VI.1: Summary of Eugenics in America
In the preceding five parts of this series, we have chronicled the history of the eugenics movement in the U.S. This movement resulted from the desire to ‘improve’ the human race through application of what was presented as ‘cutting-edge science.’ The eugenics movement was born in Britain, and was inspired by the work of Sir Francis Galton. Galton defined the term ‘eugenics,’ and proposed a ‘race betterment’ program that would apply ‘scientific’ techniques to human breeding that were similar to those used in breeding of horses, or in developing new and improved strains of flowers and crops. Another motivating factor for eugenicists was their firm belief that the ‘fitness’ of their own population (the British in the U.K., and Americans in the U.S.) was rapidly deteriorating, coupled with the confidence that this decline could be reversed by attacking the problem with the best available scientific methods.
After its initial introduction in Britain, the eugenics movement made its way across the Atlantic Ocean where it was embraced and extended by a number of scientists, historians and politicians in the U.S. Our work focused particularly on the eugenics movement in America, between the last few decades of the 19th century and World War II.
Two different general approaches were proposed for improving the ‘bloodlines’ of the population. The first, called ‘positive eugenics,’ emphasized voluntary methods for improving the health and well-being of citizens. Among these efforts were wellness programs such as the Battle Creek Sanitarium of J.H. Kellogg, and ‘Best Baby’ and ‘Fitter Families’ contests at state fairs. The sanitariums stressed the benefits of exercise and fitness for adults, while the contests provided fair-goers with the latest information regarding infant health and nutrition. Another ‘positive eugenics’ approach asserted that society would benefit if its citizens more carefully chose spouses based on their ‘eugenical fitness.’
Other examples of positive eugenics involved incentives for the more ‘desirable’ individuals to intermarry and to have large families. States could offer tax breaks or monetary stipends to encourage such behavior. Positive eugenics programs also involved efforts to educate ‘unfit’ citizens about the deleterious effects of producing more ‘undesirable’ children. Such programs were designed to incentivize people carrying ‘inferior’ traits not to reproduce.
‘Negative eugenics,’ on the other hand, involved more coercive methods to prevent ‘unfit’ citizens from reproducing. One of these methods involved the creation of institutions where such people would be confined. Establishments such as homes for the feeble-minded, mental asylums, or prisons would isolate these people from the ‘normal’ population. Many of these institutions were segregated by gender as a means of preventing them from reproducing. ‘Undesirable’ traits included mental illness, certain diseases, poverty or criminality, or membership in an undesirable race. Even more drastic measures were involuntary sterilization or euthanasia of ‘undesirable’ types. In the U.S., more than 60,000 Americans were subjected to involuntary sterilization under state programs designed by eugenicists.
VI.2: Lessons From the Experience With Eugenics
What lessons can we take away from the American experience with eugenics?
• We begin by taking the most benign view of the eugenics era. Eugenics was based on a number of assumptions about science (genetics and heredity) and race. Many of these assumptions could be tested via the scientific method. For example, eugenicists claimed that the ‘fitness’ of the population was rapidly declining. Eugenics advocates made many testable assertions regarding genetics and heredity. For example, they claimed that characteristics such as intelligence and morality were ‘unit characters’ that resided on a single gene, and were inherited in exactly the same manner as hair or eye color. Eugenicists claimed to have ‘proved’ this assertion through genealogical studies of family histories.
Eugenicists also made strong claims regarding the reliability of IQ tests to determine ‘intelligence,’ a quality that IQ test advocates asserted was innate, unchanging, and largely hereditary. There was abundant evidence to challenge those assertions, although the IQ testers advanced various hypotheses to provide alternative explanations for these data.
When studied through experiments that carefully controlled for other variables, these statements were all found to be false. So, an optimistic view is that the ‘science’ of eugenics was disproved and mainstream science advanced in the ‘usual’ way, i.e., hypotheses were advanced and experiments were designed to test the hypotheses. When the data disagreed with the hypotheses, the hypotheses were disproved.
