Not the full story: Seeking eugenics history in Yale’s science curriculum
Across Yale University, students and faculty are left grappling with the afterlife of eugenics and considering how this history should be addressed in the science curriculum.
Yale Daily News
According to students and professors, the mark of eugenics has not left campus — and has instead manifested itself into Yale’s curriculum.
Many of the names inscribed on science classroom slides, included in syllabi, sketched into plaques and commemorated on campus have connections to eugenics. Yale professors founded the American Eugenics Society in the 1920s — the headquarters, run largely by Yale faculty, was located on the eastern end of the New Haven Green.
Now, students and faculty are having conversations about what this history means, and how it can be addressed. Across the University — from Yale College to the Yale School of Public Health — students are demanding for this history to be taught or disclosed in class material, especially in introductory sequences, and professors are indicating interest in incorporating this subject matter into their curriculum. To date, molecular biophysics and biochemistry is the only science department that has embarked on a department-wide effort to incorporate this history and topics of social identity into its curriculum.
“All of this is so left out of the curriculum, or like very tangentially mentioned if at all,” Emme Magliato ’23 said when speaking about her experience with eugenics in STEM courses at Yale.
Magliato, along with the five other students the News spoke to, all echoed frustration at the lack of addressment of this history, or if not frustration, a curiosity and yearning to learn more. Professors also expressed eagerness to explore this topic, most agreeing it is not widely enough discussed.
Intervention in Introductory Biology
Magliato, Kelly Long ’23 and Gemma Yoo ’23 are members of the new class “Eugenics and Its Afterlives,” and have spent the semester researching how eugenics shows up in Yale science curriculum. They have also spoken with professors to encourage an end goal: to incorporate this history into the introductory biology curriculum, from “Biochemistry and Biophysics” to “Principles of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.”
Last Wednesday, the trio presented their work at the Yale & Slavery Research Project Student Symposium “From Slavery to Eugenics: Confronting Legacies of Racism in Medicine and Across the Disciplines,” explaining that since most students interested in pursuing science and medicine will take this four part biology sequence, it is an opportune place to get students to think “critically about science” from an early stage.
According to Magliato, Long and Yoo, what is presented in these courses as of now does not tell the full story. Scientific figureheads such as Carl Linnaeus, James Watson, Francis Crick, Linus Pauling and Joshua Lederberg, whose work is often praised and taught in these introductory courses, all had deep connections with eugenic ideology.
Linnaeus, for example, the students presented, published an edition of his classificatory work Systema Naturae in 1758 which divided the human species into four varieties — describing Europeans as “wise,” indigenous people as “unyielding,” Asian people as “greedy” and Africans as “sluggish” and “neglectful.” They said the contributions of Linnaeus, who is considered the father of modern taxonomy, are taught in most introductory evolutionary biology classes.
“I think adding the component of the history into what is taught in biology courses at Yale is important because you realize this person is not the unproblematic genius that they’re proposed to be,” Long said.
Two professors who teach Biology 101 and 102 responded to the News that these classes do not cover areas of biology related to eugenics, but suggested the News speak to professors from Biology 103 and 104, whose topics are more interconnected with this subject matter. Both Biology 101 and 102 professors said they had not heard of eugenics being incorporated into the curriculum.
The course coordinator for the introductory biology sequence, Amaleah Hartman, told the News that “when and if” a topic is covered is under the discretion of the lead instructor for each individual class. She said that in Biology 104 there was a “dip” into the eugenic ideology prevalent in early evolutionary thought, and that Biology 101 has facilitated conversation about James Watson and Francis Crick. Hartman told the News that “there is more that can be done” especially in Biology 103 which focuses on genetics and heredity.
One student, Bahar Bouzarjomehri ’25, who is currently enrolled in Biology 102, said that she wished eugenics history was incorporated into class subject matter. She said her professors made an effort to bring in history, and give out weekly paper readings, but they have yet to address eugenics. She said that these could be strong opportunities to incorporate this topic into the classroom conversation.
“I think a lot of times we think science is this impartial and objective field when it’s super interconnected with politics and social norms,” Bouzarjomehri said. “I think students should be taught to be more critical of the information we hear.”
Another student, Christian Chen ’25, who is enrolled in Biology 104, said that he does not think eugenics has ever been brought up in the curriculum. He said that he went through class slides and spoke to a few friends, but none could remember talking about it in class. Similar to Bouzarjomehri, he said that there are definitely spaces in the course where this topic could be mentioned, especially in Biology 104 which he said is very “historical” and framed around evolutionary theory. Chen said eugenics is a topic he would like to learn more about.
‘Missing Context’ in the School of Public Health
Mariko Rooks MPH ’22, another student who spoke at the eugenics student symposium, emphasized the need to revise introductory applied science curriculums. She said that for most introductory science courses in Yale College and in the Yale School of Public Health, there is a class session that consists of a PowerPoint presentation walking students through the history of the field, presenting key concepts and how these concepts came about.
Presenting concepts, but omitting the eugenic ideology promoting these concepts, is a form of “ly[ing] by omission,” Rooks said. For example, Hippocrates is often brought up and discussed in science courses, but his eugenic ideology and search for racial hierarchy is not. His theories are presented, but not the eugenics which provides a context for these theories.
