Reading progress update: I've read 118 out of 593 pages.

The Gene: An Intimate History - Siddhartha Mukherjee

On Hermann Muller, who discovered that genomes can be altered by exposure to energy, i.e. radiation:

"Like many scientists and social scientists of his era, Muller had been captivated by eugenics since the 1920s. As an undergraduate, he had formed a Biological Society at Columbia University to explore and support “positive eugenics.”

But by the late twenties, as he had witnessed the menacing rise of eugenics in the United States, he had begun to reconsider his enthusiasm. The Eugenics Record Office, with its preoccupation with racial purification, and its drive to eliminate immigrants, “deviants,” and “defectives,” struck him as frankly sinister. Its prophets—Davenport, Priddy, and Bell—were weird, pseudoscientific creeps. As Muller thought about the future of eugenics and the possibility of altering human genomes, he wondered whether Galton and his collaborators had made a fundamental conceptual error. Like Galton and Pearson, Muller sympathized with the desire to use genetics to alleviate suffering. But unlike Galton, Muller began to realize that positive eugenics was achievable only in a society that had already achieved radical equality.

Eugenics could not be the prelude to equality. Instead, equality had to be the precondition for eugenics. Without equality, eugenics would inevitably falter on the false premise that social ills, such as vagrancy, pauperism, deviance, alcoholism, and feeblemindedness were genetic ills—while, in fact, they merely reflected inequality. Women such as Carrie Buck weren’t genetic imbeciles; they were poor, illiterate, unhealthy, and powerless—victims of their social lot, not of the genetic lottery.

The Galtonians had been convinced that eugenics would ultimately generate radical equality—transforming the weak into the powerful. Muller turned that reasoning on its head. Without equality, he argued, eugenics would degenerate into yet another mechanism by which the powerful could control the weak.




Muller was also hounded for his political proclivities. In New York, he had joined several socialist groups, edited newspapers, recruited students, and befriended the novelist and social activist Theodore Dreiser. In Texas, the rising star of genetics began to edit an underground socialist newspaper, The Spark (after Lenin’s Iskra), which promoted civil rights for African-Americans, voting rights for women, the education of immigrants, and collective insurance for workers—hardly radical agendas by contemporary standards, but enough to inflame his colleagues and irk the administration. The FBI launched an investigation into his activities. Newspapers referred to him as a subversive, a commie, a Red nut, a Soviet sympathizer, a freak.




Muller was sick of America—its dirty science, ugly politics, and selfish society. He wanted to escape to a place where he could meld science and socialism more easily. Radical genetic interventions could only be imagined in radically egalitarian societies."


So, of course, in 1932 he moved to Berlin.



The man just could not catch a break, could he?