Eugenics is a loaded and scary word in today’s society. It’s most associated with the genocide of Jews by the Nazis during World War II. But eugenics has a rich and interesting history long before Hitler rose to power and, even today, eugenics thinking remains, although with less zealous as it did in the early 20th century.
Although I’ve read some history bits here and there about eugenics, I hadn’t before read a more comprehensive history of eugenics as a philosophy and its intersection with science. Control: The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics by Adam Rutherford is an informative read of the major historical milestones of eugenics thinking over the last century, the lingering outcomes for science and society of early 20th century eugenics, and the ways in which eugenics thinking still permeates science today.
Eugenics means “good birth” or “well born” and the general idea is to improve the ‘fitness’ of humans through similar methods that we have used to breed stock animals. Encouraging reproduction of those with the ‘best’ traits (positive eugenics) and discouraging the reproduction of those with the ‘worst’ traits (negative eugenics). It’s not difficult to see how this can manifest as genocide in one form of practicing eugenics.
Control is organized into two long chapters: the history of eugenics up until the fall of Nazi Germany, and then a section on the post-Nazi modern era. This history part focused on how mainstream eugenics thinking was in society, across the US and Europe, the implementation of eugenics policy and its outcomes, and the legacies of scientists who were pro-eugenics (such as Francis Galton’s statistics). The modern history part focuses mostly on current science and genetic technology, and the ways in which eugenics thinking is still present in science.
Where Rutherford focuses much of his attention is on the role of science in eugenics, and particularly the role of genetics in eugenic thinking. The concept of the gene gained traction around the same time as eugenics went mainstream around the turn of the century. Where eugenics gets incredibly tricky, especially today, is that despite the sterilization and murder of millions that occurred as a result of eugenics ideology, many great tools and institutions are legacies of 20th century eugenics: Galton’s statistical methods that are used by anyone who does statistics in college, research and analytics; the formation of numerous leading research institutes (many of which have since changed their names, however); modern genetics understanding and research; and of course, IQ testing. The history of eugenics is foundational to the genetic and statistical science we learn and use today. You can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
But I have some quibbles. There are areas in the modern part of the book where it’s not clear to me where the line is regarding what is and what is not considered eugenics within modern science from Rutherford’s view (to be clear, it is clear that he is anti-eugenics, but I can’t clearly see where his line is.) For instance, he argues you can’t divorce positive and negative eugenics (which some modern pro-eugenic scientists argue that you can do that), therefore eugenics is bad. I’m not totally clear on where he stands on various forms of medical embryo screening such as selecting out disease (which he does seem okay with), sex-selection, various trait selection based on polygenic scores.
Overall, this was a fascinating read. I’d love to discuss more some of the ‘line drawing’ with modern reproductive and genetic technology because, to be honest, the line seems murkier than what’s often discussed online by scientists.
Published: November 2022
Publisher: W. W. Norton
If you think this sounds interesting, bookmark these other great reads:
As Gods: A Moral History of the Genetic Age by Matthew Cobb (2022) | Read my review
The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukerjee (2016)
She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer (2018)
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Wasn’t the creator of Planned Parenthood a believer in eugenics?