I am going to say it clearly and succinctly: this brand-new book is one of the most important scholarly works of the year. Seeking to understand why some people were poor, homeless, criminally inclined, mentally ill, and in other ways socially inadequate, 19th-century theorists turned to the science of eugenics, the concept of genetically unfit people. This stunning book is an exploration of the profound contemporary resonance of this concept and how it directly contributed to such persecutions as the Holocaust.
Certain individuals were judged "degenerate" as early as biblical times, and the condition was viewed as a punishment for religious transgression. Noted author Elof Axel Carlson traces the idea that degeneracy was biologically determined and shows how the social application of the label changed throughout the last century as the new academic discipline of sociology emerged. Carlson describes the failures and abuses of the social movements in the United States and Europe with their sorry history of racism, anti-Semitism, and violations of basic human rights.
Carlson writes beautifully, but I want to warn readers that this is not a book to be looked at lightly. It probably couldn't have the power it does if it did not include the wealth of illustrations and extensive notes, but it is indeed a serious study of this disturbing science. As Carlson writes in his Introduction, "Readers of this book may feel uncomfortable, as I certainly did, when they realize that there is a lot of mythology associated with the origins of the eugenics movement. It is embarrassing to see many strange bedfellows in the development of the idea of unfit people, and it should give us pause if we believe that the Holocaust could have been predicted from its earliest roots." I shivered when I read that statement. --Charles Decker [via]