Thursday, February 23, 2012

Eugenics:" Does the past matter?"

"Eugenics is the self-direction of human evolution"
Second International Congress of Eugenics. 1921
Held at the American Museum of Natural History.
Leonard Darwin, son of Charles, was the keynote speaker. 


Some wisdom from Jonathan Freeland at the Guardian:
Eugenics: the skeleton that rattles loudest in the left's closet
Socialism's one-time interest in eugenics is dismissed as an accident of history. But the truth is far more unpalatable
Jonathan Freedland
guardian.co.uk, Friday 17 February 2012 13.59 EST
Does the past matter? When confronted by facts that are uncomfortable, but which relate to people long dead, should we put them aside and, to use a phrase very much of our time, move on? And there's a separate, but related, question: how should we treat the otherwise admirable thought or writings of people when we discover that those same people also held views we find repugnant?
Those questions are triggered in part by the early responses toPantheon, my new novel published this week under the pseudonym Sam Bourne. The book is a thriller, set in the Oxford and Yale of 1940, but it rests on several true stories. Among those is one of the grisliest skeletons in the cupboard of the British intellectual elite, a skeleton that rattles especially loudly inside the closet of the left.
It is eugenics, the belief that society's fate rested on its ability to breed more of the strong and fewer of the weak. So-called positive eugenics meant encouraging those of greater intellectual ability and "moral worth" to have more children, while negative eugenics sought to urge, or even force, those deemed inferior to reproduce less often or not at all. The aim was to increase the overall quality of the national herd, multiplying the thoroughbreds and weeding out the runts.
Such talk repels us now, but in the prewar era it was the common sense of the age. Most alarming, many of its leading advocates were found among the luminaries of the Fabian and socialist left, men and women revered to this day. Thus George Bernard Shaw could insist that "the only fundamental and possible socialism is the socialisation of the selective breeding of man", even suggesting, in a phrase that chills the blood, that defectives be dealt with by means of a "lethal chamber".
Such thinking was not alien to the great Liberal titan and mastermind of the welfare state, William Beveridge, who argued that those with "general defects" should be denied not only the vote, but "civil freedom and fatherhood". Indeed, a desire to limit the numbers of the inferior was written into modern notions of birth control from the start. That great pioneer of contraception, Marie Stopes – honoured with a postage stamp in 2008 – was a hardline eugenicist, determined that the "hordes of defectives" be reduced in number, thereby placing less of a burden on "the fit". Stopes later disinherited her son because he had married a short-sighted woman, thereby risking a less-than-perfect grandchild.
Yet what looks kooky or sinister in 2012 struck the prewar British left as solid and sensible. Harold Laski, stellar LSE professor, co-founder of the Left Book Club and one-time chairman of the Labour party, cautioned that: "The time is surely coming … when society will look upon the production of a weakling as a crime against itself." Meanwhile, JBS Haldane, admired scientist and socialist, warned that: "Civilisation stands in real danger from over-production of 'undermen'." That'sUntermenschen in German.
I'm afraid even the Manchester Guardian was not immune. When a parliamentary report in 1934 backed voluntary sterilisation of the unfit, a Guardian editorial offered warm support, endorsing the sterilisation campaign "the eugenists soundly urge". If it's any comfort, the New Statesman was in the same camp.
According to Dennis Sewell, whose book The Political Gene charts the impact of Darwinian ideas on politics, the eugenics movement's definition of "unfit" was not limited to the physically or mentally impaired. It held, he writes, "that most of the behavioural traits that led to poverty were inherited. In short, that the poor were genetically inferior to the educated middle class." It was not poverty that had to be reduced or even eliminated: it was the poor.
Hence the enthusiasm of John Maynard Keynes, director of the Eugenics Society from 1937 to 1944, for contraception, essential because the working class was too "drunken and ignorant" to keep its numbers down.
We could respond to all this the way we react when reading of Churchill's dismissal of Gandhi as a "half-naked fakir" or indeed of his own attraction to eugenics, by saying it was all a long time ago, when different norms applied. That is a common response when today's left-liberals are confronted by the eugenicist record of their forebears, reacting as if it were all an accident of time, a slip-up by creatures of their era who should not be judged by today's standards.
Except this was no accident. The Fabians, Sidney and Beatrice Webb and their ilk were not attracted to eugenics because they briefly forgot their leftwing principles. The harder truth is that they were drawn to eugenics for what were then good, leftwing reasons.
They believed in science and progress, and nothing was more cutting edge and modern than social Darwinism. Man now had the ability to intervene in his own evolution. Instead of natural selection and the law of the jungle, there would be planned selection. And what could be more socialist than planning, the Fabian faith that the gentlemen in Whitehall really did know best? If the state was going to plan the production of motor cars in the national interest, why should it not do the same for the production of babies? The aim was to do what was best for society, and society would clearly be better off if there were more of the strong to carry fewer of the weak.
What was missing was any value placed on individual freedom, even the most basic freedom of a human being to have a child. The middle class and privileged felt quite ready to remove that right from those they deemed unworthy of it.
Eugenics went into steep decline after 1945. Most recoiled from it once they saw where it led – to the gates of Auschwitz. The infatuation with an idea horribly close to nazism was steadily forgotten. But we need a reckoning with this shaming past. Such a reckoning would focus less on today's advances in selective embryology, and the ability to screen out genetic diseases, than on the kind of loose talk about the "underclass" that recently enabled the prime minister to speak of "neighbours from hell" and the poor as if the two groups were synonymous.
Progressives face a particular challenge, to cast off a mentality that can too easily regard people as means rather than ends. For in this respect a movement is just like a person: it never entirely escapes its roots.

