The History of Eugenics in America, Part V:

Part V: Opposition to Eugenics:

As we have shown, the arguments put forward by eugenics advocates were based on a number of fallacies. Over time, these pseudo-scientific conclusions were examined and found to be largely false – they were due to a combination of racist assumptions and bias in interpreting the data. In the U.S., by 1930 there arose concerted opposition to several of these claims. We will examine challenges to the scientific and policy claims of eugenics advocates from four different sources: journalism; the social sciences; the biological sciences; and religious groups.

Journalists Oppose Eugenics:

Racist theorists and eugenics advocates maintained that they were responding to alarming trends in modern society. First of all, the ‘blood stock’ of the population was being degraded at a rapid rate. It was predicted that this would be accompanied by a dramatic rise in criminality, insanity and poverty. Eugenicists claimed that a crucial measure of this deterioration was a marked decrease in intelligence in the population. All these claims were capable of being tested. In at least one of these cases, empirical data completely invalidated these claims. For example, between 1861 and 1911, the crime rate in England had dropped by 40%. And in the U.S., “between 1890 and 1904, prisoners per 100,000 had dropped by about 25%.”

A number of people also disputed the claim of the IQ testers that “intelligence” was rapidly declining. In the field of journalism, the most eloquent critic of IQ testing was the American journalist Walter Lippmann. Lippmann, who was born in 1889 and died in 1974, was one of the most powerful American journalists. He has been described as “the most influential journalist of the 20th century,” and also as the “Father of modern journalism.” In 1913 Lippmann was a co-founder of The New Republic magazine.

Fig. V.1: American journalist Walter Lippmann (1889-1974).

In articles written for The New Republic between 1922 and 1924, Lippmann mounted a strong attack on the reliability of IQ testing. He particularly focused on the Army IQ testing program, since that was the source of the most dramatic assertions about IQ and the relative roles of nature and nurture (see our bio of Robert Yerkes in Part II of this post). Lippmann summarized succinctly the effects stemming from the claims of the IQ testers. “The whole drift of the propaganda based on intelligence testing is to treat people with low intelligence quotients as congenitally and hopelessly inferior … [the IQ testers] believe that they are measuring the capacity of a human being for all time and that this capacity is fatally fixed by the child’s heredity.”

Among other things, the IQ testers had claimed that the average American had a ‘mental age’ of 14 or less. Lippmann declared that this assertion “is not inaccurate. It is not incorrect. It is nonsense.” Furthermore, Lippmann questioned whether the IQ tests were measuring an innate and invariable quantity called “intelligence.” “That claim, he said, had ’no more scientific foundation than a hundred other fads, vitamins and glands and amateur psychoanalysis and correspondence courses in will power, and it will pass with them into that limbo where phrenology and palmistry and characterology and the other Babu sciences are to be found.’”

Lippmann took part in debates with Stanford’s Lewis Terman, a major developer of the IQ test and one of the strongest advocates of the hereditarian theory of intelligence. In a letter to Terman, Lippmann stated, “I hate the impudence of a claim that in fifty minutes you can judge and classify a human being’s predestined fitness in life … I hate the abuse of scientific method which it involves. I hate the sense of superiority which it creates and the sense of inferiority which it imposes.”

Criticism from journalists such as Lippmann was combined with advances in genetics which showed that the mechanism of heredity was far more complex than assumed by racist historians, together with critiques from social scientists who argued that environmental factors on “intelligence” were significant. The net result was that by about 1930, the advocates of eugenics policies were on the defensive.

Social Scientists Oppose Eugenics:

A number of social scientists were opposed to the cultural and racist notions prevalent in the eugenics community. A particularly forceful individual was Franz Boas. Boas was born in Germany in 1858. In 1881 he received a doctorate in physics with a minor in geography. In 1887 Boas emigrated to the U.S., and in 1899 he became a professor of anthropology at Columbia University. Boas was a distinguished leader in his field. So many of his students became leading figures in their field that Boas is now known as the “father of Anthropology.”

Fig. V.2: Anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942).

One of the many researchers inspired by Boas was Otto Klineberg. Klineberg was born in 1899 in Quebec City, Canada and received a Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia University in 1927. While a grad student at Columbia, Klineberg took a class called Culture and Personality from Edward Sapir, who had been a student of Boas. From that class, Klineberg became convinced that his work in psychology made no sense unless he understood the culture of his clients. Klineberg started attending anthropology seminars held at Boas’ house and became friends with students and faculty in the Anthropology department.

Fig. V.3: Psychologist and anthropologist Otto Klineberg (1899-1992).

