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Book Review: The Science of Human Perfection - How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine

1 September 2014
Appeared in BioNews 769

The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine

By Professor Nathaniel Comfort

Published by Yale University Press

ISBN-10: 0300198191, ISBN-13: 978-0300198195

Buy this book from Amazon UK

Surrounding yourself with books and journal articles on human enhancement will see you encounter the word 'eugenics' on a regular basis. The unfortunate thing about this word is that it has become bound to a particularly nasty piece of world history - and for many people this association is a reason to wince, whilst rejecting whichever idea or theory it is trying to re-associate itself with today.

Many of us may consequentially feel uncomfortable when, no sooner than we have processed the foreword of his book, Nathaniel Comfort states that we still have eugenic impulses. If there is an overriding thought Comfort would like us to take home for further consideration it is that 'the more things change, the more they stay the same'.

The author, of course, is referring to our desire to use eugenics to improve the human species. Enhancement naysayers and Third Reich historians at this point probably wish he meant Bon Jovi's single of the same name. But it is this wilful ignorance our historical eugenic impulse that the author is ultimately trying to warn us against here; maintaining that to do so would be a precursor to making the same mistakes all over again.

And so we start 'The Science of Human Perfection' from this position - eugenics was part of a distasteful political and social movement, but let us try not to lose the thread of 'medical genetics' designed to reduce human suffering inherent in the eugenics movement.

Comfort does a fantastic job of reminding us of how eugenics really originated long before the Second World War. It is probably a revelation to some that eugenics was actually an incredibly popular scientific and cultural movement in the USA in the earlier stages of the twentieth century. It is easily forgotten that Gregor Mendel's work with pea plants in 1900, rather than the Nazi Party, is where eugenics began.

Next, Comfort becomes the latest in a long line of authors to grapple with the idea of 'human improvement' and again does brilliantly in setting out the wider aims of the eugenics movement, which were to enhance immune systems, eradicate diseases, genetic disorders and improve our cognitive and physical abilities. As opposed to creating a master race of super humans, obviously.

After this the book does seem to spend several chapters leaping about. Comfort spends some time in the 1950s telling us all about the Galton-Garrod Society and then sends us into reverse with what constitutes an abridged life and times of Francis Galton and Archibald Garrod. From here, we take a journey spanning several chapters' worth of medical genetics until we reach the era of modern gene therapy and human enhancement.

While that may sound daunting, Comfort executes this journey brilliantly and manages to encompass an impressive number of key contributors from a range of disciplines; it was an unexpected yet pleasant surprise to see botanists given fair praise for their part played in the development of genetics in medicine. Furthermore, the manner in which Comfort moves his narrative around within a period where medical genetics was gradually separating from eugenics is clever. By tracing the development of the two, the author succeeds in blurring the dividing line drawn by the conventional historical narrative and illustrates why there is such a convincing case for removing the line completely. He stays true to his argument that eugenics will legitimately help us to effectively end human suffering.

Ultimately, Comfort has created a comprehensive volume which meticulously maps the history of eugenics and the collaboration with medical genetics. The impressive number of sources used in the book is testament to the amount of detail the author has managed to cram into 300 pages. Unfortunately, there is a small downside to this in that the book moves at quite some pace and can become very dense - I am certainly not going to hide the fact that I had to revisit a number of sections having got lost somewhere along the way. Admittedly re-reading may not even have been necessary, as Comfort exercises a wonderful coherence that brings each stage in the narrative together in a persuasive argument. Indeed, this book comes thoroughly recommended as a sophisticated historical account from an author who writes with flair that is guaranteed to engage genetics experts and novices alike.

Buy The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine from Amazon UK.

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