Nathaniel Comfort, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine
October 23, 2020, 12 PM PST
Abstract: Dysgenics is the opposite of eugenics: It was coined to denote the ill-born, defective, unfit, or forces that encourage their production. The proper aims of medicine are the amelioration of suffering and disability, the repair of defect, the cure of disease. The question of whether medicine, by allowing the unfit to survive and reproduce, is dysgenic is longstanding. Fundamentally, it is a social Darwinist position. The main alternative is to frame eugenics as a form of public health concerned mainly with hereditary disease and disease predisposition. Preventive genetic medicine, the argument runs, is eugenic. The tension between eugenics and medicine, and attempts to resolve it, have taken different forms in different periods and places. It continues today. Examining this tension over two centuries makes us question the conventional view that eugenics is never ethically acceptable. It also troubles the equally widespread idea that modern medicine is free of the eugenic impulse.
About the Speaker: Nathaniel Comfort is a professor of the history of medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. He studies the history of biology, specializing in twentieth century interplay between heredity and health. He is the author of The Tangled Field, a biographical study of geneticist Barbara Clintock, and The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine, an exploration of how heredity, health, and human improvement informed the development of medicine. He also edited the collection The Panda’s Black Box: Opening Up the Intelligent Design Controversy.