Eugenics: Not Well-Born

Karl Pearson, ed., The Treasury of Human Inheritance. (London: Dulau & Co., 1909): 284.

“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.

Pedigreed Bunk: The Right Wing Media on the Hsu Controversy

Cover of Capt. Billy's Whiz Bang Magazine advertising

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 latest of Hsu’s defenders is physicist Lawrence Krauss, who, predictably, is wrong about pretty much everything he wrote in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal that Hsu reprinted on his own blog.  Krauss’s piece is wrong in entirely predictable ways.

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Watching the Whitewash

A man exclaiming

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.

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Arthur Jensen’s Racist Eugenics

Sketches of head showing "Varying Grades of Intelligence" by associating them with race

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 Renaissance and Vdare eagerly agreed with Jensen’s ascension to the throne.

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Stephen Hsu and the Ethical Responsibility of Scientists

Sign reading:

Hsu gets nowhere in his attempted defense of his actions

Stephen Hsu, my university’s Senior Vice President for Research and Innovation, has posted a response entitled “Twitter Attacks, and a Defense of Scientific Inquiry” to the Graduate Student Union’s long Twitter thread exposing his eugenicist beliefs. He did not respond at all to my previous post about his relationship with Ron Unz and Unz’s promotion of antisemitism. Perhaps that is coming in the future. Let’s examine his attempted defenses of some of his actions Continue reading

Whitewashing Scientific Racism: Revisiting the Equalitarian Myth

Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence

“Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little.”

It is one of the most famous scenes in literature: Aunt Polly commands Tom Sawyer to whitewash the front fence in punishment for some misdeed. Clever Tom pretends it is a joy to whitewash the fence and soon has tricked all his friends into whitewashing the fence for him, indeed, they pay him for the privilege. Similarly, Race Differences in Intelligence (RDI) researchers as well as outright racists often trick mainstream scholars into whitewashing the ugly history of their activities.

A perfect example is this article in the psychology journal, Intelligence where we are presented with an analysis of “controversies in the field of intelligence research.” It is a scientometric analysis meaning it is a quantitative account of such controversies as reported in the scientific literature. There is nothing wrong with that in principle but often such work needs supplementation by a detailed account of specific incidents in the database. As Lorraine Daston recently explained:

if you are looking for causal mechanisms, often only a detailed ethnography will reveal what exactly is the cause of some observed pattern in behavior. And it can work in the other direction — a hypothesis developed from ethnographic work may require statistical testing. These two modes of inquiry, so often opposed to each other, seem to me to work hand-in-glove, at least from the standpoint of the goals of scientific explanation.

Following Daston’s advice, it behooves us to look as some of the incidents in the article in order to get the clearest picture of the listed “controversies in the field of intelligence research” and what is missing from that picture.

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Clarence Thomas and Eugenics

A chart showing simple Mendelian inheritance

A chart showing simple Mendelian inheritance from “Preventive Medicine and Hygiene” (1917).

Today the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion in Box v. Planned Parenthood. The issues of the case can be found here. I want to focus on the concurring opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas. Thomas has long wanted to overturn Griswold v. Connecticut, a landmark 1965 case in which laws prohibiting the sale of contraceptives were declared unconstitutional. Griswold was an important case to establish a right to privacy, something Thomas simply does not think existsWhat is new about Thomas’s concurrence in Box is that he is using the history of eugenics to do so.  A really bad and dishonest history.

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An American Dilemma and Eugenics

A woodcarving of Jesus and Satan

The word “eugenic” is an unquestionably negative adjective –tagging something eugenic is to disparage it, except in the rare case of someone who attempts to resuscitate some aspect of the vilified American eugenics movement. However, if asked, it is doubtful that those who employ the term to vilify something they object to can give an accurate definition of the term. Those who turn to the history of science to define the term are likely to be frustrated. The American eugenics movement was in fact so broad and historical scholarship on it has been so profuse that by the end of the twentieth century the word “eugenics” was applied to so many different activities that it was of little use in describing much of anything. And, since every industrialized country in the world had some kind of program under the rubric “eugenics” the problem becomes more acute if we move beyond the United States. Today, historians, activists, journalists and assorted political pundits can easily find evidence in the many activities associated with the word eugenics to support nearly any assertion they wanted to make. “What,” asked Philip Pauly a quarter century ago, “is then left of ‘eugenics’ apart from Francis Galton’s euphonious term and impressionistic images of semiutopian technocratic professionals?” (p. 133).

Unfortunately, outside the specialists in the history of biology, “eugenics” is often assumed to lead directly to the Nazi Final Solution. In a society that expressly values diversity and civil rights, the word “eugenicist” carries the same sort of weight that being labeled a pinko carried during the red scare. Diane Paul, who has extensively studied and written about both the history of the American eugenics movement and ongoing genetic research and interventions that are sometimes associated with the label eugenic, wrote, “I argue that efforts to demarcate eugenics from non-eugenics will prove as fruitless as analogous efforts to demarcate ‘science’ from non-science’ for the same reason; eugenics, like science, is simply much too heterogeneous. I believe that disputes about the meaning of eugenics are also unproductive. At present, the term is wielded like a club. To label a policy ‘eugenics’ is to say, in effect, that it is not just bad, but beyond the pale. It is a way of ending, not promoting, discussion.” (pp. 96-7)

Rhetorician Richard Weaver would call the word “eugenics” in our world a “devil term.” By this he meant a single term that stood for an idea or concept that was so repellent as to be universally rejected. Writing in the early 1960s, Weaver suggested that “un-American” or “Communist” or, significantly, “Nazi,” were a good examples of such “term[s] of repulsion” (p. 223).  A devil term cuts of discussion. It stops inquiry. The use of them betrays a desire to eliminate any further discussion of the problem.

I bring this up because one of my Twitter frenemies keeps bringing up (even though no one asked) his belief that “Gunnar Myrdal was a hardcore-eugenicist!” if I mention Myrdal’s enormously influential book, An American Dilemma.  Published in 1944, AAD set the stage for how Americans wrote and thought about race relations for two decades. It is widely considered one of the most important books of the twentieth century on race relations. What could it mean that this anti-racist classic was authored by a “hardcore eugenicist?” To answer that question, we need a clear understanding of “eugenics” which, as Paul noted years ago, is hard to come by.

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