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Exorcising the Demons of our Past: Why Eugenics Wasn’t What You Think It Was, and Why That Matters

Science of human perfection

BOOK REVIEW: Comfort, Nathaniel. The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

*I’m going to be bringing a few more science-blog friendly posts over here from their previous home, so stay tuned if you so desire.

With for-profit companies offering genetic testing at prices approaching the commercially viable for the first time since the sequencing of the human genome ($1,000), eugenics as a topic of discussion in academic circles and in the popular news cycle alike will increase dramatically in frequency over the course of the next decade (the most recent academic contributions are Robert W. Sussman’s The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea, (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2014) and Michael Yudell’s Race Unmasked: Biology and Race in the Twentieth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014)). In fact, it will likely be one of the conversational signposts of the twenty first century (especially with the advent of The Twitter, increasingly bad science journalism, the magnetism and accessibility of online communities around which folks gather like PZ Meyers and blogs like his Pharyngula, and the occasional carnival oddity that is Watson selling his Nobel Prize.  Designer babies, three-parent children, genomic medical therapeutics, and the stubborn persistence of racism and poor arguments disguised as science, like an eye booger clinging crustily on and just generally being a pain in the ass for everyone.

What was eugenics? For those unfamiliar, eugenics was a wildly popular scientific, cultural, social, and political movement in America (most popular) during the first half of the twentieth century. Spurred in the United States by advances in genetics after the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s work with pea plants in 1900 (as well as capitalism as it developed during the Gilded Age, new sociopolitical theories coming out of academia which emphasized Spencer and Malthus, the epistemological products of anthropology, and increasing urbanization and immigration), it developed simultaneously to medical genetics (i.e. using knowledge about genes to improve medical care). Both stretch all the way back to the beginning of the twentieth century (though most histories of medical genetics really begin in the 1950s).

So eugenics developed alongside humanity’s first stumbling investigations about what, how, and why traits get passed along from generation to generation. Eye color, physical build, demeanor, mental ability, susceptibility to disease—these are the types of qualities a new breed of scientists called geneticists initially sought out in the base material responsible for the direction taken by human evolution. Naturally, many quickly (and early on) suggested that now that humanity had access to the “germ plasm” (as they called DNA, which wouldn’t be discovered until the 1920s) we could take a conscious hand in directing the future of human evolution.

What does this have to do with Nathaniel Comfort’s Science of Human Perfection? Everything! This book is an attempt by Comfort, an historian of genetics and medicine at Johns Hopkins University, to do two things: 1) recover the thread of “medical genetics” from the history of eugenics, and 2) Demonstrate how the larger eugenics movement, reviled in the popular mind as the twisted progeny of the Nazis unleashed upon Europe’s non-Aryan ethnicities, was in fact a far more complex phenomena that, at its heart, was about “human improvement and the relief of suffering” (x). If “human improvement” sounds an awful lot at first like the superman programs of the Third Reich, Comfort shows clearly that the larger aim of the movement saw “improvement” as eliminating disease and inherited disorders while increasing intelligence and a offering humanity a stronger constitution.

In the first chunk of the text Comfort traces this thread of medical genetics as it gradually thickened from 1910-1930. He notes the abandonment of most geneticists of eugenics by the 1930s as two obstacles appeared: first, the complexity of designing reliable experiments that could account for the complicated milieu going on inside the “germ plasm” as it was affected by environment (this is the classic nature vs. nurture dichotomy), and second, the ethical boundaries to carrying out those experiments on human beings. Instead, scientists like Michael F. Guyer at places like the University of Wisconsin occupied themselves with mice, fruit flies, and corn.

During this process, Comfort introduces another welcome formulation of distinguishing the strands of eugenic thought: Galtonian vs. Garrodian. The former settles its gaze on the population, whilst the latter emphasizes the individual. This opens up a whole new framework for understanding American eugenics that moves beyond the positive-negative dichotomy and adds nuance without sacrificing the accomplishments of previous scholarship.

