NET NEWS: Eugenics Archive: Lessons From the Past

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Science  18 Feb 2000:
Vol. 287, Issue 5456, pp. 1163
DOI: 10.1126/science.287.5456.1163b

Scientists debate the existence of a genetic predisposition for crime, while brainy women peddle their eggs: It's not hard to find recent examples of tricky ethical areas raised by modern genetics. Some bioethicists, however, hear eerie echoes of the American eugenics movement in today's debates. To “stimulate independent critical thinking about the parallels,” the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's DNA Learning Center in New York last week unveiled an archive of over 1200 photos, charts, and documents from the early 20th century's eugenics era, when many U.S. scientists believed they could breed a fitter human population.

Essays by leading eugenics scholars lay out the history of the movement and the social policies it supported, such as sterilization laws and curbs on immigration from southern Europe. The archive's images are often shocking and sometimes amusing: There are copies of state laws barring interracial marriages, pedigrees supposedly showing the inheritance of “feeblemindedness,” and photos of families who won “fitness” contests at state fairs. The site also explores scientists' blunders, such as assuming complex traits could be traced to single genes and ignoring the role of environment. Many of the documents came from the Eugenics Record Office, run from 1910 to 1940 at Cold Spring Harbor. Project editor David Micklos says that adds an extra punch to the site's story of science gone awry: “The message is even stronger because it comes from us.”

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