The best books on eugenics

3 authors have picked their favorite books about eugenics and why they recommend each book.

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Superior

By Angela Saini,

Book cover of Superior: The Return of Race Science

The fact that race is a social construct and not a biological reality seems to be a lesson that we are destined to learn and re-learn many times. Saini uses a personal, journalistic style to tell the story of the pernicious myth of biological race in the sciences, drawing a continuous line from scientific racists like Francis Galton in the 1800s to present-day medicine and right-wing politics. The story is alternately funny and horrifying, with incredibly timely significance. It should be read by all data-adjacent individuals as a cautionary tale about avoiding the mistakes of the past and present. 


Who am I?

I studied statistics and data science for years before anyone ever suggested to me that these topics might have an ethical dimension, or that my numerical tools were products of human beings with motivations specific to their time and place. I’ve since written about the history and philosophy of mathematical probability and statistics, and I’ve come to understand just how important that historical background is and how critically important it is that the next generation of data scientists understand where these ideas come from and their potential to do harm. I hope anyone who reads these books avoids getting blinkered by the ideas that data = objectivity and that science is morally neutral.


I wrote...

Bernoulli's Fallacy: Statistical Illogic and the Crisis of Modern Science

By Aubrey Clayton,

Book cover of Bernoulli's Fallacy: Statistical Illogic and the Crisis of Modern Science

What is my book about?

There is a logical flaw in the statistical methods used across experimental science. This fault is not a minor academic quibble: it underlies a reproducibility crisis now threatening entire disciplines. In an increasingly statistics-reliant society, this same deeply rooted error shapes decisions in medicine, law, and public policy with profound consequences. The foundation of the problem is a misunderstanding of probability and its role in making inferences from observations.

Aubrey Clayton traces the history of how statistics went astray, beginning with the groundbreaking work of the seventeenth-century mathematician Jacob Bernoulli and winding through gambling, astronomy, and genetics. Clayton recounts the feuds among rival schools of statistics, exploring the surprisingly human problems that gave rise to the discipline and the all-too-human shortcomings that derailed it. 

Facing Eugenics

By Erika Dyck,

Book cover of Facing Eugenics: Reproduction, Sterilization, and the Politics of Choice

This is the most important book to read if you want to understand (a) eugenics generally and (b) how it played out in Alberta, the part of Canada where these ideas got the most traction. Dyck is a great historian, but even better, she does not forget that history is about real people. Her history is detailed and thorough, but it is not dry. She uses all kinds of interesting sources including courtroom evidence and personal records to bring the issues to life. She also moves the story forward by writing about abortion in the 1970s and 1980s and shows us in a very thought-provoking way the connections between eugenic “fitness” and our notions of “disability” today.


Who am I?

I'm a lapsed lawyer who decided as an empty-nest project to take a few history of medicine courses just for fun. One thing led to another and I found myself with a PhD and a book about eugenics and law to my name. I love the history of medicine. It connects us right back to the cavemen who worried about the same things we worry about today – illness, injury, our bodies, reproduction, death, dying. The history of eugenics is really a part of that history and it is filled with laws – coerced reproductive sterilization, marriage restrictions based on so-called “fitness,” etc. So it's a perfect union of my background and my newfound love. 


I wrote...

In the Public Good: Eugenics and Law in Ontario

By C. Elizabeth Koester,

Book cover of In the Public Good: Eugenics and Law in Ontario

What is my book about?

In the early twentieth century, the eugenics movement won many supporters with its promise that social ills such as venereal disease, alcoholism, and so-called feeble-mindedness, along with many other conditions, could be eliminated by selective human breeding and other measures. The provinces of Alberta and British Columbia passed legislation requiring that certain “unfit” individuals undergo reproductive sterilization. Ontario, being home to many leading proponents of eugenics, came close to doing the same.

In the Public Good examines three legal processes that were used to advance eugenic ideas in Ontario between 1910 and 1938: legislative bills, provincial royal commissions, and the criminal trial of a young woman accused of distributing birth control information.

Triplanetary

By E.E. Smith,

Book cover of Triplanetary

E.E. “Doc” Smith took science-fiction out of the solar system and into the galaxy. Prior to Triplanetary, work by authors such as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne had been restricted to our immediate spatial neighborhood. With Triplanetary, the first of the Lensman series, and subsequent books, writers of SF could let their imaginations run wild.


Who am I?

I started collecting science fiction as a teenager. As a collector, as opposed to just a reader, you come in contact with stories that considerably predate what you find for sale in stores. This led me to books from the 1930s and much earlier. John Taine was one of only two SF writers I encountered from the 1920s and 30s whom I still found enjoyable (and exciting) to read (the other was E.E. “doc” Smith).


I wrote...

Triplanetary: Science Fiction, Adventure, Space Opera

By E. E. 'Doc' Smith,

Book cover of Triplanetary: Science Fiction, Adventure, Space Opera

What is my book about?

