A HISTORICAL VIEW OF SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY IN GENETICS
A HISTORICAL VIEW OF SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY IN GENETICS
Title: “A Historical View of Social Responsibility in Genetics.
Author(s): Beckwith, Jon
Source: Bioscience; May93, Vol. 43 Issue 5, p327, 7p
In the fictional Jurassic Park (Crichton funds for the project would go to
1991), mischievous genetic engineers let addressing the ethical, legal, and social
loose breeds of dinosaurs that might implications of the research (Beckwith
wreak havoc on the world. Partly 1991). Organizations of scientists such
through the efforts of other scientists, as Science for the People, the Council for
the damage is limited to a small region Responsible Genetics, and the Union of
of the globe and eventually the animals Concerned Scientists have challenged an
are eliminated. The image of the array of uses of science and technology
scientist who carries out ill-considered that were considered to have potentially
experiments, often with claims for harmful results. These activities are
benefits to humanity, is one of the most important because it is often the
common representations of scientists in scientists who may be better able to
film and fiction. anticipate problems and to help the
public understand technical aspects of
Less common is the image of the socially the research.
responsible scientist who takes action to
prevent damaging results of scientific But this undercurrent of responsibility is
discoveries. However, particularly since thin. The majority of scientists continue
the development of atomic weapons, a their scientific research careers with
thin but fragile undercurrent has been little regard for the potentially harmful
running through the scientific consequences of their own work or of
community arguing that scientists must work in their field. Or worse, they may
take responsibility for the social contribute (unwittingly or not) to the
consequences of scientific research, potential for harm through their own
whether their own or others'. public statements or participation in
Scientists were among the most vocal
spokespersons asking for bans or Today, as reflected in Jurassic Park and
restrictions on nuclear weapons in the other works of science fiction, the
1950s and 1960s. In the 1970s, a group science of genetics most prominently
of molecular biologists called presents society with a double-edged
successfully for a moratorium on sword. Fortunately, there is the
recombinant DNA research until the opportunity for geneticists to become
potential health hazards were addressed. sensitized to these problems through a
In the late 1980s, James Watson, in study of a time past when genetic
initiating the Human Genome Project, science played a large social role.
announced that several percent of the
With regard to genetics, there are Grant, author of the popular eugenics
striking parallels between conditions book The Passing of the Great Race
today and in the early part of this (1916), and Robert DeCourcy Ward, a
century in the United States. In both leader of the Immigration Restriction
periods, dramatic breakthroughs League, used the new concepts of
generated highly productive periods in genetics to support their claims for the
genetics research. In 1900, the inferiority of certain ethnic groups and
rediscovery of Mendel's laws opened up of the lower social classes. But, more
the field of genetics as we now know it. important for our purposes, many of the
Today, we see an era in which technical leading geneticists supported the
developments ranging from eugenicists or even became active in the
recombinant DNA to DNA sequencing to enterprise. According to Kenneth
the polymerase chain reaction have Ludmerer (1972), in the early days
produced a revolution in the ease with (1906-1915) of this movement most of
which genetic problems can be the leading geneticists were seduced by
addressed. In the early 1900s, the new or promoted eugenic theory.
era in genetics was accompanied by a
powerful eugenics movement that For instance, every member of the first
influenced social policy. Today, the editorial board of the journal Genetics
increasing focus on genetics both within (founded in 1916)--Thomas Hunt
biology and in the media is beginning to Morgan, William E. Castle, Edward M.
shift public attention to genetic East, Herbert S. Jennings and Raymond
explanations and genetic solutions to Pearl--gave support to the eugenics
health problems and social problems. movement. Pearl stated, "I doubt if
there is any other line of thought or
From an examination of this history, we endeavor on which common
can learn much about the role of international discussion and action can
scientists' participation in work with be so well and so profitably brought
socially harmful effects. We can also about as with eugenics" (author's
explore how science is transmitted to the emphasis) Michael Guyer (a confirmer
public and the responses of scientists to of Mendelian theory) worried that "our
potential or actual harm resulting from very civilization hangs on the issue"
work in their field. (Ludmerer 1972, p.35). East (who
ultimately showed that many traits were
The eugenics movement in the determined by multiple genes) felt that
United States without eugenics "man's troubles will
speedily multiply as they never have
In the early 1900s, the burgeoning field before" (Ludmerer 1972, p.37).
