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The Underbelly of Scientific Racism in Eugenics

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Three decades ago, the first gene therapy trial was used to treat children with severe combined immunodeficiency; today, scientists worldwide are conducting over 3,000 approved gene therapy clinical trials. However, the historical tinkering of genes reveals ethical concerns particular to the field of eugenics around the world. 

Gene therapy is a medical approach that treats or prevents disease by correcting the underlying genetic problem in question through “introducing new genetic material into cells,” as the National Library of Medicine states.

According to the National Human Genome Research Institute, “eugenics is an inaccurate theory linked to historical and present-day forms of discrimination, racism, albeism and colonialism.” 

Specifically, this harmful ideology misconstrued a type of Mendelian genetics. It enabled eugenicists to believe abstract biological and behavioral human qualities — such as intelligence or wealth — could be inherited. 

Although Francis Galton is credited with coining the term “eugenics” — drawn from the Greek word “to be well born” — in 1883, ancient Greek philosopher Plato is suspected to have been the first person to engage in the idea. History.com describes Plato’s ideas in “The Republic” as  “creating a superior society by procreating high-class people together and discouraging coupling between lower classes … [even suggesting] mating rules to help create an optimal society.”

The prospect of human improvement in accordance with hegemonic ideals of race spurred the scientific racism we see in eugenics. 

The Harvard Library defines scientific racism as “a history of pseudoscientific methods ‘proving’ white biological superiority and flawed social studies used to show ‘inherent’ racial characteristics still influence society today.” 

Eugenics and scientific racism are both linked to the discriminatory rhetoric and ideas of contemporary xenophobia, antisemitisim, sexism, colonialism and imperalism. As a result, beliefs in “racial improvement” (FacingHistory.org) and “planned breeding” (NewScientist.org) manifested into a form of genetic prejudice against non-white people whose social and economic status have been historically marginalized. 

Tiffany Willoughby-Herard, a UCI associate professor of African American Studies, discusses the modern day implications of scientific racism with contemporary corporate philanthropies in her book “Waste of a White Skin: The Carnegie Corporation and the Racial Logic of White Vulnerability.” 

“It is appropriate to describe U.S. strategic interests in South Africa as a ‘civilizing mission,’ because Anglo-American collusion and collaboration resulted in the crafting … [of a] race relations social order that simultaneously propped up white supremacy and claimed to be concerned about racial equality,” Willoughby-Herard said.

In the early 20th century, the racist sentiment of eugenics guised under scientific justification began to take hold in America. “From 1909 to 1979, around 20,000 [forced] sterilizations occurred in California state mental institutions,” History.com writers said. 

According to Mosby’s Medical Dictonary, sterilization is defined as “a process or act that renders an individual incapable of sexual reproduction.”

As a professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, Dr. Alexandra Stern said “anyone who did not fit this [hegemonic] mold of racial perfection, which included most immigrants, Blacks, Indigenous people, poor whites and people with disabilities, became targets of eugenics programas.”

Moreover, in Buck v. Bell (1927), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that forced sterilization does not violate the U.S. Constitution. As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes said, “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” It was not until 1942 that the ruling was overturned; but by that time, the damage had been done. 

Over a span of 70 years, these procedures accounted for one-third of the total number of forced sterilizations in America (UC Santa Barbara’s “The Current”, The Politics of Female Biology and Reproduction).

During World War II, the concept of eugenics gained popularity with Adolf Hitler. In his “final solution,” (Holocaust Encyclopedia) Hitler spearheaded a genocide of Jewish people, systematically murdering around six million Jews under the antisemtic desire for the pure aryan race.According to History.com, “Hitler didn’t come up with the concept of a superior Aryan race all on his own. In fact, he referred to American eugenics in his 1934 book, Mein Kampf.” And in 1943 Josef Mengele, commonly known as “The Angel of Death,” began experimenting on concentration camp prisoners in an effort to help Hitler create the perfect race. 

Due to its ties scientific racism and eugenics developed with Nazi Germany, traditional eugenics began to plateau in popularity. 

Today, the concept of eugenics has shifted away from its politically degrading aims and transformed into a new kind of genetic engineering. Instead of focusing on the potential genetic manipulation that “may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally” (National Human Genome Institute), the advent of modern eugenics features a specifically medical pursuit. Modern eugenics — more often called human genetic engineering — advocates for a concept known as gene therapy.

According to Biotechnology and Medicine Education, “Gene therapy is a type of treatment designed to modify the expression of an individual’s genes or to correct abnormal genes to treat a disease.” By assessing the application of inserting genes, inactivating a gene, or even correcting a gene mutation, gene therapy presents the potential to prevent and cure disease. 

However, concerns of modern eugenics continue to raise some controversy. Ramin Skibba, a writer for the Smithsonian Magazine, notes that “while few people study or advocate for eugenics today, some scientists in the rapidly advancing field of genetics [still] hold related ideologies.”

Skibba discusses the work of science journalist and award-winning author Angela Saini on the return of racist concepts in relation to the history of race science, including scientific racism. Contemporary eugenics “simply used different terms, Saini points out, as some continued with race-focused research while referring to ‘populations’ and ‘human variation’ rather than ‘races’ and ‘racial differences,’” Skibba says.

Furthermore, Skibba notes that  “geneticist James Watson has frequently been the subject of withering criticism for voicing racist beliefs, including that differences on tests of intelligence have a racial component, and arguing that Indians are servile and that Chinese people have somehow become genetically conformist.”

Despite the many criticisms, gene therapy clinical trials continue to progress worldwide. The Journal of Gene Medicine provides an interactive database, keeping worldwide information on individual trials transparent and easily accessible. 

Photo Courtesy of the Journal of Gene Medicine Clinical Trial Site.

To learn more about gene therapy clinical trials, see here.

Natalie Ringdahl is a Staff Writer for the fall 2022 quarter. She can be reached at nringdah@uci.edu.