Scientists Started Eugenics and Gene Therapy Might Make It Mainstream

With discussions about racism and discrimination swirling in the current political climate, their underlying genetic themes are much less debated than in the past.

This is due to the deeply troubling, tabooed history of this simple question:

Does genetics influence human value?

In medical terms, some genetic traits may certainly be less advantageous for survival than others.

Having a genetic tendency for muscular dystrophy, diabetes, pancreatic cancer or childhood depression can risk one’s life expectancy and longterm happiness. Pre-conditions do not equal to pre-mediated or pre-determined futures (as demonstrated in the film GATTAGA), yet society has persisted on preferring some features as more attractive, useful or otherwise positive over others.

And not very long ago, these ideas were not rejected by members of the scientific community, on the contrary. Racial discrimination was praised by early geneticists.

The birth of the term

In the late 1800s, the field of human genetics started out with blazing optimism — geneticists had discovered the buttons behind good health and reproductive fitness, as well as a possible lever to eliminate diseases and disabilities.

After Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution subjected the human species to laws of natural selection, science could now describe human inheritance for the first time. Research could be used to discover, discuss and create new order to the variety of human traits and characteristics.

Based on Darwin’s theory, Sir Francis Galton coined the term eugenics in 1883:

Eugenics = Racial enhancement through selective breeding.

The early 20th century saw budding genetic research, which aimed to understand the mechanisms of inheritance.

Many academics were increasingly lured by an idea to cure the human race from its seeming imperfections––such as disfigurement, imbecility and immorality. Figuring out the underlying genetic patterns and eliminating them would make a ‘eugenic utopia’ possible.

How early geneticists kick-started eugenics

The rediscovery of Mendel’s principles of inheritance during late 1900s resulted in an explosion in European genetic research, which laid the groundwork for eugenic ideology.

The work of English biologist William Bateson on inherited disorders made Mendelian genetics popular in the European medical community. Bateson and his physician colleagues arranged previously published family studies on eye, skeletal and neural disorders to fall nicely into patterns of mendelian inheritance.

Following Bateson, European geneticists J. B. S. Haldane and Archibald Garrod expanded the ideas of population genetics and the inheritance of unwanted mutations by studying mammalian genetic linkage and metabolic disorders respectively.

Unfortunate for these European scholars, the outbreak of WWI in 1914 shifted the human gene research momentum into the United States.

During the 1920’s, Thomas Hunt Morgan and colleagues established the first experimental approach to evolution and natural selection at Columbia University. The team investigated Mendelian inheritance in fruit flies and made two key discoveries: genes could be mapped on chromosomes and genes determined the sex of the flies.

What may seem common sense today, Morgan had demonstrated a groundbreaking chromosomal theory of inheritance and found the missing mechanistic link between heredity and evolution, landing him a Nobel Prize in 1933.

The idea of genetically improving the human race soon become a serious scientific movement: its ideologies were widely taught in universities and discussed in new eugenic communities, such as the British Eugenics Society established in 1907 and the American Eugenics Society in 1926.

The Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory offered biologists such as Charles Davenport funding to research human inheritance and race. Davenport and eugenicist Harry Laughlin made the Eugenics Record Office into a sub-department of the Experimental Evolution Department of the Carnegie Institution, where researchers could provide prompt ‘scientific’ data to support the booming eugenic ideology.

How eugenics became popular science

Eugenics quickly escaped the lab and snowballed into a nation-wide social phenomena promoted by political leaders, with the US first to take eugenics-backed government action.

This included preventing ‘unfit’ individuals to reproduce through forced sterilisation, abortion, institutionalisation, and banning racial mixing. Further, the government supported general stigmatisation, racial discrimination and quotas on immigration. Between 1918–1939, US laws became a standard model for global eugenic policy and sterilisation, which were adopted in 56 countries, including Nazi Germany.

At this point, I must note that not all geneticists supported these policies.

Eugenics was only a minor research focus of the entire Genetics Department of Carnegie Institution and Thomas Morgan himself openly criticised the research, accusing geneticists like Davenport and Laughlin of misunderstanding the basis of inheritance entirely as their research focused on environmental rather than genetic factors.

In fact, eugenic societies were prevalent of ideological and political thinkers rather than scientists. Merely 1/5th of the 650 American Eugenics Society’s members had any medical background whatsoever.

How eugenics entered Nazi politics

The enthusiasm of 20th century human geneticists influenced some of the worst atrocities in the history of humanity.

After the outbreak of WWII, extreme political parties began to cherry-pick observations from genetics to assist their socio-economic goals. During the years leading up to the war, Germany was one of the leaders in European genetics.

Three famous German geneticists — Erwin Baur, Eugen Fischer and Fritz Lenz — published a standard book on human genetics, titled Menschliche Erblichkeitslehre or Human Heredity, which ran to several editions and was supposedly read by Adolf Hitler whilst in prison during the 1920s.

The geneticists’ ideas perpetrated eugenic policies of the Nazi Party as their work supported Hitler’s own politics. His idea was to create a supreme human race, which resulted in state sponsored discrimination and sterilisation. These Nazi policies eventually caused the genocide of millions of individuals in racial and cultural minorities, homosexuals, and those mentally or physically disabled.

