While touting tech “advancements” as being explicitly based in eugenics or scientific racism may be out of fashion, that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
CW/TW: this article contains mentions of anti-Black racism, anti-Semitism, ableism, forced sterilization, and chattel slavery.
By Vanessa Taylor
With apps like Tinder and Bumble, dating has taken on a new appearance. We like to think that we’re in total control of our intimate lives, making our own decisions when it comes to swiping left or right, but that’s not the case. A recent 60 Minute story followed a Harvard scientist named George Church working on a dating app that matches people by DNA to eliminate all genetic diseases. It’s both cisheternormative and pro-natalist. The story not only illuminates how future plans for dating apps are flirting with eugenics but the role of tech in legitimizing terrible sciences.
Although the word “eugenics” is never explicitly used by 60 Minutes, its legacy is clear within Church’s work. If you’re unfamiliar, eugenics intends to “improve” the genetic quality of humans through selective breeding. That means not only looking to pair people who have “desirable” traits, but also getting rid of the undesirables, like by force sterilizing poor people, disabled people, and people of color.
According to 60 Minutes, Church’s dating app intends to “screen out matches that would result in a child with an inherited disease.” Church told interviewer Scott Pelley that, “You wouldn’t find out who you’re not compatible with. You’ll just find out who you are compatible with.”
While the plan to combine eugenics with dating apps may surprise some, Church’s own quote shows why it shouldn’t. The algorithms behind many popular dating apps are digital matchmakers filtering who you see. In 2016, Buzzfeed reporter Katie Notopoulos found that the dating app CoffeeMeetsBagel would only show users potential partners of the same race, even if users said they had no preference. Then, a 2018 study by Cornell researchers found further racial discrimination on the 25 highest-grossing dating apps in the US.
“The idea that dating apps opened a new door to eugenics is not really shocking,” Jevan Hutson, a researcher at the University of Washington and lead author on the Cornell study, told Wear Your Voice. “At the higher level, the intimate realm is inextricably tied to relationships of power, and has historically been a crucial locus for the production of social hierarchy and state control.”
Examples of this can be found within Harvard’s own history. Author Adam Cohen described Harvard as “more central to American eugenics than any other university.” In August 1912, Harvard’s president emeritus Charles William Eliot talked about the grave danger of immigration and the threat of mixing racial groups. “Each nation should keep its stock pure,” Eliot said. “There should be no blending of races.”
Anxieties around racial mixing were captured in miscegenation laws that banned Black people—and sometimes other people of color—from marrying or having sex with white people. Teen Vogue reported that the laws started in the late 1600s and in slave-holding colonies like Maryland directly addressed white women, who “forgetful of their free condition and to the disgrace of our Nation do intermarry with Negro slaves.”
“Dating apps are in the business of facilitating individual preferences [along the lines of race, disability, and more] regardless of the individual or structural outcome,” Hutson said. However, to describe this lack of concern as a phenomenon limited to dating apps would be inaccurate because the problem spans across tech as an industry.
While touting tech “advancements” as being explicitly based in eugenics or scientific racism may be out of fashion, that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. For example, Hutson pointed out the surge of “physiognomic AI”, where artificial intelligence makes “inferences or predictions about a person’s internal state or character on the basis of their external characteristic.” Take Faception which offers “facial personality analytics”. As I wrote before, Faception claims that its technology is objective because of machine learning, but all mentions of mental illness correlate with categories of criminal offense, or undesirable behavior, such as white-collar offenders, terrorists, and pedophiles.
Phrenology—an offshoot of physiognomy—is packed into tech despite it providing the scientific justification for many prejudices. For example, U.S. physician James W. Redfield’s 1852 Comparative Physiognomy featured gems like “of Negroes to Elephants”, “of Jews to goats”, and more. And again, as I wrote previously, is it than any coincidence that Google Images once classified Black people as “gorillas”?
Although 60 Minutes reported that Church is dyslexic with attention deficit and narcolepsy, this doesn’t mean he can’t participate in eugenics. Church says he works with an ethicist but that alone doesn’t mean much. Ethics by itself isn’t a neutral field, either, and if Western history has marked eugenics as a benefit to society, then why wouldn’t some ethicists, too?
Both science and tech have adopted the idea that neither needs to consider the broad human implications of a project and if the after-shocks are unpleasant, it isn’t their responsibility. This cavalier attitude is not only seen with the development of facial recognition and other surveillance technologies but with big tech companies like Amazon who provide the technological backbone for ICE. The reality is, science and tech are not exceptional, and not everything that you can imagine needs to exist.
Vanessa Taylor is a writer based out of Philadelphia, although the Midwest will always be home. She has work in outlets such as Teen Vogue, Racked, and Catapult. Her work focuses on Black Muslim womanhood and the taboo. You can follow her across social media at @bacontribe.