In communist China, the return of eugenics, together with the one-child policy since the 1980s, was to reverse Mao Zedong’s policy of population expansion in order to supply manual labor for productivity. This article explores Chinese geneticists who survived the anti-Rightist campaigns and the Cultural Revolution, reinvented themselves and generated the contemporary revival of eugenics. I argue that Chinese geneticists, far from being victims as their own accounts suggest, survived by overcoming Lysenkoism and transforming themselves into ardent advocates of eugenics. Chinese geneticists, who were deprived of intellectual freedom in the Lysenko controversy, proved unable to respond to others’ suffering. I explain this inability by probing its epistemological and historical underpinnings; the former based on how the physician values human life and on the ethical relationship between physician and patient, and the latter on a generational culture drawn from these physicians’ Cultural Revolution experience and its dialectic post-Mao offshoot of scientism that shaped their mentality.
Keywords: Mao Zedong, Lysenkoism, geneticists, eugenics, Cultural Revolution
As part of the Morgan group at the California Institute of Technology in the 1930s, C. C. Tan (Tan Jiazhen, 1909-) helped make Drosophila pseudoobscura the leading species used in evolutionary studies and did pioneering work in insect genetics. He subsequently gained international recognition and returned to China to teach at Zhejiang University before the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45). When the communist regime took power in mainland China in 1949, he decided to stay rather than make for Taiwan or the United States. The new regime instigated a thoroughgoing intellectual revolution in the early 1950s, and Tan underwent a series of round-the-clock public interrogations. Eventually, in August of 1952, Tan openly renounced his American training, especially the intellectual tie with his mentor T. H. Morgan. He confessed,
I was poisoned by Morgan’s reactionary theory of chromosome heredity and intoxicated by the so-called intellectual freedom of scientific research promoted by Euro-American capitalism. Hitler manipulated such reactionary theory to exterminate the Jews and the Americans used it to exploit people of color. . . . Morgan’s theory is baseless pseudo-science and I was ashamed that I had bragged about being his disciple. . . . I have ignored scientific practice and application along the way. Instead, I imposed Mendel and Morgan’s hypothesis of the gene on any discovered biological facts. I misunderstood and manipulated Michurine Biology. I once mechanically reconciled the Lysenko theory of metabolism with Morgan’s gene theory, by simply emphasizing the environmental factors without any passionate faith. How little did I understand that the differences between these two genetic approaches arose from the fundamental polarity of dialectic materialism versus idealism.
In the heat of the eugenics and population control campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s, C. C. Tan changed his political stance fundamentally. He not only embraced Morgan’s chromosome theory and nurtured the establishment of the International Morgan-Tan Life Sciences Center in Shanghai, but also endorsed eugenics as an interdisciplinary field centered on human health and population quality. He became a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 1980, a foreign associate of the American Academy of Science in 1985, and a foreign member of the Italian Academy of Science in 1987. The fact that Tan survived and eventually thrived caught the attention of the globally popular magazine Nature; such fact also redeems the promise of human genetics as an indispensable discipline for ensuring national wealth and health.
Tan’s dramatic life experience reveals the fluctuating fate of Chinese geneticists, first suffering the loss of their intellectual freedom and later becoming aggressive campaigners for eugenics legislation. This human drama arouses our curiosity not only about Tan’s subjectivity and his strategy for overcoming Lysenkoism, but also about the shifting contexts that constituted the dialectics of scientific practice and polarized the meaning of eugenics throughout five decades. According to the 1994-96 comparative survey of world geneticists, Chinese geneticists are the most likely to provide pessimistic counselling on hereditary or congenital diseases. They are prone to urge termination of pregnancy and emphasize negative aspects of fetus development so that couples are likely to opt for termination even without the physician’s direct suggestion. This negative attitude may prompt us to wonder if the dialectical shifts of political context have shaped these cultural differences. It is of particular note that these Chinese geneticists have a median age of 50, and either took part in Red Guard activities or lived through the decade of Cultural Revolution (1967-76) during their formative schooling years. Their cultural difference is unlikely to be the product of traditional Chinese culture, as recently claimed by Chinese bioethicists and other researchers in the face of universalistic criticism by Human Rights activists, but rather of their own generational culture.
