Abstract: The historical relationship among Darwinism, eugenics, and racism is notoriously difficult to unravel. Eugenicists worried about the “survival of the unfit,” a phrase that should, prima facia, be nonsense for those with a Darwinian worldview in the early twentieth century. To be “fit” in a Darwinian sense meant adapted well enough to the environment to out-survive (and out-reproduce) one’s competitors. For eugenicists, the measure for “fit” could not be those best adapted to the environment in this way because they were concerned with the opposite situation: those who thriving and yet were “unfit.” Additionally, historians now reject the idea that eugenics was necessarily founded on racist assumptions. We can address these problems by examining the different forms of Darwinism adopted by early twentieth-century notions of “fitness” and how the term was interpreted in the context of American debates about immigration restriction and race. For some eugenicists, the idea of panmixia allowed them to argue that the unfit were outcompeting the fit. For others, notably Madison Grant and Henry Fairfield Osborn the idea of organic selection provided them with a Darwinian mechanism that solved the problem of the “survival of the unfit.”
Katheryn Paige Harden’s new book, The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality hovers between a plea and a demand that social scientists incorporate behavior genetics into their research. Unfortunately, the book is based on a series of false assumptions about the social sciences that undercut the book’s central thesis.
Social scientists, Harden warns, “have been trained to view the results of behavior genetics with fear and loathing” (p. 277). Indeed, they are guilty of committing a violent crime:
The tacit collusion in some areas of the social sciences to ignore genetic differences…is wrong. It is wrong in the way that robbing banks is wrong. It is stealing. It’s stealing people’s time when researchers work to churn out critically flawed scientific papers, and other researchers chase false leads that go no where. It’s stealing people’s money when taxpayers and private foundations support policies premised on the shakiest of causal foundations. Failing to take genetics seriously is a scientific practice that pervasively undermines our stated goal of understanding society so that we can improve it. (p. 186)
Well, anyone accusing their colleagues of being the moral equivalent of a stick-up artist must have good grounds to do so. Moreover, they must come from a research tradition that has never been guilty of “churning out critically flawed scientific papers!” Unfortunately, Harden misrepresents the fields the criticizes. She shifts standards of evidence to suit her pre-conceived goals. Most importantly, she fails to show that behavior genetics is at all relevant for the values and policies she endorses.
Holocaust denial is the idea that the Nazi genocide of European Jews has been greatly exaggerated or, in its most severe form, never actually happened. It is, quite correctly, labeled an extreme form of antisemitism. In the United States, the Institute for Historical Review, founded in the late 1970s. My paper focuses on the decades before that, from the end of World War II to the founding of the IHR.
Here are some of the highlights of my paper:
Conservative publishers, Regnery, Devin-Adair, and Caxton Printers published fascist activists in the twenty years after World War II. These fascists argued that Roosevelt and Churchill, not Hitler, started the war and that the Nazis war crimes were equivalent or less destructive than the Allies.
There is more, all fully documented from archival sources. All of this is not in spite of libertarian ideology but a consequence of it: they were isolationists and were perfectly willing to distort the history of World War II to suit their ends. They made active alliances with overt antisemitic, right-wing activists and, in many cases, shared their antisemitism. It is time the libertarians stopped denying their ugly history regarding Holocaust denial and started taking responsibility for it.
“Eugenics” means “well-born.” The term was coined by Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton in the nineteenth century. Despite thinking of it as a science, it was not. “Eugenics,” wrote Frank Dikötter, “was not so much a clear set of scientific principles as a ‘modern’ way of talking about social problems in biologizing terms.” The way to understand eugenics is not as a branch of biology, but a branch of politics. If science asks questions of fact: “What can we discover about the natural world?” politics is about what we should do: “What kind of actions should our society undertake?” Misunderstanding this basic distinction and you misunderstand the nature of eugenics.
Eugenics, which flourished in the years before World War II, was meant to help the human race improve itself by encouraging desirable people to pass on their genes and discouraging undesirable people to pass on their genes. There are lots of problems with this idea: Who decides what’s desirable or undesirable? How do we encourage or discourage people from reproducing? And the history of eugenics includes lots of bad, bad policies. Before World War II, in the United States, eugenic thought contributed to restricting immigration on racial grounds, forcibly sterilizing people against their wills, segregating people in institutions, prohibiting inter-racial marriages, and, in the case of Nazi Germany, contributing to genocide. On the other hand, it did a lot of good like……well…..actually no one thinks anything good came out of eugenics when it was in its heyday. It did great harm and absolutely no good whatsoever.
Naturally, there are people who want to bring it back. Let’s find out why they are wrong.
The rump faction of Pro-Trump America Firsters in Congress have announced a bold, new America First plan to rescue us all from strictly imaginary dangers like election fraud, immigration, solar power, public health lockdowns, the Chinese Commies, and, my personal favorite “progressive indoctrination and enrichment of an out-of-control elite oligarchy,” which I’m pretty sure is me and my friends. Except they spelled “progressive” as “progessive” so maybe they are talking about someone else entirely.
The whole agenda is the unappetizing meal left under the heat lamps on the buffet table of the Trump administration. This, however, caught my eye:
The America First Caucus recognizes that our country is more than a mass of consumers or a series of abstract ideas. America is a nation with a border, and a culture, strengthened by a common respect for uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions. History has shown that societal trust and political unity are threatened when foreign citizens are imported en-masse into a country, particularly without institutional support for assimilation and an expansive welfare state to bail them out should they fail to contribute positively to the country.
