29 April 2012

Being a Progressive, Yesterday: Eugenics


It is one of our vanities to imagine that if we'd been born in centuries past, we alone would have stood up against the rampant injustices of the age (slavery, colonialism, religious persecution, etc.) instead of going with the flow like most people did.  Unlike others, we're in no way molded by our era--our righteousness is ageless. (The host's tut-tutting in this otherwise fascinating podcast on slavery is but one example.)

Another point of view is that those of a progressive bent in 2012, had they magically existed in 1912, would have likely followed the leftist causes du jour.  Ditto conservatives.  So what was the progressive doctrine in 1912 that today's liberal can be fairly sure he'd have fervently believed and agitated for?


Darwin's 1859 work landed in the Western conscience like a rock heaved into a pond.  Nothing would ever be the same.  The idea that such social ills as insanity, mental retardation, and psychopathy were heritable began to seep into the popular mind.  One reason was Francis Galton (cousin of Darwin), who coined the term 'eugenics' and wrote tirelessly about it for decades.

Many in the late 19th century had an almost childlike faith that science could solve humanity's woes.  And it was thought then that some of humanity's woes were:

  • The retarded and insane, a burden on the private and public purse, were having retarded and insane children.
  • The stupid and dysfunctional poor were having many more children than the intelligent and functional rich.
  • (In the U.S:) South and East European immigrants, less intelligent and functional, were hurting the racial stock of the country.

The word 'dysgenics' was coined in 1915 by British physician Caleb Saleeby.  Biologist Julian Huxley, founding member of World Wildlife Fund and first director of UNESCO, described the threat thusly:

In the first of these [addresses to the British Eugenics Society] he reaffirmed that natural selection had become greatly relaxed in contemporary civilizations, noting that “the elimination of natural selection is largely, though of course by no means wholly, rendered inoperative by medicine, charity, and the social services” and that dysgenic fertility was leading to “the tendency to degradation of the germ plasm, ” the result of which will be that “humanity will gradually destroy itself from within, will decay in its very core and essence, if this slow but insidious relentless process is not checked.  (1)

1) Mainstream support

However they may ring in our ears today, these ideas once enjoyed mainstream legitimacy.  Eugenics' cast of supporters indicates it was even more widely accepted than man-made global warming is today.

The American Eugenics Society's members included scientific faculty from Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Columbia Universities as well as philanthropic heirs and heiresses of some of the biggest corporate dynasties of the day.  Eugenics research was supported by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Institution and promoted by several Nobel Prize winning scientists (among them Linus Pauling and Joshua Lederberg).  Teddy Roosevelt, Alexander Graham Bell, and Margaret Sanger were supporters.

As for Britain, its Eugenics Society counted among its members John Maynard Keynes, Neville Chamberlain, Julian Huxley, Arthur Balfour, and Havelock Ellis.  H.G. Wells, Winston Churchill, and George Bernard Shaw were also famous proponents. (1)

2) A Progressive project

It's been noted that the social reformers of the late 19th century had a sort of missionary zeal.  The new factory system had led to a rural exodus, cities now swollen with poor families piled up in filthy conditions.  Crime was rampant.  Hygiene, public education, birth control were just a few of the remedies sought by Progressives.  Eugenics was one more tool in the reformer's kit.

George Bernard Shaw:
'There is now no reasonable excuse for refusing to face the fact that nothing but a eugenic religion can save our civilisation from the fate that has overtaken all previous civilisations.' (1)

In Sweden, physician Herman Lundborg
began to preach eugenics as the salvation of the nation. ... he possessed the zeal of a popular educator and the conviction of a religious enthusiast. Eugenics, and hygienics, had become something of a secularized religion in these circles. (2)

During parliamentary debate in Sweden over the founding of a state eugenics institute, Social Democrat Arthur Engberg declared
"We are lucky to have a race which is as yet fairly unspoiled," he said, "a race which is the bearer of very high and very good qualities." Not surprisingly, therefore, he found it "odd that while we are so very particular about registering the pedigree of our dogs and horses, we are not at all particular when it comes to trying to preserve our own Swedish stock." (2)

I.R. Dowbiggin on the U.S. Progressive connection:
The eugenics movement in the United States drew much of its energy and leadership from Progressivism, which was an unprecedented attempt on the part of Americans--usually affluent, well educated, and professionally trained--to solve the country's social, political, and economic problems in the early decades of the twentieth century.  Progressives tended to argue that these problems were due to the failure to apply scientific expertise and techniques to the management of society.  Significantly they also contended that as voluntary, informal approaches to charity had proved inadequate, it was necessary for the state to assume the responsibility for administering reform policies. (3)

