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Shockley versus Shockley
Don’t Cut the Rattle off the Rattlesnake
Rattlesnake with severed tail, generated by AI at Craiyon.com.
William Shockley, Nobel physicist, inventor of the transistor, and eugenicist gadfly, has returned to the University of Virginia, 47 years after his controversial debate over eugenics and 33 years after his death. The question now, as it was then, was whether, or when, a great university ought to provide a platform for a racist provocateur, as it did in February 1975.
As a UVa undergraduate at the time, I despised Shockley, but supported the decision to invite him because I believed—correctly—that nothing would destroy him and his message more effectively in the eyes of my fellow students than simply allowing him to speak. I attended the event and got precisely what I hoped for. If Shockley had worn a clown suit and sprayed attendees with a seltzer bottle, he would not have damaged his credibility any more than he did simply by standing at the podium and sharing his thoughts. Someone asked me afterward why the university shouldn’t ban scoundrels like Shockley from its podiums. My response was simple:
“Don’t cut the rattle off the rattlesnake. The silence is more dangerous for you than it is for the snake.”
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The controversy has re-emerged recently because a current member of the university’s Board of Visitors, as a student in 1974-75, was instrumental in inviting Shockley to speak. Now, as in 1975, some people argue that Shockley should never have been invited because (1) eugenics had already been debunked and relegated to the status of pseudoscience decades before; and (2) because Shockley was already a discredited fringe character with no formal training in genetics. (I don’t believe I ever met the Board member, so I can make no general comments about him.)
In 2022, as in 1975, however, people underestimate how alive eugenics was in 1975 and how dangerous a figure Shockley was. While I was alarmed about eugenics in 1975, it wasn’t until 1996 that my graduate studies made me aware of just how pernicious and destructive the menace of eugenics had been—and the extent to which eugenics was still an ongoing enterprise when Shockley spoke. Since 1996, I have studied eugenics, written about it, and taught its sordid history to hundreds of healthcare practitioners, who are often unaware of the immoral depths to which American medicine sank in that era.
After the horrors of Nazi Germany, American public officials stopped using the word eugenics, but they didn’t stop doing eugenics. The movement’s central hub, the Eugenics Record Office in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, was shuttered in 1939. But eugenic sterilizations continued in America for many decades. Four years after Shockley’s appearance, state hospitals in Virginia were still following the malignant legal doctrine that Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes enunciated in Buck v Bell (1927): “The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.”
In all, roughly 70,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized by order of state officials. All this began an hour south of UVa, at the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, also known as the Lynchburg Colony. Carrie Buck, the object of Holmes’ Supreme Court ruling, was sterilized in 1927 because Virginia officials took her out-of-wedlock pregnancy as prima facie evidence of genetic inferiority. (In fact, her pregnancy resulted from a rape by her foster parents’ nephew.) Virginia’s sterilization program was well-publicized in the pre-war period but faded into the shadows after World War II. Then, in 1980, it exploded onto the front pages. In The Lynchburg Story, a haunting documentary about America’s eugenic sterilizations, former American Civil Liberties Union attorney Judy Crockett discussed her work with victims, reeling from the newspaper revelations. “Before World War II,” she said, “there was all this very florid language in the reports about … eugenics.” But, “After World War II, the sterilizations did not drop, they just changed the language.” Virginia did not formally apologize for the thousands of ruined lives until 2002—reportedly the first state to have done so.
The State of North Carolina did not terminate its Board of Eugenics until 1977—two years after Shockley’s UVa appearance. As Director of Public Welfare in Mecklenburg County, NC, Wallace Kuralt, Sr. oversaw a vigorous program of eugenic sterilizations from 1945 till 1972. Many of those sterilized were African American women, and many were not told that they had been sterilized. When that story broke, I recall a nurse saying that until she read about Kuralt’s history, she had never understood why so many African American women seemed to need hysterectomies. Kuralt was thought of as an enlightened political progressive, and his program operated quietly, in the shadows. Till the day he died in 1994, Kuralt maintained his faith in eugenic sterilization as an anti-poverty measure.
The State of California continued sterilizing female inmates, mostly African American and Hispanic, sometimes without their knowledge, until 2014.
In 1975, Virginia had only recently replaced its 1902 constitution, whose centerpiece was the disenfranchisement of African Americans. Only eight years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had overturned Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws in its Loving v. Virginia ruling. School integration was still contentious. And the University of Virginia, just a few decades earlier, had arguably been the preeminent academic institution in the eugenics universe.
