Geneticists apologize for the role of eugenics by the American Society of Human Genetics


the scientist The largest and most famous group of human geneticists apologized on Tuesday for the role some of its early leaders played in the American eugenics movement, as well as for the harmful ways the field was used to fuel racism and discrimination.

The 8,000-member American Society for Human Genetics “seeks to apologize for its involvement and silence about the misuse of human genetics research to justify and contribute to injustice in all its forms,” ​​the board said in a statement.

The dramatic gesture comes two decades after the conclusion of the Human Genome Project, which revealed that humans around the world share 99.9 percent of their genetic material. As a result, geneticists have come to a universal consensus that “race” is a purely social construct that — albeit with real-world consequences — has no basis in biology. The apology also comes amid an escalation hate crimes And Mass murder Inspired by white supremacy and conspiracy theories about the country’s demographics.

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Aaron Blake of The Fix analyzes how and why conservatives have continued to espouse the racist “Great Replacement” theory, even after linking it to mass shootings. (Video: JM Riger/The Washington Post)

The association’s decision to apologize came after an 18-month investigation By 2020 protests against police brutality culminated on Tuesday with the public release of a 27-page report examining her past and making recommendations To repair the damage done over generations.

Among the immediate actions outlined in Facing Our History, Building an Equitable Future, the Society removed the name of geneticist William Allan in the early 20th century from its highest annual award for outstanding contributions to the field. According to the report, Alan, a North Carolina physician and eugenicist, “promoted the sterilization of individuals with undesirable traits.”

The report noted that the field of genetics has also damaged itself by participating in and remaining silent about eugenics and scientific racism.

Because decoding the genome has led to great promise for personalized medicine, the lack of diversity among those involved in genetic research threatens to compromise the discovery of disease cures, preventative measures, and cures, said Brendan Lee, chair of the division of molecular and human genetics at Baylor College of Medicine and chair of the board of directors of ASHG. The report notes that around 78 percent of those involved in genetic research globally are of European descent, in part because of the wariness many non-Europeans feel toward the field given past harms and a severe lack of diversity among researchers.

The act of atonement for the past, he told me, is a moral imperative, but it is also intricately linked to the scientific goals of the organization.

The latter, he said, “requires that not only us as researchers, but also our constituents, our participants, and the broader community build trust. … Because if we don’t fix the kind of ethical challenges that have arisen from our past, it’s very difficult to move forward into the future.”

Eugenics, Nazis, and Slavery

The association was founded in 1948, in the aftermath of World War II and Atrocities of Nazi Germanywhich has practiced eugenics against Jews, people with disabilities, LGBT people, and others who do not conform to misconceptions of racial purity and genetic fitness.

By then, pseudo-scientific racism had been channeled by deep prejudices among European Americans, who used it as a justification for slavery, brutality, and discrimination against those they considered inferior.

The emergence of eugenics, a term coined by the British polymath Francis Galton in 1883 and defined as the science of improving the human race “through better breeding”, was based on a similar desire of Europeans for dominance, as well as cultural fears pervasive from the times.

The movement gained popularity in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s laws of heredity led him to believe that most traits were genetically determined, according to the report. “There were also concerns that ‘Anglo-Saxon supremacy’ was under threat as immigration from eastern and southern Europe increased and slavery ended in the United States.”

In 1910, Charles Davenport, a Harvard-educated zoologist, established the Eugenics Registry Office at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island. The office surveyed families to study the inheritance of traits, including “impaired thinking”, criminality and alcoholism. Davenport also studied people of African and European descent for fear that “those who could turn white would contaminate the white genes… This fear of racial mixing was also a major driver of public advocacy for ERO,” the report states.

The office’s director, Harry Laughlin, developed a model law that has been used as a blueprint for forced sterilization laws in many US states. By 1931, 30 states had adopted such laws targeting those deemed genetically undesirable. The report indicated that Nazi Germany was also inspired by Laughlin’s prototype.

The first transfer of Jews to Auschwitz was 997 teenage girls. Few survived.

In the aftermath of World War II, Germany’s use of eugenics for the forced sterilization of hundreds of thousands and the killing of millions dampened American and scientific public interest in the movement.

The ASHG’s initial mandate was to restore credibility to the field, yet the report chronicles repeated failures to do so over nearly four decades.

“The report and its findings are heartbreaking and document a history that must be told and taught so that we can prevent the re-emergence of genetic racism,” Lee said in a statement released with the report.

