Arnold Kling  

Eugenics and Man at Yale

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The Yale Alumni Magazine has this:


In the early decades of the twentieth century, eugenics "fell squarely in the mainstream of scientific and popular culture," according to Yale history professor Daniel Kevles, author of the 1985 book In the Name of Eugenics. Theodore Roosevelt popularized the term "race suicide," for what he saw as the dwindling of the old Anglo-American stock, and the young Winston Churchill advocated sterilization and labor camps for "mental defectives." Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger decried the proliferation of "human weeds," while progressive reformer Havelock Ellis thought that getting the reproductive choices right would require the sexual liberation of women.

Pointer from Arts and Letters Daily. Tyler Cowen also noticed it. Read the whole thing. Irving Fisher is the focus of the article. Good for the Yale Alumni magazine for printing it. That eugenics was part of the progressive agenda is one of the most heavily-airbrushed features of history.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (14 to date)
stephen writes:

In light of Aretae's comments about identification/analysis vs. solutions...thats pretty much my position on the eugenics movement. The solution was bad the identification was solid.

I wonder, if in another century or so, if the Yales of the world are going to publish a quasi mea culpa (on behalf of the movement) for all of the bad social engineering that resulted from everyone freaking out, and over reacting to the 19th/20th century eugenics movement.

Becky Hargrove writes:

Really good article. In a way, I'm glad that people are speaking their minds about eugenics these days (it really aggravated me at first) because it gives us a better clue about the challenges ahead. Things we might not even think about can fall under this issue in a thousand different ways. For instance, the present practice of restricting the supply of doctors, and the responsibilities of those under them. Lest anyone think the rich are the only ones that might encourage this, there are plenty of poor people who worry about the diluting of good genetic traits as well. In a news item last week (from Spain I believe) older women had just realized their babies had not died after all in the hospital, but had been taken from them and placed with families who had more money.

andy writes:

I always thought that the question was moral; thus, when I read:

Eugenicists inferred—incorrectly, as we now know—that single genes, or “unit characters,” could determine feeblemindedness, insanity, alcoholism, and even broad swaths of behavior like criminality.

I thought: supposing, that the eugenicists were correct, would it change (author's) position? Shouldn't it be irrelevant, whether they were correct or not?

jared writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Speaking of heavily-airbrushed, you neglected to mention it fell out of favor after a little thing called the holocaust.

LowcountryJoe writes:

These days the progressives have come half circle on the issue -- the lives of those without the inner drive and without talent & skills [because acquiring them wasn't a priority] are heavily subsidized by society. Today it's those who are seemingly genetically more adaptable [if that's the correct word] who are not procreating enough.

DoctorT writes:
you neglected to mention it fell out of favor after a little thing called the holocaust.

I don't believe that abhorrence of genocide was the reason eugenics became a dirty word among most of the American population. I believe it ensued from the publications of stories about how thousands of people (in the USA and Europe) were abused under the rubric of removing "bad genes."

Steve Sailer writes:

The constant denunciations of eugenicists that we've been reading for the last 35 years or so are largely a form of retroactive ethnic struggle for moral status. Eugenics was an offshoot of the greatest intellectual triumph of British empiricism, Darwinism, and thus was highly popular among secular Anglo-American scientists and intellectuals. Enthusiasm for eugenics (i.e., interest in possibilities of applied Darwinism) motivated many of the major breakthroughs in statistics (Galton, Pearson, Fisher), genetics (Fisher, Wright), psychometrics (Spearman, Lewis Terman), and evolutionary theory (Hamilton, to name a very few). Heck, the two main fathers of Silicon Valley (Fred Terman and Shockley) were outspoken eugenics advocates.

As WASPs have lost power in the intellectual world over the last generation, their forefathers have gotten kicked around via the rewriting of history. Academia is, after all, a Darwinian struggle for prestige, and the losers have to expect to suffer the consequences.

muirgeo writes:

Wow and I am a progressive... so I guess that makes me a promoter of eugenics. I'm so bummed to find that out about myself. I never thought of myself as one who would desire to set up society in a Darwinian fashion with the key idea that the individual is absolutely supreme and the group has no significance. Such that that nothing but the individual matters and that the most competitive genetic make up would always rise to the top subverting anyone who might be a carrier of those awful altruistic genes and letting the rest of the undeserving poorly alleled lazy genes (most of humanity we all know) to rot in the streets hopefully before they reproduced. I can't believe that I think like that but thanks for un-airbrushing me/us.

