Genetics and Society: Learning from History, Shaping the Future

Genetics can do good like develop cures for infectious diseases and it can be used for evil like justifying the Holocaust. In this episode we hear about two Humanists, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who helped us out of the COVID pandemic, who retired from government service almost two years ago, but still needs a security detail then we hear a segment of a lecture given by Adam Rutherford about the dark history of genetics that was used to justify the Holocaust.

Episode 80: Genetics and Society: Learning from History, Shaping the Future

We discuss the impact of genetics on society, touching on both the positive and dark aspects of the field. We reflect on the work of Dr. Anthony Fauci in combating infectious diseases like HIV-AIDS, Ebola, Zika, and COVID-19. Dr. Fauci’s dedication to saving lives and his experiences with various administrations are highlighted, along with the unfortunate security threats he faces due to political tensions.

Then we delve into the history of eugenics, citing examples of how genetics was misused to justify atrocities such as sterilizations and discriminatory practices.

We share insights from a lecture by Dr. Adam Rutherford on the dark history of genetics, emphasizing the shift from simplistic Mendelian inheritance patterns to the complex interplay of multiple genes and environmental factors in shaping traits. He critiques the perpetuation of outdated monogenic deterministic thinking in education and media, leading to racial essentialism and misunderstanding of genetic concepts. Rutherford challenges the inaccurate portrayal of genetics in popular culture, debunking sensationalized claims about genes determining complex human behaviors and characteristics.

The discussion extends to the distorted application of genetics in eugenics, with examples from Nazi Germany where pseudo-scientific racial hygiene policies led to widespread atrocities. The fraudulent foundation of eugenics, propagated by influential figures like Charles Davenport, is exposed, showcasing how flawed interpretations of genetics can have catastrophic consequences. Rutherford emphasizes the importance of revising genetic education to align with current scientific understanding and avoid reinforcing harmful ideologies rooted in eugenic thinking.

By shedding light on the intersection of genetics, eugenics, and societal beliefs, we encourage critical thinking and a nuanced approach to genetic concepts to prevent the reemergence of harmful practices. Through historical analysis and modern perspectives, we underscore the impact of accurate genetic education in shaping informed discussions and ethical considerations surrounding genetic research and applications.

This is our 80th episode – thanks to all who have listened over the years.

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Dr. Anthony Fauci’s book is called “On Call: A Doctor’s Journey in Public Service” and is available where books are sold

American Humanist Association Announces Dr. Anthony Fauci as 2021 Humanist of the Year

Why Anthony Fauci approaches every trip to the White House as if it’s his last

Maddow: Dr. Fauci exemplifies the Trump Republican war on expertise

The dark history of genetics – with Adam Rutherford (2023 HBS Haldane Lecture)


Click Here to Read Full Transcript

[0:01] This is Glass City Humanist, a show about humanism, humanist values, by a humanist. Here is your host, Douglas Berger. Genetics can do good, like develop cures for infectious diseases, and it can be used for evil, like justifying the Holocaust. In this episode, we hear about two humanists, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who helped us out of the COVID pandemic, who retired for government service almost two years ago, but still needs a security detail. Then we hear a segment of a lecture given by Adam Rutherford about the dark history of genetics that was used to justify the Holocaust. Glass City Humanist is an outreach project of the Secular Humanists of Western Lake Erie, building community through compassion and reason for a better tomorrow.

[0:48] Music.

[0:59] Welcome to the Glass City Humanists. I am Doug, I am your host, and this is our 80th episode. Oh! What? Just kidding. I hope that we have another 80 episodes at least, and it’s always a pleasure to hear responses and comments from the listeners and I appreciate it and I want to thank everybody for listening. And before we get to the meat of the episode where we are going to be talking about the dark side of genetics, and it’s related to that, is I wanted to talk about a person who led… The effort to get us through the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci. And he was the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. And he’d been there and he’d been the director from 1984 to 2022. So he’s been at the forefront front of several major efforts to alleviate infectious diseases.

