The Eugenic Impulse: The Dream of Engineering Humans Persists
“The ultimate ideal sought,” wrote Harvey Ernest Jordan in 1912, “is a perfect society constituted of perfect individuals.” Jordan, who would later be dean of medicine at the University of Virginia, was speaking to the importance of eugenics in medicine—a subject that might seem tasteless and obsolete today. Yet nearly a century later, in 2008, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, the biomedical research institute on Long Island’s north shore, published a book titled Davenport’s Dream, which shows that eugenic visions persist. Charles Davenport, a colleague and friend of Jordan’s, had directed Cold Spring Harbor for the first third of the 20th century, turning it from a sleepy, summertime marine-biology laboratory into a center for genetics research—and the epicenter of American eugenics.
Davenport’s Dream is a facsimile of Davenport’s major work, Heredity in Relation to Eugenics (1911), prefaced by nearly 200 pages of commentary by scientists, historians, and legal experts celebrating Davenport and expanding on questions of genetics and eugenics in biomedicine. In the volume, the genome guru Maynard V. Olson writes that dbSNP, the database of small genetic variations, makes possible the fulfillment of Davenport’s dream. “Here,” he writes, “is the raw material for a real science of human genetic perfection.”
Davenport thought he had the raw material for a real science of human perfection. The original conception of eugenics, described by the British polymath Sir Francis Galton in the late 19th century, was based on the breeder’s subjective, holistic understanding of heredity. The rediscovery of Mendel’s rules of heredity in 1900 seemed to place eugenics on an empirical, quantitative, scientific footing. And so it did, relative to Sir Francis.
Davenport and his cronies used genetic arguments to promote the betterment of the human race through marriage, immigration, and sterilization laws, as well as through propaganda and research. But eventually, Progressive-era human genetics and eugenics came to seem out of date. Through the second half of the 20th century, Davenport was geneticist non grata, an embarrassing black mark on the pedigree of human genetics, like a Nazi grandfather you’d rather not bring up in conversation. Since the 1970s “eugenics” has been a dirty word. But in Davenport’s Dream, the geneticist and historian Elof Carlson insists that eugenics still has a role in our time, and Matt Ridley wrote that “Charles Davenport had the best of intentions”; it’s just that his idealism got ahead of his knowledge and of the available technology. What changed? And what didn’t?
Davenport dreamed of biologically engineering society. But the mechanisms available to him were primitive and heavy handed. Progressive-era eugenics sought to eliminate undesirable traits (negative eugenics) and cultivate desirable ones (positive eugenics) by population control, mostly through regulating immigration and sex. Eugenicists were interested in the genetics of disease, personality, intelligence, and race—just as we are today. Birth control, marriage restrictions, and sexual sterilization of “defectives” (a medical term still in use as late as the 1970s) were among their means of effecting genetic change. They hoped people would voluntarily do the right thing for the greater good—but if they didn’t, the state had a responsibility to do it for (i.e., to) them.