Edwin Black: War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's
Campaign to Create a Master Race.
New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003;
Thunder's Mouth Press, 2004.
xxviii + 550 pp.
A few years ago I read Black's splendid book IBM
and the Holocaust, which describes how the Nazis made use of state-of-the-art IBM
data processing technology to manage the huge amounts of data about the population of
the territories under their control; without such technology, many of their murderous
policies, which involved finding and doing something to large amounts of people in a
short amount of time, couldn't have been carried out as efficiently and successfully as they
were. Black also shows how IBM went out of its way to keep up these highly lucrative
deals with the German government, and pick up the resulting profits, even after the
U.S. entered the war against Germany, and after it started to become clear to what
unethical uses IBM's technology and machinery was being put.
Anyway, it was a very fine piece of muckrakery, so when I recently noticed that
Black also wrote a book about the eugenics movement, I decided to read this one
as well. I had already read two books about eugenics and euthanasia:
Bernhard Schreiber's The Men Behind Hitler
and Michael Burleigh's Death
and Deliverance: Euthanasia in Germany 1900–1945.
Both of these are interesting books, but they are focused only on Germany,
whereas Black's book places just as much (or even more) emphasis on the
history of eugenics in the United States, which is where the movement first
came into prominence and was fairly influential during the first three or four
decades of the 20th century. Black also devotes a couple of chapters to the
post-WW2 fate of eugenics and the eugenicists. In short, this is exactly the
right book for someone interested in a well-rounded history of eugenics.
Ch. 2 has several interesting pages (14–19) about
Galton and the origin of eugenics.
I had been vaguely aware that Galton was a eugenicist (I wasn't quite clearly
aware that he had in fact coined the word eugenics and was thus in a way the
founder of the field), and therefore had an exceedingly unfavourable opinion of him.
But in this book I see that Galton's ideas and pursuits were in fact largely
innocent and harmless enough, and it was the American eugenicists that turned
eugenics into the notorious movement that we remember nowadays. Galton was in fact
particularly interested in measuring and counting, in biometry (p. 72) and statistics,
and tried to put his work on a solid scientific basis; it was the later eugenicists
that changed the focus of eugenics onto aggressive population engineering, even if this required
relying on untested hypotheses, shoddy science, or even pseudoscience or outright
fraud. Both Galton (p. 28) and the U.S. eugenicists (pp. 60–1) were
aware that no sufficient scientific basis for the claims of eugenics had yet been established;
but the U.S. eugenics movement continued to campaign for eugenics-inspired social policies
anyway, driven forth by sheer prejudice. “While many of America's elite exalted
eugenics, the original Galtonian eugenicists in Britain were horrified by the sham
science they saw thriving in the United States and taking root in their own country.” (P. 99.)
Additionally, eugenics as originally discussed by Galton
had both a ‘positive’ and a ‘negative‘
programme: try to encourage the procreation of the ‘fit’ classes, and
discourate that of the ‘unfit’ ones. However, the eugenics movement
as it arose in the U.S. focused almost entirely on the negative part of the programme (p. 208).
Galton himself disapproved of the efforts to turn eugenics into a movement for social
action rather than a branch of science (p. 212).
Thus the real roots of the eugenics movement lie in the social tensions of
late 19th-century U.S. Elitist members of the upper/middle classes were quite
concerned that they were being deluged by immigrants of inferior racial qualities
(since many of these new immigrants were coming from southern and eastern
Europe, as well as from Asia, rather than from the north-west of Europe as has
been predominantly the case in earlier periods), or by similarly inferior blacks,
Indians, and Mexicans (pp. 22–23). Furthermore, they were very keen to
ascribe many of the real or imaginary deficiencies of such people to hereditary
defects rahter than environmental or cultural issues. Thus it wasn't far from there
to the idea that people carrying such supposed hereditary defects should be prevented
from having children, either by sterilization or by being kept in institutions
where men would be separated from the women. What is more, many of these eugenicists
came to believe that these supposedly hereditary defects were in fact recessive
alleles, meaning that relatives of a defective person were likely to also carry some
of these defective characteristics in their genes and should thus also be prevented
But for many eugenicists, all of this was really just a pretty facade in which
they could cover up their megalomaniac and racist prejudice. Many of them believed
that white, blonde, etc., ‘Nordic’ type of people — more or less
the same sort that would be called ‘Aryans’ by the Nazis several decades
later — were the pinnacle of humankind (p. 29), and that thus their procreation should
be encouraged while those of inferior strains of people should be suppressed.
