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The Science of Human Perfection

The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine

Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    The Science of Human Perfection
    Book Description:

    Almost daily we hear news stories, advertisements, and scientific reports that promise genetic medicine will make us live longer, enable doctors to identify and treat diseases before they start, and individualize our medical care. But surprisingly, a century ago eugenicists were making the same promises.The Science of Human Perfectiontraces the history of the promises of medical genetics and of the medical dimension of eugenics. The book also considers social and ethical issues that cast troublesome shadows over these fields.

    Keeping his focus on America, science historian Nathaniel Comfort introduces the community of scientists, physicians, and public health workers who have contributed to the development of medical genetics from the nineteenth century to today. He argues that medical genetics is closely related to eugenics, and indeed the two cannot be fully understood separately. He also carefully examines how the desire to relieve suffering and to improve ourselves genetically, though noble, may be subverted. History makes clear that as patients and consumers we must take ownership of genetic medicine, using it intelligently, knowledgeably, and skeptically, lest pernicious interests trump our own.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18887-5
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Health Sciences

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  5. 1 The Galton-Garrod Society
    (pp. 1-28)

    In about 1950, four researchers at Johns Hopkins University did a very ordinary, very significant thing: they started a journal club. For decades, journal clubs have been a staple of laboratory life; every basic scientist I know attends at least one. They are informal groups, often with no criteria for membership beyond interest. Science being the focused enterprise that it is, the clubs usually draw from one or two laboratories. Occasionally a colleague from a neighboring department is invited to join. Typically, they meet weekly or biweekly, reading a recent paper, then convening to discuss it. On a rotating schedule,...

  6. 2 Fisher’s Quest
    (pp. 29-66)

    Just after christmas, 1904, Irving Fisher kissed his wife, Margaret, and boarded a westbound train out of New Haven, Connecticut. Fisher, a professor at Yale and one of the nation’s leading economists, first stopped in Chicago for the American Economic Association annual meeting. He then traveled northeast to Battle Creek, Michigan, home of John Harvey Kellogg’s famous Sanitarium. He framed the trip in mythic terms. “I want to fulfill my mission, if it be a mission, for you,” he wrote to Margaret from the train. “I am on a quest—not like Ponce de Leon for the fountain of youth...

  7. 3 A Germ Theory of Genes
    (pp. 67-96)

    “Dear sir,” the letter began, “I have been studying migraine and its inheritance in the population of Western North Carolina.” The year was about 1927, and the recipient, Laurence Snyder, was a young geneticist still finishing his Ph.D. at Harvard but already on the faculty of North Carolina State College in Raleigh. The letter’s author was William Allan, a country doctor 170 miles away in Charlotte. “My results seem to indicate that migraine is due to a dominant factor,” Allan continued. Snyder may have cocked an eyebrow at the old-fashioned termfactor;professional geneticists had long since adopted Wilhelm Johanssen’s...

  8. 4 The Heredity Clinics
    (pp. 97-129)

    Sometime in 1937, harry laughlin, the superintendent of the Eugenics Record Office, had a seizure while driving down Main Street in Cold Spring Harbor. He suffered from epilepsy, which had ever been on the eugenicists’ list of dysgenic mental conditions. By his own definition, in other words, Laughlin himself was unfit. He survived the accident but was badly shaken. His institute was also a bit wobbly. After Charles Davenport retired in 1934, Albert Blakeslee, the new Cold Spring Harbor director, had launched a review of the ERO, assembling a committee that included Columbia’s L. C. Dunn and the Harvard anthropologist...

  9. 5 How the Geneticists Learned to Start Worrying and Love Mutation
    (pp. 130-162)

    On august 23, 1939, germany and the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact—and nearly two hundred Americans and four hundred other scientists convened for the Seventh International Congress of Genetics in Edinburgh. It was to have been held two years earlier, in Moscow, but it had been delayed by politics dimly understood at the time. It was rescheduled for the summer of 1938, delayed again, and planned for 1939. Soviet officials refused to sanction the meeting. Mendelian genetics was becoming highly politicized in a climate of strong Communist Party support for Trofim Lysenko, the agronomist who claimed to have...

  10. 6 Getting Their Organ
    (pp. 163-199)

    “Victor mckusick, ‘father of medical genetics,’ 1921–2008,” ran the obituary headline from Johns Hopkins. TheBritish Medical Journal, theLancet, the NIH genome institute, and the March of Dimes all headed their obituaries the same way. The popular science magazineDiscoverreferred to him as the “visionary researcher who is often called the father of medical genetics,” and the online encyclopedia Wikipedia says that he is “widely regarded as the father of clinical medical genetics.” “Rare is the scientist,” wrote aSciencemagazine obituarist, “who is universally recognized as the founder of a field.” Indeed, it is the sort...

  11. 7 Genetics without Sex
    (pp. 200-239)

    At the close ofthe double helix, James Watson’s farcical memoir, Jim is wistful. Never mind that he and the dashing, flirtatious Francis Crick have just found what Crick breathlessly called the secret of life. For all that, he’s lonely. DNA did not make him an immediate celebrity. Worse, the tweedy world of British science has proven bracing yet chaste. The only significant female character in the book is Rosalind Franklin, portrayed, untrue to life, as a priggish bluestocking. And though Crick is ever surrounded by beautiful women, Watson is repeatedly and comically snubbed. As the narrative closes, one suspects...

    (pp. 240-246)

    In 2008 cold spring harbor laboratory, epicenter of the American Progressive-era eugenics movement, published a book titledDavenport’s Dream. Included is a facsimile of Charles Davenport’s big book of 1911,Heredity in Relation to Eugenics. The reissue might have been merely a welcome if quirky gesture of archival salvage but for being prefaced with nearly two hundred pages of essays by scientists, historians, and legal experts. Those essays transform the volume into a remarkable attempt to restore Davenport’s reputation and reopen a discussion of eugenics for the genome age. “Charles Davenport had the best of intentions,” writes Matt Ridley in...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 247-268)
    (pp. 269-298)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 299-316)