[2:22] He started with the HIV-AIDS research in the 80s, and he did Ebola and Zika, and then, of course, he had COVID-19. He has a book coming out called On Call, where he talks about his life, his life from when he He was born until when he finally retired from public service. And so he’s been making the rounds of the talk show, doing the talk show circuit. And I happened to catch his interview with Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. And that was on Monday the 17th, I believe, June 17th. So if you have Peacock, you can go look on Peacock or YouTube. You could probably look it up on YouTube. A very enlightening interview. I really enjoyed it. And so what interested me about Dr. Fauci is that…

[3:22] This guy has been, he served seven presidents, I think it was, seven presidents over 40 years, 40-some-odd years, and he’s apolitical. He also claims to be a humanist. I believe he got the Humanist of the Year Award from the American Humanist Association recently within the last couple years. Years, his main agenda was saving lives as a scientist, as a medical professional.

[3:58] And that’s all he’s ever done is tried to save lives. He doesn’t play political games. He doesn’t like to play political games, but he worked for the federal government. So, you know, you have a A lot of that. And so what was interesting was, you know, he retired in the end of 2022. And now it’s almost been two years since he retired and he still requires a security detail. Because the conservatives and Christian nationalists and the people that support convicted felon Donald Trump are calling death threats and want him killed or jailed or whatever. They’re just really nasty towards this guy, Dr. Fauci. For no apparent reason other than that, that he showed up their leader, Donald Trump.

[4:57] And it’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous that you serve your government for 40 years and you still need to have a detail, a security detail. That shouldn’t happen. That is not normal.

[5:12] But so he’s talking to Rachel Maddow. And so she explained to him that she was part of the AIDS activist community back in the 80s because many of her friends had come down with HIV and died from AIDS. And it was very important to her. And she reminded Dr. Fauci, or reminded her viewers, that he was heavily criticized back in the 80s, as the federal government was, for what was perceived as a lack of response or quick response to the AIDS epidemic. In some cases, they didn’t really start working on it until it reached the suburbs, until heterosexual white people started coming down with it. That’s when the government really started cranking out the research and trying to get going on it. And so a lot of these right-wing conservative types today have been using these criticisms of Dr. Fauci and his work in the 80s to prove, hey, you’re right, this guy’s an idiot, he’s incompetent, he should be jailed, or in some cases meet a violent end, etc., etc.

[6:41] And so Rachel was talking about that and Dr. Fauci explained it very succinctly. He said that that was a different time. That was a different virus.

[6:55] Totally, he says, it’s like, I think he said, comparing apples and cucumbers or something like that. And then he also explained, too, that, yes, they weren’t good in communicating with the community, the LGBT community, but that he did listen to the activists. And it did open his eyes to the situation. and what it was is the activists were complaining that they weren’t being brought into the process. That the government was working on these cures and studying the virus and how it’s going to affect and they weren’t really working with the community and bringing them in as a partner.

[7:42] And I remember that time, you know, these activists were really active that they would disrupt public events at some point. I remember a group of activists barged in during a live TV broadcast of the CBS Evening News and occupied the set for a few seconds before they cut away to a commercial to bring attention to the plight of the LGBT community. So Dr. Fauci says he did listen, and he thinks it did help guide their work to try to solve that question. And he says the difference, too, is that those activists wanted the government to help people and solve the AIDS crisis at the time. And so they were both on the same page. They just had to come to some compromises to work together to try to get it done. And he said, that’s different than today, where the criticism is coming from people who don’t want to help people, don’t want to save lives. They just want to be able to do whatever they want without having to do anything to prevent COVID.

[9:08] And the other interesting thing that Dr. Fauci said in that interview was that there was a lot of news stories about these conservative people doing these videos that they were sick with COVID and they were in hospital. And some of them might have already been on ventilators, but they had previously lashed out against prevention of COVID, like wearing masks and lockdowns, and they ended up passing away from it. And Dr. Fauci, to his credit, he said that he didn’t care what their politics were. He said they died needlessly. That if they had just either gotten the vaccine or taken the mitigation steps, like the masks and the six-foot standing away six feet, probably they would have not contracted it, or they might not have died.

[10:13] And so it was just very interesting. It’s like I know some friends of mine that are more on the liberal side of politics. We’re laughing about that, about these people that were adamant against any addressing of the COVID-19, no lockdowns, no masks, and how dare you. And they ended up dying from it. It was kind of like, what do they call that, the Darwin Awards in our community. Karma, people could call it karma.

[10:52] And Dr. Fauci was very compassionate about those people. Rachel asked him specifically, she said, what if we hadn’t come up with this vaccine? And she said, would more people have died? And he said, yes. He said, looking at the numbers, he said it could have been another million people that passed away in the United States alone. And he said many more millions around the world had there not come up with a vaccine.

