Control: The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics by Adam Rutherford review – unnatural selection

Adam Rutherford begins this sharp and timely study of the science that dare not speak its name with an account of the professor who, in 2018, attempted to genetically modify the embryos of twin daughters, removing them from a woman’s womb and then reimplanting them. “China’s Frankenstein”, He Jiankui, had planned to give the children genetic immunity from HIV/Aids, a disease from which their father suffered. Though his efforts seem to have failed – the girls may not have that immunity and he was jailed for three years and fined three million yuan – the case provides one stark answer to Rutherford’s opening question: “If you have children, you will surely want them to live well. You hope that they are free from disease, and that they fulfil their potential … what are you willing to do to ensure this?”

Ever since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in response to the new sciences of physiology and galvanism, that question has haunted human imaginations. After Darwin and before the Third Reich, eugenics was a science that was embraced, as Rutherford notes, by “suffragists, feminists, philosophers and more than a dozen Nobel prizewinners … [and] was a beacon of light for many countries striving to be better, healthier and stronger”.

The first part of Rutherford’s book is a history of these arguments; the second is concerned with the way this thinking is expressed in the present. Ideas of selective breeding are almost as old as philosophy. Plato proposed a utopian city state in which elite men and women would be matched for their qualities, and “inferior” citizens would be discouraged or prevented from breeding. In modern biology, such ideas were first explored and popularised by Darwin’s half-cousin Francis Galton and his follower Karl Pearson at University College London.

Galton’s idea of “positive eugenics” carried with it those ever-present, class-based fears of the decline of civilisation (Darwin did not call it The Descent of Man for nothing). His theories of selective breeding counted among their disciples a young Winston Churchill; the creator of the welfare state, William Beveridge; and the birth control pioneer Marie Stopes, who feared the consequences of the working class “outbreeding” a social elite, and advocated the sterilisation of mixed-race girls.

Stephen Hsu is vocal in promoting the possibility of selecting for intelligence and creating a super race of humans ‘with IQs of 1000’

Rutherford traces a clear line from these racist theories – widely acted upon in US prewar sterilisation programmes – to the genocidal atrocities of nazism. He also shows that though the “doctors’ trial” at Nuremberg effectively banished the word “eugenics” from any curriculum, the science – and in some cases the politics that exploited it – persisted.

The horror of using forced sterilisation to pursue racial purity did not end with the Third Reich; in Canada there is an ongoing class action in response to the coerced sterilisation of First Nation women, some as recently as 2018, while in the US, there is an allegation that up to 20 women underwent involuntary sterilisation in immigration detention centres in 2020. In China, meanwhile, there are credible reports that 80% of Uyghur women detained in the Xinjiang region have been sterilised by surgery or IUD.

Rutherford is careful to separate those attempts at population control from the human genetics departments that have evolved with the fundamental aim of understanding disease at a heritable level. IVF embryos can today be screened for a number of genetic diseases; he makes the clear case that none of these interventions are eugenics, and all are tightly regulated across the world.

Scientists have been manipulating and editing genes since the 1970s – initially viruses and then more complex organisms. Today, Rutherford suggests, “anyone with basic lab equipment can piece together bits and bobs from multiple species to build a new living tool with a specific purpose – such as to test for pathogens in the environment, or create vaccines”. Technology called Crispr created in the last decade can precisely seek out an individual bit of DNA to modify or delete or edit it, “potentially correcting a mutation that for all history until this moment has produced untold suffering”.

Those headline studies that claim to have ‘found the gene for’ are almost never right

However, the idea that scientists are capable of remodelling more complex inherited human traits is, he argues, as far-fetched and politically dangerous as ever. Those headline studies that claim to have “found the gene for” are almost never right. The inherited bits of DNA that might reveal a propensity to alcoholism or schizophrenia are not restricted to single genes but to the variants of multiple bits of DNA, which even then do not determine anything. As Philip Larkin noted in This Be the Verse, parents are pre-programmed to “fill you with the faults they had/ And add some extra, just for you.”

The most pernicious of these claims inevitably involves the belief, resurgent in extremist political groups, that we might genetically select for IQ. In the largest studies, inherited intelligence has been associated with the variable interaction of more than 1,000 places in the human genome. That does not stop a few scientists and pseudoscientists repackaging Galton’s “positive eugenics” for the 21st century.

Among the most prominent of these hucksterish voices is Stephen Hsu, a former physicist and administrator at Michigan State University. Hsu, who runs a genetic profiling company, has been vocal in promoting the possibility of selecting for intelligence and thereby creating a super race of humans with “IQs of 1000”. In 2014, Dominic Cummings saw a talk by Hsu, swallowed his thinking whole and regurgitated it in a breathless blog. Five years later, Hsu was pictured with Cummings outside 10 Downing Street, by which time the “new” eugenics had caused headlines and outrage after the notorious, secretive 2017 “conference” at UCL involving what Rutherford calls “fringe race-obsessed science cosplayers”.

Rutherford makes the urgent case that we remain very far from any such competence and we should beware any politician that raises the idea. In trying to select for the hundreds of genetic variants associated with intelligence, might you be selecting against fertility or kindness or integrity? No one knows, Rutherford says, and it is likely no one will ever know. He ends his short, illuminating book with a useful suggestion. Rather than meddling at the edges of a science that we barely understand, why not concentrate resources on that triumvirate of inventions that have, over centuries, been shown to transform and improve human capacities beyond all imagining: education, healthcare and equality of opportunity.

Control: The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics by Adam Rutherford is published by Orion (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply