Cursed by Eugenics

  • At a time when science promises such dazzling advances in the practice of medicine, it may be prudent to cast a glance over the shoulder, back to an earlier era when scientists--or people who thought they were doing science--stirred hopes that better days were only a generation or so away. The rise and fall of the theory known as eugenics is in every respect a cautionary tale. The early eugenicists were usually well-meaning and progressive types. They had imbibed their Darwin and decided that the process of natural selection would improve if it were guided by human intelligence. They did not know they were shaping a rationale for atrocities.

    The man who in 1883 coined the term eugenics, from a Greek stem meaning "good in birth," was a cousin of Charles Darwin's. Englishman Francis Galton (1822-1911) had a substantial inheritance and a Victorian range of scientific curiosity. He dabbled in a number of fields, including geographical exploration, but his passion was mathematics, particularly the infant field of statistics.

    In Britain and the U.S., the great age of quantification had begun. An unforeseen consequence of industrialized democracy had been the mammoth increase in the measurement and survey of all sorts of things. Galton relished this new flood of data--"Whenever you can, count" was his motto--and eventually became absorbed in studying the mathematical distribution of what he called "natural ability" among a sample of British subjects. Galton thought natural ability could be tracked down by reading the biographical sketches of eminent Britons in handbooks and dictionaries. When he did so, he discovered that a disproportionate number of these worthies were in some way related to one another. Ergo, he concluded, intelligence and talent were bestowed by heredity. "Could not," he wondered, "the undesirables be got rid of and the desirables multiplied?"

    In fairness to Galton, he came to see the encouragement of "good" marriages as a better way to his eugenic heaven than discouraging or preventing "bad" ones. But the seed of a very dangerous notion had nevertheless been sown.

    Interest in eugenics grew with the rediscovery and wide dissemination of an obscure Austrian monk's experiments in breeding peas. Gregor Mendel's discovery of genetically transmitted dominant and recessive traits seemed to many the key that would unlock the mysteries of human heredity. In the U.S., biologist Charles Davenport (1866-1944) established, with the help of a $10 million endowment from the Carnegie Institution, a center for research in human evolution at Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y. A strict Mendelian, Davenport believed so-called single-unit genes determined such traits as alcoholism and feeblemindedness. The way to eradicate such failings in the human stock, he argued, was to prevent their carriers from reproducing. He voiced the hope that "human matings could be placed upon the same high plane as that of horse breeding." He declared that prostitution was not caused by poverty but by an "innate eroticism." He advocated eugenic castrations.

    In his In the Name of Eugenics (1985), an invaluable source for everyone interested in this strange movement, historian Daniel J. Kevles notes, somewhat dryly, that "eugenicists identified human worth with the qualities they presumed themselves to possess--the sort that facilitated passage through schools, universities and professional training." Kevles' insight helps explain the almost messianic fervor that eugenicists on both sides of the Atlantic displayed during the early years of this century. These were people who felt themselves and the future of their children threatened. In Britain members of the upper middle class feared they would be swamped and taxed to extinction by the profligate overbreeding of the lower orders. In the U.S., members of the Wasp ascendancy looked with dismay at the flood of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. Italians! Poles! What was the country coming to?

    Much of this public fervor looks comically ill informed in hindsight. In the U.S. and Britain, fairs and exhibitions regularly featured exhibits illustrating Mendelian laws of inheritance, often in the form of black-and-white guinea pigs stuffed and mounted to demonstrate the heritability of fur color. Kevles quotes from a chart accompanying such a display: "Unfit human traits such as feeblemindedness, epilepsy, criminality, insanity, alcoholism, pauperism and many others run in families and are inherited in exactly the same way as color in guinea pigs."

    Less amusing is the number of intellectuals, businessmen and political leaders who gave eugenics their blessing or fervid support. The list begins with Darwin, who in The Descent of Man praised his cousin Galton and decreed that genius "tends to be inherited." Other champions included the young Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Alexander Graham Bell, John Maynard Keynes, Theodore Roosevelt and the usually taciturn Calvin Coolidge, who declared during his vice presidency that "Nordics deteriorate when mixed with other races."

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