The United States is an amazing country. Our system of liberty under law is the gold standard of political freedom. Our dynamic free market drives the world economy. Our sacrifices of blood and treasure to free subjugated peoples and succor victims of natural and man-made calamities are too many to recount. Yet, in our history we have also inflicted terrible wrongs upon vulnerable people. Slavery, Jim Crow, and our treatment of indigenous populations can hardly make us swell with pride.
And then there was the American eugenics movement, under which, journalism professor Harry Bruinius vividly reminds us in his new book, “the great god Science” invidiously divided members of the human race into “fit” versus “unfit” castes. “Like cattle and peas, some were [deemed] better than others, with greater claim to dignity,” the author writes. “Like pigs and flowers, humans could be judged for fitness at the county fair. Like weaklings of the flock, some should be made to perish.”
In recent years, there have been several good histories of eugenics, most notably Edwin Black’s War Against the Weak. Bruinius’s book is a valuable addition to the list. Its thorough research and skilled prose alone would make it worthy of attention; but Bruinius’s unconventional approach is what makes it really stand out. Rather than write a standard beginning-to-end historical narrative, the author offers a collection of mini-biographies of the people who were most responsible for, or victimized by, American eugenics. The effect is to personalize the subject without sacrificing historical depth.
Bruinius wisely begins by telling the story of the tragic life of Carrie Buck. Buck was the daughter of a prostitute who may have been raped by a member of her foster family and impregnated. Perhaps to cover up the crime against its ward, the family had her institutionalized. Buck’s doctors, eugenics ideologues all, “diagnosed” her as a “high grade moron” and saw the young woman as a prime example of how the “feeble minded” were polluting the human gene pool. They wanted to sterilize Buck, as permitted by Virginia law. But rather than just do the deed, they decided instead to use their patient as a test case to gain the imprimatur of the U.S. Supreme Court on the practice of eugenics.
Lawyers who actually supported Virginia’s law brought a test case against involuntary sterilization in Buck’s name. Despite their views, they made some good arguments on her behalf, warning, for example, that a decision upholding the Virginia statute would unleash “a reign of doctors,” leading “in the name of science” to “new classes [and] even races” being “brought within the scope of such regulation, and the worst forms of tyranny practiced.” This prescient warning made not a dent on the mind and conscience of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, eugenics enthusiast and social Darwinist. Writing for an 8–1 majority in the infamous 1927 Buck v. Bell, Holmes led his colleagues in shamefully condemning Buck to forced sterilization on the grounds that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
Bruinius reminds us that Carrie Buck was more than a mere name on an infamous court case: She was an innocent woman whose life was unjustly blighted because her country robbed her of the ability to have children. And — as if to demonstrate the fallaciousness of eugenics theory — Buck’s daughter, the supposed “third generation” imbecile, eventually earned admission to her school’s honor roll before dying in childhood.
Bruinius next turns to those most responsible for the inception of eugenics and its metastatic spread. Eugenics, which means “good in birth,” was the brainchild of the brilliant English statistician (and cousin of Charles Darwin) Francis Galton. In this account, Galton comes across as a stereotypical upper-class Victorian elitist whose sexual hangups and deep antagonism to religion drove him to conclude that human beings should be subjected to genetic husbandry. In Galton’s “positive eugenics,” the better human beings — meaning, of course, people like him — would be induced to marry and produce large families. Galton wanted the government to sponsor a national contest that would culminate annually with a mass marriage ceremony in Westminster Abbey, in which ten “deeply blushing young men,” all 25 years old, would marry ten fecund 20-year-old women, matched to their husbands for their eugenic potential. The couples would be given £5,000 (a lot of money in those days) and charged with procreating bounteously.
Galton, however, was not the man most responsible for unleashing eugenics on the world; that dubious honor belongs to American biologist Charles Davenport. Davenport hero-worshipped Galton and convinced the Carnegie Institution to fund a eugenics project. In 1904, courtesy of Carnegie’s open wallet, he founded the Station for Experimental Evolution at Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., which spent the next few decades conducting detailed eugenic analyses of American families and promoting eugenics policies.
