In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, scholars such as Charles Davenport and Karl Pearson popularized the idea of eugenics: that through careful management of our collective genetic resources, we could improve not only ourselves, but the whole of society.
Eugenics “promised not only an experimental understanding of mind and behavior, but also a technology for improving even further the stock of the higher races” (Richards 1987:512). That understanding and that technology were based on the one gene, one trait model of biological organisms. The role of eugenicists, and of many anthropologists of the time, was to identify traits that were beneficial or harmful to people and communities, to track down their genetic basis, to favour the reproduction of the carriers of desirable traits, and prevent, or at the very least discourage, the reproduction of those who carried undesirable traits.
Davenport believed (Riddle 1947:84-85) that eugenics should strive “to raise the human race to the highest plane of social organization, of cooperative work and of effective endeavour”. That each of us are the “trustees of the germ plasm [we] carry. That we betray the trust of previous generations if we jeopardize our good germ plasm or “unduly limit offspring”. That those of us blessed with good genes should select equally fortunate partners and have enough children that “this preferred stock shall not be swamped by that less carefully selected”. He believed “in such a selection of immigrants as shall not tend to adulterate our national germ plasm with socially unfit traits. Finally, he implored those with inferior genes to repress their instincts, presumably to procreate, “when to follow them would injure the next generation”.
The whole framework interacted with the race theory of the time, in which human types were more or less permanent. They could be lost by mixing, but their pure, or essential form, was invariable. It followed that we must encourage not only individuals that carried good genes to reproduce, but also groups, types, and communities that carried them. The theme of selection as the only means of improvement pervades this view of human classification and variation. Innovation and adaptation, whether biological or cultural, are markedly absent.
Neo-eugenics feeds on old fears and contemporary misconceptions
This direct equation between individual genes and behavioural and social traits, in the context of stable types, is still very much with us. A 2008 study of knowledge and attitudes on genetics among high school students in the US (Mills Shaw et al 2008) found widespread misconceptions, notably on the deterministic nature of genes, and on patterns of inheritance. “Another common misconception we observed is that one gene is always responsible for one trait or one gene with one mutation always causes one disease”. The study found that despite adequate teaching materials in school curricula, students misunderstood both basic biological inheritance mechanisms, and the basic mechanisms for variation.
Beyond the high school context, they found that “A cursory search of online news outlets yielded example headlines that could easily be misinterpreted, adding credibility to students’ misconceptions. These headlines are not hard to find. The basic framework of eugenics and classical race theory still informs much of public discourse on genetics, immigration, and social policy.
Nathaniel Comfort (2018) recently warns us that we may be dealing with “another bout of genetic determinism”, which provides a “road map for regressive social policy”. I think it isn’t another bout. I think genetic determinism never went away. Sometimes it is more dormant, but it is never absent. Sometimes, specific irritants bring it to the fore.
Enter the publicity campaigns for the major commercial genetic testing services. Now, 23andMe invites us to “meet your genes”. The language is carefully couched in the updated, more probabilistic language of genome wide associations, but the picture is familiar. If one gene is not one trait, then surely one genome wide association is one trait. And surely, some genome wide associations are preferable to others and should be husbanded. Some of these associations are clearly more prevalent in some groups than in others. As Comfort notes, genome wide association arguments, although not necessarily intended this way by their proponents, are “just old hereditarian wine pipetted into thousands of tiny polygenetic bottles”. We are what we inherit.
Regardless of intent, the implication in the public mind is clear, reinforced by simplistic journalistic coverage, tendentious political harnessing of the claims of researchers, and base appeals to people’s understandable anxieties about the world around them.
The innocuous part of the implication is that knowing your genes can help you live a better life. Unstated and ominously hovering is the conclusion that knowing our genes can help us have a better society. Unsuggested are the means by which this could happen. Hidden far below the surface is the intuition that some groups are better than others. Embedded is the old assumption that we are the material we inherit, biologically or culturally, and that short of selection by means unspecified, there is no salvation.
Anthropology’s message: we are adaptable and plastic
As anthropologists, we must play an active role in explaining and contextualizing the insights of the genetic revolution. We can’t let self-interested commercial entities and fear-mongering politician occupy the whole space. We have to organize our thoughts. We have to work on our pedagogical approaches in places like last week’s AAA panel on the resurgence of scientific racism. Then we must go out into the world and speak with journalists, politicians, policy makers, and the public about the nature of the relationship between genetics and identity , and about how behavioural plasticity is a key feature of the human adaptation.
Genes and culture impose very broad constraints on us, but we are not their prisoners. Genes and culture evolved to allow us to adapt and to change, individually and collectively. Our biology and our culture are tools of emancipation, not shackles of servitude. They are creative forces in the truest sense of the term. They do not determine, or even tightly limit who and what we can be, and who and what our children can be. They certainly don’t determine, in any way of which we have any sort of reliable understanding, what our communities can be.
Genome wide associations are as impermanent as individual genes, perhaps more so. Human types built on them, are just as scientifically useless as those built on morphological traits (although even these are apparently making a come-back, but that’s for another post). Multi-genic categories are just as dangerous and misleading as their mono-genic ancestors. They are born of the same misconceptions, they feed on the same fears, and they beckon to the same conclusions and courses of action.
We have to call out genetic testing companies when they imply, without of course ever stating it, that we should associate preferentially with those with whom we share more genetic material. We should call them out when, consciously or not, they capitalize on common misunderstandings of genetics and inheritance, to exploit the niche once occupied by classical eugenics and race theory. We have to explain that change, adaptation, and cultural exchange are the heart of what we are as a species.
Comfort N 2018. Genetic determinism rides again, Nature 561:461-463.
Mills Shaw KR, K Van Horne, H Zhang, J Boughman 2008. Essay contest reveals misconceptions of high school students in genetics content, Genetics 178:1157-1168.
Richards R 1987. Darwin and the emergence of evolutionary theories of mind and behavior, University of Chicago Press.
Riddle O 1947. Biographical memoir of Charles Benedict Davenport 1866-1944, National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoirs XXV 4.