12 July 2016

History of eugenics

How does eugenics propose to improve the heredity of the nation?

Elena Bryzgalina, Post-science

Eugenics goes back to the ideas of the good kind. And as a movement for the improvement of human nature, eugenics is usually attributed to the activities of the semi-legendary founder of Sparta, Lycurgus, where, as is known, there was a tradition not to leave children born weakened alive and throw them off a cliff. Many traditional nomadic peoples had a custom not to take with them when changing places, for example, for the winter, those who were ill or, due to age, were a burden to their kind. Even the Papuans of New Guinea had similar customs.

Eugenics as a social movement is usually spoken of, implying two options for achieving the goal of human improvement. The first option is called positive eugenics. This is a situation when the one that is recognized by society as the best is selected from a variety of variants of a particular trait. Moreover, this recognition is not necessarily based on any scientific ideas. This may be an ordinary idea of the demand for, for example, brown eyes or high intelligence.

The peculiarity of positive eugenics is that purposeful methods in a series of generations achieve a situation where the average manifestations of signs approach the best manifestations of signs, but in previous generations. These can be measures such as, for example, stimulating the birth rate between people who have a feature that is in demand by society.

The second variant of eugenics is the so–called negative eugenics. The goal is the same, but the methods are different. Negative eugenics is spoken of in the case when those whose signs are recognized as unclaimed in society, for example, carriers of certain mental or somatic diseases, are excluded from performing a productive function, from the birth of children, in one way or another. And, of course, the methods of elimination are inhumane: either sterilization or mortification.

Eugenics begins as a social movement in its scientific forms in the activities of Charles Darwin's cousin Francis Galton. Galton proceeded from the idea that talent and intelligence are inherited traits and humanity should treat its procreation as carefully and responsibly as it breeds new breeds of domestic animals or new plant species. He proposed to extend Darwinian ideas about artificial selection to humans. But at the same time he understood perfectly well that it is impossible to force a person to forcibly interbreed and reject up to 95% of the generation, as it happens with artificial selection of plants and animals. Therefore, Galton proposed to elevate eugenics to the rank of a kind of religion, so that everyone simply believes that the performance of a productive function, that is, the birth of children, should not be accidental.

Such propaganda of the idea of improving human nature as a whole was crowned with success. And in the year of Galton's death – and he died in 1911 – eugenic societies began to be created in many countries of the world, eugenic journals were published. If we imagine the situation of the beginning of the XX century in Europe, these social expectations, the desire of people to improve their lives through revolutionary changes, it becomes clear why the idea of eugenics found fertile social soil, for example, in the Scandinavian countries or in Soviet Russia.

In our country, the design of eugenics took place in the 20s of the XX century, when centers appeared in several cities at once, namely in Petrograd, Moscow, Kiev, which set themselves the task of primarily scientific research of heredity. I must say that in domestic eugenics, in conditions when genetics was just passing the stage of formation, very interesting scientific problems were solved. For example, hereditary factors of many somatic diseases were studied: color blindness, diabetes. They tried to show that the roots of talent and giftedness are among the natives of the people. But at the same time, eugenics in Soviet Russia was not devoid of simplification. For example, it was proposed to create a sperm bank of the leaders of the Comintern in order to accelerate the world revolution.

By 1925, eugenics as an idea came into fierce conflict with the Marxist tradition, because the emerging genetics showed the importance of non-directional, random mutational changes, and Marxism insisted that social changes, changes in human nature as a consequence of social processes are possible. And under the influence of this ideological conflict, by the 30s of the XX century, eugenics had actually come to naught. Eugenics has suffered both human and institutional losses. And against the background of the fact that in the 30s after the Nazis came to power, eugenics became the practice of Nazi Germany, eugenics was forgotten for a long time, especially after World War II.

However, the modern development of genetic research, the possibility of intervention in the human genome, including in a series of generations, as well as the development of ideas about the influence of environmental factors on the formation of certain traits forced us to pay attention to the ideas of eugenics again. But the term was changed: at the end of the XX century, they began to talk about neo-eugenics. Neoevgenics began to be understood as directed changes in the environment.

