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Book Review: The Oxford Handbook of The History of Eugenics

28 March 2011

By Professor John Galloway

Appeared in BioNews 601

The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics

Edited by Professor Alison Bashford and Professor Philippa Levine

Published by Oxford University Press

ISBN-10: 0195373146, ISBN-13: 978-0195373141

Buy this book from Amazon UK

'The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics' edited by Professor Alison Bashford and Professor Philippa Levine


Immanuel Kant's 'Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made' is probably my favourite saying. And where better to start reviewing this book? After all, what is 'eugenics', in whatever guise, but an attempt to straighten out the human race?

Whatever the motives and methods used to realise them - persuasion, education, coercion, sterilisation, segregation, euthanasia and more - eugenics has stemmed from the belief that a population, 'race', or even the species, is 'degenerating' and in urgent need of improvement and revitalisation. However, as the book points out: 'the obvious, if sinister corollary is that some populations would be unfit to do so'.

It is common to equate 'eugenics' with Nazi 'racial purification'. However, 'always look for a shabby motive' is good advice. There is far more than a suspicion that the intention behind equating them has been to draw a clear line between the civilized 'us' and the barbarian 'them'. The first lesson this handbook teaches is eugenic policies were embraced enthusiastically by many countries during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Two-thirds of the book's thirty or so chapters deal with different national eugenic movements and policies. As the book says: 'Eugenics belonged to the political vocabulary of virtually every significant modernising force between the two world wars'. They did not stop there and such policies have not entirely evaporated. As the book tells us, the 1995 'Maternal and Infant Health Law' in China started life as the 'Eugenics Law'.

Overpopulation and poverty, the price of the agricultural and industrial revolutions, started to ring alarm bells among the better educated and better off in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Malthus's suggestion that population would always outstrip food production increased their clamour, as this quote from the book illustrates: 'Managing and intervening in the reproductive lives of one particular social group - the poor - most directly linked neo-Malthusians and eugenicists'.

If sheer numbers of people were seen as one threat to the social order, their 'quality' was definitely another. 'Problem populations' started to be identified and characterised by their ignorance, general fecklessness, moral decrepitude, prostitution, 'feeble-mindedness' and pauperism. The book explains that: 'Poor rural whites, southern European immigrants and African Americans only a generation or two from slavery were seen as problem populations in progressive era America'.

Whatever else eugenics was about, the notion of 'race' figured somewhere. And the book says: 'the primary challenge confronting eugenicists was to convince politicians and the public alike that they embark on a 'race war' to protect the racial stock and prevent its extinction'. Australia identified a 'half-caste problem' and implemented a policy of 'breeding out the colour'. In European colonies, anti-miscegenation laws flourished. All over the place, eugenic initiatives rapidly turned social insiders into racial outsiders.

Towards the end of the 19th century, we learn that science was enlisted in the eugenic campaign to help humanity 'evolve' more perfect people. First Darwinism and then genetics were recruited into this evaluative and evangelistic project.

'Fitness' became the eugenic movement's touchstone. If mental illness could be inherited, why not 'moral imbecility' (whatever that was) and pauperism? Perhaps these could be bred out like 'colour'. If it was the natural order of things for evolution to eliminate the unfit, producing a more perfect species, then it could not be wrong to achieve the same thing by eugenic reproductive policies.

Science was 'confident in its ability to evaluate, classify, and fix the characteristics and qualities of humans'. It is nice for the book to tell us that some scientists retained their moral sense and sanity. Denmark's leading geneticist, Wilhelm Johannsen, the 'founder of such concepts as gene, genotype and phenotype disassociated himself from the "dreamers and fanatics" of the contemporary eugenics movement'.

Science could apparently be used to justify any inhumanity in the service of directing human evolution by 'dreamers and fanatics'. You want proof? Enrico Morselli, who directed a clinic for mental and nervous disorders in Milan, provides it. In his book 'Mercy-Killing: Euthanasia', he listed measures to control reproduction, including: 'extermination, forced abortion, sterilisation, legal polygamy for men with a superior inheritance, the creation of a female reproductive caste, social segregation and confinement of defectives'.

However, what Italy did or did not do is in sharp contrast to their axis ally Nazi Germany. The book explains that: 'A wholesale disintegration of liberal and humanitarian values as happened in interwar Germany did not occur in fascist Italy... the unrelenting pro-natalism and welfarism of Mussolini's dictatorship helped keep Italy's eugenic movement in check'.

On 19 March 2009, the House of Lords debated 'Charles Darwin's legacy'. Dennis Sewell reminded us in his book 'The Political Gene' that the tone was almost uniformly celebratory. The party pooper was Lord Haskell who said: 'remember all the millions who have suffered by the application of Darwinian theory to human society. [Darwinism] when removed from the subtlety of science to the bluntness of politics becomes a pretty blunt political instrument'.

'Politicians' are not, of course, limited to those holding political office. Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from the 'The Handbook of the History of Eugenics' is the resounding lie it gives to the fond and frequently-repeated assertions that science is ethically neutral and medicine self-evidently universally humanitarian.

Distinguished scientists and doctors were the prime movers in setting the eugenics agenda. And both were dab hands at inveigling governments into accepting it and joining in its implementation. As Sewell suggests, this is worth reflecting on when otherwise applauding US President Obama's 2009 inauguration speech, which promised: 'to restore Science to its proper place'. I wonder if the President knew what he meant?

History is always at its best when it is brought face-to-face with the present. Molecular genetics has brought new possibilities for manipulating the human future. Editing the genome is already the new medicine and Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World' now looks within reach.

Somewhere, someone is thinking of reaching out to grasp these new opportunities, believing clinging to an imperfect humanity is the last kick of an outdated culture.

The seemingly endless 'gene for' litany of 21st century geneticists is seductive to those who still think genes are the way to make the world a better place. For those ready to be seduced, this book is the much-needed cold shower. Immerse yourself in it.


Buy The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics from Amazon UK.

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