Eugenics: a theory that refuses to die

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century there was a social movement known as the eugenics movement, which occurred in the context of widespread fear and nativism. The aim of this movement was to eliminate, or at least physically remove, so-called “bad seeds” from an otherwise healthy U.S. soil. The theory of eugenics holds that certain problem behaviors are inherited and can be reduced and perhaps eliminated by preventing the carriers from reproducing. This theory was based in part on the idea that there are certain groups—especially racial groups—who are inherently “defective.”

Eugenics was based on the philosophy of Social Darwinism, which looked at human society in terms of natural selection and believed science could engineer progress by attacking problems believed to be hereditary, including moral decadence, crime, venereal disease, tuberculosis, and alcoholism. Eugenicists believed science could solve social problems, and they looked at individuals in terms of their economic worth. If an individual possessed traits that through propagation would weaken society, the scientific remedy was sterilization.

Early in the 20th century this approach was exemplified in the Eugenics movement. Eugenics argued that there were inherently inferior beings and such people needed to be segregated from the rest of society or eliminated altogether.  The ultimate example of this line of thinking was Hitler's "final solution" during World War II.  Most people don't realize that Hitler's policies were borrowed from American academics, mostly biologists and anthropologists associated with the most prestigious universities like Harvard and Yale (click here and here for examples). Edwin Black, author of War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race, said that “the concept of a white, blond-haired, blue-eyed master Nordic race didn't originate with Hitler. The idea was created in the United States, and cultivated in California, decades before Hitler came to power. California eugenicists played an important, although little known, role in the American eugenics movement's campaign for ethnic cleansing.”   These and other academics lent scientific credence to the Eugenics movement (examples are found here, here and here). 

The research for this movement was funded in part by some of the wealthiest men in the United States at the time, such as Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, and Henry Ford. Black noted that “California was considered an epicenter of the American eugenics movement. During the Twentieth Century's first decades, California's eugenicists included potent but little known race scientists, such as Army venereal disease specialist Dr. Paul Popenoe, citrus magnate and Polytechnic benefactor Paul Gosney, Sacramento banker Charles M. Goethe, as well as members of the California State Board of Charities and Corrections and the University of California Board of Regents.”

 These and other “captains of industry” were feeling threatened by a growing labor movement. Eugenics fit in well with the prevailing ideology that white Protestant Europeans were naturally superior, and just about every other racial stock was inferior. The rich and powerful deserved to rule over the less fit. The unfit—generally, the poor and nonwhite races—could not compete. Just as nature weeds out the unfit, society should do the same. This view justified the vast discrepancies in the distribution of wealth in society as a natural outcome; the rich deserve to be rich because they are “naturally” superior. The humans who were targeted by the Eugenics movement were always lower class immigrants, especially youth. Indeed, one of the most popular types of delinquents identified by this approach was the "defective delinquent." It was during this same period of time that the term “defective delinquent” became popular. There was once an “Institution for Male Defective Delinquents” in upstate New York, established in 1921.  A flurry of academic studies appeared in reputable journals from university professors, such as this and its popularity continued well into the 1950s, as indicated in an article published in the British Journal of Delinquency. Believe it or not eugenics is alive and well, as noted in an article in the prestigious journal Science.

While eugenics was eventually discredited, the search for scientific solutions to social problems continues to target minorities and the poor. For example, The Bell Curve argued that social stratification and economic inequality depend on one criterion: cognitive ability as measured by IQ tests. By these measures, blacks and other minority races are “inherently inferior.”

According to a study called The War Against Children of Color, in 1989, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Public Health Service issued a report calling for strategies of intervention in “minority homicide and violence.” Ironically the report cited factors like poverty, unemployment, homelessness, the availability of guns, and the glorification of violence within U.S. culture as causes of violence. Yet its recommendation for prevention focused on identifying individuals and modifying their behavior—mostly, as it turned out, with medication. The report flatly stated that: “Targeting individuals with a predisposition to, but no history of, violence would be considered primary as in programs to screen for violent behavior.” This would require “tools to facilitate screening out high-risk individuals for early intervention.” Such screening would target hospital emergency rooms, health centers, jails, and schools “at the lowest levels” where “acting out” behavior can be identified and dealt with. Perhaps more importantly, the program would conduct research “on the biomedical, molecular, and genetic underpinnings of interpersonal violence, suicidal behavior, and related mental and behavioral disorders.”

The authors of this study note that “Children’s disorders and disruptive or violent behavior in particular remain growth markets. Powerful vested interests, including giant pharmaceutical firms, stand to profit mightily from proposed applications of biological research. Biomedical researchers and their labs and institutes will not readily fold or refrain and retool for wholly different kinds of research.”

The research cited by such biological theories is very selective and ignores the vast research that disproves any linkage between biology (including genetics) and crime, especially violent crime. The causes are social, not biological. Indeed, numerous studies have shown that those who commit the most heinous acts of violence have suffered, from an early age, incredible humiliation and brutality from their caretakers (often witnessing one violent act after another). Inevitably they begin to engage in similar acts against others; the victim becomes the victimizer. It has nothing to do with genetics. It has everything to do with one’s immediate environment, including the violence within our own culture. Indeed, during the past 100+ years sociological research biological theories of crime have pretty much debunked these theories, citing the importance of social and cultural factors as causes of crime and delinquency (reviews of this literature can be found in many places, such as in my delinquency text).

The popularity of biological and genetic approaches to human behavior, including criminality, continues to the present day.  Writing in the journal Science Professor Allan Burch noted such widely popular magazines as Life, Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, U.S. News and World Report, Time, and Newsweek, had run cover stories back in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s “emphasizing the contribution of genes to our social behavior. Coat-tailing on major advances in genetic biotechnology, these articles portray genetics as the new ‘magic bullet’ of biomedical science that will solve many of our recurrent social problems. The implication is that these problems are largely a result of the defective biology of individuals or even racial or ethnic groups.”  Some see a connection between the modern use of the Genome to solve certain problems and the old eugenics programs. A talk given by Professor Alex Capron, a Visiting Research Fellow at ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum in Edinburg in 2007 was titled: “Dark History, Bright Future: The Ethical Conundrum of Eugenics and Genomics” where he warned of the dangers inherit in the use of genetics.

The point is that many people are expressing concern about the potential that eugenics may rear its ugly head again, albeit in somewhat different forms.  Such views are natural offshoots of those that try to explain criminality and other human problems on some sort of “defect” rather than social conditions.