of genetics was quickly incorporated into Textbooks in genetics, written by
the eugenics movement (Chase 1977, eminent geneticists such as Harvard's
Kevles 1985, Ludmerer 1972). The Castle, included sections on eugenics.
origins of this movement are complex, Either straight eugenics courses or
evolving in part from a cattle breeding courses that included sections on
association and led by a number of men eugenics were taught in three-quarters
from the upper social classes. of all colleges and universities in the
Prominent aristocratic figures in the country (Allen 1975, Ludmerer 1972).
eugenics movement such as Madison
Yet, the new so-called science of However, it is unlikely that the nature of
eugenics, was, in retrospect at least, the science alone explains the
based on shoddy and primitive scientific prevalence of eugenics ideology among
analysis. For instance, Charles geneticists. The leading geneticists of
Davenport, who had done impressive this period came mainly from the upper
scientific work in showing that social classes, descendants of early
Huntington's Disease was inherited as a American ancestors (Ludmerer 1972).
dominant Mendelian trait, also argued At a time of considerable social turmoil,
that social phenomena such as labor strife, and major immigration
criminality, poverty, intelligence, and movements, explanations for social
even seafaringness could be attributed phenomena that took away the
to single genes (Ludmerer 1972). These responsibility for problems from those
conclusions were often based on nothing governing the society and attributed
more than crude family studies or them to the genetic defects of
population-based use of IQ tests. Even individuals or groups must have been
less evidence was used to argue that soothing to those in the upper echelons
reproductive intermingling of different of society. Rather than having to
racial and ethnic groups would lead to surrender any privilege, this class could
inferior progeny (Provine 1973). look on eugenics as a solution.
Why did so many scientists promote However, this analysis cannot explain all
eugenic theories, given the weakness of the various strands of the eugenics and
the underlying science? Perhaps if we anti-immigration movement. At various
can understand this phenomenon, we points, these movements included major
will be better prepared to anticipate and figures in the labor movement and
avoid such trends today. The early days socialists such as Margaret Sanger.
of genetics were a series of successes Furthermore, eugenics ideology was
where one after the other simple trait strong among socialists in both
was shown to follow Mendel's laws of Germany and the Soviet Union (the
inheritance. From Mendel's pea plants latter until Lysenkoism took power;
to traits of the fruit fly Drosophila to Graham 1977).
human metabolic disorders such as
alkaptonuria, the concept of single-gene At any rate, this combination of a social
determinants appeared to hold sway. movement and an apparently scientific
This unquestionably powerful new base allowed the eugenicists to have
analytic tool may have generated an significant social impact (Allen 1975,
overweening confidence among Chase 1977, Kevles 1985, Ludmerer
geneticists that led them to imagine that 1972). The push for eugenics programs
the same approaches could be used to played a role in both state and federal
explain more complex human traits. legislation that affected people's lives. A
Simplification and reduction are natural majority of states passed laws that
tendencies within science. The allowed sterilization for low intelligence,
attraction of theories that are all- certain kinds of criminality, and other
explanatory is often too much to characteristics. These laws were based
withstand. on the claims of eugenicists that these
traits were genetically determined.
Many states also passed miscegenation
laws forbidding marriage between universities, various sectors of society
individuals of different races, based on were exposed to eugenics science and
flawed scientific theories of the theories (Allen 1975). The
inferiority of hybrid races. Finally, the communication of these theories was
United States Congress passed the spread even more widely by its
Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, appearance in the popular magazines of
which dramatically reduced the number the day. Articles with titles such as
of people allowed in the country from "Decadence of human heredity" in the
Southern and Eastern Europe and from Atlantic Magazine in 1914, (vol. 114,
other cultures considered inferior. p.302) ,"Plain remarks on immigration
Although the factors leading to the for plain Americans" in the Saturday
passage of this bill were many, Evening Post in 1921 (Chase 1977,
eugenicists played a significant role in p.255), and " Danger that world scum
mustering support for it. will demoralize America" in the Boston
Herald in 1921 (Chase 1977, p. 173)
An important key in generating the helped to strengthen eugenic attitudes
atmosphere in which such legislation among the public.