What type of responsibility? Mark Largent:
The call for compulsory sterilization laws was part of the progressive movement that swept the nation shortly after the turn of the century, and it included efforts to limit the marriages of certain citizens, which, it was believed, would likewise control who had children. ... Compulsory sterilization laws were very popular among the states in which the progressive movement was especially strong, which explains why the states in the Midwest and West practiced coerced sterilization so often and for so long.  These were also the states that had the highest per capita number of total sterilization, with California having by far the most. (4)

Laws against certain types of marriage existed already, such as anti-miscegenation statutes, but turn-of-the-century progressives wanted to prevent the 'mentally unfit' from procreating. Connecticut in 1895 passed such a prohibition, which was supported by the president of the American Bar Association, James C. Carter, who described the law as

"a novel one, designed apparently to prevent unhealthy progeny," and punishable by at least three years' imprisonment.  Carter supported the legislation, calling it a "practical deterrent" and celebrating its ability to protect "future generations from the evil operation of the laws of heredity" that heretofore required "the perpetual imprisonment of habitual criminals."  (4)

In Wisconsin, the progressive governor as well as the Wisconsin Board of Charities and Corrections, state Medical Society and the director of the state Hospital for the Insane all worked for the passage of a mandatory sterilization bill. Director Gorst:

It is "wicked that the persons suffering from periodical insanity should be allowed to return to their homes to propagate and scatter their children about the state as dependents.  Several states have passed the sterilization law and Wisconsin should wake up and be equally as progressive..." (3)

The first coercive sterilization law in the U.S. was famously passed in Indiana in 1907, whose goal was “to prevent the procreation of confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles, and rapists” by sterilizing them.

Between 1907 and 1937, two-thirds of the states passed compulsory sterilization laws, and the majority of them had prior laws that regulated the marriage of citizens declared feebleminded or diseased.  Of the thirty-two states that passed a law compelling the sterilization of prisoners and inmates of state institutions, 87.5 percent of them had a preexisting law that prevented some citizens, depending on their mental or physical status, from marrying. ...at least 63,000 Americans were sterilized under the authority of a series of laws passed in nearly two-thirds of the nation's states. (4)

In other western countries, eugenics was associated with progressivism as well.  Gunnar Broberg, describing Danish eugenicists' admiration for eugenics theory, says:

Virtually all of the authors that used or referred to these ideas were regarded, and regarded themselves, as liberals or progressives.  (2)

In Britain, a 1931 bill proposing voluntary sterilization of mental defectives drew Labour support because

... it appeared to be a 'progressive' policy: it showed how the latest medical technology could be directly applied to solving a social problem, ... the prominence of religious moralists in opposition added to the impression that this was an issue of progress against taboo. (5)

3) Women's crucial support

Under the progressive umbrella, women in particular were strong eugenics activists.  Birth control champion Margaret Sanger famously so, as well as her British counterpart Marie Stopes, who summarized her objective as

“more children from the fit, less from the unfit—that is the chief issue of birth control.”  (1)

Britain's 1931 voluntary sterilization bill drew much female support:
Although only three women MPs voted on the issue, they all supported sterilization. ...Their support cannot be dismissed as merely coincidental, for it was matched by strong female support for the issue throughout the decade: of twenty-eight major organizations supporting sterilization, nine were women's groups; and of 335 smaller groups, over half were women's organizations.  (5)

Why was this demographic so pro-eugenic?
Women tended to be strong supporters of the extension of medical and social welfare services, and saw sterilization as part of this broader welfare platform. Many women (and some men) supported sterilization as part of their campaign to make birth control freely available to all women .... 
Women tended to be particularly concerned about the strain and suffering which could be placed on mothers who bore mentally defective children, and felt that it was sensible and humane to try to prevent this. They also tended to feel strongly that it was socially irresponsible to allow feeble-minded women to become mothers--not necessarily on eugenic grounds, but because they would be bad mothers, breeding large families who would never receive proper care.  (5)

4) Eugenics law proposals

Besides birth control, voluntary and coercive sterilization, and reduced immigration, a variety of legislative proposals were made to stop the dysgenic spiral. Biologist R.A. Fisher (of 'Genetical Theory of Natural Selection' fame) argued that
...child allowances should be paid as a proportion of the earnings of the fathers. Thus the high earning genetic elite would receive higher child allowances than the average earners and much higher allowances than the genetically impoverished low earners. (1)

In 1945 eugenicist William Beveridge did end up getting such a law passed, but with a flat rate paid to all families--rendering it non-eugenic. (This program still exists in the U.K. today.)

