Adelphi Genetics Forum: an evolving organisation

December 11th 2023

The Biologist talks to the RSB’s newest Member Organisation, the Adelphi Genetics Forum — a society with a complicated past but an important new mission  

What does the Adelphi Genetics Forum do?

We are a learned society that aims to promote research, education, public engagement and discourse about the understanding of human heredity in society. Our 500 members are drawn from a wide variety of backgrounds, mostly scientific or social scientific. Anyone who shares our objectives can join the Adelphi Genetics Forum.

We hold an annual conference, usually at the Royal Society in London, and a regular conference in Manchester for teachers. We are also currently funding a PhD studentship, a programme of small grants, grants for conferences or workshops, junior scientist conference grants and postdoctoral travel grants. We publish a newsletter, the Adelphi Review, and other occasional publications on relevant topics.

Why is it so important to have regular discussions around the science of human heredity?

The science of genetics and genomics is moving at a frantic pace, and the advancing technology is in danger of outpacing our capacity to generate informed discourse about its implications. As some of these technologies have considerable societal and ethical implications (for example, the ability to manipulate and change DNA sequences of living organisms, including humans) it is more important than ever that people have accessible information about such technologies and access to informed debate about its future.

Sir Francis Galton by Gustav Graef2Sir Francis Galton's pioneering work on human genetics developed into darker ideas about 'breeding out' undesirable characteristics in certain populations. 

Adelphi was formerly known as the Galton Institute, which itself was previously known as the Eugenics Society. Can you tell us about the evolution of the organisation and the key differences between then and now? Why not just start a new organisation, given the association between those predecessor organisations and the promotion of eugenics?

The Galton Institute was renamed the Adelphi Genetics Forum in 2021. The Galton Institute had been chosen as a new name for the Eugenics Society in 1989, which had in turn developed from the Eugenics Education Society, founded by social reformer Sibyl Gotto in 1907.

Ideas and attitudes about human genetics that were widely held 100 years ago are not acceptable today. While we are focused on the future, we are also well placed to play a part in addressing the legacy of eugenics, rather than just trying to ignore it.

Francis Galton’s contributions to establishing the study of human genetics (and many other areas of 19th-century science) deserve recognition, but many of his views were racist and his work had dark implications. Along with many scholars of his time he held views about race and social class that might have been acceptable in the scientific discourse of the time but are definitely not now.

Among these he introduced the idea of eugenics, which he described as the scientific study of factors that affect the ‘inborn qualities of humans and future generations’. This was later developed into the idea of ‘breeding out’ so-called undesirable characteristics from the human population by excluding people judged to be inferior and promoting those judged to be superior. It was these ideas that sparked the formation of the Eugenics Education Society.

In the early 20th century the developing science of eugenics was followed enthusiastically in the US and Europe. Eugenics was popular among the professional middle classes, scientists and social reformers alike: liberal economist John Maynard Keynes, Liberal politician William Beveridge, socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb, biologist Julian Huxley and novelist Naomi Mitchison were all members of the Eugenics Society. Many of these people saw eugenics as a humane approach to ‘improving’ the population, with a misguided view that this could lead to a better future for humanity, free of poverty and disease.

During the latter part of the 20th century – after the atrocities in Europe driven by Nazi policies – eugenics became associated with doctrines of ‘racial hygiene’ and other coercive practices, which were generally rejected in liberal democracies as discriminatory and contrary to fundamental human rights.

Although the Galton Institute had long outgrown its eugenic origins and become a reputable forum for discussion of human genetics, with absolutely no support for eugenic ideas, growing public awareness of Galton’s racism and eugenics made his name toxic, to the point where it was getting in the way of our aims and activities, so we felt a name change would be sensible.

There were several reasons why we changed the name, rather than simply dismantling the Galton Institute and starting a new organisation. We would not have been able to transfer the society’s hard-won charitable status, our 500-person membership or our assets to a new organisation. But we also thought it was more honest to own the past, reject the old ideas and lay out our current mission, which was, partly, the aim of the 2022 conference.

RESIZE Adelphi evolving organisation mainThe Adelphi Genetics Forum believes biologists should learn about eugenics and other ethical issues as part of their undergraduate degrees

To be clear, the Adelphi Genetics Forum completely rejects eugenic and racist ideas as morally unacceptable and scientifically flawed. Galton’s idea of ‘eugenics’ was based on defective concepts and hypotheses that served to create artificial hierarchies and division between peoples of different class, ethnicity and culture.

The Adelphi Genetics Forum wishes to state clearly and unequivocally that it deplores these outmoded and discredited ideas, which should play no part in society today. Accordingly, the objectives of the earlier organisations have been replaced by the Adelphi Genetics Forum’s current aims and activities. The Adelphi Genetics Forum encourages diversity in its membership and welcomes applications from individuals from all sectors of society.

Yes, your annual conference in 2022 was focused on the theme ‘living with the eugenic past’. Why is it important to continue to study and discuss the history and/or roots of eugenics?

The Adelphi Genetics Forum has, as explained by our history above, a particular responsibility to continue to examine the history and legacy of eugenic ideas. And we must also be alert to the persistence of such ideas in the 21st century and counter them by informed and evidence-based debate. 

Does more need to be done to educate biologists about the way genetic research and knowledge can be used and/or misused?

We consider that biologists should learn about eugenics and other ethical issues as part of their undergraduate degrees. It is concerning that students can graduate from university without any insight whatsoever into these matters.

What kind of activities and programmes do you run?

Our annual conference, at the Royal Society in London, is free for anyone to attend (although registration is a requirement). We try to make talks as accessible as possible. We also run a teachers’ conference in Manchester, aimed at updating secondary teachers’ knowledge of genetics.

The Forum has recently funded its first PhD studentship, awarded to Professor Mark Thomas and Dr Adam Rutherford from University College London for a project entitled ‘Removing the population concept from evolutionary genetics’. Proposals were invited from members of staff at UK universities to supervise a three-year, fully funded, non-laboratory-based PhD project in any area around the understanding of human heredity.

We also offer up to eight small grants each year for relevant conferences, grants of up to £15,000 per annum (for a maximum of three years) for projects that further the Forum’s objectives, and bursaries for junior scientists and for postdoctoral travel. Plus we publish our newsletter, as previously mentioned.

What are some of the major topics of interest that you are working on or discussing right now?

Our 2023 conference’s theme was population diversity, its biological consequences and impact on disease risk. Our conference in 2024 will examine the progress and challenges of human genetics on the 20th anniversary of the completion of the Human Genome Project.

Find more information on the Adelphi Genetics Forum, including its current Officers, Council, activities and how to join.

The Adelphi Genetics Forum is a learned society that aims to promote research and discussion concerning the scientific understanding of human heredity.