A debut book examines the connection between political progressivism and the practice of eugenics.
As Reilly explains, eugenics began not as an aggressive program of social engineering, but as a response to monumental advancements in technology and science. In addition, the original 20th-century advocates of eugenics, albeit infected with a bout of excessive exuberance, were largely motivated by the best of intentions. But later, eugenics became beholden to radical ideologies, which were animated by darker motivations. For example, Nazi racialism and global attempts at population control are the genealogical descendants of eugenics untethered from any sense of political moderation or a cautious respect for the sanctity of human life. Many readers will likely be surprised to learn how ubiquitous such programs were, even under the supervision of widely respectable institutions and leaders: “Even under the Reagan administration in 1984, an auditor found that USAID was supporting abortions, the imposition of penalties for high birth rates, and payment of financial rewards for sterilization in five countries.” The emphasis of the book is not on the science of eugenics per se, but the marriage between its advocacy and the ideals of modern progressivism. Infatuated with the goal of societal perfection, and science as the means to achieving it, progressivism gradually became insensitive both to individual rights and the limits of human nature. Reilly’s prose is thankfully more journalistic than academic, and a full appreciation of the book does not require a prior understanding of eugenics and its fraught history. For the most part, he avoids any axe-grinding political commitments, although his analysis of more recent versions of progressivism is a bit heavy-handed, especially his views of their assault on traditional values. And a more historically searching view of the relationship between modern, liberal progressivism and an ideology as illiberal as Nazism would have deepened the study. Finally, Reilly makes a plea at the conclusion of the volume for the religiously inclined, especially Christians, to unite against social engineering, but never fully fleshes out what that response should entail. His study remains a provocative and accessible one, though, that forces the reader to reconsider the parameters of contentious debates like abortion and stem cell research.
A thoughtful and thorough examination of the intersection of public policy and ideology.