To unravel the intricate reality emerging from the dialectics of scientific practice and the polarized signification of eugenics, the first section of this article begins by grappling with the international context of Lysenkoism versus eugenics; it was in this context that genetics became a politically charged subject in the postwar era. The second section sketches the postwar history of Chinese genetics and explores how Chinese geneticists survived the era of Lysenkoism to become the engine of the eugenics movement in the 1980s and 1990s. In this section, I argue that Chinese geneticists, far from being victims as their own accounts suggest, survived by overcoming Lysenkoism and transforming themselves into ardent advocates of eugenics from the late 1970s on. The third section explores the reasons why Chinese geneticists, who had been deprived of intellectual freedom in the Lysenko controversy, proved unable to respond to others’ suffering in the same way. I shed light on this inability by probing its epistemological and historical underpinnings; the former based on how the physician values human life and on the ethical relationship between physician and patient, and the latter on a generational culture drawn from these physicians’ Cultural Revolution experience and its dialectic post-Mao offshoot of scientism, a development that in turn constituted the milieu that shaped their mentality.
Postwar Conditions: Lysenkoism versus Eugenics
After World War II, the Soviet Union and the United States remade the world by creating two mutually antagonistic zones, the former seeking international communist coalition and the latter sustaining capitalist hegemony. In both zones, the popular eugenics movement collapsed when the world observed the Nazi medical crimes on trial in Nuremberg. The crimes ranged from the killing of the mentally ill and the handicapped, and mass murder of “useless” social elements such as maladjusted adolescents, sick foreign slave laborers, and the mentally retarded in hospitals and foster homes, of which publics around the world were largely aware, to the less well-known abuse of concentration camp inmates and foreign war prisoners in human experiments.
Human genetics and genetics in general were stigmatized along with eugenics through association with fascism. Racial hygiene and racial betterment suddenly disappeared from the realm of public discussion in the mass media. In addition to war trials, the rise of Lysenkoism meant that genetics as a discipline faced a bleak future. Particularly during the heyday of Lysenkoism from 1948-52, official Russian publications often made no distinction between genetics, eugenics, and fascism. The official propaganda administered by Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (1898-1976), on the one hand, denounced geneticists’ scientific studies of drosophila as useless and on the other hand promoted “Michurinist biology” as a productive scientific practice aimed at dramatically improving agricultural yields. With the political endorsement of Stalin, Lysenko dictated the scientific field of genetics. A number of leading genetics laboratories such as the Eugenics division at the Office of Human Heredity and Constitution, the Genetics Institute of the USSR Academy of Sciences in Moscow, the Eugenics Division of the Kol'tsov Institute and the Levit Institute, and the Institute of Medical Genetics were simply closed down, and over three thousand biologists were fired. Respected geneticists committed suicide, were persecuted or died mysteriously. Despite this, Lysenko did not destroy human genetics research, but only undermined the geneticists who had carried out eugenics research in the 1920s and 1930s. Genetics moved underground and survived by infiltrating psychology, physiology and medicine. By 1963, genetics and eugenics had reinvented themselves as medical genetics, in time to tackle newly emerging subjects such as the effects of radiation on humans in an atomic age.
In the 1930s, human genetics in the United States hit a low point, as genetic theories were employed to justify the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act and to sustain the eugenics ideology in subsequent social debates. The Nazi murder of the Jews in the name of “racial cultivation” alienated the American genetics community. From 1940 to 1970, periodical and newspaper coverage of eugenics and genetics declined substantially. Eugenics, however, remained alive, finding a new focus in the issues of birth control and overpopulation in other countries; this generated a new “ethically sound” form of genetic research and neutralized the association with Nazism. During this period, as the Soviet Union emerged as a new enemy and the full horror of the atom bomb became apparent to all, American genetics entered a new phase, on the one hand medicalizing human genetics and on the other displacing it in favor of plant and animal genetics. American revulsion at Nazi racial hygiene shifted to Lysenkoism, which was condemned as another example of Soviet evil. Anti-Nazi sentiments were thus effectively neutralized. American media coverage of Lysenko presented Soviet genetics as the polar opposite of American genetic research, where intellectual freedom supposedly reigned, thus reinvesting it with a moral cause.