In order that, after determining the genetic predisposition in a particular person, it would be possible to create an environment in which, on the one hand, the hereditary makings of diseases did not manifest themselves, and on the other hand, conditions were created for the best manifestation of a trait, for example, musical and artistic giftedness. However, the change of the term did not mean a change in the general ideological orientation of eugenics. Eugenic projects should be distinguished from medical genetics. Medical genetics is always associated with individual counseling of a person or family. Eugenics can be discussed only when the reproductive practice of the entire population changes, when childbearing becomes non-random.

Eugenics as a science, of course, cannot be considered today, but as a social movement and as an idea, eugenics continues to exist. For example, Singapore at the end of the XX century became the only country in the world that proclaimed a eugenic task at the level of state policy: to improve the hereditary inclinations of the nation. Moreover, modern Singapore uses both methods of negative eugenics, offering, for example, sterilization to one of the spouses by family decision in exchange for monetary compensation if the family has low income and several children, and measures of positive eugenics when the country is trying to overcome the global demographic trend, according to which highly intelligent people tend to marry in older age, and women with high IQ scores tend to have a small number of children. Singapore, trying to work in a single country against such a global trend, selects intellectual men and women who have not yet married, and sends them to the so-called love cruises at the expense of the state, promising children born as a result of these trips places in elite schools, and their mothers all kinds of support.

Eugenics as a concept and idea cannot be deleted from the public consciousness today, despite the fact that this term has been deleted from the list of scientific concepts. Today, a lot is known about genetics, about how the trait manifests itself in the environment, but eugenic ideas are very popular. In the first half of the XX century, eugenics was very popular in the Scandinavian countries. In many countries, acts were passed at the legislative level that were not disputed, but were essentially eugenic projects, aimed at preventing entry into countries, for example, of people who did not belong to the Anglo-Saxon race, or prescribed forced sterilization to those who were carriers of gene complexes associated with any diseases, for example with dementia.

In the USA there were a lot of supporters of eugenic projects at the level of the country's top leadership. In the UK, the famous science fiction writer Wells promoted the ideas of eugenics in every possible way. The world elite was often interested in eugenic projects, since eugenics initially proclaimed the inequality of people in relation to the possibilities of achieving certain manifestations of signs. But at the beginning of the XX century, there was a clear lack of objective scientific knowledge about how the manifestation of a trait and genetics are related, since the eugenic project is always directed against the cause, it affects heredity, but the evaluation takes place according to the external manifestation of the trait. This contradiction, which arises in eugenics, was comprehended quite late.

In modern science, there are new opportunities for technological change of human characteristics by different methods. This includes direct genome editing, and a possible assessment of the signs of an unborn child, for example, conceived using in vitro fertilization, and the possibility of using xenotransplantation in order to improve certain human characteristics.

The fact is that the ethical and legal regulation of the impact on an adult born person differs from the regulation of work with biological material, for example, at the level of genes, chromosomes, at the level of individual cells. And in the future, the prospects of eugenics as an idea and as a practice may be connected precisely with the transition from the selection and evaluation of people to the selection and evaluation of biological material. At the level of the same ideas and slogans, the displacement of the object of evaluation can give rise to significant ethical and legal problems.

To date, not all countries of the world have laws regulating work with cellular, genetic material. As a rule, bans relate to specific technologies, for example, cloning technologies. But there is no legal prohibition on research and practice of working with individual genes. And this lack of legal regulation and the insufficiency of ethical regulation can become the basis for eugenics to be revived at the level of practice.

About the author:
Elena Bryzgalina – Candidate of Philosophical Sciences, Head of the Department of Philosophy of Education of the Faculty of Philosophy of Moscow State University, specialist in philosophical problems of biology and medicine.

Portal "Eternal youth" http://vechnayamolodost.ru  12.07.2016

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