in the name of eugenics [book review]

In preparation for the JSM round table on eugenics and statistics, organised by the COPSS Award Committee, I read the 1985 book of Daniel Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity, as recommended by Stephen Stiegler. While a large part of the book was published in The New Yorker, in which Kevles published on a regular basis, and while he abstains from advanced methodological descriptions, focussing more on the actors of this first attempt at human genetics and of the societal consequences of biased interpretations and mistaken theories, his book is a scholarly accomplishment, with a massive section of notes and numerous references. This is a comparative history of eugenics from the earliest (Francis Galton, 1865) to the current days (1984) since “modern eugenics” survived the exposure of the Nazi crimes (including imposed sterilizations that are still enforced to this day). Comparative between the UK and the US, however, hardly considering other countries, except for a few connections with Germany and the Soviet Union, albeit in the sole perspective of Muller’s sojourn there and the uneasy “open-minded” approach to Lysenkoism by Haldane. (Japan is also mentioned in connection with Neel’s study of the genetic impact of the atomic bombs.) While discussing the broader picture, the book mostly concentrates on the scientific aspects, on how the misguided attempts to reduce intelligence to IQ tests or to a single gene, and to improve humanity (or some of its subgroups) by State imposed policies perceived as crude genetic engineering simultaneously led to modern genetics and a refutation of eugenic perspectives by most if not all. There is very little about statistical methodology per, beside stories on the creation of Biometrika and the Annals of Eugenics, but much more on the accumulation of data by eugenic societies and the exploitation of this data for ideological purposes. Galton and Pearson get the lion’s share of the book, while Fisher does not get more coverage than Haldane or Penrose. Overall, I found the book immensely informative as exposing the diversity of scientific and pseudo-scientific viewpoints within eugenism and its evolution towards human genetics as a scientific endeavour.

One Response to “in the name of eugenics [book review]”

  1. Tangential:

    I chased down a reference dropped by Boka and Wainer in their recent article in CHANCE, that of an article on the equality of numbers of the sexes published in 1710 by a Dr John Arbuthnot:

    Arbuthnot, J. 1710. An argument for Divine Providence taken from the Constant Regularity in the Births of Both Sexes. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 27, 186–190. London: The Royal Society.

    What’s interesting is that a Certain Someone wrote much later about this and received a lot of credit for it.

    Boka and Wainer also dropped in a bit of a zing on hypothesis testing in their comment:

    1In 1710, Dr. John Arbuthnot used the number and sex of christenings listed at the bottom of the Bills to prove the existence of God and, in the process, invented modern hypothesis testing.

    in footnote 1.

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