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TV Review: Eugenics: Science's Greatest Scandal

21 October 2019
Appeared in BioNews 1020

In the BBC documentary 'Eugenics: Science's Greatest Scandal' science journalist Angela Saini and disability rights activist Adam Pearson tackle the difficult subject of eugenics

Eugenics is the, what they call, 'controversial', idea that humanity can be improved by selective breeding. Pearson and Saini are uncompromising, and don't shy away from a dark legacy that saw the continuation of eugenic practices long after the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust. They talk to victims of the ideology, including the sterilised, and uncover its uncomfortably British origins. Despite their head-on approach, I contend that the documentary still doesn't go far enough. The taboo around what might be called 'eugenic thinking' prevents the journalists from explicating the full sense in which eugenics persists in society today. 

There are two strands to the documentary. The first, told by Saini, is a reconstruction of a historical narrative of eugenics, which, contrary to the conventional association with Nazi Germany in popular consciousness, has a history that is much closer to home. Saini shows how the origins of eugenics actually lie in the science advocated by the British scientist Francis Galton (1822-1911), who drew on his cousin, Charles Darwin's studies on the variation and domestication of animals in The Origin of Species to investigate whether the same mechanisms applied to the inheritance of 'ability' in human populations. 

Saini pursues this narrative up to the present day, showcasing contemporary policies and institutions, which still have their roots in eugenics – from the statistical methods of analysis developed by Galton, to the cervical caps inscribed with 'Pro-race' advocated by feminists such as Marie Stopes. Saini challenges viewers to confront this collective past and begins to question how we should relate to this history. 

It is important, she says, not to judge past beliefs by contemporary standards – eugenics in the late 19th and early 20th century was considered a credible science, it was not informed by the social consciousness we have today, nor did these individuals have the paradigmatic example of the Holocaust to caution them against the dangers of selective reproduction. Nonetheless, it is a historic reality and one that, she suggests, should caution us in our response to new technologies today. We need to consider the real-world implications of deploying the products of science, Saini argues over the course of her investigations, consider the values they perpetuate and the groups of the population that they favour. 

A telling historical example Saini gives, is the social housing projects of the 1920s. She draws on the example of Welwyn Garden City, a community built according to the city-planner, Ebenezer Howard's visions of utopia. Interestingly, these garden cities were designed with the aim of restoring society's connection to nature. Yet, this connection to our 'natural' origins came at the cost of certain groups of people. Part of Howard's vision, Saini shows, was the ghettoization of less desirable subpopulations – 'delinquents', 'the poor'. The lesson Saini draws from this, is to consider the social implications of new utopian projects. 

I wonder, though, whether the segregation of the poor and differently abled is not still very much a fabric of contemporary city life. There is a lesson here that is perhaps more easily forgotten than the caution in the face of new utopian technologies that Saini advocates. This lesson lies in the danger of positing paradigmatic historical instances of 'evil'. While Saini tries to restore some of the historical connections her British audience may have severed by conflating eugenics with Nazism, she fails to take up the real challenge of reviving this connection, which would be to use the history as a prompt to interrogate the eugenic logics still inherent to the way that society is structured today. 

The only attempts to grapple with contemporary instantiations of eugenic thinking are made in the second strand of the documentary, by Pearson, who pursues this connection by looking at instances of genetic engineering. He talks to a family considering preimplantation genetic diagnosis after their first children were born with the genetic condition, neurofibromatosis type I, and he mentions the recent research by the Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, who claimed to have edited the human genome for HIV resistance (see BioNews 977). Pearson asks the now commonplace but important questions: When and to what extent should we intervene in the genetics of our children? What does this say about the groups of people we value? 

However, when the history of eugenics outlined by Saini clearly shows how this ideology was implemented 'through' but not 'by' technology, that the scientific options were not inherently evil but were used by individuals and institutions to reinforce existing power dynamics, it seems short-sighted to restrict the analysis of contemporary eugenic thinking to the choices surrounding genome editing technologies. 

There is a broader discussion to be had here, not only about how parents choose to reproduce, not only about the genetics of their offspring, but about society as a whole. Individuals are reproduced via mechanisms that extend beyond genetic selection in laboratories. There are inequalities in the world that still incentivise certain groups of the population to reproduce, while discouraging others. Take, for example, the infertility treatments marketed for extortionate fees to higher income families, while contraceptive options presented to lower-income women are very different. Some women live in comfort, while others suffer under poor living and working conditions, from stress and uncertainty that affects their choices surrounding reproduction. 

While we fail to rectify the inequalities in public information, financing and provision of infertility services and contraception, of housing and healthcare on a national level, we are still living in a eugenic state. This is a difficult discussion to have; having it means acknowledging the inherent, eugenic, biases we still hold today. It means confronting our complicity in a way that is probably more disruptive to our worldview, or how we view ourselves, than the history offered in this BBC documentary, but it is the only way we will ever come to distance ourselves from the eugenics in our history in any real sense. 

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