Klineberg was initially impressed by racist history and claims by eugenics advocates; however, his opinions changed radically when he accompanied some of Boas’ grad students who were studying the Yakima tribe of Native Americans. Klineberg administered early forms of IQ physical tests to both white and Native American children in Washington State. There he noted that the Native Americans performed the tests much more slowly than their white counterparts (in fact, they completely disregarded his instructions to carry out the assignments as quickly as possible); however, they made fewer errors than the whites. After observing this behavior, Klineberg became convinced that the IQ tests were highly dependent on cultural factors; so he switched his research field to work on issues of race, heredity and intelligence.

One of Klineberg’s first contributions was an examination of intelligence among the three European ‘races’ that were a staple for eugenics proponents – the Nordic, Mediterranean and Alpine (see our review of Madison Grant in Part III of this post). Much of the information on “intelligence” for these groups was obtained from the Army IQ tests, together with exams administered to recently-arrived immigrants to the U.S. IQ test advocates such as Robert Yerkes and Carl Brigham maintained that ‘Nordic’ groups scored highest on IQ tests, followed by ‘Mediterraneans’ and then ‘Alpines.’ Klineberg traveled to Europe, located the most ‘pure’ Nordic, Mediterranean and Alpine inhabitants that he could find, and administered IQ tests to them in their native languages. Klineberg found no measurable differences in IQ between the three groups.

Klineberg next took up the issue of reported IQ differences between whites and blacks. First, he noted that, in all racial categories studied (the three ‘European’ races and blacks), urban residents had higher scores than rural ones. Next, Klineberg pointed out that absolute IQ scores for Northern blacks were higher than scores for many rural Southern whites (in every region, absolute scores were adjusted so that the overall average in each area was 100). Klineberg was not the first to observe this – the original IQ testers also recognized it. But the IQ testers and eugenics advocates had an explanation for this; they invented a phenomenon called ‘selective migration.’

In the early 20th century, most of the Negroes in the North belonged to families that had migrated from the South, to take advantage of more available employment opportunities in the North (or because they felt unsafe living in the South). Race theorists hypothesized that the more intelligent Negroes had migrated, leaving their less intelligent kin in the South. Klineberg decided to test this ‘selective migration’ theory. He compared school records for blacks in Southern and northern cities in an attempt to determine whether the Northern students were “more intelligent” than in the South. Perhaps most important, he administered IQ tests to black students, and correlated the results with their length of residence in the North.

The IQ test advocates maintained that they were measuring an intrinsic quality, native intelligence; therefore, results of IQ tests should be independent of time spent in one region. Klineberg published his extensive investigations in a 1935 book, Negro Intelligence and Selective Migration. He concluded: “The superiority of the Northern over the Southern Negroes … are due to factors in the environment, and not to selective migration. There is, in fact, no evidence whatever in favor of selective migration. The school records of those who migrated did not demonstrate any superiority over those who remained behind … There is, on the other hand, very definite evidence that an improved environment … raises the test scores considerably; this rise in ‘intelligence’ is roughly proportionate to length of residence in the more favorable environment.”

Klineberg’s book amounted to a devastating critique of the results and the cultural prejudices of the IQ researchers. Klineberg’s arguments were bolstered by the fact that several early proponents of the IQ tests, such as Robert Goddard and Carl Brigham, radically changed their initial views about the reliability and objectivity of IQ tests. (Lewis Terman stopped making many of his early claims about intelligence tests, but he never publicly recanted those arguments; as far as we can tell, Robert Yerkes never changed his views.)

Over many years, Franz Boas carried out his path-breaking investigations into human behavior. A cultural relativist, Boas firmly believed that “differences in human behavior are not primarily determined by innate biological dispositions but are largely the result of cultural differences acquired through social learning.” Early in his field work, Boas spent time living with an Inuit tribe on Baffin Island in Canada. Dependent on the Inuit for food, shelter and personal contacts, Boas became impressed with the way that indigenous peoples coped with their harsh environment. Boas argued that “all humans had the same intellectual capacity, and that all cultures were based on the same basic mental principles. Variations in custom and belief, he argued, were the products of historical accidents.” These experiences also led him to choose anthropology as his chief field of study.

After being appointed to the faculty at Columbia University, Boas convinced the administration to consolidate the anthropologists at Columbia into a single department under his direction (before that time, anthropologists working in different subfields were housed in separate departments). Boas carried out seminal work in what make up the four major subfields of anthropology today – cultural anthropology, physical anthropology, archaeology and linguistics.

