Genetics in the Madhouse
The Unknown History of Human Heredity
By Theodore M. Porter
Princeton University Press.  447 pp.  $35.

Reviewed by Glenn C. Altschuler

The pseudoscience of eugenics (the study of improving the human population through selective breeding) has a long and sordid history.  In the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, eugenics provided the rationale for immigration restrictions designed to protect the "unadulterated Anglo-Saxon stock" and for laws in more than a dozen states mandating the sterilization of people deemed to have hereditary defects.

In his opinion upholding the constitutionality of the sterilization of "undesirables," Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."  And, of course, Nazi Germany cited eugenic studies of inherited mental and moral traits to justify incarceration, sterilization, and mass murder.

The eugenics movement is usually regarded as an (illegitimate) offshoot of Charles Darwin's evolutionary biology.  In Genetics in the Madhouse, Theodore Porter, a professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, maintains that it is "better understood" as a reaction to the failure of insane asylums in Western Europe and North America to reduce the number of defectives assigned to their care.

Determined to identify "the principles by which insanity was reproduced," alienists (the term used in the 19th century for experts on insanity) supplied incentives "for a science of human heredity" — and amassed mountains of data relevant to the subject.

Genetics in the Madhouse provides a fascinating examination of investigations of human heredity, conducted long before DNA could be studied in laboratories.  Debates between advocates of what is now called biometric data-mining and proponents of applying the mathematical ratios Gregor Mendel derived from his experiments on heredity of plant hybrids, Porter demonstrates, shed light on the uses and abuses of statistics, eugenics, and "the scientific method."

His history, Porter emphasizes, "is a very human history," involving human-made categories giving rise to decisions "with welcome or distressing consequences for people at moments of particular vulnerability."

One such category is that of madness itself, a catchall legal and psychological concept. Proponents of the concept of mental illness as heritable, depended, as scientists often do, on "strategic simplification," deeming "madness" enough of a category.  In what is now regarded as a betrayal of objectivity, single-gene Mendelians often instructed fieldworkers not to record parents or siblings of "mad" patients who did not display dominant traits, and to keep searching for recessive ones in collateral kin if they could not be detected in the parents. Nor did researchers use "control groups." Their approach, Porter reminds us, led to the dark pseudoscience of eugenics practiced in the first half of the 20th century.

Then and now, Porter reminds us, "too many simplicities are uttered about science." And researchers' subjective assumptions are still embedded, at times, in statistical medicine. In truth, science cannot be isolated from the social and cultural context in which scientists do their research.  Whether the subject is eugenics or the brave new world of genomic decoding, Porter concludes, we must try to understand "places and conditions of research, the tools and techniques of gathering, processing, and diffusing information."  If we are diligent and lucky, the investigation may reveal unexpected — and vitally important — information and insights.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.