The actions of American eugenicists would suggest that they were certain about genetics, after all how could they have been so convinced to sterilize and kill in the name of it. The reality was that even genuine scientists during the 1920s did not really know what a gene was made of, how it worked and where you could find it. It was the equivalent of killing in the name of a god, and one only has to scan the newspapers for a minute today to realise how we inflict terror and violence on others because of the belief in a higher power.
“No one infers a god from the simple, from the known, from what is understood, but from the complex, from the unknown, and incomprehensible. Our ignorance is God; what we know is science.”
Robert G. Ingersoll
The eugenicists had an incomplete view of genetics that still lingers in the minds of people today. While it is true that a gene determines a physical feature, it is only partially the truth and in order to understand genetics more, it is helpful to understand two important words – genotype and phenotype. A genotype is an organism’s genetic composition – the genes that make up you. A phenotype refers to an organism’s physical or biological attributes and characteristics like the colour of your eyes. The Eugenicists made one sweeping and disastrous generalisation:
Genotype = Phenotype
To eugenicists, your life was already determined for you as soon as your mother gave birth to you. Who you are today, ranging from your behaviours, to your job, to your relationships is all determined by your genes. There are still traces of this thinking today. It is common to hear successful people being described as naturally gifted or being chosen. This is just a weaker form of the belief that nature is the ultimate judge of our fate.
“Everything should be made as simple as possible but not simpler”
An important factor that is missing from the equation that determines our phenotype is the environment. When a footballer breaks his ankle from a hard tackle, that is not because of his genes but rather the results of the interaction between the footballer and his environment. The footballer’s phenotype has been affected- he will have scars on his ankle for the rest of his life – but his genotype has not changed and his children will not be born with broken ankles. The same applies for cognitive traits. It is well known that being part of a dysfunctional group will make you feel more unstable and paranoid, whereas being part of a stable group will make you feel calmer, happier and healthier. Environments matter considerably so our equation becomes:
genotype + environment = phenotype
The interaction between your genotype and the environment is interwoven with luck. Randomness affects all interactions in the universe. We can never be truly certain and nothing is ever guaranteed. In the context of genes, a mutant BRCA1 gene increases the risk for breast cancer – but not all women carrying the BRCA1 mutation develop cancer.
In the context of environment, we do not get to choose our parents and where we are born and raised. Some get lucky and are born into rich families in Europe and America. Others are not so lucky and are born into poor families in the Congo and Somalia. The different outcomes, while simply down to chance, will affect the biological and physical attributes of these people.
Chance has the ability to shift the balance between how much of a certain characteristic is determined by our genes or our environment. For example, a child born to a wealthy family has plenty of food available so should, in theory, grow to the height specified by her genes. In this case, chance has placed greater weight on genotype than the environment. On the other hand, if a child is starving then her height will be stunted regardless of her genotype. This serves as a strong argument for helping the less fortunate as it is impossible for any human to reach their genetic potential without an adequate environment.
chance-g (genotype) + chance-e (environment) = phenotype
Our final equation then captures the essence of the interactions between heredity, chance, environment, variation and evolution in determining the form and fate of an organism. Now that we have a unifying principle that connects us all, maybe we can show more empathy and humility towards each other. Perhaps only then can we save the present and future Carrie Bucks of this world – victims of unfounded beliefs about human beings.
Inspiration: Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An intimate history
Image credit: Paul Idrobo