• Another relatively upbeat result was that several physical and social scientists, who were initially proponents of eugenics, dramatically changed their outlook once new evidence contradicted major eugenical claims. Two examples would be psychologists Carl Brigham and Henry Goddard. In 1923, Brigham wrote the highly influential book A Study of American Intelligence. That book laid out the claims that intelligence tests measured a fixed quality called innate intelligence, or IQ. However, Brigham subsequently took note of critiques of IQ tests. Not only did he change his opinion of those tests, but he quite remarkably disowned the statements from his own book. In 1930, Brigham wrote “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.”
In a similar manner, H.H. Goddard later reversed the claims he had made in his 1912 book The Kallikak Family. While Goddard had earlier claimed that ‘feeble-mindedness’ was innate, incapable of change and was inherited directly from the parents, by 1928 Goddard 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.”
A number of scientists who were once enthusiastic supporters of eugenics subsequently became sharp critics of that program. In his youth, Julian Huxley proposed that unemployment relief be made contingent on the male agreeing to father no more children. However, a few years later Huxley co-authored the book We Europeans: A Survey of ‘Racial’ Problems that skewered the work of racist historians. In a similar vein, J.B.S. Haldane was a member of the Oxford Eugenics Society as a student, and he praised efforts to prevent the poor from reproducing. However, he later argued 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.”
These examples show how scientists reacted to new and improved data. When new results were forthcoming, they revised or even reversed their earlier stance. This is the type of behavior that one hopes to see from the scientific community.
• However, the ‘benign’ views presented above ignore the reality that for several decades, naïve assumptions about science, genetics and culture were promulgated as “cutting-edge science,” and had corrosive effects when coupled with prejudicial politics. The hypotheses advanced by eugenicists had a significant influence on U.S. national policy. Several measures backed by eugenics advocates were adopted, and had dire consequences for American citizens. These include institutionalizing large numbers of ‘unfit’ members of society, including: the mentally retarded; those suffering from various conditions (for example, epilepsy, blindness or deafness); citizens in poverty; alcoholics; and women accused of “licentious behavior.” Strongly influenced by eugenics advocates, a majority of states in the U.S. adopted compulsory sterilization programs to prevent ‘unfit’ members of society from reproducing. Over a few decades, more than 60,000 Americans were sterilized.
The U.S. Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 greatly decreased immigration to this country. Moreover, this act established restrictive quotas from countries whose citizens were accused of being ‘less fit,’ based on arguments by eugenicists. The quota of Asians under this law was set at zero. In addition, the 1924 Immigration Law set targeted quotas for European immigrants that discriminated against those from Southern & Eastern Europe.
Many U.S. states, including all Southern states, established anti-miscegenation laws that prevented interracial marriage. Eugenics advocates claimed that miscegenation led to ‘race degeneration.’ These laws were not struck down until the 1967 Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case, which declared unconstitutional the Virginia Racial Integrity Act of 1924 that criminalized marriage between “white” and “colored” people. Several of the state anti-miscegenation statutes were passed by Democratic state legislatures immediately following the Civil War. Those laws were overturned by Republican legislatures during the period of Reconstruction, but were then reinstated by Democrats following the end of Reconstruction.
• Many distinguished scientists and social scientists subscribed to these now-debunked arguments. This was a real black eye for the scientific community. We now see that the purported ‘scientific’ aspects of eugenics resulted from several major fallacies. First, scientists of that day had a very naïve understanding of genetics and heredity. As a result, they accepted flawed “proofs” that such qualitative and poorly-defined qualities as morality, leadership and ‘feeble-mindedness’ were carried on a single gene, and were inherited in the same way as eye color. Eventually, advances in genetics made it clear that such assumptions were completely wrong.
