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Control review: The troubling past, present and future of eugenics

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A rising global population has led to a resurgence of eugenics-based ideas

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Control: The dark history and troubling present of eugenics

Adam Rutherford

Weidenfeld & Nicolson

WHAT does the word “eugenics” bring to mind? For many, it is Nazi Germany and the atrocities that were committed in its name, not least the murder and involuntary sterilisation of people that they deemed unworthy of reproducing. But eugenics didn’t begin or end with the Nazis. In fact, writes geneticist Adam Rutherford in his new book Control, “the idea persisted – and persists”.

Eugenics didn’t begin with Francis Galton either, even though he coined the term in the 1800s and was responsible for spreading the idea around the world. More than 30 countries, including Germany and the US, had formal eugenics policies in the 20th century, with awful consequences.

In fact, as Rutherford points out, notions of eugenics and population control date back much further in human society to the 4th century BC, when the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato outlined in books V and VI of Republic a detailed plan to control the reproduction of the people in a utopian city-state. “Children born with defects would be hidden away, which may well have been a euphemism for killed,” writes Rutherford. Plato’s plan was never enacted, he adds, but infanticide has been a constant feature in human societies throughout history and around the world.

Eugenics became a dirty word after the horrors of the 20th century, yet some of its ideas survived in science and medicine, says Rutherford. Eugenics formed the basis for the modern field of human genetics, with many eugenicists rebranding themselves as geneticists after the second world war, he argues.

Some of the language and phrases of the 20th-century eugenics movement remain in general use today, although their meanings have evolved. “Today’s casual insults such as ‘imbecile’, ‘moron’ or ‘idiot’ carried specific psychiatric significance a century ago, and… could warrant enforced institutionalisation and, in hundreds of thousands of cases, involuntary sterilisation,” writes Rutherford.

Unfortunately, the drive to restrict reproduction to those deemed by some to be the most “suitable” still exists. In 2020, there were reports that up to 20 women were involuntarily sterilised in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centres in the US. And in Canada, a class action lawsuit in response to the coerced sterilisation of hundreds of Indigenous women as recently as 2018 is ongoing. Meanwhile, sex-selective abortion practices continue to skew sex-ratios in India and China, the most populous countries in the world.

Embedded in all of these practices are dangerous notions of inferiority and superiority that are unscientific and laced with prejudice, says Rutherford. And, as the world reckons with climate change, discussions around the idea of population control are increasingly resurfacing.

“There is still a question mark over whether eugenics would even work, even if it weren’t morally offensive”

Control ‘s strength is that it provides not only much-needed guidance for these conversations by reminding us of the horrors of the past, but also uses scientific evidence to dismantle the viability of these ideas.

Rutherford makes it clear that there is still a question mark over whether eugenics would even work, which neatly demonstrates how limited our understanding of human genetics actually is and how ill-equipped we are to direct our species’ evolution, even if it weren’t morally offensive.

The 2018 births in China of Lulu and Nana, the first gene-edited humans, provide one example. He Jiankui used CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technology on two fertilised human embryos in an attempt to introduce a naturally occurring genetic mutation associated with resistance to HIV infection. But, as Rutherford describes, the intended gene editing failed. In the embryo that became Lulu, 15 letters of DNA were deleted, while in the one that became Nana some DNA was added and other parts deleted.

Control ultimately exposes eugenics as “a pseudoscience that cannot deliver on its promise” and encourages us to instead focus on interventions that we know can improve people’s lives and the state of our planet, such as improved education, healthcare, equality of opportunities and protection of the environment.

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