From Darwin’s Theory to Auschwitz

The quest, goal, or dream is obvious. Some long time ago, from a savage wolf, we bred the first domesticated animal ever, the dog. What if we attempt to do the same with the human?

History of modern eugenics goes back to perhaps the 19th century and to The Origin of Species. Not only did Darwin confirm the existence of evolution but he also pinpointed the mechanics of it: natural selection. The Origin of Species was first published in November 1859. Four years later, in 1863, Francis Galton (Darwin’s cousin) puts forward an idea of two key factors which determine the outcome of what I will look like: nature and nurture, genes and environment. In 1883 Galton finally coins the term “eugenics,” striving for a quality genus, and a new branch of biology is enthusiastically welcomed.

The enthusiasm for eugenics in the second half of the 19th century, yet unchecked by the later horrors of Auschwitz, is understandable. Eugenics is the self-direction of human evolution, declared a period poster. “What nature does blindly, slowly and mercilessly the man can choose to do wisely, rapidly and kindly,” Galton muses. “If a twentieth part of the cost and pains were spent in measures for the improvement of the human race that is spent on the improvement of the breed of horses and cattle, what a galaxy of genius might we not create! We might introduce prophets and high priests of civilization into the world, as surely as we can propagate idiots by mating crétins. Men and women of the present day are, to those we might hope to bring into existence, what the pariah dogs of the streets of an Eastern town are to our own highly-bred varieties.” (Galton 1864)

The enthusiasm for eugenics in the second half of the 19th century, yet unchecked by the later horrors of Auschwitz, is understandable.

Negative Eugenics

The following chapters of the eugenics story do not offer amusing reading. It is symptomatic that all who pondered and probed its positives automatically considered themselves desirable and fit for procreation and considered unfit all the other “feebleminded,” proletariat, prostitutes, mentally ill, and criminals. So far the positive eugenics, i.e. procreation of the desirables, has never been really successful. What has been far more successful, unfortunately, has been the so-called negative eugenics, the prevention of procreation of those deemed unfit. There are essentially three ways how to achieve this. First two, isolation and sterilization, were initially tested in the US. Nazism dared to venture farther and, under the so-called T4 plan, over 70 000 mentally ill people were murdered between 1939 and 1941. Another 70 000 were slaughtered till the end of the war even after the program was officially halted.

In medicine we have come so far that we no longer simply aim to get rid of the symptoms, with the help of various medicaments, but we target the ailment’s essence and origin, hidden away in the cell’s core.

In the 1950s, due to pseudoscientific race theories of the Nazis, eugenics becomes a forbidden word. At the same time, the first genetic counselling takes off in the US. Generally accepted guidelines are for the doctor to explain the nature of the disease, available options and possible scenarios, and then to respect the decision of those being counseled. The right to bear a child, however afflicted, becomes one of the basic human rights, undeniable after the atrocities of Auschwitz. Family and its happiness comes first before the society’s genetic health.

Gene Therapy

The introduction of gene therapy has been enthusiastically, and understandably, applauded as an important step towards “the betterment” of a man. In medicine we have come so far that we no longer simply aim to get rid of the symptoms, with the help of various medicaments, but we target the ailment’s essence and origin, hidden away in the cell’s core. Gene itself becomes the medicine. In words of Zdeněk Neubauer, the mutiny of robots has begun— matter seeks to improve itself.

Then again, practical results have not been completely satisfactory. In 2000 in Paris (Hacein-Bey et al 2001) eleven children were treated for X-SCID (X-linked severe combined immunodeficiency). Nine responded to the treatment and were able to go on to living normal lives and even after two years there was a definite improvement; the treatment was hailed as the first undeniable success of gene therapy. Yet three of them went on to develop leukaemia, almost certainly the result of the activation of the inserted LMO2 oncogene. One of the children has deceased and all following treatments based on retroviral transduction of lymphocytes have been halted worldwide.

The reason might have been too strong an optimism: the mechanics of the treatment consisted of cell’s bombardment by retroviruses, which had been modified to contain the correct gene variant. It was impossible to determine how many of them would enter the cell, where exactly in the genome they would end up, and whether, through the insertion, they would not cause disruption of another gene, which might be responsible for regulation of cell division.

At the same time, many critical voices were gathering strength in a movement which led to Article 13 of famous Oviedo Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine:

An intervention seeking to modify the human genome may only be undertaken for preventive, diagnostic or therapeutic purposes and only if its aim is not to introduce any modification in the genome of any descendants1.

The idea is obvious: gene therapies are possible and acceptable only if the results of these therapies end their life cycle along with the patient and they are not carried on onto the next generations. In other words, it is conceivable to conduct all sorts of modifications of somatic cells of the patient, as long as his gametic cells are left alone.

No one in the world cast any doubt on Article 13. Until the year of 2015.

Technology CRISPR/Cas9

The main difference between “classic” gene therapies, which use adenovirus or retrovirus as their vectors, the new technology CRISPR/Cas9 is capable of finding a specific place on a specific DNA, cutting out a predetermined gene, and offering a modified gene version in its stead. The scope of potential applicability, from cancer and AIDS treatment to agriculture, is currently beyond our imagination. The technology is revolutionary and the two women behind it, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, are bound to receive a Nobel Prize, either this or the next year.

If there is something that current Europe does well, then it is the shift of mere human interests to inalienable human rights.

