Should We Worry About Eugenics?

With all of the admitted benefits of direct to consumer genetic testing, I think it is also important to speak about it’s seedy underbelly. Let’s talk about the elephant in the room – eugenics.

What are eugenics?

According to Oxford Dictionary, eugenics is “the science of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics”.

On the surface, this concept may seem harmless, even desirable. But if you scratch that surface, it becomes clear eugenics is a very concerning idea.

Some History

Originally developed by Francis Galton in 1883 as a method of improving the human race, eugenics quickly became mired in controversy due to ethical concerns.

Galton was a half cousin of Charles Darwin, the very same individual who wrote about the theory of evolution. Galton had read his cousin’s theory, and believed those principles could be applied to human beings. He felt that desirable human qualities were hereditary, and therefore could be increased in the general population by the controlling of human reproduction.

Eugenics quickly took off, and was soon added as an academic discipline to many universities. Racists seized on the ideology, and began making arguments to segregate interracial breeding. American eugenicist, lawyer, and amateur anthropologist Madison Grant published a book called “The Passing of the Great Race (Or, The Racial Basis of European History)” in 1916, arguing for these ideals.

In the 1920’s and 1930’s, eugenics began to fall out of favor as they became associated with Nazi ideology. The horrors of World War 2 ensured that many discriminatory eugenics laws were abandoned. HG Wells, famous author,  called for the “sterilization of failures” in 1904, but by 1940 was discussing human rights, which he believed should be available to all people, was “a prohibition on mutilation, sterilization, torture, and any bodily punishment”.

And Now, Today

23andme, and other direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies, while certainly not advocating for eugenic principles, allow for the creation of genetic databases that are tied to customer identities.

These companies keep this data for their own research and marketing purposes, and in some cases, sell it to third parties for profit.

There are many people out there who are worried about the creation of these of genetic databases, and how they may be used in the future. Researchers are already making genetic correlations to behaviors such as criminality, addiction and other traits that could potentially become targets for eugenic advocates.

Who decides what traits are desirable in a human?

The question remains today, who has the ethical right to determine other’s right to reproduce? And who determines what qualities are”good”?

That is why we here at Secret Sequence believe in the maximum privacy possible for those people who do genetic testing – to enable customers to learn about their health and history with minimum risk of that information being used in a ways they didn’t agree with.