[11:27] And that was sobering. It really was.

[11:31] I know there’s some people in the conservative political movement who have been harassing Dr. Fauci about a lab leak. One of the conspiracy theories is that the Chinese were working on the SARS-2 virus, which is COVID, and it got out of the lab. And that Dr. Fauci and his group knew about it. And he said that he isn’t convinced that that happened, but he’s open to hearing more evidence, just like a human. He sounds like a humanist. It’s like, I’m not going to believe that unless I see more evidence that that’s true, but I’m not going to say that couldn’t be a possibility because he said it could be a possibility. And my take on that is, look, it doesn’t matter the origins of the virus. It really doesn’t, except maybe trying to figure out how to prevent it. But whether or not it was a lab leak or from an animal transmission is beside the point. There’s still been over a million U.S. citizens that have died from that virus.

[12:45] Many of them had died needlessly because they were so into their political viewpoint point about the pandemic, that they actually killed themselves, and they didn’t need to do that.

[13:03] Now, this topic where we’re talking about the dark side of genetics, yes, science should not be put on a pedestal and never questioned. I’m telling you that. That’s not the case. I don’t believe that. And so I’m not a scientist. I’m not a doctor. But I’m going to trust the people that don’t try to spin a political agenda about medical science.

[13:33] And I think that help that helps us, you know, and and the the Trump supporters are pointing out how Dr. Fauci got things wrong at the beginning. And he had to explain, well, that’s how science works. You know, you have an initial idea about some topic and then you get more information as you move along and then it revises your viewpoint. point. And a lot of people can’t handle that. A lot of regular people who don’t understand the scientific method can’t handle that because they want an answer and they want that to be the answer of all time. I really appreciate Dr. Fauci’s work, what his opponents are doing to him and his family, still, two years after he’s left office, is a disgrace and disgusting. And I don’t care what your politics are. It’s like, the guy is retired. He’s no longer making any decisions. He’s not doing anything in the government anymore. He should be left alone to live his retirement as best he sees fit. I recommend getting that book. I plan on getting it soon. On Call by Dr. Anthony Fauci.

[14:55] Hello, this is Douglas, host of the Glass City Humanist, inviting you to listen to selected segments of the Glass City Humanist on Toledo Community Radio Station, WAKT, 106.1 FM, Tuesdays at 7 p.m. Eastern Time. If you can’t listen to us on the radio, you can live stream us on or visit our On WAKT page on our website,, for past episodes.

[15:29] Music.

[15:40] For more information about the topics in this episode, including links used, please visit the episode page at

[15:53] Believe it or not, science hasn’t been 100% rainbows and puppy dogs or unicorns or whatever you want to do. Um, science has been used in the past to justify some really toxic beliefs. One of them that I can think of is, uh, I think it’s called phrenology, phrenology. It’s bumps on the head. Like you could determine somebody’s, uh, makeup, uh, whether or not they were going to be a criminal or, or if they were going to be a good person by the number of bumps that you could find on somebody’s head. And somebody would count these bumps. You have this fascination with homopathy. And what that is, is that stores like Walmart and Walgreens and Rite Aid and other places that should not be selling these stuff, sells the stuff, claiming to cure all All kinds of things. And it’s basically the active ingredients are so diluted that you would probably help yourself more by just drinking water.

[17:11] So, and you can tell that this product is useless because it will say that these claims have not been gone, you know, the FDA has not approved this item or gone over the claims. So, you know that that item, you shouldn’t be using it. Anyway, well, one of the darker places that science has gone is in genetics. And genetics is rather not an infant science. It’s one of the newer sciences, believe it or not, in that everybody knows Gregor Mendel, the monk who crossbred pea plants and was able to statistically determine what alleles and what other genes would be expressed and how to make a better pea plant, all right? And that was in the 1850s, 1860s.

[18:19] And so genetics really didn’t come into force until the early 20th century after 1900. And the reason why genetics became popular was because of the dark reason that you could use genetics and what many people used genetics for back then in the field of, it was called eugenics.

[18:42] And what this was is that people had determined that genetics played a part in whether or not you would be determined to be feeble-minded, right?

[18:56] Or insane, or incompetent. That was another phrase that was thrown out quite liberally, was incompetent. And so they could determine, they could take a look at your genes and determine whether or not you should have children.

