Social problems such as obesity can’t be solved through genetics alone, warns biologist

As obesity rates continue to grow in the United States, threatening the health of millions of Americans, a historian of science warns that social problems such as this cannot be solved through science, especially genetics, alone.

In this new “gene age” in which large amounts of research funds are used for studies on the genetics of such complex social traits as alcoholism, criminality or obesity, for example, Garland E. Allen, Ph.D., professor of biology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, says the climate is ripe for a “re-packaged” eugenics in American society.

Allen points out that 100 years ago, eugenics, a movement that claimed many social, personality and mental traits were hereditary, was emerging as a major social movement in Europe and the United States. His concern: it might well still be with us today.

Pictured above are participants in the
Pictured above are participants in the “fitter families” contest at the Georgia State Fair in 1924. Such contests were held all over the United States to educate the public about the importance of eugenics in decisions about reproduction and family-making. They originated in “better baby” contests during the 1910s.

He says that eugenics was being promoted between 1900-1940 as a way to solve social problems efficiently, by attacking the problems at their roots: bad genes.

Eugenicists emphasized selective breeding, encouraging only those deemed genetically fit to have children, and discouraging or forcibly preventing (by sterilization) those deemed genetically unfit from breeding.

In the United States, eugenicists lobbied for compulsory sterilization laws at the state level, and for selective immigration restriction at the national level. When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, they introduced their sweeping sterilization laws based on those already in existence in the United States.

Allen has been involved in a project to assemble a new Web site to make available a large collection of primary source materials about the eugenics movement. The Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement, organized by the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory under a National Institutes of Health grant, is useful to both scholars and the general public.

Allen, who is the author of two books on 20th-century life sciences and numerous articles on the history of eugenics, served for four years on the Web site’s advisory board, working along with other historians and scholars.

“The site contains thousands of documents and images from both U.S. and European eugenics movements that can be useful for research papers or for teaching,” Allen says. “Though selective, it gives students and teachers alike the opportunity to use archival material without having to travel to the archive itself.”

Could there be a link between the obesity epidemic and eugenic thinking? A historian of science at Washington University poses the question.
Could there be a link between the obesity epidemic and eugenic thinking? A historian of science at Washington University poses the question.

Allen says an understanding of eugenics is vital today when people are again being led to put their faith in the power of genes for improved health and lifestyles. He warned that society runs a risk of becoming too confident that science, especially genetics, can solve a large range of human problems. This thinking has amazing similarities to Western thought 100 years ago, when eugenics first gained popularity, says Allen.

Allen gives a specific example derived from the work of graduate student Thomas H. Ehrich in the Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences at Washington University’s School of Medicine: the alarming rise in obesity in the United States, especially among children.

This is clearly a social problem for which we need solutions, Allen says. But the vast majority of research funds are going for studies only on the genetics of obesity, using mouse and other animal models along with family studies.

While there are no doubt genetic differences between individuals in terms of rates of carbohydrate and fat metabolism, in one sense all members of Homo sapiens have “obesity genes” — which simply means if you give us more fatty foods most of us will gain weight, though admittedly some will do so more readily than others.

Allen says that this is a product of our evolution, which for most of the past million years has taken place under conditions of food scarcity. But today, when food production and service in the United States in particular is a big business, much of it with high fat and carbohydrate content, genes for storing these molecules are simply doing their job — and we become overweight.

“It is ironic that while we spend millions trying to identify obesity genes and find out how to intervene pharmacologically to counteract their effects, we are cutting school budgets for athletics and other extra-curricular programs that would help kids become more active and develop a healthier lifestyle,” Allen says.

“Although everyone admits lifestyle changes are important, the focus on a genetic solution tends to divert attention from these other solutions. This was exactly what happened during the old eugenics movement.”

For a more biologically sound and socially more comprehensive approach to complex human behaviors, Allen points to the work of Ehrich, who, with James M. Cheverud, Ph.D., professor of anatomy at Washington University’s medical school, has studied mice with known differences in genes for obesity, under a variety of dietary regimens.

The aim is to elucidate the interactions between genes and their environment in a way that will produce a more comprehensive and realistic understanding of the problem of weight gain. This is the sort of study that research focusing only on genes has, in the past, failed to include, says Allen.

Eugenics history on the Web

Visitors to the Web site can browse 950 new photos, papers, and data — including extensive collections from noted eugenicists. They can discover Francis Galton’s work on fingerprint analysis and composite portraiture, and read Charles Davenport’s treatise, Eugenics: The Science of Human Improvement by Better Breeding, presented in its entirety.

They can access a large image database, including Arthur Estabrook’s field photos of subjects of his studies: The Jukes in 1915, Mongrel Virginians, and The Nam Family. Many of the materials come from the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, which was the center of American eugenics research from 1910-1940.

The archive includes many reports, articles, charts and pedigrees that were considered scientific “facts” in their day. According to the text on the Web site, “the vast majority of eugenics work has been completely discredited. In the final analysis, the eugenic description of human life reflected political and social prejudices, rather than scientific facts.”

Allen finds it dismaying that, 100 years after the eugenics movement began, the climate is ripe for a “re-packaged” eugenics in American society.

“Seventy-five years ago, eugenicists classified problems such as feeblemindedness, alcoholism, criminality, manic depression, prostitution, unruliness and even thalassophilia — love of the sea — as inherited traits,” Allen says. “The trend today is to take many of the same behaviors, ‘medicalize’ them into sounding like scientific diagnoses, and then propose medical or biological treatments, including fertility control drugs such as Norplant, behavior modification drugs or gene therapy.

Biological explanations for social behaviors take the blame away from an individual’s social circumstances — from family, community and society at large — and relocate it in what is claimed to be inherent defects in the make-up of the individual.

“It is possible that current and future genetic arguments will create a remarkably similar climate of opinion found in the early part of the 20th century in which social problems are viewed as medical problems originating from genetic defects in individuals, treatable largely, if not exclusively, by medical intervention,” Allen says. “Meanwhile, the root causes of many of the problems go unattended.”