In the late 1880s Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton advocated applying scientific insights to human reproduction.  He label his proposed science “eugenics.” Galton argued that just as physical traits were obviously inherited, the same could be said for mental qualities. In his words, “Eugenics cooperates with the workings of nature by ensuring that humanity shall be represented by the fittest races. What nature does blindly, slowly, and ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly, and kindly.”[1] Galton likely did not intend for eugenics to develop in the deeply coercive way it ultimately did any more than Darwin had intended his ideas to be interpreted as they were. But once they set out on their own in the world, ideas take on a life of their own.

The ideal of scientifically improving the “human stock” did not originate in the United States.  We find it as early as in Plato’s Republic. It also found ready acceptance in America in many circles, enabling a variety of Americans to come together to act against those they regarded as undesirable. Then as now immigration appeared to threaten Americans with the arrival of people whose different customs and religions made them seem unassimilable.  Perhaps, eugenic reasoning went, they really were unassimilable.

This was not a new idea.  As a nation of immigrants who had violently displaced its original inhabitants, some Americans were predisposed to be more concerned about the cultural and ethnic purity of their population than were peoples in more homogenous and long established European countries.  The liberal ideal of universal human equality in moral worth had always had to battle with the ingrained preferences most people had for those who were similar to themselves over those who were different. In 1751 Benjamin Franklin himself had written concerning Germans [2]

“Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.

“Which leads me to add one Remark: That the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth.”

Germans were not white.

For Americans and people in Europe generally, the contemporary term European represents a major human accomplishment.  Well into the Twentieth century Europe was seen as comprised of many “races” who were basically distinct and often antagonistic.  Nazi Germany did not emerge in a vacuum.

In addition America had a long and brutal history of racism and worse towards both African Americans and Native Americans.  Theories describing the racial inferiority of those who were different, and suggesting biological reasons for those who seemed least successful in society, had considerable attraction for many people, Progressives included.

Even so, the more liberal Progressives who were initially receptive to eugenics thought of it in terms of improving the lives of individuals rather than improving the national “stock.” Jane Addams, a prominent Progressive, wrote in 1912[3]

Our generation . . . may at last have the courage to insist upon a child’s right to be well born and to start in life with its tiny body free from disease.  Certainly allied to this understanding is the new science of eugenics . . . When this new science makes clear to the public that those diseases which are a direct outcome of the social evil are clearly responsible for race deterioration, effective indignation may at last be aroused, both against the preventable infant mortality for which these diseases are responsible, and against the ghastly fact that the survivors among these affected children infect their contemporaries and hand on the evil heritage to another generation.

To this end, Addams argued [4]

“as the state does not legalize a marriage without a license officially recorded, that the status of children may be clearly defined, so the state would need to go but one step further in the same direction, to insist upon health certificates from the applicant for a marriage license, that the health of future children might to a certain measure be guaranteed.”

Addams’ was attracted to eugenics’ promise of improving the environment in which children were raised, and in avoiding supposedly hereditary diseases parents passed on to their children. Her interest was in enabling those otherwise hampered in life to become more fit rather than focusing on eliminating the unfit.  Unfortunately Addams’ views were often overshadowed by a different more Baconian vision of experts improving ‘the race,” whether it liked it or not.

In his The Promise of American Life, Herbert Croly, another prominent Progressive, argued the state had a responsibility to “interfere on behalf of the really fittest.”[5] Croly argued this logic applied to everything in society.  Selection always happened, and the critical question was whether it be done ‘irresponsibly’ or responsibly, and by political experts or scientific experts.  For Croly there was little difference between expert scientific  regulation and control of its human stock and its regulation and control of the economy. He advocated both.

When more liberal Progressives began objecting to the course eugenics was taking, Croly addressed their concerns in words illustrating the depth of differences developing between the two perspectives. Croly wrote[6]

“So long as the state neglects its good blood, it will let its bad blood alone. There is no certain way of distinguishing between defectiveness in the strain and defectiveness produced by malnutrition, neglected lesions originally curable, or overwork in childhood. When the state assumes the duty of giving a fair opportunity for development to every child, it will find unanimous support for a policy of extinction of stocks incapable of profiting from their privileges.”