became possible was the development of
popular attitudes toward the issues An examination of Popular Science
eugenicists were promoting. These Monthly, edited by respected
attitudes are often fostered by the psychologist James McKeen Cattell,
popular press and by other societal from the years 1913 and 1915
institutions. The eugenics movement demonstrates the influence of
presented its views to the public in many eugenicists on popular culture. The
ways. From the presentation of eugenic following articles all reflected the
displays at county and state fairs to the position of the eugenics movement of
teaching of eugenics in colleges and that time:
"Going through Ellis Island" (describing "Immigration and the public health"
the characteristics of various immigrant (83: 313-338)
groups; 82: 5-18)
"A problem in educational eugenics"
"A study in Jewish psychopathology" (83: 355-367)
"Economic factors in eugenics" (83:
"Heredity and the Hall of Fame" (82: 471-483)
"The racial element in national vitality"
"The biological status and social worth (86: 331-333)
of the mulatto" (82: 573-582)
"Eugenics and war: the dysgenic effects
"Heredity, culpability, praiseworthiness, of war" (86: 417-427)
punishment and reward" (83: 33-39)
"Families of American men of science"
"Eugenics with special reference to (86: 504-515)
intellect and character" (83: 125-138)
"Biological effects of race movements" even though they recognized the harm
(87: 267-270) that was being done. They rarely spoke
out against these policies, and, by the
A few examples from these articles gives time they did, it was essentially too late
a sense of this "popular science." A (Allen 1975, Ludmerer 1972). For
report on "Jewish psychopathology" instance, East, Castle, and Jennings
argues that "Jews are a highly inbred began to criticize the eugenically based
and psychopathically inclined race" (vol. Immigration Restriction Act and the
82, p. 265) and that "Among the frankly arguments that had been put forth for
feeble-minded, the Jews stand next to many years only at about the time the
the top of the list of those immigrants act was being passed by Congress.
who are deported on that account" (p.
269). David Starr Jordan, evolutionist The studies and proclamations of the US
and president of Stanford University, in eugenicists were also closely followed in
"Biological effects of race movements," Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. The
spoke of the "lower races" that were perhaps most widely used text in human
immigrating into the United States from genetics during this period was by the
Europe and Asia and lowering "our own prominent German geneticists Fritz
average" (vol. 87, p. 270). H. E. Jordan Lenz and Erwin Baur and German
of the University of Virginia in "The anthropologist Eugen Fischer (Baur et
biological status and social worth of the al. 1931). This book, which used data
mulatto" cites geneticists Davenport and and conclusions from US mental testers
Karl Pearson in concluding that "negro such as L. Terman and E. L. Thorndike
traits (e.g. cheerful temperament, vivid and US eugenicists such as Davenport,
imagination...) are of the nature of unit was a eugenics and biological
characters [i.e., Mendelian traits]" (vol. determinist text. It contained
82, p. 580). characterizations of races and ethnic
groups as exhibiting certain genetically
Thus, the evolution of the eugenics based personality traits:
movement proceeded from academic
theorizing and academic "Fraud and the use of insulting language
pronouncements, to their translation to are commoner among Jews" (p. 681)
the public via the media and other
institutions, and, finally, with the "In general, a Negro is not inclined to
appropriate public attitudes generated, work hard..."(p.628)
to the formulation of social policy.
Eugenicists and psychologists active in [T]he Mongolian character...inclines to
the mental testing movement were well petrifaction in the traditional" (p. 636)
mobilized for these political activities.
