Science and Eugenics -- Notes


The longterm support by leading research scientists, basing their claims and beliefs on scientific evidence, for the discredited Eugenics movement from the 19th well into the 20th century (until WW2) is a classic case of the interdependence of science and cultural beliefs. Fully established and accepted scientific views were used as the basis for legislation and court decisions, not that long ago, and here in the U.S. (as well as in most other eurocultural societies), which sought to strengthen the superior "white race" and discourage intermarriage and reproduction of the other "inferior races". What has changed since is not so much the science as the way it is connected to other forces in society. Here are some interesting notes and links (see also section 2 in Harding, 1993).

The Second International Congress of Eugenics was hosted by the American Museum of Natural History in New York in the fall of 1921. It was an impressive affair attended by over 300 delegates from around the world. Notables at the conference included future President Herbert Hoover; internationally renowned scientist Alexander Graham Bell (honorary President of the Congress); nationally known conservationist and future Governor of Pennsylvania, Gifford Pinchot; and Leonard Darwin, son of Charles Darwin. Henry Fairfield Osborn, Director of the Museum and noted paleontologist was President of the Congress. Madison Grant, New York lawyer, and author of The Passing of the Great Race (New York 1916) was Treasurer. Harry Laughlin, Superintendent of the Eugenics Record Office, was in charge of exhibits, and Lothrop Stoddard, popular writer and author of the Rising Tide of Color Against White Supremacy (New York 1920), was in charge of publicity.

Frederick Osborn, in referring to the Third International Conference of Eugenics held in New York in 1932, cited papers by Mjoen, Raymond Pearl, Tage Kemp, H. J. Muller and Morris Steggerda as examples of scientific papers representing "the best knowledge available at the time." Even at the time, Mjoen was more of a propagandist than a scientist. He hardly belongs in the company of Pearl, Kemp, and Muller who were primarily research scientists.

During the first few decades of this [the 20th] century, the most influential geneticist in America was Charles B. Davenport. He taught at Harvard until 1899, and then moved to the University of Chicago briefly, before founding the Carnegie Institution's genetics and evolution laboratories at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island. Shortly thereafter, he persuaded Mrs. E. H. Harriman, widow of a railroad tycoon, to endow a Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor as well.

The interesting aspect of the eugenics movement is that it was mainstream science. The Passing of the Great Race was reviewed favorably in the journal Science, by MIT geneticist Frederick Adams Woods. Every genetics textbook of the era advanced the case of eugenics, showing how genetics could be used to solve social problems, if we simply believe everything geneticists say, give them lots of money, and not worry too much about individual civil rights, and the poor training and track record of geneticists in that area.

Thus, the first edition of Principles of Genetics can talk very casually about people whose stock ought to be eliminated on the basis of their contributions to society.  The senior author, Edward Sinnott, became a professor at Columbia, and later, dean of the Yale Graduate School.  The junior author, Leslie C. Dunn, also became a professor at Columbia, and became an outspoken critic of racist biology after the Nazis came to power. This passage (and the entire chapter it is from) does not appear in the editions that followed the stock market crash and the Depression, when it suddenly became clear to geneticists that wealth wasn't necessarily a good indicator of genotype.

Geneticists were slow to get it.  Many, of course, believed it; they came from the privileged classes and shared the cultural prejudices of the era.  Others may not have agreed with Madison Grant or Charles Davenport, but didn't disagree with them publicly.  In fact, during the heyday of the eugenics movement, virtually every geneticist of note served below Grant and Davenport on the Advisory Board of the American Eugenics Society.  One notable exception was Thomas Hunt Morgan, the great geneticist from Columbia University, who worked in the same building as anthropologist Franz Boas, a tireless critic of eugenics.  Morgan published  some polite reservations about eugenics in the mid-1920s, but not enough either to piss anyone off or to allow people to invoke his prestige to repudiate the movement.  In the mid-1920s the only critics of eugenics were non-scientists or soft scientists, like Boas and Clarence Darrow, a great defender of civil liberties. 

[Note that on the Advisory Board of the American Eugenics Society were C.C. Little of University of Michigan and Sewall Wright of the University of Chicago ... and many other leading scientists in the field. Yale economist Irving Fisher was President of the American Eugenics Society in 1925. ]

Perhaps the most interesting paradox in the history of eugenics is that the American human genetics community, faced with the embarrassment of the Nazi enthusiasm for eugenics, set out to reinvent itself after World War II.  It did so by burying its ancestor, Charles Davenport, and finding a new ancestor, Archibald Garrod, who had published some obscure work in medical genetics in the early part of the 20th century.  Nobody in human genetics had cited his work for decades, but he was resurrected by L. C. Dunn, G. W. Beadle, and J. V. Neel in the 1950s, as they sought to legitimize the discredited field, and to reinvent it.

[ Recommended modern book on the history and issues around American Eugenics:
Kevles, Daniel (1985) In the Name of Eugenics. Berkeley: University of California Press.

For an interesting and more detailed discussion of the history of genetics and the eugenics movement, with implications for science education and the social responsibility of science today, see a talk given by historian and sociologist J. Marks at the 1996 International Congress of Human Genetics. One point he makes that frames the moral of the story:

"Well, times change, and a distinguished geneticist in 1992 takes a very different viewpoint [referring to a passage in the well-known genetics textbook, Human Heredity, by Neel and Schull, on the historical connection between genetics and eugenics]. Here, eugenics was a mistake, but one that was destined to be overturned because it was the product of ignorance and prejudice rather than fact, and that was then, this is now. He leaves unanswered, of course, just how one distinguishes ignorance and prejudice from facts without the aid of hindsight, why geneticists of that era were unable to do so, and the basis for supposing that those of any other era would be better equipped to do so." ]

19th-Century Scientific Racism

The scientific racism movement of the mid-nineteenth century provided a number of important legacies to the eugenics movement. American scientific racism was primarily preoccupied with the attempt to establish that blacks, Orientals, and other races were in fact entirely different species of "man," which the scientific racists claimed should be seen as a genus, rather than a species. The theory that the integrity of the human species derived from the creation of one Adam and one Eve was called monogenism or specific unity; monogenists believed that the races arose as a result of the degeneration of human beings since creation. The separate races were essentially the same human material, but different races had degenerated to different extents. Polygenists, by contrast, believed that the races were created separately in a series of different creations. The separate races were entirely different animals. The mid-century theory of polygenism, or specific diversity, was one of the first scientific theories largely developed in the US and was approvingly called "the American School of anthropology" by European scientists.

Harvard Professor Louis Agassiz, a prominent natural historian of the 19th-century, was the most important promoter of polygenism. Agassiz, an abolitionist, insisted that his adoption of polygenism was dictated by objective scientific investigation. Nevertheless, historian Stephen Jay Gould's translation of Agassiz's letter to his mother in 1846 shortly after his emigration to the US, reveals a profound, visceral aversion to blacks. Not surprisingly, Agassiz was also passionately opposed to racial miscegenation. He believed that racial inter-mixture would result in the creation of "effeminate" offspring unable to maintain American democratic traditions

It's a long, fascinating, ugly history ... and it's not over. All these issues were revived by the "IQ and race" controversies around The Bell Curve (1994) and are also being discussed in conjunction with a "new eugenics" movement in relation to the Human Genome Project and its applications.