Boas was a co-founder of the American Anthropological Association (AAA). Here, he found himself in strong opposition to Madison Grant, the author of The Passing of the Great Race (whom we profiled in Part III of this series). Boas vied with Grant for leadership in the AAA, and Grant tried repeatedly to get Columbia University to fire Boas. Boas also carried out investigations into the body type of immigrants to the U.S. We noted in our bio of Grant that for racist theorists, variations in the shape of the head were reputed to be important in distinguishing between various races. It was claimed that differences in the shape of the skull represented a stable and universal method for separating the Nordic, Mediterranean and Alpine European races. However, Boas demonstrated that the cranial shape of children born to immigrants to the U.S. tended to change, and became more uniform between different groups, based on the length of time he mothers had resided in the United States. This implied that the ‘cranial index’ depended on the environment and changed over time; hence this quantity was neither stable nor universal.

Anthropologists, particularly students and colleagues of Boas, tended to have a deep understanding of diverse human cultures, and mounted devastating critiques of the simplistic “just-so” stories produced by racist historians and IQ testers. By the 1930s, the categories of “dominant” and “worthless” races promulgated by racist historians had fallen into disfavor in the social science community.

Scientific Opposition to Eugenics:

Eugenics was defined by Sir Francis Galton in the 1870s. Groups advocating for policies based on eugenical principles first appeared in Britain in the second half of the 19th century, and shortly thereafter these ideas were exported to the U.S. In the late 1800s, almost nothing was known about the mechanisms for heredity. All this changed when Mendel’s experiments were re-discovered around 1900, and the systematic study of genetics followed. Initially, American scientists such as Goddard and Davenport claimed to have ‘proved’ that characteristics such as intelligence and morality were inherited, through genealogical studies that we now know were deeply flawed, if not fraudulent.

Nevertheless, in the early decades of the 20th century, simplistic and sweeping assertions about the heredity of intelligence and morality were alleged to represent cutting-edge science. As we have shown, many prominent scientists claimed that intelligence and morality were ‘unit characteristics’ governed by a single gene; they argued that these properties were inherited in exactly the same manner as traits such as hair or eye color. The “IQ testing” movement claimed to have proved that American citizens of ‘Nordic’ heritage had higher IQ test scores than those from ‘Mediterranean’ regions, that both of those groups had higher test scores than ‘Alpine’ immigrants, and that all three groups had higher IQs than African-Americans. Furthermore, it was asserted that the average intelligence of citizens was rapidly declining. In Britain, this deterioration was ascribed to the fact that lower-class families were reproducing at a much higher rate than the upper classes. In the U.S., this decline in ‘fitness’ of the population was claimed to be a result of the lower intelligence of recent immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, and also from interbreeding between different races that produced ‘race deterioration.’

However, as scientists learned more about genetics and heredity, it became obvious that the hereditary claims by eugenics advocates were extremely dubious. Scientists demonstrated that even inheritance of ‘simple’ traits such as hair or eye color depended on a number of complicated factors, and were not simply located on a single gene. Furthermore, it was shown that genealogical studies of dysgenic family lines such as the ‘Kallikak’ and ‘Jukes’ were exaggerated, or even fictitious. Also, critics pointed out that IQ tests carried out on World War I Army recruits and immigrants to the U.S. contained numerous glaring flaws.

In the first three decades of the 20th century, the arguments made by eugenics advocates came under attack from several quarters. A number of the leading biological scientists issued sharp criticisms of the scientific basis of eugenics. Here we will largely follow the historical review of eugenics by Daniel Kevles in his book In The Name of Eugenics. We will focus on three British scientists who were among the most articulate and outspoken critics of eugenics. These were Lancelot Hogben, Julian Huxley and J.B.S. Haldane. We will provide a short biography of each of these men and review their critiques of the field of eugenics.  At the same time, we will mention their research in support of ‘positive’ means to ‘improve’ the quality of human populations by methods such as in vitro fertilization or cloning.

Fig. V.4: British zoologist and statistician Lancelot Hogben (1895-1975).

Lancelot Hogben was a British zoologist and a statistician. In 1933 Hogben became chair in social biology at the London School of Economics (LSE). He was named a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1936, and his citation for that honor mentioned his work in experimental zoology, comparative physiology, and human genetics.

Hogben was a socialist and an atheist, and in World War I had registered as a conscientious objector, for which he was imprisoned in 1916. In the late 1920s Hogben was a faculty member at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. There he gained first-hand experience with the South African apartheid system, and he left South Africa at least partly because of his disgust with that country’s racial policies.

Hogben was an outspoken critic of eugenics from a very early time. He stated that eugenics was characterized by “ancestor worship, anti-Semitism, colour prejudice, anti-feminism, snobbery and obstruction to educational progress.” Later, Hogben would summarize his personal preferences: “I like Scandinavians, skiing, swimming and socialists who realize it is our business to promote social progress by peaceful methods. I dislike football, economists, eugenicists, Fascists, Stalinists, and Scottish conservatives.”