Croly’s comments illustrate the crucial division between liberal and Baconian visions within Progressive thought.  Addams was liberal, Croly’s argument Baconian.  They also illustrate the ease with which attempts at purely “scientific” reasoning on policy issues could lead to deeply immoral, and even evil, outcomes.  Croly was an example of the moral nihilist that Western secular elites were increasingly embracing.

Many American philanthropic institutions advocated and funded research in eugenics, and occasionally even suggested lethal approaches to “the problem.” In 1911 the Carnegie Institute mentioned euthanasia by means of gas chambers as one way to eliminate the problem of biologically undesirable Americans. While they conceded actually implementing such methods was politically impossible, less extreme approaches such as forced sterilization were deemed acceptable.  If lethal methods were to be used, they needed to be, and were, applied less visibly, and out of the public’s eye.[7]

In 1927, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Virginia’s forced sterilization laws.  Writing for the majority and with only one dissent, that of Pierce Butler, a conservative Catholic, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes argued that since so many had risked their lives for their country during World War I, “it would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the state for these lesser sacrifices . . . in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Between 1903 and 1945, at least 45,127 Americans were forcibly sterilized.[8]

Right wing author Jonah Goldberg has done much to increase interest in this neglected history. However he has done so for misleadingly partisan reasons that replaced widespread ignorance with complete error.   Goldberg attempts to link liberalism with eugenics claiming that unlike Progressives, conservatives did not support eugenics.[9]  Goldberg’s claim is false.  We have already seen that Jane Addams, one of the most important Progressives of her time, opposed eugenics.  Many conservatives did not. For example, Calvin Coolidge wrote that “Nordics deteriorate when mixed with other races.”[10]  He was far from alone. Eugenics was an ostensibly scientific theory that reinforced a number of traditionally ‘conservative’ biases as well as some scientific hopes.[11]

In 1924 when Virginia passed its law enabling forced sterilization it also passed its “Racial Integrity Act,” which outlawed any marriages between “white” and “colored” Virginians.  Both laws passed on the same day and were written by the same people.[12]   Virginia has never been considered a hot bed of Progressive politics.  While “scientific eugenics” was given as a justification for both laws, Virginia had long had anti-miscegenation statutes on its books. Now the reasoning changed but the impact did not, or sometimes grew even worse.

Goldberg legitimately indicts Justice Holmes for his brutal majority opinion in the Supreme Court’s 8-1 decision upholding Virginia’s law permitting forced sterilization without so much as even a trial. He also emphasized Holmes’ decision was endorsed by the Progressive Justice Louis Brandeis, as it was.  But Goldberg’s list is deceptive. The ruling was 8-1.  Except for Butler, the court’s conservative justices also supported the ruling. This included Willis Van Devanter, James C. McReynolds and George Sutherland, justices who later became among the New Deal’s most intransigent judicial opponents.   Former Republican President and noted anti-Progressive William Howard Taft also signed the opinion, and it was Taft who encouraged Holmes “to write an opinion that concentrated on the Buck family’s inherited defects.”[13]

In less than a decade German Nazis would be referring to America’s involuntary sterilization programs, anti-miscegenation laws, and Jim Crow practices as praiseworthy efforts that preceded Germany’s own move in the same direction.[14] In Mein Kampf Adolf Hitler wrote “There is today one state in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception (of immigration) are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but the United States.”[15] Leading American eugenicists returned the favor. Dr. Joseph DeJarnette director of the Western State Hospital in Staunton, VA wrote in 1938: “Germany in six years has sterilized about 80,000 of her unfit while the United States — with approximately twice the population — has only sterilized about 27,869 in the past 20 years.”  He believed this was a poor record and the “fact that there are 12,000,000 defectives in the U.S. should arouse our best endeavors to push this procedure to the maximum.”  DeJarnette concluded, sadly, that “The Germans are beating us at our own game.”[16]

Eugenics was not abandoned through the power of moral principles, it did not result from Americans’ reconnecting with their founding documents.  Support for eugenics’ fundamental principles required demonstrating that certain disadvantageous traits, such as disease and lack of intelligence, were inherited and that selecting against these traits would benefit society.  But eugenics’ initial research was poorly conducted, and the better it was done, the less the resulting evidence supported its arguments. Eugenics was ultimately judged to be bad science.  It was abandoned because people believed it would not work.