"The Russians excel in suffering and in
By the time the eugenics movement had endurance..." (p.639)
reached its peak, many of the geneticists
had withdrawn their backing. This "[I]n respect of mental gifts the Nordic
falling off of scientific support, however, race marches in the van of mankind" (p.
had little effect on the implementation 655)
of eugenics policies. Geneticists
generally stayed away from the fray,
Members of the German "Racial 1939 statement), criticized the concept
Hygiene" movement pointed to the laws of race and argued that differences in
and influence of the US eugenics culture, intellectual achievement, and
movement as support for their positions behavior between ethnic groups were
(Muller-Hill 1988, Proctor 1988, not genetic in origin (Montagu 1963).
Waldinger 1973). As in the United
States, many scientists were ardent However, beginning in the late 1960s,
supporters of these policies (Muller-Hill scientific arguments for a genetic basis
1988). for various behavioral traits began to
attract increasing attention. One of the
With the extreme misuse of genetics by earliest and most dramatic of such
German scientists and finally the Nazi claims was the proposal that males with
government, some English and US an extra Y chromosome (XYY males) are
geneticists began to speak out more more aggressive than the average male
openly. At the seventh International (Jacobs et al. 1965) and exhibit a
Congress of Genetics in 1939, a number susceptibility to lead criminal lives
of geneticists issued a manifesto (Price and Whatmore 1967). Despite the
criticizing eugenic programs (Crew et al. weakness of the initial evidence, the
1939). Among the signers were J. B. S. myth of the "criminal chromosome" took
Haldane, J. S. Huxley, H. J. Muller, T. hold of the public imagination (Pyeritz
Dobzhansky, and A. G. Steinberg, et al. 1977). Within a few years of the
several of whom, although they still held first findings, it became clear that XYY
eugenics views themselves, were males were neither hyperaggressive nor
appalled by the implementation of doomed to lives of criminality (Bender et
eugenics in Germany. For the most part, al. 1984, Borgaonkar and Shah 1974,
the opposition of geneticists to the Theilgaard 1983, Witkin et al. 1976; see
misapplication of their field was too most recently Evans et al. 1991). But by
little and too late, and it had a minimal the time these conclusions were reached,
effect. the XYY myth was already being
presented as fact in everything from
Recent history high school biology texts to medical
school psychiatry texts.
The universal revulsion at the Nazi
eugenics policies after World War II led There followed other controversial
to a rejection of many of the general claims of evidence for a genetic basis for
claims of the eugenics movement. In black-white differences in performance
particular, the position that human on IQ tests (Jensen 1969), for boy-girl
behavioral traits and social problems differences in performance on
had their origins in genetics was mathematical examinations (Benbow
replaced by the position that and Stanley 1980), and for a host of
environment was the determining factor human behavioral traits including male
in such issues. Some of these positions dominance, xenophobia, religiosity, and
are reflected in two statements issued by shyness (Bouchard et al. 1990, Wilson
UNESCO in the early 1950s. One of 1975). The XYY research was carried out
these, prepared by leading physical for the most part by geneticists, but the
anthropologists and geneticists (several remaining studies were the work of
of them from the group that wrote the psychologists or students of animal
behavior. Thus, there was little transformation of biology has been a
involvement of the genetics community strengthening of an extreme reductionist
in the resurgence of interest in genetic position toward both the science itself
explanations of human social behavior and its social applications. As with the
and aptitudes. period that initiated genetics at the turn
of the century, the successes of the
The recombinant DNA era and science have been translated into a
the Human Genome Project world view. First, some molecular
biologists have implied that essentially
Although it is possible that the all biological problems are best
molecular biology of the 1950s and approached by studying genes. For
1960s generated an environment in instance, according to Walter Gilbert
which reductionist approaches to a wide (1991), "To identify a relevant region of
range of problems seemed appropriate, DNA, a gene, and then to clone and
the breakthroughs in genetics in the sequence it is now the underpinning of
1970s have even more clearly created all biological science."
