Molecular Eugenics

Overview and Context

Dr. Emily Klancher Merchant’s Molecular Eugenics project seeks to identify the intellectual trajectory of eugenics across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This project investigates how the contents of eugenics journals (including journals in such related fields as behavior genetics and sociobiology) changed over time, particularly as those journals dropped the word “eugenics” from their title. Dr. Merchant suspects that the journals may have adopted a more technical vocabulary — particularly as behavior geneticists began to utilize molecular methods after the completion of the human genome project — but continued to reflect hereditarian assumptions about the origins of socioeconomic inequality. The DataLab will assist Dr. Merchant and her team with computational text analysis of eugenics journals, focusing on topic models and word embedding comparisons over time. These analyses will help reveal continuities and discontinuities in eugenics (and related) journals over the past century.

Research Approach

To understand how the language surrounding eugenics have changed over time, this project will look at the most prominent English-language eugenics journals. The Annals of Eugenics, Eugenics Quarterly, and Eugenics Review still exist today, though they have rebranded under different titles: Annals of Human Genetics, Biodemography and Social Biology, and the Journal of Biosocial Science, respectively. To this collection, we will add the Journal of Heredity and Mankind Quarterly (also eugenics journals, though “eugenics” never appeared in their titles), as well as Behavior Genetics, Ethology and Social Biology, Evolution and Human Behavior, Twin Research, and Twin Research and Human Genetics.

On this collection of text we will first run topic models, then word embedding models. Topic models generate scores for each piece of text in a collection, or corpus, to indicate how important the model thinks the topic is for a piece of text in comparison to others in the corpus. The topic models in this project will be used to identify the content of the journals listed above and to examine the ways in which topic prevalence differed between journals and changed over time, particularly as the journals dropped the word “eugenics” from their titles.

Word embeddings are numerical representations of a word, generated by examining each word in the context of all other words in a corpus. This comparison allows words to be “mapped” as a point in a cloud with other words, with words clustered together in this cloud having similar meaning, and allows for analysis of how those meanings changed over time. The word embeddings model for this project will examine how authors used genetic, eugenic, and hereditarian language in these journals and how that changed across the period of analysis. We will compare these eugenics-specific embeddings to a publicly-available set of embeddings that has already been trained decade by decade across the twentieth century for a large corpus of English-language texts. Doing this will allow us to identify similarities and differences in the meanings of genetic terms in the journal corpus to general use of the terms in general language.

Potential Impact

The Molecular Eugenics project is part of a larger project that seeks to document the reciprocal relationship between eugenics, assisted reproductive technologies, and the genetic and genomic social sciences in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In contrast to existing historical studies, which emphasize eugenic policies and practices, Molecular Eugenics will emphasize the science that claims to support eugenic policies and practices. It will examine how eugenic organizations promoted the rise of behavior genetics and social science genomics, and how those fields in turn informed and legitimated private-sector initiatives that utilize assisted reproductive technologies in attempts to produce smarter babies. It will also uncover how advocates of such projects have shed the eugenic label, redefining eugenics as genocidal pseudoscience and distancing themselves from it. In so doing, the Molecular Eugenics project will uncover the roots of scientific and clinical practices that substitute genetic determinism for social scientific inquiry, proffer technological solutions to social problems, and promote the insidious belief that human value can be read from a DNA sequence.