Tailored Genes

Legal Affairs

November|December 2003


Limited Options By John C. Coffee Jr.
Tailored Genes By Edward J. Larson
Pay Direct By Boris Bittker

Eugenics was the darling of scientists and lawmakers of the early 20th century. Should we be concerned that it's catching on in the 21st?

By Edward J. Larson

A CENTURY AGO, ENERGIZED BY THE DISCOVERY of Darwinian evolution and Mendelian genetics, many social and biological scientists thought that we could improve humanity through simple scientific techniques of selective breeding. Eugenics, as their plan came to be known, captured the enthusiasm of the American elite and profoundly influenced progressive public policy. It changed the way Americans treated one another, splitting (or re-splitting) us along lines of race, ethnicity, class, and gender. "[T]he eugenicists . . . are seeking to assist the race toward the elimination of the unfit," declared the birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger. Like Sanger, most American eugenicists came from British or Northern European stock, and it was their "race" that they sought to enhance.

The term "eugenics" was coined by Charles Darwin's first cousin, the wealthy English polymath Francis Galton. He proposed that, with respect to human evolutionary development, "what Nature does blindly, slowly and ruthlessly"—through natural selection—"man may do providently, quickly and kindly"—through controlled breeding. Galton advocated programs to encourage reproduction by the fit (whom he roughly defined as people pretty much like himself) and to discourage reproduction by the unfit (habitual criminals and those who suffered from hereditary forms of mental illness and retardation).

In the United States, the cause was picked up by a number of biologists, most notably Charles Davenport, who ran the Station for Experimental Evolution at Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y. Another important advocate was social scientist H. H. Goddard, the director of research at the prestigious Vineland School for Feebleminded Girls and Boys in New Jersey, who introduced a version of the Binet-Simon I.Q. test to the United States as a way to identify the mentally unfit. Davenport, Goddard, and others were soon filling the scientific literature with their versions of the call for more children from the right people ("positive eugenics," in Galton's terms) and fewer from the wrong people ("negative eugenics").

Edwin Black, an investigative journalist who gained notice in 2001 with a book on IBM's role in the Holocaust, treads over this ground in his latest offering, War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race . He presents the leading lights of American progressivism—the Carnegie Institution (which created Davenport's institute in 1904), the Rockefeller Foundation, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Margaret Sanger, and Woodrow Wilson, among others—promoting eugenics through the establishment of U.S. government programs that, he claims, led to the Nazi death camps. In Black's view, prominent American scientists, including many geneticists associated with the respected American Breeders Association (which is now known as the American Genetic Association), aided and abetted the cause. These homegrown eugenicists worked closely with like-minded eugenicists in other countries.

But Black exaggerates the importance of these ties. "American eugenicists saw mankind as a biological cesspool," he charges. "After purifying America from within, and preventing defective strains from reaching U.S. shores, they planned to eliminate undesirables from the rest of the planet." The best evidence that Black offers for a U.S.-inspired worldwide program of eugenic elimination is the moral and financial support given by American eugenicists to efforts in Germany, which the Nazi regime later exploited in ways that the Americans did not anticipate.

War Against the Weak is heavy on accusation and light on historical context. This is unfortunate because eugenics is one of the hottest topics in history today. Beginning with a trickle two decades ago, books and articles on various aspects of the American and international eugenics movements now flood the academic literature. Much of this work is highly nuanced and well documented, yet Black largely ignores it. He has gathered many documents—letters by leading eugenicists, publications of eugenics associations, and records of institutions for the mentally retarded—that historians had already found and interpreted. Black marshals these documents into a powerful indictment against eugenics, but like any indictment it is one-sided and sometimes misleading. "Point eight of the Preliminary Report of the Committee of the Eugenic Section of the American Breeders Association to Study and to Report on the Best Practical Means for Cutting Off the Defective Germ-Plasm in the Human Population specified euthanasia as a possibility to be considered," Black notes in a typical passage. But he does not add that such a plan was never seriously considered in the United States.