• The eugenics movement was also characterized by a stunning lack of humility on the part of the scientists involved. In several cases, scientists accepted without question pseudo-scientific claims simply because those claims agreed with their own prejudices. In other cases, they noticed results that appeared to disprove their hypotheses; however, they rejected a straightforward interpretation in favor of more complicated hypotheses that agreed with their own expectations.
• We gave some examples from the early days of ‘IQ testing.’ The working hypothesis was that Americans of ‘Nordic’ descent (northern European and British) were more intelligent than ‘Mediterranean’ and ‘Alpine’ immigrants, and that all three ‘races’ had higher IQs than those of African descent. Another claim was that IQ tests measured an innate and unchanging trait called ‘intelligence.’ IQ test scores increased with the amount of schooling, which implied that ‘IQ’ was correlated with the amount of education. However, the IQ testers concluded that this was because more intelligent individuals stayed in school longer. Average IQ scores of Negroes from some Northern states were higher than scores from Negroes in the South, but also higher than average scores of whites from several Southern states! This seemed to show a strong correlation between educational opportunity and IQ results. But the IQ testers instead invented the (now disproved) notion that the more intelligent Negroes had migrated North, leaving the less intelligent in the South.
• Occam’s Razor states that when presented with competing hypotheses that make the same predictions, one should choose the hypothesis that involves the fewest assumptions. On several issues, American eugenicists did precisely the opposite: they chose a more complex hypothesis that agreed with their pre-determined conclusions, rather than a simpler one that explained the same data. In the field of IQ testing discussed in the previous paragraph, the simpler explanation was that IQ test scores reflected the amount and quality of education. But the IQ testers instead chose the more complex ‘explanation’ that more intelligent Negroes had migrated North, leaving their less intelligent relatives in the South.
• Another example is the use of family genealogy to determine questions of heredity and moral traits. In 1877 Richard Dugdale studied a group of poor families in the New York state area that he called ‘The Jukes.’ Dugdale concluded that environment (‘nurture’) was more important than heredity in determining the lot of these families, and he recommended remedial social policies that focused on public health and youth education.
However, in 1915 Arthur Estabrook of the Eugenics Record Office updated Dugdale’s study, and came to exactly the opposite conclusion. Estabrook claimed that the social problems of the Jukes families were almost entirely hereditary, a result of their ‘unfit’ genetic makeup. Estabrook recommended compulsory sterilization to ‘solve’ the societal problems posed by the Jukes clan. When faced with contradictory but equally valid interpretations, scientists and the public accepted the one (by Estabrook) that agreed with their own prejudices, and more or less ignored Dugdale’s conclusions.
• It is useful to remember this quote from Carl Sagan about the scientific method. Sagan makes a distinction between skepticism (which he calls ‘self-criticism’) and denial (‘pseudoscience and superstition’). He claims that this not only lies at the heart of the scientific enterprise, but that these same methods can be applied in other areas to differentiate between ‘skeptical’ and ‘denying’ modes of thought. “One of the reasons for its success is that science has a built-in, error correcting machinery at its very heart. Some may consider this an overbroad characterization, but to me every time we exercise self-criticism, every time we test against the outside world, we are doing science. When we are self-indulgent and uncritical, when we confuse hopes and facts, we slide into pseudoscience and superstition.”
• We will also add comments by Richard Feynman, one of the most brilliant physicists of the 20th century. In his 1985 autobiographical sketch Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, he criticized a type of pseudo-scientific thinking that he called “cargo cult science.” A synonym for this would be “magical thinking.” Feynman went on to prescribe a set of rules for how an ethical scientist should proceed. This provides an excellent working definition of skepticism. Feynman strongly emphasized that this skeptical mode of thinking must be applied to one’s own work. “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”
“There is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. … It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty — a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid — not only what you think is right about it; other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked — to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.”
“Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can — if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong — to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.”
