Four Walls Eight Windows Press
In "War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race," Edwin Black exhaustively chronicles the rise of the American eugenics movement. Eugenics ("good birth" in Greek) is considered crackpot science today but at one time captured the hearts and minds of America's leading thinkers including social scientists, educators, judges, philanthropists, and clergy.
America in the late 1800s and early in the last century was particularly susceptible to eugenic ideology, writes Black. The divisions between people were marked not by economic class but race and compelled social analysts to think in group terms. Crime and poverty were considered ethnic and in some cases generational rather than individual phenomena. The resistance of the eighteen million immigrants between 1890 and 1920 to quick assimilation threatened social cohesion. Regional problems like the absorption of Mexicans after the Mexican American war, the mass influx of Chinese laborers, and the numbers of emancipated slaves affirmed the fear that America was tearing itself apart.
The father of the modern eugenics movement was England's Francis J. Galton ( "a counter of things") who gave the pseudo-science its first taste of scientific credibility. Intoxicated by the ideas of Charles Darwin, the rediscovered genetic theories of Gregor Mendel, and the secularized philosophy of Herbert Spencer, Galton concluded that assembling data about social heredity could predict what families and ethnic groups would produce socially desirable offspring.
Eugenics never found widespread acceptance in England but in America it was different. The American movement found a leader in Charles Davenport, a biologist with a flair for organization, fundraising, and promotion. Drawing on Galton's work and funded by the Carnegie Foundation, Davenport opened the Carnegie Station for Experimental Evolution in Cold Spring Harbor, New York in 1904.
Davenport wasted no time. In short order a battalion of social workers fanned into the countryside to chart the characteristics of people they considered undesirable (blacks, poor, infirm, criminals, alcoholics, etc.). Thousands of people were forcibly sterilized (6000 between 1907 and 1927, 36,000 by 1940). Children were taken from their families. Criminals were castrated.
Some states passed legislation supporting sterilization. Flush with success the movement sought a federal case to impose a policy of forced sterilization across the nation. They found their target in Carrie Buck, the daughter of a prostitute. Carrie was carrying an illegitimate child and after giving birth she was forcibly institutionalized and declared "feebleminded by the laws of heredity."
Oliver Wendell Holmes was the chief jurist hearing the case. Carrie lost 8-1. Writing for the majority Holmes arrogantly declared, "We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if we could not call upon those who sap the strength of the state for these lesser sacrifices...compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes...three generations of imbeciles is enough." It was music to the ears of the eugenicist.
Common people were more clear-headed. The arbitrary decisions about what constituted social desirability and the pseudo-science that justified them struck many Americans not only as capricious but as evil. The movement was resisted, critiqued, and mocked at every turn and justifiably so. It was challenged in the courts and editorial pages. Finally it began to wane.
In Germany the opposite happened. The American ideas were enthusiastically embraced by German thinkers so that 250,000 disabled Germans were murdered between 1935 and 1945 alone. Black writes that the inspiration for Hitler's Final Solution drew more from the ideas of American eugenicists than from the nationalism of Hitler. (The Rockefeller Foundation funded the ideology in America during this period.) Here the real evil that eugenic ideas could unleash was revealed to anyone willing to look.
Black displays one glaring inconsistency. Early on he praises Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood however, preserves the eugenic ideal more visibly than any other American organization today. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood and the patron saint of the contemporary abortion movement, was an ardent and unrepentant eugenicist. Black roundly criticizes her. Why he finds it necessary to throw this bone to Planned Parenthood he doesn't say.
Black concludes his impressive work with an ominous warning: "After Hitler eugenics did not disappear. It renamed itself. What has thrived loudly for decades quietly took postwar refuge under the labels human genetics and genetic counseling." Genetic data banks, designer babies, and plans for massive social engineering projects by such scholars as James Watson ("following in the footsteps of Galton") are run by a new league of eugenicists that threaten the weak on a scale early eugenicists could only dream about.
Only one precept can prevent a slide into this dark age of war against the weak, cautions Black: "Nothing should be done to exclude, infringe, repress, or harm a person because of his genetic makeup." A simpler commandment will do: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.