THIS IS a book that is at once impressive and deeply disturbing. In The Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity is a skillful revelation of the ease with which a pseudo-science can elevate gross social prejudices to official public policies, and it stands as a powerful warning against anyone today who would use the fruits of legitimate science to bolster arguments and policies that echo the social and racial prejudices of the past. Indeed, the book is a fascinating case study of the misuse of science by a small minority of investigators who injected their own social goals and fears into their work and thereby plunged an entire discipline into public controversy.

Daniel J. Kevles devotes most of his study to the eugenics movement, skillfully weaving the story back and forth across the Atlantic and pausing here and there to record developments in the field of genetics that impinged upon the debates regarding the scientific pedigree of eugenics. The eugenics movement, he shows, had its origin in Victorian England. In 1883 the English scientist Francis B. Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, coined the term "eugenics" which he took from the Greek root word meaning "good birth" or "noble in heredity." Victorians had long been aware of the principle of selective breeding in animal husbandry, and they were positively ablaze with discussions of Darwin's work on natural selection. Thus, in popular usage eugenics quickly came to mean that society should encourage its healthy, productive, intelligent, and sober members to reproduce in great numbers (positive eugenics); and it should discourage its diseased, unproductive, feebleminded, or drunken members from doing so (negaeugenics).

Galton, who pioneered the mathematical treatment of heredity, proved to be an extraordinarily able protagonist and popularizer of the new science of eugenics, and he made certain that his brainchild outlived him. Upon his death in 1911, he endowed a chair, the Galton Eugenics Professorship, at University College, London, which, in turn, evolved into the Galton Laboratory, the leading center for the study of eugenics and then genetics in Great Britain. Meanwhile, Charles Davenport, Galton's American counterpart, established in 1904 a center for the study of eugenics at Cold Spring Harbor, about 30 miles above New York City on Long Island's North Shore. These two centers became the headquarters for eugenics research and policy planning in their respective countries, and out of their laboratories came ideas that reshaped the public's understanding of the role of heredity in human development.

Kevles does an excellent job of showing howeugenics developed along different paths in the United States and Great Britain. In neither country was the movement's membership monolithic. Both countries possessed what Kevles calls "mainline" and "reform" eugenicists who included people from the whole political spectrum. But that was where the similarity ended. Prior to World War II, basic research in both eugenics and genetics was much better financed in Great Britain than in the United States, a fact that helps explain why the Galton Laboratory stood intellectually head and shoulders above the American center at Cold Spring Harbor. Moreover, most British researchers quickly became disillusioned with eugenics and turned their attention to genetics, establishing a British hegemony in this field that lasted until well after World War II. The other major contrast was evident in the spirit of the two movements: For reasons that Kevles explains in great detail, the American version of eugenics was more virulent, more intrusive, and more inclined to violate the rights of the individual than its British counterpart.

There was more that a little old-fashioned nativism in the American brand of eugenics. At the federal level eugenicists played a key role in pushing new immigration bills through Congress in the 1920s, laws that discriminated against Orientals and the so-called "new immigrants" from eastern and southern Europe. Armed with the results of a new battery of intelligence tests that purported to measure innate intelligence, eugenicists argued that the members of these "races" were not as intelligent as people from western and northern Europe. It followed that these "new immigrants" should be prevented from entering the United States in order to protect the American gene pool.

Eugenicists exercised even more influence at the state level. Again drawing upon the results of mental testing, they charged that members of the lower class as a group were not as intelligent as the classes above them. Moreover, they attacked the lower classes, especially blacks, as a genetic cesspool, rotten with poverty, feeblemindedness, drunkenness, and disease. Over a period of several decades eugenicists were able to persuade scores of state legislatures to pass laws permitting the voluntary, and in some cases the involuntary, sterilization of paupers, epileptics, certain classes of criminals, and above all, the feebleminded and the hopelessly insane. Tens of thousands of people were subsequently sterilized under these laws, the vast majority of whom were occupants of state penal and mental institutions.

Kevles' intellectual critique of eugenics is devastating. He argues that from its beginning the eugenics movement promised far more than science could deliver. Even in its heyday between the wars, the basic assumptions of the eugenics movement rested upon flimsy scientific evidence. In truth, I.Q. tests were sensitive to culture; scientists could not agree on a definition of human intelligence let alone on allegedly accurate tests for measuring it; the role of heredity in transmitting human intelligence was anything but clear; but researchers had only begun to scratch at the surface in their understanding of human genetics.

Thus, it is not surprising that on both sides of the Atlantic the attack on eugenics was led by researchers who warned that science simply did not know enough to warrant any laws or policies that were aimed at improving the human gene pool, either through positive of negative eugenics. They were joined by Catholics who objected on moral grounds to the very principles of eugenics. Who was to say who was a desirable human being and who was not? What constitutes improvement? What must be done to improve people? What factors are weighed in making those decisions?

BUT, ULTIMATELY, it was the Nazis who goose- stepped the eugenics movement into ill-repute. Somehow the racial and class biases of eugenics did not stand in full relief until the Nazis showed the world what could happen if societies followed eugenics principles to the end implicit in their logic. The wholesale murder of millions of people who were judged to be genetically inferior left little room for argument that eugenics could sink the world into barbarism. Yet as Kevles argues persuasively, the eugenics movement did not die when the Third Reich went down to defeat. It merely dropped its label, changed its rhetoric, and recast its thinking to accommodate scientific advances while preserving most of the goals and many of the assumptions of "reform," if not "mainline" eugenics thought.

The last third of the book is in many ways the most alarming. Thanks largely to federal support, the scale of scientific research in the United States increased dramatically following World War II, and genetics research was a prime beneficiary of this growth. Almost overnight literally thousands of researchers employed by hundreds of centers (most affiliated with universities or teaching hospitals) plunged into genetic research. Succinctly and lucidly, Kevles lays out one-by-one the major discoveries that have been made in genetics, complete with a running analysis of what the social commentators among these scientists, such as Julian Huxley and Hermann J. Muller, have interpreted these discoveries to mean with regard to human behavior.

Kevles leaves no room for doubt that our knowledge of human heredity has come a long way since the days of Francis Galton. Today we understand the basic structure of the cell; we know about blood types; we have actually cloned a frog; we have discovered DNA, and we are already experimenting with gene-splicing; we have identified nearly a thousand single-gene maladies, such as Down's syndrome, sickle-cell, and Tay-Sachs; and we have opened hundreds of centers of genetic counseling where tens of thousands of women undergo amniocentesis each year, a small fraction of whom receive genetic reports that prompt them to exercise their constitutional right to have an abortion. In short, genetics has evolved from the playtoy of a handful of eccentric mathematicians to a thriving discipline of enormous social importance that attracts many of the best minds in science and through its discoveries touches the public's life daily.

Yet for all its advances, genetics remains as controversial today as it was in the days of Francis Galton, perhaps even more so. Thanks to the work of researchers such as Arthur R. Jensen and William Shockley, the hoary debate over genetic differences between blacks and whites, with emphasis on the comparative intelligence of the races, still rages. Edward O. Wilson has argued within the last decade that certain kinds of social behavior (traits) may be inherited, and several distinguished biologists, not to mention scores of public officials, issue warnings periodically that Third World countries may be damaging the human gene pool and threatening world peace with their alarming birth rates (shades of differential fertility!).

If Kevles' keen analysis has anything to teach us, it is that we should be grateful when scientists speak the measured, modest, and disinterested language of genetics; and we should be extremely dubious when they proclaim the presumptions of eugenics.