[19:15] And many states in the United States and a national policy, although it didn’t turn out to be a national law, law regulated whether or not people who were determined to be feeble-minded could procreate, whether or not they were allowed to have children. In some cases, people were sterilized without their knowledge or without their permission. The eugenicists did this because Because they wanted to create a better race of people, better humans. They figured that prosperity and good things would come if we just had a better mix of people. And one way they determined to have a better mix of people was to get rid of the people that they didn’t think were good.

[20:13] And and they they crouched all of this in scientific terminology um they fully believed what they were doing they thought that they were doing something good for not only for the country but for the for the earth and hindsight is always 2020 and when we look back on that period period, we were like, what in the hell were we doing? You know, they were forcing women to be sterilized against their will because somebody believed that they were feeble-minded. And these determinations, they weren’t. They weren’t based really on any science, any known science. You know, it was a bureaucrat in a state office that took a look at somebody’s record. Like, if you were a criminal, if you had robbed a bank and you were in prison, they considered you to be feeble-minded. Whether or not you were or not.

[21:18] You know, we hear feeble-minded today and you’re thinking that somebody that’s not able to make their own decisions. But they used it in a more vague term. It was undesirable people that were undesirable, And so what I wanted to do today and how this goes into humanism is that there was some humanists in the early part of the 20th century that supported eugenics because it was a science, considered a science at the time. And one humanist, famous humanist, that really promoted not the bad side of eugenics, like sterilizations and things like that, but used eugenics to justify their work was Margaret Sanger, the woman that championed family planning. And the reason why she supported some eugenic thinking was she was saying that these poor children, children that were born into poor families, was just perpetrating poverty.

[22:33] And in order to end this poverty cycle is to help these women in these poor areas to not have more children and to get them birth control. She still believed that women should make the ultimate decision themselves. She didn’t think that the state should intervene. Like some eugenics, eugenicists, they wanted the state to intervene, and that’s why we had some of those laws. But Margaret Sanger believed that women should still have control over their own body. But she believed that in order to have a better world, you needed to lessen the influence of people that were deemed to be undesirable.

[23:21] And so when I hear, you know, the big thing now is DNA through like genealogy programs like Ancestry and MyHeritage. And you can do DNA tests now. Well, some of these DNA tests, then, they give you health reports. You can purchase, if you pay more money, you can get a health report. And it will identify or claims to identify certain DNA parts of your DNA that may cause something to happen later.

[24:02] Cancer or maybe you don’t like peanut butter or things like that. So that’s what this reminded me of when I found this clip of this lecture that I’m going to play for you. It reminded me of that whole situation where there’s some people that are having children that want to pick the child’s hair color, their eye color. Maybe they have some attributes, physical attributes or health attributes that they want to select out. And I have a real concern about that because I know about the history of eugenics. And it’s a slippery slope from making sure that your son has brown hair to sterilization because you’re feeble-minded. I mean, it’s a slope coated with oil. That’s how slippery that slope is. So I get concerned. But I stumbled onto this JBS Haldane lecture on the internet the other day, and I wanted to play about a 24, 25-minute clip of it. It’s about an hour and a half.

[25:17] You know, you’ll find the link. I’ll have the link in the show notes. Check out the full lecture because it’s very interesting. And it is presented by Adam Rutherford. And it’s from 2023. It’s titled The Dark History of Genetics.

[25:35] And it’s interesting because Dr. Adam Rutherford is a science writer and broadcaster. He studied genetics. He has a degree in genetics. And during his PhD on the developing eye, he was part of a team that identified the first genetic cause of a form of childhood blindness. And he’s also participated in regular broadcasts, not so much science-y stuff, but he’s written and presented many award-winning series and programs for the BBC.

[26:08] And he’s the author of Creation, which was shortlisted by the Wellcome Trust Prize, a brief history of everyone who ever lived, the Book of Humans, and the best-selling How to Argue with a Racist. And he’s the co-author of Rutherford and Fry’s Complete Guide to Absolutely Everything Abridged. And his latest book is called Control, the Dark History and Troubling Present of eugenics. And you can get that anywhere. But this lecture took place at the Royal Institution under the auspices of the Genetic Society. And the other interesting point about Dr. Rutherford is since 2022, he has been president of Humanists UK. And that is the British branch of the International Humanists. And that’s the group that my group is part of, is the American Humanist Association is also part of that group. And this is the British branch of that group. And so I thought that was pretty interesting. So this is Dr. Adam Rutherford talking about eugenics. And it’s very interesting and very important for you to hear. Here is one of my favorite pictures from the history of science.

