Blood Lines

Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity
By Daniel J. Kevles
Alfred A. Knopf; 426 pp,

Biology, Ideology and Human Nature
By R. C. Lewontin, Steven Rose and Leon J. Kamin
Pantheon; 322 pp.

In 1924, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the state of Virginia’s right to sterilize a “feeble-minded” woman to ensure that she could not pass on her affliction to her children. In the opinion of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

By the mid-1930s, some 20,000 people had been sterilized in the United States, as part of a grand project to purge the American population of undesirable traits. (In Alberta, a “eugenics board” authorized the sterilization of some 2,500 people, mostly women, before the board was abolished in 1972.) Most of the men were sterilized by vasectomy; others were castrated. The tubal ligation performed on women was uniformly painful and hazardous.

All this, as Daniel Kevles points out in In the Name of Eugenics, was done in the name of a science that no longer exists.

Today, the Hoffman-La Roche corporation earns nearly $1 billion each year on its worldwide sales of the tranquillizer Valium. All over the Western world, the “intelligence” of children is measured by bankrupt tests that do little more than reinforce class distinctions and racial prejudices. In 1980, the British Minister for Social Services, Patrick Jenkin, announced on television that, quite frankly, he didn’t think “mothers have the same right to work as fathers.”

All this, as Not in our Genes makes abundantly clear, is done with the support of a science that is alive and well and in ascendancy.

As different as these two books are, they address the same subject with very similar concerns. Each in its own way is about the rise of post-Darwinian biology, and therefore about the formation of the very terms in which we have come to understand ourselves. The story they tell is about the social power of modern science, the policies it has spawned and the historical struggle for its control. It is an instructive and compelling tale. It is also, in places, a chilling one.

Daniel Kevles’s concern is with eugenics, a word that has been almost erased from the common vocabulary. If it retains any meaning at all, it is associated with the Nazis’ attempt to engineer a racially “pure” Germany, a science of the most unsavory sort.

It is difficult to imagine that from the turn of the century almost to the outbreak of the Second World War eugenics was not only the cutting edge of human biology, but a popular movement whose members included George Bernard Shaw, Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Alexander Graham Bell. Almost the whole of western Europe and North America seemed to be in the grip of an obsession with the biological health of the “race.”

It is tempting to dismiss the rise of eugenics as an aberration. But Kevles, an accomplished historian at the California Institute of Technology, takes pains to emphasize that the episode was no momentary perversion of science for social ends. On the contrary, it was eugenics that first raised the possibility of social applications of biology. In the 1800s, biology consisted almost wholly of the taxonomy of flora and fauna. There were no experiments, no technical spin-offs and not much of a theory: essentially, the biologist’s task was to celebrate God’s handiwork in the creation of the living world.

But in 1859 Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, and within 40 years the principle of survival of the fittest had been married to the prejudices of the industrial nations to produce the eugenics program: all must be done to encourage the procreation of the ablest citizens, while the undesirables must be dissuaded from mating.

As the logic of the project was expressed by Havelock Ellis, the sympathetic man tosses a coin to the beggar; the deeply sympathetic man endorses state care for the poor; but the truly sympathetic citizen is the one who arranges that the beggar should never have been born.

With hindsight one can see that eugenics confused social ills (penury, alcoholism, criminality) with matters of heredity, and substituted human husbandry for social responsibility. But as crackpot and grotesque as a concern over “racial hygiene” may appear today, Kevles is masterful in his ability to situate eugenics in its context; to make one understand why racial deterioration was an issue that captured the attention of almost all thinking men and women, and how even the most reactionary policies could be advanced under the guise of altruism.

This was a time when, in the U.S., waves of immigrants were entering the country to serve as fodder for American industry. In Europe, the great cities were swelling with the ranks of the “lower orders.” The middle class came to realize that its voice was not the only one in society and that it might not remain the dominant one.

Eugenics articulated this fear, congealing it in the form of data and statistical projections. The tabulations proved apparently beyond dispute that the lower strata of society, where unfit and sociopathic qualities were concentrated, were breeding at a far greater pace than the ablest members, namely the middle class. In a matter of generations, society might be overrun by idiots and epileptics, addicts and criminals, the insane and the chronically unemployed.

In Britain, a campaign of public education was waged, to encourage selective and advantageous breeding. In the U.S., the states passed sterilization laws one by one. In Germany under Hitler, the sterilization programs were only the beginning.

