The History and Politics of Eugenics
A Brief History of the Eugenics Movement
The first stages of plant and animal-breeding mark the end of the hunter-gatherer period of human evolution. As far as written testimony is concerned, Plato’s Republic provides an early theoretical treatise on eugenics.
It was Darwin’s cousin, Sir Francis Galton, who in his 1883 book Inquiries into Human Faculty coined the word “eugenics”. Even earlier he had done pioneering work in his Hereditary Genius (1869) and English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture (1874). Galton was also one of the first to recognize the importance of twin studies. He also proved to be correct (unlike his more famous cousin) in rejecting the Lamarckianism of the age, which held that acquired characteristics could be passed on to offspring.
By the 1880s, custodial care was widely introduced to prevent the feebleminded from reproducing, and by the end of the century, there were cases of sterilization of the feebleminded. 1910 saw the founding of the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, on Long Island. Alexander Graham Bell, who was wed to a deaf woman and was concerned about the interbreeding of the deaf, feared that such selective mating could lead to the creation of a deaf population. He became a prominent member of the American eugenics movement.
By 1931, 30 states had passed a sterilization law at one time or another. Even so, the number of actual sterilizations was modest on a national scale. By 1958, these amounted to only 60,926.93 In comparison, twenty million sterilizations were performed in India between 1958 and 1980, and in China some thirty million women and ten million men were sterilized between 1979 and 1984. An undetermined number of these were coerced.94 German submarine warfare had temporarily braked free immigration to the United States during World War I. In 1924, Congress was strongly influenced by eugenic considerations in framing immigration law, so that immigration flows were made to reflect the ethnic makeup of the country as a whole. On July 1, 1929, national origin quotas were established as the basis of American immigration policy.
The subsequent history of eugenics is presented in the next four subchapters. We can note here only the enormous current interest in the topic. A search of the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC, or “Worldcat”) on the World Wide Web revealed some 3,200 published books on the topic. 84 of them preceded Galton’s 1883 coinage of the word:
OCLC Search for Books on Eugenics
Thus it was no surprise that in 1893 Alexander Tille promoted the idea that a people which has been raised in the consciousness of competition as a mechanism for achieving progress “will be difficult to convert to Socialist daydreams.”96 Aside from economic class, race was a much abused theme. The subject of degeneration in animals had been raised by the French naturalist Georges Buffon (1707-1778) in 1766, and as early as the 1820s the topic had drawn broad public attention. The French Count Joseph de Gobineau (1816-1882) developed the notion still further, applying it to humans and postulating the existence of an “Aryan” race that supposedly formed the basis of “Nordic” populations.
remaining Aryan groups were seen by him as inhabiting Northern
Germany and England. According to Gobineau, the interbreeding of
Nordic types with other groups would lead to degeneration. Gobineau
was best received in Germany.
In 1895, the German amateur anthropologist Otto Ammon preached a gospel of interbreeding “the pure original type with somewhat dark long-skulled types and roundskulled types with somewhat lighter pigment. All intermediate mixed forms do not count among the great successes, but are given over to the struggle for existence, for they were created only as inevitable byproducts in producing the better.”97 A relatively small group of German physicians, some of whom were related to each other by marriage, picked up on Galton’s eugenics and degeneration –but from a leftist point of view. The founder of German eugenics, Alfred Ploetz (1860-1940), was a socialist. In 1891, Wilhelm Schallmayer (1857-1919) published a brochure on species decline, but, while Galton’s interests related largely to intellectual abilities, Schallmayer was captivated by the idea of physical degeneration.
Schallmayer maintained that Darwin, having discovered the causal nature of evolution, thus rendered that process manageable. Schallmayer was opposed to Gobineau’s racial theories. Alfred Grotjahn (1869-1931) concurred that there was a danger of genetic decline and saw the theory of degeneracy as an important step in the process of “medicalizing” the problem. The theses of the German Society for Racial Hygiene, adopted in 1914, stood in marked contrast to Gobineau’s views and made no mention of either class or race. (The phrase “racial hygiene” was coined by Ploetz in 1895 as an alternate name for eugenics. Its use was unfortunate in that it often came to be misinterpreted as referring to individual races rather than to the human race as a whole.)
