BOOK: Edwin Black, "War Against the Weak"
Edwin Black: War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003; Thunder's Mouth Press, 2004. 1568583214. xxviii + 550 pp.
A few years ago I read Black's splendid book IBM and the Holocaust, which describes how the Nazis made use of state-of-the-art IBM data processing technology to manage the huge amounts of data about the population of the territories under their control; without such technology, many of their murderous policies, which involved finding and doing something to large amounts of people in a short amount of time, couldn't have been carried out as efficiently and successfully as they were. Black also shows how IBM went out of its way to keep up these highly lucrative deals with the German government, and pick up the resulting profits, even after the U.S. entered the war against Germany, and after it started to become clear to what unethical uses IBM's technology and machinery was being put.
Anyway, it was a very fine piece of muckrakery, so when I recently noticed that Black also wrote a book about the eugenics movement, I decided to read this one as well. I had already read two books about eugenics and euthanasia: Bernhard Schreiber's The Men Behind Hitler and Michael Burleigh's Death and Deliverance: Euthanasia in Germany 1900–1945. Both of these are interesting books, but they are focused only on Germany, whereas Black's book places just as much (or even more) emphasis on the history of eugenics in the United States, which is where the movement first came into prominence and was fairly influential during the first three or four decades of the 20th century. Black also devotes a couple of chapters to the post-WW2 fate of eugenics and the eugenicists. In short, this is exactly the right book for someone interested in a well-rounded history of eugenics.
Ch. 2 has several interesting pages (14–19) about Galton and the origin of eugenics. I had been vaguely aware that Galton was a eugenicist (I wasn't quite clearly aware that he had in fact coined the word eugenics and was thus in a way the founder of the field), and therefore had an exceedingly unfavourable opinion of him. But in this book I see that Galton's ideas and pursuits were in fact largely innocent and harmless enough, and it was the American eugenicists that turned eugenics into the notorious movement that we remember nowadays. Galton was in fact particularly interested in measuring and counting, in biometry (p. 72) and statistics, and tried to put his work on a solid scientific basis; it was the later eugenicists that changed the focus of eugenics onto aggressive population engineering, even if this required relying on untested hypotheses, shoddy science, or even pseudoscience or outright fraud. Both Galton (p. 28) and the U.S. eugenicists (pp. 60–1) were aware that no sufficient scientific basis for the claims of eugenics had yet been established; but the U.S. eugenics movement continued to campaign for eugenics-inspired social policies anyway, driven forth by sheer prejudice. “While many of America's elite exalted eugenics, the original Galtonian eugenicists in Britain were horrified by the sham science they saw thriving in the United States and taking root in their own country.” (P. 99.) Additionally, eugenics as originally discussed by Galton had both a ‘positive’ and a ‘negative‘ programme: try to encourage the procreation of the ‘fit’ classes, and discourate that of the ‘unfit’ ones. However, the eugenics movement as it arose in the U.S. focused almost entirely on the negative part of the programme (p. 208). Galton himself disapproved of the efforts to turn eugenics into a movement for social action rather than a branch of science (p. 212).
Thus the real roots of the eugenics movement lie in the social tensions of late 19th-century U.S. Elitist members of the upper/middle classes were quite concerned that they were being deluged by immigrants of inferior racial qualities (since many of these new immigrants were coming from southern and eastern Europe, as well as from Asia, rather than from the north-west of Europe as has been predominantly the case in earlier periods), or by similarly inferior blacks, Indians, and Mexicans (pp. 22–23). Furthermore, they were very keen to ascribe many of the real or imaginary deficiencies of such people to hereditary defects rahter than environmental or cultural issues. Thus it wasn't far from there to the idea that people carrying such supposed hereditary defects should be prevented from having children, either by sterilization or by being kept in institutions where men would be separated from the women. What is more, many of these eugenicists came to believe that these supposedly hereditary defects were in fact recessive alleles, meaning that relatives of a defective person were likely to also carry some of these defective characteristics in their genes and should thus also be prevented from procreating.
