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The Great White Way: Daniel Kevles on the History of Eugenics in the US

Long before Adolf Hitler hit his stride, American activists worked to breed a better, whiter race. Historian Daniel Kevles discusses the U.S. eugenics movement, Fitter Families, and efforts to segregate, sterilize, and castrate the "unfit."

Interview by Carrie McLaren | Issue #22

Imagine yourself in the heart of Kansas, at the annual state fair, in 1928. Past the dunking booth and Ferris wheel, the stands selling corn dogs and cotton candy, farmers from around the state have gathered to show off the year's yields. Amid the horses, cattle, and hogs, a blue-eyed blonde family of four is displayed on an elevated platform. Over their heads is a large banner: fitter families contest.

Not unlike dog shows today, Fitter Family contests pitted American citizens against one another in a battle to determine whose facial characteristics, posture, health, and habits judges deemed the most fit. The winners were usually Aryans who, if not Christian themselves, could pass as models of godly living--which isn't to suggest that the contests were strictly a rural phenomenon. Fitter Family and similar contests were popular throughout the U.S., a visible face of a long-burgeoning movement that was quickly coming to a head: eugenics.

With roots reaching from the mid-1800s, eugenics was an attempt to apply science--in the form of Mendelian genetics--to improve the human race. Using Mendel's pea-plant experiments as a jumping-off point, eugenicists argued that society should consciously work to breed the best genetic traits in its citizens. There were two main approaches: positive eugenics encouraged persons with desirable traits to breed, and negative eugenics barred "undesirables" from breeding.

Though steeped in the kind of racist and anti-immigrant beliefs generally associated with right-wingers, eugenics ideas were at least as likely to be advocated by social radicals and progressive thinkers as by conservatives. Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Woodrow Wilson, H.G. Wells, Emma Goldman, and Margaret Sanger (the founder of Planned Parenthood) were among its fans. Some, like Sanger and the English critic Havelock Ellis, saw eugenics as a way to liberate women through its promotion of birth control. For those with socialist leanings, eugenics reflected a privileging of society's interests over those of the individual.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about eugenics was its widespread popularity among middle- and upper-class Americans. Popular literature from the late 1800s up through the 1930s was littered with eugenics-inspired language about bettering the human race. Although such language squarely fit progressive ideals at the time, some of the underlying mechanics were downright grisly.

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Charles Davenport headed the eugenics movement in the U.S. with the Eugenics Record Office, a group funded largely with Rockefeller and Carnegie dollars. Davenport pushed negative eugenics remedies to prevent births among those deemed genetically undesirable (in order of priority): the "feebleminded," paupers, alcoholics, criminals, epileptics, the insane, the constitutionally weak, people predisposed to specific diseases, deformed persons, and those born deaf, blind, or mute.

Few of these problems could be scientifically tied to genes, of course, but Davenport was seldom troubled by such facts. The "feebleminded" diagnosis alone was so vague and elastic--applying to anyone deemed stupid or immoral--as to be meaningless. Nonetheless, Davenport and his cronies called for segregating, incarcerating, sterilizing, and castrating all such persons. (Why castration? Some eugenicists argued that, though sterilization prevented people from breeding, the operation would encourage the unfit to have more and more sex, and spread disease, once reproduction was no longer an issue. Castration, needless to say, solved that.)

Such harsh remedies were deemed necessary to prevent the unfit from polluting the gene pool and were surprisingly well-received by government officials. The U.S. Department of Agriculture was closely aligned with the American Breeders Association, a prominent supporter of eugenics. And in 1907, states began sterilizing citizens they considered a problem. Indiana was first, followed by Washington, Connecticut, Virginia, and California. Often surgery was performed without the victims' knowledge. Poor women admitted to a hospital for a minor illness might leave with their tubes tied, only to discover later that they couldn't get pregnant.

The vast majority of sterilizations were carried out on the underclass: poor people, immigrants, those in jails or public mental hospitals. (Delaware even managed to criminalize marriage between poor people!) Making matters worse, the institutions set up to serve these populations were in some cases the very forces that enslaved them. As Edwin Black notes in his book War Against the Weak, eugenics infected many reform movements, from child welfare to public health. The New York Bureau of Industries and Immigration was founded to help immigrants but employed investigators to screen out "defectives." The National Committee on Prison Labor expanded its mission to include documenting hereditary criminality. New York State's Commissioner of Public Health advocated a plan by Lucien Howe to investigate hereditary blindness. The investigation never happened, but if it had gone according to Howe's plan, the state would have ultimately rounded up blind people and imprisoned them, an effort to save taxpayers' money.

