Recently, Taslima Nasreen, a trained physician, who calls herself a secular humanist and a feminist, tweeted: “Men and women who have bad genes with genetic diseases like diabetes, hypertension, cancer, etc should not produce children. They have no right to make others suffer”.
Nasreen’s opinions, knowingly or unknowingly, reflected her profoundly conservative and pro-eugenics worldview, which is a far cry from women’s or human rights. Her words also lacked any mention of choice, which is central to feminism and humanism.
Under the garb of women’s rights, such ideas that denigrate parents of physically or mentally challenged people may sow the seeds for an introduction of a state-imposed infant selection, which fits the narrow criterion of ‘genetically healthy’ human species.
A tool for discrimination
Derived from the Greek word ‘eugenes’— which means hereditarily endowed with noble qualities – eugenics is a movement aimed at improving the human genetic make-up. In the past, it was done by either elimination or sterilisation. Now, modern technologies can be used for selective breeding, or altering the genome of foetuses. The idea forms the basis of ‘genetic determinism’ that categorises each individual and predetermines his/her value using the genome at birth.
Global history is replete with examples where eugenics has been used as a tool to discriminate against the ‘other’. And the idea has lingered on to date, supported by several scientists, intellectuals, social reformers and politicians.
In the early 20th century, the Americans found a large number of political and economic immigrants landing at their doorsteps. A fear that ‘white America was not white enough’ was instilled. People were told that opening doors to asylum-seekers would lead to more crime, violence and poverty. In 1882, the United States Congress even passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to limit the entry of genetically diverse groups of people, especially the Chinese immigrants.
Those who propagated eugenics were renowned personalities like biologist Charles Davenport, lawyer Madison Grant and activists like W.E.B. Du Bois and Margaret Sanger. Du Bois was the founding member of the civil rights association NAACP but emphasised that different people have different in-born characteristics, making them more or less suitable for specific types of employment.
Inspired by the American eugenicists, Hitler wrote fan mails to them and replicated their ideas in Nazi Germany. Jews, schizophrenics, people with personality disorders, physically challenged, gypsies, Slavic people and the queer community were all listed under the ‘bad genes’ umbrella, and many of them were persecuted to check the growth of biologically diverse ‘unhealthy’ population.
Post-war research reported a low number of people with schizophrenia in Germany, but the post-war rates of incidences were said to be unexpectedly high – in other words, a larger number of new cases of schizophrenia were also registered.
Hence, there was no evidence to suggest that genetic selection was effective in limiting the number of genetic diversities or mutations in the human population. Yet, this idea of cleansing the gene pool has grown roots, and often reappeared in various political, social and academic debates.
Germans in the Nazi era supported genocidal policies because the authorities packaged these ideas as ways to reduce the burden of psychiatric care and medical costs. They were made to believe that the neurologically and genetically diverse groups had no salvation, were ‘mentally dead’, and so were painlessly executed because they were unworthy.
A fallacious argument
Apart from the ethics and human rights’ question, the idea of creating a homogenous population is biologically invalid.
First, it is the genetic diversity in humans, who have constantly evolved to adapt, which strengthens the human race.
Second, most genes are highly influenced by the environment, which determine the overall outcome. Nasreen mentions depression and diabetes in her tweet, but the onset of depression or diabetes is very relative to the lifestyle and the environment of the people who inherit the genes – it is likely that the environment can delay or prevent their occurrence. Thus, there is no guarantee that people who are born with ‘bad genes’ will reflect the phenotype in their behaviour.
Third, there are people, such as Professor Stephen Hawking, who have set better examples than the ordinary, so-called ‘healthy’ humans, and shown that neurological, physical or genetic diversity need not stop them from leading a fulfilling life.
‘Good’ vs ‘bad’ genes
The fear placed in people by eugenics’ proponents about ‘bad mutations’ in certain racial groups, which predisposes them to violence and anti-social behaviour, can be traced to the ‘warrior gene’. This genetic ‘mutation’ has been linked to aggressive and violent behaviour among a large number of people. But, not everyone with this variation is predisposed to violence.
This concept is the most crucial in genetics and has confounded those who understand the science of genetics but still propagate eugenics.
In Northern Sweden, there is a genetically ‘diverse’ population who are insensitive to pain sensations. This is due to a mutation in the SCN9A gene. Now, someone with a surface understanding of genetics and its associated functionality may consider this as a beneficial mutation.
But experts who are studying this population realise that this mutation can be as debilitating, if not more, as experiencing pain. In the absence of a feedback sensation from a painful stimulus, people with this mutation live with multiple fractures and injuries without knowing when to avoid movement that may aggravate their injuries.
In the United States, several neo-Nazis in 2017 chugged cartons of milk at demonstrations to prove they are not lactose-intolerant. This ‘good mutation’ of being lactose-tolerant or having the ability to digest milk has originated only about 10,000 years ago from north-western Europe as farming became more prevalent. Since many non-Caucasians have the non-mutated gene, which makes them lactose-intolerant, the neo-Nazis used the milk cartons as a symbol of racial supremacy.
So, the proponents of eugenics selectively use mutations that may seem useful to assert racial supremacy, while labelling others as ‘bad’. However, the question remains who defines what’s good or bad. It is incomprehensible why state authorities or even medical experts should decide who has the right to live or reproduce.
Intellectuals, including scientists, have been at the centre of the eugenics movement despite it being unethical and inhumane. British journalist and author Angela Saini’s new book Superior elaborates on how scientists and intellectuals hide behind their titles to reinforce racial hierarchies that they think exist, and to realise their political convictions and social biases using science. Politicians, too, have used the muddy scientific framework to advance their causes.
Genetics & determinism
Genetics is far more expansive a concept to be reduced to ‘determinism’, where expectations, opportunities, resources and limitations are pre-set before birth and before anyone has had a chance to show their fortitude.
This strategy of determinism, despite the weak scientific arguments, is implemented so that resources and power are diverted and grabbed by a limited few to spread further inequality – an idea that is at the centre of the politics of racial supremacists. If anyone should have a choice to determine the fate of a foetus, it should be the parents and not the state or the state-backed intellectuals.
Taslima Nasreen may not directly support eugenics. But a tweet from an influential feminist writer like her, who supports abortion, can be interpreted by the conservative and radical right to push for policies that are based on or driven by genetic determinism.
Dr Sumaiya Shaikh is a neuroscientist and an author based in Sweden. Her interests are scientific misinformation, pain physiology and violent aggression. Views are personal.
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