Eugenics is a well-known low point in the modern history of science. In the United States, from the late nineteenth century to the 1940s, credence was given to this pseudoscience focused on the notional ‘improvement’ of human populations by halting the reproduction of supposedly lesser genes. Less well known is the story of how US law rendered eugenics intellectually respectable across the world, supporting programmes from Canada to Sweden. Ultimately, this egregious failing led to the enforced sterilization of at least 60,000 US citizens, and was used by the Nazi regime to justify its own programme of sterilization and, later, extermination.The book reviewed, Adam Cohen’s Imbeciles, deals with one particular case which led to the Supreme Court decision Buck v. Bell which held that persons viewed as mentally defective could be sterilized.
There was a lot remarkable about the case, including the fact that celebrated Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the opinion.
But even more important is the intellectual infrastructure that surrounded eugenics. It was a product of the “best and brightest” thinkers of the era. The review in Nature names several of the leading lights of the movement:
Before Buck v. Bell, eugenic sterilization had been advocated for decades by US reformers and scientists, including prominent biologist Charles Davenport, but it had been used only sporadically because of fears that it was illegal. Eugenics itself was born in Britain in the late nineteenth century, nurtured by polymath Francis Galton, a half-cousin of Charles Darwin. The concept resonated with contemporary interpretations of ‘social Darwinism,’ which hinged on engineering the ‘survival of the fittest’ — a gross caricature of Darwin’s idea.So what can we conclude from this era in the history of science? Largely, to have a bit of skepticism of science.
By 1928, a total of 375 US universities and colleges were teaching eugenics, and 70% of high-school biology textbooks endorsed the pseudoscience in some form. Eugenics was also endorsed by presidents including Theodore Roosevelt, funded by philanthropic organizations including the Carnegie Institution, and touted by award-winning scientists such as biologist Edwin Grant Conklin and the Nobel laureate Hermann Muller, discoverer of X-ray mutagenesis, as well as prominent inventors such as Alexander Graham Bell. Eugenics came to be seen as the solution to everything from hearing loss to criminality. In Britain, advocates tended to focus on segregation and voluntary sterilization. Major British eugenicists included left-leaning scientists J. B. S. Haldane and Havelock Ellis, and supporters included the economist John Maynard Keynes, social reformers Sidney and Beatrice Webb, and writer H. G. Wells.
And both on empirical and moral grounds.
The author of the review calls eugenics “a gross caricature of Darwin’s idea.” But it wasn’t. It was a straightforward application if you buy two propositions:
First, the notion, pioneered early in the century, that it is possible to measure innate intelligence. Even early on, scientists like Alfred Binet cautioned that measured intelligence could be affected by the environment, but the notion that IQ tests measured genetic endowment and that differences among groups reflected innate intelligence became prevalent.
Secondly, the idea that the good of society can override the rights of individuals. One of the most fundamental human rights is the right to procreate. In any decent society, schemes of social engineering should give way to basic human rights. But elites who are convinced of their own superior intelligence and enlightenment are all too quick to decide that the behavior of “lesser breeds” needs to be brought into line with “the public interest,” which the elites are always convinced they embody.