Hogben was a leader in quantitative studies of the effects of environment and heredity on intelligence. Hogben’s group at LSE carried out extensive IQ testing on British students age 9 to 12. He pointed out that a large fraction of children with high IQ test scores came from lower-income families. Hogben was also vocal in his opposition to the eugenicists who asserted that “mental fitness” was deteriorating rapidly in both the U.K. and the U.S. Hogben was particularly contemptuous of the claim that the incidence of mental deficiency had doubled in a 30-year period. “This increase is far too great to have resulted from genetic selection in less than a generation.” In both Britain and the U.S., studies of “feeble-mindedness” were virtually always carried out in public institutions. In the UK, individuals were designated as “feeble-minded” only if they had applied for poor relief, appeared in court, or were patients in an institution for the retarded. Hogben and other scientists emphasized that the category of ‘feeble-mindedness’ aggregated the effects of poverty and mental defect. Critics speculated that studies of inmates of private asylums might obtain very different results.

Julian Huxley was born in 1887, a member of a most distinguished family. His grandfather was Thomas Henry Huxley, a colleague of Charles Darwin and one of the most articulate proponents of evolutionary theory. His brother was the novelist Aldous Huxley and his half-brother was Nobel-Prize-winning biologist Andrew Huxley. At age 13 Julian enrolled at Eton College, and he majored in Zoology at Oxford.

Fig. V.5: British evolutionary biologist, zoologist, and eugenicist Julian Huxley (1887-1975).

Julian Huxley was an “all-rounder;” he was an expert on, and made important contributions to, “evolution in all its aspects, ethology, embryology, genetics, anthropology and to some extent the infant field of cell biology.” He made important contributions to evolutionary theory; his 1942 book, Evolution: The Modern Synthesis, became a classic in its field and an immensely influential work.

Like his grandfather, Julian Huxley was a staunch supporter of evolutionary theory. Very early in his career, he became convinced that natural selection was the dominant force in producing species change, and he also argued that evolution generally advanced in small steps rather than dramatic jumps. In this regard he was in the distinct minority early in his career. Huxley collaborated in many advances in his field. In addition, one of his main contributions was that he mentored a large number of younger colleagues who later became eminent in their field. Notable students of Huxley were Edmund Brisco Ford, who founded the field of evolutionary genetics, and Gavin de Beer, who worked on evolution and development and became the Director of the Natural History Museum. Huxley also hired Hermann Muller as a faculty member (directly out of graduate school) when Huxley was at Rice Institute in Houston. Huxley also mentored and collaborated with Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen, who later shared the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work in animal behavior.

Huxley became an expert in ornithology and marine biology, and was a faculty member at Oxford University, Rice Institute and Kings College, London. In 1935 he became Secretary of the Zoological Society and for a while he was in charge of the London Zoo and its gardens. In 1946, Huxley was named the first governor-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). A lifelong conservationist, Huxley was a co-founder of the World Wildlife Fund in 1961.

Like many scientists of his day, Huxley was for a while favorably inclined towards arguments made by eugenics proponents. At the beginning of the Depression, Huxley proposed that unemployment relief be made contingent on the male agreeing to father no more children. However, as the fields of biology and genetics progressed, it became clear to Huxley and other scientists that the assumptions made by eugenicists regarding heredity and intelligence were naïve, and were deeply affected by racial and cultural biases.

In 1935, after the Nazis had assumed political power in Germany, Julian Huxley and A.C. Haddon published a book We Europeans: A Survey of ‘Racial’ Problems. This book took aim squarely at the claims of Madison Grant and like-minded racial historians. “Huxley and Haddon advanced the genetic and anthropological consensus that the concept of ‘race’ made no biological sense. What seemed like a racial group actually consisted of the intermixture of many biological types, the product of successive migrations and intermarriages. The Nazis claimed that Jews constituted a racial type, but in fact in every country Jews overlapped with Gentiles in every conceivable physical characteristic. Jews … were biologically no more uniform than any people of Europe – including so-called pure Germans … Populations differed from one another … only in the relative proportions of genes for given characters that they possessed. ’For existing populations,’ they maintained, ’the word race should be banished, and the descriptive and non-committal term ethnic groups should be substituted.’”

J.B.S. Haldane was a British scientist and polymath. He studied both math and ‘Greats’ (a combination of languages, ancient history and philosophy) at Oxford, and was awarded first-class degrees in both subjects. Haldane was a giant in his field. Aside from his large stature, Haldane exhibited dazzling brilliance in a wide variety of fields, and was known for his trenchant wit. Nobel Laureate Peter Medawar called Haldane “The cleverest man I ever knew,” and acclaimed science writer Arthur C. Clarke labeled Haldane “the most brilliant science popularizer of his generation.”

