Control by Adam Rutherford review – a historical warning about eugenics | Books

JIt’s a small book on a broad subject, with a thorny history that spans from the Spartans and Plato’s Republic to today’s science and policy-making. A glance at the index gives an idea of ​​its range. Ancient Greece rubs shoulders with Avengers: Infinity War and the ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ advisories of the Covid-19 pandemic with the doctors’ trial at Nuremberg.

Sign up for our Inside Saturday newsletter for an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the making of the magazine’s biggest stories, plus a curated list of our weekly highlights.

It takes patience to trace the complicated web connecting these ideas, and Rutherford does it with much-needed nuance and an absence of alarmism. “For a little over a century we have referred to the deliberate fabrication of society specifically by biological design with a word that has been for half of its existence considered desirable and for the other half, toxic” , he wrote. As a geneticist and author of books such as How to Argue With a Racist, Rutherford aims to distill a comprehensive scientific analysis of the deeply tainted and overheated subject of eugenics.

It begins with a potentially controversial admission: “All science is politics”. His own undergraduate studies took place at University College London’s Galton Laboratory, an institution with a unique perspective on how scientific endeavor can be tainted by political ideology. Francois Galton was the father of modern eugenics. He gave a name – from the Greek, roughly meaning “high-born” – to a discipline that aimed to improve humanity at the population level. It was an intention shared by many, but Galton’s name was officially removed from the UCL premises in 2020 due to the role he had played. “Galton’s racism was deep, consistent, and robust even for his time,” Rutherford writes. “It was explicitly white supremacy.” Like so many before and after him, Galton’s idea of ​​improving humanity meant removing people who were different from him. And, after only a few decades, “the road to eugenics led directly to the gates of Auschwitz”.

It is worth remembering how many great men and women in history have had such views. Charles Darwin did not like the spread of “weak”. Marie Stopes once advocated the sterilization of the “hopelessly rotten and racially ill.” DH Lawrence dreamed of leading “the sick, the arrested and the mutilated” into a “mortal chamber”. There’s a page on Winston Churchill’s public opinions, and they’re mind-blowing. It shouldn’t need to be said, but it is, against a babble of “cancel culture” and “erasing history”, that historical “heroes” are complicated. It could also help explain why some communities are slow to trust science.

So, what about the “disturbing present” of the subtitle? Rutherford offers an excellent brief explanation of the young science of genetics, CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology, and embryo selection for IQ, heritability, and complex polygenic traits. He is interested in the potential of gene therapy to eradicate specific diseases with roots in a single gene, such as cystic fibrosis, but deeply cynical that “screening” for intelligence will never be possible, or desirable, and passionate about the waste of the resources committed to pursue it “when we already know how to improve the intelligence of populations with better education, health care and access to physical exercise”.

Given this, it’s frustrating that he tiptoes into some of the toughest questions in genetic medicine. For example: “Every potential mother now has the choice to decide whether a life is worth living,” he writes. “This is an irreducibly difficult and human question, and while science can provide us with context, it does not provide a way to make a decision about the value of something as rich as a human life.” If all science is political, should scientists be forced to consider the potential consequences of their work? If we agree to eradicate conditions caused by genetic differences, what happens when someone powerful decides to get rid of autism? Or deafness? Will today’s genetic pioneers be tomorrow’s heroes or villains?

Control is persuasive, sensible and ultimately reassuring, but it is not complacent. We shouldn’t worry about a genetically engineered master race, it seems, but we should pay attention to the 19th-century-style eugenics happening in our time: sex-selective abortion in countries like India and China to reports of the involuntary sterilization of women in immigration detention centers in the United States. Knowing history is “inoculating oneself against its repetition”, argues Rutherford. From that perspective, this book is a must have.

Control: the dark history and troubling present of eugenics by Adam Rutherford is published by W&N (£12.99) in the UK and by Hachette ($36.99) in Australia in June. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

Colin L. Johnson