“In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another … We’ve learned from experience that the truth will come out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature’s phenomena will agree or they’ll disagree with your theory. And, although you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven’t tried to be very careful in this kind of work. And it’s this type of integrity, this kind of care not to fool yourself, that is missing to a large extent in much of the research in cargo cult science.”
VI.3: Racism and Nationalism Return; It’s ‘Déjà vu All Over Again’
In this series we have reviewed many claims made in the name of eugenics. We discovered that the ‘science’ of eugenics was a toxic mixture of naïve and false assertions about genetics and heredity, coupled with severe racial and nationalist prejudices. It is no accident that eugenics flourished during the colonial period, when imperialists justified their actions on the grounds that they were bringing civilization to inferior beings – cultures and races that were less intelligent, and lacked the moral qualities that led to leadership and organization. The racial stereotypes that accompanied eugenics were an integral part of the imperialist mentality.
It would be satisfying if the era of eugenics was seen as a cautionary tale, and that we had moved beyond the mis-use of science and the pervasive racism that characterized that period. Unfortunately, the past few years have seen a renewed burgeoning of nationalist sentiment in many countries around the globe. This militant nationalism is often accompanied by efforts to dominate the sources of information. History is re-written in an effort to indoctrinate future generations of citizens. And we see a strong re-emergence of racist attitudes, between the dominant class and the ‘other’ (minorities that vary from one country to another). These attitudes often rely on narratives that echo old eugenics arguments, with an added boost from the promulgation of misinformation on social media. The threat of action based on these old arguments grows ever more dangerous in light of the advent of modern genetic engineering technology.
After World War II, there was a trend towards the establishment of democratic governments around the world. In Western Europe, NATO became a central organizing force that supported democratic regimes in several formerly fascist countries. Following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, there were also pro-democracy movements in some countries from the former USSR. Southeast Asia also saw the emergence of some democratic movements. India has for some time been the largest democracy in the world, in terms of population. Japan and South Korea also had flourishing democratic systems.
Of course, the world has always had authoritarian governments that were notably un-democratic and exhibited strong nationalistic impulses. However, in recent years we have seen a rapid rise in nationalist and racist movements around the world, not only in authoritarian regimes, but also in democracies where majority groups sense a threat of “replacement” or dilution of national identity from immigration. Before dealing with the increasing prominence of white nationalism in the U.S., we will discuss the growth of right-wing nationalist regimes in two countries that previously had relatively open democracies: India and Hungary.
In addition to those countries, several other countries have experienced emergent nationalist sentiment. In France, a militant anti-immigrant movement led by Marine Le Pen has gained significant support. In the 2017 French elections, Le Pen finished second in the first round of presidential voting, and received 34% of the vote in the run-off against Emmanuel Macron.
Germany has seen the rise of an ultranationalist party, the National Democratic Party or NDP. The NDP has been described as a Neo-Nazi group and has adopted platforms described as racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic. The NDP calls for the abolition of Germany’s parliamentary democratic system, and also agitates for the return of land that Germany lost after World War II. Although the NDP has never reached the 5% figure needed to gain seats in the Bundestag, it nevertheless has representation in a few states, particularly in the former East Germany. The NDP’s increased support is due in part to their condemnation of Germany’s announcement that it would absorb up to 1 million Mideast and African refugees.
Italy has also seen a resurgence in nationalism. For the past few years the country was governed by a coalition of the Lega Nord and Five Star parties. Lega Nord is particularly strong in northern and north-central Italy. It was initially aligned with a movement that advocated for secession of the northern Padania region. Under its current secretary, Matteo Salvini, those goals have been replaced by calls for greater autonomy of Italian regions. Lega Nord has adopted a militant anti-immigrant stance, particularly regarding immigration by non-Europeans and Muslims.
Salvini has endorsed many far-right policies, and has made incendiary remarks regarding immigrants. In 2018, Salvini accused the government of Tunisia of sending to Italy only immigrants who were criminals, and whose sole aim was to commit crimes in Italy (sound familiar?). In July 2018, Salvini announced that he was going to “stop the business of illegal immigration.” The ship Aquarius, which was operated jointly by Medecins Sans Frontières and SOS Mediterranée, and was carrying more than 600 refugees from Africa, was denied permission to disembark in Italy.
Salvini also announced a campaign to carry out a census of the Roma people in Italy, for the purpose of deporting those who could not prove they were legal residents. A public outcry prevented such a census, particularly because racial registration is forbidden by the Italian government. Salvini has also cited his belief in a ‘replacement theory,’ whereby Italy is in danger of “fertile African youth replacing Europeans who are not having children anymore.” This is a direct echo of the eugenics era, where American eugenicists warned that ‘Nordic’ bloodlines would deteriorate, due to inter-breeding with Negroes and ‘inferior’ racial types from Southern and Eastern Europe.
VI.3.1: Nationalism in India
Since 2014, a coalition group called the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by Narendra Modi, has ruled India. Prime Minister Modi’s government has close ties with a Hindu Nationalist Group, the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP. The BJP supports adoption of a policy called Hindutva; critics have alleged that a goal of Hindutva is to re-cast India as a Hindu nation rather than a secular state.
There have been many instances where policies advocated by Hindu nationalists have been implemented by the Modi government. Many of these actions are summarized in a recent article in The New Yorker magazine by Dexter Filkins, Blood and Soil in India.
Since this blog focuses on science, we review efforts to inject Hindu pseudo-science into scientific teaching and research in India. Much of this activism has been spurred by the Vijnana Bharati (VIBHA), the science advocacy arm of a Hindu nationalist movement that actively lobbies to inject Hindu spiritual doctrine into Indian science.
Some NDA activists have called for the introduction of Vedic Astrology courses at universities. At an Indian Science Congress meeting in January 2019, chemist G. Nageshwar Rao, vice-chancellor of Andhra University, claimed that thousands of years ago, the Hindu civilization had developed ‘stem cell research.’ The source of this claim? A folk legend from the Hindu epic Mahabharata describing a woman who gave birth to 100 children!
Another example is Narendra Modi’s 2014 statement regarding an Indian folk tale about the god Ganesha, who is depicted having an elephant’s head and a human body. Modi cited Ganesha as an example of tremendous feats of transplantation surgery achieved by the Hindus several millennia ago! In a similar vein, in 2018 India’s Science Minister Harsh Vardhan falsely claimed that Stephen Hawking had stated that the ancient Hindu Vedas contained theoretical proofs that were superior to Einstein’s E = mc2. A few years earlier, Home Minister Rajnath Singh claimed that Heisenberg’s Quantum Uncertainty Principle was inspired by passages from the Vedas.
Pseudo-scientific efforts from VIBHA include the funding of research at the Indian Institute of Technology to validate claims that panchagavya (a ‘Vedic medicine’ containing cow dung and urine) is an effective remedy for a variety of ailments. In 2018, Higher Education minister Satya Pal Singh threatened to remove references to Darwin’s theory of evolution from college curricula, citing the absence in Vedic texts of any reference to “an ape turning into a human being.”
At a 2014 meeting of the Indian Science Congress, Anand Bodas claimed that the airplane was invented 7,000 years ago by a man called Bharadwaja. The pilots of those planes were alleged to have worn special suits that protected them from viruses, electric shocks and extreme weather. To support his claims, Bodas cited supposedly ancient Vedas, the Vaimanika Shastra. Unfortunately for Bodas, the Indian Institute of Science dated those “ancient” texts as no more than a century old. And analysts described those flying machines as “poor concoctions” and “unimaginably horrendous.” At the same meeting, a speaker claimed that “bacteria found in cows can turn any material into gold.”