The American movement had many faults, the most striking its rush to embrace the new science of genetics to explain all manner of human behavior. But it did not lead inexorably to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. In many ways, it represented a logical (if extreme) outgrowth of early-20th-century science and Progressive Era politics. Darwinian biology explained how humans evolved from other life forms, and Mendelian genetics showed how defective traits were inherited. Scientists captivated by these powerful new tools tried to push their application further. And the Progressives, reformers who characteristically sought to solve social problems through more efficient government, sought eugenic solutions to the problems of crime, mental illness, retardation, and antisocial behavior. But that was about the extent of eugenics in America.

Some radical eugenicists in the United States did dream of breeding a master race through eugenics, but they won few followers and sometimes fell laughably short. For example, Florida state senators in 1935 amended eugenic sterilization legislation to limit the procedure "to persons over the age of seventy years" and to require that the "operation may only be performed on a moonlight night . . . by a clairvoyant." Humiliated proponents withdrew the bill. Black does not tell us this story, which is related in newspaper accounts at the time. Perhaps his "gotcha" approach will help to awaken Americans to this dark chapter in our history, but it also obscures more nuanced questions about the role of science in shaping social policy, the importance of truly informed consent in medical decision making, and the value of the freedom for everyone to have children.

AFTER UNDENIABLY INFLUENCING AMERICAN PUBLIC POLICY during the early decades of the 20th century, eugenics virtually vanished from our collective memory following World War II as nurture replaced nature as the accepted explanation for human behavior. Readers will look in vain through standard histories of the United States written during the mid-20th century to find references to eugenics. As late as 1978, Doone and Greer Williams's authoritative biography of Dr. Clarence Gamble, Every Child a Wanted Child, portrays Gamble, an heir to the Proctor and Gamble company fortune, as a benign birth control advocate, though his goal was to prevent reproduction by the unfit. The book never uses the term "eugenics" at all. That's like presenting Vladimir Lenin as an opponent of the czar without mentioning his communism: It can be done, but it's lousy history.

Other biographers ignored the vocal support given to eugenics by figures like Sanger, Theodore Roosevelt, and Alexander Graham Bell, who were eager to convert the public to their way of thinking. Nurture had so displaced nature in the social sciences and Nazi abuses had so damned eugenics that America and honorable Americans could not be associated with such practices. Besides, why confuse the forward-looking aspects of Sanger's feminism and Roosevelt's progressivism with the retrograde thinking about eugenics that still clung to them?

Late-20th-century scientific developments changed this, however. In 1969, the Caltech molecular biologist Robert Sinsheimer proclaimed, "A new eugenics has arisen, based upon the dramatic increase in our understanding of the biochemistry of heredity and our comprehension of the craft and means of evolution." Meanwhile, the Harvard zoologist E. O. Wilson's pioneering work in sociobiology breathed new life into the nature side of the nature/nurture divide. Our genes determine our culture, he asserted. Although these men opposed compulsory programs of negative eugenics, fears arose that such programs might be revived.

To sound the alarm, scholars began to publicize America's own experimentation with eugenics. Mark Haller's Eugenics and Donald Pickens's Eugenics and the Progressives in the 1960s paved the way for Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man and Daniel Kevles's In the Name of Eugenics in the 1980s. By the 1990s, historian Philip Pauly could write of a "eugenics industry" within the history of science, contributing his own work, naturally, to the explosion of scholarship in the field. With an eye toward averting a revival of compulsory negative eugenics, all of these authors explored why progressive and well-meaning Americans once supported eugenics. The mounting sense of concern led the National Institutes of Health in 1989 to earmark 5 percent of the government funds spent on the human genome project to study the ethics of its uses. Black's book will likely solidify the broad-based consensus that extends from liberal pro-choice partisans to conservative pro-life advocates that compulsory negative eugenics is intolerable in the United States.

