In July this year, 200 years of Gregor Mendel’s birth were celebrated throughout the world. Mendel is known as father of genetics. His experiments with garden peas (Pisum sativum), published in 1866 as Experiments in Plant Hybridisation, identified dominant and recessive traits and how these factors are independently assorted in future generations and in what proportion.
Nevertheless, it was to lay unacknowledged and ignored till three other biologists namely, Hugo DeVries, Carl Correns and Erich von Tschermak replicated his work in 1900.
After the Mendel’s work lot of mechanisms has explained differential behaviors of chromosomes and genes worth mentioning among these are linkage, crossing over, multiple alleles, transposable genetic elements which modified the Mendelain concept.
But in spite of that its dark side still exists, which include: eugenics and racism. But eugenics was much more than race “science”. It was also used to argue the superiority of the elite, dominant races, and a “scientific” justification for the caste system as well.
It is pertinent to mention here that after scientific evidences that genes and chromosomes function in more complex ways as Mendel described the ghost of eugenics still exists, and those who believe that eugenics was a temporary aberration in science and it died with Nazi Germany, they would be shocked to find that even the major institutions and journals who identified it in their names have continued by just changing their names.
The Annals of Eugenics became Annals of Human Genetics; the Eugenics Review changed its name to The Journal of Biosocial Science, and the institution that published Annals of Eugenics renamed itself from Eugenic Society to Galton Institute.
A number of departments in major universities, which were earlier called the Department of Eugenics, became the Department of Human Genetics or Social Biology.
All of them have apparently shed their eugenic past, but the reoccurrence of the race and IQ debate, sociobiology, the white replacement theory and the rise of white nationalism are all markers that eugenic theories are all very much alive. In Indian subcontinent, the race theory is replicated in Aryans being superior and fair as a marker of Aryan ancestry.
While Hitler’s gas chambers and Nazi Germany’s genocide of Jews and Roma have made it difficult to talk about the racial superiority of certain races, scientific racism persists within science.
It is a part of the justification that the elite seek, justifying their superior being to their genes (as I mention above genes recombine, mutate etc. are not a persistent feature), not that they inherited or stole this wealth. It is a way to airbrush the history of the loot, slavery and genocide that accompanied the colonization of the world by a handful of countries in Western Europe.
Why is it that the mention of eugenics in popular literature is only with respect to Nazi Germany and not that Germany’s eugenic laws were taken directly from the US? Or how eugenics in Germany and the US were deeply intertwined? How Mendel’s legacy of genetics became a tool in the hands of racist states that included the US and Great Britain? Why it is that genetics is used repeatedly to support theories of superiority of the white races? If humans originated in somewhere in Africa then black skin colour gene is wild one and thus superior as compared with the mutant white skin colour gene.
The fact is that only the superficial facts of genetics were taken into consideration to show the superiority of certain races started with a priori assumption that certain races are superior and then trying to find what evidence to choose that would support this thesis.
Much of the IQ debate and sociobiology came from this approach to science. A reviewer of The Bell Curve (Bob Herbert, New York Times, October 26, 1994) wrote that the authors Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein had written a piece of “racial pornography”, “...to drape the cloak of respectability over the obscene and long-discredited views of the world’s most rabid racists.”
A little bit of the history of science is important here. Eugenics was very much mainstream in the early 20th century and had the support of major parties and political figures in the UK and the US. Not surprisingly, Winston Churchill was a noted supporter of race science, though eugenics had some supporters among progressives as well.
The founder of eugenics in Great Britain was Francis Galton, who was a first cousin of Charles Darwin. It was Galton who, based supposedly on scientific evidence, argued for the superiority of the British over Africans and other natives, and that superior races should replace inferior races.
Pearson gave his justification for genocide, “History shows me one way, and one way only, in which a high state of civilization has been produced, namely the struggle of race with race, and the survival of the physically and mentally fitter race.” Though it was concept of Darwin who himself was not convinced that it should apply on human beings.
The eugenics programme had two sides: one was that the State should try and encourage selective breeding to improve the stock of the population. The other was for the State to take active steps to “weed out” undesirable populations. The sterilization of “undesirables” was as much a part of the eugenic societies as encouraging people towards selective breeding. In the US, eugenics was centred on Cold Spring Harbor’s Eugenics Record Office.
While Cold Spring Laboratory and its research publications still hold an important place in contemporary life sciences, its original significance came from the Eugenics Record Office, which operated as the intellectual centre of eugenics and race science.
It was supported by philanthropic money from the Rockefeller family, Carnegie Institution and others. Charles Davenport and his associate Harry Laughlin became the key figures in passing a set of state laws in the US that led to forced sterilization of the “unfit” population.
They also actively contributed to the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act that set quotas for races. The Nordic races had priority, while East Europeans (Slavic races), Chinese, Africans, Indians, and Jews were virtually barred from entering the country.
With the fall of Nazi Germany, eugenics became discredited. The response was to rename the institutions, departments, and journals with other names but continue the same work. Human genetics and social biology became the new names.
The Bell Curve in the 90s justifying racism and a recent best-seller by Nicholas Wade, a former science correspondent of the New York Times all trot out theories that have long been scientifically discarded.
50 years back, Richard Lewontin had shown that only about 6 per cent of human genetic variation exists between so-called racial groups; the rest, 94 per cent, are within these groups.
At that time, genetics was still in its childhood. Later data has only strengthened Lewontin’s research. Even the molecular data supports that we are more than 99% equal.
Why is it that genetics and race, even class and caste pop us again and again when we discuss social issues? Why is sociobiology, with its roots very similar to eugenics, still maintaining a degree of respectability?
The reason is that it allows racism a place within science: changing the name from eugenics to sociobiology makes it appear respectable science. The power of ideology is not in its ideas but in the structure of our society, where the rich and the powerful need justification for their position.
That is why race science as an ideology is a natural corollary of capitalism and G7, the club of the rich countries who want to “create a rule-based international order.”
Race science as sociobiology is a more genteel justification than eugenics for the rule of capital at home and ex-colonial and settler-colonial states. The fight for science in genetics has to be fought both within and outside science. The two are closely connected.
Dr. Aijaz Hassan, Department of Botany, Kargil Campus
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.