Agricultural Genetics

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Eugenics had an intellectual taproot that preceded recorded history: the idea of selective breeding. Every Neolithic culture that invented agriculture did so by choosing for reproduction the plumpest seeds, the fleetest horses, and strongest draft animals. Thus, selective breeding turned wild species into domesticated crops and livestock. By the beginning of the 20th century, every farmer appreciated the value of agricultural selection.

In addition to their role in agriculture, domestic plants and animals were also the obvious model systems for early studies in experimental evolution and genetics. When the Eugenics Record Office was founded at Cold Spring Harbor in 1910, the adjacent Station for Experimental Evolution looked to all the world like a farm — with goats, sheep, and chickens grazing in paddocks and corn growing in fields surrounding the research buildings.

It took no great leap of imagination to suppose that selecting desirable individuals on a large scale — while suppressing undesirables — could improve the human "stock," just as it had for corn and cows. Eugenicists were explicit in their aim to directly apply principles of agricultural breeding to human beings. Charles Davenport's 1910 eugenics text was subtitled: "the science of human improvement by better breeding." The breeding emphasis is perhaps best illustrated by the "Fitter Family" contests held at state fairs in the 1920s, in which family eugenic data were judged and the winners were "displayed" in the same manner as prize produce and livestock.

Not surprisingly, many of the eugenic movement's most enthusiastic proponents came from agricultural backgrounds. Davenport and Harry Laughlin shared an early interest in chicken breeding, and the American Breeders' Association, which arose from the Association of Agricultural Colleges and Experiment Stations in 1903, was a major source of scientific support for eugenics.

The continuity in thought from breeding to genetics shows that eugenical thinking evolved in a rational way. Modern genetics shares the same precedents. For example, in vitro fertilization was used in livestock breeding before it became an acceptable and widely practiced alternative in human reproduction.

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