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Illustration of a child looking directly forward to a double helix oriented vertically. A  glimmer of light appears between the child and the DNA.

In 1883, the English statistician and social scientist Francis Galton coined the word “eugenics” (“well-born,” from Greek). The term referred to his idea of selectively breeding people to enhance “desirable” and eliminate “undesirable” properties. Seen as following Darwin’s theory of evolution, in the 1920s and ’30s eugenics gained important backing in England and the United States. Scientists and physicians spoke and wrote in its support. It influenced U.S. immigration policy, and states like Virginia used it to justify the forcible sterilization of the intellectually disabled.

Today’s growing anti-immigrant and white nationalist movements are raising concerns about a return of this long discredited dogma. For instance, U.S. Congressman Steve King (R-Iowa) recently tweeted about a far-right movement in Europe, calling Western culture “superior” and saying, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” King hoped for “an America that’s just so homogenous that we look a lot the same.”

At the same time, we are seeing an advance in methods of manipulating human DNA that, though they present many benefits, could also be used to advance eugenic goals. This...