Men like Howe were eugenics extremists, but even he found some mainstream support. As a committee chair within the American Medical Association, Howe got the AMA to endorse a law that would allow taxpayers to issue injunctions against others' marriages if one person had eye defects--including nearsightedness.

And these are just the negative eugenics efforts! Attempts to push positive eugenic remedies were equally far-out, with calls for polygamy, systematic mating, and even marriage among cousins--all in an attempt to multiply desirable bloodlines. Some argued that the government should offer genetic superiors financial incentives to have children, a tactic later used by Nazi Germany. As one Dr. Sharp of Indiana Reformatory argued in 1902: "We make a choice of the best rams for our sheep…and keep the best dogs.… How careful then should we be in the begetting of children?"

According to Black, British eugenicists even argued that the military should issue eugenic stripes to the "meritorious wounded," presumably to "offset the injuries that might make such men less attractive to women." War was considered dysgenic--it killed off society's best. Eugenicists therefore opposed it. (By the same measure, eugenicists would have supported war today; today's military is disproportionately made up of ethnic minorities and immigrants, groups once widely considered to be genetically unfit.)

The eugenics movement finally started to crumble with the rise of Nazi Germany. Partly inspired by eugenics efforts in the United States, Hitler's government began a national program to round up and sterilize the unfit. Many leading eugenicists in the States watched in awe. A prominent Virginia doctor, dismayed at the rapid growth of undesirables, urged the state legislature to broaden its sterilization law by warning, "Hitler is beating us at our own game!" Such true believers held to their guns with the passage of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, applauding Hitler and seething with envy as their utopian fantasies played out across the Atlantic. But public support for eugenics withered rapidly, funding dried up, and serious scientists did everything they could to distance the study of genetics from its horrible cousin. By the end of World War II, the eugenics movement was dead--so dead, in fact, that in this era of gene splicing and cloning, we seldom hear of it.

Daniel Kevles published what may be the best history of eugenics to date in 1985, In the Name of Eugenics (Harvard University Press). Kevles is also the author of The Physicists: The History of a Scientific Community in Modern America (Harvard), The Baltimore Case: A Trial of Politics, Science, and Character (W.W. Norton); and coauthor of The Code of Codes: Scientific and Social Issues in the Human Genome Project (Harvard) and Inventing America: A History of the United States (W.W. Norton). In addition, Kevles has written for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Kevles is the Stanley Woodward Professor of History at Yale University and has also taught at the University of Pennsylvania, UCLA, and Princeton. Though currently immersed in a new project--a history of intellectual property in living organisms--he took time to talk to Stay Free! by telephone in March 2004.--Carrie McLaren

Interview by Carrie McLaren

Transcription by Lindsay Sullivan

STAY FREE!: People who pushed negative eugenics argued that the genes of dark-skinned people are inferior and that unless the state prevented them from multiplying, the inferiors would take over and pollute the human race. How did this idea fit their Darwinist beliefs? It seems to contradict the idea of "survival of the fittest."

DANIEL KEVLES: That's an excellent point. There's an inherent contradiction in eugenic doctrine in relationship to evolutionary theory. Evolutionary theory holds that the definition of fitness is your ability to reproduce and have your children survive. In eugenic doctrine, the definition of fitness is the opposite. They define fitness by who thrives in society socially. Educated, wealthy people actually reproduce at a slower rate, but eugenicists want them to have as many children as possible. Their charge that lower income groups are proliferating too rapidly is in a sense anti-Darwinian.

STAY FREE!: Did they ever address that contradiction?

KEVLES: No, not really.

STAY FREE!: There's an interesting quote by Margaret Sanger about Charles Davenport in your book. You write: Sanger recalled that Davenport, in expressing worry about contraception of elites, "used to lift his eyes reverently and, with his hands upraised as though in supplication, quiver emotionally as he breathed. 'Protoplasm. We want protoplasm!' " How important was religion to eugenics?

KEVLES: Well, I don't think it was fundamental. Eugenics was essentially a secular religion. In the late nineteenth century, evolution posed a serious challenge to Christianity, so people began searching for some kind of substitute and a number of them found it in science.

STAY FREE!: But weren't some eugenicists religious and enthusiastic about science?

KEVLES: I wouldn't say that they were religious in a conventional Christian sense. A lot of them were agnostic, some were atheist. Even clerics felt that they had to reconcile their own beliefs with science.

