Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

17.3: The Biopolitics of Heredity

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    “Science isn’t political” is a sentiment that you have likely heard before. Science is supposed to be about facts and objectivity. It exists, or at least ought to, outside of petty human concerns. However, the sorts of questions we ask as scientists, the problems we choose to study, the categories and concepts we use, who gets to do science, and whose work gets cited are all shaped by culture. Doing science is a political act. This fact is markedly true for human evolution. While it is easier to create intellectual distance between us and fruit flies and viruses, there is no distance when we are studying ourselves. The hardest lesson to learn about human evolution is that it is intensely political. Indeed, to see it from the opposite side, as it were, the history of creationism—the belief that the universe was divinely created around 6,000 years ago—is essentially a history of legal decisions. For instance, in Tennessee v. John T. Scopes (1925), a schoolteacher was prosecuted for violating a law in Tennessee that prohibited the teaching of human evolution in public schools, where teachers were required by law to teach creationism.

    More recently, legal decisions aimed at legislating science education have shaped how students are exposed to evolutionary theory. For instance, McLean v. Arkansas (1982) dispatched “scientific creationism” by arguing that the imposition of balanced teaching of evolution and creationism in science classes violates the Establishment Clause, separating church and state. Additionally, Kitzmiller v. Dover (Pennsylvania) Area School District (2005) dispatched the teaching of “intelligent design” in public school classrooms as it was deemed to not be science. In some cases, people see unbiblical things in evolution, although most Christian theologians are easily able to reconcile science to the Bible. In other cases, people see immoral things in evolution, although there is morality and immorality everywhere. And some people see evolution as an aspect of alt-religion, usurping the authority of science in schools to teach the rejection of the Christian faith, which would be unconstitutional due to the protected separation of church and state.

    Clearly, the position that politics has nothing to do with science is untenable. But is the politics in evolution an aberration or is it somehow embedded in science? In the early 20th century, scientists commonly promoted the view that science and politics were separate: science was seen as a pure activity, only rarely corrupted by politics. And yet as early as World War I, the politics of nationalism made a hero of the German chemist Fritz Haber for inventing poison gas. And during World War II, both German doctors and American physicists, recruited to the war effort, helped to end many civilian lives. Therefore, we can think of the apolitical scientist as a self-serving myth that functions to absolve scientists of responsibility for their politics. The history of science shows how every generation of scientists has used evolutionary theory to rationalize political and moral positions. In the very first generation of evolutionary science, Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) is today far more readable than his Descent of Man (1871). The reason is that Darwin consciously purged The Origin of Species of any discussion of people. And when he finally got around to talking about people, in The Descent of Man, he simply imbued them with the quaint Victorian prejudices of his age, and the result makes you cringe every few pages. There is plenty of politics in there—sexism, racism, and colonialism—because you cannot talk about people apolitically.

    One immediate faddish deduction from Darwinism, popularized by Herbert Spencer (1864) as “survival of the fittest,” held that unfettered competition led to advancement in nature and to human history. Since the poor were purported losers in that struggle, anything that made their lives easier would go against the natural order. This position later came to be known ironically as “Social Darwinism.” Spencer was challenged by fellow Darwinian Thomas Huxley (1863), who agreed that struggle was the law of the jungle but observed that we don’t live in jungles anymore. The obligation to make lives better for others is a moral, not a natural, fact. We simultaneously inhabit a natural universe of descent from apes and a moral universe of injustice and inequality, and science is not well served by ignoring the latter.

    Concurrently, the German biologist Ernst Haeckel’s 1868 popularization of Darwinism was translated into English a few years later as The History of Creation. As we saw earlier, Haeckel was determined to convince his readers that they were descended from apes, even in the absence of fossil evidence attesting to it. When he made non-Europeans into the missing links that connected his readers to the apes, and depicted them as ugly caricatures, he knew precisely what he was doing. Indeed, even when the degrading racial drawings were deleted from the English translation of his book, the text nevertheless made his arguments quite clear. And a generation later, when the Americans had not yet entered the Great War in 1916, a biologist named Vernon Kellogg visited the German High Command as a neutral observer and found that the officers knew a lot about evolutionary biology, which they had gotten from Haeckel and which rationalized their military aggressions. Kellogg went home and wrote a bestseller about it, called Headquarters Nights (1917). World War I would have been fought with or without evolutionary theory, but as a source of scientific authority, evolution—even if a perversion of the Darwinian theory—had very quickly attained global geopolitical relevance.