[27:27] Who’s that? Who’s that? Mendel, Gregor Mendel, the founder of genetics, really, described as Austrian. The Moravian, he wasn’t a monk, he was a friar. They are different, I sort of don’t care. Gregor Mendel, the Moravian friar, there he is holding what type of plant?

[27:50] No, a petunia. I don’t know why he’s holding a petunia. P is a very reasonable answer to that question, but it’s a petunia. We often see this picture of him that is framed out, but I just really like showing the rest of his literal brothers here because i think they’re just having a really stylish time and this guy looks like what’s this guy doing don’t know, check me out and i don’t know he’s kind of scary so mendel does his amazing work what i think is probably one of the greatest experiments in the history of science and in the 1850s and 60s where he breeds together 29 000 pea plants and with that statistical patterns emerge that demonstrate that characteristics are passed in discrete packages and predictable statistical formations from generation to generation you know from school it’s peas being wrinkly or smooth or leaves petals being purple or white and they don’t blend they come out in discrete phenotypes and these are the foundational principles of inheritance units of inheritance which become become characterized in 1900 as genes, right? Foundations of genetics. The work is written in German and it’s translated into English in 1900 and then becomes part of the pantheon of 20th century biology, a sort of founding part of it. There’s nothing wrong with this, and Mendel is exonerated. He’s not a bad guy, as far as I’m aware.

[29:15] So he gets a full pass from me on this. But his work lands in Davenport’s lap at exactly the right time for Davenport, or the wrong time for American undesirable citizens. Because it suddenly gives Davenport and the eugenicists of the Eugenics Records Office in Cold Spring Harbour a mechanism on which they can act, a pivot on which they can enact their eugenics ideas. And Davenport and the Americans in general at this time become obsessed with the notion that every single characteristic in humans is defined and determined by a single gene. Just like there is a gene for wrinkliness or smoothness in peas, or a gene for purple or white petals, a dominant or negative. You remember this from GCSE biology. psychology davenport becomes obsessed with the idea that all human characteristics also follow this inheritance pattern now what is the characteristic the human characteristic that we use to teach mendelian inheritance in humans what is the first characteristics we teach to children eye color right we all know this right there is a gene that’s an allele more accurately that encodes blue eyes and it’s recessive to brown eyes. So you draw a little Punnett square table out and you put big B, little b, big B, little b, big B, big B, big B, little b, you know, right?

[30:42] Who was the person who published and described this work first? It was Charles Davenport. In 1907, the heredity of eye colour in man. This pattern is described for the first time in this paper by Davenport. Now, you know that it’s not true, right? You know that if you’re doing your GCSEs now, you write what’s in the paper. But it’s not true. There are dozens of genes involved in influencing, not determining eye colour. And parents, it is probabilistic because genetics is probabilistic and not deterministic. But you can’t really accurately determine the eye color of your children based on the eye color of your parents. And further than that, eye color is not a binary thing. There aren’t blue eyes and brown eyes. They have different eye patterns in the same eye. Some people have heterochromia where they have different eye color in both eyes. So it’s probabilistic and you can make predictions about what eye color will be based on the genotype but they are predictions. They are not deterministic patterns. But the idea that it is deterministic comes specifically from Davenport himself. Now, in referencing the fact that there are not just blue eyes and brown eyes, he acknowledges that in the original paper and says, and this is a direct quote from this original paper, that hazel eyes exist, but we assume that they’re blue.

[32:03] I don’t really know what to do with that. What is the second human characteristic that we use to describe human traits that are dominant or negative? Not tongue tongue rolling is a good one what oh so all the geneticists are out here so earlobes is one that comes later not tongue rolling that’s also not uh no oh come on i was gonna do i was gonna do hair color come on ginger hairedness so mc1r is a gene there’s that recessive alleles for which um are responsible for uh red hairedness now this also comes from davenport published in in 1909, where he describes the inheritance pattern of ginger hairedness. This is a caption from a joke report from, I don’t know if you can see it, red hair is created by an endangered gene. These babies are cowering because genetics is coming to get them.

[32:58] Now, Davenport didn’t have molecular genetics or large-scale GWASs to, to aid him in this. But in the most recent assessment of hair colour from the UK Biobank, one of the great data sets for genetics, what was published about, I think it was 2018.

