This course is a history of genetics and geneticists’ changing visions for human mental, moral, and medical improvement through applied biology. It will show how developments in the laboratory not only helped to inspire such visions, but also drew inspiration from them and from changing social values and goals. Thus, it will tell a story not simply of the social consequences of scientific progress, but of social input into scientific developments.
The story begins with Sir Francis Galton’s original idea of “eugenics” in the late nineteenth century, which went hand-in- hand with his contributions to the theory of heredity and the methods of biostatistics. It proceeds through the “rediscovery” of Mendelism in 1900 and the possibilities the new science seemed to open for controlling human heredity. It then traces the growth of the American eugenics movement in the late 1910s and 1920s and the movement’s successful promotion of eugenic sterilization and immigration-restriction laws.
It also considers some important scientific and social critiques of eugenics from the 1920s and 1930s, along with reform proposals to rid the movement of its racial, ethnic, and class biases, and little- known alternative visions for human improvement. In the post World War II period, the course will turn its attention to the widespread disillusionment with the old eugenic methods and values and the consequent turn towards basic research on evolution and in biochemical and molecular genetics. Finally, it will consider the revitalization of hereditarianism from the 1970s on, along with newer visions for human improvement and emerging techniques in genetic counseling, -screening, and -engineering.