cover image Control: The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics

Control: The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics

Adam Rutherford. Norton, $30 (288p) ISBN 978-1-324-03560-2

A century of efforts to breed, sterilize, or slaughter the way to grasp control over “who lives” is lambasted in this stinging study of the eugenics movement. Geneticist Rutherford (How to Argue with a Racist) begins by surveying the 20th-century impact of eugenics, the attempt to improve the genetic profile of a population by discouraging certain people—historically the poor, the disabled, and racial minorities—from having children. The doctrine led to thousands of Americans being sterilized under state eugenics laws in the 1930s and, in Nazi Germany, to the mass murder of those deemed genetically “undesirable.” These policies, Rutherford shows, grew from a pro-eugenics consensus among leading scientists and other mainstream figures of the time, from Winston Churchill to W.E.B. Du Bois. Rutherford then investigates the neo-eugenics enthusiasm surrounding present-day advances in genetic screening and gene editing, and convincingly debunks the notion of superhuman “designer babies,” arguing that it’s “barely viable” to enhance complex traits such as intelligence with genetic-engineering technologies. Rutherford writes in a pugnacious, sometimes polemical style—“It persists like a turd that won’t flush,” he remarks of Madison Grant’s perennially influential white-supremacist tome The Passing of the Great Race—while conveying the science in a lucid, down-to-earth way. The result is a stimulating critique of one of science’s most disgraceful chapters. (Nov.)