Nancy Ordover, American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism
University of Minnesota Press: 240 pp., $18.95 paper

Edwin Black, War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race
Four Walls Eight Windows: 550 pp., $27

How is it that the once obscure history of eugenics—the pseudoscientific belief in the biological origins of social success and failure—has become a hot topic for academics, reporters and investigative journalists? Any story that involves a combustible mix of reproduction, race and class is bound to spark attention, but there's more going on here than intellectual prurience.

First, there's the specter of reparations looming over recent grass-roots efforts to wring public apologies from various state governments for their role in compelling patients and the "socially unfit" to undergo forced sterilization during the first half of the 20th century. "Our hearts are heavy for the pain caused by eugenics," noted Gov. Gray Davis in March, acknowledging that the victimization of some 20,000 people in state hospitals marked "a sad and regrettable chapter" in California's history. In the 1920s, the...