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by David Galton
Little, Brown, 2001
Review by Kenneth Einar Himma, Ph.D. on Jul 2nd 2002

In Our Own Image

The word “eugenics” has come to be almost exclusively associated with Hitler’s pogrom against the Jews.  Indeed, to characterize a theory as pertaining to eugenics is to condemn that theory in the strongest ethical terms as discriminatory and elitist.  In consequence, the word has largely disappeared from the vocabulary of legitimate scientific inquiry – despite the fact that much of what people hope to achieve through the Human Genome Project is fairly characterized as involving the sort of genetic manipulation that falls within the domain of “eugenics” (absent the normative connotations).

David Galton’s In Our Own Image is a useful attempt to come to grips with the difficult history, science, and ethics of eugenics.  Much of the book is concerned to acquaint the layreader with the science of eugenics.  Chapter 2 explains, in a very accessible way, the biological structure and operations of DNA and the causes of the genetic mutations that can either result in debilitating disease or ultimately make the species as a whole better able to thrive in its environment.  Chapters 3 and 4 discuss various ways in which a child’s genetic make-up can now be manipulated.  These methods range from pre-implantation genetic examinations of “test-tube embryos” for harmful genetic mutations to rapidly advancing technologies that indicate the possibility of cloning human beings for reproductive and therapeutic purposes. 

Somewhat oddly placed, the last three chapters in the book also discuss some of the underlying scientific issues.  Chapter 11 considers the extent to which certain diseases may have genetic causes.  Chapter 12 discusses the extent to which various diseases can be inherited; Galton considers, among other health problems, heart attacks, raised blood fats, diabetes, dementia, and various forms of cancer.  Chapter 13 offers a fascinating analysis of the role of genes in the development of such personality characteristics as sexual preference, intelligence, and anxiety and depressive mood disorders.

Despite his apparent enthusiasm for eugenic technologies, Galton is well aware of the very grave dangers that such technology poses.  Chapter 5 discusses the terrible influence of Francis Galton’s (no relation to the author) controversial proposals for improving the stock of inherited traits in human beings.  The discussion of the various ways in which these ideas have been applied is chillingly effective.  For example, sterilization programs, though largely associated with the Nazis, have also been implemented by such liberal nations as Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden with predictably tragic results.  After one young girl was sterilized, it was determined that her poor academic performance was explained by her inability to see the chalkboard – and not by subnormal intellectual ability.  She was, in effect, sterilized because she lacked proper glasses.

The next three chapters are concerned with the social effects of what Galton calls the “new eugenics.”  In Chapter 6, Galton points out that our increasing ability to identify genetic dispositions to disease creates unprecedented ethical dilemmas: “if one of an identical twin pair finds that he is a carrier for a serious disease gene, does the other twin have a right to know about this or is the information strictly confidential to the first twin” (109)?  In Chapter 7, Galton worries about the potential effects of sex-selection technologies.  As Galton points out, Chinese policies favoring male children encourage parents to abort female children; the predictable result is a population in which many men are condemned to perpetual bachelorhood because of a shortage of females.

Chapter 8 is especially interesting.  In this chapter, Galton describes some of the difficult regulative problems that are created by eugenic technologies.  Genetic screening tests, for example, make it possible to deny employment and insurance coverage on the basis of a person’s genetic profile.  Though such practices are arguably unfair to the individuals, employers and insurance companies, as Galton points out, can offer plausible reasons in support of allowing such practices.  Such difficulties are compounded by the fact that there will always be plenty of opportunities for scientists to skirt the law: “[w]hen human cloning was banned in the USA, laboratories there started to use empty (enucleated) egg cells from a cow for transfer of a human nucleus to make cow-human hybrids” (134). 

The book is somewhat less successful in directly engaging the ethical issues.  Part of the problem is that, though he seems to reject ethical relativism, Galton’s views often evince a deep-seated skepticism about the character of morality.  In discussing whether Angela Carter made the right decision in refusing a Caesarian section that would have saved both her life and her child’s life, Galton writes: “There appears to be no ‘right’ judgment in this particular case.  It just depends on which point of view you take – the unborn child’s right to life or the mother’s right to make decisions about her own pregnancy” (49).  If, however, Carter’s child has a right to life, then it seems pretty clearly to outweigh the mother’s right to make decisions about her own pregnancy; after all, it is uncontroversial that the right to life is the highest right in the moral hierarchy.  That is why the debate on abortion has largely focused on the moral status of the fetus.

Even when he does take on the moral issue, however, the results are somewhat unsatisfying.  For example, he argues for the permissibility of genetic manipulation in human reproduction as follows: “Everywhere one looks in the biological world there is selection.  Evolution is largely driven by natural selection, so why should we not introduce a form of social selection as well” (48)?  This, of course, is no less fallacious than arguing that rape is morally permissible on the strength of an empirical argument that forced copulation commonly takes place in other species.  What occurs among beings that are not moral agents tells us nothing about what moral agents should and shouldn’t do.

However, this is a comparatively minor complaint – and perhaps a little unfair given that Galton’s specialty is genetics and not ethics.  All things considered, In Our Own Image is an informative, well-written examination of the issues and problems that arise in connection with emerging eugenic technologies.


Note that In Our Own Image is not currently available in the US, but is available in Canada and the UK.



© 2002 Ken Himma


Ken Himma, Ph.D., University of Washington, Seattle.