    Oftentimes, politics in evolutionary science is subtle, due to the pervasive belief in the advancement of science. We recognize the biases of our academic ancestors and modify our scientific stories accordingly. But we can never be free of our own cultural biases, which are invisible to us, as much as our predecessors’ biases were invisible to them. In some cases, the most important cultural issues resurface in different guises each generation, like scientific racism. Scientific racism is the recruitment of science for the evil political ends of racism, and it has proved remarkably impervious to evolution. Before Darwin, there was creationist scientific racism, and after Darwin, there was evolutionist scientific racism. And there is still scientific racism today, self-justified by recourse to evolution, which means that scientists have to be politically astute and sensitive to the uses of their work to counter these social tendencies.

    Consider this: Are you just your ancestry, or can you transcend it? If that sounds like a weird question, it was actually quite important to a turn-of-the-20th-century European society in which an old hereditary aristocracy was under increasing threat from a rising middle class. And that is why the very first English textbook of Mendelian genetics concluded with the thought that “permanent progress is a question of breeding rather than of pedagogics; a matter of gametes, not of training … the creature is not made but born” (Punnett 1905, 60). Translation: Not only do we now know a bit about how heredity works, but it’s also the most important thing about you. Trust me, I’m a scientist.

    Yet evolution is about how descendants come to differ from ancestors. Do we really know that your heredity, your DNA, your ancestry, is the most important thing about you? That you were born, not made? After all, we do know that you could be born into slavery or as a peasant, and come from a long line of enslaved people or peasants, and yet not have slavery or peasantry be the most important thing about you. Whatever your ancestors were may unfortunately constrain what you can become, but as a moral precept, it should not. But just as science is not purely “facts and objectivity,” ancestry is not a strictly biological concept. Human ancestry is biopolitics, not biology.

    Evolution is fundamentally a theory about ancestry, and yet ancestors are, in the broad anthropological sense, sacred: ancestors are often more meaningful symbolically than biologically. Just a few years after The Origin of Species (Darwin 1859), the British politician and writer Benjamin Disraeli declared himself to be on the side of the angels, not the apes, and to “repudiate with indignation and abhorrence those new-fangled theories” (Monypenny, Flavelle, and Buckle 1920, 105). He turned his back on an ape ancestry and looked to the angel; yet, he did so as a prominent Jew-turned-Anglican, who had personally transcended his humble roots and risen to the pinnacle of the Empire. Ancestry was certainly important, and Disraeli was famously proud of his, but it was also certainly not the most important thing, not the primary determinant of his place in the world. Indeed, quite the opposite: Disraeli’s life was built on the transcendence of many centuries of Jewish poverty and oppression in Europe. Humble ancestry was there to be superseded and nobility was there to be earned; Disraeli would later become the Earl of Beaconsfield. Clearly, “are you just your ancestry” is not a value-neutral question, and “the creature is not made, but born” is not a value-neutral answer.

    Ancestry being the most important thing about a person became a popular idea twice in 20th century science. First, at the beginning of the century, when the eugenics movement in America called attention to “feeble-minded stocks,” which usually referred to the poor or to immigrants (see Figure 17.4; and see Chapter 2). This movement culminated in Congress restricting the immigration of “feeble-minded races” (said to include Jews and Italians) in 1924, and the Supreme Court declaring it acceptable for states to sterilize their “feeble-minded” citizens involuntarily in 1927. After the Nazis picked up and embellished these ideas during World War II, Americans moved swiftly away from them in some contexts (e.g., for most people of European descent) while still strictly adhering in other contexts (e.g., Japanese internment camps and immigration restrictions).

    Historic photo. People sit in front of a structure with a “Eugenic and Health Exhibit" banner.
    Figure 17.4: Eugenic and Health Exhibit, Fitter Families exhibit, and examination building, Kansas State Free Fair. Credit: Gallery 14: Eugenics Exhibit at the Kansas State Free Fair, 1920 ID (ID 16328) by Cold Spring Harbor (Courtesy American Philosophical Society) is under a CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 License.

