"This is a history of promises."So begins Nathaniel Comfort
's gripping and beautifully written new book on the relationships between and entanglements of medical genetic and eugenics in the history of the twentieth century.
Based on a rich documentary and oral history archive, The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine
(Yale University Press, 2012) reframes the histories of early and contemporary human genetics. Rather than treating eugenics as "a contaminant of good, honest biomedicine," the book shows that early human genetics had many of the same basic goals - human improvement and the relief of suffering - as genetic medicine today. At the same time, contemporary genetic medicine emerges as much less benign than it has often been depicted.
All of this is accomplished through a sensitive historical tracing of two major approaches to understanding human heredity through the twentieth century: a Galtonian approach characterized by a concern with quantification, public health, and populations; and a Garrodian approach characterized by an interest in conceptualizing the human as individual, and in synthesizing heredity with other forms of knowledge. As we follow these threads along with Comfort, he introduces us to a bookful of colorful, vibrant characters from the history of medical genetics: the idealistic inventor of a "Gumption Reviver," the sanitarium-operator who was fond of prescribing yogurt-enemas, and the medical geneticist with a talent for boogie-woogie piano, among others. These figures are embedded in an exceptionally carefully-wrought narrative of the spaces, practices, and events by which medicine became genetic, genetics became molecular, and molecules made the engineering of humanity possible in a new way.
In the course of our discussion, we talked about the importance, for Comfort, of paying careful attention to elements of the writer's craft when composing a historical work. The John McPhee essay on narrative structure that was mentioned in that part of the interview can be found here
(A subscription to the New Yorker
is required to read the full piece.)
The Oral History of Human Genetics Project can be found here