In Review

Control by Adam Rutherford: a ‘nuanced’ account of the dark history of eugenics

Geneticist Rutherford shows how the aspiration to craft society is one that has existed for millennia

“This is a short book about a big subject,” said Katy Guest in The Guardian: a nuanced and “persuasive” account of what Adam Rutherford calls the “dark history and troubling present of eugenics”. With an admirable lack of alarmism, Rutherford, a geneticist, shows how the aspiration to craft society “by biological design” is one that has existed for millennia: Plato, for instance, in his Republic, envisaged “inferior” citizens being discouraged from breeding.

The man regarded as the father of modern eugenics is the Victorian polymath Francis Galton, said Tim Adams in The Observer. His idea of “positive eugenics” (using selective breeding to raise the calibre of humans) inspired disciples from across the political spectrum, including a young Winston Churchill, the liberal reformer William Beveridge, and the birth-control pioneer Marie Stopes. But though eugenicist ideas flourished in the early decades of the 20th century, they were dealt a seemingly killer blow by the “genocidal atrocities” of the Nazis.

Not quite, said Philip Ball in the FT: eugenicist ideas never really went away. Even after the Second World War, enforced sterilisation persisted in many countries. In California, the practice was only banned in prisons in 2014. And now, eugenics is being given a new boost by the emergence of modern genetics. In the near future, some predict, parents will be able to “choose” desirable traits in their children – either by selecting between screened embryos, or by editing their offspring’s genomes.

Rutherford insists that such approaches are unlikely to work, given the near-impossibility of discerning a specific trait from the fiendishly complex interactions of genes. But even if Rutherford is surely right to call eugenics a “busted flush”, he’s also wise to warn of the dangers of a revival.

Weidenfeld & Nicolson 288pp £12.99; The Week Bookshop £9.99

Control book cover
The Week Bookshop

To order this title or any other book in print, visit theweekbookshop.co.uk, or speak to a bookseller on 020-3176 3835. Opening times: Monday to Saturday 9am-5.30pm and Sunday 10am-4pm.

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