The argument rages: did Dune influence Star Wars and if so, how much? Or was the primary influence on Star Wars the Flash Gordon movie serial? Or 2001: A Space Odyssey? The question is moot, since the granddaddy of them all was the Lensman series of novels.

The first of these, Triplanetary, appeared in the Jan-April 1934 issues of Amazing Stories. It’s all there: multiple intelligent alien species, an evil empire bent on galactic domination, people with heightened mental abilities, gigantic battles in space; all set against a vast galactic background. The science is primitive and so are some of the characters, but the action and scope carries you along. When much of science fiction was struggling to tell stories inside the solar system, Smith was ranging across the entire galaxy. Adjusted and fixed up, all six of the main Lensman novels are still readily available—and for a reason.

Growing a Race

By Cecily Devereux,

Book cover of Growing a Race: Nellie L. McClung and the Fiction of Eugenic Feminism

Nellie McClung, one of the “famous five,” is a well-known name in Canadian history for her role in fighting for the vote for women. But it turns out she was also a eugenicist. This book does a great job of knitting those two elements together and explaining not just why so many early feminists also believed in eugenic principles but how those principles were part of the same thinking. One of the challenges in understanding eugenics is answering the question of how it was that ideas, which we find repugnant today, had such power a hundred years ago. Devereux’s Introduction is one of the best things I have read to help grapple with that question.


Who am I?

I'm a lapsed lawyer who decided as an empty-nest project to take a few history of medicine courses just for fun. One thing led to another and I found myself with a PhD and a book about eugenics and law to my name. I love the history of medicine. It connects us right back to the cavemen who worried about the same things we worry about today – illness, injury, our bodies, reproduction, death, dying. The history of eugenics is really a part of that history and it is filled with laws – coerced reproductive sterilization, marriage restrictions based on so-called “fitness,” etc. So it's a perfect union of my background and my newfound love. 


I wrote...

In the Public Good: Eugenics and Law in Ontario

By C. Elizabeth Koester,

Book cover of In the Public Good: Eugenics and Law in Ontario

What is my book about?

In the early twentieth century, the eugenics movement won many supporters with its promise that social ills such as venereal disease, alcoholism, and so-called feeble-mindedness, along with many other conditions, could be eliminated by selective human breeding and other measures. The provinces of Alberta and British Columbia passed legislation requiring that certain “unfit” individuals undergo reproductive sterilization. Ontario, being home to many leading proponents of eugenics, came close to doing the same.

In the Public Good examines three legal processes that were used to advance eugenic ideas in Ontario between 1910 and 1938: legislative bills, provincial royal commissions, and the criminal trial of a young woman accused of distributing birth control information.

The Black Stork

By Martin S. Pernick,

Book cover of The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of Defective Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures Since 1915

This is a book about how eugenic ideas were popularized in early movies. It focuses on one particular movie called The Black Stork which tells the true – and shocking – story of Harry Haiselden, a Chicago physician who was accused of allowing the deaths of so-called “defective” babies in the late 1910s. The book also includes fascinating background about the movie industry at the time, as well as about Pernick’s hunt for a copy of this old film. While it is not about Canada, it nevertheless really helps us understand the way eugenic ideas came before the public and their important relationship to pop culture. It is also a very engaging read which introduced me to the fun of learning about old movies.


Who am I?

I'm a lapsed lawyer who decided as an empty-nest project to take a few history of medicine courses just for fun. One thing led to another and I found myself with a PhD and a book about eugenics and law to my name. I love the history of medicine. It connects us right back to the cavemen who worried about the same things we worry about today – illness, injury, our bodies, reproduction, death, dying. The history of eugenics is really a part of that history and it is filled with laws – coerced reproductive sterilization, marriage restrictions based on so-called “fitness,” etc. So it's a perfect union of my background and my newfound love. 


I wrote...

In the Public Good: Eugenics and Law in Ontario

By C. Elizabeth Koester,

Book cover of In the Public Good: Eugenics and Law in Ontario

What is my book about?

In the early twentieth century, the eugenics movement won many supporters with its promise that social ills such as venereal disease, alcoholism, and so-called feeble-mindedness, along with many other conditions, could be eliminated by selective human breeding and other measures. The provinces of Alberta and British Columbia passed legislation requiring that certain “unfit” individuals undergo reproductive sterilization. Ontario, being home to many leading proponents of eugenics, came close to doing the same.

In the Public Good examines three legal processes that were used to advance eugenic ideas in Ontario between 1910 and 1938: legislative bills, provincial royal commissions, and the criminal trial of a young woman accused of distributing birth control information.

The Genetic Lottery

By Kathryn Paige Harden,

Book cover of The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality

This begins as an exceptional introduction to genetics and the very latest technological and statistical methods. What sets this book apart, however, is the understanding of what genetics and inheritance mean, which took my breath away. 

