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by Caitlin Burke

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The Rhetoric of Eugenics in Anglo-American Thought grew out of Marouf Hasian's doctoral dissertation at the University of Georgia and has been published as part of the University of Georgia Humanities Center Series on Science and the Humanities. This series seeks to make available to non-academic readers scholarship in the history, aesthetics, and ethics of science and technology. It also seeks to offer discussion in areas such as "the social consequences of scientific research and knowledge ... and the study of Western and non-Western conceptions of nature." In this last wish, The Rhetoric of Eugenics in Anglo-American Thought certainly succeeds, for although it is concerned with discussions of eugenics solely in the United States and England, it carefully explores "countercultural" arguments in those countries, offering a rich and thoughtful view of a tradition involving a highly political use of "science."

Hasian isn't especially interested in right or wrong. He is more interested in describing the many definitions of "eugenics" used by the different people and groups that appropriated the term, showing that strict, "hard-line" notions of eugenics were, in fact, widely challenged. Analyzing eugenical perspectives as "rhetorical fragments" and discussing public discourse in terms of "ideographs", "myths," and "narratives," he shows that strict eugenical ideas were strongly system-supportive and very much took their quality from the social and political environment in which they arose and became objects of great attention. He is unsentimental about the popularity of even hard-line eugenical thinking in England and the United States, and he is careful to note that modern abhorrence of the term has more to do with a historical desire of Anglo-Americans to distance themselves from the "excesses" of Germany than any actual distaste for the rationales that underlay those "excesses."

Hasian discusses the history of "eugenics," from the coining of the term to the way that it captured the imagination of societies beginning to explore the implications of Darwin's theory of evolution. He describes eugenics as a natural complement to social Darwinism and a notion quite in line with contemporary English and American ideas about class and duty to the State. He also offers a summary of eight clusters of ideas associated with different interpretations of the term "eugenics." He then goes on to discuss the countercultural arguments mounted to challenge hard-line eugenical thinking: African-American responses, women's responses, Catholic responses, and liberal responses. Finally, he discusses the eugenical implications of the Human Genome Project.

For Hasian, the appeal of eugenics in English and American minds has never diminished but only taken on new names. From Francis Galton through Charles Davenport and Harry Laughlin and right up to Murray and Herrnstein, the only significant challenge in Anglo-American thought to the value of eugenics has been some semantic backpedaling to make sense of Nazi Germany. In the meantime, genetics has burst forth, able to offer a way to combine "democratic" values and deliberate improvement of humans by "geneticizing" social problems and urging parents to "choose" their [eugenically fit] offspring with tools such as amniocentesis and gene therapy. Hasian is obviously sympathetic with the arguments of Daniel Kevles, for whom discussions of genetic engineering clearly belong in discussions about eugenics. And while he is no Jeremy Rifkin, he is certainly cautious when James Watson (yes, that Watson), first director of the Human Genome Project, warns that it is an "act of true moral cowardice to allow children to be born with known genetic defects."

For people involved in genetics research and medical genetics, it may seem farfetched to imagine that working to treat or eradicate serious genetic disorders could somehow be misconstrued as laying the groundwork for the engineering of a better human or for using genetic information to deny resources to the ostensibly equal members of our society. The rhetoric has flown fast and furious, however, and the existence of research that points to genetic origins for behaviors of all types naturally begs some of the same questions that once cowered under the umbrella of social Darwinism. Whether today's issues are brought up by books like The Bell Curve or the denial of healthcare insurance or, worse yet, jobs on the basis of genetic information, the phenomenon is the same: wanting to make hard-and-fast rules for society based on the promise of some perfect, "objective" science. Hasian's careful treatments of the views of various groups that have struggled against this threat over the past century makes for a sobering read and a timely warning against complacency.

Links about eugenics, some history and some opinion

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