Eugenicists also believed that science is real
“Be skeptical of everything you hear, including this sentence.” That was the central message of the 48 semester-long classes I taught to medical professionals—doctors, nurses, therapists, administrators, etc. over 19 years. Officially, my courses were on the economics of healthcare, but they also encompassed ethics and a much broader look at epistemology and the philosophy of science.
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While my students’ knowledge of science and medicine was vastly greater than my own, it was my point to teach them how dangerous their knowledge could be when when unleashed with inadequate skepticism and introspection. My greatest tool in this effort was to devote a couple of weeks of our course to the history of eugenics—the now-discredited but once-transcendent science of being well-born. The logo of the Second International Eugenics Congress in 1921, pictured above, declared that “Eugenics is the self direction of human evolution,” with the goal being “an harmonious entity.” Self-direction was essential, they thought because, as Alexander Graham Bell had written in 1883, “natural selection no longer influences mankind to any great extent.” (Bell was honorary president of the 1921 conference. More on him in an essay coming soon.)
In the past month, I’ve participated in one webinar and two podcasts on the topic of eugenics. I opened the webinar by arguing three things:
It is a grave error to refer to eugenics, as many do, as a “pseudoscience.” Eugenics was hard science run amok, untempered by skepticism and profoundly intolerant of dissenting viewpoints. In a recent essay, “The Briar and the Rose,” I noted that the field of mathematical statistics—the core of modern science—was to a significant degree an outgrowth of eugenics.
It is equally erroneous to assume that eugenicists were ideological troglodytes—Ku Klux Klansmen in tuxedos,so to speak. Support for eugenics spanned the ideological spectrum, but the movement was at its heart a progressive endeavor. They were profoundly optimistic that eugenics could produce a stronger, happier, healthier human species—with the caveat that some unfortunates would be swept aside in the process.
It is exceedingly dangerous to presume that eugenics is a quaint historical topic of little consequence in our far-more-enlightened era. As we discussed in these recordings, eugenics remains very much with us in spirit, if not in name, and new medical technologies offer “self-directed evolution” to a degree unimaginable to the original eugenicists. And the eugenicists’ lack of skepticism and intolerance for dissent is very much with us in science and policy discussions today
Here are the three events in which I participated:
WEBINAR: “Eugenics: The Curse that Keeps on Cursing.”
Sponsored by FAIR in Medicine (FAIR = Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism). The session was chaired by FAIR in Medicine Fellow Mark Buchanan, MD; and panelists included Stanford Medical School neurobiology scholar William B. Hurlbut, MD; Louisville attorney / bioethicist / Down Syndrome advocate Mark Leach; and myself — health economist / journalist / musician and FAIR in Medicine Fellow Robert Graboyes, PhD.
Points I made included:
“Eugenicists sought to ‘improve’ the human species in the same way that one would improve cattle or soybeans—and using basically the same techniques.”
“this quest for improvement led states to forcibly sterilize 70,000+ Americans, most of them for utterly spurious reasons.”
“American eugenics was a powerful inspiration for the Nazi government,” which became a defense argument at the Nuremberg war trials — and “they weren’t entirely incorrect in that.”
We often refer to eugenics as a pseudoscience, but, “In doing so, we let ourselves off very easy.” Instead, “it was science gone amok.” … “It allowed itself to be driven by the agendas and the prejudices of its founders. It was a scientific community that was utterly intolerant, in the extreme, of any dissenting views. If you were a scientist in late 19th and early 20th century who had doubts about eugenics, you dared not speak up, because you would do so at the risk of your career. And I’ll add that such dynamics are not unknown in our own time.”
“Just to name one figure, Madison Grant, who was perhaps the worst of them. He wrote a book called ‘The Passing of the Great Race’ that Hitler described as his “bible.” [Grant also] founded the Bronx Zoo. He founded the Save the Redwoods League. He founded Denali National Park. He was essentially the founder of the whole field of wildlife management. He went to Yale undergraduate, Columbia law. He was a brilliant man, well-connected. And very comfortable in progressive circles.”
Afterward, we talked about the potential for present-day technologies to go similarly amok—in particular the editing of human genes. Similar, though not identical, terrain was covered in the two subsequent podcasts.
PODCAST: “Does Eugenics Exist in U.S. Health Care?”
Here, AnneMarie Schieber of the Heartland Institute interviewed me on related topics. We discussed the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, which is often portrayed as enlightened science versus religious-inspired censorship. What is less well-known is that John Scopes’ biology/evolution text was heavily laden with eugenics and grotesque racism framed in scientific terms. Finally, we discussed the rapid rise of euthanasia in Canada and elsewhere—and the enthusiasm that early eugenicists held for euthanasia as a means of improving the human species.
PODCAST: “Life Imitates Art”
Finally, Marilyn Singleton, MD, interviewed me for her America Out Loud podcast. Here, our discussion of eugenics begins with a discussion of my birth and upbringing in 1950s Petersburg, Virginia — a city and state wracked by racial divisions in that time. I noted that at our public library, African Americans were prohibited by law from the front door, first floor, or stacks. I told how, in 1960, in a brilliant act of what we today would be called “trolling,” a local minister (Wyatt Tee Walker), led a group of protestors through the whites-only door, strode up to the circulation desk, and asked for a biography of Robert E. Lee. From there, the discussion turned to racial and non-racial aspects of eugenic sterilization in America from 1927 to 2014. We discussed how the German medical profession’s enthusiasm for eugenics helped initiate the Holocaust.
In all three discussions, the recurring theme was the damage done by eugenicists’ lack of skepticism and their brutal intolerance of dissent. The real theme, though, is that we have not adequately learned the lessons offered by this terrible history.
Thank you. Much to ponder.
Great, great post.