such an environment. The
improvements in DNA sequencing Second, many leaders of the revolution
techniques, the development of in molecular biology have publicly
recombinant DNA approaches to gene claimed a nearly all-explanatory role for
cloning and manipulation, and a host of genetics. Many of these claims have
further advances have made simpler the been associated with the initiation of the
genetic approaches to biological Human Genome Project. James Watson
problems in any organism, including was quoted in Time magazine, "We used
humans. The successes in biology based to think our fate was in our stars. Now
on this progress have been we know, in large measure, our fate is in
extraordinary. A partial list of such our genes" (Jaroff 1989, p. 67). Norton
achievements include mapping and Zinder calls the human genome
characterization of genes involved in sequence a "Rosetta Stone" (Hall 1990,
numerous genetic diseases, working out p. 42), whereas Walter Gilbert termed it
of developmental pathways at the the "Holy Grail of genetics" (Hall 1990,
genetic level in several organisms, p. 42). Gilbert also stated that from the
refinement of evolutionary trees based sequence "we can have the ultimate
on DNA sequence homology, and an explanation for a human being"
extraordinary increase in the (DelGuercio 1987).
understanding of the development and
functioning of the immune system. Robert Sinsheimer says that the
sequence is what "defines a human
As a result of the technological being" (Hall 1988, p. 64). Charles
breakthroughs, biology's focus has DeLisi entitled a subsection of his article
shifted dramatically to the analysis of on the Human Genome Project "The
genes. This shift has been blue print for life" (DeLisi 1988). Paul
extraordinarily productive and exciting. Berg stated at a recent Stanford
The reductionist approach of focusing conference, "Many if not most human
on genes has worked for a host of diseases are clearly the result of
previously intractable biological inherited mutations" (Berg 1991).
problems. However, accompanying this Frances Collins suggests that "[The
Human Genome Initiative] will likely There are many complex basic and
transform medicine in the 21st century applied problems that require
into a preventive mode, where genetic approaches other than genetics.
predispositions are identified and Although the improvement in genetic
treated before the onset of illness rather techniques has occurred at an incredibly
than after illness is under way" (Collins rapid pace, comparable improvement in
1991). techniques of cell biology have been
neglected. The greatest rewards in
In an editorial in Science magazine and biology today come for those working in
elsewhere, Daniel Koshland argued that the areas of DNA and gene
the Human Genome Project will provide manipulation.
solutions to many of our social
problems, including homelessness The devaluing of descriptive biological
(Koshland 1989). "The homeless work and of technical innovations in
problem is tractable. One third of such areas as electron microscopy could
homeless are mentally ill--some say ultimately lead to a drying up of the
50%. These are the ones who will most source of the very information that is
benefit from the Genome Project" needed to make sense of genetic studies
(Koshland 1991). Koshland's rationale is or even to stimulate new areas of genetic
that mental illness has a genetic basis research. The training of students in the
and that finding the postulated genes for latest technological developments to the
mental illness will allow cures to be detriment of broader biological training
developed. could also contribute to an
impoverishment of the field. Molecular
These attitudes toward the future of biologists should not be blinded by the
biology and its relevance to social dazzling successes of genetics to the
problems reflects, as Levins and balance in approaches that are required
Lewontin have put it, "the confusion of for future progress.
reduction as a tactic with reductionism
as an ontological stance" (Levins and The translation of the reductionist
Lewontin 1985). That is, the remarkable approach to an analysis of everything
successes of genetics in approaching a from human health to the human
number of biological and medical condition is also problematic. The
problems have been translated into a arguments about health are based, in
view in which genetics is the strategy of part, on the finding that some instances
choice in biology and the explanatory of susceptibility to common diseases
framework for society's medical and such as heart disease or cancer are
social problems. But the movement correlated with the inheritance of an
within biology to concentrate on genes altered gene. It is likely that more such
as the basis of all biological studies is a instances will be found. However, such
myopic view of the field. The questions findings do not imply that most cancer
we study in biology arise in many or most heart disease is related to such
different ways. Some come from the susceptibility genes. Further, in those
discovery of new genes, but many others cases where there is a susceptibility, it is
are only made possible because of years usually only a susceptibility. The actual
of descriptive work. development of cancer will be due to
many factors, including other genes and
the environment. It is not at all clear be discovered; but this evidence does
that the best way to approach cures or not mean that all manic depressive
prevention of cancer is a study of a illness can be traced to genes and
cancer gene, as opposed to systematic certainly not that all depression has a
analysis of environmental factors and genetic basis. Furthermore, even in
the many other approaches that are those cases where there is substantial
currently employed in studying this evidence for manic depressive illness
problem. having a genetic correlate in certain
families, it is clear that not everyone
This area is full of uncertainty. There who inherits the susceptibility develops
are few examples that would give us the disorder. It seems likely that
confidence that gene characterization environmental factors are also
will lead to solutions to health problems. important and should be explored in
For instance, researchers have considering how to deal with the
understood the molecular basis of disorder.