But for many eugenicists, all of this was really just a pretty facade in which they could cover up their megalomaniac and racist prejudice. Many of them believed that white, blonde, etc., ‘Nordic’ type of people — more or less the same sort that would be called ‘Aryans’ by the Nazis several decades later — were the pinnacle of humankind (p. 29), and that thus their procreation should be encouraged while those of inferior strains of people should be suppressed. Some suggested that not only should the ‘lowest’, weakest, least capable etc. people be sterilized, but that this should be an ongoing effort, the standard being raised slowly, so that humankind would improve from generation to generation (p. 59), much like a farmer may through careful selection and control over breeding encourage the development of desirable qualities in his animals (p. 32). The eugenicists were aware that such radical ideas could not (yet) be sold to the public or the legislators, so they focused mostly on less controversial things, such as the sterilization of hereditarily mentally ‘unfit’ people, hoping that after such things would become established, they could be used as a precedent and a springboard for wider and more ambitious plans of population engineering.
I guess that what annoys me most about the eugenics isn't that it was connected with prejudice of this sort — i.e. that white, upper-class, etc. people are somehow superior to others — prejudice like that was after all quite widespread at the time, even more than now; what annoys me most is that they managed to clothe this prejudice in so much shoddy science, or indeed simply sham science. Once a certain critical mass of people is interested in something, and a certain number of them possess appropriate academic credentials, they can start publishing journals, organizing conferences and refereeing each other's papers, and then it can be very hard to stop them and get them to admit that what they are doing is just bullshit and junk science.
The reason that these pseudoscientific explanations of poverty, drunkenness, etc. as hereditary problems annoy me so much is that they seem to be nothing else than excuses to blame the victims. I personally always exaggerate on the other side: I never blame a person for his or her defects and misfortunes; I always blame the environment, the society at large. It's hard to lift oneself out of poverty; work is unpleasant and usually too poorly paid; children of poor people have fewer options in life; etc. — all of which means it is completely unsurprising that if the parents were down and out, so will be the children. It's completely silly to ascribe this to hereditary genetic defects. This would become clear if you secretly swapped a beggar's and a rich man's child at birth.
A blatant and very annoying example how the shaky the (pseudo)scientific foundations of eugenics really were is the way they performed ‘intelligence’ tests. They mostly included questions that didn't really test intelligence per se but rather intelligence in combination with lots of cultural baggage. Thus they were practically guaranteed to favour urban educated middle-class people who were up-to-date on (pop) culture, business, technology, etc., while a recent immigrant or a dirt poor illiterate peasant from the backwoods were almost certain to come across as ‘feeble-minded’ (this annoyingly vague term, by the way, was very popular with the eugenicists; p. 55). The U.S. army, using a test like this during the WW1, found to their surprise that more than half of its draftees supposedly had ‘a mental capacity below that of a thirteen-year-old’ (pp. 81–2, 132). Here are a couple of examples from p.nbsp;82: “The Pierce Arrow car is made in... (a) Buffalo; (b) Detroit; (c) Toledo; (d) Flint.” “Velvet Joe appears in advertisements for... (a) tooth powder; (b) dry goods; (c) tobacco; (d) soap.” Questions like these may have some value as a test of acculturation (and even that only for a rather specific and narrowly defined meaning of ‘culture’); but to imagine that they have anything to do with intelligence as such is ridiculous.
More examples of the eugenicict obsession with explaining everything through heredity can be found on p. 105. They noticed that “fewer than 12 percent of Negro songs were in a minor key”, hence “the negro is temperamentally sunny, cheerful, optimistic”. They also “began compiling long lists of ship captains and their progeny to identify an invented genetic trait called ‘thalassophilia,’ that is, an inherited love of the sea.”
Another example of the eugenicists' disregard for the lack of scientific basis for eugenics is their campaign against blindness. They knew very well that most blindness was not hereditary, but nevertheless supported sterilization measures directed against blind people (p. 149).
Black also points out the strong support that the eugenics movement received from various corporate philanthropists, in particular from the Carnegie foundation and from the widow of E. H. Harriman, a railroad magnate (pp. 46–7, 57, 87, 94–5). Without this, they wouldn't be able to organize their efforts to gather information about supposedly hereditarily defect people, and to campaign for legislation based on eugenic principles. In the first three decades of the 20th century, they managed to get sterilization laws passed in many parts of the U.S., and various government agencies became sympathetic to eugenical principles (ch. 6; with the interesting exception of the Census Bureau, pp. 159–61). The movement had many notable supporters, such as Alexander Graham Bell (the inventor of the telephone; but he eventually withdrew from the movement due to its focus on ‘negative’ eugenics, such as compulsory sterilization etc.; pp. 89, 104), Theodore Roosevelt (p. 99), Margaret Sanger (leader of the birth control movement, p. 127); or, in Britain, George Bernard Shaw (p. 248) and H. G. Wells (p. 209). In the opinion with which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a Virginian law on sterilization, Oliver Wendell Holmes jr. famously wrote: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” (P. 121.) As some of these names suggest, eugenics was seen by many as a very progressive affair, and was thus supported by many progressive-minded people, not just by elitists and racists.
