In The Name Of Eugenics

My continued interest in eugenics beginning with my visit to the Deadly Medicine exhibit at the Science Museum has been supplemented by a comprehensive history of the movement in Daniel J. Kevles’ In The Name Of Eugenics. In it he details the origins of the idea that natural selection can be controlled to weed out undesirable traits such as “feeblemindedness” and moral delinquency supposedly contained in human heredity. By the 1920’s the idea took on religious proportions and produced literature that had the flavor of evangelistic zeal.

One such piece was The New Decalogue of Science by Albert Edward Wiggam which contains such gospel jargon,

But science has at last given to men a true technic of righteousness. And this new dispensation is just as divine as the old. It is filled with warnings of wrath, both present and to come, for the biological ungodly as well as alluring promises to them who do His biological will.

The warning means, of course that human heredity is in a state of degeneracy, and the “biological ungodly” are those whose genetic makeup is unworthy of reproduction. Those that do God’s “biological will” are those that enter into marriage discriminatingly to produce the “fittest” progeny and perhaps by means of coercion forbid the “unfit” from having children. The new religion is an affront to the classical liberalism the documents of the United States was founded on,

Moreover, all modern liberal statesmanship has rested its case upon two great sentimental nebulosities: first, that all men are created equal, and, second, that God will raise up leaders for the people. Well, all men are born unequal, and leaders come not by prayer, but by germ-cells. “The most unequal thing in the world is the equal treatment of unequals.”

This is because “heredity, and not environment, is the chief maker of men.” Men make the environment not the other way around. And somehow, this is in line with Jesus teaching as his Gold Rule applies to the unborn, “A new commandment I give unto you – the biological golden rule, the completed golden rule. Do unto both born and the unborn as you would have both the born and the unborn do unto you.”

How saintly.

The American Eugenics Society would agree. They even produced a catechism to cater to religious people.

    Q: Does eugenics contradict the Bible?
    A: The Bible has much to say for eugenics. It tells us that men do not gather grapes from thorns and figs from thistles….
    Q: Does eugenics mean less sympathy for the unfortunate?
    A: It means a much better understanding of them, and a more concerted attempt to alleviate their suffering, by seeing to it that everything possible is done to have fewer hereditary defectives….
    Q: What is the most precious thing in the world?
    A: The human germ plasm.

As you can see the idea of science and religion being separate realms of human inquiry is simply a farce in the minds of these zealots of heredity. Chesterton was not far off when he said “Materialism is really our established Church; for the Government will really help it to persecute its heretics.” And persecute it did.

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3 thoughts on “In The Name Of Eugenics

  1. How far is this from the mantra of the pro-abortion left? The abortion movement argues for the autonomy of the powerful (women’s rights and all that) over the weak, which is the unstated presumption of the eugenics movement, and arguments weighing death against an “undesirable” life (due to poverty, birth defects, or being unwanted).

    Eugenics fails basic moral tests, and is therefore ethically untenable. As such, it masks its ambitions under the guise of a vague benefit to humanity. Abortionists argue similarly, burying ostensibly simple questions of life or death under the rhetoric of choice.

    The only difference, in this context, is that eugenics is the philosophical antecedent to atrocity, while abortion is an atrocity by itself. That said, abortion rights seem to be only the opening salvo in a battle to extricate ethics from biology. Will it take another holocaust (or worse) to vindicate the pro-life movement?

  2. Interestingly enough, the early eugenics movement was very pro-life and believed highly in the value of motherhood. Many of its early thinkers believed that sex untied from the duty of procreation was anathema. When push came to shove, abortion was resisted and forced sterilization was preffered. Yet as the logic of eugenics made its demands on the social conscience, abortion came to be seen as a tool of enforcing eugenic purity. Margaret Sanger, the founder, of Planned Parenthood, certainly thought so. As science and technology became available, parents could screen their fetal children for genetic defects and elect to have an abortion. In Britian, the so-called “eugenic clause” in a piece of 1967 legislation allowed abortions on the basis of preventing the existence of a child with physical and mental abnormalities. This of course is practiced widely today on unborn babies that have been diagnosed with Downs Syndrome. In 1974 the Surgeon General believed that such proceedures would save the nation 18 billion dollars. The economic interest in eugenic-abortion is precisely the same interest that drove eugenicists of the early 20th century.

    However, the science that came out of the eugenics movement, namely the type that allowed pre-screening of the unborn, has actually had a positive impact for the pro-life position in that it has given mothers a greater sense of personhood of the being that is developing in them. The thing that has hurt the abortion rights position the most in the last decade is the ultra-sound.

  3. “How far is this from the mantra of the pro-abortion left? The abortion movement argues for the autonomy of the powerful (women’s rights and all that) over the weak, which is the unstated presumption of the eugenics movement, and arguments weighing death against an “undesirable” life (due to poverty, birth defects, or being unwanted).”

    Actually, the Pro-Choice lobby argues that a woman has the right to control over her own body, and that this trumps the right of the unborn in the womb. It’s not about any specific argument beyond that, the mother may have reasons from quality of life on down to “I don’t want it”…but the movement’s reasons are a far cry from the eugenics movement. In the pro-choice argument it is about the rights of the two entities-the developing baby and the woman it resides in. In fact, this is more like “an unwelcome intruder in your home” theory that posits it is acceptable to kill someone who has entered your home without your permission that some folks adhere to.

    While there are some that might actually find eugenics appealing as their reasons for keeping abortion legal, it is not honest to pin it on the entire movement…just as it is dishonest for pro-choicers to try and pin the most negative extremes (clinic bombers) on all pro-lifers.

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