Eugenics: The Troubling Past of Genetic ResearchJun 27, 2014
Genetic research has led to many important discoveries in understanding the causes and potential cures for diseases, but it wasn’t always so. Best-selling author and investigative reporter Edwin Black discusses America’s quest to create a blond-haired, blue-eyed “master race” a century ago. He also talks about what surprising uses genetic mapping is put to today and how the future of genetics compares to its dark past.
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Scott: You know when the average person hears about human genetics, or the human genome, I think they think about good things. You know being able to find the genetic cause of a disease, or cure, or even prevent them, but it doesn't necessarily come with all good sides there's some downsides as well. We're with best-selling author and investigative reporter Edwin Black. Let's talk about eugenics and what is the notion of eugenics?
Edwin Black: Eugenics was America's quest to create a white, blonde, blue eyed master race. In the first decade of the 20th century a quest that they bestowed with junk science and abundant money. On Adolph Hitler he used this information, these principals, this money to implement his own quest for a similar master race.
Scott: So when you talk about creating a master race what where the methods that they used to do that?
Edwin Black: Well, the main method that the American's conjured up is the ultimate method was public gas chambers, and the first euthanasia laws were proposed into the Ohio State Legislature in 1906 but defeated. So when they couldn't do mass euthanasia they did implement marriage restriction, marriage voiding, confinement camps which for the health community would be called sanitariums or colonies, and of course forced surgical sterilization for men and women, but mainly for women.
Scott: And these were men and women that were deemed to have shortfalls in one way or another?
Edwin Black: Sometimes the men and women were deemed to have shortfalls not because of anything they did or any character flaw of their own but it was falsely believed that even the finest person if he had a bad bloodline his progeny would be a threat to society and had to be cleansed and excised from the world.
The eugenists who represented the elite of America, it's greatest scientists, it's greatest legislators, doctors, journalists, academic experts they hoped to do this 10% of the time by subtracting 10% of America, the so called bottom tenth which at the time they began doing this for the first World War was 14 million people ultimately they hoped to continue deducting 10% of the residuum until there were 90% of America was gone and there was no one left except those who resembled themselves.
Scott: When somebody hears the notion that this happened in the United States I would imagine that their jaw drops, they can't believe that it happens here, and it was based on bloodline but a lot of physical characteristics as well. Now fast forward to the United States of today where we've mapped the human genome, we can look in; we can see on a much more microscopic level we can see defects in humans.
Edwin Black: We can see defects in humans. We also see the ability to enhance human life. My book "War Against the Weak" which deals in eugenics also deals with a concept of newgenics where it will no longer be racial dogma and national flags that determine who shall live and who shall die from now on it will be corporate youthfulness; it will be the value the individual has to the corporate world.
There is legislation designed to eliminate, and to forefend, people going into the so-called genetic ghetto where they can't get insurance, they can't get a job, they can't get financing, they can't buy a home, and that there is such legislation originating in England, which has been passed. Similar legislation was passed in the United States called the Anti-genetic Discrimination Act, it was unanimous in the senate, and it was then debated for more than a year in the house over the strenuous objections of the insurance industry who are opposed to this type of anti-discrimination legislation.
Scott: So you're essentially saying that a world, it sounds so science fiction, a world could evolve that somebody would look at your genetics and go, "Yes/no," to medical insurance?
Edwin Black: It is evolving now that is why this legislation has been called into the forefront. The Sante Fe Railroad did genetic testing on job applicants to determine their predisposition for carpal tunnel. The largest insurance company in Canada disqualified a death benefit of an individual in an automobile accident because they said that he wasn't qualified but that his bloodline was not qualified. So this is happening now.
Scott: What's the one thing that you hope a medical student will take away from your talk today?
Edwin Black: The great hope is that a medical student will understand that there is great promise, and brilliant white light, facing all those who are venturing into the promising world of genetics, but genetics is the renamed science of eugenics, and the destiny of eugenics was to do everything that would eliminate our neighbors. The destiny of modern eugenics is to help people, so the students today should never allow the shadow behind them, which they must be aware of, to overtake their path and turn out to be their new destiny.
We don't blame the alphabet because Hitler wrote "Mein Kampf", and we don't blame the human genome map because people are using that information to distort what can and cannot happen in our society. We need the knowledge. What we also need is for that knowledge not to be misapplied, not to be misapplied for profit, and not to be misapplied for the passion of obtaining power.
Scott: So this knowledge you believe is truly good we just need to be wary of how we're using it, or how other people are trying to use it?
Edwin Black: This knowledge is promethean, it can burn you and it can warm you. Whether it is incineration or comfort is in the hands of those who control the flame.
Recording: We're your daily dose of science, conversation, medicine. This is The Scope, University of Utah Health Sciences Radio.