STAY FREE!: You wrote that business talent wasn't seen as a genetically desirable trait and that there were few businessmen in the movement. Why do you think that is?

KEVLES: The main proponents of eugenics were white, middle-class folks whose criteria for achievement were fundamentally scholastic--getting good grades in school, getting ahead in one of the professions. They felt threatened by industrial corporate power and didn't particularly identify with the materialism of business success.

STAY FREE!: In War Against the Weak, Edwin Black argues that eugenicists were mostly elites, not middle-class.

KEVLES: I think he's mistaken; his book was fundamentally a polemical one. They were elites in the sense that they included philanthropic elites and university elites. But there was very broad middle-class support for eugenics. The important thing is to ask why.

STAY FREE!: What are the signs that there was broad middle class support?

KEVLES: Eugenics doctrines were widespread in mainstream magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and newspapers. The people who organized eugenics activities on a local level were the solid middle class of their communities, both in Britain and the United States.

STAY FREE!: Eugenics language was common among ad men and people who worked in public relations. In the 1920s, they would constantly refer to the public's "twelve-year-old" mind and refer to immigrants as barnyard animals.

KEVLES: These were common tropes of popular culture. This isn't business culture as such; advertising people aren't the captains of industry.

STAY FREE!: What kind of economic arguments did the eugenics movement make?

KEVLES: There was one fundamental economic argument: if we could rid ourselves of the genetically inadequate, who were burdens on society--requiring asylums for the feebleminded or homes for the poor--we could reduce the cost to taxpayers. You see this again and again.

STAY FREE!: Do you think extremists like Davenport were seriously concerned about money or was it more of a rhetorical strategy to win popular support?

KEVLES: Davenport was concerned about keeping taxes down; his position was both rhetorical and real. The two are not inconsistent. I don't think that these folks were just deliberately manipulating that rhetoric in order to advance a kind of subtextual doctrine.

STAY FREE!: Was there any connection between the eugenics movement and libertarianism? Ayn Rand, "greed is good," "Abolish the government"--that sort of thing?

KEVLES: Quite the opposite. Even though there were conventional political conservatives in the eugenics movement, they never took the position that government should interfere in, say, human reproduction. That was a departure in laissez-faire for them. At the same time, they were consistent with eugenicists on the left who found it natural to evoke the powers of the state in advancing eugenics doctrine.

STAY FREE!: I guess I'm thinking of Herbert Spencer, the English philosopher who influenced eugenics--and how he argued that giving to the poor harms society by interfering with Darwinism.

KEVLES: Eugenicists are not talking about giving to the poor--they're talking about eliminating their ability to reproduce.

STAY FREE!: Right. But I'm asking whether eugenicists would be opposed to giving, or opposed to charity.

KEVLES: Eugenicists on the right were by and large reluctant to provide the poor with relief. Those on the left were not; in fact, they tended to endorse environmental improvement along with sterilization.

STAY FREE!: Retarded women were considered sources of debauchery. What was that about?

KEVLES: This was Henry Goddard's theory: that the sexual impulses of feeble-minded women were not restrained and as a result they became prostitutes and illegitimate mothers. Basically, this is an uncritical interweaving of middleclass morality with the metaphors of science.

STAY FREE!: After World War II, scientists backed away from studying eugenics to studying genetics. Eugenics organizations and publications renamed themselves. Human Betterment League of North Carolina changed its name to the Human Genetics League. The Annals of Eugenics became the Annals of Human Genetics. The Galton Eugenics Laboratory became the Galton Laboratory of the Department of Genetics. How much of this was a sincere attempt to get away from the horrors of eugenics verses a public relations effort?

KEVLES: Scientists stayed away from human genetics between the wars because, first of all, human beings are not the best subjects for studying heredity; we reproduce slowly and have fewer children than, say, fruit flies. There are profound methodological problems. But another reason was that eugenics was the principal arena in which human heredity was studied--eugenics gave human genetics a bad name. So scientists faced a double task. One was to get rid of the race and class bias; that's why people like James V. Neel focused on traits that were purely physically determined, such as sickle-cell anemia. And second was solving the methodological problems. As far as scientists were concerned, I don't think public relations had anything to do with it.

STAY FREE!: The critics you write about were mainly intellectuals. Was there a popular critique of eugenics?

KEVLES: There were certainly popular dissents, which took the form of resistance to sterilization laws and other eugenics policies.

STAY FREE!: Was there organizing around these issues?