The promotion of pseudo-science is typical of nationalist regimes that are aligned with fundamentalist religious sects. The Hindu nationalist claims are now being opposed by an organized groups of scientists and rationalists, who protest the insertion of Hindu religious notions into science pedagogy and research. However, there have also been violent reactions from Hindu nationalists. In the past 5 years, four prominent fighters against superstition and pseudoscientific ideas and practices have been murdered, including Narendra Dabholkar, a physician, and M. M. Kalburgi, former vice-chancellor of Kannada University in Hampi. Ongoing police investigations have linked their killers to Hindu fundamentalist organizations.
VI.3.2: Nationalism in Hungary
Since 2010, the dominant party in Hungary has been the Fidesz Party, with Viktor Orbán as Prime Minister. Although Fidesz began as a relatively progressive opponent to the ruling Communist Party in the late 1980s, the party soon moved to the right, and since their victory in 2010 they have undertaken a number of actions consistent with a strong nationalism, undergirded by a fierce anti-immigrant stance.
In 2011, the government pushed through a new constitution, which has been widely criticized by groups such as the Council of Europe, the European Parliament and the (pre-Trump) United States. Specific criticism was directed to the concentration of power in the hands of the ruling party, and the removal of checks and balances in the system. For example, former Fidesz party politicians were named to what were intended to be non-partisan oversight bodies for such offices as the State Audit Office, the State Prosecution Service, and the National Fiscal Council.
During this time, the media were under great pressure to support the Fidesz party. As an example, in 2015 31 of Hungarian news outlets were found to consistently support the ruling party, as opposed to over 500 in 2018. Currently, 90% of news outlets are owned by Fidesz or by its allies. After his 2010 victory, Orbán’s government passed laws allowing him to appoint the media regulators, while simultaneously expanding the powers of regulators to fine and/or punish the media. Journalists working for public media organizations are required by law to “promote a national identity” in their reporting.
Fidesz also completely overhauled Hungary’s judiciary. According to Human Rights Watch, the minister of justice “will get to pick judges and court presidents and decide on promotions and court budgets without any effective judicial oversight … The fact that a politician, who is part of the executive branch, will select all judges in a court system responsible for holding the administration and the executive to account makes a mockery of the separation of powers and rule of law.”
Not surprisingly, Fidesz has adopted strong nationalist and anti-immigrant policies. On the subject of national identity, Viktor Orbán has asserted “We must state that we do not want to be diverse and do not want to be mixed: we do not want our own colour, traditions and national culture to be mixed with those of others … We do not want to be a diverse country.” Orbán has “often expressed a preference for a racially homogeneous society”. The Fidesz-led government has modified the country’s Constitution to make it illegal to “settle foreign populations in Hungary.”
The Fidesz government vigorously opposed immigration during the “European Migrant Crisis” of 2015, to the degree that they erected a Hungary-Serbia barrier to block the entry of immigrants. The government has claimed that the European Union, in collaboration with George Soros, was plotting to inundate Hungary with a flood of foreign immigrants.
The Orbán government has a particular animosity for George Soros, an emigrant from Hungary to the U.S., a billionaire and founder of the Open Society Foundations. That organization funds progressive causes throughout the world, and also works with countries that are interested in creating democratic institutions. The Hungarian media have been particularly critical of Soros, and have embraced many conspiracy theories involving Soros. The Fidesz government was sufficiently hostile to the Central European University (CEU), an institution of higher learning established by Soros in Budapest, that at the end of 2018 George Soros announced that he would close its operations in Hungary and relocate to Austria. This was precipitated by the Fidesz government’s refusal to sign an agreement that would allow CEU to continue its operations in Hungary.
Some of the Orbán government’s actions against Soros have led to accusations of anti-Semitism. Hungary has accused Soros of a number of different improper actions. In one case, they blanketed cities with large posters showing George Soros’ face, with the caption “Don’t let Soros be the one who laughs last.” The posters bring to mind Nazi propaganda that featured a caricature, “the laughing Jew.” Hitler repeatedly used this trope, with the phrase “Those [Jews] who are laughing now, will perhaps laugh no longer soon.” The poster below has been defaced to portray Soros as a “vampire.”