Of course this doesn't mean that there was no opposition to eugenics. A splendid
newspaper editorial from 1915 is quoted on pp. 101–2, pointing out that if
you are concerned about people having offspring that would become parasites upon the
society, or that would inherit their criminal tendencies, then surely the first people
that you should sterilize are the billionaires, the robber barons, the great capitalists, etc., etc.
The editorial includes a few wonderfully cathartic all-caps sentences; you can almost
feel the editor taking off his shoe and banging it on the table like Khrushchev at
the United Nations
Another facet of eugenics is in the efforts to prevent the mixing of different races, especially of whites with coloured people, believing that offspring of such mixed marriages can only be worse than ‘pure’ white people. This was exactly the kind of (pseudo)scientific basis that many racists wanted to hear (p. 166). Ch. 9 tells the story of Walter A. Plecker, eugenicist and fervent racist, and the efforts to introduce stricter laws against mixed marriages (with bizarre exceptions allowing whites to mix with people that are mostly white but have up to 1/16 Indian blood, because “many of Virginia's finest lineages included eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Indian ancestors”, pp. 167–8; Plecker fulminated that the threshold should be reduced to 1/64).
I often feel that only an idiot would emigrate to the U.S., but I was somewhat surprised to see that the worthy eugenicists are of the same opinion: “the statistics indicate that America, during the last few years, has been a dumping ground for the mentally unstable inhabitants of other countries” (H. H. Laughlin, a leading eugenicist, in 1922).
Here is an amazingly bizarre quote by a racist English surgeon, R. R. Rentoul: “The negro is seldom content with sexual intercourse with the white woman, but culminates his sexual furor by killing the woman, sometimes taking out her womb and eating it.” (P. 210.) I bet Freudian psychologists could have eons of fun analyzing this one. What, in the name of all that is decent, had been going on inside that guy's head? À propos, perhaps this points the way to a lucrative new niche in the internet porn business. A harder version of Savages on Blondes, so to speak...
Euthanasia (ch. 13) was also a topic of interest to eugenicists. Although the word originally means a merciful killing of people suffering great pain, it eventually also came to be used as a (painless) killing of people whose lives are considered unworthy of living (p. 247).
Of course the eugenics movement was not exclusively a U.S. phenomenon. It also spread to other countries, partly through their own initiative and partly due to efforts by the U.S. eugenicists (chs. 10–12; p. 258). In Britain, they were somewhat held back by the fact that sterilization was not a grey area from the legal point of view (as it had initially been in the U.S.) but was plainly illegal (p. 211). Anyway, as ch. 11 shows, despite much campaigning, the British eugenicists weren't as successful as their U.S. counterparts; sterilization was not legalized in Britain. Of the continental European countries, the catholic ones tended to be more resistant to eugenics, while the northwestern ones tended to be more receptive (pp. 240, 245). Of course, eugenics also caught on marvellously in Germany, where it developed almost as early as in Britain and the U.S. The German term Rassenhygiene is pretty much a synonym for eugenics (p. 262). The increasing strength of the German eugenics movement during the 1920s and 1930s was welcomed by the American eugenicists; German eugenical publications were quoted and abstracted by U.S. medical journals (pp. 280–1), and the U.S.-based Rockefeller Foundation funded a lot of medical research in Germany, including many eugenicists (pp. 283–4, 296, 302). By the early 30s, Germany became the world leader in eugenics (pp. 286, 299).
