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Genetics Unzipped Podcast: Breeding better humans – exposing the dark legacy and troubling present of eugenics

In the latest episode of the Genetics Unzipped podcast, presenter Dr Kat Arney sits down with geneticist and author Adam Rutherford for a chat about his new book, Control, which explores the darkest side of genetics – the horrific legacy of eugenics, which still persists even today.

The origins of eugenics

“Eugenics was always about power,” says Rutherford. “It was always about the maintenance of power. It always was a political ideology, not a scientific idea, although it marshals science into that political ideology.”

“Now at its inception, eugenics is a positive movement in the sense that we want to improve the quality of a people overall by reducing the number of ‘undesirable’ people at the bottom end of society. But you can’t rank people without having people at the top and the bottom,” he says.

“And so while they thought they had noble intentions, this idea is always hand-in-hand with illiberal views and the control of reproductive rights and a lack of autonomy of sections of society that are decreed to be of less value than others by the powerful.”

The dark history

The concept of eugenics quickly spread out from its birthplace in the UK and was adopted into policy across the world, yet peculiarly, not within the UK itself.

“We got away with it by a whisker,” Rutherford says. “Churchill is an enthusiastic eugenicist from the word go, from as soon as he discovers these ideas. And he is largely responsible for the writing of the legislation that would have been the UK’s eugenics policies had not the involuntary sterilisation clauses been vetoed by other MPs.”

The most infamous example of eugenics policies is the Holocaust and the systematic persecution of anyone deemed ‘lesser’ by the Nazis, but this was not the first time these policies had been written into law.

“Most of the policies of the Nazis that were eugenics – or ‘racial hygiene’ is what they really called it – were derived from the American policies. I mean they literally took the same legislation and translated it,” he says.

The troubling present

Sadly, the legacy of eugenics is still with us today and involuntary sterilisation is still occurring even in places you wouldn’t expect.

“There is a class action in Canada against the government for enforced sterilisation for First Nations women and that’s ongoing. And many people are aware of the involuntary sterilisations of women in the ICE detention centers and in prisons in California, most recently,” says Rutherford.

“California was the state that embraced eugenics more enthusiastically than any other state in the U.S. and they have been involuntary sterilising women in prisons until the last few years.”

History repeating itself

Rutherford argues that geneticists understanding the history of eugenics is just as important now as it has ever been.

“New techniques in genetics and reproductive medicine that have been developed in the last five, ten years have relaunched conversations about the same things that the eugenicists were talking about in the late 19th and early 20th century. And so I think that we teach this history and we talk about the history, not just because it’s interesting, which it is, and recent, but because it informs our current practices.”

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Genetics Unzipped is the podcast from the UK Genetics Society, presented by award-winning science communicator Dr Kat Arney and produced by First Create the Media.  Follow Genetics Unzipped on Twitter @geneticsunzip, and the Genetics Society at @GenSocUK

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