Science was far ahead of the political curve.

Jill Lepore wires “The week Holmes handed down his decision in Buck v. Bell, the Times reported that Harvard declined a sixty-thousand-dollar bequest to fund eugenics courses, refusing “to teach that the treatment of defective and criminal classes by surgical procedures was a sound doctrine.”[17]  Eugenics had failed to establish its scientific credibility, and its rejection by scientists probably saved thousands if not millions of lives because Western moral principles were declining in America. Only a conservative Catholic voted against eugenics on the Supreme Court..

The dilemma of the ethical scientist

I think the moral crisis brought about by applying biology as it was then understood to human beings is an important reason why so many scientists and others have focused so intently on showing how we are in some sense uniquely different from other animals. No one worries about quantitative differences because these occur along a continuum of more and less.  What matters are qualitative differences proving we truly are distinct in kind, for they determine where a protective ethical line can be drawn that protects humanity from the implications of applying the same standards to itself that it applies to everything else.  As individuals scientists are often far better men and women than could be deduced from their adherence to scientific standards alone.

But most attempts to find uniquely rather than quantitatively distinguishing human qualities have not fared well.   For a long time ‘man’ was considered the tool-making animal.  Not any longer.  We now know other birds and animals also make and use tools.  In late 2011 even a fish, the wrasse, was discovered to use tools, pounding mollusks it wants to eat against rocks.[18]  Invertebrates like the octopus collect shells in order to construct a shelter.[19]  Tool making had been considered unique to humans apparently because no one had ever looked for it in animals.

Human beings are also said to be the only beings who have language. But the language barrier seems to be eroding. African Gray Parrots apparently can learn and speak English.[20] Even among rodents such as prairie dogs, animal communication is proving far more complex than ever imagined.[21]

We keep emphasizing increasingly complex linguistic traits to safeguard the distinction.  What about using fire?  Bonobos seem to be able to learn to use fire without fear.[22]  What about foresight?  Chimpanzees plan ahead, and collect tools in order to realize their future plans, such as throwing rocks at humans.[23] And a number of animals, such as elephants, dolphins, and some apes, have demonstrated self-awareness by recognizing themselves in a mirror.

More importantly I think, over time even the case for humanity’s supposedly unique moral sensibility has dramatically weakened. Many animals have shown capacities that if observed in humans would immediately be interpreted as moral behavior. In Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce describe a wide variety of cases, including that of a rhesus monkey who, once it learned that pulling a chain to get food would lead to another monkey getting shocked, went 12 days without eating.  Another example was a bat who, once it saw that another female bat was having trouble giving birth, acted as its midwife.[24]  We are obviously different from other beings, but, as Darwin maintained, increasingly those differences appear to be quantitative and with one very ironic exception to be discussed in chapter 10, surviving areas of possible distinctiveness do not appear to be relevant to morality.

As individuals and as a culture, an increasingly clear choice confronts us. Either the moral principles that apply to human beings also extend in some way into the natural world, or human beings are as fit a subject for power and domination as anything else in the world. So far the wrong choice has usually been made because we are transfixed with the narcissistic conceit inherited from transcendental monotheism that the world around us is without any value of its own.  We give it its value, and as such it is a fit object upon which to work our power. This bias pushes us towards a Baconian perspective on humanity itself once the distinction between world and human breaks down. As it does liberals, the best of them, fight a rear guard action arguing for humankind’s moral uniqueness within a world without ultimate values. They do so as ineffectively as had Christians defending the Bible against science because liberals a these liberals are seeking to erect new moral foundations through purely logocentric arguments.