SUPPORT FOR EUGENICS WAS ONCE EQUALLY BROAD: By 1935, every state had built institutions for segregating "feebleminded" individuals and 35 states had enacted compulsory sterilization laws, though most were little utilized. Hundreds of thousands of Americans were segregated in our country primarily for mental disabilities, and more than 60,000 were sterilized without their consent, including over 20,000 in California alone, where Stanford University president David Jordan, the plant breeder Luther Burbank, and The Los Angeles Times led the crusade. Most sterilizations involved the mentally ill or retarded, but some programs included criminals, epileptics, and homosexuals. Perhaps the best chapter in Black's book shows how the eugenicists co-opted advocates for the blind and persuaded them that the blind should not reproduce. Eugenics reinforced racism as well, and lent new urgency to old laws against interracial marriage. And it leached into U.S. immigration policy with the support of President Calvin Coolidge, who signed the 1924 act that imposed country-of-origin restrictions on immigrants. Those restrictions favored British and Northern Europeans over those from other places. Black goes over this history in detail, with a nose for the sensational. He entitles one chapter "The United States of Sterilization." But he never explains why eugenics was wrong. Holmes didn't think it was when he wrote the 1927 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding Virginia's sterilization statute.

Such laws are easy to condemn now, but it wasn't so easy then, though populists, civil libertarians, and Roman Catholics had principled objections to such actions and spoke out regularly against them. During the heyday of eugenics, efforts were also made to educate the public about eugenic breeding, not so that people would support compulsory laws for others, but so that they would adopt such practices themselves. These efforts included public lectures, popular books and articles, educational movies, traveling exhibits, and classroom instruction. The most popular high school biology textbook of the 1920s contained advice to students on the importance of choosing mentally and physically fit spouses. And a 1916 feature film even encouraged people to marry eugenically and kill their defective offspring. No less a civil libertarian than Clarence Darrow (who opposed compulsory sterilization laws) endorsed the actions depicted in this film, as did that most famous of Americans with disabilities, Helen Keller.

By 1950, many eugenicists concluded that voluntary approaches could have a far greater effect on improving "the race" than compulsory ones, at least in the United States, though some of these experts launched ambitious plans for coercive population control in the developing world. My own research into California eugenics suggests that some state institutions facilitated a voluntary approach by opening free sterilization clinics. Under the influence of eugenic-minded physicians and genetic counselors, though, how voluntary are parents' decisions to sterilize their children? Even after explicitly race- and class-based eugenics fell from favor, some old eugenics laws were used into the 1970s to sterilize welfare recipients and others deemed by those in power to be unfit mothers. The determining question was no longer "Will she spread her genetic defect to her children?" but "Will she make a desirable mother?" It took federal lawsuits and legislation to put an end to such practices.

How different are potential uses of new reproductive techniques giving parents greater control over the genetic makeup of their children? Non-eugenic factors may serve to ease the acceptance of new reproductive practices that actually rely on genetic considerations. Large segments of the population may agree that drug addicts or abusive parents should not bear children, for example, and genes may be found that predict such behavior. But eugenicists have blurred issues of genetic and social fitness from the beginning—and will surely blur such issues in the future.

"After Hitler, eugenics did not disappear," Black recognizes. "What had thrived loudly as eugenics for decades quietly took postwar refuge under the labels human genetics and genetic counseling." Now, voluntary eugenics is enjoying a revival or at least a rehabilitation of sorts. Many of us support the informed use of human gene testing and technology to prevent genetic disability and, more tentatively, to enhance genetic ability. Black captures America's most famous geneticist James Watson musing, "The lower 10 per cent who really have difficulty, even in elementary school, what's the cause of it? A lot of people would like to say, 'Well, poverty, things like that.' It probably isn't. So I'd like to get rid of that." Watson goes on to say: "People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would be great." Black implies that we should condemn Watson's impulses, but which parent among us wouldn't want a smart, good-looking child if offered the choice? Black concludes his book with the Pollyannaish hope that "no matter how far or how fast the science develops, nothing should be done anywhere by anyone to exclude, infringe, repress or harm an individual based on his or her genetic makeup." He adds, "Only then can humankind be assured that there will be no new war against the weak." If he really believes this is possible, he should reread his own book.

Edward J. Larson is a professor of law and history at the University of Georgia. His book about the Scopes Trial, Summer for the Gods, won a Pulitzer Prize for History.


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