Modern Ideas About Genes Were Conceived in 18th Century Asylums

Long Before Mendel Bred His Peas, Doctors Claimed Heredity Explained Madness

Sitting at my desk, reading the archived pages of an old British anthropological journal, an entry from 1899 caught my eye. The police at New Scotland Yard had a “Central Metric Office?” The text seemed to imply as much. As a historian of information, calculation, data, and statistics, I understood that faith in data predated the creation of Google, Facebook, and Amazon by hundreds of years. Still, it was hard to imagine a 19th-century police force creating an office devoted to numbers and measures.

My doubts, as it happened, had some …

Do Genes Really Determine Your Hobbies, Relationships, and Voting Habits?

Science and Pop Culture Make DNA Seem All-Important, But Nurture Still Matters as Much as Nature

Over the past 25 years, we’ve become surprisingly comfortable with the idea that genes play a large role in our lives. When DNA is in the mix, people assume that …

When California Sterilized 20,000 of Its Citizens

The Golden State Was the Most Aggressive in the Country in Deeming the ‘Feebleminded’ and ‘Deviant’ Unfit to Reproduce

Not too long ago, more than 60,000 people were sterilized in the United States based on eugenic laws. Most of these operations were performed before the 1960s in institutions for …