Review of “Control – The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics”

When Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species” in 1859; while the finches of the Galapagos Islands formed an example of natural selection, he also referenced selective breeding in animal husbandry as an example of how desired characteristics in breeds could come about. It did not take a genius to realise that selective breeding could also be applied to humans, although it was one, Francis Galton (Darwin’s half-cousin) the Victorian polymath, who did so and founded eugenics. At a distance of over a century it is difficult to see why they found eugenics so attractive as opposed to other interventions, but late Victorian Britain was a country in the grip of an early version of the Great Replacement theory, in this case the replacement of the educated middle and upper classes with the, then uneducated, working classes simply because the latter were having many more children. Galton’s “Hereditary Genius” set out the case for eugenics: that the ‘better’ classes should be encouraged to breed more and the ‘worse’ classes less.  This idea was attractive to many: Winston Churchill, Arthur Balfour, William Beveridge, George Bernard Shaw, Sydney and Beatrice Webb, Marie Stopes, and D H Lawrence amongst others. It even gained the support of the Manchester Guardian. In 1913 the Liberal Government, including Churchill, passed the Mental Deficiency Act (only 3 MPs voting against) which locked up those of low intelligence in institutions, effectively preventing them from breeding, although it did not require sterilisation. That Act was not repealed until 1959.

By 1913, Galton’s ideas had spread far beyond the UK with the United States, in particular, taking them up vigorously; the Eugenics Records Office at Cold Springs Harbour on Long Island being funded mainly by the Carnegie Institute, Rockefeller Foundation, and the philanthropist Mary Harriman. This should be a warning about letting those with money fund research; their interests may not accord with those of society as a whole. Unlike the British, the Americans had no qualms about sterilising those whom they thought should not be allowed to breed, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes writing in a 1927 judgement “Three generations of imbeciles is enough”.

Not surprisingly, these American ideas soon crossed back across the Atlantic, this time to Germany, where Alfred Ploetz built on them and the earlier scientific racism of Ernst Haeckel, who had brought Darwin’s ideas to Germany. In time this led to the Holocaust as we all know, but it is important to appreciate that the first victims were those they considered inadequate, either physically or mentally. That experience inoculated most of the world for a couple of generations, but with the success of the Human Genome project and the development of CRISPR gene editing it became possible not only to repair faulty body cells (somatic cells) to cure some rare diseases, but also change the germ cells that create the sperm and ova and so eliminate the disease in future generations. Eugenics was back!

The second part of the book brings the story up to the present and covers what gene editing can, and more importantly, cannot do. It is an important corrective to the idea that genetics at its root is simple: we all learned at school about the heritability of eye colour, controlled by the OCA2 gene. Yet only 62% of those with two copies of the blue-eyed version of the gene have blue eyes; while 7.5% of those with two copies of the brown-eyed version of the gene have blue eyes as well (p. 217). Genetics is nowhere near as simple as people think, and Rutherford offers several other examples.

He then asks whether eugenics as practised in the first half of the 20th Century could have worked then and, more importantly, if it could work now. For illnesses like Huntington’s disease which are caused by single-gene defects this may seem an easy decision but we must remember that by doing so we are also potentially selecting out of the future population, people who may make a significant contribution. For example, Woody Guthrie died from Huntington’s disease, as did his mother and two of his eight children. Because he was born in 1912, four years before Charles Davenport at Cold Springs Harbour first identified the heritability of the disease, there was no possibility of his mother being sterilised before his conception.

In the near future it will become possible to screen for a range of severe conditions by analysis of fetal cells circulating in the maternal blood. This will not just include severe life-limiting conditions that cause death in infancy, but conditions like Huntington’s disease that often only appear in later life. Now, we have to think about how we treat this information. I would argue for following an approach similar to that in Iceland, which emphasises the mother’s right to choose and the state’s commitment to supporting that choice; I believe that this is the Liberal approach.

Back in the autumn of 2019, the BBC showed a two-part series on eugenics, titled “Eugenics: Science’s Greatest Scandal”. Unfortunately it is not now available on iPlayer, although it is on some subscription services. If you can watch it, do so. It fits very well with the contents of Control – The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics .

Control: The dark history and troubling present of Eugenics by Adam Rutherford can be purchased here at the Guardian bookshops or other online retailers and actual bookshops..

* Laurence Cox has been a party member and activist since 1981. He was a local councillor for 10 years and served on the Pensions Working Party that created the Citizen's Pension policy in 2004.

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33 Comments

  • I find it baffling that anyone would want to elide the distinction, nay the chasm, between using genetic modification to cure disease, on the one hand, and the mass sterilisation or murder of people you think are inferior on the other.

    Even suppose for the sake of argument, the eugenicists had a good understanding of genetics, consider the two statements:
    A. I understand genetics, therefore I am justified in killing you
    B. I understand genetics, therefore I can treat your sickness and make you better.

    Do we really think the important point of comparison between the two statements is the understanding of genetics? I think the important point here is that one is a killer and one is a healer, and whether it is genetics they understand, or mathematics, or literary criticism, well so what?

  • Brad Barrows 21st May '22 - 9:32am

    While it may be controversial to point it out, it is a fact there have been something in the order of 50 million abortions in the USA since Roe v Wade ruled in favour of allowing the procedure. These abortions have disproportionately prevented the births of children who would have been ethnic minority, disabled or from ‘lower social classes’ – precisely the demographics that advocates of eugenics would have wished to have lowered birth rates.

  • David Evans 21st May '22 - 9:46am

    Brad, while it may be true that “abortions have disproportionately prevented the births of children who would have been ethnic minority, disabled or from ‘lower social classes’ ” (I haven’t seen the data and you haven’t referred to it), ultimately it is caused by individual human beings making decisions for themselves, not some centralised national bureaucracy enforcing some set of values.

    It could also be true that “conceptions disproportionately result in the births of children who are ethnic minority or from ‘lower social classes’ – again due to individual human beings making decisions for themselves.

    However, key to your assertion is the question, “Disproportionate with respect to what other measure?”

    All in all, do you consider it a matter of concern, or just an interesting fact?

  • Brad Barrows 21st May '22 - 10:55am

    @Davis Evans
    You make relevant and interesting points – let me respond in this way. I find it a matter or profound concern that there is a link between the economic circumstances of pregnant women and the likelihood that they will ‘choose’ to abort. It is no real choice if the scales are weighed down at one side due to economic considerations. I also find it disturbing that pregnant women are more likely to abort when informed of the possibility that a child may be born with disability. We can not claim to be a truly inclusive society when less value is placed on preborn with disabilities than on preborn without.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 21st May '22 - 3:07pm

    Sorry Mick, it is necessary to mention that society allows abortion of unborn with cleft palate, Downs syndrome, or being female. The eugenicists are out there and called progressive , they are the GBS lot of today, and far from being criticised here, are unmentioned.

    I am in favour of legal abortion. But not on the grounds I mention.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 21st May '22 - 3:36pm

    Apologies, refered to Mick, not Laurence!

  • Ruth Bright 21st May '22 - 4:27pm

    What a fascinating subject. Thank you Laurence. As someone who has spent the last 7 weeks in and out of Obs/Gynae wards I might be one of the best or one of the worst people to comment on this!

    As, twenty years ago, what the medics so kindly call elderly primigravida (first baby over 35) I remember tactless and discourteous pressure to have all the Downs Syndrome tests. I sat in the ante natal session with my midwife who quizzed me: “How could YOU manage with a Down’s Syndrome child”? My answer was “Fine thanks please shove off”.

    When my baby was born and Down’s was “diagnosed” (five days later we were told this was incorrect) the atmosphere on the ward was like a morgue. Like they had failed. We were so happy with our first baby whoever she turned out to be and were baffled and hurt by the atmosphere around her.

    As per Brad’s point, personally I support abortion on demand and would unconditionally support all pregnant women who make different choices to the one I made. But as he points out a choice should be a real CHOICE. Ante-natal and obstetric care is expensive. The anti Roe v Wade merchants in the US would carry much more moral clout if they proposed free, universal, unlimited ante-natal and obstetric care for all women so women end a pregnancy, if they need to, for their own reasons rather than lack of health insurance or cost.

