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Davenport's Dream: 21st Century Reflections on Heredity & Eugenics

Subject Area(s):  Biology in SocietyGeneticsGeneral Interest TitlesHistory of Science

Edited by Jan A. Witkowski, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory; John R. Inglis, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

© 2008 • 490 pp., illus.
Paperback • $29 23.20
ISBN  978-162182232-5
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  •     Reviews    


In 1911, the influential geneticist Charles Davenport published Heredity in Relation to Eugenics, advancing his ideas of how genetics would improve society in the 20th century. It became a college textbook and a foundation for the widespread eugenics movement in the United States. Nearly 100 years later, many of the issues raised by Davenport are again being debated, in different guises. In this new volume, prominent academics discuss themes from Davenport's book—human genetic variation, mental illness, nature vs. nurture, human evolution—in a contemporary context. Davenport's original book is reprinted along with the essays. This book will be useful to historians of science as well as those interested in the social implications of human genetics research—past, present, and future.


Jan A. Witkowski and John R. Inglis
Matt Ridley
Genes and Politics
James D. Watson
Charles Benedict Davenport, 1866–1944
Jan A. Witkowski
The Eugenic World of Charles Benedict Davenport
Elof A. Carlson
Davenport's Dream
Maynard V. Olson
Genetic Determinism and Evolutionary Ethics: A Mitochondrial Perspective
Douglas C. Wallace
Psychiatric Genetics in an Era of Relative Enlightenment
Daniel R. Weinberger and David Goldman
Genes in Mind?
Lindsey Kent and Simon Baron-Cohen
Davenport and Heredity Counseling
Philip R. Reilly
Genetics and Equality
Ronald Dworkin
Genetics and Human Nature
Lewis Wolpert
A Reprint of Heredity in Relation to Eugenics
Charles Benedict Davenport (Published by Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1911)


review:  “Th[is] volume, edited by two current members of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Jan Witkowski and John Inglis, is important: well worth reading and well worth having for classroom instruction at any level from high school through graduate school, divinity school, medical school, or law school...

...because of the essays, I am pleased to recommend the volume to the broadest possible audience. Davenport’s reprinted text may be thought of as an example of one of Stephen Gould’s evolutionary ‘spandrels,’ that is, a scaffolding of now-useless information on which is built a novel and viable structure. In this case, the current viable and valuable structure is the set of commentaries. These elegantly summarize the state of medical genetics today, touching on aspects such as the Human Genome Project, ex vivo technologies of genetic selection, intentional variation and quick detection by reverse genetics, and the emerging understanding of the vast complexity of RNA-driven gene regulation by non-coding regions that rarely expresses itself as a ‘single gene’ phenotype. The crucial question remains: in light of the disasters of eugenics, what is the proper use of what we know about human DNA?

The essays (especially those by Maynard Olson and Douglas Wallace, the editors’ introduction, and James Watson’s personal reflections) provide a firm foundation for answering that question: We are the products of natural selection working on inevitable, unavoidable genetic variation. That variation will never cease. The broadest possible definition of ‘normal’ is the one closest linked to the realities of natural selection. No one can say which (if any) human genetic variants will survive the anthropocene epoch we have just entered. Therefore eugenics was and remains a dead end, and it cannot be the answer.”

review:  “In Davenport’s Dream, editors Witkowski and Inglis (both, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory) have compiled contributions from twelve scholars who analyze current research pertaining to some of Davenport’s theories. Is there any indication that some forms of mental illness follow a true Mendelian inheritance pattern? How does mitochondrial DNA contribute to eugenics? A facsimile of Davenport’s original work is included. This book would be valuable as a basis for discussions in bioethics or social policy courses.”

review:  “The title of this stimulating collection of well written essays, ‘Davenport’s Dream’, relates to his no doubt well intended aspiration that advances in genetics should be directed and applied to improve human existence. Sadly his contribution was almost certainly counter-productive and, as other authors in this text point out even if ethically acceptable, it is difficult to see how eugenics could be applied successfully given the genetic complexity underlying most common human diseases and characteristics. Indeed genetic diversity is widely perceived as desirable if not essential for the future progress and survival of the species, so that any attempt to discriminate against a particular genotype could have adverse consequences in the future. Perhaps the main message of this book is that we should all learn from Davenport’s mistakes and remember that the welfare of the individual should never be sacrificed for a greater vision of spurious societal benefit. Otherwise we run the risk of seeing Davenport’s ‘dream’ evolve into another nightmare."
      —Human Genetics

review:  “The reappearance of this facsimile volume and accompanying commentary makes an important resource for understanding eugenic thought readily available for historians, scientists, and a newly curious public.”
      —The Quarterly Review of Biology

review:  “The decision by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press to reissue Davenport’s classic, but highly problematic, book is a bold forms a valuable contribution to the existing literature on genetics and eugenics.”