Eugenics was a powerful movement in England, the United States and Nazi Germany from the late nineteenth century until 1945. The basic belief was that bad, ‘degenerate’ genes were the cause of problems in society, and the solution was to cleanse the gene pool. Eugenics receded from the world stage after Germany lost World War II. In its most extreme form, in Germany, it was the rationale for the Holocaust – the killing of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and schizophrenics. We’re talking 6 million murders. In the United States there were massive programs of forced sterilization. Traits that were seen as infecting the gene pool were poverty, feeble-mindedness, alcoholism, rebelliousness, criminality, prostitution, manic-depression, and schizophrenia. 60,000 forced sterilizations took place.
In 1913, twenty-nine states had laws preventing marriage between the races. It wasn’t until 1967 that most of these laws were changed. Hitler quoted the Eugenic Societies of the United States when he concluded that the creation of progeny should be based on what would be injurious to the racial stock. After 5000 sterilizations a month, the Nazis moved on to gas 80,000 schizophrenics, 20,000 manic-depressives, the deaf, the blind, the so-called feeble-minded, people with epilepsy, etc. American eugenic organizations were publicly jealous of their effectiveness. As is the norm, amnesia then set in and eugenics has disappeared from our consciousness. History, unremembered, repeats itself.
All of this took place with minimal understanding of genetics. During the rise of the eugenics movement there was no knowledge of what a gene actually was, nor DNA, RNA and protein genetic functions. There was no double helix, and the genome was a total mystery. In today’s world, armed with amazing genetic knowledge, we have once again returned to the myth of genetic determinism – with potentially dangerous implications.
In psychiatry, there has always been a swing between the two poles of nature and nurture (see “The Nature-Nurture Question”). Unfortunately, psychiatry is firmly back in the nature camp. Lip service is paid to the emotional environment and trauma. But that is as far as it goes. The accepted (and dangerous) belief is that psychiatry deals with brain diseases – inherited brain diseases. We are back to absolute genetic determinism. Today’s extremely bad science is employed to validate not only the idea that schizophrenia and manic-depression are genetic brain diseases, but that depression, anxiety, phobias, psychopathy, and alcoholism are caused by bad genes (see “Bad Science creates False and Dangerous Beliefs”).
Here’s the thing. Underlying these ideas is an accepted misconception as to how genes operate in the first place. The false belief is that genes operate in such a fashion that they determine our behavior directly. This is an inane fallacy. The very idea is an insult to the complexity of the human condition, yet it is accepted as unquestioned fact. The real way human personality operates is that our brain maps our experience of nurture – either responsiveness or deprivation and/or abuse, i.e. trauma. Our nature operates through our genetic temperament which digests our nurture experience. Temperament does not have a direct effect. The interplay of the two forms our personality, constructing the play of consciousness.
The temperamental digestion of trauma into our personalities is the source of psychiatric conditions. Different temperaments experiencing similar traumas generate different psychiatric symptoms – you might have depression and I might have anxiety, or hyperactivity, phobias, or compulsions. There is no gene that determines psychiatric symptoms. We are not set up that way. Trauma is the source, while temperament determines the form.
How does this point toward the potential horrors of eugenics? It all follows from the delusional belief that psychiatry is about genetic brain diseases. At this stage, the PR battle has already been won and the false belief has taken root. The human race has been diluted by bad genes – this is not taken as a metaphor, but accepted as literally true. 13% of American adults take antidepressants, for ‘biological’ depression; five percent of children are diagnosed with ADHD; one in sixty-eight children have autism; 18% of Americans have anxiety disorder; 1% with schizophrenia; 2.6% with manic-depression; 2.3% with so-called OCD; 4-5% with phobias.
The second stage has been to put all these brain-damaged people on drugs. But psychiatry and the pharmaceutical companies claim that not enough people are being ‘treated’ and that we need more drugs. Not only are almost 50% of adults on psychiatric drugs, we also have adolescents on drugs, children on drugs, even toddlers (see “Enough is Enough, Two Year Olds on Antipsychotics”). You may notice that we are working our way younger and younger, starting earlier and earlier, as we address our diseased brains.
What does the future bring? The likely next steps are even more scary. Let’s go even younger, all the way back to the embryo. It’s only a matter of time until science will conclude that they know definitively which babies have genes for depression or OCD or schizophrenia. (This will never happen, but the PR will be believed.) Those babies should be aborted to fix the gene pool, so we can have ‘healthy’ babies instead of diseased ones.
Even more scary, with today’s genetic technologies we can already delete bad genes and substitute new ones. Not only will we create designer babies, we will have a method of rooting out diseased and mutated psychiatric genes and replacing them with corrected ones in utero. Finally we will have a purified race with no psychiatric symptoms. Life will be a dream.
There certainly are a few genetic conditions that come from one mutated gene – Huntington’s chorea, Down’s syndrome (trisomy 21), Tay-Sacks etc. These single gene mutations are clear and definitively proven. But somatic psychiatry and the geneticists conclude that all psychiatric conditions come from mutations of multiple genes and extra repetitions on the chromosome. And that they have a direct effect on behavior, as opposed to the play of consciousness affected by trauma. Of course, this is all fantasy. Nothing is ever proved regarding the multiple gene theories. It’s a house of cards, built on a false foundation of specious correlations with no causation, yet currently accepted as fact. “It’s very complex and we can’t be definitively conclusive yet, but the proof is right around the corner.” A corner that never comes. And the myth continues to grow.
This genetic belief system is consonant with the beliefs of somatic psychiatry throughout the last seventy-five years. The theory has always been, and is today, that human struggle is caused by the brain, not the interplay of personality with experience. Insulin shock therapy, ECT and lobotomies have been the treatment of choice. Each incarnation of somatic psychiatry has led to inhumane and barbaric practices. How did the sordid practice of reaming out the brain with an ice pick ever capture the psychiatric imagination? In case there is any confusion about the science at that time, the inventor of lobotomies, Antonio Egas Moniz, actually won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1949.
Pharmaceutical psychiatry is the latest incarnation of this practice, now in the service of fixing genetic brain diseases. As always, amnesia has set in and we are repeating the devastation. History is repeating itself.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.