Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Evil Nazi Plan to Breed Pure Cows

Speaking of evil scars on the landscape: let's talk about Nazis. There's a B-movie somewhere about the evil Nazi plan to mutate cattle and breed a pure, extinct species called the Auroch that used to roam the forests of Europe, and to introduce this Nazi cow, wild and roaming free, in Poland (once those people who were already there were ... removed). Oh, wait, that's not a movie, it actually happened.

The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman is how I first encountered this story (the Nazis were interested in the zoo for reasons related to the Auroch breeding program), but it's been covered from another angle here, in "Heavy Breeding" by Michael Wang.

What stands out about this story to me is how good Nazis were as scientists. For example, they understood the critical importance of the relationship between the environment and the organism, something that's become more obvious recently. We can now reconstruct ancestral proteins from the fragments of current genomes, and that's essentially what the Nazis were trying to do with the Aurochs, just with an organism rather than a protein. And they actually did have some measure of success in reshaping cows to become more Auroch-like, a success that can be seen today in the Heck Cattle. Early 20th-century Germany was one of the best places to do science. But that obviously is not enough. It meant that their eventual war machine was that much more formidable in both World Wars.

Some people take this kind of observation and say that because Nazis believed in evolution, therefore Darwin was wrong. That doesn't compute. The problem is deeper. It comes with the use of science, as much as with the science itself. It goes with a willingness to impose one's will on the lives and landscape of all those around you, no matter the cost, in pursuit of your vision of perfection. This vision of biological perfection is actually very intricate and, in some scientific points, correct. But that is precisely what makes the whole package so very wrong. The lie may be closer to the truth ... but all the worst lies are.

To me, it's far more important to note that the Nazis went after the handicapped and weak first than to note that they read Darwin. That's far too narrow. Their reading of Darwin aligned with and contributed to this twisted pristine vision of theirs, definitely (a point I make in third-quarter biochemistry every year, in fact), but if we're looking for the root problem we have to include other data. We have to look at their politics as well as their science, their operas as well as their breeding programs, their relationships as well as their experiments, their hearts as well as their minds. And so my ambivalent relationship with Richard Wagner's operas continues.

At the very least this story should give us pause about our own societal blinders. Now that we have more precise genetic means to pursue these ends, but we have essentially the same human will and weaknesses ... what now?

And if you want an unambiguous moral to this story: great research institutes do not a complete society make. It's the highly scientific society that can do the most evil. (GK Chesterton makes exactly this point, and warns about Germany/Prussia, in 1920's Eugenics and Other Evils -- before these horrors really began.)


PNG said...

On this line, every genetics/biochemistry student should know some of what is in Daniel Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics. It is a shame that the early history of genetics in general and Cold Spring Harbor Lab is tied up as much as it is with eugenics, although it was probably inevitable that it would be, given the prevalence of 19th century ideas of racial hierarchy. One conclusion to draw is that the optimism and hubris that always follows a major advance in science always tends to produce people who drastically overestimate how much they now understand and start pursuing grandiose and sometimes overreaching technological ends. Of course the worst results occur when they lack any sound basis for deciding what just ought not to done.

BenMc said...

I'll have to look into that one. I find it hard to believe some of what was done and endorsed in the name of science, and so I use an edition of GK Chesterton's Eugenics and Other Evils that has several appendices with direct quotes from eugenicists, including several familiar names.