Studying heredity started as a data mining quest

Eugenics started with good intention, but eventually elevated biology over culture and statistics over context.

Karen Saltos | Jul 09, 2018

Gregor Mendel discovered the basic principles of heredity through experiments on pea plants that showedthe inheritance of certain traits in pea plants follows particular patterns. In 1910, Thomas Hunt Morgan began showing genetics at work in fruit flies.

Eventually, however the study of heredity emerged as an international endeavor to mine data to use for explaining mental illness. In the beginning they used handwritten correlation tables.

The assumptions and imperatives of the early investigators remain intact in the big-data genomics of modern medicine. This approach elevates biology over culture and statistics over context.

Eugenics started with good intentions. Many asylum founders of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries wanted to cure people of mental illness through a humane, psychosocial "moral therapy". From London and Paris to Schussenried, Germany, and Worcester, Massachusetts, asylums grew and new ones popped up. Weaving them together was an active system of correspondence, travel, conferences and publications such as the American Journal of Insanity.

Asylum scientists gradually eliminated religious fervor, heartbreak, financial stress and masturbation as causes for mental illness. They fixated on the only pattern left: patients' pedigrees. Heredity was "the one great cause??the cause of causes", French surgeon Ulysse Trlat proclaimed in 1856.

Every genetic insight along the way emptied into the stream of theories. Many geneticists and psychiatrists had invested too heavily to stop.