  • Brad Barrows 21st May '22 - 5:00pm

    @Martin
    No one is wanting “ more people to be disabled”. The issue is whether the preborn with disabilities should be denied the opportunity to be born on the basis that they would live life with a disability.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 21st May '22 - 7:19pm

    Martin

    There are incidents of what you say there, females aborted, because they are females, in the UK.

    Sir Keir Starmer chose to not prosecute one where it was recoreded on the record. Doctors are doing it because the law, and this party and Labour back this lawless approach to the law, allows for it.

    Both parties want to decriminilise every aspect of this, making it a medical, not legal topic only. I believe if a pregnant woman, and the male partner discover the gender and do not want the baby, they can say all of a sudden there is a mental health reason.

    It might be very rare, but goes on. And on the cleft palate and Downs also.

    Your comments on the other issues, I accept as more tricky, or rather, have more understanding of the reasoning and worrying about those.

  • @ Lorenzo Cherin “Sir Keir Starmer chose to not prosecute one where it was recoreded (sic) on the record”.

    That sounds like an act of sensible civilised compassion by Sir Keir Starmer, Lorenzo. Are you saying the said woman should have been prosecuted and potentially imprisoned ?

  • Tony Vickers 22nd May '22 - 9:01am

    Setting aside the eugenics argument, the bit I found shocking in Laurence’s piece is this: “ This should be a warning about letting those with money fund research”.
    Why shouldn’t anyone use their own money to fund research? What is needed is transparency in research funding, not state control. I wholeheartedly agree that we need much more state funding of research but it would be dangerously illiberal to prevent anyone from funding any kind of research however evil we might think their objectives were.

  • Brad Barrows 22nd May '22 - 9:37am

    @Martin
    I claim no great theological knowledge but I always thought the Roman Catholic Church believed that sexual intercourse was sinful unless it was to enable procreation – on that basis, I assume that using contraceptives makes the sexual intercourse sinful by definition. That, of course, is a very different argument from that around whether an established pregnancy, with a preborn baby perhaps weeks away from achieving the full suite of human rights, should be ended on the basis that the baby would be born with disabilities. (Remember, current abortion law allows abortion up to the point of birth in cases where a baby is likely to be born with ‘serious handicap’.)

  • Charley Hasted Charley Hasted 22nd May '22 - 11:52am

    The line here is ‘does this disability hurt the disabled person or the people around them more’ imo.

    Haemophilia, Huntington’s, etc unarguably cause more pain (emotional, physical and mental) to the person with the condition than the people around them.

    Conditions like Autism on the other hand – not so much. (you can tell this largely because the treatment and diagnostic pathways for autism functionally focus solely on ‘how do you annoy people who aren’t autistic’ and ‘how do we stop you displaying behaviours that non-autistic people find distracting/disturbing/confusing/inconvenient).

    Where a condition shortens life or causes pain and suffering then looking for treatments and cures isn’t eugenics it’s humanitarianism. Where the only or main benefit to ‘curing’ a condition is ‘we don’t have to deal with people needing additional support or who need us to modify our behaviour to help them’ that’s viewing people as things – an inconvenience, an obstacle, an expense – and I’m fundamentally in tune with Terry Pratchett that treating people as things is where evil begins.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 22nd May '22 - 12:36pm

    David

    I think I gave it more as an example of where it happens, to relate it to the question Martin put. I am not saying the woman ought to be prosecuted or not in these circumstances I would look at the detail of each case. Maybe she was put in a bind as a result of pressure not to have a girl. I do think that ought to be illegal.

    Martin

    I agree with what you say. I gaive examples here of where on for example disability with certain conditions, I think abortion is eugenics, and I dislike that.