[2] Benjamin Franklin, Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Not Your Usual Founding Father: Selected Readings From Benjamin Franklin, Edmund S. Morgan, ed., (New Haven: Yale University Press 2006). 157. It is important to emphasize that as he gained in experience in the world Franklin’s views changed drastically.  After visiting a school for Black children in 1763 Franklin wrote I “have conceiv’d a higher Opinion of the natural Capacities of the black Race than I had ever before entertained.  Their Apprehension seems as quick, their Memory as strong, and their Docility in every Respect equal to that of white Children. You will wonder perhaps that I should ever doubt it, and I will not undertake to justify all my Prejudices nor to account for them.” Benjamin Franklin to John Waring, December 17, 1763, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. X, Leonard W. Labaree et. al., (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959). 395-6.

[3] Jane Addams, Moral and Legal Protection of Children, The Jane Addams Reader, Jean Bethke Elshtain (ed.), (NY: Basic Books, 2002). 192.

[4] Op. cit. 193.

[5] Herbert Croly, The Promise of American Life, (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989). 191.

[6] Herbert Croly, The Nation, 1916, cited by Jonah Goldberg, Liberals and Eugenics, The American: Journal of the American Enterprise Institute, The Enterprise Blog, March 29, 2010. http://blog.american.com/?p=11841

[7] Edwin Black, Eugenics and the Nazis – The California Connection, SF Gate, The San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 9, 2003, http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2003/11/09/ING9C2QSKB1.DTL . See also Edwin Black, The War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Plan to Create a Master Race, (Dialog Press, 2008).

[8] Claudia Koonz, The Nazi Conscience, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2003). 105. Neither the woman who was sterilized nor her “imbecile” daughter appear to have been mentally defective.  Far darker motives had led to her incarceration.

[9] Jonah Goldberg, Liberals and Eugenics, The American: Journal of the American Enterprise Institute, The Enterprise Blog, March 29, 2010. http://blog.american.com/?p=11841

[10] Paul Gray, Cursed by eugenics, Time Magazine 153:1, January 11, 1999.

[11] Tim Hashaw. Children of Perdition: Melungens and the Struggle of Mixed America, (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2006). 120.

[12] Hashaw, op. cit., 117.

[13] Paul Lombardo, Three Generations: Eugenics, the Supreme Court and Buck v. Ball. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), xii.

[14] Koonz, 123. See also Hitler’s Debt to America, The Guardian, February 6, 2004.  http://www.waragainsttheweak.com/offSiteArchive/HitlerDebtToAmerica.html

[15] Black, op. cit.

[16] http://www.readthehook.com/79628/onarchitecture-erasing-history-wrecking-ball-aiming-dejarnette .  See also Claudia Koonz, The Nazi Conscience, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003). 105, 171, 249.

[17] Jill Lepore, Fixed: the rise of marriage therapy and other dreams of human betterment, The New Yorker, March 29, 2010. http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2010/03/29/100329crat_atlarge_lepore

[18] David Prlman, Fish known as wrasses are found to use tools. SF Gate, September 29, 2011. http://articles.sfgate.com/2011-09-29/news/30227985_1

[19] Coconut-Carrying Octopus: First Evidence Of Tool Use In Invertebrate, Researcher ‘Gobsmacked’ (Video), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/12/15/coconut-carrying-octopus_n_392564.html

[21] Matt Walker, Burrowing US prairie dogs use complex language, BBC Earth News, Februaru 2, 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_8493000/8493089.stm ; Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, New Language Discovered: Prairiedogese, NPR, March 16, 2011. http://www.npr.org/2011/01/20/132650631/new-language-discovered-prairiedogese&sc=nl&cc=es-20110124

[22] Susan Savage-Rumbaugh, Susan Savage-Rumbaugh on Apes, TED, April, 2007. http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/susan_savage_rumbaugh_on_apes_that_write.html

[23] Linda Geddes, I’m planning to throw rocks at you, New Scientist, March 14, 2009, p. 10.

[24] Marc Bekoff, Jessica Pierce, Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).