Ideology has, needless to say, an internal logic. There is no "past" for ideology, in the sense that there is no part of an ideology that can be separated completely from the whole.  We embrace different parts of an ideology over time, but the body of thought remains.

Eugenics is a foundation of the birth control movement. Birth control. It was much of the original reason for controlling births, as explicitly and emphatically pronounced by its founders. The same intimate ties link eugenics and Darwinism. Darwin's cousin-- Francis Galton-- coined the term 'eugenics', and Darwin's Origin of Species was subtitled "... the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life." Darwin's application of this theory to human beings-- "The Descent of Man-- Selection in Relation to Sex"-- is grossly eugenic and racist. Darwin's cousin (Galton) and son (Leonard) were the first two presidents of the British Eugenics Society.

And eugenics is not a perversion of Darwin's theory. It is a natural consequence of Darwin's theory, even an 'enlightened' consequence of his theory. If man is evolved by the fierce struggle of natural selection, then care for the weak will degrade the human race, which owes its strengths to the survival of the fittest. If we are to be merciful but not degrade the human race, we must prevent the weak from breeding. Only with eugenics can we be merciful to the weak without committing race suicide.

Eugenics is "the self-direction of human evolution." Eugenics is based explicitly on Darwin's understanding of man.

Many of the ideologies competing for ascendency today-- socialism (democratic, national and international), contraception and population control, and Darwinism, to name a few-- have a sordid past. A eugenic past.

But it's not past. It's just not discussed.

So we must discuss it. 

20 comments:

  1. I think that it's a valid historical point, but not particularly relevant to current topics. It's kind of like the way people try to use the Crusades to beat Catholics. Yep, they happened. Don't know what it has to do with today, but feel free to yell about it.

    Same is true for eugenics. Yep, Darwin and Sanger were nutty. Not sure how it affects me now.

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    1. @K T Cat:

      > Yep, Darwin and Sanger were nutty.
      > Not sure how it affects me now.

      Remind me -- what exactly are the current statistics for Down syndrome babies? What percentage are carried to term vs. inductively aborted?

      Many of those who are affected by eugenics are in no position to oppose it. Some are lethally affected. It's incumbent upon us as fellow human beings to speak for them.

