The Remembrance of History

Paradoxically, what grounds concerns about the speculative future of science is the past—what is called "the shadow of history" (Juengst). Given the emergence of bioethics directly after the trials of the Nazi doctors at Nuremberg, it is not surprising that there is hardly any account of modern genetics that does not begin with a detailed account of the classic tragic and paradigmatic slippery slope of bioethics— the passage of Germany's most imminent scientists from physiologic metrics, to behavioral genetics, to eugenics, mass murder, and torture based on Aryan racial science. The death camps of the Shoah were particularly horrific in their painstaking record on the "science experiments" on the imprisoned Jewish, gypsy, and homosexual subjects, conducted under the rubric of exploring the question of human difference understood as racialized genetic difference.

In the United States, most intellectuals of the Progressive Era held the assumption that breeding was linked to human behavior in the straightforward way that it was linked to animal behavior. Few doubted Francis Galton's extrapolation of Darwin's understanding of hereditary traits, and the widespread acceptance of physical and mental characteristics as hereditary—and thus subject to social engineering—was a feature of arguments from sources as disparate as American socialists and industrialist Henry Ford (Kevles and Hood). The measuring and mapping of the human body was driven by a need to account for conditions of vast social difference, emerging class distinctions made newly apparent by the industrial revolution and colonialism, and to justify such social inequalities with seemingly natural and logical categories (Duster; Gilman). Marking the physical differences between individuals and groups implied a ranking of worth and of deviance; it further implied that danger could be logically eliminated from a world cleansed and purified.

Genetics understood as eugenics could be used as the justifying modern ideology both to encourage "good" (i.e., healthy, large, white, socially obedient, Aryan) births, and to eliminate "sickly" or "weak" (mentally or physically disabled) births and people. While it is clear that the ideas of inheritance, family resemblance, and hereditary have ancient textual and historical power, this marriage of science and tradition clearly amplified the ideology. Hence, fears of the widespread misuse of genetics and its linkage to a "science out of control" were largely formulated in the period 1845 to 1945. This period, and the eugenic sterilizations that peaked in the 1920s and 1930s in the American context (finally ending only in 1973 with Valerie N. v. State of California), delineates the concern: since genetics was code for the worst excesses of state discrimination, is not the past inevitable prologue?

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