Academic journal article New Formations

Introduction: Eugenics Old and New

Academic journal article New Formations

Introduction: Eugenics Old and New

Article excerpt

In many parts of the world, especially the wealthier parts, advances in biotechnology are transforming the processes of human reproduction. Prenatal testing and screening procedures, genetic counselling, birth control, and in vitro fertilisation are commonplace in most advanced economies. DNA profiling and databanks, egg donations, frozen egg cells, sperm banks, extra-uterine experimentation, preimplantation genetic diagnosis, gene-modification, genetic therapeutics, stem-cell research, organ-breeding, the ability to harvest large numbers of embryos, germ-line engineering, reprogenetics, 'designer babies', human cloning--these existing and potential manifestations of the extraordinary biotechnological advances made over the last half-century have already made significant inroads upon the expectation of an unmanipulated genetic heritage. The prospect of eradicating debilitating genetic disease is presented by some sections of the biomedical community as a near-future likelihood but, alongside the optimism for transformed healthcare, there are rumbles of alarm both about the efficacy of current regulatory systems for overseeing such biotechnological transformations and also about the possibility of assessing their profound ethical implications.

This special issue of new formations explores the ways in which a posthuman future--seemingly so nearly (or already) upon us--is potentially also a eugenic future. The modern notion of eugenics first began to emerge around the 1860s, when the meaning of heredity made a decisive shift to include, along with the familiar forms of succession to status, land, wealth and office, the properties of organic beings. The word eugenics was coined in 1883 when Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton, gave precise formulation to the ambitions of a newly professionalised, moralised, and middle-class notion of inheritance and what it means to be 'well born'. (1) Bodily health, mental aptitude, and moral quality are inherited, Galton argued, and therefore managing the random and unruly chances of reproduction was a responsibility that needed to be understood and accepted by all, from the individual to the state. In civilised society, natural selection must be superseded by rational selection if evolutionary progress was to be maintained. If an individual's reproductive inclinations and behaviour ran counter to the collective good, then the state must intervene in order to stay and reverse the forces of human biological and social degeneration.

By the early decades of the twentieth century eugenics was associated with state policies. These ranged from educational measures aimed at fostering a 'eugenic conscience', to forms of taxation and family policy, the segregation of those deemed mentally 'unfit', and all the way through to forced compulsory sterilisation. Eugenics proved an immensely flexible idea, taking different ideological and practical forms in different parts of Europe and the United States. In Britain it originated primarily as a means to curb, control and reform an urbanised working class, the social 'residuum' associated with city slums, squalid living conditions, and a relatively high birth rate; elsewhere, it found other expressions, centring on mental health in Germany, for example, and closely associated with discourses of race in the United States. This adaptability was no doubt in part a consequence of the way in which eugenics attracted support from across the political spectrum. Its legitimacy and its popularity were only definitively challenged in the wake of the Second World War when the eugenic ideal was generally seen to have come to grief amidst revelations of Nazi atrocities.

In his influential 1990 book, Backdoor to Eugenics, the US-based sociologist, Troy Duster, argued that the seeming triumph of social over hereditarian theories in the 1950s, which for some seemed to consolidate the shift away from a bad moment in European history, was in fact transitory. …

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