Adam Rutherford (A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, Humanimal) earned his undergraduate degree and Ph.D. from University College London, including several years studying in the university’s Galton Laboratory. This straightforward sentence hides a deep irony. As readers of his book How to Argue With a Racist know, Rutherford is passionately anti-eugenics—while Francis Galton, for whom the Galton Laboratory is named, was the 19th-century scientist who coined the term eugenics and pioneered its ideology.
Divided into two distinct parts, Control: The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics first outlines the history of eugenics, then lays out the scientific, ethical and moral arguments against it. The history is messy indeed. Galton and his contemporaries were brilliant scientists, statisticians and polymaths—but also white supremacists with repugnant ideas. First hailed as a way to promote positive attributes in humanity, eugenics quickly devolved into a racist movement that used mass sterilization and even murder to remove people with “undesirable” traits such as alcoholism, Down syndrome and schizophrenia from the human gene pool. Eugenics laws in the United States inspired Nazi euthanasia laws, and the Nazi classification of races owes a lot to the American model. Most ironically, the pseudoscience of eugenics gave birth to the actual science of genetics.
Rutherford believes this history is not over. He fears the politicians, scientists and entrepreneurs who use eugenic ideas for their own advancement or profit, and this fear gives the second half of the book its power. Rutherford has faith in science. It is genetics, he argues, that provides the best proof that eugenics has never and will never work. Our genome is too complex and intertwined for scientists to cleanly pluck negative traits from or insert positive traits into our biological makeup.
Eugenics is not science, Rutherford explains, but the corruption of science for the purpose of controlling people who are weak, vulnerable and poor. And it is this very corruption, as Control clearly demonstrates, that makes eugenics’ followers unworthy to determine who is and isn’t worthy of life.