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November 14, 2001

EugenicsHomo Sapiens 1900

Author Affiliations

Copyright 2001 American Medical Association. All Rights Reserved. Applicable FARS/DFARS Restrictions Apply to Government Use.2001American Medical Association

JAMA. 2001;286(18):2329-2330. doi:10.1001/jama.286.18.2329-JBK1114-2-1

The race to decode the human genome has rightfully focused attention on eugenics, the early 20th-century movement that used genetic knowledge to encourage breeding of a superior human race. Cohen's documentary provides a stark reminder of how science can be invoked for unethical purposes.

Cohen begins with the story of Francis Galton, the English scientist who popularized the term "eugenics" in the 1870s. Although eugenics took on many forms over the succeeding decades, at its core was the notion of "biology as redeemer of the Western world." Building on the rediscovered theories of Gregor Mendel, eugenicists believed in the heritability of most human traits. As a result, they began to advocate the use of selective breeding to either increase or decrease the prevalence of certain characteristics within society. Positive eugenics encouraged reproduction among supposedly more fit Anglo-Saxon populations; negative eugenics, which would ultimately result in more sinister applications, sought to prevent procreation among those who were a "burden" to the community.

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