Discrimination, injustice and stigma perpetrated against human groups are rampant. Various descriptors are used: racism, apartheid, sectarianism, xenophobia, etc. About two decades ago, the United Nations announced the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, a blueprint to combat these maladies and related intolerance globally.
The Declaration stated, “No country can claim to be free of racism, racism is a global concern, and tackling it requires a universal effort.” If we look around us, it is obvious that we have not made much progress in tackling discrimination and injustice against groups. This is a scar on humanity. Those of us who have been engaged in research on genetic variation in human populations have been accused of promoting racism, perhaps covertly.
Of course, the findings of scientific research on population genomics are particularly susceptible to being exploited for political and pseudoscientific ends. Communication is the key to preventing such exploitation. This year we are celebrating the 200th birth anniversary of Sir Francis Galton, who shared his birth year with the father of genetics, Gregor Johann Mendel. Galton was a polymath and a pioneer of statistics. He invented the methods of discovering and quantifying the relationship between two variables (e.g., human height and weight); called correlation and regression.
These methods were later refined by his mathematically proficient disciple Karl Pearson. Galton invented methods of scientifically studying weather patterns and produced the first weather map. He discovered that fingerprints can be used for human identification; now widely used for criminal detection. He was an explorer and a geographer. He was also the father of eugenics, from the Greek for “well-born,” the ‘science’ of improving the human race by scientific control of breeding. A large segment of scientists believed in eugenics for over a century.
After Darwin propounded the theory of evolution by natural selection, Galton felt that the theory invalidates much of theology and opens the door for planned human betterment. The same year, 1865, when Mendel presented his results and his theory to the Society for the Study of the Natural Sciences in Brünn, Galton published his findings in Macmillan’s Magazine. Galton argued that mental and physical features are equally inherited. In 1869 he wrote a book titled Hereditary Genius, in which he used the word genius to denote “an ability that was exceptionally high and at the same time inborn.” He believed “it would be quite practicable to produce a highly-gifted race of men by judicious marriages during several consecutive generations.”
Mendel died in 1884 and his laws lay buried until rediscovered in 1900. Galton and his disciples ~ notably Karl Pearson and W.F.R. Weldon ~ criticised Mendel because his ‘laws’ ignored ancestors; Mendel stated that the genetic compositions of only the parents, but not of other ancestors, matter in the determination of the characteristics of a person. In 1885, slightly refined later, Galton proposed his “Law of Ancestral Heredity;” parents contribute between them on average one-half of the total heritage of the offspring, the four grandparents one-quarter, and so on.
In his autobiography “Memories of My Life,” published in 1908, Galton wrote “… stern compulsion ought to be exerted to prevent the free propagation of the stock of those who are seriously afflicted by lunacy, feeble-mindedness, habitual criminality, and pauperism. … our democracy will ultimately refuse consent to that liberty of propagating children which is now allowed to the undesirable classes … A democracy cannot endure unless it be composed of able citizens; therefore it must in self-defence withstand the free introduction of degenerate stock.”
We must intelligently direct our own evolution rather than leave this vital process to chance, Galton felt. He vehemently rejected showing charities to the poor. Charles Darwin, Galton’s half-cousin, had said “There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to smallpox. … We must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind.”
The “International Society for Racial Hygiene” was formed in Germany in 1910 with Galton as the honorary President. Mark Haller, the author of one of the most definitive books on the history of eugenics, wrote “… eugenics in Germany began its sad history that, under the Nazis, would justify wholesale sexual sterilization and then euthanasia for the allegedly unfit and would provide part of the justification for the slaughter of four to six million Jews.” The impact of the eugenics movement in America was especially profound.
In the 1920s, many laws were introduced to restrict the influx of ‘inferior races,’ including all of those from Southern and Eastern Europe, and also China. A modern eugenics movement in a ‘polished’ form continues to be practised. We are witnessing the ethnic cleansing of Ukraine by Russia; many “filtration camps” have been established along the border. In the recent past, we have witnessed cleansing ~ ethnic, religious or cultural ~ in Sri Lanka, the killing of Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan, violence between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists in Myanmar, ethnic violence in south Sudan, the Uyghur genocide in China, an ongoing ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Ethiopia against ethnic Tigrayans, to name a few.
And, of course, the forced sterilization practised in India during the emergency must be fresh in the memories of many readers; over 8 million Indian women were forcibly sterilized in 1977 alone. In 2019, more than 11,000 scientists signed an emergency declaration warning, among other factors, that reproduction must change immediately. Population, they said, must be “gradually reduced ~ within a framework that ensures social integrity.” We hope that the proposed reduction will not be enforced. We must prevent the comeback of eugenics in a modern avatar.