Evolution of eugenics movement


Science: A look at the theory that aimed to improve the human race may provide lessons today as scientists grapple with gene therapy.

June 21, 1999|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN STAFF

It was a grotesque mixture of bigotry and pseudo-science that flourished in America, inspiring biased immigration laws, limits on interracial marriage and the sterilization of more than 60,000 people.

And while the eugenics movement came to a very bad end a half-century ago, it may still hold important lessons for us. Its echoes can be heard in the theories linking race and intelligence. And advancing technology is bringing its once far-fetched goals increasingly within our grasp.

Eugenics was founded by a 19th-century British mathematician, Francis Galton, whose enthusiasm for evolution and tendency to see the world in terms of numbers led to pioneering work in the application of statistics to biology.

Galton believed fervently that "like begets like" -- that people inherit intelligence, talent and morality with eye color and stature. And he worried that the industrious, intelligent and moral people were having too few children, while the dull and shiftless were having too many.

Nature, he thought, didn't let the unworthy live long enough to procreate, but public-health measures interfered by lengthening lives. Now, evolution would need help culling the unworthy. Fortunately, scientists were up to the task. "What nature does blindly, slowly and ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly and kindly," wrote Galton, who envisaged consigning the defective to monasteries.

Eugenics appealed to different people for different reasons. Left-wing utopians hoped to create a perfect man suitable for life in a perfect society. Conservatives sought to check the growth of the volatile working class. At first popular among intellectual elites, eugenics was filtering into mainstream culture by the 1890s. By the eve of World War I, it had inspired what historian Daniel J. Kevles calls "a planetary revolution."

In the United States, it was championed by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants -- perhaps because it offered scientific justification for their political dominance. One early supporter was birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger, who adopted the slogan "To Breed a Race of Thoroughbreds."

High-minded citizens in Battle Creek, Mich., founded the Race Betterment Foundation. Forward-thinking New Yorkers established The Galton Society. Celebrities such as horticulturist Luther Burbank launched the American Eugenics Society.

Twenty-eight state committees sprang up. State fairs opened "human stock" sections and sponsored "Fitter Family" contests, honoring those who could prove the mettle of their sperm and eggs, or "germ plasm," in tests of physical and mental agility.

In Philadelphia in 1926, the Eugenics Society set up a display featuring a clock and flashing lights. Every 48 seconds, the display claimed, a mentally deficient person was born. Only once every 7 1/2 minutes, it said, did American couples produce "a high-grade person who will have ability to do creative work and be fit for leadership."

Critics of eugenics, including lawyer Clarence Darrow and journalist Walter Lippmann, found few allies. When eminent biologist Herbert Spencer Jennings of the Johns Hopkins University went to Washington to testify against a eugenics-inspired immigration law, he was kept waiting for nine hours, then told to go home. The committee had adjourned.

The prejudice driving the movement had no subtlety. A leading eugenicist, Charles B. Davenport, fretted that immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe would turn Americans into a people "darker in pigmentation, smaller in stature, more mercurial more given to crimes of larceny, kidnapping, assault, murder, rape and sex-immorality."

In Maryland, long a refuge for immigrants, eugenics campaigners avoided that kind of talk. Instead, they attacked the poor and the handicapped. "The breeding of paupers, the feeble-minded, the psychopathic and the criminal delinquent must be eliminated so far as possible from the machinery of life," declared the Baltimore City grand jury in a 1932 report. "It is certainly impossible to produce normal citizens from such sources."

More than 35 states adopted laws authorizing the sterilization of prisoners, drug addicts, the mentally retarded and people suffering from epilepsy. Upholding the constitutionality of such laws, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes equated compulsory sterilization with mandatory vaccinations. "Three generations of imbeciles are enough," he wrote.

Twice in the 1930s, Maryland legislators considered sterilization bills. The measures were rejected, in part because of opposition from Catholic leaders.

The Nazis adopted eugenics with a passion. By 1937, they had sterilized 225,000 people, about half of them said to be "feeble-minded." Two years later, they switched to killing the mentally diseased or disabled -- as well as Jews. Authorities offered ethnically pure and biologically fit German families loans and bounties for producing more children.

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