“If nothing else, we can at least make sure that the history we’re delivering is accurate, and more importantly, that our instructors are aware of this history,” Rooks said. “Because none of them are, to be quite frank.”
Professor of biostatistics at the School of Public Health Michael Wininger reflected in an email to the News how eugenics plays a role in his own class curriculum. For example, he teaches the techniques invented by R.A. Fisher and Francis Galton in his classes. Both men were pioneers in science, but also in eugenics. Wininger notes that Fisher’s work was leveraged in conversations of racial purity, and that Galton was the father of eugenics, coining the term in 1883.
Although Wininger wrote that he often makes a brief mention of these figures’ “checkered past,” because of the density of his syllabus and the time-consuming nature of teaching these techniques, he feels unable to offer a deeper historical perspective.
“However, if there was class interest, and especially if it could be made to support the objectives of the class (or if the class objectives were to change with the approval of the curriculum committee) I would be open to this, as I think it helps put the evolution of science and biostatistics into a proper context,” Winniger wrote of addressing eugenics in class material.
Rooks told the News that she has met with most of the core teachers at the School of Public Health, and when bringing up this topic most have been “skeptical” of the eugenic history she raises and “dismissive” of why bringing up this history is important. Additionally, she said the attitude has generally been that the department does not have the time or capacity to address these issues, which in her perspective, indicates that the department’s priorities do not truly lie in the diversity, equity and inclusion they claim.
School of Public Health Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Mayur Desai told the News that he is unaware of any conversations about incorporating eugenics history into the curriculum, but said that he thinks that it is “incredibly important” to consider the legacy of eugenics in medicine and public health, especially in the context of Yale’s historical relation to the subject.
“We invite open discussion of all topics, and hope that our faculty respond in appropriate and respectful ways,” Desai said. “It’s absolutely essential that we engage in these important conversations. … I would encourage anyone who has any thoughts about the curriculum or had any adverse experiences in trying to raise issues to see me, to see others.”
Desai also pointed to departmental efforts to hire more faculty with specific training in history and ethics as a means of addressing these issues.
Professor of public health Ijeoma Opara said that she comes into the public health classroom space prepared to address and directly confront how histories of racism intersect with the subject matter of the curriculum.
“If we don’t understand the history, and if we’re not talking about the history, it’s almost impossible to not repeat it, it’s almost impossible to solve and think through solutions if we’re not teaching our students and having research to understand the historical context of racism,” Opara said.
Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and Social Identity
This year, the molecular biophysics and biochemistry department has instituted a requirement for students to take a course on social identity and science, a step in transforming the science classroom to a place where eugenics as well as the history of marginalized groups can be discussed. The department is the only biology major at Yale that has instituted such a requisite.
The requirement was passed unanimously by the molecular biophysics and biochemistry faculty — of which only two identify as members of underrepresented groups, according to department chair Enrique De La Cruz.
“We have long recognized the importance of social identity in how we learn, teach, interact, and carry out research in science,” De La Cruz wrote to the News. “It has always been a part of who we are and what we do, but it has never been a formal part of our teaching curriculum.”
Students can choose a wide range of classes to fulfill this requirement, and can focus on any topic most pertinent to them. “Identity, Society and STEM” was created as part of this initiative and is a half-credit course that is taken simultaneously with a humanities course with a focus on any aspect of human identity.
Part of what makes the class special, professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry and chemical and environmental engineering Andrew Miranker told the News, is that it involves participation from the “entire department.” Students develop projects over the course of the semester, and at the end, everyone in the department is involved in the grading process. This allows for distribution of the workload while holding everyone accountable in the larger conversation. Miranker noted that it also provides an opportunity for professors to be exposed to topics they would not have considered “in a million years.” The first “trial run” of this procedure will be taking place now, at the end of the semester.
“We do think this is something all the science departments should do,” Miranker said of the social identity requirement. “Our framework can be followed by any department.”
In addition to “Identity, Society and STEM,” students can also take a wide variety of other courses that already address the topics of social identities and science.
Professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology and dermatology Valerie Horsley teaches one such class — “Human Biology: Research Methods, Questions, and Societal” — which she will teach with professor of African American studies Carolyn Roberts next semester under the title of “Biology of Humans through History, Science, and Society.”
She said the inspiration for the course came after reading “Stamped from the Beginning” by Ibram X. Kendi two summers ago. She was struck by the impact biologists have historically had on how people understand race.
“How could I have never learned this?” Horsley exclaimed in an interview with the News, when thinking back to when she read the book. “I was like, people need to know this. Our students need to understand this.”
The Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department, according to Horsley, discussed instituting a requirement like the Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry Department but decided not to.
These issues are ones that far transcend the walls of Yale, thus making the work, for students like Rooks, all the more important, she said.
“I think that there is really nothing to be lost and a lot to be gained,” Rooks said in prioritizing this work. “It certainly will make a difference in the lives of marginalized students. And I can tell you, if nothing else, that much.”
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Update, April 29: This article has been updated to include comment from the Biology 101-104 course coordinator.