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Eugenics: Science as Morality

After WWII and the revelations of the Nazi Doctors’ Trial, eugenics was looked upon with disfavor. American eugenicists still believed in eugenics exported sterilization, abortion, and population to Third World countries like India, Korea, and the Philippines through the United Nations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). They also consciously transformed the discredited (pseudo)science of eugenics into medical genetics, which seemed avant garde, scientifically sound and, most importantly, culturally acceptable.

Because of recent scientific advances such as assisted reproductive technologies and the Human Genome Project, concern about eugenics, biological determinism, and dehumanization in medicine have resurfaced.

Reflecting on the resurgence of eugenics, Baylor College of Medicine student Zane Foster expresses his hope “that as modern physician-scientists we would make better decisions that were made in the early 20th century” and his fear that “in another century, who knows what actions today will be considered barbaric.”


Eugenics: Science as Morality

By Medical Student Zane Foster

Today, it seems completely obvious that eugenics is morally unjustifiable. However, this was not the case historically. In the early 20th century, it was a controversial, yet still widely accepted idea. Why was it accepted then, yet so abhorrent now? I seriously questioned this myself throughout this term of medical school. I decided it came down to a combination of two major factors: the culture of science and the culture of the times.

As early as grade school, we are taught that science is a tool that we use to observe nature, and philosophy and religion tell us what matters or what is important. This is as idealistic as it is untrue. In anthropology and society, we learn that culture is always being built and reinforced in us from the day we are born until our last breath. Interactions with others modify our habitus, which in turn shapes our outlook on the world. Science is a community much the same as any communities in the world, and the interactions of scientists produce a culture of science. This culture has its creation myths – who can forget Galileo and Darwin, and their stands against the establishment? or Newton and his encounter under the apple tree? – and this culture has its philosophies. In order to conduct science, we must operate under a single philosophical maxim: that which is observable and quantifiable is meaningful, and that which is not observable or quantifiable does not exist and/or does not matter. Put simply, the philosophical framework of science is raw materialism. This works very well for sciences such as physics and chemistry, but causes problems when used in medicine, where the subjects are not mere atoms or chemicals, but living humans with their own sets of values and meaning. The response by the physician-scientists is to label them as “subjects” or “patients”, tolinguistically and symbolically rob them of their human value and turn them into a quantifiable number which can be studied materially. This dehumanizing of subjects for research isn’t necessarily a bad thing: it must be done, or scientific studies could simply not be conducted at all, and the field of medicine would be at a standstill. However, it has the effect of psychologically priming the researcher to treat the subject as a mere statistic, paving the way for mistreatment, if the conditions of the community are just right.

In addition to being materialists, scientists are also idealists. Science as a whole is founded on the fundamental idea that nature can be tamed, and obstacles can be overcome. It is this process of overcoming that defines the culture of science. This narrative is so pervasive and so fundamental that it takes on a moralistic tone. That which produces scientific progress, that is to say, intellectual advancements, is thought of as “good”, and whatever stands in the way of this progress is “bad”. Science, like all cultures in the world, is ripe with its heroes such as the aforementioned Darwin, Galileo, and Copernicus, all valiantly fighting against the forces of ignorance. Like materialism, this cultural mindset is mostly harmless. However, what happens if, for example, traditional morality prohibits a study from being conducted? The reaction of the scientist is frustration, as their moral code doesn’t recognize this alien morality. How dare the objections of mainstream culture stand in the way of intellectual progress? An example of this today is the subject stem cell research. In my own undergraduate education, professors always approached the topic from the perspective of stem cell research as a wonderful, untapped research opportunity. The surrounding controversy of the topic was only ever mentioned in a frustrated tone, as something getting in the way of progress. Stem cell research is incredibly difficult to conduct, due to ethics and grant committees set up by individuals often more in tune with the surrounding controversy. No doubt, many researchers would enthusiastically pursue stem cell research if they had the opportunity to do so.

This is not to say that scientists are amoral monsters, waiting to be unleashed on the world. No doubt, nearly every scientist in the country today would decry eugenics as a horrible evil. It is just that they have an additional moral code that they follow, which society at large may not necessarily follow. Whenever an individual encounters a new topic, they approach it with whatever moral or philosophical frameworks they were raised or trained to follow. In the early 20th century, eugenics was a new idea. Scientists and academics approached it with the aforementioned moral frameworks, and concluded it was a very good, very progressive, idea.

This brings us to the final piece of the puzzle: the culture of the world in the early 20th century. At this time, the western world achieved unprecedented wealth and power – and unprecedented scientific achievement. Within a very short amount of time, physicists had applied theories of their field and provided the world with electricity, telephones, cars and planes. Chemists did likewise and gave the world plastics and petroleum. Economists provided a blueprint for solving the economic boom and bust cycle (or so they thought). Nothing was outside of the reach of science, or so it was thought. Biology promised to apply Darwinian theory to humanity, to improve not just the population of a country but the entire human race. It was an incredibly progressive and innovative idea – and it has a very logical, scientific grounding. Were there those who objected? Most certainly. But at the time, society was so caught up in the idea of human progress that the promises of eugenics captivated the imagination of a vast number of people.

This is why eugenics was possible merely a hundred years ago. As materialists, scientists were trained to see humans as scientific subjects, not as people. Their indoctrination into the culture of science trained them to pursue scientific advancement as a moral good in and of itself. Because eugenics existed in a grey, morally ambiguous, area at the time, scientists approached it with this framework, and saw it as a wonderful, untapped opportunity to improve the world. The culture at large was equally receptive of this narrative, also believing it would lead to progress akin to what they had already witnessed from the other scientific fields. It wasn’t until after the horrific images of Nazi Germany were widely disseminated that culture began to shift and eugenics was universally decided upon as morally abhorrent. We hope today that as modern physician-scientists we would make better decisions that were made in the early 20th century, but the truth is, we haven’t a clue. Hindsight alone is what leads us to know today that eugenics is barbaric, and in another century, who knows what actions today will be considered barbaric.

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