China’s ‘Quantum Leap’ in Genetics Could Provide ‘Renewed Theoretical Foundation’ for Eugenics

DNA molecule in red and blue.

A new Chinese breakthrough in genetics sheds light on human evolution and may give scientific legitimacy to the idea of eugenics, according to a prominent Chinese scientist.

The term "eugenics" often conjures associations with Adolf Hitler, who championed American ideas about promoting good genes and used them to launch his infamous campaign of exterminating the "unfit." Tragically, Americans pioneered the process of controlling human reproduction, forcing sterilization on those branded unworthy to have children. Since 1994, China has put into effect its own kind of eugenics.

"Chinese scientists have identified the crucial factor that activates gene expression in human embryos, providing significant theoretical basis for the studies on eugenics," Xue Yongbiao, director of the Beijing Institute of Genomics and a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), told China's government newspaper the People's Daily.

Yongbiao championed a recent study published in the scientific journal Cell. The paper, "Chromatin Accessibility Landscape in Human Early Embryos and Its Association with Evolution," revealed more of the mystery of human development in the womb.

While the transition from zygote (the single-cell product of an egg and a sperm) to fetus to newborn remains largely unexplained, the paper's authors at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Beijing Institute of Genomics (BIG), Shandong University, and Guangzhou Medical University wrote that they have uncovered a previously known factor in the beginning of zygote cell multiplication.

The process of gene expression — translating genetic code from one source (DNA) to put it into action (forming proteins or DNA strands to create more cells) — begins with transcription, the process of copying the original code into a temporary form. The Chinese scientists discovered the crucial role of Oct-4 in the multiplication of cells from a zygote, the first form a human being takes in the womb.

Oct-4 activates the process of turning a zygote into a fetus, but it also causes older genes to start expression at early embryonic stages, and younger ones at later stages. The older genes, shared by more life species, are needed during earlier phases of development.

One of the strongest arguments for the theory of evolution is the human embryo's path developing from one form to another. These embryonic stages seem to suggest a trace of the history of human evolution, and these Chinese scientists claim to have discovered that Oct-4 confirms that basic idea.

According to their research, transposons, a class of DNA elements, can jump from one position to another in a genome, causing DNA mutations. Transposons are active in early embryos, and the mutations they cause are more likely to be passed on to future generations, the scientists added.

This process of passing mutations on to future generations connects the new research to eugenics. While early Western theories focused on the pseudoscience of racism, this new understanding of how Oct-4 separates older and newer genes, applying the older genes earlier in the embryo's development, suggests that genetic testing could enable scientists to catch bad genetic mutations between generations. Governments could then mandate forced sterilization on these terms.

While the genetic breakthrough could make human evolution mappable, it could also enable governments to identify the "unfit" before they can have children, providing scientific support for forced sterilization. Tragically, this eugenics practice already fits China's current policy.

Although China's one-child policy was relaxed in 2015, the policy still states that an obstetrician can mandate abortion if he or she finds an "abnormal" fetus or deformity, Asia Times reported.

Under the 1994 Maternal and Infant Health Care Law, physicians can mandate the postponement of a marriage if either the would-be bride or groom has an infectious, contagious disease, an active mental disorder, or a serious hereditary disease and if the sufferer refused to undergo longterm contraception or sterilization.

If prenatal tests reveal that a fetus has a serious hereditary disease or serious deformity, a physician is required to advise the pregnant woman to have an abortion. Chinese law comes close, but does not mandate the abortion. Instead, it merely states that the pregnant woman "should" abort such a deformed child.

Racial disparity in abortion is the closest thing eugenics has to a legacy in America today. The founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, advocated for "more babies for the fit, less for the unfit," and the racist attitudes of her day solidified the ugly meaning of her words. Even in 2018, abortion clinics seem to target racial minorities for advertising...

While scientists have rightly challenged the debunked theories behind racial eugenics and forced sterilization, this new study might provide a scientific basis for some version of this hateful practice. Even if there were good scientific support for forced sterilization, the practice would remain extremely inhumane. Unfortunately, China does not share this vital moral principle.