Some suggested that not only should the ‘lowest’, weakest, least capable etc.
people be sterilized, but that this should be an ongoing effort, the standard being
raised slowly, so that humankind would improve from generation to generation (p. 59),
much like a farmer may through careful selection and control over breeding
encourage the development of desirable qualities in his animals (p. 32). The eugenicists
were aware that such radical ideas could not (yet) be sold to the public or the
legislators, so they focused mostly on less controversial things, such as the
sterilization of hereditarily mentally ‘unfit’ people, hoping that
after such things would become established, they could be used as a precedent and
a springboard for wider and more ambitious plans of population engineering.
I guess that what annoys me most about the eugenics isn't that it was connected
with prejudice of this sort — i.e. that white, upper-class, etc. people are
somehow superior to others — prejudice like that was after all quite widespread
at the time, even more than now; what annoys me most is that they managed to clothe
this prejudice in so much shoddy science, or indeed simply sham science. Once a certain
critical mass of people is interested in something, and a certain number of them possess
appropriate academic credentials, they can start publishing journals, organizing conferences
and refereeing each other's papers, and then it can be very hard to stop them and
get them to admit that what they are doing is just bullshit and junk science.
The reason that these pseudoscientific explanations of poverty, drunkenness, etc.
as hereditary problems annoy me so much is that they seem to be nothing else than
excuses to blame the victims. I personally always exaggerate on the other side:
I never blame a person for his or her defects and misfortunes; I always blame
the environment, the society at large. It's hard to lift oneself out of poverty;
work is unpleasant and usually too poorly paid; children of poor people have
fewer options in life; etc. — all of which means it is completely unsurprising
that if the parents were down and out, so will be the children. It's completely
silly to ascribe this to hereditary genetic defects. This would become clear if
you secretly swapped a beggar's and a rich man's child at birth.
A blatant and very annoying example how the shaky the (pseudo)scientific
foundations of eugenics really were is the way they performed ‘intelligence’
tests. They mostly included questions that didn't really test intelligence per se
but rather intelligence in combination with lots of cultural baggage. Thus they were
practically guaranteed to favour urban educated middle-class people who were up-to-date
on (pop) culture, business, technology, etc., while a recent immigrant or a dirt poor
illiterate peasant from the backwoods were almost certain to come across as ‘feeble-minded’
(this annoyingly vague term, by the way, was very popular with the eugenicists; p. 55).
The U.S. army, using a test like this during the WW1, found to their surprise that
more than half of its draftees supposedly had ‘a mental capacity below that of
a thirteen-year-old’ (pp. 81–2, 132). Here are a couple of examples
from p.nbsp;82: “The Pierce Arrow car is made in... (a) Buffalo;
(b) Detroit; (c) Toledo; (d) Flint.”
“Velvet Joe appears in advertisements for... (a) tooth powder;
(b) dry goods; (c) tobacco; (d) soap.” Questions like these may
have some value as a test of acculturation (and even that only for a rather specific
and narrowly defined meaning of ‘culture’); but to imagine that they have
anything to do with intelligence as such is ridiculous.
More examples of the eugenicict obsession with explaining everything through
heredity can be found on p. 105. They noticed that “fewer than 12 percent
of Negro songs were in a minor key”, hence “the negro is
temperamentally sunny, cheerful, optimistic”. They also “began compiling
long lists of ship captains and their progeny to identify an invented genetic
trait called ‘thalassophilia,’ that is, an inherited love of the sea.”
Another example of the eugenicists' disregard for the lack of scientific basis for eugenics
is their campaign against blindness. They knew very well that most blindness was not hereditary,
but nevertheless supported sterilization measures directed against blind people (p. 149).
Black also points out the strong support that the eugenics movement received
from various corporate philanthropists, in particular from the Carnegie foundation
and from the widow of E. H. Harriman, a railroad magnate (pp. 46–7, 57, 87, 94–5).
Without this, they wouldn't be able to organize their efforts to gather information
about supposedly hereditarily defect people, and to campaign for legislation based on
eugenic principles. In the first three decades of the 20th century, they managed to
get sterilization laws passed in many parts of the U.S., and various government
agencies became sympathetic to eugenical principles (ch. 6; with the interesting
exception of the Census Bureau, pp. 159–61). The movement had many
notable supporters, such as Alexander Graham Bell (the inventor of the telephone; but
he eventually withdrew from the movement due to its focus on ‘negative’ eugenics,
such as compulsory sterilization etc.; pp. 89, 104), Theodore Roosevelt (p. 99),
Margaret Sanger (leader of the birth control movement, p. 127);
or, in Britain, George Bernard Shaw (p. 248) and H. G. Wells (p. 209).
