The following two statements were authored in the same year, 1925, by two public figures generally supposed to have not much in common:
“Those who are physically and mentally unhealthy and unfit must not perpetuate their sufferings in the bodies of their children. Through educational means the state must teach individuals that illness is not a disgrace but a misfortune for which people are to be pitied, yet at the same time it is a crime and a disgrace to make this affliction the worse by passing it on to innocent creatures out of a merely egotistic yearning.”
“It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”
The latter opinion comes from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes of the U.S. Supreme Court, writing for the majority in the case of Buck v. Bell. The former statement appeared in Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler. Eugenics wasn’t just for Nazis.
The “racial hygiene” programs of Nazi Germany were by far the most catastrophic application of eugenic “theory,” but they were neither the first nor last. In the early twentieth century, fourteen countries, including the United States, approved some type of eugenic legislation. In the first thirty years of this century, thirty of these United States passed sterilization laws. By one estimate, as many as sixty thousand people were “legally” sterilized. The true number can never be known because many operations in penal and mental institutions went unreported.
The United States of America, in fact, was the first industrialized nation to enact racial purification laws. In the late nineteenth century, the states of Michigan and Massachusetts castrated numerous mental patients and young boys exhibiting such genetic imperfections as “persistent epilepsy,” “imbecility,” and “masturbation with weakness of mind.”
Castration evidently hit a little too close to home for the average member of the public to stomach, so vasectomy became the preferred method for sterilizing males, and its equivalent, salpingectomy, became the preferred sterilization method for women.
Justice Holmes to the contrary, courts were not generally favorable toward sterilization laws. As early as 1912, the New Jersey Supreme Court struck down a law allowing for the sterilization of “feeble minded” people, including according to the law’s wording, “idiots, imbeciles, and morons.”
“Imbeciles” and “idiots” were a virtual obsession for eugenics-happy legislators. Indiana’s law was designed to “prevent procreation of confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles, and rapists.” California’s statute (California sterilized far more people than New York other state) allowed, with a not from a doctor, the “asexualization” of “any idiot” as well as any prison inmate who had shown evidence that he was “a moral or sexual degenerate.” An Iowa law targeted people “who would produce children with tendency to disease, deformity, crime, insanity, feeble-mindedness, idiocy, imbecility, epilepsy, or alcoholism.”
Though courts often ruled against the eugenics laws, sterilization programs continued unabated, and most of the state laws stayed on the books well into the 1970s and 1980s, though they haven’t been applied since the early part of the century when California, for example, sterilized 6,200 “feeble minded” people.
The status of “feeble mindedness” was determined largely by the then recent invention of the IQ test, as well as by scientists’ rather arbitrary judgments of what counted as appropriate behavior.
By these standards not only “idiots, imbeciles, and morons” but entire ethnic groups were deemed “inferior.” Interestingly, there is no available record of a scientist judging his or her own group “inferior.”
Zany racial theorizing with a “scientific” foundation has gone on at least since the industrial revolution. With industrialization, the world’s prosperity ballooned and it looked like there would at last be more than enough wealth to go around. At the same time, it created the need for a permanent class of unfortunates to operate the heavy equipment.
Consequently, the owners had to come up with some halfway respectable explanation of why they deserved Newport mansions and everyone else merited nineteen-hour days in the mill struggling to keep their digits out of the widget-making machines. The answer was Social Darwinism, the pseudo-biological notion that certain types of people are born to breathe asbestos dust for six bucks an hour while others have “cellular phones and Malibu beach houses” somehow inscribed in their genetic code.
From the start, the most enthusiastic eugenics advocates emerged from society’s upper strata. David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford University, also headed Cold Spring Harbor, the nation’s first biolab devoted to building a better human. Mrs. E. H. Harriman endowed the Eugenics Records Office (ERO) – the eugenicists’ think tank – with a $15,000 grant and reached into her own pocketbook to cover staff salaries.