  • Brad Barrows 22nd May '22 - 3:23pm

    @Martin
    Firstly, I doubt that people who believe that Mary conceived and gave birth though a virgin will believe that God’s will or power can be frustrated or overcome by contraception.
    On the larger point, it is wrong to regard contraception and abortion as morally equivalent – though both can prevent babies being born alive, one does this by preventing conception in the first place whereas the other achieves this by ensuring the death of the life that has been created but not yet born. (In the case of abortions after 21 weeks and 6 days, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists recommends that foeticide is performed to ensure there is no risk of a live birth.)

  • simon mcgrath 22nd May '22 - 6:55pm

    “This should be a warning about letting those with money fund research; their interests may not accord with those of society as a whole”

    What on earth does this mean ?

  • Brad Barrows 22nd May '22 - 7:51pm

    @Martin
    The youngest baby to be born and survived is Curtis Zy-Keith Means who in 2020 was born at 21 weeks and 1 day. This is the reason that it is recommended that foetuses over this ago are injected with an agent to kill them prior to pregnancies being ended by inducing labour – the intention is not just to end the pregnancy but also to ensure that the unborn child also dies. In the case of abortions to prevent a disabled baby being born, I suppose our society is not that different from the Spartans except that they had to wait until after their births before those born with disabilities could be identified and eliminated. Not sure if this practice counts as eugenics, but seeking to eliminate on the basis of disability must come close to that definition.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 22nd May '22 - 9:56pm

    Martin

    Till people recognise to abort for cleft palate and Downs is a selection, therefore related to eugenics, those who oppose these reasons, and like me, favour laws that govern each such case with a sensible but reasonable defence of those lives or their possibilities, we cannot really argue nor should. To abort because you say that life as we know it comes later, only adds to my view, that life that late in, must be or ought to be allowed to come to let be as nature, not abortion, intends.

    Most of the EU countries you so want us to be involved with, have legal safeguards far strcter than even I like. In France, now Ireland twelve weeks! I favour eighteen or twenty. And no abortion pushed or encouraged for those minor disabilities.

  • Andrew Tampion 23rd May '22 - 7:00am

    I recently read a memoir of Stephen Hawking by Leonard Mlodinow. Stephen Hawking was born with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Despite this he lived a full life, married twice, had children, enjoyed music, food, drink and less importantly was one greatest scientists of the 20th century.
    So would it have been more Humanitarian to have aborted him had his condition been diagnosed prior to his birth?

  • >He then asks whether eugenics … could work now. For illnesses like Huntington’s disease which are caused by single-gene defects this may seem an easy decision but we must remember that by doing so we are also potentially selecting out of the future population, people who may make a significant contribution.
    Choice is a double-edged sword. I wonder how many people have made a significant contribution owe their existence to a prior terminated pregnancy… I know the children I have raised, owe their existence to the miscarriages my partner had.

    I support the approach adopted in Iceland, we should provide the information and give the mother the choice and support her in that decision and its consequences. When society and/or establishment imposes specific outcomes on the mother, we are going down the eugenics path.

    @Brad – abortion is just a medical procedure, it can be used for good and bad – a mother deciding to abort a baby with Downs is a different decision to the (eugenics) establishment automatically testing every baby for Downs and arranging an abortion for those with positive test results.

  • Helen Dudden 23rd May '22 - 11:08am

    I was born with a sight issue. For many years I got by without understanding what really was going on in my life.
    Disability has often little respect. Housing access and transportant can be often difficult. Disability is not a favourite on the to do list.
    For several years a Power Wheelchair user, understanding the ways it could restrict my freedom.
    Having a small grandchild thats autistic, learning about the long waiting lists for support. Children with autisum can be very difficult eaters.
    Stanley Johnson had an interest in eugenics, I had read somewhere.
    The death camps were full of those selected to be tested more cruely, not perfect as the cleansing became more and more popular.
    The world is a much different place, looking out, not looking in.