The report stated that nine of the union’s early leaders served in senior positions with the American Eugenics Society, three of them during their tenure as president of the ASHG. Five presidents who served during the 1950s—Lee Dyce, Kurt Stern, Franz Kalman, Mag McClain, and Lawrence Snyder—supported the forced sterilization of people deemed genetically unfit, including those with physical and mental disabilities, hereditary diseases, and mental illnesses. Another ASHG president, Claude Nash Herndon, was a key participant in the North Carolina eugenic sterilization program, which primarily targeted black women. He called for the group’s most prestigious award to be named after his mentor, William Allan, in 1961, the report said.

In contrast, the report also highlights the anti-eugenics comments of some ASHG heads and notes that the investigation did not reveal “activities or attitudes” that the group as a whole “espoused that directly helped advance the eugenics movement.” However, she said, her leaders did little to prevent membership or inclusion in the forums by people who promoted eugenic theories.

The community also remained largely silent about unethical genetic research and baseless allegations that it targeted members of minority groups after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

For example, According to the report, the ASHG responded inadequately to assertions by psychologist Arthur Jensen and physicist William Shockley—both of whom had a background or training in genetics—that black people were intellectually inferior because of their genes. The publication of “The Bell Curve” in 1994, which made similarly misleading arguments about “race” and intelligence, was also met with mixed reactions.

This was also the case during the height of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, when sickle cell disease and sickle cell trait were used by racists to warn about interracial relations and to deny jobs, insurance, and military service to African Americans. (The disease and trait, which developed evolutionarily to help protect people from malaria, do not exclusively affect those of African descent.)

But the report also paints a picture of an organization that has evolved over the past two decades to become more active and outspoken.

Shattering a “deeply ingrained” belief

In the early 2000s, results from the Human Genome Project validated this pathway.

said Charles Rotimi, immediate past chair of the ASHG and scientific director in the Genetic Diseases Branch at the National Institutes of Health.

However, this message—along with the scientific consensus that all modern humans appeared in Africa about 300,000 years before the start of the small band migration about 60,000 years ago—has been slow to penetrate the public at large, Rotimi said.

“I call it genetic innuendo,” he said. “It’s the feeling that these racial categories have a genetic way of defining them, which has never been true.”

Relatively small differences in humans can be seen between individuals, families or larger populations, he said, but “trying to use genetics to identify ethnic groups is like trying to chop soup. You can chop it any way you want but the soup will still be mixed.”

However, thinking about humans in terms of genetic race is deeply ingrained and “it’s very hard to root out… some people derive an advantage and don’t want to give it up,” he said. Others fear they will lose track of the effects of racism.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Explores Descriptors of genetic populations that may replace historical ethnic groups when appropriate in genetic research. But distinct categories, including those based on ancestry, are elusive due to genetic mixing that has occurred over thousands of years.

Rotimi and others agree that notions of “social race” as well as racism are still important, and have real-world impacts, including major impacts on health.

The same genetic research that has the potential to revolutionize the way we think about ourselves has also been used to re-enforce racist ways of thinking. Numerous white supremacists have rushed genetic testing to try to prove their superiority, bragging on social media about The ability to digest lactose in milkwhich appears to be genetically related to the domestication of cattle in northern Europe but also in parts of Africa.

And amid a sharp rise in hate crimes in recent years against minorities in the United States and around the world, beliefs about racial superiority and inferiority have been used to justify violence.

The white teen was charged in May with the murder of 10 black people in a Buffalo supermarket, apparently motivated in part by British researcher Michael Woodley, who has asserted a link between race and cognitive ability and argued that humans can be divided into subspecies. , a cornerstone of white supremacist ideology that was refuted by the results of the Human Genome Project.

“The human genetics community rejects in the strongest possible terms any attempt to misrepresent and distort genetic knowledge to advance a pseudoscientific racist ideology,” said the ASHG report, “or attempt to legitimize through science the fundamental hatred that constitutes the evil core of white supremacy.”

starting from In 2017, the society began taking measures to increase diversity and inclusion, launching mentoring and training programs for scholars from underrepresented groups, lobbying for diverse topics and presenters at its annual symposium and increasing minority representation on its 16-member board of directors, which has more than 5 per cent. percent in 2017 to 40 percent in 2021. The Board launched the self-investigation in 2021.

The report’s recommendations called on the organization to do more in the coming years to promote equality and inclusion. Lee said details, including benchmarks and targets, would be drawn up this year.

Lee noted that even as the vast majority of ASHG members—a third of whom live in countries outside the United States—share the scientific consensus about “race,” there will always be outliers within and outside the group.

Given the long history of genetic racism and the classification of people by “race,” Lee said, the road to confidence will undoubtedly be a long one.

“I think we all recognize that it’s not something that’s ever been ‘done’,” he said. “I think that is it [about] Ongoing engagement and hopefully trust will be built over a period of time.”

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