John D. Rockefeller, whose progeny personified the American ruling class, was the ERO’s number-two cash cow. The first “Race Betterment Conference” took place in Battle Creek, Michigan, at the initiative of Dragna. John Harvey Kellogg, whose family business still leads the Western world in Froot Loops production (a contribution to the betterment of the species if ever there was one).
The plutocrats were in league with scientists, many with formidable reputations. These scientists expended immeasurable energy trying to “prove” that blacks were stupid, Jews were greedy, Mexicans were lazy, women were nutty and so on – as well as the corollary; rich, white people with good table manners and glowing report cards were genetically superior. This massive waste of time began when Victorian Englishman Sir Francis Galton published his observations that he most “eminent” members of British society, by and large, had eminent parents. That might not seem like much of a revelation today, but apparently it was so mind blowing to Galton that he could think of no other causal factor than pure heredity. Charles Darwin himself paid homage to Galton’s “admirable labors” in establishing that “genius . . . tends to be inherited.”
Galton came up with the term eugenics to advocate breeding better humans. Like so many theoreticians of his day, he asserted, among other things, that blacks lagged behind whites on the evolutionary scale. This ugly bit of quackery, like a wart, won’t seem to go away.
As recently as the 1960s, Columbia University psychologist Henry Garrett maintained that people of African lineage are in fact 200,000 years behind those of fairer complexion. In the midst of the civil rights movement he condemned desegregation, with its presumably inevitable sexual mingling of blacks and whites, as “breeding down.”
The attempt to codify existing class structure in some kind of biological schemata drags on. And it is worth noting that the endeavor is not limited to Klansmen or fringey crypto-facists (as is, for example, the bogus-scholarly project to establish that the Holocaust never happened). The elite media’s warm reaction to such questionable outpourings as Harvard ant expert Edward O. Wilson’s 1975 manifesto, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis and its 1978 follow-up On Human Nature – e.g., a fawning Time magazine cover story, and a Pulitzer Prize for Wilson – reveals an unsettling eagerness on the part of powers-that-be to embrace the idea that some people are inherently better than others.
The issue is hardly passe. The Pioneer Fund, established in 1937 to finance “study into the problems of human race betterment,” according to its charter (and that’s a revised charter), was still handing out grants in 1989. University of Delaware researcher Linda Gottfredson got $174,000 to study the supposed relation between race and job performance.
The Pioneer Fund is not racist, said its president, New York lawyer Harry Weyher. It is merely concerned about “problems of heredity in the human race.”
From the conviction that some members of the human race have hereditary “problems” it is but a short leap to advocacy of eugenic action. William Schockley, the Nobel Prize – winning electronics pioneer, advanced a proposal in total seriousness to pay people – black people – with low IQ scores a cash incentive of $1,000 per point below 100 to have themselves sterilized.
But nowhere is the urge of the “establishment” to justify its existence in scientific terms embodied better that better than in the person of Konrad Lorenz. A trailblazer in the field of ethology, the study of how behavior patterns are supposedly fixed by genetics, and a source for some of Wilson’s key points, the Austrain-born Lorenz was accepted as a member of Germany’s Nazi Party on June 28, 1938. In 1942, Lorenz wrote a paper employing principles of ethology and calling for a “self-conscious, scientifically based race policy” administered by “our best individuals” with the aim of inducing “a more severe elimination of morally inferior human beings.”
Sadly enough, exactly that program was already well under way at the time, under the guidance of the same “best individuals” who accepted Lorenz into their political party.
Lorenz’s bestseller On Aggression contained most of the same ideas, albeit stated in more politically palatable language. On Aggression, Lorenz’s popularized explication of his life’s work in ethology, was described by one journalist as appearing “to confirm the prejudices of an authoritarian Right.”
In 1973, amid protests from scholars worldwide who knew of his past affiliations and understood his enduring ideological affinity for those prejudices, Konrad Lorenz traveled to Stockholm, Sweden, to accept his Nobel Prize.