Hitler was also interested in eugenics; he read books by American eugenicists during his 1924 imprisonment, and even wrote admiring letters to some of the authors (p. 259; see pp. 273–5 for more instances of eugenic influences on Hitler). Of course the racist prejudice of the Nazis existed independently of eugenics, but eugenics gave them a very welcome excuse to claim that their prejudices had a scientific basis (p. 269). After the Nazis came to power, eugenical policies were implemented at a faster rate than ever seen anywhere in the world. An American, Joseph DeJarnette, commented in 1934 that ‘The Germans are beating us at our own game” (p. 277). Despite the increasing ugliness of the Nazi regime in Germany during the mid-30s, U.S. eugenicists remained enthusiastic supporters of their German counterparts (p. 303); only after ca. 1936 did this begin to abate (p. 313). Some never withdrew their support (pp. 317, 414, 418).
Ch. 16 tells the interesting and curious story of Dr. Katzen-Ellenbogen; born in a Jewish family in Poland, he moved to the U.S. and became one of the prominent U.S. eugenicists, but later returned to Europe, eventually settled in Germany and then ended up as a (very) privileged inmate at the Buchenwald concentration camp, where he terrorized his fellow inmates as camp doctor and performed psychoterapy for the stressed SS guards.
Some of the cruel medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners were also motivated by an interest in heredity and eugenics (p. 367); Mengele himself had been assistant to the noted eugenicist Otmar von Verschuer (p. 344).
The last few chapters are on the post-war fate of the eugenics movement. After the mid-30s, the Carnegie Institution grew tired of the eugenicists' focus on propaganda and policy rather then science and research; it curtailed its support for the Eugenics Record Office (pp. 387, 390–2), whose hundreds of thousands of index cards with information about people were recognized to be useless for any serious study of human heredity (p. 390); the office was disbanded completely after the retirement of its director, H. H. Laughlin (p. 395). Curiously, “eugenic enthusiasts continued remitting family traits and proffering enquiries for decades” (p. 398). Some of the laws influenced by the eugenic movement in the pre-war period are still in effect (pp. 398, 400; sterilizations were actually performed into the 1970s). Organizations and journals originally devoted to eugenics reoriented themselves to genetics (p. 425); most of the eugenicists slowly faced the fact that their movement had been horribly riddled by class and racial prejudice that lacked a scientific basis (pp. 417–8).
The final chapter of the book is about the prospects of eugenics in the future. As the human genome becomes increasingly better understood, analyzing a person's DNA will give us increasingly large amounts of information about the abilities and defects of such a person. This is likely to be eventually abused by e.g. insurance companies, employers, and banks: “First, newgenics will create an uninsurable, unemployable and unfinanceable genetic underclass. The process has already started.” (P. 429.) Once it becomes possible to genetically ‘enhance’ or ‘correct’ a person before birth, it will of course be the rich classes that will first avail themselves of these opportunities; this in turn will give them an even better starting position in the next generation, and the gap between the rich and poor, now only a gap in money and in culture, will eventually turn into a far wider gap of biology and genetics as well (pp. 441–2). What has not been accomplished in the name of racist ideology will be done far more reliably and unstoppably in the pursuit of profit (p. 428).
This last chapter is deeply fascinating and extremely worrying. I'm always very pessimistic about the future and I see absolutely no reason why the worst-case scenario outlined above shouldn't come to pass. Our enslavement and disempowerment proceed with ever larger steps. The very worst aspects of human nature, the ones that humanity has feared, suffered from, and fought against throughout its entire history, can finally be given unlimited rein. Sufficiently advanced technology finally makes absolute rule and absolute enslavement possible; by absolute I mean such against which no successful revolt can be seriously contemplated. Genetic superiority of the ruling class would be a perfect component of such a system. I have no doubt that such a system will eventually be set up; not suddenly of course, but little by little, by almost unperceptible degrees, and we shall not be aware of our manacles until it has become too late by far to shake them off. Indeed it is perhaps already too late even now. My only real wonder is: how far will it get in the remaining few decades of my life? We know that we will live and die as slaves, but how bad exactly is it going to get by the time we are ready to die? Truly it would be better if our ancestors had never climbed down from the trees. Technology will be the ruin of us all. Alas, why have I ever been born!
Anyway, all of this just goes to show that pessimists shouldn't contemplate the future; nothing good can come out of that, only wallowing in unceasing rivers of gloom. To return to the book: it is a very good book, a thorough, readable, well-documented history of the eugenics movement, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, from its earliest beginnings in the late 19th century to its unravelling in the second half of the 20th. I recommend it to anyone interested in the history of eugenics; as for the last chapter, I recommend it to everyone, for it is about the future, which concerns all of us.