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. Davenports reprinted text may be thought of as an example of one of Stephen Goulds 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 Watsons 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.
In Davenports Dream, editors Witkowski and Inglis (both, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory) have compiled contributions from twelve scholars who analyze current research pertaining to some of Davenports 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 Davenports original work is included. This book would be valuable as a basis for discussions in bioethics or social policy courses.
The title of this stimulating collection of well written essays, Davenports 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 Davenports 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 Davenports dream evolve into another nightmare.”
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
The decision by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press to reissue Davenports classic, but highly problematic, book is a bold one....it forms a valuable contribution to the existing literature on genetics and eugenics.