The logo of the Second International Eugenics Congress
This year marks the centenary of the Second International Eugenics Congress in 1921, an event supported by the best and brightest of American scientists of the early 20th Century. The opening address was given by Henry Osborne, the president of the American Museum of Natural History for 25 years. He declared that the terrible losses of the First World War made eugenics all the more necessary. “In certain parts of Europe the worst elements of society have gained ascendancy and threaten the destruction of the best.”
The Congress was an endorsement of eugenic policies such as forced sterilisation.
One hundred years later, the journal Science has acknowledged that it and its publisher, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS): “played a shameful and notable role in the scientific acceptance of eugenics in the United States and the world”.
It is clear that AAAS, Science, and many in the scientific community supported the biggest proponents of eugenics in the early 20th century, when the ideology started gaining wider traction. We must never forget that the unwavering march toward scientific progress is sometimes built on a problematic past. Unless we understand the depths of these problems, we will continue building on rotting foundations.
In another article, a contributor to Science points out that there are abundant opportunities for a new kind of eugenics to take hold:
With modern genetic techniques, including precision gene editing, we are inventing unprecedented possibilities for control of human biology, and society should proceed with a clear understanding not just of the limitations of this science, but of its grim history. Today, we hear frequent discussions about ideas such as embryo selection—not just to reduce disease risk but to enhance traits—and indeed, companies are emerging in the US with this as a potential service offered by their future businesses. Before embracing such technologies, it’s critical to remember that these techniques are both scientifically dubious and share an ancestry with the racist history of eugenics.
Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge
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