In Our Own Image: Eugenics and the Genetic Modification of People

In Our Own Image: Eugenics And The Genetic Modification Of People - David J. Galton A wide ranging discussion about eugenics (translated as good-birth).
The book is broken into two sections. Section one deals with the moral, legal, technical and historical aspects of eugenics, while section two discussions the possible practical applications of gene-based eugenics.

In section one Galton starts with the history of eugenics, from Greek philosophy and Spartan practice, the views of Darwin and his cousin Galton (not related to the author) through the punitive practices in the USA, Sweden, Nazi Germany during the first half of the 20th century (and in fact up to 1976 in Sweden). Included here probably the best explanation (albeit simplified) of the mechanism for production of amino-acids I think I have seen - it actually makes sense!

Galton then goes on to discuss basic legal precedents, technical terminology and processes, moral issues and other practices involved in procreation that could or have been judged as dubious by authorities and individuals in the past. While is it clear that Galton himself is broadly in favour of development of genetic processes to improve the health and/or genetic make-up of subsequent generations he is ambivalent about the ability of society through governments, belief systems and big business to protect individual rights. It is in his view imperative that the societal and legislative framework must be put in place to ensure protection of the individual while reflecting the views of society (as opposed to having many differing views as is current). At this point Galton seems to be at a bit of a loss, discussing possible mechanisms for coming up with an acceptable process without actually putting forward ideas - instead resulting to what amounts to "let's be sensible about it". This perhaps reflects the complexity of the competing elements and intransigent opposing views he has so well explained previously.

Section two covers various known conditions that have genetic components to them (and discusses why - very interesting in itself) which may be targets for genetic manipulation in the future - things like diabetes, heart disease, some cancers - all things we can broadly agree as good things to treat, then moves onto behavioural abnormalities, sexual preference and mental impairments - the point being that it may or may not be acceptable to develop techniques for these depending on your views, and may or may not be detrimental to society as a whole, but go hand in hand with the technologies used to (genetically) correct the physical ailments that most of us would accept as reasonable.

In his concluding chapter Galton briefly summarises his belief that eugenics should be pursued, if nothing else to correct the imbalances in the gene-pool generated by our ever increasing survival (and reproductive) rate of those that 100 years would have died from gene-borne diseases. At the same time he recognises that the route to progress will be a difficult one fraught with contradictory opinion, values and interests.

Galton is at times quite humorous - actually this comes as a relief as the subject matter is a serious one in which it would be possible to be entirely grave and dry and maybe is even expected to be so.

The book is about 10 years old (well this version is), so could do with an update - the field of genetics having moved on considerably in the intervening period (although though not as fast as the predictions for 2010 which Galton makes!)

Overall I would say this book is both accessible and informative, well worth having a read of if an interest in genetics, the future of the human gene pool, appeals to you. It would be worth reading even if you are vehemently anti-genetics - the problem is not a simple one from either side and is not one that can realistically be ignored in the long run.