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Control: The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics by Adam Rutherford review – unnatural selection | science and nature books

Adam Rutherford begins this pointed and timely study of the science that dare not speak its name with an account of the professor who, in 2018, tried to genetically modify the embryos of twin girls, removing them from a woman’s womb and then by relocating them. “The Chinese Frankenstein”, He Jiankui, planned to give the children genetic immunity against HIV/AIDS, a disease from which their father suffered. Although his efforts appear to have failed – the girls may not have this immunity and he was jailed for three years and fined three million yuan – the case provides a stark answer to the question of Rutherford’s opening: “If you have children, you will surely want them. to live well. You hope they’re disease-free and fulfilling their potential…what are you willing to do to make sure? »

Since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in response to the new sciences of physiology and galvanism, this question has haunted human imaginations. After Darwin and before the Third Reich, eugenics was a science that was embraced, as Rutherford notes, by “suffragettes, feminists, philosophers, and more than a dozen Nobel laureates… [and] has been a beacon for many countries striving to be better, healthier and stronger”.

The first part of Rutherford’s book is a history of these arguments; the second concerns the way in which this thought is expressed in the present. The ideas of selective breeding are almost as old as philosophy. Plato proposed a utopian city-state in which elite men and women would be matched for their qualities, and “inferior” citizens would be discouraged or prevented from reproducing. In modern biology, such ideas were first explored and popularized by Darwin’s half-cousin Francis Galton and his disciple Karl Pearson at University College London.

Galton’s idea of ​​”positive eugenics” carried with it these pervasive, class-based fears of the decline of civilization (Darwin did not call it The descendants of man for nothing). His theories of selective breeding counted among their disciples a young Winston Churchill; the creator of the welfare state, William Beveridge; and birth control pioneer Marie Stopes, who feared the consequences of working-class “inbreeding” on a social elite, and advocated the sterilization of mixed-race girls.

Rutherford draws a clear line between these racist theories – widely applied in pre-war American sterilization programs – and the genocidal atrocities of Nazism. It also shows that although the “trial of the doctors” at Nuremberg effectively banished the word “eugenics” from any school curriculum, the science – and in some cases the politics that exploited it – persisted.

The horror of using forced sterilization to pursue racial purity did not end with the Third Reich; in Canada there is an ongoing class action lawsuit in response to the forced sterilization of First Nations women, some as recently as 2018, while in the United States there is an allegation that up to 20 women underwent involuntary sterilization in immigration detention centers in 2020. In China, meanwhile, credible reports indicate that 80% of Uyghur women detained in the Xinjiang region have been sterilized through surgery or IUDs.

Rutherford is careful to separate these attempts at population control from the departments of human genetics that evolved with the fundamental goal of understanding disease at a hereditary level. IVF embryos can now be screened for a number of genetic diseases; he makes it clear that none of these interventions are eugenics and that they are all tightly regulated around the world.

Scientists have been manipulating and editing genes since the 1970s – first viruses, then more complex organisms. Today, Rutherford suggests, “Anyone with basic laboratory equipment can put together pieces of multiple species to build a new living tool for a specific purpose — like testing pathogens in the environment or creating vaccines. “. Technology called Crispr created over the past decade can precisely seek out an individual piece of DNA to alter, delete or alter it, “potentially correcting a mutation that for all of history up to this point has produced untold suffering”.

However, the idea that scientists are able to reshape more complex inherited human traits is, he says, as outlandish and politically dangerous as ever. Those landmark studies that claim to have “found the gene for” are almost never right. The inherited pieces of DNA that could reveal a propensity for alcoholism or schizophrenia are not limited to single genes but to variants of several pieces of DNA, which even then do not determine anything. As Philip Larkin noted in This Be the Verse, parents are pre-programmed to “fill you in with the flaws they had / And add a little more, just for you.”

The most pernicious of these claims inevitably involves the belief, resurgent in extremist political groups, that we might genetically select for IQ. In the largest studies, hereditary intelligence has been associated with the varying interaction of more than 1,000 places in the human genome. That doesn’t stop a few scientists and pseudo-scientists from repackaging Galton’s “positive eugenics” for the 21st century.

Stephen Hsu, a former physicist and administrator at Michigan State University, is one of the most prominent voices of these peddlers. Hsu, who runs a genetic profiling company, has been vocal in promoting the possibility of selecting for intelligence and thus creating a super race of humans with an “IQ of 1000”. In 2014, Dominic Cummings saw a lecture by Hsu, swallowed his whole thought and regurgitated it into a breathless blog. Five years later, Hsu was pictured with Cummings outside 10 Downing Street, by which time the ‘new’ eugenics had made headlines and caused outrage after the notorious and secretive 2017 ‘conference’ in UCL involving what Rutherford calls “marginal race-obsessed scientific cosplayers”. .

Rutherford insists that we remain a long way from such jurisdiction and should be wary of any politician who raises the idea. When trying to select for the hundreds of genetic variants associated with intelligence, could you select against fertility, kindness, or integrity? No one knows, says Rutherford, and chances are no one ever will. He ends his short and illuminating book with a helpful suggestion. Rather than digging into the confines of a science we barely understand, why not focus resources on this triumvirate of inventions that over the centuries have been shown to transform and enhance human capabilities beyond beyond all imagination: education, health and equal opportunities.

  • Control: the dark history and troubling present of eugenics by Adam Rutherford is published by Orion (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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Margarita W. Wilson

The author Margarita W. Wilson