Co-father of DNA structure Francis Crick had some ideas on the subject:
He suggested that a possible solution would be to levy a tax on children, payable by their parents, which would deter the reproduction of the poor more than that of the rich. This suggestion was premised on the assumption that the rich were in general better endowed with the genetically desirable qualities of intelligence and character than the poor were. 
He also suggested that it was time to challenge the belief that everyone has a right to have children; he suggested that some people are not fit to be parents, and that a system of licensing procreation might be introduced so that “if the parents were genetically unfavorable, they might be allowed to have only one child, or possibly two under certain special circumstances.” (1)

Psychologist Charles Spearman, creator of the concept of 'g' (general intelligence), went even further:
...in 1912 he wrote a paper in which he proposed that only those individuals who scored reasonably highly on g should be permitted to vote and to have children. (1)

Decidedly, the notion of the heritability of character traits led to some interesting policy notions on the part of our forebears.

5) The end of Eugenics?

Where did the Eugenics Movement go?  Contrary to popular belief, no WWII-era association with Germany led to its immediate end.  Mark Largent:
From the end of World War II through the 1960s, there was no popular recognition of a link between the American eugenics movement and the Holocaust; this connection emerged in the 1970s. ... The wave of high school and college textbooks published in the 1970s at first omitted any discussion of eugenics and coerced sterilization; by the end of the decade...many of these authors demonized American eugenicists by directly linking them to the Nazis. (4)

This narrative culminated in Edwin Black's 2003 work War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race. (Black's background here.)

Richard Lynn surmises that
Eugenics is premised on the assertion of social rights and in particular the right of the state to curtail reproductive liberties in the interests of preserving and promoting the genetic quality of the population. It was this change in values toward according greater precedence to individual rights at the expense of social rights that was the fundamental reason for the rejection of eugenics in the Western democracies in the closing decades of the twentieth century.  (1)

He adds:
A critical year was 1969, in which the American Eugenics Society ended publication of its journal Eugenics Quarterly and replaced it with Social Biology, ... In 1972 the American Eugenics Society changed its name to The Society for the Study of Social Biology and dissociated itself from eugenics. 
Two years later the president of the new society, Frederick Osborn (1974), wrote of this change, “The society was groping for a wholly new definition of purpose. It was no longer thinking in terms of ‘superior’ individuals, ‘superior’ family stocks, or even of social conditions that would bring about a ‘better’ distribution of births. It was thinking in terms of diversity, in terms of the genetic attributes appropriate to different kinds of physical and social environments.” (1)

*       *       *

Are we creatures of our era?  Or purveyors of universal values transcending time and space?  A little of both?  Dowbiggin:
In early twentieth-century America,...among educated and professional men and women who prided themselves on having a social conscience, there were few who entirely rejected the observations and recommendations of eugenicists.   (3)

Today 'priding oneself on having a social conscience' seems to entail exactly the opposite.  It has become fashionable to impute the shortfallings of the lower classes to the prejudice, callousness, lack of understanding on the part of the upper classes.  All 'educated and professional men and women' seem to think so.  So who is right?  To what era belongs the moral high ground?

(1) Lynn, Richard. Eugenics: A Reassessment. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001.
(2) Broberg, Gunnar.  Eugenics and the Welfare State: Sterilization Policy in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1996.
(3) Dowbiggin, I.R.  Keeping America Sane: Psychiatry and Eugenics in the United States and Canada, 1880-1940. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003.
(4) Largent, Mark A.  Breeding Contempt: The History of Coerced Sterilization in the United States. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2008.
(5) Thomson, Mathew.  The Problem of Mental Deficiency: Eugenics, Democracy, and Social Policy in Britain C.1870-1959.  Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.


Anonymous said...

While eugenics wasn't necessarily associated with the holocaust specifically until significantly later, the association of eugenics with Nazi Germany in general did taint the field during the era. William Shockley in an interview with William Buckley mentioned that he did a study on the acquisitions of texts on eugenics by the Stanford University Library and apparently they basically stopped ordering them after Hitler came to power.


M.G. said...

Thanks for the link B.B. The NS did taint the movement in the 1930s, I remember reading in Broberg's book that many Scandinavian eugenicists thought Hitler was deranged, although quite a few were members of the German Race Hygiene Society.

Because that association (eugenics = Nazi Germany) did eventually become gospel, it's tempting to wonder what would have happened had the German atrocities never come to pass. Would the rest of the West have retained this interest in aggressively 'cleansing' the racial stock? Would all these sterilization programs have continued, would this be considered utterly mainstream today instead of a perverse pseudo-science?

Olave d'Estienne said...

Socialists ruin everything.