Fig. V.6: J.B.S. Haldane, British evolutionary biologist, geneticist and physiologist (1892-1964).

Haldane made seminal contributions in the fields of genetics, evolutionary biology, statistics and physiology. A 1929 article that he authored became the standard model for the chemical origin of life. Haldane was the first to suggest that sickle-cell disease confers a subsequent resistance to malaria. He also proposed a method for in vitro fertilization and introduced the concept of cloning (after seeing Haldane’s proposal for cloning, Aldous Huxley was inspired to write the novel Brave New World). Haldane also made important contributions to what became the ‘Modern Synthesis’ in evolution, and his work in applied statistics also helped establish the field of population genetics.

While a young student at the private school Eton College, Haldane was brutally abused by older students for appearing arrogant. This left him with a deep antipathy for authority. Haldane became an atheist; following World War I, he became a socialist and in 1937 he joined the Communist Party. His unwavering support for Marxism led him to some unfortunate decisions. Haldane refused to support Russian geneticist Nikolai Vavilov in his dispute with the Lamarckian Trofim Lysenko. Vavilov eventually endured a show trial and conviction, and died of starvation in a Russian prison. For the remainder of his life, Haldane continued to praise Josef Stalin as “a very great man who did a very good job.”

In 1933 Haldane was named Professor of Genetics at University College, London, and in 1937 he became the first Professor of Biometry at that institution. He was active in establishing a mathematical foundation for genetics. Haldane was also famous for using himself as a ‘guinea pig’ in experiments, several of which involved significant personal danger. For example, he ingested a dilute solution of hydrochloric acid in order to test the effects of acidification in the blood.

Like many of his colleagues, Haldane was initially a supporter of eugenics. While an undergraduate he joined the Oxford Eugenics Society; during that period, he was particularly keen on efforts that would limit increases in population of the lower classes. However, after serving in World War I Haldane revised his opinion of the poor when he was exposed to lower-class citizens. As Haldane’s political views moved steadily leftward, he was critical of the strong support for eugenics from conservatives in both the U.K. and America, saying that these groups were using genetic arguments “to support the political opinions of the extreme right, and in America by some of the most ferocious enemies of human liberty.”  Haldane continued that “Many of the deeds done in America in the name of eugenics are about as much justified by science as were the proceedings of the Inquisition by the gospels.”

In the mid-30s, motivated by his socialist philosophy and mindful of the compulsory-sterilization laws that had been passed by many states in the U.S., Haldane presciently observed that “Any legislation which does not purport to apply, and is not actually applied (a very different thing), to all social classes alike, will probably be unjustly applied to the poor.”

Haldane’s path-breaking studies on in vitro fertilization (IVF) and cloning opened up potential new avenues for improving the human race. One could dispense with the more negative forms of eugenics that involved selective application of birth control (only to the lower classes), compulsory sterilization, even euthanasia. If IVF could be developed as a large-scale enterprise, one could imagine creating repositories of sperm from the most desirable males, and having females voluntarily choose to be inseminated with sperm from this group.

Cloning provided even more Utopian vistas. If reliable techniques could be developed for cloning, then once one had identified the ‘most desirable’ humans, one could simply reproduce those individuals without limit. Haldane fleshed out this vision in a 1924 pamphlet called Daedalus, Or Science and the Future. Here he outlined the mechanism for cloning, which Haldane called ectogenesis. Haldane gushed about the improvements that could be obtained through cloning. “The small proportion of men and women who are selected as ancestors for the next generation are so undoubtedly superior to the average that the advance in each generation in any single respect … is very startling.”

In vitro fertilization also appealed to Hermann Muller. While a student, Muller had worked in the lab of the great American biologist Thomas Hunt Morgan. From 1945 to his retirement in 1964, Muller was a professor at Indiana University; and it was his home when he received the 1946 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his demonstration that he could induce mutations in fruit flies by bombarding them with X-rays. Like Haldane, Muller was also a Utopian socialist.

Fig. V.7: American geneticist and utopian Socialist Hermann Muller (1890-1967).

In 1935 Muller outlined his ideas on eugenics in the book Out of the Night: A Biologist’s View of the Future. Although Muller never joined the Communist Party, he spent four years in Russia collaborating with geneticists. But Muller had to leave Russia in 1936; unlike Haldane, Muller publicly opposed Lysenko’s anti-Darwinian theory, and in addition Stalin had read Muller’s book Out of the Night, and ordered that an attack on that book be published.

