Tech UPTechnologyAre we subjected by our genes?

Are we subjected by our genes?


On October 1, 1910, in a quiet spot on the north coast of Long Island (New York), in Cold Spring Harbor, the Department of Eugenics Records began to function. It was next to a center for experimental evolution belonging to the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and near a biology laboratory belonging to the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. The person in charge of both, and responsible for creating the eugenics department, was Charles B. Davenport , a former Harvard biology professor, who had convinced the wife of a railroad magnate to offer his support.

The following year Davenport published Heredity in Relation to Eugenics , noting that Italians tended to commit “crimes of personal violence” and that Jews showed “the highest proportion of crimes against chastity and in connection with prostitution, the meanest of all.” all crimes.” Following this tone, another eugenics supporter, Madison Grant, wrote in 1916: “ Whether we like to admit it or not, the result of mixing two races is in the long run a race that regresses and returns to normal. oldest and lowest racial type. The cross of a human being of the white race and another of the black race is a black; the cross of a human being of any of the three European races and a Jew is a Jew.”

It is obvious that Adolf Hitler epitomizes eugenic ideas to the fullest. In My Struggle (1925) he said: “Those who are physically and mentally ill and incapable should not perpetuate their sufferings in the bodies of their children.” But what to think of this one, expressed that same year? “It is better for all that instead of waiting to execute degenerate children for a crime or starve them to death for their imbecility, society should prevent those who are manifestly incapable from continuing their kind.” Its author was Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes of the Supreme Court of the United States.


The United States was the first industrialized country to enact racial purification laws. At the end of the 19th century, in Michigan and Massachusetts, they castrated the mentally ill and those who exhibited “persistent epilepsy”, “imbecility” and “masturbation accompanied by feeblemindedness”. In the 1930s at least 60,000 people were legally sterilized . The correct number will never be known because many interventions in hospitals and prisons have never been reported.

The rediscovery of the laws of genetics in 1900 –discovered by Mendel 35 years earlier– coupled with the success of Darwin’s ideas, together with an anthropology and psychology in its infancy, led many to seek a genetic basis in social behaviors and in the intelligence. Put very simply, the fool was a fool, the poor man was poor, and the criminal was a criminal, because his parents were . Thanks to the work from the Department of Eugenics Records, it was shown that whoever enjoyed a comfortable position in society was because they were more intelligent than the others. Thus, with science in hand, many came to identify entire ethnic groups as inferior beings, and a whole series of laws were drawn up aimed at cutting short “the proliferation of physically and psychologically inferior people.” Better than arresting them or locking them up in asylums for life was preventing them from being born.

The obsession of the eugenic legislators were what they called imbeciles and idiots . The Indiana law was intended to prevent “the procreation of convicted felons, imbeciles, and rapists.” In California, the state where the most sterilizations were carried out, a doctor’s note was enough to sterilize “any idiot” as well as any prisoner who had “sexual or moral degenerate behavior” . In Iowa, the law was directed toward “those who might give birth to children with a tendency to disease, deformity, crime, insanity, feeblemindedness, idiocy, imbecility, epilepsy, or alcoholism.” ».

Nature or environment?

This is the central question of human behavior that confronts social scientists and biologists. Are we what we are because of our genes or because of the environment in which we have been raised? Who can more? After the eugenic rampage, the humanities and social sciences set their agenda with what has been called the Clean Slate Doctrine: the human mind has no innate characteristics . Such an idea is usually accompanied by two others: that of the Noble Savage –the person is born good and society corrupts them– and that of the Ghost in the Machine –we all have a soul that makes decisions without depending on biology–. This triduum dominated twentieth-century psychology and sociology, especially under the authority of anthropologists such as Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. Little children are nothing more than blank papers on which society writes its orders ; the human being is great per se, but culture and society corrupt us. In such a world, biological determinism made no sense.

But already in the 1960s books began to appear that sought to disrupt the anthropological “dogma”. Studies such as those on animal ethology by Konrad Lorenz pointed out that human beings, like animals, are the product of evolution and are born with a complex structure of behavioral dispositions that genes transmit from generation to generation. It was in 1975 when the biological ferment took off. That year the book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis appeared, by Harvard University zoologist EO Wilson , where he points out that our behavior is modulated by genes and by our entire evolutionary trajectory, of survival of the best adapted. And the following year appears The Selfish Gene , by British zoologist Richard Dawkins , which ended up defining the modern neo-Darwinian paradigm: the end of any living individual, whether animal or plant, is survival . This desire to survive is reflected in two very clear objectives: try to live as long as possible and try to reproduce as much as possible. All living beings, human beings included, are mere wrappers for genes, the true conductors of the game of life. We are “blindly programmed automata in order to perpetuate the existence of the selfish genes that we harbor in our cells”. Hunger, selfishness, anger, fear, love and altruism are nothing more than blind responses aimed at achieving that goal.

The fight promised to be interesting. The prestigious Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin responded with his book It’s Not in the Genes (1984), accusing sociobiology of being deterministic, reductionist and clearly justifying the status quo : “If the current social order is an inevitable consequence of the human genotype, nothing that possesses some importance can be modified”. Eugenics returned to the fore. Interestingly, Lewontin’s thrust was essentially political : a gene-behavior relationship inevitably leads to the right.

At that time a small revolution was brewing at the University of Minnesota. The Minnesota Adoption Studies were taking place there, where a group of social scientists wanted to see to what extent behaviors are inherited. And the best way to do that is by studying identical twins raised in different environments, comparing them to fraternal fraternal twins . They found that there was a strong correlation between twins — and not twins — for behaviors such as religious fundamentalism or “right-wing attitudes.” The conclusion is not that there is a “faith gene” nor that the environment plays no role in religious observance. What he affirms is that in something as clearly cultural as “religion”, the influence of genes cannot be ignored and, furthermore, it can be measured. After the Minnesota study, other similar ones have been carried out in different countries and they all point in the same direction: almost all personality measures present a high heritability in Western society .

Research in what is called behavioral genetics borders on the politically incorrect. It is an appetizing paste for any political agenda. For example, one of the accusations that has been leveled at the Minnesota study is that it was funded by the Pioneer Fund , an organization founded by a textile billionaire in 1937 that advocates eugenics. Anyone who tries to see heritability in intelligence will be accused of being a racist and hundreds of thousands of letters will arrive at their university asking for their sudden dismissal . Today, determinism is a term of insult and genetic determinism is of the worst kind. As Matt Ridley puts it in What Makes Us Human , “Genes are ruthless dragons of fate whose machinations against the maiden of free will only thwarted the noble knight in the background.”


Weinberg, R. A.; Scarr, S.; Waldman, I. D. (1992). “The Minnesota Transracial Adoption Study: A follow-up of IQ test performance at adolescence”. Intelligence. 16: 117–135. doi:10.1016/0160-2896(92)90028-p.

Ridley, M. (2004) What Makes Us Human, Taurus

Scarr, S (1998). “On Arthur Jensen’s integrity”. Intelligence. 26 (3): 227–232. doi:10.1016/s0160-2896(99)80005-1


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