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The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicineby Nathaniel C. Comfort
Synopses & Reviews
Almost daily we hear news stories, advertisements, and scientific reports promising that genetic medicine will make us live longer, enable doctors to identify and treat diseases before they harm us, and individualize our medical care. But surprisingly, a century ago eugenicists were making the same promises. This book traces the history of the promises of medical genetics and of the medical dimension of eugenics. While mindful of the benefits of genetic medicine, the book also considers social and ethical issues that cast troublesome shadows over these fields.
Keeping his focus on America, Nathaniel Comfort introduces the community of scientists, physicians, and public health workers who have contributed to the development of medical genetics from the nineteenth century to today. He argues that medical genetics is closely related to eugenics, and indeed that the two cannot be fully understood separately. He also carefully examines how the desire to relieve suffering and to improve ourselves genetically, though noble, may be subverted. History makes clear that as patients and consumers we must take ownership of genetic medicine, using it intelligently, knowledgeably, and skeptically.
"In In this intriguing history of medical genetics, Comfort, associate professor of the history of medicine at Johns Hopkins, makes a bold and rather uncomfortable assertion: that together with the compassionate drive to reduce individual suffering, the eugenic drive to improve the biological trajectory of the human race overall has always been central to the practice of genetic medicine, despite attempts to separate the discipline from its racist reputation after WWII. Comfort supports his assertion through carefully tracing the development of ideas about heritability and how they became manifest in academic, medical, and governmental contexts in America from the early 1900s to the present. Two strains of thought in particular come together: the Garrodian influence, focused on individual biochemical variation and the interaction between a particular patient's natural constitution and environment; and the Galtonian influence, tracing traits across large populations, with a focus on social implications and human engineering. As we move from treating manifest disease to predictive and preventative medicine based on 'latent disease' detected only in an individual's genes, Comfort provides some complex food for thought about the balance between creating good for individuals and for the human species, and about the ways we define the methods we use. Illus. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
A thoughtful new look at the entwined histories of genetic medicine and eugenics, with probing discussion of the moral risks of seeking human perfection
About the Author
Nathaniel Comfort is associate professor, Department of the History of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University, and a participant in The Oral History of Human Genetics project.
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