Muller was fascinated with the potential offered by IVF. British IVF enthusiast Herbert Brewer pointed out the vast difference in the number of sperm produced by a male, versus the much smaller number of ova produced by a woman. Brewer calculated that if only 0.1% of a man’s sperm was used in IVF, it could fertilize 5 million women in a year. Brewer noted that IVF “immensely magnified” the reproductive power of “a few superior males.”

In Muller’s thinking, the great possibilities for IVF would arise once a socialist revolution had taken place, producing equality for all citizens. Only then would IVF become beneficial to society, as under a capitalistic system IVF would simply maximize the number of “Valentinos, Jack Dempseys, Babe Ruths, even Al Capones.” In Muller’s view, the human race needed socialism “to make the world a better place to live in;” eugenics would then provide “better men to live in the world.” In Out of the Night, Muller enthused about the prospects for IVF in a socialist society. “How many women, in an enlightened community devoid of superstitious taboos and of sex slavery, would be eager and proud to bear and rear a child of Lenin or of Darwin!”

Aldous Huxley took the idea of cloning seriously in Brave New World, and in Huxley’s novel that experiment did not turn out well. Haldane and Muller’s enthusiasm for IVF was equally impractical. It should be noted that the men who advocated IVF and cloning clearly had themselves in mind when they envisioned the most fit specimens for large-scale reproduction. In fact, the writer George Bernard Shaw was quite explicit about his own ego and the possibilities for IVF, “When I, who have no children … think of all the ova I might have inseminated!!! And of all the women who could not have tolerated me in the house for a day, but would have liked some of my qualities for their children!!!” Furthermore, despite their Utopian visions of society, the men who lobbied in favor of IVF and cloning tended to see women merely as vessels to receive the sperm of outstanding men, and to bear their children.

By the 1930s, organized opposition to eugenics on many fronts had seriously tarnished the reputation of this field. After World War II, when the world became aware of the atrocities committed by the Nazis, this field largely disappeared.

However, advances in genetics and human health led to a much greater understanding of heredity and disease. A particularly important advance was the understanding of the different human blood groups, and the genetic relationship of the three major blood types A, B and O. Scientists also studied how recessive genes for various birth defects would express themselves, and gained an understanding of how these defects are inherited.

This led to a new field called ‘reform eugenics,’ that began to grow after the original eugenics had been thoroughly debunked. Reform eugenics was also concerned with hereditary diseases and with actions such as genetic counseling. Furthermore, scientists involved in this later movement stressed that all of their recommendations should involve voluntary action on the part of the people involved. Our essay is concerned only with the first stage of the eugenics movement, roughly up to the beginning of World War II, so we will not discuss the later period of reform eugenics. However, Hogben, Huxley, Haldane and Muller were all actively involved in the reform eugenics movement, and Huxley served as president of the British Eugenics Society from 1960 to 1962.

A number of American scientists were also prominent critics of the eugenics movement. In 1925, the great biologist Thomas Hunt Morgan published a revised edition of his book Evolution and Genetics, in which he stated “Least of all should we feel any assurance in deciding genetic superiority or inferiority as applied to whole races, by which we mean not races in a biological sense, but social or political groups.” And biologist Herbert Jennings stated that “It is particularly in connection with racial questions in man that there has been a great throwing about of false biology.”

The criticisms of core beliefs of eugenics helped to change the minds of several of the most influential early advocates of eugenics. For example, H.H. Goddard was initially one of the most articulate spokesmen for eugenics. His study of the ‘Kallikak’ family genealogy was reputed to have ‘proved’ a strong connection between heredity and mental defect. Furthermore, Goddard played an important role in constructing the IQ tests that had claimed to show strong racial and cultural effects on intelligence.  However, by 1928 Goddard had completely changed his earlier views. On the subject of feeble-mindedness, Goddard now stated “We now know, of course, that only a small percentage of people who test under 12 are actually feeble-minded.” Regarding his earlier claims that feeble-mindedness was innate and incapable of change, Goddard’s later view was that “The problem of the moron is one of education and training … when we get an education that is entirely right there will be no morons who cannot manage themselves and their affairs.” Finally, on the question whether morons should be segregated from the normal population and not allowed to reproduce, he stated “It may still be argued that moron parents are likely to have imbecile or idiot children. There is not much evidence that this is the case. The danger is probably negligible.”

In his 1923 book A Study of American Intelligence, Carl Brigham attempted to provide a reasonable summary of the strengths and weaknesses of the Army IQ tests. At that time, Brigham agreed that the Alpha test could be faulted since it required literacy in English. But the Beta test, requiring no literacy, had to be a direct measure of innate intelligence. Brigham also explained away the fact that Northern blacks have average scores higher than some Southern whites. He used Yerkes’ argument that “the more intelligent negroes” had migrated to the North.