Comfort follows the narrative into the 1950s and the advent of heredity clinics (which we still have today in the form of marriage counseling as it pertains to heredity), and shows how geneticists, with the onset of the Cold War and worries about the effects of radiation on the human genome, and also now bolstered by a quarter century of advances in knowledge and technique, re-approached medical genetics in the 1950s. There, The Science of Human Perfection ends.

This is a monograph that is, importantly, thoroughly researched and convincingly argued. Despite seeing increasing popularity in the scholarship during the last twenty years or so, eugenics still remains something of the bastard stepchild of history of science in academia. To blame this trend solely on the uncomfortableness the subject tends to engender (being tied so closely with the (bio-) political) seems to come, at least in part, from a public that wishes to forget the United States ever had an active movement for forced sterilization (which acted to operate on at least 63,000 individuals, and likely innumerably more) and a larger history of science community of scholars who have gone along with that. At the same time, this is something of a copout and a cliché all at once. American eugenics was not Nazi eugenics: in intellectual grounding, structure (both in terms of the individuals proponents and organization), praxis, or even mostly time. And the threads of American eugenics, as we can see in Comfort’s excellent treatment (and elsewhere), certainly didn’t die with Hitler in that underground bunker in April of 1945. Comfort, thankfully, elaborates with nuance and persuasiveness on both realities.

Even more welcome by those of us in the history of science who are too used to slogging through interminably boring prose, is that The Science of Human Perfection is incredibly well-written.Comfort has a wonderful way with words, and an ability to render primary sources into a compelling narrative. It is, aside from being one of the more important revisions of the historical literature on eugenics, one of the best-written studies in any sub-discipline of history I have had the pleasure of reading.

For anyone interested, Comfort runs the excellent Genotopia somewhere around here.

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Curing with Machines: Medical Electricity in 18th-C. Paris

medical electricity text

Before Volta and Tesla, before Hertz and Edison and Westinghouse, electricity was the purview of medicine. Before it was understood to be an electromagnetic interaction between poles and one of the four fundamental forces of physics, it was imagined as a strange fluid that flowed from place to place with a little prodding and the right materials. Indeed, electricity has always enjoyed something of a privileged place around the scholarly campfires in the history of science, as it no doubt does in the popular narrative of history. It has served in the former mostly as a locus for inquiry into the epistemology and philosophy of science, with scholarly work looking to seventeenth and eighteenth century activities into this phenomenon in the larger schema of contemporary scientific discourses and debates.

But the uses of electricity were not confined to laboratories where scientists tried to unearth the properties of this strange force of nature. Medical uses of electricity go at least as far back as the first decades of the 1700s in France, though by the 1750s as a therapeutic it had largely fallen into disfavor. Francois Zanetti’s excellent recent article “Curing with Machines,” published in Technology and Culture, reminds us that we must sometimes look into the fine structure of history to discover how the marketplace of medical ideas—and the machines they increasingly used—played out on the microcosmic scale.

The first decades of medical electricity were dominated by traveling doctors and then, eventually, by an arrangement which saw individuals in need of such treatment (it was marketed for everything, but the focus seems to have been on neurological disorders like epilepsy). Patients would trek to the doctor’s house for treatment according to the schedule set.

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From the 1770s onward, electricity would be part of the materia medica, or the set of procedures and body of knowledge that constituted medical practice. During this time, physicians and surgeons, playing tug of war with the corpus of medical knowledge and technical procedures in curing the human body (called the armamentarium) as well as the authority and respect the latter conferred upon practitioners, each attempted to appropriate this “electrical fluid” in their quest for supremacy. Physicians argued electrical cures were the logical application of their theories. Surgeons averred instead cures were the result of their tactile expertise. Eventually, physicians would win.

The great thing here is that Zanetti reminds us no therapeutic practice, especially novel ones, exist independent of either economic or social marketplaces. Patients, like those who installed their own electrical machines from the craftsmen who made them for physicians, engaged in a give and take that sculpted not only the theories of these machines but also their physical shape. Medical practitioners saw these challenges from the laity and, together, this is what came to shape the medical use of electricity just around the time unruly colonials in Boston and elsewhere were getting in a tizzy about finally being asked to pay taxes.

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