The Spectre of Genetic Catastrophe

Photo Source Logo from the Second International Eugenics Conference, 1921 | CC BY 2.0

I recently watched The Eugenic Crusade, PBS documentary on “improving” human evolution. Sir Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, took two Greek words, well and born, and coined Eugenics. He reasoned natural evolution was a messy, violent, and lengthy process that could use some human ingenuity and science for the benefit of the ruling classes.

Eugenics in America

American scientists and philanthropists grasped on Eugenics as a saving valve from the  reality of too many poor whites, blacks and immigrants in America in early twentieth century. Eugenics, and the fake science behind it, led to the sterilization and imprisonment of thousands of undesirable: immigrants, Jews, the poor, the mentally and physically disabled, and the “morally delinquent.”

The Nazis in Germany learned from the eugenics experience of America. They exterminated millions of Jews and other “unfit.” The defeat of Germany in WWII saved humanity from the monster of breeding people like cattle.

However, the ideas of the Eugenics movement (political control of the lower classes and domination of nature) got a boost by WWII. Sterilizing the undesirable “morons” was no longer fashionable. Now in the post-WWII era, managing the natural world became a new crusade under the guise of feeding the poor, hence, the Green Revolution.

The Crusade of the Green Revolution

The Green Revolution was neither green nor revolution. Rather, it was an American strategy for industrialized corporate farming for the control of the world’s food. The two go together. Once you put the peasant out of business, there are no limits to the size of the farm. The Dark Ages feudal plantations proved that.

The American leaders of the Green Revolution managed that global campaign out of the State Department, the US Agency for International Development, and the US Department of Agriculture. They enlisted the land grant universities, chemical companies and agribusiness, large foundations, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and the agrarian elites of American allies in Western Europe and the tropics.

Massive agricultural industrialization brought back the Dark Age-plantation in America and the world. Its proponents have been praising themselves for increased food production. They say our farming is science-based. They say peasants are backward. They say we need this additional food to feed the poor in the tropics. They cite UN predicting about 9.7 billion people by 2050.

The dark secret of this Green Revolution (corporate farming) is chemicals: lots of them: petrochemicals, neurotoxins, carcinogens drenching food and the natural world.

The Chemical Threat

Some Americans recognized the chemical danger of industrialized farming decades ago. Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring in 1962. She denounced the pesticide obsession of the chemical industry. President Richard Nixon founded the US Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. The largest program of EPA has been about the protection  of public health and the environment from pesticides.

Yet, this ecological awareness and the creation of EPA failed to change the picture. The real reason why we have been on the verge of disaster for decades is agribusiness. This ruling elite would not tolerate its own demise. Like the Eugenics movement, corporate leaders employ vast sums of money and the “best and the brightest,” all saying in unison pesticides are harmless.

Meanwhile, agrichemical and agribusiness leaders, including land grant university professors, know pesticides are harming America and the world — deeply.

The Threat of Genetic Catastrophe

Margery W. Shaw, writing in the year EPA came into being, 1970, was fearful that the introduction of hundreds of chemicals into the environment would possibly result in a “genetic catastrophe” (Annual Review of Medicine 21: 409-432, 1970).

On November 12, 1982, I asked my EPA colleague, George Beusch, to talk to me about his chemical experience, explaining the unsettling proposition of Margery Shaw. Why do workers in the chemical industry die quietly? And are we really facing a genetic catastrophe?

George Beusch lived with chemicals in his early work. In 1982 he was a chemist in his early sixties. He said:

“I received my education in the early 1940s at McGill University in Canada. I spent five years studying chemistry, engineering, science, the history of science, and literature. I remember that my first job was with a ‘bucket shop’ in New Jersey. We were dealing with solvents. Fumes and dust were everywhere. Near there, I knew of a place whose workers were manufacturing explosives. Their skin would turn yellow and, at that moment, they knew it was time to die, which they did without much protest. We called them the ‘yellow canaries.’ In other jobs I had with chemical companies, I learned to breathe – almost instinctively – with only the upper part of my lungs.

“Money, not human health and welfare, is the heart and soul of the chemical industry. It can kill as many workers as they have at any one time, yet there are still more workers waiting outside to take their place. And the government always looks the other way while the worker gasps for breath.

“How can a human being learn to resist the invisible chronic effects of chemicals?

“I am scared to death of the slow, insidious consequences of farm sprays. Here at EPA, the only place on Earth from which you can do something to minimize the pesticide radiation of our people, we have scientists, and especially chemists, who are ill prepared to assess the risk of that tiny daily dosage of an incredible variety of pesticides in the food people eat. These scientists get so specialized that they forget the purposes of life.”

Kneeling Down to Atoms

John Steinbeck, a great American writer, put this dilemma like this. In his “East of Eden,” he spoke of the inverse relationship between men and expert knowledge. The more specialized the knowledge men had to absorb or study, the smaller they became as human beings. He said:

 “Maybe kneeling down to atoms, they’re becoming atom-sized in their souls. Maybe a specialist is only a coward, afraid to look out of his little cage. And think what any specialist misses – the whole world over his fence.”

Another EPA colleague, John Hou-Shi Chen, a geneticist, provided a philosophical if complementary perspective to that of George Beusch. He agreed with the bleak assessment of Margery Shaw. He, too, was an elderly scientist with a long experience. And while both George Beusch and John Hou-Shi Chen were specialists, they did not allow their narrow knowledge blind them to a larger vision of the world. They did not kneel down to atoms.

Chen had no doubt that there is a remarkable, if not deadly, relationship between pesticides and radiation, in that sense, continuing the commentary of Rachel Carson. In a discussion we had on October 25, 1982, he said:

“It was radiation from the explosion of the atomic bombs in Japan and from the ‘peaceful’ explosions of those weapons in the atmosphere that created the marked gene, the gene with a defect destined to be passed on to the future generations of human beings, creating serious, debilitating diseases, physical anomalies, intellectual retardation and other genetic problems. But with the testing of the various toxic compounds released into the human economy and environment, they discovered that pesticide chemicals, for example, injure man’s genetic material in precisely the same way that radiation does. And what is so awful about such a genetic injury is that it is permanent – it can’t be recalled, corrected or somehow restricted to the victim, unless you also castrate that individual.

“So, now with a greater number of pesticide poisons in the environment we are creating a generation of people who will be weak in facing the future. We are changing, irreversibly, the future itself. The price for that change is or should be unacceptable to any people with dignity and respect for themselves and love for their children.”

The Epigenetic Danger

Scientific studies confirm the near prophetic warnings of my EPA colleagues. Experts use the term “epigenetics” for explaining the long-term genetic effects of pesticides and other toxic chemicals.

If the mother or father is exposed to a genotoxic pesticide, the epigenetic effect of disease is imprinted on the DNA of the fetus. This human being and his / her children and grandchildren will likely suffer from diseases, including infertility.

A 2018 study of pregnant rats exposed to low doses of glyphosate-based herbicides revealed that the rats had difficulties in getting pregnant and surviving the pregnancy. The second generation offspring suffered from being smaller than normal. They were also afflicted with abnormalities developed before birth. This means the glyphosate-based weed killers inoculate their victims with monstrosities.

This is bad news for both animals and humans exposed to this weed killer used widely all over the world.

So, the disrupted scheme of the early twentieth-century Eugenics (for the control of the “unfit”) is in place in early twenty-first century. The ideology is different. There’s no more talk of improving natural evolution or castrating the morons. The talk now is about food production. Who can argue with that? Yet the leaders of this food production crusade spray the food people eat so heedlessly as if people were morons.

There’s a deafening silence about that pesticide spraying. Pesticides are fueling the gigantic global food machine eating the natural world, poisoning humans, and destroying peasants.

In 2018, the agribusiness-academic-political complex running the food machine is made up of people who are morally repugnant. Their greed blinds them to see that their own children and grandchildren are also paying the price.


Evaggelos Vallianatos, Ph.D., studied history and biology at the University of Illinois; earned his Ph.D. in Greek and European history at the University of Wisconsin; did postdoctoral studies in the history of science at Harvard. He worked on Capitol Hill and the US EPA; taught at several universities and authored several books, including The Antikythera Mechanism: The Story Behind the Genius of the Greek Computer and its Demise.