Social and Political Commentary

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The end of eugenics

... or is it?

by John Averell

In a previous article, "A questionable legacy from a wealthy ancestor", I wrote about how a relative of mine helped develop the basis of the pseudo-scientific theory of "eugenics", and how this movement resulted in so many wrongs in the first half of the twentieth century.

A recent book1 by Victoria Nourse carries the story along to its seeming conclusion. "In Reckless Hands" is focussed on a particular legal case in Oklahoma, "Skinner vs. Oklahoma", culminating in 1942 with a landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. The book does not attempt to cover the history of eugenics in detail. It is thoroughly researched and sourced, with detailed notes and a bibliography for anyone interested in the history.

I learned about Nourse's book from a recent article2 in the Boston Globe. Nourse was interviewed by Anna Mundow (freelance journalist) about her work. In it Nourse summarized her findings, which are pretty much a repeat of the final chapter of her book, "Epilogue: Failures of Modern Memory".

The important developments from the eugenics theory were the many sterilization laws that were passed by 28 states during the 20s and 30s. The purpose of these laws was to perfect humanity by eliminating the propagation of undesireable characteristics to future generations. The basis of the theory was a (mis)understanding of genetic inheritance principles. There was little if any rigorous scientific research to support the laws that were passed. At this time, "race" was a popular and widespread way to divide humanity into genetic groups. This was not just our current loose racial groups (e.g. caucasian, african, asian, etc.), but also ethnic (e.g. Italian, Jewish, Irish, gypsy, etc.), and behavioral (e.g. criminal, mentally deficient, sexually deviant from the norm). This of course fell heavily on recent immigrants, poorer classes, and mentally ill persons. The "proof" of the eugenic studies were primarily statistical correlation within conveniently constructed "races" rather than individual case studies to see if the undesireable characteristics were actually inherited.

I remember even in my junior high days (around 1950) of being taught about the Jukes and Kallikaks families and the horrors of genetic inbreeding. Apparently no one looked at a complete set of (for example) inmates in a prison or in an institution to explore individual family histories to determine if forced sterilization would really change human history for the better.

The most serious outcome of the sterilization laws in this country is that they lent credence to the Nazi race theories which ultimately led to the sacrifice of so many million Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and "undesireables" on the basis that the Aryan "race" had to be purified. On being questioned in 1936 about the scientific basis of the Nazi race laws, the Nazis responded that "[y]ou do this too, you were the eugenic leader and, by the way, you have lynching, racial segregation."

The Skinner vs Oklahoma case was fought by the inmates of McCalester Prison, defending their right not to be forced into sterilization. Nourse shows in detail how the final decision in 1942 changed (or more properly reoriented) the Supreme Court into a period in which individual, or civil, rights are considered fundamental to constitutional law. The Court struck down the Oklahoma case against Skinner. But sterilization did not in fact cease with Skinner, but persisted into the 1980s.

So the final question is: "Is eugenics dead?" The answer is certainly "No!". We now have entered the age of the human genome. Every week brings more understanding of the relation of genetics to health and probably behavior. In a recent TV news segment a scientist was suggesting that we will be able to select fertilized cells on the basis of what the details of the DNA are. If this isn't eugenics in its ultimate form, I don't know what else to call it.

Nourse points out the potential danger of the "God gene" or the "gay gene". I can do no better than quote from the final chapter of her book the following paragraph3:

    "This is the important lesson of Skinner's tale. A democratic theory of genetics, as the 'minute men of science' once proclaimed it in 1939, must be one which rejects the claim by the discoverer of the double helix, James Watson (a claim shared by eugenicists), that the 'gene is fate'. As citizens, scientists must recognize that in this, as in religion, there must be a basic separation, a separation of science and state. ... May the lesson of Skinner be one in which scientists and all who revere science (myself included) remember how great an incentive politics has to manipulate science and how easily science may capitulate to the very politics it aims to conquer."

1Victoria F. Nourse, In Reckless Hands: Skinner V. Oklahoma and the near triumph of American Eugenics, (W.W. Norton & Co, NY, 2008)

2Boston Sunday Globe, July 27, 2008, p. K7, "The Interview with Victoria Nourse: A warning about 'false science'. "

3Nourse, op cit, p 173.

September 5, 2008

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