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    2. There's no question that abortion is used for eugenics today. I just don't see the value in dragging up the views of people that have been dead for a long time. In making the pro-life case, I think that things like ultrasounds of your baby are far more effective.

      Any attack on Darwin will get you labeled as a nutty Creationist and any attack on Sanger will be greeted with a "Who?"

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  2. Dr. Egnor uses eugenics to tar liberals because it provides a nice tidy way to smear Planned Parenthood with the side benefit of providing a wedge to separate blacks from the Democrats. This bullshit has become Republican orthodoxy and Dr. Egnor adds nothing new beyond another channel to effect this strategy.

    Of course what he fails to mention is the long and ongoing fascination with eugenics by Christian conservative Republicans. Broadly, there’s negative eugenics which seeks to limit the spread of traits deemed to be undesirable, and positive eugenics which seeks to encourage the spread of desirable traits.

    Every time you hear a conservative, be it Pat Buchanan, Mel Gibson, Discovery Institute senior fellow Michael Medved, or a commenter the on the racist Storm Front website, opine that whites need to have more babies in order to “save our culture”, they are openly arguing for eugenics. They are obsessed with anchor babies, the high birth rate of Hispanics, building a fence, and deporting as many illegals as possible, all in the hopes of maintaining our “culture” by ensuring the predominance of certain genetic traits.

    This is of course not a new phenomena; the anti-miscegenation laws championed by conservatives for decades where nothing if not an effort to prevent the dilution of favored genetic traits.

    -KW

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    1. @Anonymous/KW:

      Dr. Egnor uses eugenics to tar liberals because it provides a nice tidy way to smear Planned Parenthood with the side benefit of providing a wedge to separate blacks from the Democrats. This bullshit has become Republican orthodoxy and Dr. Egnor adds nothing new beyond another channel to effect this strategy.

      Perhaps you have supped on occasion with Ezekiel Bulver's mother? No disrespect intended, but your speculations about Michael's motives strike me as little more than sophisticated Bulverism.

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    2. @Anonymous/KW:

      Broadly, there’s negative eugenics which seeks to limit the spread of traits deemed to be undesirable, and positive eugenics which seeks to encourage the spread of desirable traits.

      What attitudes and behaviors characterize negative eugenists?

      * They're elitist.

      * They seem to compute individual human worth purely as a function of intellectual or physical potential.

      * They're apparently indifferent to human suffering.

      And, political climate permitting...

      * They approve of state coercion to achieve eugenic ends.

      * They force sterilization.

      * They abort the unborn (including forced abortion).

      * They commit outright genocide.

      By contrast, those whom you would label "positive eugenists" (Pat Buchanan, Rick Santorum, Michael Medved, et al) are not so much arguing for a change in the makeup of the human gene pool, as they are for a reproduction of those attitudes and behaviors which they believe will benefit society in the long run. They are attempting to change a culture, ultimately by changing individual hearts. One quite practical way to do this is for married couples to have children, and to reproduce their faith, their values, and their mores in the children. Then (God willing) the next generation can influence society for the good.

      There is no moral equivalence between negative and positive eugenists. The former, generally speaking, achieve their aims by preventing the conception of life it deems unworthy even of potentiality, and (taken to its extreme) by destroying those humans it deems unworthy of actuality. The latter achieve their aims by elevating, to the extent they humanly can, the condition of those unfortunates who would otherwise be called "human waste" or "dead weight".

      My paternal grandmother, who for many decades volunteered at the Masonic Home in Mount Holly, New Jersey, called the unfortunates among whom she ministered "poor souls". (She pronounced the phrase as if it was a single two-syllable word, with accent on the first syllable: POORsouls.) I'll take Grandmom's brand of eugenics any day over the eugenics of Margaret Sanger, or Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, or Cecile Richards, or Kermit Gosnell.

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    3. @myself:

      Grammatical corrections. (Seems like no matter how many times I proofread, something slips through.)

      The former [negative eugenists], generally speaking, achieve their aims by preventing the conception of life they deem unworthy even of potentiality, and (in extreme cases) by destroying those humans they deem unworthy of actuality.

