The forgotten story of eugenics

'White' and 'colored' drinking fountainsWhen I was in college, a professor maintained that the racial hostilities of the time (around 1970) were carried over from slavery and Reconstruction, still fresh a century later. That never seemed like a sufficient explanation to me, and recently I’ve been learning more about an important piece of the history. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, bad science tried to put “race” on a scientific basis gave new life to the idea that some racial groups were superior to others. The Foundation for Economic Education has run a number of articles on the subject lately, such as “How States Sterilized 60,000 Americans – And Got Away with It”. I’ve also been reading a library book, Race Unmasked: Biology and Race in the 20th Century by Michael Yudell.

The terms “moron” and “imbecile” are just insults today, but to the eugenics movement they were precise terms, used to justify practices like forced sterilization. The weak-minded needed to be kept from breeding. The idea had roots in a misapplication of Darwinian theory, using imprecise methods that couldn’t distinguish lack of education from defective genes. Not surprisingly, this led to the conclusion that the groups that were denied access to education had genetically weaker brains.

I’ve often heard of “social Darwinism,” which is supposedly the idea that economic interactions should promote the survival of the fittest. I’ve never run into any writings that actually advocated the idea; it’s always attributed to someone else. The eugenics movement, though, was what we might call “mental Darwinism,” the idea that the government should guarantee an intelligent population by enforcing breeding practices.

Francis Galton, one of the founders of eugenics, tried at the same time to put race on a scientific basis. He wrote that “Mongolians, Jews, Negroes, Gipsies, and America [sic] Indians severally propagate their kinds; and each kind differs in character and intellect, as well as in colour and shape from the other four.”

The idea of “social Darwinism” is often attributed to Herbert Spencer. What I’ve found in his First Principles isn’t that, but a view similar to Galton’s:

In proof of the first of these positions, we may cite the fact that, in the relative development of the limbs, the civilized man departs more widely from the general type of the placental mammalia, than do the lower human races. Though often possessing well-developed body and arms, the Papuan has extremely small legs: thus reminding us of the quadrumana, in which there is no great contrast in size between the hind and fore limbs. But in the European, the greater length and massiveness of the legs has become very marked—the fore and hind limbs are relatively more heterogeneous.

I’ve read elsewhere that South Asians tend to have a higher arm-to-leg ratio than Europeans; the problem isn’t with the fact but the interpretation.

Woodrow Wilson admired eugenics. As governor of New Jersey, he signed a bill providing for the forced sterilization of “feeble-minded” individuals, as well as epileptics and certain criminals. He declared that the Constitution “is accountable to Darwin.” Theodore Roosevelt wrote that “we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type.”

Those who simply accepted widely held racial theories outside their own expertise can’t really be held to blame. The ones who deserve blame are the scientists who should have known better, the politicians who used them as an excuse for governmental compulsion (e.g., Wilson), and the ones who used them to justify private violence, such as the KKK and its fans (Wilson again).

Understanding the close connections among race-based thinking, eugenics, and the Progressive movement clarifies how these ideas have re-emerged in modern progressivism. Francis Galton had written that “every long-established race has necessarily its peculiar fitness for the conditions under which it has lived.” Wilson created the National Research Council, whose Committee on Race Characters stated in 1923: “It should be the purpose of racial researchers to arrive at the facts as to the existing race traits, to measure the traits of each race studied so that in due time it may be known what characteristic strengths and weaknesses for America the various races possess.”

In modern progressive thinking we have the idea of “race identity,” which implies that genes and superficial appearance are essential to what a person is. Race identity rejects the liberal idea that race doesn’t matter in favor of racial “diversity,” which implies that each race has characteristic strengths and weaknesses. But modern progressives have devised a new trick, which is to smear anyone who doesn’t agree with their racial thinking as “racist.”

The Nazis unintentionally did one good thing: They gave eugenics an irrecoverably bad name. Once it was part of the toolkit of social engineers; now they can’t advocate racial hierarchies without facing contempt. But the idea still sneaks in, through what amounts to a “different but equal” mindset that still sees genetics as destiny. It tells people they should regard one another not as individuals but as racial specimens. The people who take these views adamantly oppose the idea that any genetic group is superior to another, but when they treat race as an essential characteristic, they leave that as a question that can only be resolved empirically. Saying that genetic groups are greatly different in qualities yet can’t be different in degree is untenable.

The scientific evidence tells us that differences within so-called “racial” groups are far more significant than differences among them. I hope that in time American society will abandon the idea that genetics is identity. To reach that goal, we have to know about the errors of the past.

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