As scientists wonder if genetics plays a role in coronavirus susceptibility, is eugenics making a come back?

Eugenics is a set of beliefs and practices that aim to improve the genetic quality of a human population


                            As scientists wonder if genetics plays a role in coronavirus susceptibility, is eugenics making a come back?
(Getty Images)

Back in February of this year, when ethologist, evolutionary biologist, and author, Richard Dawkins sent out a seemingly pro-eugenics tweet, he was called out by many. After all, eugenics has been the basis of many racist "scientific studies" to rationalize theories that certain races are better than others. However, the field of eugenics is once again gaining the spotlight after many wonder whether genes play a role in how the current coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak affects different countries.

Eugenics is a set of beliefs and practices that aim to improve the genetic quality of a human population, typically by excluding people and groups judged to be inferior and promoting those judged to be superior. Of course, the mainstream belief among scientific communities in the 21st century is mostly that race is a social construct.

Dawkins had tweeted, "It’s one thing to deplore eugenics on ideological, political, moral grounds. It’s quite another to conclude that it wouldn’t work in practice. Of course, it would. It works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses. Why on earth wouldn’t it work for humans? Facts ignore ideology."

One of the most colorful responses to Dawkins' tweet said, "You absolute pin-headed simpleton. It doesn't work in practice because too many of the goals turn out to be arbitrary fantasies, and too many of those fantasies are the pet projects of abusive bigots who fuck up any civilization they get their hands on. Are you new here? Christ." Other users suggested he read up on British science journalist Angela Saini's 'Superior: The Return of Race Science'.

The book delves into the toxic history of race science, of how dominant societies had the habit of believing their own people to be the best, deep down: The more powerful they become, the more power begins to be framed as natural, as well as cultural.

Richard Dawkins (Getty Images)

When Saini's book came out, she spoke to NPR about race science, saying, "After the Second World War, when we saw eugenics play out — saw the consequences of Nazi racial hygiene in the Holocaust — the world kind of took a collective intake of breath and tried to put its house in order. So scientists, policymakers, the United Nations all came together and decided race has no place in biology anymore. It's not scientifically accurate. Race is not how difference plays out in the real world."

One of the reasons eugenics made headlines in February prompting Dawkins' tweet was because it was revealed that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s top advisors had dabbled in advocacy for eugenics and race science, namely, Andrew Sabisky who had advocated ‘mandatory contraception’ as a way of tackling the “permanent underclass” and that black people were less intelligent than those who are white.

But Sabinsky is not alone. Of late, eugenics has been making a comeback. Even on the popular question-and-answer website, Quora, users claim that "gene-editing [...] could work wonders," while others agree it could be dangerous.

These beliefs have surged during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic -- the question of genetics is being applied to answer why different countries are experiencing the outbreak of the virus differently. There have been claims that those of African ancestry are less susceptible to coronavirus -- a theory that has been widely debunked. But eugenics plays out in other ways too.

Of late, many conservatives in the United States have taken to asking those above 60 to sacrifice themselves return to work so that the economy remains stable. Moreover, people with disabilities including Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and autism could reportedly now be left to die of coronavirus under the new guidance issued by Alabama on who doctors should prioritize for treatment. 

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the beginning of a news conference with members of the coronavirus task force, including Vice President Mike Pence in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on February 26, 2020, in Washington, DC (Getty Images)

Even President Donald Trump's -- as well as his allies' and supporters' tendency to call coronavirus, "the Chinese virus" stems from a branch of race science. Such sentiments have since led to many attacks on Asian communities across the world.

Across the world, geneticists are trying to research whether genetics plays a role in who is more susceptible to the COVID-19 virus. They aim to compare the DNA of people who have serious cases of COVID-19 (which stands for coronavirus disease 2019)—but no underlying disease like diabetes, heart or lung disease—with those with mild or no disease. While there may be valuable insights from such studies, they also contribute to eugenical conspiracy theories.

In the midst of this, sentiments arise that the pandemic is a way to weed out the weak. As New York Magazine's Sarah Jones puts it, "For today’s eugenicists, the coronavirus isn’t a calamity. It’s the means to an end."

Embracing eugenics is never a good thing. One need only go back less than 100 years to the past when Nazis used racially based social policies that placed the biological improvement of the Aryan race or Germanic "Übermenschen" master race through eugenics at the center of Nazi ideology. Using science to explain ideologies based on racist angles could only make things worse.

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