Guest Judge Comments:

This essay stood out to me for the way the student tackled an important yet under-discussed aspect of science. Although science is meant to be objective, it is influenced by many things, such as culture and politics, and the personalities of those who study it – something scientists don’t think about often enough. In this essay, a fascinating period in Brazilian history is explained with clarity, and the implications of this dangerous idea are explained thoughtfully. The work prompts us to wonder what elements of our current scientific thinking we will look back on with concern in future.


Tom Ireland is editor of The Biologist (the award-winning magazine of the Royal Society of Biology). He is a regular contributor to the monthly magazine BBC Science Focus and has also written for The Guardian, New Scientist, and BBC News.

 

Scholarship Winner Comments

I am unexplainably grateful for this extraordinary opportunity, as it brings various noble options for my future. I was always interested in participating in a summer school and this competition was the perfect way to challenge myself. Immerse’s help was amazing, as I had never written an essay in my life before. They had a well-thought-out and organised plan on how to start which motivated me even more.

The Winning Essay:
How Did the Scientific Thought of Eugenics Develop in Brazil?

Brazil’s 1934 Constitution (Article 138) determined that eugenics education should be promoted by the union, states, and cities1. This exemplifies the Cultural History of Science, a study which recognizes that, when scientific ideas cross cultural boundaries, they undergo reconfigurations, creating new traditions and practices2. Considering this, eugenics in Brazil can help us understand how Brazilian and Latin American science not only relates to international scientific endeavours but also asserts distinct identities.

Eugenics movements trace their origins back to ancient Greece, where philosophers Plato and Aristotle explored methods of preserving desirable qualities among Athenians. In the 19th century, however, Darwin’s theory of evolution and Mendel’s laws of genetics influenced Francis Galton to coin ‘eugenics’ from the Greek ‘well-born’3. Galton applied natural selection to humans to rationalise prejudices against marginalised groups of the time. Through the mid-20th century, countries like Sweden, Japan, the United States, and Brazil embraced his ideas.

As the largest nation in Latin America, Brazil led the initiation of an eugenics movement in the region4. The country had undergone profound changes: it abolished slavery in 1888 and established its first republic in 1889. These advances brought both opportunities and challenges as urbanisation gave rise to metropolises and their issues of poverty, dirtiness, and disease. Although modern biology was not a topic of Brazilian research, eugenics emerged with a thesis by physician Miguel Couto, who regarded Japanese immigration as a problem5. Thereafter, the movement evolved among medical professors, sociologists, and politicians.

The Brazilian elite viewed eugenics as a symbol of modernity for their developing nation6. Different from Europe, they believed that by addressing the hereditary problem, they would also tackle the sanitary issues and elevate Brazil’s global standing. Their goal was a nation of white people. A vision contrary to the country’s reality of a 17 million population primarily composed of mestizos (mixed), blacks, and indigenous inhabitants. João Batista de Lacerda, the Brazilian representative in the First Universal Races Congress, proposed a solution, “whitening”. According to him, after a century of miscegenation, there would be no black people in Brazil because the “white blood” could dilute the “black blood”. Hence, the evolution of the Brazilian population was a process open to social control.

In 1929, the Brazilian Eugenics Congress in Rio de Janeiro illustrated the popularity of eugenics among scientists in the country7. Intellectuals debated eugenics’ role in immigration, education, genetics, and marriage. The participants were divided into two groups: those who advocated invasive actions and the hygienists. The first group defended involuntary sterilisations and selective immigration, whilst the second group emphasised public health, suggesting measures such as mandatory prenatal and prenuptial tests. Following the congress, eugenicists Renato Kehl and Roquette Pinto established a commission to influence national laws, thus the 1934 Constitution8.

After World War II, eugenics fell into disrepute due to its associations with the Holocaust9. During this period, genetic studies proved that the concept of race is not scientifically accurate, leaving eugenicists with no credibility in the scientific community. Nonetheless, eugenic practices continued for decades and are still present in our societies. The fact that it was once considered a biology subject is a reminder that science can be biased when misapplied to justify social concerns, as seen in Brazil. Scientists will always be social, but their questions should never overpass human rights of liberty and dignity.

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