For more than a century, the crusty old nature-nurture false dichotomy has dominated human understanding of inheritance and - especially - the genetics of behavior. Despite many valiant attempts, genetics has seldom managed to escape the legacy of eugenics and the towering figures of Galton, Pearson and Fisher. Harden provides a refreshing, coherent, powerful case that liberates genetic knowledge from eugenics, and places a modern understanding of genetics and what she calls ‘genetic luck’ at the centre of any program to improve society and achieve equality.

Both geneticists and those who think that only environmental (nurture-based) or technological solutions can improve societies have a lot to learn from this book. Hopefully, it will finally…


Who am I?

I’m a scientist who studies the evolutionary tussle between cooperation and conflict that makes sex so infernally complicated. I started out by studying small animals, but the last decade or so have seen an increasing focus on humans. At the same time I’ve been intent on sharing what I learn with curious audiences on television, radio, and in print. I lead a program at my university that introduced me to some amazing technology researchers, from engineers in AI and robotics to lawyers who work on privacy. That’s when I realized the value of evolutionary knowledge in understating the fast-paced technological revolution we are currently living through.


I wrote...

Artificial Intimacy: Virtual Friends, Digital Lovers, and Algorithmic Matchmakers

By Rob Brooks,

Book cover of Artificial Intimacy: Virtual Friends, Digital Lovers, and Algorithmic Matchmakers

What is my book about?

In Artificial Intimacy, evolutionary biologist Rob Brooks takes us from the origins of human behaviour to the latest in artificially intelligent technologies, providing a fresh and original view of the near future of human relationships.

Sex robots, social media, dating apps, and AI ‘friends’ are finding their way into our lives. Apps can sense when users are falling in love, when they are fighting, and when they are likely to break up. These machines, the ‘artificial intimacies,’ already learn how to exploit human social needs. And they are getting better and faster at what they do. This book isn’t just about the technology. It’s ultimately concerned with how humanity’s future will unfold as our ancient, evolved minds and old-fashioned cultures collide with twenty-first-century technology?

Keeping America Sane

By Ian Robert Dowbiggin,

Book cover of Keeping America Sane: Psychiatry and Eugenics in the United States and Canada, 1880 1940

It is important when trying to understand eugenics in Canada to compare how it played out in this country to its trajectory elsewhere. This helps us understand what the commonalities were in the ideas and also to see how and where specific environments resulted in local incarnations of these ideas. Dowbiggin does this for us with great insight by writing comparatively about psychiatry and eugenics in Canada and the U.S. I knew that psychiatrists had enthusiastically taken up the eugenic cause but this book explains really well how and why this happened on both sides of the border, showing us that the profession’s general support for eugenics was not necessarily (or only) because of the ideas themselves, but for professional and status-building reasons.


Who am I?

I'm a lapsed lawyer who decided as an empty-nest project to take a few history of medicine courses just for fun. One thing led to another and I found myself with a PhD and a book about eugenics and law to my name. I love the history of medicine. It connects us right back to the cavemen who worried about the same things we worry about today – illness, injury, our bodies, reproduction, death, dying. The history of eugenics is really a part of that history and it is filled with laws – coerced reproductive sterilization, marriage restrictions based on so-called “fitness,” etc. So it's a perfect union of my background and my newfound love. 


I wrote...

In the Public Good: Eugenics and Law in Ontario

By C. Elizabeth Koester,

Book cover of In the Public Good: Eugenics and Law in Ontario

What is my book about?

In the early twentieth century, the eugenics movement won many supporters with its promise that social ills such as venereal disease, alcoholism, and so-called feeble-mindedness, along with many other conditions, could be eliminated by selective human breeding and other measures. The provinces of Alberta and British Columbia passed legislation requiring that certain “unfit” individuals undergo reproductive sterilization. Ontario, being home to many leading proponents of eugenics, came close to doing the same.

In the Public Good examines three legal processes that were used to advance eugenic ideas in Ontario between 1910 and 1938: legislative bills, provincial royal commissions, and the criminal trial of a young woman accused of distributing birth control information.

The Routledge Handbook of Dehumanization

By Maria Kronfeldner (editor),

Book cover of The Routledge Handbook of Dehumanization

There is surprisingly little research literature dealing specifically with dehumanization outside of academic papers by social psychologists. But this state of affairs is changing, as more and more scholars recognize that understanding this harrowing phenomenon is crucial for the future of humanity. This unique volume, with contributions from thirty scholars from a whole range of academic disciplines, provides an excellent snapshot of the vibrant state of dehumanization studies today.


Who am I?

