“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.
Arthur Jensen’s works simply recapitulated racist stereotypes of the 19th century.
For the last four decades of his career psychologist Arthur Jensen (1922-2012), was the most visible and vocal proponent for the claim that African Americans were genetically less intelligent than white people. He and many of his supporters trumpeted his statistical proficiency as proof he was simply an objective scientist asking hard questions and discovering uncomfortable truths. He continually claimed he was asking factual questions and not giving any policy recommendations.
That last bit is utter nonsense. Throughout his long career, Jensen warned about stupid Black people outbreeding smart white people. In his famous 1969 article he wrote:
Certain census statistics suggest that there might be forces at work which could create and widen the genetic aspect of the average difference in ability between the Negro and white populations in the United States, with the possible consequence that the improvement of educational facilities and increasing equality of opportunity will have a decreasing probability of producing equal achievement or continuing gains in the Negro population’s ability to compete on equal terms…..Is there a danger that current welfare policies, unaided by eugenic foresight, could lead to the genetic enslavement of a substantial segment of our population? The possible consequences of our failure seriously to study these questions may well be viewed by future generations as our society’s greatest injustice to Negro Americans. (p. 95)
Look out white Americans! Racial inferiors are putting your civilization at risk! Two years before his 1969 article, Jensen made this quite clear. He endorsed discouraging or preventing people of lower intelligence from reproducing, what is thought of as negative eugenics rather than trying to encourage smart people to reproduce, which would be postitive eugenics:
A lowering [of IQ] by as much as one standard deviation would probably make civilization impossible.
The reasonable answer I believe, is to think at present only in terms of negative eugenics rather than in terms of positive eugenics. That is to say, there are probably traits which have no conceivable survival value and which all humane persons would agree are human misfortunes which should be prevented if at all possible.
Jensen’s dysgenic nightmare was shared by the racist right of American politics, a fact that his admirers always chose to ignore. Hence, when the psychological journal Intelligence proclaimed Arthur Jensen, “A King Among Men” (seriously?), both American Renaissanceand Vdare eagerly agreed with Jensen’s ascension to the throne.
Part Three: When a Paper Doesn’t Take Its Own Thesis Seriously
I’ll end this series with the paper with which I have the longest history – Jonathan (“Jonny”) Anomaly’s 2017 “Race Research and the Ethics of Belief.” I was one of the Very Mean ReviewersTM that Anomaly wrote a blog post about, and yes, in my review I suggested that the paper was unpublishable. Clearly I was wrong, as it made its way into print in more or less the same form that I originally read. But pace Anomaly’s interpretation, my main complaint about the paper, as a reviewer, had little to do with the paper’s (weak) defense of hereditarianism (though my scorn for Nicholas Wade’s shoddy defense of scientific racism was openly and forcefully expressed in my review). Rather, my main complaint was focused on what I viewed as the paper’s more or less entirely incoherent argument structure.
I’ll note at the outset that some readers may find this account to be, as John Jackson put it, a little bit “inside baseball.” The gap between what the paper purports to do, and what it actually goes, is stark, but making sense of what the paper purports to do does get us a bit into actual philosophy (that isn’t even about race).
Part II. A paper about policy that doesn’t engage with policy
Cofnas’s recent piece,1published in journal Philosophical Psychology, is problematic for a different reason than Winegard, Winegard, and Anomaly – it simply fails to do what it claims. The very title of the paper “Research on group differences in intelligence: A defense of free inquiry,” points towards its absurdity. As many people immediately pointed out, research on group differences in intelligence has been pursued and published regularly, and there are no limits on “free inquiry” around it.2 At least, no more so than there are limits on “inquiry” surrounding climate change skepticism or claims about the dangers of routine childhood vaccinations. In each case, what there is, instead, is a broad consensus among experts who actually engage with research of the relevant kind that the claims being made are too often wildly ill-supported (often already having been shown to be wrong), and the implications drawn by supporters on the basis of these ill-supported claims are often far too strong. When researchers argue that reasonable people of goodwill should not pursue bad research that purports to support certain kinds of conclusions about group differences in intelligence, or certain kinds of conclusions about anthropogenic climate change, or certain kinds of conclusions about the safety of vaccine, they are not arguing against “free inquiry,” but rather in favor of not pursuing grossly irresponsible research.