It is a quirk of history that the foundations of modern biology, and consequently some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century, rest so heavily on peas.
Think back to school biology and to Gregor Mendel, whose 200th birthday we are celebrating next month. Although Mendel is invariably described as a monk, his impressive legacy lies not in Augustinian theology but in the mainstream science of genetics. In the mid-19th century, Mendel (whose real name was Johann Gregor, his Augustinian designation) grew more than 28,000 pea plants that crossed tall with short, wrinkled seeds with smooth and purple flowers with white.
What he found in this forest of pea plants was that these traits separated in the offspring and did not mix, but reappeared in predictable proportions. What Mendel had discovered were the rules of inheritance. Traits were inherited in discrete units that we now call genes, and the way these units flowed through family trees followed neat mathematical patterns.
These rules are taught in every secondary school as core to our understanding of basic biological genes, DNA and evolution. We also teach this story because it is a good story. Mendel’s work, published in 1866, was written at the same time that Darwin was formulating his greatest idea. But this genius Moravian monk was ignored until both men were dead, only to be rediscovered at the dawn of the new century that solved Darwinian evolution with Mendelian genetics and ushered in the modern era of biology.
But there is a lesser-known story that shaped the course of the 20th century in a different way. The origins of genetics are inextricably linked to eugenics. Ever since Plato suggested the mating of high-profile parents and Plutarch described Spartan infanticide, the principles of population control have applied, probably in all cultures.
But in the era of Victorian industrialization, with an ever-growing working class, and in the wake of Darwinian evolution, Darwin’s half-cousin Francis Galton added a scientific and statistical luster to the conscious design of society, calling it eugenics.
It was a political ideology that co-opted the very new and immature science of evolution and became one of the defining and deadliest ideas of the 20th century.
The UK would be a hair’s breadth from enacting the involuntary sterilization of unwanted persons into law, something Churchill fought vigorously for in his years in the Asquith government but was successfully opposed by MP Josiah Wedgwood. However, in the US, beginning in 1907 and over the next century, 31 states had enacted eugenics policies, and an estimated 80,000 people were sterilized by the state in the name of purification.
American eugenics was faithfully married to Mendel’s laws, even though Mendel himself had nothing to do with those policies. Led by Charles Davenport, a biologist and Galtonist, the Eugenics Record Office in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, in 1910 set out to promote a racist, ableistic ideology and harvest American pedigrees.
With this data, Davenport thought, they could determine the inheritance of both desirable and defective traits, thereby purifying the American people. In this way they could combat the imaginary threat of a grand replacement theory facing white America: unwanted people with their recalcitrant fertility will spread inferior genes, and the ruling classes will be wiped out.
Pedigrees were an important part of the US eugenics movement, and Davenport had feverishly clung to Mendel’s legacy to explain all sorts of human frailties: alcoholism, delinquency, dementia (and oddly, a seafaring bent). Heredity, he wrote in 1910, stands as mankind’s only great hope; his savior from dementia, poverty, disease, immorality, and like all keen eugenicists, he attributed the inheritance of these complex traits to genes, which nature placed above nurture.
From Davenport we have the first genetic studies of HD, which strictly follows Mendelian inheritance, and eye color, which despite what we still teach in schools, does not.
One particular story from this period stands out. Psychologist Henry Goddard had been studying a girl using the alias Deborah Kallikak at his New Jersey clinic since she was eight years old. He described her as a highly demented person, the idiot, the delinquent, the kind of girl or woman who fills our reform schools. To trace the origin of their troubles, Goddard created a detailed family tree of the Kallikaks. As the founder of this bloodline, he identified Martin Kallikak, who, on his way home from the Revolutionary War, stopped at his genteel Quaker wife to impregnate an imbecile but attractive barmaid with whom he had no further contact.
In Goddard’s influential 1912 book, The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness, he traced a perfect pattern of Mendelian inheritance for good and bad traits. The legitimate family prospered wildly, while his bastard offspring produced a clan of criminals and disabled defectors that eventually ended in Deborah. From this, Goddard concluded that the Kallikaks’ dementia was encoded in a gene, a single unit of defective inheritance that was passed from generation to generation, just like Mendel’s peas.
A contemporary geneticist will frown on this for several reasons. The first is the terminology imbecile, which was a vague, pseudo psychiatric bucket diagnosis that we assume encompasses a wide spectrum of contemporary clinical conditions. We could also reject his Mendelian conclusion on the grounds that complex psychiatric disorders rarely have a single genetic root and are always heavily influenced by the environment. The presence of a particular gene does not determine the outcome of a trait, although it may contribute to its likelihood.