KEVLES: First, you've got to remember that the sterilization laws are local and state laws. They're not national. So the opposition is at the state level. Dissent was cast initially in both civil libertarian terms--you know, "this is just wrong, the state shouldn't have the power to sterilize men or women." And secondly on constitutional grounds. States were charged with violating equal protection of the laws, due process, and the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Once Hitler got going in the 1930s, a growing number of people turned against eugenics and eugenic sterilization because they saw what Hitler was doing with it.

STAY FREE!: You are currently working on a book about engineering and the ownership of life. Do you see any connections between this and your eugenics research?

KEVLES: No. Eugenics took some inspiration from plant and animal breeders but the influence didn't run the other way. The historian Harriet Ritvo argued in her book The Animal Estate that the emphasis in the nineteenth century given by breeders to so-called pure breeds of, say, Holstein cows was an expression of their commitment to a social aristocracy. I think there may be some truth to that. But there are other good biological and economic reasons why breeders wanted to emphasize pure breeds.

STAY FREE!: One of my pet peeves is the amount of time and money spent on finding, say, a "breast cancer gene" while comparatively few resources are put into eliminating carcinogens and other pollutants from the environment. I remember once reading that people with a certain gene can't tolerate NutraSweet, as if the problem is their genes, not the product.

KEVLES: I think that we as a society are more inclined to focus on the individual susceptibility to disease than we are on public health measures. It's understandable why we do that. Partly, you have companies that are financially motivated to produce NutraSweet or to make gene discoveries. But at the same time we are disinclined to pursue public health measures because they can be very expensive. It seems to me that a wise society would pursue both. That is, I don't think NutraSweet should be taken off the market, because millions of people want it. So you find out who's susceptible to adverse reactions. People are allergic to any number of things, but that doesn't mean that they should be removed from the market. What's the frequency of allergic reactions to this stuff?

STAY FREE!: I don't know. What bothers me is that the onus is placed on the individual. It's not my fault if I have a reaction from consuming NutraSweet; I'm supposed to go get a genetic test to find out?

KEVLES: Both sides should be responsible. But here's my question: If a tenth of a percent of the population has a bad reaction, do you deprive the rest of the population of it? Or do you put a warning label on it?

STAY FREE!: Well, I think that's a question that really needs to be asked.

KEVLES: The FDA asks that kind of question all the time. It's just too easy to write off these things as corporations forcing themselves and their products on people. They wouldn't work if people didn't want to use them.

STAY FREE!: But more people wouldn't use them if they knew they are associated with health problems.

KEVLES: I think that publicity of these side effects is important. I certainly support that. But we have a tendency in our society to attribute a lot to environmental causes rather than to things that are inherent within ourselves. Take cancer, for example. Cancer is a joint product of environmental causes, your own genes, and also accidents. Genetic accidents. A mutation in a gene that controls cell growth can make the cell cancerous. These mutations can arise from carcinogens in the environment or in your diet, but they can also arise from accidents in cellular replication. To say all this is a result of environmental carcinogens is just wrong.

STAY FREE!: Well, most people may assume environmental toxins cause cancer, but it seems to me that very little is done about it. I guess this says something about where I sit on the political spectrum.

KEVLES: I'm not saying that corporations that pollute ought not be held to account. They should. But we also have a tendency to believe in environmental perfectionism in the United States; it's in our culture. That leads us to expectations that are unrealistic about what we can accomplish for our health. The fact of the matter is that we're all mortal.

STAY FREE!: What kind of eugenics laws exist now? If I had a retarded son could I legally have him sterilized?

KEVLES: It would depend on the state and the circumstance. A number of states have gone far in the other direction and made it very difficult; I think there are good reasons why you might want to have a retarded child sterilized. When my book came out in the mid-'80s there was a case in California where a woman was concerned that her young daughter, who was severely retarded, might become pregnant in a hospital; being affectionate and unknowing, the girl might submit to some orderly's advances. The mother ran up against state law in California that wouldn't allow her to sterilize her daughter. So she eventually took her case to the California Supreme Court and won there. I'm not an expert on the laws, but I know generally that it has been difficult.

STAY FREE!: The fear that people are getting stupider seemed to come in cycles throughout the twentieth century, at least in the U.S. and Britain. Every so often, there's an outcry about the decline of national intelligence--even in the 1950s and 1970s, long after the decline of eugenics. What do you think is behind this?

KEVLES: I think these things come from a variety of sources. One of the main sources is racism in American culture. The folks who are usually the target of these charges are minority groups and, in more recent years, recent immigrants.