For a time, eugenics united the most diverse groups. English aristocrats embraced the teaching because it seemed to accord with their conviction that the battle of Waterloo had been won on the playing fields of Eton. Socialists invoked eugenics in their fight for the removal of class distinctions. Feminists agitated for contraception and an end to the prisonhouse of Victorian wedlock. The American right marshaled its racism around the principle that blacks and immigrants were of inferior stock.

Of course, there had always been opposition to the movement. In 1905, Samuel Pennypacker, governor of Pennsylvania, refused to give his consent to the state’s sterilization law. Afterwards, he quelled an angry political crowd by reminding it: “Gentlemen, gentlemen! You forget you owe me a vote of thanks. Didn’t I veto the bill for the castration of idiots?”

But it was not until the mid-1930s that the movement began to collapse, its science exposed as shoddy and its politics as reprehensible. The discovery of the gas chambers at Auschwitz and Buchenwald ended not only eugenic policy, but indeed any talk of eugenics at all. Biology duly turned its attention from society to the human cell; from racial engineering to unraveling the mechanisms of heredity.

Without doubt, it has done so with enormous success. In the post-war period, as physics has become an increasingly complex maze of subatomic particles, it is biology that has emerged as the new hot science: pharmaceutical advances, neuroanatomy, monoclonal antibodies, artificial insemination, genetic counseling, in vitro fertilization, recombinant DNA.

Nevertheless, according to the authors of Not in our Genes, in each of its triumphs biology has preserved the central tenet of eugenics: complex social and psychological phenomena are ultimately reducible to biochemical or genetic arrangements. And that – its uncompromising determinism – makes current biology every bit as politically charged as eugenics had been at its height.

By insisting that “intelligence” is biologically given, an innate quality that can be measured by a variety of hopelessly ethnocentric questions, the discipline implies that it cannot be changed. In liberal democracy, one cannot hope for a more brazen legitimation of inequality. We must acquiesce to the prevailing hierarchy; it is written into our genes.

By insisting that men have been designed by evolution for “productive” labor (bridge building, aircraft design, technical innovation) while women have been programmed for “reproductive” labor (childrearing, home care, nursing, teaching), biology props up a patriarchal order that values the former at the expense of the latter.

By insisting that mental disorders are the result, not of social or psychological factors, but of imbalances in brain chemicals, the discipline promotes the interests of a pharmaceutical industry which demands that every explanation of a disease entail a drug for its treatment.

The tendency is to adjust society by tinkering with the mind, and the result is a repertoire of treatments no less crackpot than the policies advocated by the eugenicists: chemical straitjackets for schizophrenic adults and hyperactive children. Anything that renders patients manageable is considered a success, as in the case of the Englishwoman who was a compulsive house cleaner, who spent all day washing and tidying her home, and then would become very depressed. She was recommended for psychosurgery, and a portion of her brain was excised. Presumably the operation was successful: the cleaning behavior returned, but now, instead of being depressed, she was perfectly cheerful.

Not in our Genes is a searing critique of contemporary biology that boasts not merely one authoritative author but a triumvirate of international reputation. R.C. Lewontin is a senior professor and evolutionary geneticist at Harvard and Leon J. Kamin is professor of psychology at Princeton. Steven Rose is chairman of the biology department at the Open University in Britain.

Their collaboration has produced a work of astute social criticism – an “intervention” in the fashionable academic argot – that sees current biology as an adjunct of an unjust society, and that seeks to remake one by remaking the other.

It is, one should note, an avowedly Marxist criticism, of a variety that may at times be too insistent for the tastes of the lay reader and too dogmatic for the academic familiar with political theory (the former will recognize that the authors have an axe to grind; the latter may suspect that it is being ground into a blunt instrument).

And it is here that the two books diverge. Where In the Name of Eugenics is wry and learned, Not in our Genes is learned and earnest. Where Kevles wishes to comment on history, Lewontin et al. wish to intervene directly in it.

One need not have Marxist convictions, however, to appreciate the importance of both books. All science, they argue, speaks the political concerns of its time. It is incumbent on society, therefore, to ensure that the new biological techniques, and the ones yet to come, are applied in the context of a just morality. And in their reasoned treatments of the inheritance and character of modern biology, these books are an excellent place to

  • Montreal Gazette July 20, 1985