The popular geneticist and author of How to Argue With a Racist delivers a sobering, highly informative account of the eugenics movement from its origins in Darwinian evolutionary theory through its adoption by totalitarian regimes such as the Third Reich to the tech based arguments being made today.
Throughout history, people have sought to improve society by reducing suffering, eliminating disease or enhancing desirable qualities in their children. But this wish goes hand-in-hand with the desire to impose control over who can marry, who can procreate and who is permitted to live. In the Victorian era, in the shadow of Darwin’s ideas about evolution, a new full-blooded attempt to impose control over unruly biology began to grow in the clubs, salons and offices of the powerful. It was enshrined in a political movement that bastardised science, and for sixty years enjoyed bipartisan and huge popular support: eugenics.
Eugenics was vigorously embraced in dozens of countries. It was also a cornerstone of the Third Reich, and forged a path that led to the gates of Auschwitz. But the ideas underlying eugenics are not merely historical. Its legacies persist in our language and literature, from the words ‘moron’ and ‘imbecile’ to the themes of some of our greatest works of culture. Today, with new gene editing techniques, very real conversations are happening – including in the heart of British government – about tinkering with the DNA of our unborn children, to make them smarter, fitter, stronger.
Control tells the story of attempts by the powerful throughout history to dictate reproduction and regulate the interface of breeding and society. It is an urgently needed examination that unpicks one of the defining and most destructive ideas of the twentieth century. To know this history is to inoculate ourselves against its being repeated.
‘A remarkable combination of intelligence, knowledge, insight and admirable political passion, on a serious moral problem in contemporary society’ – Carlo Rovelli
‘Genetics has attracted brilliant, visionary scientists. It has attracted racists and charlatans. Control skilfully weaves together these two strands of the discipline’s history’ – Helen Lewis
‘Rutherford sharply undermines the old trope that science is detached from politics, showing that to stand on the shoulders of giants is no barrier to recognising their flaws and fetishes. A vital warning from both history and science of the quiet horrors that can ensue if society becomes overconfident in its ability to ‘improve’ the population. Smart and surprisingly entertaining’ – Caroline Dodds Pennock