The Lasting Legacy of Eugenics

From about 1890 through about the 1940s — the Progressive Era — anyone who was anyone believed in eugenics. John Maynard Keynes was an ardent supporter of eugenics, as was Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Woodrow Wilson, and Theodore Roosevelt (the first Progressive President). The same was true of many mainstream economist and sociologist, and certainly of most if not all biologists at the time. So from the Fabian Socialists in Britain to the Progressives in America, and many others in between, eugenics was widely accepted and championed. Indeed, it was considered their ultimate social engineering program.

Many of our biological theories developed at the time were developed with the idea of eugenics in mind. The same is true of a great many social programs.

It was only when Hitler came along and adopted eugenics and actually applied the full logic of that world view that eugenics was discredited. However, while progressives abandoned eugenics (and later twisted history around and falsely argued it was conservatives and classical liberals who supported eugenics), they continued to support many of the ideas for which eugenics was a foundation.

Richard O. Prum, in his book The Evolution of Beauty, points out that

Eugenics was the scientific theory that maintained that human races, classes, and ethnicities have evolved adaptive differences in genetic, physical, intellectual, and moral quality. Eugenics was also an organized social and political movement to employ this flawed scientific theory to “improve” human populations through the social and legal control of mate choice and reproduction. (326)

We can see how deeply illiberal this idea is when we understand that John Locke specifically developed the idea of the blank slate in order to counter these specific beliefs during his own day. Of course, during his day, the issue was the inherent superiority of the aristocracy, especially the king, but there’s really no difference between that and the belief that the upper classes or a certain race are genetically superior and thus deserve to rule. While there is no question whatsoever that Locke is wrong about the mind being a blank slate, there is also no question that the eugenecists are also wrong in their illiberal beliefs in the inherent genetic superiority of certain groups. Things are incredibly more complex than that.

Prum goes on to point out that although biologists have abandoned eugenics explicitly, they are still guided by those beliefs all too often. And part of the reason for that is that they haven’t really addressed the fact that biologists at the time accepted and promoted eugenics.

For multiple reasons, evolutionary biologists are uncomfortable discussing eugenics. First, between the 1890s and the 1940s, every professional geneticist and evolutionary biologist in the United States and Europe was either an ardent proponent of eugenics, a dedicated participant in eugenic social programs, or a happy fellow traveler. Full stop. Few of us are eager to confront this embarrassing, shameful, and sobering truth. Second, eugenics provided a pseudoscientific justification for abuses of human rights at every level — from everyday racism, sexism, and prejudice against the disabled, forced sterilization, imprisonment, and lynching in the United States, to the Nazi-engineered genocide of Jews and Gypsies, and mass murder of the mentally handicapped and homosexuals in Europe. Eugenics is the most egregious example of the destructive misuse of science in all of human history. Science gone bad. Really bad.
Last, another uncomfortable truth is that much of the intellectual framework of contemporary evolutionary biology was developed during this enthusiastically eugenic period in our discipline. Most evolutionary biologists would like to believe that eugenics ceased to be an issue in evolutionary biology after World War II, when evolutionary biologists rejected eugenic theories of racial superiority. But the uncomfortable fact is that some core, fundamental commitments of eugenics were “baked into” the intellectual structure of evolutionary biology, and they contributed to the flawed logic of eugenics. (326)

He goes on to point out that he thinks

that evolutionary biology did not overcome its eugenic history — our eugenic history — merely by rejecting theories of human racial superiority during the twentieth century. Obvious and uncomfortable intellectual similarities remain between eugenics and current adaptive mate choice theory. Eugenic theory and social programs were concerned with both the presumed genetic quality of offspring (that is, good genes) and the cultural, economic, religious, linguistic, and moral conditions of the family as the locus of human reproduction (that is, direct benefits). The twin eugenic concerns for genetic and environmental quality are still echoes in the language of adaptive mate choice today. The contemporary “good genes” actually shares the same etymological roots as “eugenics” — from the Greek eugenes for wellborn or noble (eu, good or well; and genos, birth). (326–7)

In other words, we continue to see some of the language of eugenics still being used in biology, and that affects the way we understand evolution, the roles of genes and how they interact with each other and the environment, and how we understand our place in nature. As we can see, the abandonment of eugenics as an explicit project in no way meant the underlying concepts just magically went away. They continue to affect the way we think about biology.

And this is also true of many of our institutions, many of which were established during the time when progressives viewed the world through the lens of eugenics.

A good example of this is the legacy of Margaret Sanger. There is no question she was an avid supporter of eugenics. In fact, she made it abundantly clear she intended for Planned Parenthood to specifically target minority communities. And in fact, it still does. While abortion providers are in fact equally distributed across all communities, around 80% of Planned Parenthood clinics are still found in minority communities. Does this mean that those who currently run Planned Parenthood believe in eugenics and/or are deeply racist? Of course not. But once an institutional pattern is set, it is hard for that institution to break out of that pattern, even if nobody in the institution are themselves racist. The distribution pattern of Planned Parenthood clinics is what institutional racism looks like.

Another example is the minimum wage. The minimum wage was explicitly devised to protect white union workers from competition from minorities. But it also was explicitly designed as a “eugenics strategy.” As Jefferey Tucker points out,

A careful look at its history shows that the minimum wage was originally conceived as part of a eugenics strategy — an attempt to engineer a master race through public policy designed to cleanse the citizenry of undesirables. To that end, the state would have to bring about the isolation, sterilization, and extermination of nonprivileged populations.

He also points out that the progressives understood their economics far better at the beginning of the 20th century than they do now, because they understood that

minimum wages exclude workers — and they favored them precisely because such wage floors drive people out of the job market. People without jobs cannot prosper and are thereby discouraged from reproducing. Minimum wages were designed specifically to purify the demographic landscape of racial inferiors and to keep women at the margins of society.

In other words, “whole purpose of the minimum wage was to create unemployment among people who the elites did not believe were worthy of holding jobs.” More, welfare was then intended to provide them with support, including pubic housing. With public housing, you could put those displaced by the minimum wage all in one place. That is, one could segregate them. So while explicit segregation (also based on eugenics) was abolished, implicit segregation has ensured that low-skilled workers were kept together and away from the rest of society. Perhaps not coincidentally, our inner city schools also do a fine job of ensuring that those same (minority) populations remain low-skilled.

The way the U.S. runs its public schools, the minimum wage, the welfare and housing programs, and the distribution of Planned Parenthood clinics all contribute to what could easily be understood as an ongoing eugenics project that has really done nothing more than lose its name.

In the same way that the field of biology needs to deal with its eugenics past and try to look past those ideas to develop evolutionary theory more in tune to reality, Americans need to think about the ways in which our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ social ideas rooted in eugenics have continued to affect our social programs, including what social programs exist. For those looking for institutional racism, we shouldn’t just be looking at policing, but even more importantly at our public schools, welfare programs, and minimum wage laws.

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