On April 1, 2015, a seemingly innocuous text was published that caused a storm. Junjiu Huang and his colleagues at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou described how they used the technology CRISPR/Cas-9 to edit a gene for beta haemoglobin (HBB) in 86 human embryos (Liang et al. 2015).

The results were abysmal. Two days after injecting molecules capable of gene editing only 4 out of 54 surviving embryos carried planned genetic changes; however, these embryos were so-called mosaic, i.e. effective only in several cells. The results were so dismal that researches summed up the use of CRISPR/Cas9 technology for editing of embryonal DNA as “not feasible at this time.”

As Chinese researchers are not bound by ethical constraints, there is another research project underway: comparing thousands of children with above average IQ with thousands of children with normal IQ.

The storm was caused by the fact that human embryos, left over from assisted reproduction, were used for the experiments. The embryos were so young that gene therapy affects them before the division of cell lines into somatic and gametic. The Chinese researchers were quick to assert that they would never implant such modified embryos in vitro and they were solely conducting an experiment.

The world’s reaction was to be expected. On February 1, 2016, the UK announced that its researchers would be granted the permission to modify human embryos—without ever planting them in vitro, of course.2

The future is uncertain. If history of medicine ethics is to offer any lesson, and I would gladly be mistaken here, I would wager that, after the technology becomes mastered and more or less foolproof, the transfer in vitro will take place and the Article 13 will be modified. If there is something that current Europe does well, then it is the shift of mere human interests to inalienable human rights.

Eugenics with W

It is a new form of eugenics, its another form—not of children but of the human itself, “W-genics” or “you-eu-genics”: eugenics of itself, individual control over genes of my own body. The goal is to create a new form of human, called, for example, Homo Evolutis, Posthuman, Transhuman, Parahuman, H+, and so on. Transhumanism is “an intellectual and cultural movement seeking to fundamentally enhance human condition with the help of common sense and new technologies. These will be widely available for the betterment of intellectual, physical and psychological capabilities of man and will prevent aging.” (Agar 2007)

Even today we have some rare mutants in the human population, possessing desirable features: rare double mutants in the gene for myostatin (MSTN) have more muscle tissue and lower amount of body fat, rare mutants in the gene PCSK9 carry 88% lower risk of coronary disease, double mutants in the gene FUT2 are resistant to gastroenteritis. In future we are bound to find many more, and the efforts of w-genics will be to spread these desirable mutations or create entirely new ones.

In Beijing’s enormous BGI (Beijing Genomics Institute), the goal is to gather together all information and technologies that were brought about by human genome sequencing.

If a genome of one schizophrenic individual is compared with a genome of one healthy individual, the differences will not constitute a proof. However, if we go on to compare genomes of thousands of schizophrenics (the number here is only for an example) with thousands of healthy genomes, it is possible to find some statistical correlations.

As Chinese researchers are not bound by ethical constraints, there is another research project underway: comparing thousands of children with above average IQ with thousands of children with normal IQ. If there are differences to be found, it will be another step towards “designer babies.” The possible outcome can be either a selection of embryos with better prospects of high IQ in assisted reproduction or a direct change of genome, be it with the help of CRISPR/Cas9.

As of now, China declares that no such procedures are taking place.


  1. Council of Europe. 1997. Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Dignity of the Human Being with regard to the Application of Biology and Medicine: Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine. Coe.int. 5th June 2018 (https://rm.coe.int/168007cf98).
  2. The Francis Crick Institute. 2016. HFEA approval for new “gene editing” techniques. Crick. ac.uk. 5th June 2018 (https:// www.crick.ac.uk/news/science-news/2016/02/01/ hfea-decision).
  • Hacein-Bey, S., Gross, F. Nusbaum, P., et al. (2001) Gene therapy of X-linked severe combined immunologic deficiency (SCID-X1). Pathol Biol (Paris). 2001 Feb;49(1):57-66.
  • Nicholas Agar, “Whereto Transhumanism? The Literature Reaches a Critical Mass,” Hastings Center Report 37, no. 3 (2007): 12-17.
  • Galton, F., (1864) Hereditary talent and character. Mac-Millan ́s Magazine.11,157-165 p.165-166
  • Portmann, A., Biologie jako světová velmoc na poli techniky. in Kleisner, K., (2008) Biologie ve službách zjevu. K teoreticko-biologickým myšlenkám Adolfa Portmanna. Pavel Mervart. Červený Kostelec.
  • Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Dignity of the Human Being with regard to the Application of Biology and Medicine: Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine. Oviedo, 4.IV.1997 (downloaded on March 27, 2018)
  • Liang, P., Xu, Y., Zhang, X., et al. (2015) CRISPR/Cas9-mediated gene editing in human tripronuclear zygotes. Protein Cell 2015, 6(5):363–372
  • https://rm.coe.int/168007cf98
  • HFEA approval for new “gene editing” techniques (2016) (downloaded on March 27, 2018)
  • https://www.crick.ac.uk/news/ science-news/2016/02/01/ hfea-decision/

Marek Vácha

studied molecular biology and genetics at the Faculty of Science of Masaryk University in Brno, theology at the University of Olomouc and in Brussels. In 1997 and 2000, he participated in two expeditions to Antarctica. In 2002, he spent six months at Trappist monastery Sept-Fons in France. He is the president of Institute of Ethics and Humanities at Third Medical Faculty of Charles University. He also serves as a parson in parish Lechovice u Znojma. He publishes in many scholarly and popular periodicals, his themes are evolutionary biology, medicine, and environment ethics.

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