sickle-cell anemia in terms of the amino
acid change in the hemoglobin protein Third, the fact that a gene plays a role in
for more than three decades (Ingram a particular disease does not necessarily
1957), but it has been continuing imply that genetics will provide
medical studies on the progress of the solutions. As discussed above, although
disease rather than genetic knowledge finding a gene for a particular condition
that has contributed to the significant will certainly promote better
improvements there have been in understanding of that condition, there is
survival and health of those suffering no certainty that cures or treatments will
from the condition (Kolata 1987). It is be generated. Finally, the recent
only quite recently that the molecular molecular genetic searches for genes
genetic studies have begun to bear fruit related to such conditions as manic
in this area (Leery 1993). depressive illness, schizophrenia, and
alcoholism have suffered from much of
Of even more concern are the claims the same hastiness and overconfidence
concerning genetics and social problems that characterized the behavior genetics
such as homelessness (Koshland 1989). of the eugenics era (Barnes 1989, Baron
It is useful to analyze the content of such et al. 1990, Billings et al. 1992).
claims. First, a social problem is Fortunately, molecular genetic studies
relegated to the realm of medicine or are more easily replicable, and, as a
biology when the roots are often in result, mistaken conclusions have been
failings of the society itself. Clearly, rapidly picked up. The problems with
some of the homeless do have severe the current attempts to discover genes
mental problems, but much for these complex behavioral traits has
homelessness has its roots in economic led to suggestions that the search will be
deprivation. Second, the reliance on long and arduous and to restoring of
genetics to account for mental disorders some balance in examining genetic and
exaggerates and distorts what we know. environmental contributors.
There is relatively convincing evidence
that, for example, some cases of manic Consequences of biological
depressive illness have a heritable determinist attitudes
component, although a gene has yet to
In the last 15 years, the public has not contributors to this field, referred to the
only witnessed an explosion of genetic mapping of genes for Huntington's
information but also has been deluged disease ( Gusella et al. 1983) and manic
with reports of the discovery of genes for depressive illness (Egeland et al. 1987)
everything from cystic fibrosis to as a refutation of the critics of
alcoholism. These are exciting times, sociobiology. (The report of the
and the publicity for the achievements of mapping of the manic-depressive-illness
genetics is warranted. But, what kind of gene was later retracted; Kelsoe et al.
environment is now being generated by 1989.) These discoveries were seen by
the publicity that genetics has achieved Konner as showing that human behavior
with the grandiose claims that was strongly influenced by genes, and
accompany it? One effect of this thus, by inference, providing greater
publicity has been to promote the support for sociobiological theories of
conception that genetics is all- human behavior.
explanatory. Reductionist statements
from scientists of the sort quoted above The reawakened interest in issues of
only reinforce a distorted perception of genetics, human behaviors, and social
the basis of the human condition. Genes policy is also reflected in the resurgence
are used in the popular media more and of academic controversy over arguments
more to explain social phenomena. that blacks are genetically inferior to
Everything from the attitudes of TV whites in intelligence (Allen 1992,
critics (Stewart 1991) to the basis of Anderson 1990, Holden 1991, Kaufman
violence among soccer fans in Great 1992, Maddox 1992, Palca 1989, Selvin
Britain (Lehmann Haupt 1992) to 1991a,b). It may be that the
presidential candidate Ross Perot's reappearance of this controversy is
frugality (Wright 1992) are ascribed to facilitated by the climate in which
genes. As in the early part of this genetics is made to appear more and
century, the media is serving as a means more important. Of course, racism is
of transmission of the perspective of not generated by genetics, and an
scientists and, thus, helping form public important source of the renewed interest
opinion that can influence social policy. in these issues arises out of the political
climate, including the debate over
It may be that the increased attention to affirmative action. But, historically,
genetics in society will give greater arguments from the scientific
courage to those who argue that our community have provided important
social problems and social inequities are support for racist ideology and political
genetic in origin. For example, recent action.