In 2022, we think of William Shockley as a racist hack whose eugenic machinations shredded his once-considerable reputation; but in 1975, he was still a menacing force to be reckoned with. His Nobel prize and undoubted genius gave undeserved force to his eugenic pronouncements. Consider the “known for” list on his Wikipedia biography:
Point-contact transistor and GJT, Diffused-base transistor, Heterojunction bipolar transistor, Thyristor, BARITT diode, Shockley diode, Junction theory, BJT theory, FET theory, Deathnium, Deep-level trap, Deformation potential theory, Empty lattice approximation, Gradual channel approximation, Lucky electron model, Hot electron theory, Channel length modulation, Process variation, Ion implantation, Low-level injection, Through-silicon via, Transmission line measurement, Shockley diode equation, Shockley–Read–Hall recombination, Shockley partials, Shockley–Ramo theorem, Shockley states, Shockley–James paradox, Shockley–Queisser limit, Haynes–Shockley experiment, Read–Shockley equation, Van Roosbroeck– Shockley equation
And, from the same article, the professional honors he received:
Medal for Merit (1945), Morris Liebmann Memorial Prize (1952), Comstock Prize in Physics (1953), Oliver E. Buckley Condensed Matter Prize (1953), Nobel Prize in Physics (1956, with John Bardeen and Walter Brattain), Holley Medal (1963), Wilhelm Exner Medal (1963), IEEE Medal of Honor (1980)
Notice that the final honor on that list, the highest honor awarded by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, came in 1980—five years after his UVa appearance. He was still an acceptable name in polite company at that point. In that same year, long after his UVa appearance, he was still considered a formidable enough public figure to be the subject of a Playboy magazine interview. In that era, Playboy interviews were considered a high mark of distinction. Probably the most famous of them was Jimmy Carter’s pre-election interview in 1976. In the years before Shockley’s appearance, interviewees included Muhammad Ali, Jimmy Hoffa, Bob Dylan, Marlon Brando, Edward Teller, and Pat Caddell. After Shockley, interviewees included John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Oriana Fallaci, Lech Wałęsa, Ed Koch, Steve Jobs, and Fidel Castro. In the 1980s, Shockley became the highly public contributor to a “Nobel Prize sperm bank.”
Shockley’s lack of formal training in genetics is offered by some as proof that he was an unworthy speaker on the topic, but that is inconsistent with how we view a wide range of polymaths and public intellectuals. Today, people like Noam Chomsky, Greta Thunberg, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Paul Krugman regularly address topics on which they have no formal training—and that’s perfectly fine. The history of science is filled with intellectual cross-pollination—scientists transplanting their insights onto other fields. Another key figure in the development of digital computing was Shockley’s contemporary, John von Neumann. A mathematician with a bit of engineering background, von Neumann contributed mightily to meteorology, physics, economics, ballistics, computing, and more. Nobel physicist Richard Feynman made significant contributions to education and, as a member of the Challenger commission, solved the mystery of why the space shuttle exploded. We celebrate polymaths like Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Buckminster Fuller, Nikola Tesla, Marie Curie, and Jagdish Chandra Bose. In switching from physics to genetics, Shockley sought to enter the ranks of these polymaths. The difference is that, unlike von Neumann, Feynman, da Vinci, Franklin, Fuller, Tesla, Curie, and Bose, Shockley made an ass-clown of himself in his new field, whereas these others did not. While his failure is clear to us today, it was not clear to everyone in 1975.
The history of eugenics is filled with polymaths who were brilliant, influential, and plug-ignorant on genetics. For a time, Alexander Graham Bell was a top official in the eugenics movement. Trained as a teacher of deaf students, Bell had no particular background in genetics. And yet, he churned up a tract of genetic nonsense titled, “Memoir upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race.” In successfully pushing for changes consistent with his theories, Bell bore considerable responsibility for destroying deaf education for the better part of a century. (And Bell was one of the more introspective eugenicists.)
In the months leading up to Shockley’s UVa appearance, a vigorous and sometimes rancorous debate roiled over the propriety of the upcoming event. There was no doubt that Shockley’s ideas were hurtful toward African Americans. For me, the question was not some lofty concern with free speech, as some framed it. Rather, for me the choice was tactical. I pondered whether Shockley would be more effectively defanged by banning him or by letting him run his mouth. Having seen him numerous times on television, I concluded that the latter was the better option. The Nobel Prize gave him a mystique, a gravitas—which is what made him dangerous. But when he discussed genetics, he always seemed to me to be smug, ill-informed, and unconvincing. I came down on the side of letting him destroy himself in public. When I attended the event, I was not disappointed. If any sentient individual arrived at that debate thinking Shockley might have something useful to say on the subject of race, that perception surely dissolved amid his caustic words.
Ultimately, Shockley became a pariah, though it took a while for that to happen. The elitist, racist notion underlying “genius” sperm banks became the subject of ridicule once it became known that Shockley was a contributor. Eventually he was shunned by colleagues and family and died in lonely misery. But that outcome was not preordained in 1975. It was events like the UVa forum that brought about the just demise of his reputation.
The great danger of eugenics has always been that people tend to view it in the rear-view mirror when, in fact, the road ahead is strewn with it. When I taught hundreds of doctors, nurses, therapists, and health administrators at various medical centers, I made sure every one of them received a full blast of eugenics. They needed to understand the depravities into which their profession could drift. Typically, they were shocked by what they learned—and stunned that they had never heard much, if any, of it before. If they had heard of eugenics, they assumed it was something that happened long, long ago—and maybe only in places like Nazi Germany—not the 1970s in Lynchburg, Virginia. My message to them was that the temptation to play God with others’ lives is always around us—and staving it off is a permanent, ongoing, arduous task. The name “eugenics” went away. The ideas did not.
With Shockley in 1975, I thought that sunshine was the best disinfectant. In 2022, I think that still.
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