The American Society of Human Genetics castigates itself for past eugenics, but engages in doublethink

January 26, 2023 • 11:45 am

As so many science organizations are doing, the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) is taking a hard look at its past and castigating itself for its involvement in eugenics, discrimination, promotion of claims about genetic inequalities, and other activities considered insupportable in modern times. The ASHG was thorough, and published a 45-page report detailing the Facing Our History – Building an Equitable Future Initiative.

I looked through it, and like most of these things it’s a mixture of the good (e.g.,  recounting of the history of harmful political ideology in human genetics) and the not so good (eliminating the names of people willy-nilly from awards, the constant emphasis on “equity” instead of “equality”, etc.). Although the bad stuff is largely behind us, it’s still salubrious for people to know the history of their field. (By the way, eugenics is still being practiced in conjunction with genetic counseling. For example, every time a couple decides to abort a fetus with Down Syndrome or genetic disease, that’s eugenics.)

But the emphasis on equity, equity, and more equity is an ideological position because of its tacit assumption that all inequities (that is, unequal representation of groups compared to their proportion in a relevant population) are due to presently acting forms of institutionalized racism, to which human genetics has contributed. In constantly calling for equity as an important goal of the Society, the ASHG is taking an ideological position.

In the article above on his website, Noah Carl found one item I missed in the ASHG report. (Yes, I know of Carl’s infamy: he was fired from a position at Cambridge University for working on the connection between human race and intelligence: an ideologically taboo topic that was, in his case, also characterized as “poor scholarship”).

But I’ll just give Carl’s thoughts on one part of the ASHG statement, a part that shows the cluelessness of ideologues who don’t recognize when their own ideology is permeating science even though, like bloodhounds, they’re very able to sniff out ideologies that they don’t like.

Here’s Carl’s quote; the yellowing in the extract from the ASHG statement is his.

Anyway, one paragraph in the statement did catch my eye. It outlines some of the “challenges” facing human genetics, one of which is “denouncing the warping of science for advocacy agendas”. Here, they’re presumably referring to the misuse of science to justify racism and eugenics.

What’s remarkable, though, is that the very same paragraph includes this sentence: “ASHG encourages individual members, peer societies, academic centers, agencies, industry partners, and others to reflect on how everyone’s contributions will help foster inclusive equity agendas.”

Screenshot of the ASHG statement.

So on the one hand, we must denounce the “warping of science for advocacy agendas”. But on the other, we must “help foster inclusive equity agendas”. You can’t make it up! They even managed to use the same word “agenda” in both places.

The statement’s authors would no doubt assure us they’d never dream of warping science to foster an “inclusive equity agenda”. Only people with Bad agendas warp science! But this is what’s known in the technical jargon as a lie.

And the sentence I highlighted is far from the only place where the authors take an openly political stance. They begin by noting that ASHG has been “late in making explicit efforts to integrate equity, diversity, and inclusion into its values, programs, and voice”. And they further note that ASGH will continue “its recent actions to prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion”.

Apparently, political agendas are okay in science so long as it’s your politics being promoted. The sad part is that so much of science is being damaged by the failure of advocates to understand that science is supposed to be largely free from political slants, and when a political viewpoint has permeated science, as in the Lysenko affair, it has always been harmful.  And make no mistake about it—the conception of DEI being promoted as the future pathway to “inclusive equity”, both here and in other science societies, is indeed an ideology, and one that can be rationally debated instead of being taken as a given that must be enforced.

17 thoughts on “The American Society of Human Genetics castigates itself for past eugenics, but engages in doublethink

  1. As you point out, genetic counseling is a form of eugenics. One of my Black colleagues has commented that the disproportionate jailing of young Black men during their most fertile years is also a form of eugenics. What about sperm banks and their selection of appropriate donors?

    1. I’m not convinced that disproportionate jailing qualifies as “eugenics”, since intent surely matters here. Or does the higher murder rate among American black communities (most of which is black-on-black) also quallify as “eugenics”?

  2. Do you think political or religious agendas have always been prevalent in science, and it’s just that it now seems that you can be blatant about it? Just as the far right has realized their base will accept racism and lies, and the far left will accept anything if you slap a ‘progressive’ sticker on it?

    1. Personally, I have been a scientist for nearly 45 years now and, with the one exception of a Marxist professor way back in gradual skool, I have not encountered any political or religious agendas from any of my collegues, both domestic and foreign. Lots of personal agendas over the years, for sure, but never a political or religious one. Now, I know full well that ancedotes aren’t data, but you said “prevalent in science”. So, you’d think over the course of 45 or so years I might have noticed some of it if it was “prevalent”. Science is done by humans and humans can be overly political and/or religious (damn them) so it’s not immune from individual harm. But prevalent? I don’t see it. It’s not even rare.

      1. I just gave you an example of societies doing this and there’s a lot more in terms of what research is funded, whether you can say there are two sexes, etc. EVERY science society I know of has adopted a “progressive ideology.”

        If you don’t think that ideology is getting pretty prevalent in biology, at least evolutionary biology and ecology, then you haven’t been reading this website. I give examples all the time.

      2. The leadership of the Society for Integrative & Comparative Biology encourages members to call out other members, in public and on social media, if they seem to lack enthusiasm for antiracism.

  3. Richard Dawkins asks why the question should be off the table as to “why it is acceptable to train fast runners and high jumpers but not to breed them.” Does eugenics inevitably involve racial discrimination or the elimination of segments of society deemed “unfit”?