This is a modern understanding of the extreme complexity of the human genome, probably the richest data set in the known universe. But even with the Kallikaks there is no need for a meticulous time analysis, because the barmaid never existed.
Martin Kallikak’s legitimate family was indeed full of celebrated medical, legal and clerical achievers. But Goddard had invented the illegitimate branch by misidentifying an unrelated man named John Wolverton as Kallikak’s bastard son and dreaming up his mother as the barmaid. There were people with disabilities among Wolverton’s descendants, but the photographs in Goddard’s book show some of the children with facial features associated with fetal alcohol syndrome, a condition that is determined entirely not by genetic inheritance but by high levels of alcohol in it in utero Although the pedigree is entirely false, this case study remained in psychology textbooks until the 1950s as a model of human heredity and a justification for forced sterilization. The Kallikaks had become the founding myth of American eugenics.
The German eugenics movement had also started at the beginning of the 20th century and had grown steadily during the years of the Weimar Republic. By the time of the rise of the Third Reich, principles such as life unworthy of living were a core part of the national eugenics ideology for purifying the Nordic tribe of the German people. One of the first laws passed after Hitler came to power in 1933 was the Prevention of Genetically Ill Offspring Act, which mandated the sterilization of people with schizophrenia, deafness, blindness, epilepsy, Huntington’s disease, and other diseases clearly genetic. As with Americans’ persistent but deceptive grip on heredity, most of these conditions are not directly Mendelian, and in one case, Huntington’s, the disease takes effect after reproductive age. Sterilization had no effect on heredity.
The development of the Nazi eugenics programs was intellectually and financially supported by American eugenicists, who were mistakenly obsessed with finding single Mendelian genes for complex traits and inserting them into family trees. In 1935 a short propaganda film entitled “The Heritage” was released in Germany. In it, a young scientist observes a pair of stag beetles during the rut. Confused, she consults her professor, who sits her down to explain Darwinian struggles for life and shows her a film of a cat chasing a bird and roosters fighting. Suddenly she understands and yells out loud: Animals have their own racial policies!
The film then shows a pedigree of a hunting dog, exactly the type you can get from the Kennel Club today. And then comes an animation of the Kallikak family tree, on one side hereditary woman and on the other hereditary woman, hereditary woman and hereditary defective woman. On the sick side, the positions of all the villains and deviants’ pulse to show the flow of unwanted people through the generations, as the voiceover explains. The Legacy was a film to encourage public acceptance of Nazi eugenics laws, and what follows the entirely fictional Kallikak family tree is its claimed legacy: shocking images of severely disabled people in sanatoriums, followed by sane marching Nazis and a message from Hitler : Anyone who is not healthy and worthy of physical or mental health must not immortalize their suffering in the body of their child. Approximately 400,000 people were sterilized under this policy. A scientific lie had become a pillar of genocide in just 20 years.
Science is and will remain politicized. stay politicized. People turn to the authority of science to justify their ideologies. Today we see the same pattern, pattern, but with new genetics. After the Buffalo convenience store shootings in Buffalo in May, there were heated discussions in genetics communities because the killer in his insane manifesto had cited certain academic papers in his insane manifesto, papers, legitimate papers, treatises on the genetics of intelligence and the genetic basis of Jewish descent, descent coupled with the stubborn pseudoscience, the stubborn pseudoscience of the great substitute. Great substitutes. Science strives to be apolitical, to rise above the sordid worlds of politics and the psychological prejudices that prejudice burdens us with. But all new scientific discoveries exist within the culture into which they were born, were born, and are always vulnerable to misuse. This does not mean that we should shrug and accept that our scientific endeavors are imperfect and can be corrupted with nefarious ends and intent, nor does it mean that we should censor academic research.
But we should know our own history. We teach a version of genetics that can easily be simplified to the point where it’s wrong. The laws of biology have a somewhat tricky tendency to be plagued with limitations, complexities, and caveats. Biology is inherently chaotic, and evolution preserves what works, not what’s easy. In the simplicity of Mendel’s peas is a science that can easily be co-opted and cast into a racist, fascist ideology, as was the case in the United States, Nazi Germany, and dozens of other countries. Knowing our history means inoculating us against repeating it.
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