    Ancestry again became paramount in the drumming up of public support for the Human Genome Project in the 1990s. Public support for sequencing the human genome was encouraged by a popular science campaign that featured books titled The Book of Man (Bodmer and McKie 1997), The Human Blueprint (Shapiro 1991), and The Code of Codes (Kevles and Hood 1993). These books generally promised cures for genetic diseases and a deeper understanding of the human condition. We can certainly identify progress in molecular genetics over the last couple of decades since the human genome was sequenced, but that progress has notably not been accompanied by cures for genetic diseases, nor by deeper understandings of the human condition.

    Even at the most detailed and refined levels of genetic analysis, we still don’t have much of an understanding of the actual basis by which things seem to “run in families.” While the genetic basis of simple, if tragic, genetic diseases have become well-known—such as sickle-cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, and Tay-Sachs’ Disease—we still haven’t found the ostensible genetic basis for traits that are thought to have a strong genetic component. For example, a recent genetic summary found over 12,000 genetic sites that contributed to height yet still explained only about 40-50 percent of the variation in height among European ancestry but no more than 10-20 percent of variation of other ancestries, which we know strongly runs in families (Yengo et al. 2022).

    Partly in reaction to the reductionistic hype of the Human Genome Project, the study of epigenetics has become the subject of great interest. One famous natural experiment involves a Nazi-imposed famine in Holland over the winter of 1944–1945. Children born during and shortly after the famine experienced a higher incidence of certain health problems as adults, many decades later. Apparently, certain genes had been down-regulated early in development and remained that way throughout the course of life. Indeed, this modified regulation of the genes in response to the severe environmental conditions may have been passed on to their children.

    Obviously one’s particular genetic constitution may play an important role in one’s life trajectory. But overvaluing that role may have important social and political consequences. In the first place, genotypes are rendered meaningful in a cultural universe. Thus, if you live in a strongly patriarchal society and are born without a Y chromosome (since human males are chromosomally XY and females XX), your genotype will indeed have a strong effect upon your life course. So even though the variation is natural, the consequences are political. The mediating factors are the cultural ideas about how people of different sexes ought to be treated, and the role of the state in permitting certain people to develop and thrive. More broadly, there are implications for public education if variation in intelligence is genetic. There are implications for the legal system if criminality is genetic. There are implications for the justice system if sexual preference, or sexual identity, is genetic. There are implications for the development of sports talent if that is genetic. And yet, even for the human traits that are more straightforward to measure and known to be strongly heritable, the DNA base sequence variation seems to explain little.

    Genetic determinism or hereditarianism is the idea that “the creature is made, not born”—or, in a more recent formulation by James Watson, that “our fate is in our genes.” One of the major implications drawn from genetic determinism is that the feature in question must inevitably express itself; therefore, we can’t do anything about it. Therefore, we might as well not fund the social programs designed to ameliorate economic inequality and improve people’s lives, because their courses are fated genetically. And therefore, they don’t deserve better lives.

    All of the “therefores” in the preceding paragraph are open to debate. What is important is that the argument relies on a very narrow understanding of the role of genetics in human life, and it misdirects the causes of inequality from cultural to natural processes. By contrast, instead of focusing on genes and imagining them to place an invisible limit upon social progress, we can study the ways in which your DNA sequence does not limit your capability for self-improvement or fix your place in a social hierarchy. In general, two such avenues exist. First, we can examine the ways in which the human body responds and reacts to environmental variation: human adaptability and plasticity. This line of research began with the anthropometric studies of immigrants by Franz Boas in the early 20th century and has now expanded to incorporate the epigenetic inheritance of modified human DNA. And second, we can consider how human lives are shaped by social histories—especially the structural inequalities within the societies in which they grow up.

    Although it arises and is refuted every generation, the radical hereditarian position (genetic determinism) perennially claims to speak for both science and evolution. It does not. It is the voice of a radical fringe—perhaps naive, perhaps evil. It is not the authentic voice of science or of evolution. Indeed, keeping Charles Darwin’s name unsullied by protecting it from association with bad science often seems like a full-time job. Culture and epigenetics are very much a part of the human condition, and their roles are significant parts of the complete story of human evolution.

    This page titled 17.3: The Biopolitics of Heredity is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Jonathan Marks & Adam P. Johnson (Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.