Viewpoint: Human genetics has a racist history. Here is what needs to be done to clean up the mess

Children in a Better Babies Contest in 1931. The contest was meant to popularize the eugenics movement. Credit: Everett Collection
Children in a Better Babies Contest in 1931. The contest was meant to popularize the eugenics movement. Credit: Everett Collection

Combined with Mendelian determinism, which was wildly popular in the U.S. in the early 20th century, [eugenicist and father of human genetics Francis] Galton’s worldview set the stage for organized efforts of American eugenicists and segregationists. 

Eugenicists worked to link genetics to race, codifying into scientific circles the false notion of “genetic races.” Eugenics was not a fringe idea; it was solidly mainstream with broad reach and significant impacts on public opinion, federal immigration policy, Supreme Court decisions and various state legislative policies in the United States and in Europe. 

How do we teach and talk about this incredibly problematic history? Despite the many scholarly texts available, there is rarely an open and frank acknowledgement that the very foundations of our field were rooted in the false and dangerous beliefs of biological race and human racial hierarchies.

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Human genetics is not strictly a biological science, it is also a social science, and we ignore other social sciences to our peril. Through their scholarship we stand to gain deeper insight into our own science. Can we humble ourselves enough to learn from those outside our field? Together, could we dispel the myth of biological race?

Again, we cannot do this alone, as most of us are ill-equipped to confront the rhetorical science misinformation bombarding society on a daily basis. Engaging experts in strategic science communication, along-side of social scientists and geneticists, is mission critical to meaningfully de-biologizing race.

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