Deep Thoughts

The Strange Evolution of Eugenics

May 14, 2014

Multiple Pages
The Strange Evolution of Eugenics

Predictably, responses to veteran New York Times genetics reporter Nicholas Wade’s new book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History are already starting to break down along ethnic lines.

For example, the quite intelligent and extremely hostile anthropologist Jonathan Marks, who coined the term “human biodiversity” in 1995, continues his long-running War on Wade with some classic bile.

Much of the anger at Wade derives from a sense that a victory that seemed like it had been won in the 1970s is slipping away as the human genome data pours in. Luke Ford interviewed Wade and asked:

Would it be fair to say that many of the principal ideas in your book were taken for granted as commonsense wisdom say 70-80 years ago?

Nicholas laughs. “I think a lot of that is true. People took it for granted that races existed and had a biological basis. … Many social scientists now say they don’t think that races exist. And the fact that the genome says otherwise is, as you say, a throwback to the wisdom of 70 years ago.”

Wade is an Englishman—his grandfather survived the Titanic—and the British-American Darwinian tradition comes naturally to him. Darwin’s intellectual predecessors, such as Benjamin Franklin, Adam Smith, and Thomas Malthus, and leading descendants, such as Francis Galton, R.A. Fisher, J.M. Keynes, and W.D. Hamilton, illustrate that the concept of self-organizing evolution, whether in government, economics, or biology, has been largely a British idea. An awareness of the advantages of competition in business, nature, or politics is related to John Milton’s and John Stuart Mill’s defenses of free expression as making possible a marketplace of ideas in which the best would win.

“Gould’s campaign to rewrite history has been so successful that the entire topic of eugenics is now covered with intellectual cooties.”

Ford asked Wade, “How much has your thinking been influenced by your upbringing in Britain?”

In Britain [then], there was almost no civic virtue more highly prized than tolerance and if people thought differently, you just let them be, while in America today, there’s a great tendency to stamp out any heretical thoughts and make everyone think alike, particularly in controversial issues like this.

The British superiority at evolutionary thought doesn’t imply overall supremacy. Other ethnicities enjoyed other accomplishments. For instance, rocket science was developed predominantly by Germans such as Wernher von Braun and other V-2 engineers brought to America by Operation Paperclip. Space flight was promoted in America by the anti-Nazi refugee popularizer Willy Ley and the German-American dean of science fiction, Robert A. Heinlein.

At the same time, Jews such as Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller took the lead in the development of nuclear weapons.

While it can’t be ruled out, there’s no need for a genetic explanation for these national specialties. Rocketry, for example, was in large part a challenge to harness potent fuels, and the Germans were the best at chemistry.

Physics was convenient for urban Jews. (Those interested in living things tended to become doctors rather than naturalists.)

By contrast, Britain’s brightest scientists tended to live in close contact with the countryside, both natural and agricultural. For example, Hamilton (1936-2000), the most creative evolutionary theorist of the later 20th century, grew up in bucolic Kent, only five miles from Darwin’s Down House. It’s not surprising that a bourgeoisie that mostly stayed out of the burghs would take an interest in evolution.

Of course, an inevitable side effect of ethnic specialization was that each group didn’t have as much to brag about outside its specialty. For example, while Jews in the 20th-century United States could rightly boast of the accomplishments of physicists like Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman, they largely lacked role models among the great Darwinians in biology and psychology, who tended to be representatives of the WASP old elite.

By the 1970s, this state of affairs was becoming less tolerable to rising scientists such as Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, and Leon Kamin. While Darwin’s immense prestige made his memory almost unassailable, their envy was focused upon a suitable scapegoat, Darwin’s half-cousin Francis Galton.

Galton had quickly sensed the collapse in fertility among Britain’s best and brightest that began in the later 19th century. For example, Gregory Clark points out in The Son Also Rises that Galton’s idol, his older cousin Darwin, had ten children but only nine grandchildren.