reports of gene discoveries have been
used to support the arguments made by Overall, then, overextension of the
proponents of human sociobiology in applications of genetics can have
the 1970s. A number of sociobiologists profound effects on society. In general,
received considerable public attention the focus on genetics alone as
for their suggestions that such social explanatory of disease and of social
characteristics as xenophobia, male problems tends to direct society's
dominance, and class structure were attention away from other means of
genetically based. In 1988, Melvin dealing with such problems. At its
Konner (Konner 1988), one of the extreme, a false hope of cures for disease
distorts the distribution of resources. part of the twentieth century, geneticists
Genetic explanations for intelligence, played a significant role. But even
sex role differences, or aggression lead geneticists who are not committed to a
to an absolving of society of any public role in influencing social policy
responsibility for its inequities, thus may still contribute to the potential
providing support for those who have repercussions by their public
interest in maintaining these inequities. statements.
They can influence the development of
social policy in such areas as education. Second, statements by geneticists, with
In the early 1970s, arguments for or without their active participation, are
genetically based racial differences in rapidly translated for the public. This
intelligence were used as a justification translation occurs, in part, by the
for the dismantling of compensatory popular media's representation of
education programs and in school scientific advances and scientists' views.
desegregation controversies. Claims for Today's geneticists, caught up in the
women's inferiority in mathematics enthusiasm of the successes of the new
ability influenced the attitudes of both molecular biology, are contributing to an
female students and their parents. unbalanced view of the role of genetics
and environment. A climate is being
Genetics has also intruded into created in which social policy and
discussions of the problem of crime in individual attitudes may be formulated
the United States. The temporary ado on the basis of incomplete or incorrect
about XYY males led to screening views of the human condition. Care for
programs of both newborns and juvenile the way in which genetics is presented to
delinquents in some states. We may not the public and involvement in
have to worry about a eugenics program countering any misrepresentations is a
in this country in the foreseeable future, responsibility of the genetics
but the other consequences of misguided community.
biological determinist claims are severe
enough. (It should be noted that Finally, the history of eugenics and its
eugenics programs are in effect in some disastrous consequences raises the
societies such as Singapore, where question of the role of the genetics
scientific studies from the United States community in dealing with the social
are marshaled in support of the policy; impact of its field. Even after they
Nature 1984.) became disaffected from the science and
politics of the eugenics movement,
The future geneticists did little to blunt its effects.
It seems likely to me that if geneticists
An examination of the history of such as Morgan and Castle had spoken
genetics and its relationship to social out loud and often of their disdain for
issues holds many lessons. First, the eugenic science, the outcome might well
work of geneticists can ultimately be have been different.
translated into social policy, sometimes
with deleterious consequences. These Today, dealing with the concerns about
consequences may occur with the active the social consequences of the new
participation of scientists themselves. genetics and the Human Genome
In the eugenics movement of the early Project is being relegated, for the most
part, to ethicists, social scientists, Borgaonkar, D. S., and S. A. Shah. 1974. The
lawyers, and other nonscientists. Yet, XYY chromosome male--or syndrome. Prog.
Med. Genet. 10: 135-222.
those involved in the science have a key
role to play and a responsibility to Bouchard, T. J. Jr., D. T. Lykken, M. McGue, N.
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Jon Beckwith is the American Cancer Society Research Professor of Microbiology and
Molecular Genetics in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, Harvard
Medical School, Boston, MA 02115. His research is focused on the genetics of biological
phenomena occurring at the level of cell membranes, including protein secretion,
membrane protein structure, and cell division. He is a member of the Working Group
on Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications of the Human Genome Project, a joint
committee of the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy. He is
also a member of the Genetic Screening Study Group, which is carrying out research
into genetic discrimination, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
Copyright 1993 American Institute of Biological Sciences