Contra Galton

Michael Neve

  • In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity by Daniel Kevles
    Penguin, 426 pp, £4.95, August 1986, ISBN 0 14 022698 2

This much-debated study of eugenics contains a love song to British science – indeed to British size – that has gone almost unnoticed as the Provost of King’s College, Cambridge, preparing for his departure from these shores, gives at least a plausible account of why the situation is now so bad in the arts and the sciences. In the Name of Eugenics arrives, in its Penguin version, groaning with American honours: done over by the Checking Department at the New Yorker, then Knopf’d, then winner of the ‘Page One Award for Science Writing in Magazines’ and, in 1985, runner-up for the American Book Award in Non-Fiction. It is an affluent work brewed in a culture of affluence, and some of this shows in its analyses of eugenical selection – who should breed, who not.

Kevles has gone on to be analysed by fellow academics, notably in the pages of the prestigious American history-of-science magazine lsis, where the doubts about his account of heredity and genetic engineering have been most strongly voiced: but astonishingly little has been said about Kevles’s critique of the America to which so many of our academic ‘stars’ are now heading. Unsatisfactory in some ways, In the Name of Eugenics is nonetheless a rich and socially responsible attempt to write for a general audience on a matter of great importance: human inheritance. And one of its best stories concerns the modification to the pomposities of American eugenical science that was managed, in decisive ways, by individuals or small groups, in none other than soon-to-be-abandoned England.

Kevles underestimates the dark side of the scientific project to determine, from Darwin onwards, the selection for, or against, human subjects as worthy of scientific approval or dismissal: the irony of the human sciences is that human beings have waged war against each other in their name and that some people have been victims of those sciences. In no other area does this possibility loom larger than in studies of heredity, which have too often taken the form of studies of degeneration where the full nastiness of power, race, class and sexual prejudice give reasons for Swiftian disgust. To attempt to organise the social order on the basis of ‘biological’ worth, as eugenists have done since the mid-19th century, is to pretend that the workings of heredity are understood, and to trim this invented knowledge to class interest, or, more important, racial supremacy. If the thing is a genuine mystery, if, as Richard Lewontin has written, ‘we know nothing more about genetic causes of difference in social status and power today than was known to Galton,’ then the history of biological engineering, and genetics, is merely an aspect of the history of class or race or gender, with biology serving as the spurious explanation of worth, personal or collective. Failure is, as it were, a social necessity, while being passed off in psychological terms, as a personal event.

It is inside the alternative possibility, the possibility that biology and genetics can be detached from their enslavement to ideology, that Kevles’s book makes a strong impression. That biology, and the study of inheritance, can be purified and reformed, freed of contamination, must be an assumption of the Kevles position, a position that many will find a trick in itself. The decision as to whether or not it is a trick depends to a large extent on how one receives Kevles’s view of eugenical reformers (decontaminators, one might call them) working in 20th-century England. For he shows with great vividness how the cruelty and blindness of 19th-century thinking about inheritance – much of it Darwinian and therefore English – was advanced and enlarged in America, and then contested and revised in England. His book has a hero, it has places that count. The hero’s name is Penrose. He lived in Colchester and went on to work, in small rooms, in what is almost for Kevles a shrine: University College London.

Kevles’s initial account, the first part of his story, is essentially about the extreme pretension of early eugenics, as launched by Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, and as then amplified in aggressive (or even more aggressive) ways in America, by figures like Charles Davenport, director, from 1904, of the Carnegie-funded Cold Spring Harbor research station on Long Island.

The quality of the writing here resides precisely in the area that some historians of science have found wanting: its biographical speculations. In the case of Francis Galton, traveller to Southern Africa and then keeper of proto-fascist eugenical fantasies, Kevles speculates on the importance of his childless marriage as a reason for the violence of his commitment to social selection of the ‘fit’ against the ‘unfit’. This kind of speculation is is of course dangerous, but it seems to me to be introduced by Kevles with more tact than most have summoned, taking its place alongside a properly historical account of Galton’s semi-brilliant career. There can be little doubt that anyone who has actually read Galton would find Kevles’s version bordering on the over-charitable. Obsessed with statistical notions about the distribution of human characteristics, and what was ‘normal’ and what was not, Galton dreamed of a hygienic social order, free of mental defectives, criminals, subnormals, not to mention the rest of us.

