13 books directly related to eugenics 📚

All 13 eugenics books as recommended by authors and experts. Updated weekly.

Superior: The Return of Race Science

By Angela Saini,

Book cover of Superior: The Return of Race Science

Why this book?

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. 


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

By Erika Dyck,

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

Why this book?

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.


Triplanetary

By E.E. Smith,

Book cover of Triplanetary

Why this book?

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.


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

By Cecily Devereux,

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

Why this book?

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.


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

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

Why this book?

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.


The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality

By Kathryn Paige Harden,

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

Why this book?

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 break the wall between biological and social understandings of human behaviour, achievement, and potential.


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

By Ian Robert Dowbiggin,

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

Why this book?

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.


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

By Margot Canaday,

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

Why this book?

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! 


The Routledge Handbook of Dehumanization

By Maria Kronfeldner (editor),

Book cover of The Routledge Handbook of Dehumanization

Why this book?

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.


No One Cares about Crazy People: My Family and the Heartbreak of Mental Illness in America

By Ron Powers,

Book cover of No One Cares about Crazy People: My Family and the Heartbreak of Mental Illness in America

Why this book?

Ron and Honoree Powers’ story is far more searing than my family’s story, but their experience surely resonated with me. There’s a whole genre of books by parents who take us along with them on their journeys with mentally ill children (see Pete Earley’s Crazy, as well), weaving in the history of our treatment of the mentally ill. Powers is the best I’ve read, and he does such a sweeping survey of that history, I decided not to cover the same territory in my book—but to concentrate on Mike’s story. The Powers have two sons, both diagnosed with schizophrenia. Kevin doesn’t make it, succumbing to suicide. Dean manages to live a relatively stable life. The “grief and hope” of my subtitle are both here, fiercely told.


Unnatural Nature of Science

By Lewis Wolpert,

Book cover of Unnatural Nature of Science

Why this book?

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 science lesson, and a new brand of fake science oozes out into the world.


Horses in Society: A Story of Animal Breeding and Marketing Culture, 1800-1920

By Margaret E. Derry,

Book cover of Horses in Society: A Story of Animal Breeding and Marketing Culture, 1800-1920

Why this book?

This book traces the connections between horse breeding, biological science, international commerce, and foreign relations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Derry focuses on three large topics: the breeding of large draft horses, international military horse markets, and government breeding programs. The horse market was essentially a warhorse market. I love how this book shows that looking at something like horse breeding leads to a better understanding of things like political economy and foreign relations. Breeding beliefs and practices reveal a lot about society and culture, and the military material is fascinating. I also recommend the chapter on horse culture that looks at literature and painting (the author is herself an accomplished painter).


The Persons Case: The Origins and Legacy of the Fight for Legal Personhood

By Robert J. Sharpe, Patricia I. McMahon,

Book cover of The Persons Case: The Origins and Legacy of the Fight for Legal Personhood

Why this book?

This book should be made into a movie! Yes, it is written by two legal historians and yes, it is about a court case, but it reads like a thriller. Great characters, twists and turns in the plot, prime ministers, feisty ladies, the whole nine yards. It is the story of how a British court decided that women were “persons” and thus could be appointed to the Canadian Senate. At the time, only certain “persons” were eligible and only men were considered “persons.” It is not about eugenics, but the events take place around 1929 and the authors do a great job of explaining what Canadian society was like then. This helps us appreciate why the ground was so fertile for eugenic ideas and why women like the “persons” involved in the story were also eugenicists.