During this transitional period, most Anglo-American geneticists continued to believe that heredity was a matter of public concern whether or not they called this “eugenics.” The only exception was Lionel Penrose in Britain, appointed professor in eugenics at the Galton Laboratory, University of London. He insisted on replacing “eugenics” with “human genetics” in the title of his new post. In the 1950s and 1960s, medical geneticists like Sheldon Reed perceived their genetic counselling as a benign extension of eugenics, or in Reed’s own words, “Counselling in human genetics is the modern way of carrying on a program in eugenics.” Most of the institutions providing funding for medical genetics, such as the Rockefeller, Carnegie, Wenner-Grenn, McGregor, and Rackham foundations, the Commonwealth and Pioneer Funds, and the American Eugenics Society, were motivated by a eugenic concern to improve the human race. Eugenic rhetoric made a comeback among medical geneticists in the postwar decades, but this time around it emphasized the struggle against the genetic underpinnings of disease and alleviation of individual suffering, and no longer overtly targeted ethnic and religious minorities and the poor.
In Germany, despite trenchant criticism from the world and pressure from “postwar surgeries” to remove all traces of explicit Nazi propaganda and to cast off the criminal past and the ideology of racial hygiene embedded in medical texts, many of Germany’s racial hygienists were able to continue their careers and maintain their research interests after the war under the name of “human genetics.” The German medical community conservatively claimed that out of a total of 90,000 physicians only 350 doctors had participated in actual medical crimes, and that few others knew about them. Since most of the physicians who took part voluntarily in Nazi medical activities still held leading positions in professional organizations and university chairs, little in the way of apologetic literature appeared on the profession’s past. These physicians were the invisible force obstructing any such revelations. Not until the 1970s did scholars in East and West Germany break the deathly silence surrounding this topic.
In postwar Japan, silence has prevailed on the racial hygiene campaigns and wartime medical experiments in Unit 731 Manchuria and other military camps. This, though, is a complex silence. It is a silence imposed through a political transaction: Japanese biological weapons experts handed over data on biological experiments in exchange for immunity in the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal held by the American occupation authorities. Some of the Japanese racial hygienists who had staffed the Ministry of Health and Welfare were briefly purged from their posts under directives issued by the occupation authorities. They were soon rehabilitated after the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. The Japanese government has done little to encourage examination of these topics; few Japanese scholars have explored them. Future generations may have little notion of this dark side of Japan’s past.
Despite the Japanese government’s discouragement, recent studies of postwar eugenics in Japan testify that eugenics was never abandoned within the domain of public policy. Japan’s defeat and postwar occupation by the Allied forces, led by the U.S., caused Japanese political leaders and intellectuals to reflect on the country’s economic ruin and impoverishment. Such reflection instilled in them a sense of “racial crisis.” The minister of Health and Welfare, Ashida Hitoshi, argued for more aggressive eugenics legislation to replace the Japanese National Eugenics Bill (Kokumin ykseihM) of 1940 in order to achieve the goals of “racial revival” and Japan’s reconstruction. Ashida’s proposal for legal enforcement of compulsory sterilization in the new eugenics bill was supported not only by conservatives but also by the left. The new Eugenic Protection Law (Yksei hogohM) was introduced in the Diet by members of the Japanese Socialist Party in August 1947 and was passed in June 1948. The law, as a revised version of the 1940 National Eugenics Bill, had three important aims: enlarging the target group for eugenic sterilization; simplifying the procedures for voluntary sterilization; and enforcing compulsory sterilization. The law also placed increased emphasis on motherhood protection (bosei hogo), in order to prevent unwanted pregnancies amid the postwar chaos—a result of widespread adultery and interracial affairs between American soldiers and Japanese women—and to stem the tide of illegal abortion. This law has stood without further amendment since 1952. According to the law, there are five justifiable grounds for voluntary sterilization: 1) when an individual or his or her spouse suffers from a hereditary disease, mental illness, deformity or feeblemindedness; 2) when a blood relative (within the fourth degree) of an individual or his or her spouse suffers from a hereditary disease, mental illness, deformity or feeblemindedness; 3) when an individual or his or her spouse has contracted leprosy; 4) when the continuation of the pregnancy or childbirth would be detrimental to the health of the mother; and 5) when childbirth would significantly impair the health of a mother who already has several children. On the basis of this law, in the decade 1950-1959, there were 321,342 cases of sterilization on grounds of maternal health protection, as opposed to 3,353 for hereditary diseases, 1,135 for leprosy, 648 for nonhereditary mental illness and 8,408 cases of compulsory sterilization. 9,762,093 pregnancies were terminated on grounds of maternal health protection, compared with 30,318 for hereditary diseases, 5,112 for leprosy and 8,324 for rape and adultery. Evidently, sterilization and pregnancy termination were performed predominately on the grounds of maternal health protection. The practice of maternal health protection has thus molded eugenics in postwar Japan.