Brigham also addressed that fact that the IQ test data clearly showed steadily increasing scores of immigrants as they resided in the U.S. for longer periods of time. Was that not a clear indication of environmental effects in the exams? In his 1923 book, Brigham turned this around. “Instead of considering that our curve indicates a growth of intelligence with increasing length of residence, we are forced to take the reverse of this picture and accept the hypothesis that the curve indicates a gradual deterioration in the class of immigrants examined in the Army … The average intelligence of succeeding waves of immigration has become progressively lower.”

However, a few years later Brigham had completely reversed his stance regarding these exams. In a 1930 review of IQ testing, Brigham admitted that combining the Alpha and Beta test results for different groups was inconsistent. “As this method of amalgamating Alphas and Betas to produce a combined scale was used by the writer in his earlier analysis of the Army tests … that study with its entire hypothetical superstructure of racial differences collapses completely.” Brigham agreed that the Army IQ tests “had measured familiarity with American language and culture, not innate intelligence.” In a remarkable, 180-degree turnaround from the position staked out in his 1923 book, Brigham now stated “Comparative studies of various national and racial groups may not be made with existing texts … One of the most pretentious of these comparative racial studies – the writer’s own – was without foundation.”

One final nail in the coffin of ‘scientific racism’ was a comparison of intelligence tests administered to Scottish schoolchildren. The first test in 1932 included 87,000 students,  and the second in 1947 was given to 73,000 students. Eugenics theory predicted that the 1947 study would show a dramatic drop in test scores, due to the supposed deterioration in fitness of the British population. However, the 1947 results were slightly higher than the 1932 ones. British social scientists attributed the increased ‘mental age’ to two factors. The first was a greater popular understanding about the nature of intelligence testing; the second factor was increased attention to a nutritious diet, resulting in overall better health in the population. The Scottish results were completely opposite to predictions from eugenics advocates.

By 1930, the scientific criticisms of the mainstream eugenics movement had intensified. As we have shown, many of the early proponents of eugenics radically changed their earlier arguments regarding heredity and intelligence. The conversions of Henry  Goddard and Carl Brigham reflect long-term victories for science over pseudo-science, but only after this pseudo-science had led to disastrous government policies. Meanwhile, some of the more outspoken eugenics advocates maintained their original claims, and continued their support of programs aimed at ‘inferior’ cultural and racial groups.

Harry Laughlin, the Director of the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) at Cold Springs Harbor,  a major force in the compulsory sterilization movement in America and an influential science advisor behind the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, remained one of the most adamant supporters of ‘mainline’ eugenics. In 1918, the Carnegie Institution of Washington became the primary financial supporter of the ERO; however, the strong criticism of the eugenics movement led the Carnegie Institution to become concerned about the activities of that office. They appointed a blue-ribbon committee to assess the work of the ERO. That committee concluded that the ERO’s records (which included assessments of subjective traits such as “character, sense of humor, self-respect, loyalty [and] holding a grudge”) were “unsatisfactory for the study of human genetics.” Also, the family genealogy records of the ERO were based on accounts sent in by family members; those frequently included claims based on hazy recollections of the traits of ancestors, or family lore that was unreliable and highly unscientific. Furthermore, the committee report concluded that a eugenics perspective was not the appropriate framework for research in human genetics. In 1939 the incoming president of the Carnegie Institution, Vannevar Bush, talked Harry Laughlin into retiring; and in 1940 the ERO was shut down.

Religious Groups Opposing Eugenics:

The eugenics movement initially attracted adherents from several diverse groups. Progressives tended to support it because of their desire to ‘improve’ the human race. Scientists envisioned programs to determine the most ‘fit’ members of society and to persuade them to breed.  At the same time they worked to identify the ‘unfit’ (particularly the “feeble-minded”), remove them from society by segregating them in institutions, and prevent them from reproducing. “Racial historians” argued in favor of strong hereditary differences in intelligence and moral qualities between various cultures.

The eugenics movement was largely driven by a coalition of white Protestants, with some admixture of other religions and agnostics. However, policies advocated by eugenics advocates were strongly opposed by other religious groups. The strongest and most organized opposition to eugenics came from the Catholic church. Catholics were strongly offended by the eugenics practice of identifying and stigmatizing the unfit. Catholic doctrine taught that those identified as ‘unfit’ were “children of God, blessed with immortal souls and entitled to the respect due every human being.” In the U.S., Father Thomas Gerrard opposed eugenics arguments advocating for improvement of the human condition by encouraging production of offspring with superior intellectual and moral qualities. “The Church declares the root cause of degeneracy to be sin, and the root cause of betterment to be virtue,” wrote Gerrard. Gerrard further described the more extreme eugenic policies such as compulsory sterilization or euthanization as “a  complete return to the life of the beast.”