[33:16] Showed that more than 75% of people who have two alleles that supposedly encode ginger hair do not have ginger hair. We don’t really know how hair colour and eye colour work. And these are the most obvious and easiest examples of Mendelian inheritance in humans. They are the basis of how we teach genetics to school children. And yet both of them come directly from the father of American eugenics with the specific intention of demonstrating the Mendelian inheritance in man.

[33:48] In humans, but he said in man, was something on which we could act and which we could breed people so that they had traits that were more desirable and breed out people who had traits which were were undesirable he also did work that demonstrated as far as he was concerned that sexual proclivity was also mendelian and monogenic and deterministic so based on working with sex workers prostitutes and also that seafaringness ran in families in a mendelian way he was the first person to publish the mendelian pattern of inheritance for huntington’s disease and he actually got the mechanism or the inheritance pattern for this correct it is autosomal dominance um when he got through there died of uh of huntingdon’s um but in the in the abstract for this paper he he attributes the origin of huntingdon’s to three immigrant brothers um from 100 years which we don’t know whether they existed or not but it’s quite clearly associated with the politics of the time where eugenics is considered a facet of immigration. I’ve still got 10 slides to go.

[34:54] All right thanks mate i don’t know who you are but i like you now contemporary research on this is really important and this is one of i think this is the most important reason why we need to know this and why we need to study this and it is based around the idea that over the history the short history of genetics we have moved from this mendelian one-to-one relationship between between monogenic deterministic thinking to a complex multifactorial idea that many genes interacting with the environment and epigenetic factors is the whole symphony of what becomes the phenotype and the behaviours of individuals. So this is the trajectory of genetics over the course of 100 years. But we continue to teach Mendel first. We continue to teach eye colour and hair colour and that genes are these discrete factors which are inherited in these very clear inheritance patterns happens which is basically not true now research has begun to emerge in the last five years where um uh class cohorts in america and a small study based in leeds has actually tested what the outcome of of teaching this type of biology this type of genetics to school-aged children and what they found this is work by brian donovan the paper is carver et al 2017.

[36:12] Um the work shows that if you take one cohort and you teach them a traditional way and you which starts with Mendel and goes on to complexity and diseases later, and you take another cohort and you teach them complexity and diseases first, but the total amount of content is the same, that you end up with cohorts where the first one, where you teach Mendelian inheritance first, end up with a much more racialized, essentialized view of genetics than the second. Now, these are preliminary studies. I don’t have reason to doubt them, but we need to do more research into this. But if they hold up over the next few years then basically not only have we been teaching genetics wrong for a century but we’ve been offering a disservice to the genetics community by teaching a version of genetics which is not only wrong but it reinforces ideas of racial essentialism which have been outmoded for decades so we are offering not just disservice to biology students and to genetics and also to mendel who pointed out in his original paper that those flowers and those plants, they were not wild-type. They were already bred so that those characteristics were being expressed in a controlled background. And he also goes on to say, don’t apply this to humans because humans are really complex. But we ignored all of that for a hundred years, and instead we’ve embraced the eugenicists’ view that all characteristics are determined by single genes, and that is what we teach to schoolchildren.

[37:37] Um now that monogenic deterministic thinking is culturally baked into our society i think it’s older than davenport i think it dates from just the idea that that things are inherited the first example of monogenic deterministic inheritance is really described in the talmud where haemophilia is described written in the third century bc but in the press and this is during the sort of gold mirror of gene discovery as a result of genome-wide association studies you just see that this idea is so sticky that the press left and right just latch onto it i tried to get this to be called rutherford’s law for reasons of vanity but it didn’t stick if you want to help me with that i’d appreciate it but the idea that a headline says the gene for x has discovered scientists discover the gene for x where x is a complex human trait it doesn’t the gene doesn’t exist and the scientists haven’t discovered it can that be rutherford’s law okay let’s go with that so So there’s a few examples. You can, so, you know, mad ones like, this one at the bottom from the Atlantic, the gene that predicts what time of day you will die. I don’t know how that works. If you get hit by a bus. The three from the middle here, gene that will scare you out of your mind, the gene that makes you politically left-wing, and the gene that makes you unfaithful to your partner, they’re all in the Daily Mail. And the cool thing about that is it’s all the same gene.