There are few accessible accounts in English (as against German) where the full scale of early eugenical aims is as fully expressed as it is in these pages of Kevles’s. The Anglo-American human sciences, in their late 19th and early 20th-century forms, stand revealed at last: saturated in authoritarianism, with fanciful ideas of social medicine, committed to the most extreme forms of what Kevles calls ‘false biology’, and prophetic of the things to come. A eugenics legislation programme succeeded in the United States, where asylums, prisons and reformatories remain, in their terrifying way, beyond the grasp of almost all, from Jessica Mitford to Norman Mailer. That Kevles should be thought – as some have thought him – incapable of giving the background to this story, simply for having been serialised in the New Yorker is wilfully unimaginative.

The mid-sections of In the Name of Eugenics turn on the arrival of ‘reform eugenics’, a low-scale operation against crude degenerationism and crass population theory launched by the hero of this book, the austere English Quaker and eater of forbidden fruit, Lionel Penrose. Penrose, brother of one of England’s first Surrealists, might have refused his children warmth in winter (overcoats, not fires), but the account that Kevles gives of him is one of the most stirring in the recent history of science, where the overfunded academic from modern America takes his (camel-hair) coat off and pays homage to the democratic, anti-sensual instincts of his English hero. Freudian in sympathy, hostile to degenerationist thought, Penrose began his studies in Colchester, in 1931, in the Royal Eastern Counties Institution, which contained ‘defectives of all grades’, and initiated a profound – and austere – resistance to the large-scale pessimism of the Galtonian programme, both in England and America.

To take only the work done on what Lionel Penrose inherited as ‘mongolism’ and then helped turn into Down’s anomaly: he changed the vast statistical commitment to over-explanation, which addressed questions of paternal age, birth order, the length of time that had elapsed since the birth of the last previous child, and concluded, as a reformer and decontaminator, that the only plausible variable was the age of the mother. These results were published in 1938, and at the end of the Second World War, Penrose became Galton Professor of Eugenics and head of the Galton Laboratory for National Eugenics at University College London. (The Mabusian laboratory has since been replaced by a Department of Genetics and Biometry and the title of Penrose’s current successor is Professor of Human Genetics.) What Kevles has managed to show is how Penrose cleaned out the Galtonian stables.

Kevles doesn’t believe that the story closed at this point, however: he knows that ‘reform eugenics’ contained class-dependent bias, that it may even have been self-deluding. Yet his account of post-Penrosian genetics, as in the work of R. A. Fisher, errs on the side of naivety; and not everyone will agree with him about the amount of degenerationist thinking that lingered in the scientific work of the 1930s. He is, for example, badly informed about the beliefs of a figure like C.P. Blacker, reform eugenicist, anti-democrat, influential in the work that led to the setting-up of the National Health Service. The world of Stanley Baldwin contained more reasons for admiring W.H. Auden than this book understands.

The sense of having read a genuinely responsible work of history of science remains. To take only the most obvious examples from Kevles’s last chapters: his useful warnings against expecting too much from pre-natal medical interventions; his quiet, but absolute sense of the disguised social philosophy that presents as ‘sociobiology’; his reminder that eugenical thinking lurks in unlikely places, with all its old misplaced zeal; his (wholly unannounced) call to attend to Nature; his superb footnotes and essays on sources – all these combine to make In the Name of Eugenics true to its own brief, that the history of genetics is not simply a subject to keep the American intelligentsia from too much inbreeding. Ordinary sexual selection has its natural difficulties, and books like this one help ordinary breeders.

Launched from the heart of a boastful culture, with some of the worst social policy attitudes in history, In the Name of Eugenics avoids making eugenics acceptable to the readership of the now-broken, stupidly modernised New Yorker. Its attention to the English context, to English authority, involves it in praising the small world of English science as a form of opposition, a room of resistance, at a time when almost all sense of these things has been lost. Good for Daniel Kevles, and his story of the American geneticist James Neel visiting University College London in the mid-1950s. In the Galton Laboratory, Neel was astonished at the scarcity of space, at the size of English science. He visited Penrose’s office, ten feet square, and was reminded of a proverb: ‘It’s not the size of the cage that determines how sweetly the canary sings.’