It is tempting to look back at Davenport with such disdain that we miss his human side. Bruinius does not make that mistake, bringing his subject to three-dimensional life without excusing or justifying Davenport’s destructive legacy. I was particularly touched by Davenport the precocious child, who founded a neighborhood newspaper, the Twinkling Star, and took up journal writing; in retrospect, it is heartbreaking to read the pure innocence that shines through some of the young Davenport’s diary entries. By his middle years, though, Davenport was capable of writing the following: “Idiots, low imbeciles, and dangerous criminals may under appropriate restrictions be prevented from procreation — either by segregation during the reproductive period or even by sterilization. Society must protect itself; as it claims the right to deprive the murderer of his life so also it may annihilate the hideous serpent of hopelessly vicious protoplasm.”
Davenport’s second-in-command and eventual successor at the Cold Spring Harbor project was a particularly bigoted and nasty man named Harry Laughlin, who gained national prominence as the foremost “expert” on eugenics as it related to immigration policy. Laughlin’s work did not bode well for those fleeing oppression, particularly Jews. In the mid-1930s, he was commissioned by the Special Committee for the New York State Chamber of Commerce to opine on the contentious issue of immigration reform. The “Laughlin Report,” which urged that the quotas for Jews (and all nonwhites) be greatly reduced owing to their supposed racial inferiority, found unfortunate favor in Washington — helping ensure that those fleeing the Nazi pogrom would find no refuge in the U.S.
Certain German racial purists were mightily impressed by the successes of the American eugenics movement. Laughlin returned their admiration: After Hitler assumed power in 1933, Laughlin defended Germany’s newly enacted sterilization laws. He noted correctly that the German law was little different from those of some American states, and lauded the new government for recognizing the “biological foundations of national character.” Laughlin would later travel to Germany and receive an honorary doctorate in “racial hygiene,” the German term for eugenics.
Before their deaths, both Davenport and Laughlin experienced some poetic justice. Davenport’s daughter rejected his strict morality for the life of a flapper and Bohemian, behaving in ways Davenport sought in vain to eradicate through strict control of protoplasm; even worse in the eyes of her anti-Semitic father was her marriage to a divorced Jewish man with three children. And Laughlin, who hid his own “unfitness” (he had epilepsy) behind aggressive eugenics advocacy, crashed and burned as a national figure when Carnegie finally pulled the plug on Cold Spring Harbor. He died in 1943, a forgotten man.
Bruinius concludes by sounding the alarm that eugenics thinking, once thoroughly discredited by the Holocaust, is on the comeback trail. Neo-eugenicists and futurists — primarily residing in university bioethics departments and libertarian think tanks — hubristically believe that they can pursue the utopian goals of the original eugenics movement (absent the racial discrimination and anti-Semitism) through genetic engineering without also unchaining destructive social forces. It wasn’t the hope of improving the human gene pool that caused catastrophe, these laissez faire eugenicists assert: It was the involvement of government in the quest.
To the contrary: Eugenics springs from a poisoned intellectual well. The very idea that we have the right to decide which human traits to enhance and which to eradicate is what leads to trouble. Social pressure can oppress even without formal government action. Besides, if the new eugenics became popular, it wouldn’t take long for politicians to get into the act.
But pointing to past wrongs is not enough to carry the day: Eugenics thinking has to be defeated at its roots, morally and intellectually. Bruinius worries that this will prove difficult in the modern materialist age, and correctly identifies the key question that must be confronted: “What is the foundation of human dignity in light of evolution? Or, more precisely, what is the scientific basis for individual rights in light of the malleable human genome?” Regrettably, the author has — unnecessarily — accepted the human reductionism inherent in the philosophy of Darwinian materialism, so he struggles in vain to find effective answers.
But the answers are there, and public intellectuals and cultural leaders had better explore and expound upon them. Otherwise, Bruinius vividly prophesies, the “epic modern quest of science” that is smashing “the old authorities, discovering the secrets of nature and unleashing the unprecedented forces of new technologies” could “bring about the doom of [liberal] civilization as we know it.”
Mr. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture.