(2017) Philippa Levine, Oxford University Press, £7.99 / US$11.95, pbk, xvi + 150pp, ISBN 978-0-199-38590-4
Eugenics – the study of changing human population genetics for betterment – has generated much controversy over the years due to its application which has often (if not invariably) been underpinned by political support. Yet, continued biological advancements – such as those of genomics, gene manipulation (for example through CRISPR-Cas 9) and reproductive biology (such as ova mitochondrial), means that we now have the means to potentially remove, or indeed add, genes to the germ line: that is to say to be able to potentially alter the suite of genes passed on from one generation to another. This makes Philippa Levine's introduction to eugenics most timely.
This small book (or large booklet) will be of value not only to those with an interest (as opposed to the specialist who will want a far bigger, substantive work) in biosciences but also those parents (or potential parents) who may be concerned that their offspring might carry a genetic anomaly. In the past there would be little that parents could do if they carried a genetic anomaly: other than not having children, they had to take the luck of the Mendelian draw as to whether or not their offspring would be healthy, future carriers of the anomaly, and/or see their offspring directly suffer from the anomaly's expression. Today there are in some cases other options and the range of such options is increasing as the science and technical ability to deliver increases.
Yet much suffering – for example forced sterilization – has been caused by the belief that a certain criterion for 'betterment' is truly 'betterment: the classic example of this last was the Nazi belief in Aryan purity. Science fiction itself has addressed such issues from H. G. Wells The Time Machine (1894) that saw humanity speciated into the Eloi and Morlocks, through Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) and its genetically defined class system, to Nancy Kress' Hugo winning Beggars in Spain (1993) among many others. In short, eugenics – if you did not already know it – is an SF trope in addition to being a science and/or political (sometimes deviated) expression of science. (Hence of interest to this site's regular visitors of scientists and engineers into SF.) Indeed Philippa Levine acknowledges this and refers to these first two authors (though cites Brave New World as being written in 1931). So this topic is also most relevant to those with an interest in speculative fiction in addition to the other potential readerships I have already mentioned.
The strength to this short guide is that it reminds us, or for younger readers 'informs us, of a series of past horrific practices and beliefs with the implication that this could happen again. As such this is an invaluable guide to the history of eugenics with a good reference cum further reading list for those wishing to delve further.
And herein lies my one problem with this guide. Yes, it truly is an excellent short guide to the history of eugenics but it stops short at where we are today with the very real potential to significantly alter the human germ line. My problem is that this really – and I really mean 'really' – should have been called The History of Eugenics. Consequently, noting that eugenics is not practiced in the same way today, much is packed into the book's half-page final paragraph as Levine assess where we are now. This is a shame as this is where the current burning eugenic issues lie: issues that are becoming increasingly pressing as the relevant science and techniques race ahead. Yes, we do need a concise history of eugenics, and Philippa Levine has provided this, but this is just the foundation for the current and future debate; a companion booklet is desperately needed.
Jonathan Cowie was formerly with the Institute of Biology (subsequently re-branded as the Royal Society of Biology), several years of which was spent as its Head of Science Policy and Books.
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