A WELL-MEANING SCIENTIST FLOUNDERS IN THE GENE POOL
"In our own image: EUGENICS AND THE GENETIC MODIFICATION OF PEOPLE"
By David Galton (Little Brown, pounds 20)
Reviewed by Gail Vines
The Independent (London) September 12, 2001
THE VERY word "eugenics" triggers warning bells. Coined by Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton, from the Greek for well-born, it has become synonymous with Nazi atrocities and more. As genetics came of age in the early 20th century, it provided a supposedly scientific rationale for the "improvement" of the human gene pool through state interventions. In Germany, selective breeding of "superior" stock went hand in hand with the mass extermination of those deemed inferior. Meanwhile, US authorities were busy weeding out "undesirable" genes through compulsory sterilisation.
With such a history, it's not surprising that the editors of a respectable medical journal recently asked the medical geneticist David Galton to remove the word "eugenics" from the title of a paper. All the same, Galton thinks it's time to bring back eugenics into common parlance. "Sweeping the word under the carpet or sanitising it with another name merely conceals the appalling abuses that have occurred in the past and may well lull people into a false sense of security," he argues. "I am no relation of Francis Galton and am in no way attempting to whitewash the reputation of a distant relative."
Galton says he is by definition a eugenicist because he wants to "use scientific methods to make the best of the inherited component for the health and well-being of the children of the next generation". The problem is that "the science of eugenics (and nuclear fission) has been misapplied in terrible ways, but not primarily by the scientists." He blames politicians, who can "become totally out of step with the purposes of scientists... Francis Galton never suggested that state-enforced eugenic techniques should ever be practised."
David Galton's recipe for risk-free eugenics is the laissez-faire "personal conscience" approach. Let "ordinary people" decide, and they'll make the right choice. Trouble begins only when "regulation" is imposed by interfering politicians. In his view, parents should decide whether they want to have their embryos genetically tested and selected on the basis of, say, sex or IQ or longevity. "If parents are allowed to teach their children their own values... why should they not also choose which of their genetic traits to pass on to their children to enhance their performance or well-being?"
Galton's list of sources confirms the suspicion that he has never come across even a smattering of the impressive research from the social sciences exploring the complex issues at stake in the prospect of "designer babies". A strange complacency runs through his rather pedestrian account of eugenic targets: diseases such as cancer or heart disease, as well as "personality traits" - including obesity, alcoholism, homosexuality or mental disorders.
While controversially proclaiming that homosexuality is "highly heritable", he brushes aside the idea that anyone might advocate or instigate genetic screening to rid the world of gays. After quoting an anti-gay remark by Field Marshal Montgomery in 1965, Galton concludes: "Such public hostility to homosexuality has now largely disappeared in most European-based societies."
Galton has impeccable academic credentials. A professor at Bart's Hospital in London, he specialises in diabetes, and searches for genes that predispose some people to develop this disease. "Our current knowledge of the genetics of diabetes is of little use in clinical practice because it is still incomplete," he acknowledges. But even when we've got the genes, will they do us any good? Galton suggests that doctors will be able to offer genetic profiles to those known to be susceptible to diabetes. And then? Anyone with the nasty genes would be advised to avoid fatty and sugary foods, take exercise, drink in moderation and stay slim.
Sounds familiar? We already know how to avoid late-onset diabetes, just as we know who is most likely to succumb. In this case, genetic tests are by and large redundant. If intended as a manifesto for the coming genetic revolution, In Our Own Image is a resounding disappointment.