[39:01] D-R-N-D-4. imagine having that as a phenotype permanently terrified liberal love rat, but the negative i we joke that’s funny right um in 1912 herbert goddard who was the first person to translate the iq test into english from french was working on the study a case study of the woman called us an eight-year-old girl called deborah kalakak in his care um who he described as a standard issue feeble-minded girl, the type that fill our reformatories. And he decided to try and understand why she was feeble-minded, where this came from. And he did this by plotting out her family tree. And he tracked back eight or nine generations and discovered that she was the progeny of a returning civil war, a revolutionary war hero called Martin Kalakak, who on the way back from the revolutionary war, stopped off in a bar, a tavern, and impregnated what he described as an attractive but feeble-minded barmaid, unnamed. And then he went home to his Quakeress upstanding fine wife and had a large family. But the attractive but feeble-minded barmaid also had a family.

[40:12] And Deborah Calicac was the last, the terminal branch in that family, which was replete with miscreants, criminals, and people with developmental disorders. Whereas the family that he had with his legitimate Quakeress wife was filled with lawyers and doctors and scientists. And bankers. And this became, I think, the founding myth of American eugenics. This becomes textbook for many, many years. The book itself, which is called The Calicak Family, A Study in Feeble-Mindedness, published in 1912, goes on to become a bestseller. But as late as 1955, it’s in textbooks, undergraduate textbooks, where you can see there’s the cartoon, married a worthy Quakeress, dallied with a feeble-minded tavern girl on the left-hand side. She has 10 children, one of whom is known as Old Horror, but on the other side, seven upright, worthy children. Now, hold that thought for a second, because we’re going to switch to England in 1912, which again, a pivotal year in the history of these types of ideas, because it is the incidence of the first eugenics international conference held at a site down, which is now Imperial College. And this is the brochure from it. It’s a fantastic abstract. And for the scientists in the audience, it describes talks, some of which are lantern lit slideshows. There’ll be a bell rung with three minutes to go. And again, with 30 seconds to go, sorry, Jonathan.

[41:26] And it also describes places where you can get sandwiches around the back as well. Now, there’s an official write-up for it, but it’s not verbatim. I want to show you some of the cast list of the people there to show you quite how influential this type of thinking is at this time. Read them for yourselves. But you’ve got Darwin’s there. You’ve got David Starr Jordan, the founder of Stanford University there. Bateson, founder of the Genetic Society. Us, headmaster at Eton. Arthur Balfour, former prime minister. Balfour goes on at the dinner. He gives the plenary keynote speech at the dinner. Goes on to um uh award the first professorship in genetics on earth the balfour chair which is still exists to this day and is held by ann ferguson smith who i must stress is not a eugenicist, um um but the first is given to reginald punnett.

[42:17] Um at cambridge of the punnett square the thing that you draw out your eye color and i have to confess that i was in my mid-30s when i discovered that reginald punnett designed that i thought it was named after strawberry boxes i blame my educators at ucl um but reginald punnett uh talks at this conference and says he says something which when you read the notes you think god thank God he said that until he says, I don’t think we’ve got enough knowledge about the inheritance patterns of most human conditions to warrant eugenic intervention. And I read that for the first time a few years ago when finally someone saying it, it goes, comma, apart from feeble-mindedness, which is monogenic and deterministic and should be acted on immediately. I don’t know whether he read the Goddard book on the Calacaques, but it was published the same year. And we do know that Goddard had a stand. He wasn’t present, but he had a stand at that conference. now again they were men of their time fatuous argument they were fatuous arguments and there are fatuous arguments there because here we have arch eugenicist pearson pointing out that the american model of manager monogenic deterministic thinking for this is not accurate and it should be dismissed it’s not that he wants it to be dismissed because he opposes eugenics he wants it to be dismissed because he doesn’t think the data is up to it so you know swings and roundabouts He published three papers over the course of ten years saying that the American model was bad and Thomas Hunt Morgan another founding.

[43:45] Father of Genetics also points out that these are not just genetically inherited conditions But they are communicated rather than inherited communicated here meaning non biologically inherited but socially and culturally mediated But you know what none of that matters because the Calicak study was a fraud The the barmaid never existed, She had been made up.