That whole “Anglo-Saxon political tradition” has an interesting history. I’ve touched on some of this before when I wrote about W. Cleon Skousen, right wing “scholar” beloved of neo-Confederates, right-wing paramilitary troops, and Charles Koch (who says conservatives don’t have a big tent?). His terrible book, The 5,000-Year Leap is filled with references to the Anglo-Saxon traditions upon which this country was supposedly based. As it happens, there is an interesting history in American political thought being invoked here and, of course, it is a racist one. Let’s dig into the Angles and the Saxons and how Americans have abused their name!
Hereditarian researchers still call for establishing a two-tiered educational system for White and Black people (Cofnas, 2020, p. 134).
Cofnas writes: “John Jackson knew this was false because (a) it’s ridiculous and (b) he was aware of my article in Spectator USA, which explicitly addressed this lie. But now the claim that I advocate segregation has become the go-to smear on Twitter.”
Here’s the problem. The line that so offends Cofnas does not claim that Cofnas advocates segregation.” The sentence does not even attribute the “two-tiered” idea as one advocated by Cofnas, but one advocated by “hereditarian researchers” when they call call for a “two-tiered educational system for White and Black people.” Here is Cofnas making that exact claim:
It could not be more clear that, in this quotation from Cofnas’s paper, he claims that hereditarians have advocated educational programs based on “ethnic” groups. He then cites the following scholars as evidence that hereditarians advocate such programs:
Gottfredson, L. S. (2005a). Suppressing Intelligence Research: Hurting Those We Intend to Help. In R. Wright & N. A. Cummings (Eds.), Destructive trends in mental health: The well-intentioned path to harm (pp. 155–187). Routledge.
Gottfredson, L. S. (2005b). What if the hereditarian hypothesis is true? Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 11, 311–319.
Jensen, A. R. (1969). How much can we boost IQ and scholastic achievement? Harvard Educational Review, 39, 1–123.
Lubinski, D., & Humphreys, L. G. (1997). Incorporating general intelligence into epidemiology and the social sciences. Intelligence, 24, 159–201.
It is perfectly correct, therefore, to cite Cofnas’s paper to evidence the claim that hereditarians advocate a “two-tiered” system of education based on racial or, if you prefer, “ethnic,” groups. There seems to be ample evidence, supplied by Cofnas himself, that hereditarian researchers advocate for these kinds of programs. For a devastating critique of the idea that education should be tailored in such a way, see this wonderful post by Jonathan Kaplan.
Cofnas is spinning the idea that I claimed he advocated segregation out of whole cloth. I wrote an entire book about psychologists who did use their science to advocate for Jim Crow segregation–an ugly history that contemporary hereditarians pretend never happened. In that book, I made quite clear that Jensen disavowed the use of his research to support Jim Crow when arch-segregationist, Carleton Putnam attempted to recruit him to the cause:
Hereditarians simply ignore the uses to which the radical right put their work. They prefer to take on the role of innocent victim and attack those who simply read and report on what they have written correctly.
*Andrew co-wrote the paper with me but the passage that offends Cofnas was mine and I take full responsibility for it. Andrew is not writing this blog which represents only my opinions, not his.
I promise this will be short, but I need to keep track of the long line of falsehoods and omissions surrounding the Hsu controversy (background here). Apparently the right wing thinks repeating the same story over and over makes it more true. They are wrong, their account is nothing but “pedigreed bunk.”
The true story of Hsu controversy is disappearing.
“In the fullness of time” Steve Hsu assures the listeners on a recent podcast (more about the podcast below) Michigan State University President Stanley asking for and accepting his resignation, “will really looking like irrational mob stupidity causing an action, a hasty action by the administration” (17:30) . No one knows if he’s right or not but as a historian who has researched and written about many similar controversies I suspect Hsu could not be more wrong. The aftermath of the Hsu controversy is playing out in the exact same way dozens of other similar controversies have played out. This post is to point out the moves of what is more-or-less a ritualistic dance. As they said on Battlestar Galactica, “All of this has happened before and all of this will happen again.”
(More on the podcast below. For background on this controversy, see here. For information about his resignation as Michigan State’s Vice-President for Research see here).
There are two common threads I’ve discovered in my historical work on race and science. First, the line between establishment scientists and right-wing racists is very, very thin and establishment scientists far too often think that their status of “scientist” can protect them from being used by unsavory political actors. Sometimes, as in the case of Jensen (see here or here) the scientist just blunders along and helps some of the most noxious political agendas imaginable. Other times supposedly establishment scientists simply parrot the arguments of the racist right–who knows if they realize they are doing so or not? (see here or here). .
The second thread is that both establishment scientists and the racist right try desperately to control how specific events and controversies are remembered. The narrative is pretty standard: Brave scientists seeking the truth about racial differences in an objective and apolitical manner are hysterically attacked by lefty ideologues, or more recently, “postmodernists,” who, to use a phrase I just now made up, “can’t handle the truth!” (see here or here).
As a historian it is fascinating to see this entirely predictable narrative unfold in real time in the Hsu controversy. Let’s explore both threads in this controversy.