Nature, Nurture, Murder: The Lessons of the Eugenics Craze

In the world of super heroes, it’s called an “origin story,” that trauma that led to the super hero being super.

Poor little Bruce Wayne watches helplessly as his parents are murdered. Superman rockets off the planet Krypton, sent away by his father moments before the planet explodes, only to find himself in Kansas where a loving couple adopts him and imbues him with truth, justice, and the American Way. Magneto and Professor X start out as just normal . . . mutants . . . but life experience sends one on to found the good-guy X-Men and the other to . . . electrical evil.

Clearly, the creators of super heroes believe that nurture trumps nature in that long debate between nature and nurture. But the more we know about genetics, the more we have to ask, is that true? Do our genes make us do it, whatever the “it” might be?

Science has been known to give us answers that we are not culturally capable of understanding. The most egregious moment of that in the Twentieth Century was the eugenics movement, that is, the belief that “better babies” could be produced by selective human breeding; and the corollary belief that those born with disabilities and those of races not of Western European origin, were inferior.

Liberal preachers preached it. Liberal people practiced it. It was part-and-parcel of the early birth control movement. And of course it led ultimately to the atrocities of Nazi Germany.

It also led, in the US, to immigration laws barring most people not of Western European origin, and the forced-sterilization of thousands of people. Proponents believed they could eradicate mental disorders though eugenics; they believed they could eradicate alcoholism. Forced sterilization for those in mental institutions was a practice upheld by the US Supreme Court. Thousands of poor people were forcibly sterilized. And the practice of requiring sterilization as a pre-condition for receiving welfare checks continued in some states into the 1970s.

Their motto was, “Eugenics is the self-direction of evolution.”

Fact is, the Nazis got many of their ideas from the United States and used the example of the US to justify their actions to other nations all through the 1930s.

Today, we know this behavior well as the rhetoric of neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and some far-out right-wing politicians. But liberals?

I don’t want to in any way justify these beliefs. They are despicable. Yet dismissing these ideas as something from the dark past is a very bad idea. Rather, we should look to that terrible chapter of American history as a cautionary tale. Because, besides being based in the most virulent forms of racism and ableism, political progressives also saw eugenics as good science: the latest in scientific knowledge. That’s the cautionary tale: Eugenics appealed to the very people who were most open to the theory of natural selection.

Why? One reason is that they applied the idea of natural selection—still not well understood by most people in the early Twentieth Century—to an idea most Americans knew very well at the time—the selective breeding of animals. Remember the motto I mentioned: “Eugenics is the self-direction of evolution.” Nowadays most people who look at the matter know that natural selection can’t be self-selected—the time frame is way too long for human beings to affect, or even comprehend, for that matter. But, most people did not know that at the time.

Here’s how the fatal error occurred: We have cats and dogs and ridable horses because of selective breeding. People figured this out a loooong time ago. My grandparents, who could barely read and write, were experts at selective breeding. Most farmers were.

People knew that traits can be affected in a short time among animals, and so they assumed that human genetics could be affected in a short time. And that simply isn’t true—not in animals such as human beings that have long lives, anyway. Fruit flies are a different story. As is the famous case of the tube (subway) mice in London that have evolved in about a century and a half to have grey coats that exactly match the color of paint used on the bottom of the London train tunnels. But people aren’t fruit flies or mice.  Scientific ideas often become dangerous when they are applied to culture or human life on a micro-level.

Remember that Charles Darwin knew almost nothing about genetics: Mendel’s work on peas was in existence in Darwin’s lifetime, but Darwin never encountered the studies.

Remember that the structure of DNA was not discovered until 1953, well after the horrors of Nazism. The first draft of the the human genome appeared in 2001.

To that we must add that the overt racist and ableist assumptions in the US at the time made for the perfect environment for the eugenics movement. Racism and ableism permeated US society—from outright segregationist to progressives to just about everybody. Heck, even the Homeopathy Society supported eugenics.

We see the same sort of misapplication of science today: Despite what New Age gurus might claim, people are not lonely because we live in an expanding universe. We can’t walk through walls because there is lots of space between atoms. We don’t vibrate with cosmic vibrations because of String Theory.

And you don’t speed up natural selection through eugenics. The time scales of the two are completely different. All these are the realm of hucksters. And, in the case of eugenics, racists.

Take away: when science appears to support your preconceptions and prejudices, watch out!

No, there isn’t really a super hero who became Spider-Man because he was bitten by an irradiated spider. But here are some things that are real science that we easily forget:

Genetic research has taught us that the entire concept of race is a fiction. A mistake. There are no genetically identifiable races. Homo-Sapiens developed along about 200,000 years ago and some homo-sapiens began leaving Africa something along about 80,000 years ago. Human generations are roughly 25 years, which means that some homo-sapiens left Africa about 3000 generations ago; other homo-sapiens, such as our Somali neighbors, left in this generation. We’re all immigrants out of Africa.

Despite what the racists of the early-Twentieth Century believed, there is no “race” in the homo-sapiens population, only separation by time and cultural difference.

You may have read that President Obama is related to Harry Truman, Dick Cheney, George Bush, and Brad Pitt. This is not urban legend. But it doesn’t prove a whole lot either, except that human beings are all related, and that we tend to notice the famous ones and not the infamous or un-famous ones.

Until everyone understands this, we will have not only the egregious lunatics such as the Neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, but also the casual cliches that still permeate our culture and destroy the lives of too many people.

Magneto

Marvel Comics

Poor little Bruce Wayne. He could have been a man of leisure.  Superman might have hung out on Krypton (or at least Kansas). And there’s no telling what nature might have had Magneto and Professor X doing. As for us, we will have to continue wondering and speculating just how much of what we do is up to us and how much is up to our stars . . . and our genes. All will be well, so long as we remember humility in the face of a very large universe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Cardunculus

    It seems to me that, in principle at least, eugenics *could* be used to improve the average physical health of the human species: true, it would not result in human speciation (let alone in some fanciful “race” of supermen) any time soon, but there are plenty of genetic diseases that could be eradicated or mostly-eradicated in such a way (albeit at a terrible human cost).

    But all of this is, of course, irrelevant: eugenics should not be avoided because it does not work, it should be avoided because it is morally wrong and offensive to human dignity. I think that Chesterton summarized the main problem with eugenics well enough:

    “The one objection to scientific marriage which is worthy of final
    attention is simply that such a thing could only be imposed on
    unthinkable slaves and cowards. I do not know whether the scientific
    marriage-mongers are right (as they say) or wrong (as Mr. Wells says)
    in saying that medical supervision would produce strong and healthy
    men. I am only certain that if it did, the first act of the strong and
    healthy men would be to smash the medical supervision.”

  • Frank swain

    Lers begin with: “company at bedside,…when plans go awry”…
    The early writers, folklore, especially, of he southern America…
    The Nazi SS, valued…


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