    1. No, not at all. IN fact, the British eugenicists always being demonized were concerned more with class than with race, and their form of eugenics was encouraging the breeding of what they saw as the genetically best (upper classes of course); it did not involve sterilization or preventing breeding of others. (I suppose there were a few biologists who favored discouraging the breeding of the “lower classes”. This is not, of course, the same as sterilizing or killing people. People don’t seem to realize the various forms “eugenics” can take

  4. This is why social justice must be addressed separately from environmental policy and legislation. Science is non-arbitrary and based on established demonstrable evidence, facts and the laws of nature. Social justice is arbitrary and its policies are disputable and always have alternatives, depending on the loudest voices, not on impartial evidence. The infiltration and degradation of the environmental movement by social justice activists has thrown the public and the planet under the bus in order to strengthen
    political and economic ideologies and their institutions. As a result science has been sidelined, even rejected. The pursuit of social justice must proceed on its own path to get a consensus of the public behind it before it is achieved and implemented. The pursuit of environmental sanity must remain based on the truths of science wherever the chips may fall, and must be the sole basis for policy and legislation.

    1. I agree with you, Lorna, that the results from science must be free of contamination by what we “need” them to show in order to get a certain policy suite enacted.

      But — and here I don’t mean the negatory but, just an amplification — it is still a value judgement about how much resources society ought to devote to preventing a prediction made by scientists, even if the predictions could be known with certainty to be facts in the future. There will be winners and losers under any course of action. The losers under an aggressive, rapid, decarbonization process will be all of us in the near future, both wealthy countries and poor ones (who will get poorer without cheap energy and fertilizer) whereas the winners will be maybe the great-grandchildren of those who survive the aggressive policies being urged today. (Africa is screwed one way or the other.)

      There is no scientific way to resolve this question. Even if it was a certainty that people not yet born would be better off in a decarbonized world, largely because there would be so many fewer of them, to go that route is a moral decision, not a scientific one. The informed “denier” view now is that none of our grandchildren will live long enough to see any possible benefit that exceeds the present costs now, so why bother? There is no scientific rebuttal to that position, any more than science could determine whether the bomb that it developed in the Manhattan project ought to have been used.

  5. Can I make a small correction to something in this post? You say that Noah Carl was fired “for working on the connection between human race and intelligence”. The paper that led to Carl being fired ( ) was not advancing any specific hypothesis about race and intelligence, but arguing that suppressing research about that topic would be harmful to science. At the time when he was fired, this was his only publication that discussed the topic. It would be more accurate to say Carl was fired “for defending the right to do research about the connection between human race and intelligence.”

    I suggest reading his actual paper that I linked above, because I suspect there’s very little in it that you’d find unreasonable.

  6. From the woke perspective, science is inherently political.

    “Many at work in the field of cultural studies argue that “science is politics by other means,” insisting that scientific inquiry is profoundly shaped by ideological concerns. They base their claims on historical case studies purporting to show the systematic intrusion of sexist, racist, capitalist, colonialist, and/or professional interests into the very content of science.”

    (Koertge, Noretta, ed. A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths About Science. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Front flap)

  7. According to the advocates of postmodern “science studies” (critical theory of science), the sciences are anything but politically or ideologically neutral, because…

    “* Every aspect of that complex set of enterprises that we call science, including, above all, its content and results, is shaped by and can be understood only in its local historical and cultural context.
    * In particular, the products of scientific inquiry, the so-called laws of nature, must always be viewed as social constructions. Their validity depends on the consensus of “experts” in just the same way as the legitimacy of a pope depends on a council of cardinals.
    * Although scientists typically succeed in arrogating special epistemic authority to themselves, scientific knowledge is just “one story among many.” The more epistemological authority that science has in a given society, the more important it is to
    unmask its pretensions to be an enterprise dedicated to the pursuit of objective knowledge. Science must be “humbled.”
    * Since the quest for objective knowledge is a quixotic one, the best way to appraise scientific claims is through a process of political evaluation. Since the “evidence” for a scientific claim is never conclusive and is always open to negotiation, the best way
    to evaluate scientific results is to ask who stands to benefit if the claim is taken to be true. Thus, for the citizen the key question about a scientific result should not be how well tested the claim is but, rather, Cui bono?
    * “Science is politics by other means”: the results of scientific inquiry are profoundly and importantly shaped by the ideological agendas of powerful elites.
    * There is no univocal sense in which the science of one society is better than that of another. In particular. Euroscience is not objectively superior to the various ethnosciences and shamanisms described by anthropologists or invented by Afrocentrists.
    * Neither is there any clear sense in which we can talk about scientific progress within the European tradition. On the contrary, science is characterized chiefly by its complicity in all the most negative and oppressive aspects of modern history: increasingly destructive warfare, environmental disasters, racism, sexism, eugenics, exploitation, alienation, and imperialism.
    * Given the impossibility of scientific objectivity, it is futile to exhort scientists and policymakers to try harder to remove ideological bias from the practice of science. Instead, what we need to do is deliberately introduce “corrective biases” and “progressive political values” into science. There is a call for “emancipatory science” and “advocacy research.””

    (Koertge, Noretta, ed. A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths About Science. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. pp. 3-4)

  8. By the way, the following response to the postmodernists’ attacks on science might interest you:
    Paul R. Gross & Norman Levitt: Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (John Hopkins UP, 1998)

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