In the opinion with which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality
of a Virginian law on sterilization, Oliver Wendell Holmes jr. famously wrote:
“Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” (P. 121.)
As some of these names suggest, eugenics was seen by many as a very progressive affair,
and was thus supported by many progressive-minded people, not just by elitists and racists.
Of course this doesn't mean that there was no opposition to eugenics. A splendid
newspaper editorial from 1915 is quoted on pp. 101–2, pointing out that if
you are concerned about people having offspring that would become parasites upon the
society, or that would inherit their criminal tendencies, then surely the first people
that you should sterilize are the billionaires, the robber barons, the great capitalists, etc., etc.
The editorial includes a few wonderfully cathartic all-caps sentences; you can almost
feel the editor taking off his shoe and banging it on the table like Khrushchev at
the United Nations :-). I whole-heartedly
support their proposal. In fact I would go one step further; instead of sterilization
for the billionaires, I would prescribe euthanasia.
Another facet of eugenics is in the efforts to prevent the mixing of different
races, especially of whites with coloured people, believing that offspring of such
mixed marriages can only be worse than ‘pure’ white people.
This was exactly the kind of (pseudo)scientific basis that many racists wanted to hear (p. 166).
Ch. 9 tells the story of Walter A. Plecker, eugenicist and fervent racist,
and the efforts to introduce stricter laws against mixed marriages
(with bizarre exceptions allowing whites to mix with people that are mostly
white but have up to 1/16 Indian blood, because “many of Virginia's finest lineages
included eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Indian ancestors”, pp. 167–8;
Plecker fulminated that the threshold should be reduced to 1/64).
I often feel that only an idiot would emigrate to the U.S., but I was somewhat
surprised to see that the worthy eugenicists are of the same opinion:
“the statistics indicate that America, during the last few years, has been a
dumping ground for the mentally unstable inhabitants of other countries”
(H. H. Laughlin, a leading eugenicist, in 1922).
Here is an amazingly bizarre quote by a racist English surgeon, R. R. Rentoul:
“The negro is seldom content with sexual intercourse with the white woman, but
culminates his sexual furor by killing the woman, sometimes taking out her
womb and eating it.” (P. 210.) I bet Freudian psychologists could have
eons of fun analyzing this one. What, in the name of all that is decent, had
been going on inside that guy's head? À propos, perhaps this points the way to a
lucrative new niche in the internet porn business. A harder version of
Savages on Blondes, so to speak...
Euthanasia (ch. 13) was also a topic of interest to eugenicists. Although the word originally
means a merciful killing of people suffering great pain, it eventually also
came to be used as a (painless) killing of people whose lives are considered unworthy
of living (p. 247).
Of course the eugenics movement was not exclusively a U.S. phenomenon. It also
spread to other countries, partly through their own initiative and partly due to
efforts by the U.S. eugenicists (chs. 10–12; p. 258). In Britain, they were somewhat
held back by the fact that sterilization was not a grey area from the legal point of
view (as it had initially been in the U.S.) but was plainly illegal (p. 211).
Anyway, as ch. 11 shows, despite much campaigning, the British eugenicists
weren't as successful as their U.S. counterparts; sterilization was not legalized in Britain.
Of the continental European countries, the catholic ones tended to be more resistant
to eugenics, while the northwestern ones tended to be more receptive (pp. 240, 245).
Of course, eugenics also caught on marvellously in Germany, where it developed almost
as early as in Britain and the U.S. The German term Rassenhygiene is
pretty much a synonym for eugenics (p. 262). The increasing strength of the German
eugenics movement during the 1920s and 1930s was welcomed by the American eugenicists;
German eugenical publications were quoted and abstracted by U.S. medical journals (pp. 280–1),
and the U.S.-based Rockefeller Foundation funded a lot of medical research in Germany,
including many eugenicists (pp. 283–4, 296, 302). By the early 30s, Germany
became the world leader in eugenics (pp. 286, 299).
Hitler was also interested in eugenics; he read books by American eugenicists
during his 1924 imprisonment, and even wrote admiring letters
to some of the authors (p. 259; see pp. 273–5 for more instances
of eugenic influences on Hitler). Of course the racist prejudice of the Nazis
existed independently of eugenics, but eugenics gave them a very welcome excuse to
claim that their prejudices had a scientific basis (p. 269). After the
Nazis came to power, eugenical policies were implemented at a faster rate than
ever seen anywhere in the world. An American, Joseph DeJarnette, commented in 1934
that ‘The Germans are beating us at our own game” (p. 277).