I have an international reputation as an expert on dehumanization. I have researched this subject for the past fifteen years, and have written three books and many articles, and given many talks on it, including a presentation at the 2012 G20 economic summit. I believe that dehumanization is an extremely important phenomenon to understand, because it fuels the worst atrocities that human beings inflict upon one another. If phrases like "never again" have any real meaning, we need to seriously investigate the processes, including dehumanization, that make such horrific actions possible.


I wrote...

Making Monsters: The Uncanny Power of Dehumanization

By David Livingstone Smith,

Book cover of Making Monsters: The Uncanny Power of Dehumanization

What is my book about?

Making Monsters offers a poignant meditation on the philosophical and psychological roots of dehumanization. Drawing on harrowing accounts of lynchings, the book establishes what dehumanization is and what it isn’t. When we dehumanize our enemy, we hold two incongruous beliefs at the same time: we believe our enemy is at once subhuman and fully human. To call someone a monster, then, is not merely a resort to metaphor—dehumanization really does happen in our minds.

Turning to an abundance of historical examples, Making Monsters explores the relationship between dehumanization and racism, the psychology of hierarchy, what it means to regard others as human beings, and why dehumanizing others transforms them into something so terrifying that they must be destroyed.

Unnatural Nature of Science

By Lewis Wolpert,

Book cover of Unnatural Nature of Science

I spend a lot of my time trying to clarify the bilge poured out by the merchants of fake science: the flat-earthers, creationists, and climate deniers mainly, but also medical quacks and other fruitloops who throw out alternative science, stuff which is like normal science, with one small exception. I was already fighting these fights when Wolpert came to Sydney, and I chaired a lecture he gave. He showed us where the problem lay in combatting idiocy: the idiots depend on naïve and naked intuition.

Invariably, these unhinged pseudo-realities rely on a simple misreading of scientific lore, and Lewis explained that this is because a great deal of science is counter-intuitive. We can’t see evolution happening, the world looks flat, the sun appears to go around us, and common sense says that kinetic energy must be proportional to velocity, not it's square. Enter the simpleton who slept through a key…


Who am I?

A lot of the books I write are about science or history, and Mr Darwin just happened to be about both: it was a history of science, as science was in 1859. People say the world changed after Darwin published, The Origin of Species in 1859, but Origin was a symptom not a cause. My book is a history of science that looks at how the world was changing (and shrinking) in the year 1859, as new specimens, new materials, new technologies, and new ideas came into play.


I wrote...

Mr Darwin's Incredible Shrinking World

By Peter Macinnis,

Book cover of Mr Darwin's Incredible Shrinking World

What is my book about?

In 1859 Charles Darwin's revolutionary The Origin of Species was first published—but the book was just another example of the ferment and change happening in that year. In that year scientists peered through microscopes and discovered the workings of tiny organisms; technology made huge leaps and bounds as machines took on tasks with a speed and consistency never before seen; the concepts of time and distance were themselves challenged as telegraph cables, train lines, and steamships crisscrossed the globe; and everything was illuminated as powerful telescopes looked to the heavens and gas lamps lit the streets. Mr Darwin's incredible shrinking world takes readers back to this amazing and innovative year.

The Straight State

By Margot Canaday,

Book cover of The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America

Men, did you know that too little body hair or too much talkativeness could keep you from being admitted to the United States in the early 1900s? The Straight State will have readers shaking their heads at the outrageous presumptions that immigration inspectors applied to keep “degenerates” out of the country. This was the first time that federal officials had both the interest and power to create policies against homosexuality, and they were crassly influenced by the eugenics movement and hostility to the poor. Canaday also shows how early welfare policies perpetuated gender stereotypes and discrimination against sexual “deviants,” favoring the married over the single. I learned so much! 


Who am I?

Based on my experiences as a single parent and worker in traditionally male fields (journalism and law, back when newsrooms and law firms resembled men's clubs), I believe that each person contains both “feminine” and “masculine” behaviors and feelings. Yet socially constructed gender norms discourage people from exhibiting this full range of being. Ben Koehler’s troubling and tragic story presented a way to explore the origins of 20th-century American gender norms while trying to solve the mystery of Ben’s guilt or innocence. A bonus was the opportunity to write about Plum Island, an environmental treasure with a fascinating history that many people, including myself, are seeking to preserve and open to the public.


I wrote...

Scandal on Plum Island: A Commander Becomes the Accused

By Marian E. Lindberg,

Book cover of Scandal on Plum Island: A Commander Becomes the Accused

What is my book about?

Sophia and Ben Koehler expected an adventure when they moved to remote Plum Island, NY, but not the adventure they got. Ben took charge of 700 men at the Army’s Fort Terry, and his sister came along to help her unmarried brother with social duties. All seemed to be going well until a junior officer began portraying Ben as a “homosexualist,” a new worry of the federal government in 1913. Scandal on Plum Island is both a true account of a sensational case that reads like a legal thriller and a thought-provoking examination of gender politics in America.

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