[44:09] The Kallikak family was an entirely different family, unrelated to Martin Kallikak himself. So this whole founding myth of American eugenics was actually based on a complete fraudulent story. Its impact is, well, we will see its impact because for the last two minutes, I will cover Nazi Germany. This is Alfred Plurz. So he independently comes up with ideas that, he coins the word Rassenhygiene, so race hygiene. Just like personal hygiene and public hygiene are there to protect individuals and the public in general, Rassenhygiene is there to protect the race. He travelled as a socialist thinker to Iowa to work on a communal farm, but was so appalled at what he described as the low quality of the people there that he came back and committed the rest of his life to promoting ideas of eugenics in Germany. First Weimar, first Second Reich, then into Weimar years, and then into the Third Reich itself.

[45:09] Now, many books and many studies, there’s a whole body of literature on the rise of eugenic and race hygiene thinking as part of the cornerstone of the Third Reich and the Holocaust itself. But broadly, these ideas develop over the 1910s and into the 1920s. Nordic purity is a key idea here. year 1920 lebens und werter lebens is introduced in a textbook lives unworthy of life and one of the first laws passed by hitler after he takes the german chancellorship in february 1933 is the law for the prevention of hereditarily diseased offspring the thing that most people don’t know and i develop in other work in other talks is that almost all of the scientific financial and legal foundations for Hitler’s eugenics policies, his race hygiene policies, were derived specifically from the Eugenics Records Office in Cold Spring Harbour. The Rockefeller Foundation funded them, the template laws were drawn from the ERO, the Eugenics Records Office, and they were inspired by Charles Davenport, who was out in Berlin during the 1930s.

[46:14] Now, the Germans were very good propagandists, and part of the motivation for Hitler going to war was to enact eugenics policies, which is why they were backdated for in november 1939 to the first of september the when the invasion had happened and cinema was a big part of um the propaganda machine in germany 1935 seven films seven short films 15 minute films were published to run as b-roll in front of the major films in the cinemas uh in order to promote

[46:44] the racial hygiene ideas that were being um uh being enacted by the Nazi regime. And one of them was called Das Erbe, which means the inheritance, roughly. And in this, a young female researcher is observing two stag beetles rutting, lecking, you know, fighting. And she doesn’t know what they’re doing. So she asks her supervisor, who sits her down in front of the film and shows her examples of the Darwinian struggle for existence. And it includes stags fighting with each other. It includes cats hunting birds and dogs that have been bred specifically to be pedigrees for specific hunting and purposes. And she gets it halfway through. She bursts out laughing and says, I get it. Nature has its own racist policies as well.

[47:31] Just after that, the film cuts to the voiceover where they use the Calicak data, the Calicak family tree to demonstrate that feeble-mindedness runs in families, and therefore this is a justification for the slaughtering of, initially from 1935 onwards, babies and children under the age of five who are deemed unworthy. So you’ve got this direct lineage that starts, well it starts early than 1912, but the fraudulent data that comes from Goddard, that is based on this monogenic deterministic thinking, which is propagated by Davenport, which comes from Mendel, from all of these ideological ideas, starts there and it ends in the Holocaust.

[48:18] Two more slides. This is the Haldane lecture.

[48:21] Haldane wrote this book in 1938, Heredity in Politics. Now, Haldane gets a good pass from us because he was a terrific writer, and he was a funny writer as well. And in this book, he disassembles the eugenic policies of the Nazis and the Americans, and he says that on the first page, I don’t believe our present knowledge of human heredity justifies such, such steps. He was a left-wing thinker, and I think we give him a big pass for that, but he wasn’t really a left-wing thinker at all. He was a revolutionary communist. He was a Stalinist, in fact, a Soviet who supported Stalin’s policies well into the 1950s, by which stage we knew Stalin was a bad guy. And these are policies that were both anti-scientific, anti-evolutionary, anti-genetics, and caused the deaths of tens of millions of people. So thank you for the Haldane Award. And I’ll leave you with someone who is much, much easier to forgive. Thank you very much.

[49:32] Thank you for listening. For more information about the topics in this episode, please visit the episode page at Glass City Humanist is an outreach of the Secular Humanists of Western Lake Erie. Sholi can be reached at Glass City Humanist is hosted, written, and produced by Douglas Berger, and he’s solely responsible for the content. Our theme music is Glass City Jam composed using the Amplify Studio. See you next time!

[50:17] Music.

Transcript is machine generated, lightly edited, and approximate to what was recorded. If you would like perfect transcripts, please donate to the show.


Written, produced, and edited by Douglas Berger and he is entirely responsible for the content. Incidental voice overs by Shawn Meagley

The GCH theme is “Glass City Jam” composed using Ampify Studio

This episode by Glass City Humanist is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

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