Despite the increasing ugliness of the Nazi regime in Germany during the mid-30s,
U.S. eugenicists remained enthusiastic supporters of their German counterparts
(p. 303); only after ca. 1936 did this begin to abate (p. 313).
Some never withdrew their support (pp. 317, 414, 418).
Ch. 16 tells the interesting and curious story of Dr. Katzen-Ellenbogen;
born in a Jewish family in Poland, he moved to the U.S. and became one of the prominent U.S. eugenicists,
but later returned to Europe, eventually settled in Germany and then
ended up as a (very) privileged inmate at the Buchenwald concentration camp,
where he terrorized his fellow inmates as camp doctor
and performed psychoterapy for the stressed SS guards.
Some of the cruel medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners were
also motivated by an interest in heredity and eugenics (p. 367);
Mengele himself had been assistant to the noted eugenicist Otmar von
Verschuer (p. 344).
The last few chapters are on the post-war fate of the eugenics movement.
After the mid-30s, the Carnegie Institution grew tired of the eugenicists' focus on
propaganda and policy rather then science and research; it curtailed its support
for the Eugenics Record Office (pp. 387, 390–2), whose hundreds of
thousands of index cards with information about people were recognized to be useless
for any serious study of human heredity (p. 390); the office was disbanded
completely after the retirement of its director, H. H. Laughlin (p. 395).
Curiously, “eugenic enthusiasts continued remitting family traits and proffering
enquiries for decades” (p. 398). Some of the laws influenced by the
eugenic movement in the pre-war period are still in effect (pp. 398, 400;
sterilizations were actually performed into the 1970s). Organizations and journals
originally devoted to eugenics reoriented themselves to genetics (p. 425);
most of the eugenicists slowly faced the fact that their movement had been
horribly riddled by class and racial prejudice that lacked a scientific basis
The final chapter of the book is about the prospects of eugenics in the future.
As the human genome becomes increasingly better understood, analyzing a person's
DNA will give us increasingly large amounts of information about the abilities
and defects of such a person. This is likely to be eventually abused by e.g.
insurance companies, employers, and banks: “First, newgenics will create
an uninsurable, unemployable and unfinanceable genetic underclass. The process
has already started.” (P. 429.) Once it becomes possible to genetically
‘enhance’ or ‘correct’ a person before birth, it will of
course be the rich classes that will first avail themselves of these opportunities;
this in turn will give them an even better starting position in the next generation,
and the gap between the rich and poor, now only a gap in money and in culture,
will eventually turn into a far wider gap of biology and genetics as well (pp. 441–2).
What has not been accomplished in the name of racist ideology will be done far more
reliably and unstoppably in the pursuit of profit (p. 428).
This last chapter is deeply fascinating and extremely worrying. I'm always
very pessimistic about the future and I see absolutely no reason why the worst-case
scenario outlined above shouldn't come to pass. Our enslavement and disempowerment
proceed with ever larger steps. The very worst aspects of human nature, the ones
that humanity has feared, suffered from, and fought against throughout its entire history,
can finally be given unlimited rein. Sufficiently advanced technology finally
makes absolute rule and absolute enslavement possible; by absolute I mean such against
which no successful revolt can be seriously contemplated. Genetic superiority
of the ruling class would be a perfect component of such a system.
I have no doubt that such a system will eventually be set up; not suddenly of course,
but little by little, by almost unperceptible degrees, and we shall not be aware
of our manacles until it has become too late by far to shake them off. Indeed it
is perhaps already too late even now. My only real wonder is: how far will it
get in the remaining few decades of my life? We know that we will live and die
as slaves, but how bad exactly is it going to get by the time we are ready to die?
Truly it would be better if our ancestors had never climbed down from the trees.
Technology will be the ruin of us all. Alas, why have I ever been born!
Anyway, all of this just goes to show that pessimists shouldn't contemplate the future;
nothing good can come out of that, only wallowing in unceasing rivers of gloom.
To return to the book: it is a very good book, a thorough, readable, well-documented
history of the eugenics movement, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, from its earliest
beginnings in the late 19th century to its unravelling in the second half of the 20th.
I recommend it to anyone interested in the history of eugenics; as for the last chapter,
I recommend it to everyone, for it is about the future, which concerns all of us.