  • Brad Barrows 23rd May '22 - 12:05pm

    @Roland
    “…abortion is just a medical procedure”
    Actually it is a much more significant medical procedure than any other as it is designed to end human life at the preborn stage – that is why society sets rules around abortion that do no apply to any other medical procedure. While society is willing to permit abortion up to 24 weeks, and no time limit if to save the life of the mother, current law also has no time limit on abortions of those who would be born with ‘serious disability’ though that has been interpreted in ways that do not seem particularly serious. So, are we as a society comfortably with the preborn with disabilities being treated differently to all preborn babies? We would not accept a law that allowed preborn black babies to be aborted at any stage of pregnancy but a time limit applied to the abortion of preborn white babies. Treating those with disabilities differently from the non-disabled is not acceptable.

  • Helen Dudden 23rd May '22 - 12:15pm

    Brad Barrows. Anyone with a disability, will tell how difficult life can be.
    I think it’s the past history, and the present that encourages the fight for fair treatment in today’s society.
    I had children was one comment I’ve had.
    Whatever, personal opinions are towards disability, I feel it’s narrow minded and will never improve until things change.

  • @Brad – You are letting emotive thinking block your view of the big picture – namely the selective breeding of humans aka eugenics, according to some ‘gospel’ of what “the master race” should be.

    With our advancing science, we now have knowledge about human development, the question is how to use that knowledge.

    Currently, we can screen for genetic abnormalities in embryo’s. So we have a number of conundrums – do we routinely test all embryo’s or only test on request by the mother.
    Then knowing that an embryo has a specific life-limiting genetic defect, what do we do with that knowledge – act(*) whilst we have to opportunity.
    Given the pace of research, we can expect the choices to multiply, and reach the point where genes effecting other characteristics are also mapped.

    This gives us two levels of eugenic intervention, the first one is the effective removal of those with negative genetic conditions, and the second the selection of characteristics that seen (by some) as being desireable. Naturally eugenics takes things a little further and screens the prospective parents and permits only those with ‘desireable’ tracts to inter-breed.

    A challenge as Laurence indicates is the rightwing especially, are easily seduced by the promise of eugenics and the line between liberal use and controlling use of the same knowledge will become mudded…

    (*) By ‘act’ I mean take actions that change the forecasted outcome, from gene therapy to termination, or offer our condolences and wash our hands.

  • Laurence Cox 23rd May '22 - 4:55pm

    It is disappointing that @Joe Otten chooses not to understand that the eugenicists of the early 20th Century were far closer to the monsters of Nazi Germany than he will admit. See D H Lawrence’s letter on p. 63, or the role of Winston Churchill (pp 77-92). We need to ask ourselves whether Churchill’s refusal to do anything to alleviate the Bengal famine of 1943, where three million died, was in fact a reflection of his racist and eugenicist views that placed a lower value on their lives.

    It is essential also to distinguish between somatic cell gene therapy and germ-line gene therapy; the latter is not a ‘cure’ in the normal sense, it is the selection of an embryo without a particular genetic defect from a number of embryos some with and some without the defect. Philosophically, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis is no different to abortion.

    @Tony Vickers and @Simon McGrath both seem to think that there should be no control over research, but much of the work of the Eugenics Record Office was of poor quality, leading Karl Pearson, the first Galton Professor of Eugenics at UCL, to bemoan that it could destroy the credibility of the field (pp 96-97, 111-112). Ploetz made much use of the ERO’s work.

    In passing, I should mention that searching the Liberal History web site yields no results for either Eugenics or Mental Deficiency Act. It is as if this unpleasant memory has been air-brushed from our Party’s history.

  • “Naturally eugenics takes things a little further and screens the prospective parents and permits only those with ‘desireable’ tracts to inter-breed”.

    Which is exactly what the then Home Secretary Winston Churchill proposed in a letter to the Prime Minister, H.H.Asquith, in 1911. Asquith wisely ignored the letter.

  • @Laurence Cox, I think you are trolling now.

    I am making a clear distinction between on the one hand deciding that other people are not worth having around and on the other hand respecting human rights and human dignity. I think that is the important distinction here, and if you are not making it, you are no great ally of human rights and human dignity.

    While I’m here, another argument has cropped up in this thread, that individuals’ own reproductive choices can be tantamount to eugenics. This is similar nonsense. On that basis I would be guilty of eugenics for having had children only with somebody I was attracted to.

  • @Joe Otten a fine Liberal summing up.

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