Science in the service of breeding better humans

September 01, 1997|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- Until now it has been an unpleasant little secret that the countries that consider themselves the most advanced and civilized have been sterilizing ''undesirable'' people or taking their children away from them in order to improve the ''race.'' This was going on until the mid-1970s, in some places.

In Sweden more than 60,000 people were sterilized against their will, or in their ignorance, between 1935 and 1976. These were mentally or physically handicapped people, or those congenitally ill, or socially ''undesirable'' women who had ''too many'' children and were held to be living ''bad lives.''

Among them were also Gypsies, vagabonds, and people who were not ''of pure Swedish race'' (as that race was supposed to look, as set forth in a series of engraved plates produced at the Institute of Racial Biology in Uppsala in 1922). However let's not single out Sweden. The same thing was going on in other Nordic countries, as well as in Switzerland.

It was going on in the United States of America. As late as 1943, 30 of the then-48 states had laws on sterilization of the genetically ''unfit.'' In most states sterilization could be performed without the consent of the victim.

The rationalization for all this was a theory for improving mankind proposed by a cousin of Charles Darwin, Francis Galton (1822-1911). It was based on Darwin's arguments about natural selection in the plant and animal kingdoms. It said that humans should be ''bred'' in order to eliminate the allegedly unfit and to promote the propagation of the allegedly superior.

Eugenics, so-called, became a popular social cause in Britain after the Boer war, stimulated by the fear that Britain's troubles were the result of ''degeneration'' of the British ''race.'' Later it was a response to manpower losses in World War I.

From that period until the 1950s, British charities were sending children confided to them, some of them illegitimate orphans, some simply the children of people who could not afford to support them, to institutions in Australia, where some ended in ,, more or less the condition of indentured servants, totally cut off from their origins.

All of this was based on clear assumptions about which ''races'' are superior and which inferior. Burned in today's Australian consciousness is a comment made by Winston Churchill in 1942, when he diverted Australian troops to doomed Singapore, in place of British divisions. It was revealed only 50 years later. He said the Australians could be sacrificed because they were ''bad blood.''

The United Statrs at that same time was unconstitutionally interning its Japanese citizens in concentration camps, and drafting black citizens mainly to segregated army labor and transport battalions. Blacks weren't allowed in the navy or Marines. The Navy Department believed they didn't have what it takes for combat.

That is the way people thought, including some who might seem the least likely to have thought like that.

In Israel, even in the late 1940s, it now is revealed that hundreds of children of immigrant Yemeni Jews were literally stolen from their Arabic-speaking parents for adoption by families of European Jewish origin.

The blood of Ethiopian Jews was for a time segregated in Israel's blood banks. The whole relationship between Israelis and Arabs, from the time of Mandate Palestine to the present day, has been tinged by racism.

One must judge all this in historical perspective. The Darwinian analogy with plant and animal kingdoms seemed convincing. Programs to ''improve'' the race seemed progressive, which is why Social Democratic leaders in Scandinavia were particularly attracted to them, as well as ''progressive'' thinkers elsewhere.

These ideas were also congenial to an intellectual generation in the United States and Europe given to larger theories of social engineering and social planning. Eugenic programs resulted from the ''best'' scientific opinion of the time, the ''best'' medical opinion, and clearly were ordered and carried out with the best of intentions. If some individuals suffered, that simply was the price of progress.

Nazism gave all of this a bad name. There is a nervous refusal now to admit that any differences at all exist between groups of people. It is all but impossible to talk about ''race,'' whatever race is. Probably this is a good thing. Possibly it is not, since there may eventually be a cost to be paid for the pretense that there are no problems here.

The lessons would seem to be that progressive theories can be deadly, and when theories require that people be made to suffer here and now in the cause of some grand future project, we should just say no.

The second lesson is that scientists can be just as wrong as the rest of us, but when they are wrong the consequences can be worse than being wrong in other professions. The implications of this experience with eugenics suggests that we should be particularly cautious about the genetic engineering which some scientists now promote as offering us, once again, a vast improvement to mankind.

8, William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/01/97

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