VI.3.3: The Re-Emergence of White Nationalism in America
In July, 2015 nine African-Americans, ranging in age from 26 to 87, were gunned to death during Bible study in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The shooter, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, had targeted the parishioners because of the history of this church in the civil rights movement. This was the oldest historically black congregation south of Baltimore. When one parishioner saw Roof produce a handgun and attempted to talk him out of this massacre, Roof said “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”
In August 2017, the city of Charlottesville, Virginia proposed removing the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a downtown park to a different location. In response to this, a Unite the Right Rally, organized by white-supremacist and neo-Nazi groups, took place in Charlottesville on August 11 and 12. “The marchers chanted racist and antisemitic slogans, carried weapons, Nazi and neo-Nazi symbols, the Valknut, Confederate battle flags, Deus Vult crosses, flags and other symbols of various past and present anti-Muslim and antisemitic groups.” In the 2nd decade of the 21st century, it was horrifying to watch a procession of men carrying Tiki torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us.” The torches were reminiscent of Ku Klux Klan rallies, while the “Jews will not replace us” chant came directly from marches in Nazi Germany.
On the second day of the rally, white supremacist James Alex Fields deliberately rammed his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. After Donald Trump’s initial statement condemning violence “on many sides,” Trump then claimed that “very fine people on both sides” had been protesting. Only belatedly, and after much criticism of his remarks, did Trump condemn neo-Nazis and white nationalists.
The “Jews will not replace us” chant at Charlottesville is also reminiscent of “white genocide conspiracy theory.” This is the idea that there are deliberate plots to cause the extinction of the white race through tactics including forced assimilation and targeted killing of whites. This is a persistent myth based on pseudo-history. The leaders of the plot are variously alleged to be Jews, blacks, Muslims, or government officials. White replacement theory (by Jews) was popular in Nazi Germany. Such conspiracy theories are common among white nationalists who claim that they are persecuted, in an effort to inflame public opinion against the ‘conspirators.’
A recent eruption of white genocide conspiracy theory was the claim that black governments in South Africa and Zimbabwe are engaged in systematic attempts to kill and confiscate the lands of white farmers. Donald Trump alleged this in August 2018 when he asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to investigate whether “large-scale killing of white farmers” was taking place in South Africa. Recent revelations of e-mails from White House aide Stephen Miller show that he was in close contact with white nationalists and white supremacist groups. Miller frequently exchanged e-mails with an anti-immigrant Website VDARE that has been described as a “hate website,” and with the editor of the white supremacist magazine American Renaissance.
The notion that ‘racial purity’ is threatened is a major factor in these conspiracy theories. The threat of extinction was a central theme of Madison Grant’s 1916 book The Passing of The Great Race, which we discussed in Part III of this series. In Grant’s case the imperiled group was the ‘Nordic Race,’ and the peril came from mixing the Nordic ‘bloodline’ with that of ‘inferior or worthless’ groups such as the Mediterraneans and the Alpines from Southern and Eastern Europe, and also from blacks.
Fox News has deliberately stoked the flames of white replacement anxiety, particularly with some of their correspondents. In the Fox News version, the conspirators aiming to wipe out white Americans are the Democratic Party. Laura Ingraham claimed that Democrats “want to replace you, the American voters, with newly amnestied citizens and an ever-increasing number of chain migrants.” Ingraham argued that these migrants “are invading the country.” Fox host Pete Hegseth stated that the U.S. reached an agreement with Mexico “To stop the invasion – it is an invasion – of illegal immigrants.” Fox Nation host Tomi Lahren referred to a caravan of a few hundred asylum-seekers as “an invasion by foreigners.” And Tucker Carlson claims that Democrats want “demographic replacement” with “a flood of illegals … [to create] … a flood of voters for them.”
