Control review: A sensible take on the past and future of eugenics

A curse from history: Adam Rutherford offers a sensible take on the formidable past and future of eugenics in his important but horrific Control

Control

Adam Rutherford                                                                                         W&N £12.99

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How did a niche scientific concept go mainstream and forge the way to the Holocaust in just a few decades? And could such an ideology take hold again?

The rise, fall and potential reawakening of eugenics – the idea that heredity can be used to improve society – is probed and debated by geneticist and science writer Adam Rutherford.

The idea of shaping a population for its ‘betterment’ was championed by many of history’s greats in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

Geneticist Francis Galton (above) and Ronald Fisher were among its scientific proponents, while Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler were political advocates

Geneticist Francis Galton (above) and Ronald Fisher were among its scientific proponents, while Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler were political advocates

Geneticist Francis Galton and Ronald Fisher were among its scientific proponents, while Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt as well as Adolf Hitler were staunch political advocates.

In Nazi Germany, the ideology was harnessed to murder millions of Jewish people, plus hundreds of thousands of people with physical disabilities or mental illnesses and gay people, among others.

But it was also used in America to sterilise some 70,000 people in the 20th Century. Enforced sterilisations for those deemed undesirable or ‘feeble-minded’ – including those of low IQ – were considered by Winston Churchill when he was Home Secretary.

This never became law, but instead the UK’s Mental Deficiency Act was passed in 1913 (and stood until 1959) to isolate these people in institutions.

Rutherford presents a profoundly sensible take on the complexities of history and its giants – unafraid to question them while acknowledging their ‘formidable legacies’.

Even after the atrocities of the Second World War, eugenics never quite went away. The US carried on with forced sterilisations of women into this century – including reports in 2020 of women involuntarily sterilised at Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centres.

China reportedly sterilised 10,000 women who had violated its former one-child rule, and millions were believed to be coercively sterilised in India under Indira Gandhi’s policies.

Could modern science and technology – having made enormous strides in reproductive science including IVF, embryo selection and genome editing – now be harnessed for population control in a way that resembles eugenics?

Rutherford draws on his knowledge as a scientist to explore and explain the issues at stake and put them all into context.

This is an important book, though at times the horrors it unveils make it hard to read. But as Rutherford says: ‘To know this history is to inoculate ourselves against its being repeated.’

 

This Mortal Coil

Andrew Doig                                                                                         Bloomsbury £25

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What with a raging pandemic, rising temperatures and grim predictions of species wipe-out thanks to climate change, it might seem masochistic to read a book about the other myriad ways in which our species can perish.

However, Andrew Doig’s entertaining investigation into how and why we die, and what it teaches us about how different societies have lived, is an absorbing read.

Since man first learned to walk upright, the causes of death among homo sapiens have changed profoundly. During the paleolithic period, violence and famine were the main hazards. Today, dementia, heart failure and cancer stalk humankind.

Andrew Doig's This Mortal Coil is a gripping and fascinating book; informative and seasoned with dry humour

Andrew Doig’s This Mortal Coil is a gripping and fascinating book; informative and seasoned with dry humour

Doig chronicles the shifting patterns of our mortality, from plague and pestilence through to genetic defects, alcoholism, traffic accidents and even suicide (‘When you look in the mirror,’ he notes in one startling passage, ‘the person you are looking at is by far the most likely to kill you’).

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors may have had it tough but they were lean and fit and enjoyed a balanced diet.

We might be living longer, but today’s over-abundance of food has resulted in obesity and type 2 diabetes, as well as spreading a small number of species such as rice and chicken across the globe while simultaneously driving many others towards extinction.

Indeed, before 1600, when the Bill of Mortality began recording statistics among Londoners, the link between causes of death and lifestyle was merely speculation.

However, it soon became clear that living in crowded, unsanitary cities was less healthy than living in fresh air and open spaces, while later advances in germ theory showed conclusively why we should drink clean water, wash and perform operations in sterile conditions.

This is a gripping and fascinating book; informative and seasoned with dry humour (recounting Government Health Minister Iain Macleod’s announcement to the press in 1954 about the perils of tobacco, the author notes that Macleod was chain-smoking throughout his speech).

And as for Covid, the subject is covered with commendable economy, perhaps emphasising Doig’s overarching conclusion that, as with pandemics throughout the ages, today’s crisis is tomorrow’s historical footnote.

Michael Simkins