Government censored genetics in the Soviet Union

Partially due to this radicalisation, open supporters of eugenics, mendelian inheritance and genetic determinism were condemned and eventually massacred in the Soviet Union.

Before WWII, Russian researchers studied population genetics and statistics on mendelian family disorders similarly to their European colleagues. However, once the abuses of eugenics in Nazi Germany came to light, Soviet leader Josef Stalin banned the entire field of classical genetics in Russia and most geneticists either lived in fear or were purged.

Instead, Stalin became much more interested in the work of Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko. Lysenko believed in the malleable inheritance of acquired characteristics — that favourable traits can be trained and passed on.

Stalin saw Lysenko’s ideas more in line with communist ideology, where class and social value was no longer pre-determined but self-determined. Lysenko also offered an attractive solution for huge agricultural growth — he suggested that growing wheat in colder conditions was a matter of conditioning and acclimation, instead of a laborious task of selective breeding through many generations.

As an inexperienced plant breeder, Lysenko’s agricultural policies were largely based on sloppy and biased research. His work caused massive crop failures, adding to the catastrophic famines in the 1930s that killed millions of Russian citizens.

New times, new tools, new gene therapies

While eugenics was increasingly redeemed as flawed in its applications and its basic genetic assumptions, the atrocities during WWII marked eugenics as inherently morally wrong and evil, sparking new demands for human rights and personhood.

Now, 100 years later from the peak popularity of the eugenics movement, new advances in biotechnology allow directly altering the human genome.

Technologies such as CRISPR, a genome editing method derived from bacteria, can be used to change either the DNA or the expression of any desirable gene of choice.

Genome editing is used as gene therapy, which can correct gene mutations ranging from a single nucleotide variants in sickle cell anaemia to eliminating the sources of Huntington’s disease.

Gene therapy = Using genetic engineering to treat diseases or genetic disorders.

Theoretically, CRISPR editing could fix the genetic variations behind complex disorders such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and depression. The technology is redeemed so imperative for genetic research that it landed its founders Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2020.

Current targeted gene therapy methods aim to improve the condition of a patient without affecting inheritable genetic traits and altering the human gene pool.

This includes using the patient’s own cells and treating them either inside or outside of the body. Some companies are already offering gene therapy for a range of conditions, with some of the most historically promising methods to fight cancer through CAR-T cell therapy.

Inevitably, curiosity as well as caution now circles around plans to edit the human germ-line and directly eliminate disorders from embryos. DNA sequencing technologies have previously made prenatal screening and genetic selectivity of embryos increasingly widespread and accepted.

Faced with rising population growth, the Chinese government for example is hoping to impact population quality over quantity by encouraging prenatal diagnosis and selective abortions. Doctors even in extremely conservative Muslim communities currently advice aborting foetuses due to severe deficiencies, such as type 1 spinal muscular apathy.

Further, potential cell-based cures for infertility allow new degrees of selectivity. Genetic screening during in vitro fertilisation and mitochondrial replacement therapies enables infertile parents more medical freedom to their children’s genome than fertile parents.

Recently, stem cell research has opened up ways to reprogram ordinary cells from human adults into fully functioning sperm and egg cells. Joined together with genetic sequencing and CRISPR powered gene therapy, in-expensive method for producing viable reproductive cells in the lab open the possibility to ‘farm’ embryos with optimised genetic makeups, resembling the bottle-babies in Aldous Huxley’s dystopian science fiction novel, Brave New World.

One looming question is who will decide on the future of gene therapies and who will benefit. One therapy has already been been approved in Europe in 2016, Strimvelis® for immunodeficiency disorders, but for a high price. The treatment costs between $700,000–1 million per treatment.

In the US, the FDA approved their first genetic treatment to fix an inherited trait, congenital gene therapy, Luxturna by Spark Therapeutics, which is priced at nearly half a million dollars per eye.

Wealthy nations and individuals are likely to first benefit from modern gene therapies, with capitalism driving others to countries with less expensive and perhaps less regulated treatment options.

In addition to private jets and tax evasion, safe genetic improvement could become another prerogative for the super rich.

Where do we evolve from here…

Without deliberation, modern gene therapies can easily become the instruments of a new eugenics revival.

Although early 20th century geneticists aimed to improve the health of the human population, their ideas became inseparable with racist ideology, folk knowledge and pseudoscience. Genome sequencing can now be used to eventually identify the genetic factors behind virtually all human traits, and again folk knowledge and politics may determine which traits will be seen as inherently desirable or undesirable, good or bad.

Yet from a biological strand point, all mutations are simply variations–– a spectrum necessary for a genetically diverse and agile population.

Gene therapies will likely improve the health of patients more than eugenics ideas ever could. However, an international consensus is still required on how should we feel about ‘improving’ the human race. It’s up to scientists behind the initial research to communicate biotechnological progress and empower others to join the discussion while we are still in these vital decision-making stages of history.

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Laura Turpeinen

Laura Turpeinen

Synthetic biology| Biotech | Bioeconomy