A century before, Galton had launched an immense campaign to raise awareness about what he called “eugenics.” It was a long-term goal, like space exploration was in the 1920s. Galton and his followers knew that to make scientific progress they’d have to come up with breakthroughs in statistics, genetics, evolutionary theory, psychology, and so forth. For instance, in late middle age, Galton made epochal advances in statistics, inventing the correlation coefficient and regression analysis. Many other scientists were inspired to make more discoveries.

Galton mused on ways for society to encourage fertility among its Darwins, but was annoyed when his more leftist followers in the 20th century such as H.G. Wells, John Maynard Keynes, and the then liberal Winston Churchill began advocating mandating restrictions on the fertility of those who couldn’t care for themselves. Wade points out that:

Britain was quite quick to move away from eugenics. The Americans did so much later, but not until after they had sterilized some 40,000 people and the Germans ran the whole idea into the ground in a horrible way. Britain’s record happens to be a little better than that of others. [Francis] Galton’s eugenics was of the positive kind, he favored people with what he regarded as good genes marrying each other. In no way did he advocate negative eugenics, meaning sterilization of those whose genes were thought to be inferior. That was an American idea that was then taken up by the Germans.

Strikingly, the key Member of Parliament who blocked Home Secretary Churchill’s 1911 bill for sterilization of the feeble-minded was Josiah Wedgwood, another member of Darwin and Galton’s extended family. Because the British had been debating the question more intensively—and nowhere longer than among Darwin’s relations—than elsewhere, they were one of the very few countries to not use mandatory sterilization (a practice carried on in Sweden into the mid-1970s).

John Glad, retired director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, wrote an important book in 2011, Jewish Eugenics, documenting the Jewish love-hate relationship with eugenics.

The most striking revelation is that, contrary to the current impression, Jews largely approved of eugenics until the end of the 1960s. (The most effective opponents tended to be Catholics, such as G.K Chesterton, author of 1922’s Eugenics and Other Evils.) Glad quotes endless Jewish spokesmen from the first seven decades of the 20th century to the effect that Jews had been practicing eugenic marriages for 3,000 years. The medical profession, which was largely secular and progressive, was enthusiastic about eugenics, and there was little evidence that the sizable number of Jewish doctors objected.

Rather, Jews didn’t contribute much scientifically to this quite productive movement because their city skills took them in other directions, such as becoming doctors rather than naturalists. To contribute to the Darwinian mainstream, it helped to be a smart country boy who grew up interested in plants, animals, and domestic animal breeding. Gould’s archrival Edward O. Wilson is a representative American version, an Alabama lad who couldn’t get enough of ants.

Using many hundreds of quotes from contemporary publications dating back to the 19th century, Glad traces the broad enthusiasm for eugenics among Jewish leaders, both progressive and conservative, assimilationist and Zionist, up through the 1960s. Then, following the rise of 1960s radicalism, Israel’s triumph in the 1967 Six-Day War, the UN’s 1975 vote to condemn Zionism as racism, and the subsequent Holocaust memorial movement, there emerged a new historical orthodoxy. Jewish intellectuals such as Gould systematically demonized eugenics as heavily responsible for the Nazis and much else that wasn’t good for the Jews.

According to Glad, the first books linking the Holocaust to the eugenics movement did not appear until the 1970s. Yet, by 2004, at least 131 such books had been published, most of them “shrill.”

To take a mundane (and thus representative) example, neoconservative columnist Ben Wattenberg wrote in Rev. Moon’s Washington Times in 2000:

Eugenics theory helped slam shut the doors of immigration in the 1920s, but such pseudoscience is in the trash can now. In 1965, Americans reopened the immigration flow, this time allowing persons from around the world to share and shape our liberty.

Meanwhile, Glad points out, Jews, both religious and secular, remain at the forefront of implementing eugenic techniques and technologies (although they don’t use the e-word anymore). For example, Dor Yeshorim, the Committee for Prevention of Jewish Genetic Diseases, was founded in the 1980s by Rabbi Eckstein after he lost four children to hereditary Tay-Sachs disease. Rabbi Eckstein’s system of premarital genetic testing has succeeded in largely eliminating this terrible tragedy from New York’s ultra-Orthodox community.

