Alfred Nobel, who gave us the Nobel Prizes, was severely criticized. People were dismayed because he invented dynamite and other explosives. He was dubbed “the merchant of death.” The critics recognized that any invention that could be used for a good purpose could also be used for a detrimental purpose. Because of the criticism, Alfred Nobel used much of his wealth to fund the Nobel Prizes.
During Nobel’s working life, the Industrial Revolution got underway causing people to move to cities and causing farms to become larger and more productive to support the expanding urban population. Farmers understood that they could increase milk, meat, egg, and grain production by carefully selecting their seeds and breeding stock.
Soon, intellectuals in England, Germany, and the United States began thinking that the human condition could also be vastly improved. Since arranged marriages were not in style in the Western world, they hit upon preventing “undesirable” people from reproducing. They would sterilize people whom they believed should not reproduce. Their science was called eugenics meaning the good gene. Only people with good genes would be allowed to reproduce. In retrospect, we know that their actual knowledge of genetics was next to zero. Genetic science is fiercely complex. But several states legalized forced sterilization, the first in 1907. There were differences of opinion about who should not be allowed to reproduce, but all of the following categories were on someone’s list: low intelligence, insanity, epilepsy, tuberculosis, syphilis, leprosy, dyslexia, schizophrenia, criminals, crippled or deformed, deaf, blind, orphans, prostitutes, alcoholics, and paupers. The very limited understanding of genetic science was overwhelmed by the politics of the era. In 1927 the United States Supreme Court held, in an eight to one decision, that state mandated sterilization was constitutional. Approximately 65,000 Americans were subjected to compulsory sterilization.
Contemporary scientists are making great strides in understanding human genetics and, also, the genetics of harmful viruses and bacteria. Their work holds great promise for better health and prevention of disease. But our history indicates that we should exercise caution. Technology is advancing very rapidly, but our morality and discipline may not be keeping pace. Like Nobel’s dynamite, technology can be used for good purposes or for purposes that are not so good.
In some ways, our genetic heritage reflects our environmental history. Historian William Manchester writes in A World Lit Only by Fire that in Europe during the Middle Ages famine occurred about every fourth year. We assume that storage of fat tissue on the body conferred a capability to survive famine and the many diseases that ravish the malnourished. But Manchester also notes that life expectancy for females was only about 24 years, a little longer for males. Now imagine the capability to store reserve tissue passed along, genetically, to the people living in the twenty-first century. Life expectancy has risen to the 80s in some countries. During a long life span, that anti-starvation tissue can lead to diabetes or heart disease. A genetic fix for this situation would benefit a lot of us. There is a gene mutation that is thought to play a beneficial role in resistance to the effects of malaria. However, if both parents transmit the mutation, the child may develop sickle-cell anemia. Hopefully, geneticists and medical researchers will find a successful remedy. Genetics is an exciting field of opportunity for improvement of the human condition, but it comes with the warning that, because of its complexity, there may be unforeseen consequences. Or, there may be consequences that we have previously seen.
Germany forcibly sterilized about 375,000 people. But then the Nazi regime of Adolph Hitler decided that elimination of future generations of undesirable people wasn’t good enough. They decided to eliminate the contemporary generation of people they didn’t like. We call it the Holocaust.
Leonard Pitts, writing in his syndicated column about the mass murder at Orlando, Florida, cites a California preacher whom he quotes as saying to his congregation: “…round them all up and put them up against a firing wall and blow their brains out.” It matters not whether the speaker was referring to race, religion, or sexual orientation; the attitude he exhibited is the same state of mind that produced government mandated sterilization and the Holocaust. It is still with us.
The 1927 U.S. Supreme Court sterilization decision has not been overturned.
Jack Stevenson is now retired from military service. He served two years in Vietnam as an infantry officer and worked three years as a U.S. Civil Service employee. He also worked in Egypt as an employee of the former Radio Corporation of America (RCA).