/news/scientists-sound-alarm-over-dna-editing-of-human-embryos-1.17110. For more on germline gene editing. see The Science Behind ‘Genetically Modified Humans’.

[7] “Deadly Medicine”, 31.

17 thoughts on “The Quest for Perfection and the Legacy of Eugenics

  1. Science is such a powerful force. It is incredible to think of the advances that have been made and all those that continue to be worked on at this very moment. However it is also heartbreaking to think of all of the people who have been harrassed, harmed, or even killed as a result of the culture of hate built around science. I think that the quote you included at the end of your post hits it square on: science can be so dangerous if left unchecked. That is why exhibits like Deadly Medicine are so important. As a public we have to be reminded of awful pasts, and uncomfortable conversations so that we can prevent anything like the eugenics movement from ever happening again.

    1. I really like your comment, Caitlin. We talk a lot about how we need to understand the past in order to move forward. I think you are right on when you say, “as a public we have to be reminded of awful pasts”. I personally didn’t know that sterilization was a supported idea in the 1970s, until recently. Knowing this really changed my view on where we are as a society. It’s a cliché, but knowledge is power. These types of exhibits, and dialogue, can be very uncomfortable, but they must be discussed in order to fully understand what we are capable of and ensure that we don’t make the same mistakes again.

  2. As you said, the possibility of creating a perfect race may appeal to some, but it represses the natural differences which make the human race beautiful. Something like one in eight individuals in United States high school today can be diagnosed with one “disease,” “impairment,” “disability,” etc. or another, but that does not mean that they should be “fixed.” Everyone has something incredible to offer if given the opportunity. This is not to say that science should be halted as some fatal or severe diseases are horrible and should be cured. But there should not be a mindset that genetic imperfect is always a bad thing, or that good things cannot result from difficult situations.

    1. Christine, I really like your statement “The natural differences which make the human race beautiful” I have always been of the mindset that everyone should have the right to decide if their body needs to be “repaired” or if they are perfectly satisfied with the way it operates. I think it is someone’s decision to decide what they want to do with their own body, and if they decide that their body is beautiful, and their unique differences are something to be proud of we should support that.

      I also liked the point that Miranda makes further down in that a lot of the science out there is not to change someone physically to repress who they are and that current research is not to change people for the worst, but to make going through life physically and mentally easier?

      1. Both of you bring up excellent points; science has done a lot of amazing things and improved the quality of life for millions of people. But the main factor should be choice: I personally know people with disabilities and/or chronic illnesses who would jump at the chance to be rid of their issues, and others who hate the idea of being “cured”. Being different isn’t a bad thing, and every person has the right to decide whether to change their body/mind or not.

  3. I was thinking a lot during the Deadly Medicine reading about how the exhibit chose to portray science. Clearly, racial health policies were/are heinous and represent science without humanity. I wish I could walk through this exhibit to see how the museum navigated this difficult subject. When reading the comments visitors had about the exhibit, I was struck by the prevailing belief that science is evil if unchecked. Certainly that can be true, but I wonder how visitors who see this exhibit then perceive science today. I kept thinking about how in Science & Society the class talked about the struggle scientists have in educating the public about vaccines, ebola, etc. I’d love to know if this exhibit about the dark side of science affected visitors’ views on science in the present.

    1. Carly, I like your distinction that this strain of research represents science without humanity. It’s important to remember that so much science being conducted today with regards to disability is inherently compassionate because it tries to provide disabled people with tools to navigate the world more easily.

      1. You’re absolutely right that much of the research being done today has the goal of helping people and making their lives easier, and that should be encouraged. Again, the key point is choice. Even if a certain medication or procedure is undeniably good for someone, they still have the right to refuse. And that’s where eugenics went horribly wrong; it took away people’s right to choose. Of course, eugenics proponents thought they were doing what is best for society as a whole, but then we get into the whole “needs of the many” versus the “needs of the few” issue.

    2. You make a good point here that I hadn’t considered. There are many people today who are automatically suspicious of anything labeled “science” and refuse to consider modern medical interventions or advances. How do we make people aware of the darker side of science without promoting distrust of science as a whole? It’s a delicate balance, and I don’t know the best way to do it.

  4. Emily, you really talked about the idea of the “perfect” human and the attempts to make the whole human race “perfect.” You still see this today when “perfect” people try to control the lives of others. There are some who believe a LGBT person is not considered “normal” and are actively trying to restrict their choices on marriage and parenthood. Sure, science can be dangerous if being left unchecked, but so can humans.

  5. I was intrigued by one visitor’s comment. One pediatrician stated “How can you associate instruments used by doctors today with the Nazi.” It’s a great point. Deadly Medicine links modern instruments to horrific events. Instruments used to save lives today. As museums, how can we make sure we remind people that these instruments have dual uses.

    1. I was struck by the same comment in the article. I think it shows how reluctant people are to be associated with human rights abuses in the past, even though there’s a clear connection. It’s not something that just happened a long time ago, it’s still happening today.

  6. Echoing some of what others have said, I didn’t know about this movement until this week’s readings, and it was surprising to me how little this is talked about in schools/ the media. It’s important to remember our past and realize how certain ideas have transformed and yet still influence us as a society today, and the role that science plays in that.

  7. I learned a little about eugenics in my history classes but I did not know that it occurred in many places around the US. As discussed in Exhibiting Eugenics I believed it was mostly the Nazis that performed surgeries and were intrigued by eugenic studies, I didn’t know it happened here. The fact that people are more likely to think about issues of racial, “normalcy”, and other discrimination issues as being part of another group or nations dark past is a serious issue. I was surprised by how many people in the exhibiting eugenics study said they never heard about the studies in CA before.
    Its important to reflect on our history and how these issues occurred in the US and not just in other parts of the world. Its critical that we also examine our history and role in eugenic studies and think about what we did to Native Americans and the disabled with eugenics so that we don’t forget and repeat these offenses.

  8. I understand concerns with further discoveries of the genome leading to the elimination of inherited diseases, but I do think that in 2015 we can afford to have some trust in our society. The reason for such research is ostensibly to improve the quality of life, and even save lives, not create the perfect human being. It is up to us, our society, our government, ourselves, to make sure we live in a place where someone with a disability or similar genetic marker doesn’t feel like anything less than a whole human being. If we can succeed at that, then science will be giving people options to create more opportunity for themselves, rather than attempt to “perfect” humanity.

    1. You’re far more optimistic than I am, Noah. 🙂 I’d like to think we can trust society to do the right thing, but I’m not sure I can. Research performed today is done to improve the quality of life, but eugenicists believed they were doing the same thing. I think we still have to be very careful to not have so much trust in society that things get out of control.

  9. One thing that really struck me while looking at the exhibition narrative of Deadly Medicine was this question of the needs and rights of individual vs. the collective especially in regards to science. I think this is a particularly fascinating and often disturbing debate that has led to many of the worst crimes against humanity in the last several hundred years. It’s striking because it’s still so completely relevant today, especially when thinking about issues like vaccination. Can talking about things in the framework of individual and collective rights cover up instances of oppression?

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