Against this historical backdrop, the significance of the introduction of Lysenkoist agrobiology and Michurinist genetics into postwar Japan becomes apparent: these subjects provided an intellectual framework for reflection not only on eugenics and genetics but also on science and society, particularly in terms of social responsibility and political action. When Lysenko’s vernalization theory, based on manipulating the environmental factors of light and temperature in order to improve crop production was promoted by Japanese communists in 1946, Japanese biologists energetically took it up; they used it to reconnect intellectual inquiry and social participation, theory and reality, and science and democracy in the face of the distressing postwar U.S. occupation. Japanese supporters of Lysenko were especially keen on Lysenko’s critique of the Darwinian claim of intraspecies competition, used by some to justify class domination, imperialism and racial discrimination.
When Stalin made Lysenko the leader of Soviet biology and banned classical genetics in 1948, the worldwide intellectual debate on Lysenko’s theory was electrified and subsequently ideologized. In the setting of Cold War politics, Lysenkoism was used by the Japanese Marxists as leverage to resist the American dominance in technology and science, especially in radiation biology. Among the Japanese Lysenko supporters, Communist Party members argued strenuously that the confrontation between Morganism and Lysenkoism was the manifestation of class struggle. Among them, some Marxist biologists had had a long-time interest in Lysenko’s scientific theory, which informed their socialist stance of combining knowledge and social production since the 1920s and tried to separate Lysenko’s environmental approach from Lysenkoism.
Opponents of Lysenko such as Komai Taku (1886-1972), Tanaka Yoshimaro (1884-1972), and Oguma Mamoru (1885-1971) were geneticists active in the wartime eugenics movement. Rather than challenging the content or experimental results of Lysenko’s hypothesis, they contended that Lysenko was encroaching on scientific research freedom. In addition to these two contending wings, a third group tried to correct both the reductionism of classical genetics and the dogmatism of the Lysenko theory among Japanese and international supporters.
These three approaches to the Lysenko theory energized the field of genetics and unleashed a wave of experimentation. Between 1950 and 1951, two Japanese geneticists, Kiyosawa Shigehisa (1928-) and Shinoto Yoshito (1895-1989), conducted experiments to test the Lysenko theory of vegetative hybrid. Kiyosawa, though sympathetic to Lysenko, did not observe genetic variation and therefore could not verify Lysenko’s theory. Shinoto, as a classical geneticist, tried to falsify Lysenko’s theory and grafted together both roots and grains of green and dark purple eggplants. The result produced a second generation of dark purple seeds, and as they grew they subsequently reproduced both dark purple and blue seeds. However, Shinoto did not accept Lysenko’s explanation and concluded that the resulting variation occurred when the dominant element in the formation of purple pigment was passed from the roots to the grains. This research could thus neither confirm nor falsify Lysenko’s theory.
For about a decade, Lysenko’s agrobiology was extremely popular among the Japanese Marxists and in the agriculture sector in the form of the Michurin movement, but it declined after 1957. In 1953, James Watson and F. H. C. Crick discovered the manner of DNA replication and identified its molecular structure as a double helix. In 1956, S. Kornberg discovered the biosynthesis of DNA. These scientific breakthroughs within classical genetics contributed to Lysenko’s loss of appeal. In 1955, Lysenko resigned from the post of director of the Academy of Science. Subsequently, reports of the possible rehabilitation of Nikolai Vavilov, who died in 1943 after accusations of espionage and of leading a counter-revolutionary organization, reduced interest in Lysenko in Japan. Whereas in China Lysenkoism was swept under the historical rug, in Japan it is an intellectual inspiration for exploring the historiography of biology and eugenics. Ironically, the Japanese Marxist biologists constituted an internal critical force; upon the basis of their work, a critique of eugenics can be constructed.
Edited by Jeanne E. Grant
(c) 2011 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 3, Fall 2011.