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The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics.

The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics, edited by Alison Bashford and Philippa Levine. Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press, 2012. xx, 586 pp. $50.00 US (paper).

Eugenics is the historiographical crucible par excellence, from which very conceivable analytical and methodological approach might be richly rewarded. Eugenics affords a window to nationalism, transnationalism, and internationalism. Its history juggles race, ethnicity, gender, sex, and class. It is founded on the history of science, coupled with intellectual history, and gives way to legal history, political history, medical history, and social history. It is at once a story of optimism and idealism, but also of corrupted dreaming and scheming, of civilization and modernity. Often it seems as if the history of eugenics must necessarily be all these things at once, lest a single focus imbalance the complexity of a messy story. While the history of eugenics offers such a multifaceted bounty, it also surely risks being labeled too difficult, too unwieldy, too politically charged to ever be carried out with satisfaction. It is against the latter doubt that this gloriously weighty volume rallies.

Rarely does an edited collection, let alone a self-styled handbook, do such a comprehensively worthy job of introducing, explaining, and intricately setting forth a subject of such breadth and importance with such coherence, readability, and encyclopaedic expertise. For the student coming to the history of eugenics for the first time, this is a one-stop-shop for the state of the art, both by theme and by geographical region, as well as for a thorough coverage of past historical scholarship. It is impeccably planned, being, structured in two sections, the former relating to different thematic concerns, the latter dealing with specific national and regional case studies. Within each section the chapters clearly communicate with one another. There is, unavoidably, repetition, but as familiar reference points are re-introduced again and again, each contributor steers them to distinct analytical insights. The effect is a scholarly mosaic that puts a solidly laid narrative into a patchwork of historiographical concerns. This could have gone horribly wrong, but the editors seem to have carefully moderated the interconnections among the various contributions, making for a remarkably smooth flow over what must have seemed a daunting number of chapters (there are thirty-one).

The most carefully managed element of the book is the place of Nazi Germany in the eugenics story. While historians have recognized that what happened in the Third Reich had long roots stretching back to Francis Galton's initial forays into the control of heredity, and had clear parallels with eugenic movements in other countries both near and far, the temptation to make Germany into a black hole of historical attention is still high. The various authors do a good job, in the first place, of avoiding a teleological account of the emergence of eugenics and "race hygiene" movements at the end of the nineteenth century; in the second place, of demonstrating the common acceptance of theories of racial hierarchies among eugenicists in different countries before the Second World War; and in third the third place, of continuing the importance of "reform" eugenics, and the high-prevalence of sterilization policies in various countries in the decades immediately after that war. This sensitivity by no means diminishes the sense of the scale of Nazi eugenic practices, but it does effectively contextualize it.

Exemplary in this regard is the chapter by A. Dirk Moses and Dan Stone, on the relationship between eugenics and genocide. It is a pivotal chapter in the book, which carefully disentangles eugenic programmes from genocidal practices, before again enfolding the languages of each back into the other. This complex relationship serves as a cautionary note against the easy pigeon-holing of systematic Nazi sterilizations as part and parcel of its mass-killing policies. It also makes possible a rich analysis of eugenics and genocide outside of Germany--early Israel is the conspicuous example here (also explored on a different tack in this volume by Raphael Falk)--demonstrating the extent and reach of prevailing political discourses of race and breeding, both before and after 1945.

Those discourses demonstrate the remarkable resilience of Lamarckian tenets of environmental evolution, decades after the rediscovery of Mendel's genetic theory and the development of genetics as a scientific specialism. A given preference for one or the other, as this volume repeatedly shows, had little to do with rigorous scientific research and plenty to do with the particular political stakes of nations, regions, and empires. In China, according to Yuehtsen Juliette Chung, Lamarckism was related to optimistic hopes of a progressive evolution, whereas in Soviet Russia, according to Nikolai Krementsov, Lamarckism was denounced as anti-Marxist, somewhat before genetics was also denounced as fascistic. Meanwhile in England, Karl Pearson persisted with his own brand of Lamarckism as the eugenics movement in that country embraced the genetic turn, while the French did not come to grips with Darwin in his natural-selection mode until well into the twentieth century. The volume serves as a significant reminder of the necessity of vigilance and scepticism concerning scientific claims to political neutrality and rigorously factual objectivity.

In her epilogue, Alison Bashford asks, "Where did eugenics go?" The answer, which this book substantially proves, is that while the label may be resisted, eugenics has a strong contemporary presence. Twenty-first-century reproductive technologies, and the controversies surrounding the potential to make genetic selections based on in utero or in vitro screenings, demonstrate not so much a new raft of eugenic thinking as a continuity with prevailing strands of eugenic thinking. Bashford asks us to imagine a "continuous modern discourse, a history of eugenics over the long twentieth century" (p. 552). It seems reasonable also to imagine that such a history will extend well into the twenty-first century, and may even come to define it.

Rob Boddice

Freie Universitdt Berlin
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Author:Boddice, Rob
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2013
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