Catholics also opposed the eugenics movement because of its punitive treatment of lower-class citizens. Father John Burke of the National Catholic Welfare Conference attacked the eugenicists for advocating “that infant morality … should be reduced not by improving social conditions and curbing those who exploit the poor, but by fitting the habits of those classes to their condition.” From the beginning of the eugenics movement, Catholics had criticized and opposed it because of its harsh and unforgiving attitudes towards less fortunate members of society. In the U.S., it was also the case that a large number of the lower-class Southern European and Irish immigrants were Catholics.

In 1930 Pope Pius XI wrote an encyclical Casti Connubii (On Christian Marriage). This document included eugenics as a practice opposed by the Catholic Church. Pius XI included eugenics in a list of condemned practices along with “divorce, birth control, companionate marriage [couples living together without the benefit of religious or legal sanction of their marriage], and the celebration of animal passion in films, the press and the theater.”

Fig. V.8: 1930 encyclical by Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubii (On Christian Marriage).

Catholic opposition to eugenics was particularly effective in Europe, especially among countries that had significant numbers of Catholics. For example, in Austria criticisms from the Catholic Church were sufficient to prevent sterilization initiatives proposed for that country.

Summary: Opposition to Eugenics:

As we have shown, by 1930 the eugenics movement in the United States was in decline. The combined critiques by journalists such as Walter Lippmann, social scientists such as Franz Boas and Otto Klineberg, scientists (particularly geneticists) such as Britain’s Lancelot Hogben, Julian Huxley and J.B.S. Haldane, and religious institutions such as the Catholic Church, had placed eugenics advocates on the defensive.

The fluctuating fortunes of the eugenics movement can be seen in the international meetings held to advocate for eugenical programs. There were three International Eugenics Congress meetings. The First Eugenics Congress, in 1912, was held in London and was dedicated to Sir Francis Galton, who had passed away the previous year. Winston Churchill was one of the sponsors of this meeting and the inaugural address was delivered by Prime Minister Arthur Balfour.

The Second International Eugenics Congress was held in 1921 and was hosted by New York’s American Museum of Natural History. The Congress’ honorary president was Alexander Graham Bell and attendees included future president Herbert Hoover. As we have seen, the Second Eugenics Congress coincided with a high point of the influence of eugenics advocates in the United States. The “Eugenics Tree,” the logo of the Second International Eugenics Congress shown below, represented eugenics as the culmination of all modern science, social science and medicine. Around this time, a number of states were passing compulsory sterilization laws based on model legislation written by Harry Laughlin from the Eugenics Record Office (Laughlin was in charge of exhibits at this meeting). The U.S. Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 was passed with strong support from eugenics advocates, who played a major role in the quotas in this law that placed very strict limits on immigration from European countries thought to have ‘unfit’ citizens.

Fig. V.9: The ‘Eugenics Tree,’ the logo of the Second International Eugenics Congress, 1921. Source: Image Archive.

However, by 1932 when the Third Eugenics Congress was held, also at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, eugenics advocates were on the defensive from the massive criticism that they had received from many sources. Herbert Keppler had earlier published a cartoon in Puck magazine from 1893 titled Looking Backward, that satirized the hypocrisy of nativists (themselves descendants of immigrants) trying to close the door on immigrants. The caption stated, ‘They would close to the newcomer the bridge that carried them and their fathers over.’

Fig. V.10: The cartoon “Looking Backward,” by Herbert Keppler, from Puck magazine, 1893.

In August 1932, the New York Times review of the proceedings of the Third International Eugenics Conference reflected the decreased respect for eugenical arguments. “Having gloomily predicted the decline of mankind unless something is done to stop the socially unfit from propagating, the eugenists ended their third international congress in New York… [it featured] much loose talk about sterilizing the feeble-minded and restricting marriages of undesirables … In time, eugenics seems to have become a disguise for race prejudice, ancestor worship and caste snobbery … And there is the arch-eugenist, Major Darwin, who sent a paper to be read at New York, frankly admitting that he would like to see a caste system introduced `so rigid as to prohibit all movement between the different social strata’ in order to remedy the `harm done by educational facilities generally.’ These are the views of staunch adherents of the now discredited doctrine that social salvation lies with the supposedly pure Nordics.”

There was no Fourth International Eugenics Conference.

Continued in Part VI