The Other Side of the Human Genome

Henri R. Manasse, Jr.


Am J Health Syst Pharm. 2005;62(10):1080-1086. 

In This Article

Eugenic Vision

Although genetics may be a relatively young area of scientific inquiry, the underlying recognition that organisms inherit certain traits from their ancestors is hardly new. For millennia, humans have deliberately bred animals and plants to produce offspring possessing the desirable characteristics of their progenitors so that they may provide us with sustenance, protection, or aesthetic satisfaction. Charles Darwin's observations of living organisms and geologic fossil records during his five-year assignment as a naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle convinced him that the same process occurs in nature, resulting in the diverse (and still diversifying) array of genera, species, and varieties within species. His publication in 1859 of these observations in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life, would forever alter the course of the life sciences. We do not know if Darwin espoused the deliberate application of his notion of natural selection to the human species, but his half-cousin, statistician and polymath Francis Galton, did. Galton, a man of wide learning and strong opinions (who could claim a number of legitimate achievements, including the first weather map and the first use of fingerprints for identification), was convinced that human intelligence, creative talent, social desirability, and inclination toward economic success were hereditary traits that could be transmitted and refined through selective marriages and the encouragement of large families among the genetically fortunate.[4] He published copiously on this subject, citing hosts of "notable" individuals and families throughout western European history to bolster his thesis that all men were decidedly not created equal. Galton saw himself as the founder of an important new discipline of science -- the science of deliberately refining the hereditary posterity of humanity. After much deliberation on a fitting name to describe this new field of endeavor, Galton combined the Greek words for "well" and "born" and invented the term "eugenics." The term first appeared in his 1883 book, Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development.[5] The word "genetics," incidentally, was coined in 1905 by William Bateson, a student of Galton's, and derived from the same Greek word for "born."[6]

In and of itself, Galton's "positive eugenic" vision of smart, beautiful, wealthy people multiplying among themselves seems almost innocuous, provided that those of less-exceptional stock be permitted to propagate as well. However, the dangerous implications of Galton's premise were clear, and he did not fail to expound on them at length, proclaiming, "[A 'low race'] must be subjected to rigorous selection. The few best specimens of that race can alone be allowed to become parents, and not many of their descendants can be allowed to live."

Galton's intimations regarding the active culling of the human herd may have been limited to words on paper, but his intellectual descendants would not be so restrained in their application of his principles. Soon, the prejudices, falsehoods, and hubris inherent in the emerging "social Darwinism," at the hands of powerful ideologues bent on building a master race, would wreak unimaginable madness on the world.

It would start in America.