Likewise, Israel is a magnet for eugenics technology start-ups because Israel’s government and society are much more pro-eugenics—in part, to help win the War of the Cradle with the Palestinians—than are European regulators and cultures. For instance, in a 1993 survey of geneticists, 68 percent of the Israeli scientists agreed with the classic eugenic notion that “It is socially irresponsible knowingly to bring an infant with a serious genetic disorder into the world in an era of prenatal diagnosis” versus only 8 percent of German geneticists.

Gould’s campaign to rewrite history has been so successful that the entire topic of eugenics is now covered with intellectual cooties. So, let me try to explain the essential nature of eugenics, a concept that has always been fuzzy due to both the efforts of pro-eugenics propagandists to describe it as a “science” and those of its enemies to label it a “pseudoscience.”

First, though, let me point out that I’ve always found most of the proposed eugenic techniques to fall somewhere between icky and awful. Rabbi Eckstein, for example, strikes me as a great man who has done a tremendous service to his community. Yet the rapid success of his eugenic program was highly dependent upon the prevalence of arranged marriages among the ultra-Orthodox.

I’ve always agreed with Shakespeare (e.g., Romeo and Juliet) that the triumph of the love match is perhaps the central glory of northwestern European culture. As Chesterton argued in 1922, if eugenic arranged marriages actually succeed in breeding stronger, healthier men, the first thing these new, better men would do would be to tell the busybodies to butt out and let them marry the women they love.

By the way, this criticism doesn’t apply as strongly to the meritocratic and kindhearted Galton, whose main suggestion was that society should bring together the most promising young men and women for socializing and encourage nature to take its course. I suspect that Galton would look favorably upon modern elite coeducation as a system of “positive eugenics.” For example, Bill and Hillary Clinton met at Yale Law School and Barack and Michelle Obama were introduced due to their connections to Harvard Law School. Galton, though, would probably have been distressed that these two first couples have only three children amongst them.

Similarly, more high-tech eugenic techniques such as selective abortion, discarding fertilized loser embryos, and sterilization all strike me as distasteful, at the least.

Finally, none of this works particularly fast or well. As Galton was the first person in history to put in writing, humans regress toward the mean.

So, with that out of the way, let’s consider the central question: Was eugenics science or pseudoscience?

The answer is: Neither. It was an attempt at engineering. Let me take some time to compare eugenics to another great engineering obsession of the 20th century: space rockets.

We look back fondly upon the Space Age, but the conquest of space has far deeper roots in Nazi Germany than eugenics does. Hitler paid for the development of the first ballistic missile, the V-2. In 1945, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union rounded up all the German rocket scientists they could get their hands on, with the U.S. getting the cream of the crop, most famously von Braun, an SS officer who went on to lead America to the moon in 1969.

Meanwhile, a heavily Jewish effort was inventing the perfect weapons for the ballistic missile: atomic and thermonuclear bombs. With its conventional payload, Hitler’s V2 had been merely an extremely expensive way to blow up random houses in London. But when the German ballistic missile was married to the Jewish city-vaporizing nuclear weapon, humanity had on its hands the most terrifying threat to its survival ever.

The phenomenal accomplishments of the Space Race (sometimes it doesn’t seem possible that man walked on the moon 45 years ago) were intertwined with the Cold War’s escalation to mutually assured destruction. Tom Wolfe argued in The Right Stuff that the astronauts and cosmonauts served as single-combat warriors like David and Goliath. Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn risked their necks demonstrating to the world what their country’s rockets could do, thus freeing America and Russia from fighting an actual ICBM war under the misconception that the other guy was just boasting.

Then, after Neil Armstrong demonstrated America’s technological superiority, America tended to attract a higher quality of new Cold War allies, such as Zhou Enlai and Anwar Sadat, while the Soviets were stuck with Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, and others of that ilk.

Ultimately, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to blame Jews and Germans for nuclear ICBMs. Nor is it admirable for Gould’s disciples to demonize Galton and the scientists who succeeded him out of a desire to undermine the confidence of a competing ethnicity.


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