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    4. Pavlov’s Kent,

      Perhaps you missed the part of my comment about the anti-miscegenation laws championed by conservatives. I deliberately included this example of conservative negative eugenics to try to forestall the almost guaranteed “my eugenics is better than your eugenics” argument.

      Conservatives are so predictable. It’s the result of their rigid ideology and need to fabricate very predictable rationalizations in order to avoid total cognitive dissonance.

      -KW

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    5. @Anonymous/KW:

      Perhaps you missed the part of my comment about the anti-miscegenation laws championed by conservatives.

      I missed nothing; I simply passed your anti-miscengenation remarks by. From a historical standpoint, scientists and scientific racism were as much responsible for anti-miscegenation laws as any so-called "conservative" personalities, at least up through the 1950's or so.

      Mark well: I was not distinguishing between conservative and progressive, or conservative and liberal. I was emphasizing the differences in attitudes and behaviors between negative and positive eugenists.

      Conservatives are so predictable. It’s the result of their rigid ideology and need to fabricate very predictable rationalizations in order to avoid total cognitive dissonance.

      Once again, your deeply insightful remarks into the conservative psyche are worthy of Mother Bulver, but hardly relevant to a discussion of eugenics.

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    6. Conservatives are so predictable. It’s the result of their rigid ideology and need to fabricate very predictable rationalizations in order to avoid total cognitive dissonance.

      Adam Smith and Milton Friedman both argue in favor of greater personal autonomy and freedom. They, as much as anyone, are the intellectual foundations of at least part of the Conservative movement. Do you find them rigid?

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  3. OMG! Just last night, during the debate, Santorum cited Charles Murray, the author of “The Bell Curve”. This racist tomb is one long argument why blacks are genetically inferior to whites.

    Dumb ass Santorum probably thinks he’s doing the white race a favor because he foolishly believes contraception leads unwed mothers to have more poverty babies! Eugenics is alive and well my friends, right in the heart of the Republican Party.

    -KW

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    1. Do you know KW that the sources used for the Bell Curve (in particular Lynn' articles) are the same that permit to some atheists to state all around the web that religious people has a lower QI than non believers?

      p.s. if Santorum were an eugenic supporter he would have agree with Sanger's diffusion of birth control among blacks peoples.

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    2. "What was missing was any value placed on individual freedom, even the most basic freedom of a human being to have a child."

      EXACTLY!

      And what is missing from the religious right, particularly the conservative elements of the Catholic Church, is respect for the individual's right to NOT have a child. We have the ability now to allow couples to enjoy healthy sexual relationships even when they don't wish to produce children.

      But the Catholic Church must enter the bedroom, wearing the banner of God, exhorting its members to breed, breed, BREED!

      So it is the height of irony to hear a Conservative Catholic rail against people who try to manipulate individual reproductive rights.

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    3. We have the ability now to allow couples to enjoy healthy sexual relationships

      Have you ever read Life at the Bottom? The author is an atheist. I highly recommend it.

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    4. Just curious. Is this a healthy sexual relationship?

      She said Ye can we get married at the mall
      I said look you need to crawl before you ball
      Come and meet me in the bathroom stall
      And show me why you deserve to have it all


      That's from a #1 Rap hit.

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    5. KT Cat, I'm sorry if you equate a healthy sexual relationshihp with "destructive, dysfunctional behavior" discussed in "Life at the Bottom."

      I have no idea what happened to you in your life that you have such a horrible view of sex. But rest assured it is not like that for most people.

      Have you talked to a professional?

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  4. Domics,

    Perhaps you missed my point that dumb ass Santorum believes that contraception results in more out of wedlock births, thus in his twisted world, less contraception results in fewer unwanted babies.

    -KW

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    1. dear Anonymous,
      in 1998 the percent of female teenagers who ever had sexual intercourse was 51%; in 2006/2008 was 42%; for male we have 55% in 1995 and 46% in 2005.

      So you can find easly why the teenage birth rates declined.

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