Steve Sailer writes:

"I wonder, if in another century or so, if the Yales of the world are going to publish a quasi mea culpa (on behalf of the movement) for all of the bad social engineering that resulted from everyone freaking out, and over reacting to the 19th/20th century eugenics movement."

As Darwin and Galton could have guessed, it all depends on who has more (and more powerful) intellectual descendants.

Traditionally, the Chinese have cared a lot about writing the history of the last dynasty, in which they justify the coming to power of the new dynasty. In contrast, the Indians seldom bothered to write down any history. So, the question of who controls Yale in 2112 probably will determine the answer your question.

It's amusing to contemplate what a Chinese history of the causes of the downfall of Western intellectual life might someday say.

LowcountryJoe writes:
"Such that that nothing but the individual matters and that the most competitive genetic make up would always rise to the top subverting anyone who might be a carrier of those awful altruistic genes and letting the rest of the undeserving poorly alleled lazy genes (most of humanity we all know) to rot in the streets hopefully before they reproduced." ~ Muirgeo

It's not altruism when you advocate for reaching into someone else's wallet to provide aid. It's also not altruistic to tout the act of giving [whether or not the aid was really yours to give in the first place] so as to seek recognition for it.

And since you bring up folks rotting in the streets, are you aware of the estimated number of deaths perpetrated under the economic system that so-called Progressives sidle up to?

muirgeo writes:

Wow and I am a progressive... so I guess that makes me a promoter of eugenics. I'm so bummed to find that out about myself. I never thought of myself as one who would desire to set up society in a Darwinian fashion with the key idea that the individual is absolutely supreme and the group has no significance. Such that that nothing but the individual matters and that the most competitive genetic make up would always rise to the top subverting anyone who might be a carrier of those awful altruistic genes and letting the rest of the undeserving poorly alleled lazy genes (most of humanity we all know) to rot in the streets hopefully before they reproduced. I can't believe that I think like that but thanks for un-airbrushing me/us.

muirgeo writes:

Apparently the "human weeds" quote is not attributable to Margaret Sanger;

http://www.plannedparenthood.org/files/PPFA/OppositionClaimsAboutMargaretSanger.pdf

“As early as 1914 Margaret Sanger was promoting abortion, not for white middle-class women, but against 'inferior races' — black people, poor people, Slavs, Latins, and Hebrews were 'human weeds.'”


This allegation about Margaret Sanger appears in an
anonymous flyer, "Facts About Planned
Parenthood," that is circulated by anti-family
planning activists. Margaret Sanger, who
passionately believed in a woman's right to control
her body, never "promoted" abortion because it was
illegal and dangerous throughout her lifetime. She
urged women to use contraceptives so that they
would not be at risk for the dangers of illegal, back-
alley abortion. Sanger never described any ethnic
community as an 'inferior race' or as 'human weeds.'


In her lifetime, Sanger won the respect of
international figures of all races, including the Rev.
Martin Luther King, Jr.; Mahatma Gandhi; Shidzue
Kato, the foremost family planning advocate in
Japan; and Lady Dhanvanthi Rama Rau of India —
all of whom were sensitive to issues of race.

[formatting added to clarify that three paragraphs were from the pdf file--Econlib Ed.]

Steve Sailer writes:

Upper class WASP women had been limiting their fertility through contraception and sexual restraint for a long time. The huge immigration influx from less feminist cultures that began about 1890 raised questions in the minds of WASP elites about how restrictions on contraception promotion via the public mails and so forth weren't keeping upper class WASP women from learning about them, but were effective in keeping immigrant women's fertility unchecked. Thus, respectable WASP opinion slowly swung in Sanger's direction.

Similarly, women's suffrage was a WASP campaign, in part to increase the WASP percentage of the electorate because immigrant women were less educated and less likely to vote.

You can go on and on: conservation was a WASP campaign. Madison Grant's campaign to save the redwoods was motivated in part by the dangers to the environment posed by immigration-driven population growth.

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