The theses called for family-friendly housing; elimination of factors that might hinder members of certain male professions from having children; raising the taxes on alcohol and tobacco; legal regulation of medically required abortions; combating what was then viewed as the hereditary transmission of gonorrhea, syphilis, tuberculosis, and diseases acquired in the course of practicing a profession; mandatory exchange of health certificates prior to marriage; and the awarding of prizes for literary and art works in which family life was praised. Young people were asked to be ready to sacrifice for the communal good.98 By the end of the 1920s eugenics had moved beyond the small group of specialists to become a topic of national discussion.
The Society’s 1931/32 theses again stressed the importance of inheritance, warned of degeneration, and stressed the importance of the family, calling for a heightened birthrate and the provision of tax relief for families. Lengthy periods of professional training were recognized as undermining fertility, genetic counseling was recommended, childbearing by persons whose children were likely to suffer from genetic illness was to be discouraged, and young people were to be instructed as to their eugenic obligations to their children.99 Once again, no mention was made of race.
To best comprehend the role of eugenics under the National Socialist
government, and not limit my examination of German eugenics to a
narrow context, I approached the topic by first selecting one
hundred books dealing with the Weimar and Nazi periods which contain
indexes covering not only proper names but topics as well. I made no
attempt to preselect other than choosing volumes that deal with the
period. All hundred books are listed in Appendix 2. It is an
experiment that anyone with an afternoon to spare and access to a
serious library can easily replicate, selecting whichever books he
or she might like.
Still another proponent of eugenics, the Viennese physician Julius Bauer rejected Nazi concepts of race as “fantasies plucked from the air” and complained bitterly as to the harm they were doing the cause. A fellow Austrian physician and supporter of eugenics, Felix Tietze, condemned the Nazi law on “Protection of the Blood.” The biologist and eugenicist Juliux Schaxel protested the exploitation of eugenics by the Nazis and actually emigrated to the Soviet Union. Rainer Fetscher and the former Catholic priest Hermann Muckerman were dismissed from their positions because their worldview contradicted that of the Nazis, and Fetscher ended up being shot by the SS when he attempted to make contact with the Red Army.101 Eugenicists in other countries explicitly rejected Hitler’s anti-Semitism and racism.
At the International Eugenics Conference held in Edinburgh in 1939 British and American geneticists criticized the racist orientation of eugenics in Germany.102 That same year prominent eugenicists in the United States and England issued a statement explicitly rejecting “race prejudices and the unscientific doctrine that good or bad genes are the monopoly of particular peoples” (see Appendix 1).
Taking a great deal of trouble to impart a scientific tone to the text, including such characteristics as, for example, fingerprints, blood types, or vulnerability to specific diseases –all of which pose fully legitimate questions for the physical anthropologist – he nevertheless presents a pathological document of ethnic hatred disguised as science. The Jews, we learn from Verschuer, have hooked noses, fleshy lips, ruddy light-yellow, dull-colored skin, and kinky hair. They have a slinking gait and a “racial scent.” Verschuer then moves on to “pathological racial traits.” He does concede high intellect and a relatively low birth rate, but by the end of the article his hatred becomes blatant:
That is, he is first and foremost concerned with the prevention of interbreeding with other groups, and only after that with disability, heritable or nonheritable. Although nowhere in the article does Verschuer use the word “eugenics,” he saw his argument as being fundamentally “eugenic.” It is, after all, so convenient for someone consumed with hatred to claim his arguments are the product of scientific reasoning and not emotion. True, he does not call for an extermination of the Jews, but the train of his logic is very close to doing precisely that. Verschuer was a mentor for Joseph Mengele, who was keenly interested in twins research.
There is probably nothing in the universe that
cannot be twisted, distorted, and used for evil. The danger of the
misuse of science will always be with us. It is even more
disheartening to see that this product of either a sick mind or
shameless opportunism has been translated and distributed by a
translator who displays a Ph.D. after his name.
Obviously, to make the document
acceptable to them, he avoided the insidious anti-Semitism of the
earlier essay, maintaining that “Galton’s eugenics and Ploetz’s
racial hygiene were in complete agreement with regard to both
content and goal.”105 He also praised Gobineau’s Essai sur
l’inégalité des races humaines. Darwin, Mendel, and Karl Pearson
were also praised as pioneers of eugenic thinking.
On July 14, 1933, the legislation was passed by the German parliament, entering into force in 1934, but now it permitted sterilization against the wishes of the individual concerned, specifically for the surgical sterilization of persons whose offspring would have a high probability of suffering from physical or mental illness, of hereditary feeble-mindedness, schizophrenia, manic-depressive syndrome, hereditary epilepsy, Huntington’s disease, hereditary blindness, deafness, or severe physical defects, as well as severe alcoholism.107 No mention was made of race. From 1934 to 1939 an estimated 300,000 to 350,000 persons were sterilized.108 Most sterilizations were for feeble-mindedness, followed by schizophrenia. 109 At the time, sterilizations were also being practiced in a number of European countries and the United States, although on a smaller scale.
Eugenic considerations did not play a significant role in the debate. Rather, German legislators misguidedly saw sterilization as a cheap alternative to welfare.110 The Catholic Church was opposed to sterilization, but the Evangelical Church supported it.111 The debate over euthanasia was launched by Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche’s 1920 book Legalizing the Destruction of Life Not Worth Living. The authors, a lawyer and a physician, put forward a strictly economic argument. While there may have been some peripheral eugenic case to be made for the sterilization legislation, the euthanasia question had nothing whatever to do with eugenics, since persons who were already institutionally segregated and in many cases sterilized could not have had any procreation.
To their credit, German eugenicists vehemently attacked euthanasia proposals. In 1926, the eugenicist Karl H. Bauer, for example, stated that if selection were used as a principle for killing people, “then we all have to die”; the eugenicist Hans Luxenburger, in 1931, called for “the unconditional respect of the life of a human individual”; in 1933, the eugenicist Lothar Loeffler argued not only against euthanasia, but also against eugenically indicated pregnancy terminations:
Hitler, however, regarded the institutionalized as “useless eaters” who were taking up the time of hospital personnel and occupying bed space to no worthwhile purpose.113 When, in September 1939, he issued a secret order initiating a national euthanasia program, he did so strictly to free up as many as 800,000 hospital beds for expected war casualties.114
The murder of huge numbers of Jews is an undeniable fact, but it is not accurate to regard the eugenics movement as the ideological engine of this Holocaust. It is true that Hitler, partly under the influence of a manual on human heredity and eugenics written by Erwin Baur, Eugen Fischer, and Fritz Lenz, supported eugenics,115 but he did not hate the Jews because he had been taught by eugenicists to classify them as intellectually inferior. On the contrary, he regarded them as powerful competitors of the blue-eyed, blond race he proposed to champion. The Jews were blamed for Germany’s defeat in World War I and for the humiliations of the Versailles treaty. When it became apparent that a new defeat awaited Germany as a consequence of World War II, vengeance became the order of the day.
As for the gypsies and Slavs, the former were to be exterminated and the latter could be exploited as slaves captured from an inferior tribe. The mass murders of Jews, gypsies, and many Slavs during the late war period took place in absolute secrecy. The community of German eugenicists did not call for a holocaust. Nevertheless, it is equally undeniable that there were German eugenicists who allowed themselves to be co-opted by the regime and who helped to create a climate of legitimization of policies of hatred for other ethnic groups. By giving themselves over to ethnic partisanship rather than universalism, they harmed not only the specific victims of Nazi atrocities but their own system of values and beliefs.
Left and Right
While there was a definite association between Social Darwinism and laissez-faire capitalism, the debate on eugenics actually cut across class and political lines throughout Europe and America, and it is historically incorrect to associate the movement exclusively with the political right. To no small degree it grew to prominence as part of a search for an exit from the excesses of unbridled nineteenth-century capitalism. Even when Herbert Spencer, in England, and William Graham Sumner, in the United States, began defending the period’s gross social inequalities, the left was not about to renounce natural selection, and proponents of socialism saw no inherent contradiction between the two schools of thought.
Marx and Engels were themselves enthusiastic Darwinists, feeling that the theories of evolution and communism were mutually complementary sciences that dealt with related but different topics – biology and social interaction. Vladimir Lenin himself derided the claim that people are equal in ability. 116 Galton’s chief pupil and the leader of Britain’s eugenics movement, Karl Pearson, was a Fabian socialist, as was Sidney Webb, who contributed an essay on eugenics to the influential 1890 Fabian Essays. Geneticists in the early Soviet state attempted, unsuccessfully, to model the socialist experiment along eugenic lines.
Max Levien, head of the Munich chapter of the German Communist Party, wrote that eugenics would play a role in the development of humanity as a function of technical progress. 118 Alfred Grotjahn favored efforts, within a socialist framework, to reduce the birthrate of the genetically disadvantaged, and the influential socialist theoretician Karl Kautsky took degeneration for granted. There was even a considerable eugenics faction in the Social Democrat Party. In the heyday of eugenics, the geneticist H. J. Muller argued that the privileges of capitalist society too often promoted persons of limited ability and that society “needed to produce more Lenins and Newtons.”119 Another confirmed Marxist, the distinguished geneticist J. B. S. Haldane, commented in 1949 in the Daily Worker that “The formula of Communism: ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’ would be nonsense, if abilities were equal.”120 The geneticist Eden Paul summed up the view of many on the left:
The traditional breakdown between left and right can be fundamentally rephrased as “redistributive” and “competitive,” respectively. Logically, egalitarianism is consistent with the competitive point of view. If we are really all “equal,” we should for consistency’s sake favor a “best man wins” approach. If, on the other hand, inequality is genetically preprogrammed, then fairness demands that redistribution become the order of the day, first of material goods, and –with time –of genes. Eugenicists point out that if a material good can, by definition, be redistributed only by confiscating from one person to give to another, genetic redistribution does not suffer from this zero-sum limitation.
In reality, unalloyed genetic determinism is partly a memory of nineteenth-century social Darwinism and partly an invention of egalitarian environmentalists, who attribute such views to their opponents in an attempt to discredit them. As for the all-nurture school, it remains a lovely fantasy (would it were true!), which all but the most radical egalitarians have abandoned. There is only one tenable view of nature/nurture –that of interaction, not mutual exclusion. Legitimate differences of opinion relate only to the relative importance of the one factor vis à vis the other.
Even if one concedes that the fertility patterns of modern society are dysgenic, evolution does not always follow Darwin’s gradualist model, in which minor alterations lead over time to major evolutionary changes. Rather a “punctuated equilibrium” governs lengthy periods of genetic stasis. This seemingly scientific argument, applied, for example, to crustaceans, is a true Trojan horse really intended to be dragged into the gates of the human city.
Biologist Lawrence Wright, basing his assessment on the University of Minnesota twin studies, concludes that The prevailing view of human nature at the end of the century resembles in many ways the view we had at the beginning.124 Because of the heated nature of the debate, the ideological lines of the various participants often appear fuzzy to the observer, and, on occasion, even to the participants. Below are laid out four basic positions, two of which are egalitarian – “naïve egalitarianism” and “sophisticated antiinterventionism.” The reason for the latter distinction is that sophisticated egalitarians are in some respects in greater agreement with eugenicists than with naïve egalitarians. Naïve egalitarians may claim to be adamantly opposed to eugenics but are able to define the concept only vaguely or perhaps not at all. Basically, sophisticated egalitarians are leery of reveling or discussing their own true views for fear of a possible misuse of genetic knowledge.
Small as the group of individuals concerned over the future genetic composition of humankind may be, a single ideological spark in this area has the potential to engender an allconsuming conflagration, so that hostility all too often squeezes out rational discussion. Aside from conflicting ideologies, a huge range of sophistication also exists within the various camps. The following is a simplified breakdown by group:
The “Nordic” or “Aryan” idea.Driven underground as much by the Holocaust memorial movement (in which the author of this book played a modest role), which was launched after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, this group has been reduced to arguing for white survival rather than for white supremacy. The average woman in Europe now bears only 1.4 children, whereas 2.1 are needed just to maintain a population. According to the Population Reference Bureau’s 2003 Population Data Sheet, the population of Europe will drop from 11.5% of the global population to 7.2% by 2050, despite projected strong in-migration. Equally ominous to these theoreticians are the genetic consequences of racial interbreeding inevitable in the “global village.” This group’s loyalties are drawn along ethnic lines, not class. They can be termed tribalists.
Sophisticated anti-interventionists. This is a group which opposes intervention in the human germ line, and some of its members are opposed to intervention even in the germ lines of animals and plants. The anti-interventionists were traumatized by the German slaughter of Jews and by the lip service paid by the National Socialists to eugenics, and this circumstance has shaped their views accordingly. Strangely enough, the private position of this group has much in common with that of the eugenicists. There is a considerable gap between the group’s core beliefs and the views which it proselytizes. It wields influence vastly incommensurate with its size. Some sophisticated anti-interventionists are actually tribalists.
A geneticist, for example, may devote
himself to studying specific gene sequences and studiously avoid the
discussion of all social implications. It is like a mechanic who
repairs a carburetor with no thought as to where the automobile is
to go. Some members of this particular group can be ideologized to a
greater degree than nonmembers, and they can on occasion permit
their personal views to influence their studies, concealing the fact
not only from the public, but even from themselves. On the other
hand, a large percentage remain oblivious to the philosophical and
political implications of their field of study.