We see a persistent and familiar message here. In the days of eugenics, the “invaders” were the carriers of “inferior traits.” These unfit individuals would inter-marry with upstanding citizens and pollute our national bloodline. Initially the threat arose from the “feeble-minded,” but as immigration to the U.S. from Southern and Eastern Europe began increasing, eugenics advocates found a threat from “worthless race types,” in the words of Madison Grant. These groups saw the Negro as a threat to our racial purity – as well as to white women, as depicted in Fig. VI.4.
More recently, the culprits are the Hispanic “invasion” of immigrants from Central and South America. Also, Muslim immigrants from Europe and Africa are seen by right-wing pundits as part of a “flood” of migrants who do not share our cultural values. Donald Trump has been a vocal contributor to the bashing of immigrants to the U.S. During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump characterized immigrants from Mexico: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” In his campaign, Trump also called for a “complete and total shutdown of Muslims” entering the U.S.
Trump has referred to countries such as Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries.” He also issued a Presidential pardon to Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of criminal contempt of court for his anti-immigrant actions while he was an Arizona sheriff. The current administration has taken a number of steps to discourage people from immigrating to the U.S. Harsh treatment of Hispanic immigrants has included separating families of immigrants, and placing children in cages.
Such actions have clear antecedents in the U.S. Immigration Restriction Act of 1924. The imagery is quite similar – immigrants are described as an “invasion” of alien elements onto American soil. The immigrants are said to possess characteristics that threaten our American values. And it is claimed that the numbers of immigrants, together with their rapid rate of reproduction, will overwhelm our current society unless immigration is drastically reduced.
One major difference between the racism and anti-immigrant sentiment that prevailed during the heyday of eugenics, and its re-appearance in America today, is the role of science. One hundred years ago, this combination of racial prejudice and nativism was claimed to be supported by cutting-edge science. It was claimed that qualities such as morality and prosperity were inherited genetic properties, in exactly the same way as eye color was inherited. So the racism of those days, and the corresponding anti-immigrant sentiment, is sometimes termed ‘scientific racism.’
As we have pointed out, the scientific claims for these racist attitudes have been thoroughly debunked. It has been demonstrated that the hypotheses regarding genetics and heredity were hopelessly naïve and false. Similarly, the bogus racist history of Madison Grant was a result of racial prejudice. Finally, the early IQ tests that claimed to show an innate racial superiority for “Nordics’ were biased and mis-interpreted. So the current white supremacist and racist arguments regarding immigration are based on disproven pseudo-science.
Unfortunately, this does not deter today’s white nationalists and white supremacists. The old racial arguments and neo-Nazi sentiments are simply parroted as though they were proven facts. A few years ago the white supremacist online site American Renaissance ran an article reviewing Madison Grant’s racial history. Despite the fact that Grant’s ‘history’ was completely discredited, the author urged his readers to carry on “to ensure that the ideals of Madison Grant do not perish.” We can only hope that these extreme racist prejudices return to the fringes of our American political discourse.
VI.4: Ethical Questions in Reproductive Issues
The eugenics era was marked by major disputes over issues of heredity and reproduction. Eugenicists asserted that without strong measures, society would experience significant “race deterioration.” It was predicted that the population would become progressively less intelligent; poverty, disease, crime and immorality would also dramatically increase, as these qualities were said to be genetic manifestations of ‘unfitness.’
Eugenicists proposed selective breeding of the most ‘fit’ citizens, with incentives for them to have as many children as possible. On the other hand, ‘unfit’ individuals should be prevented from breeding. In the U.S., many efforts were directed towards management of the ‘unfit.’ The first steps were to create institutions to house the ‘feeble-minded’ (or morons, people who were mildly impaired, but still capable of reproducing). Many people were forcibly segregated in these establishments, for issues that included mild mental illness, diseases such as epilepsy, handicaps such as blindness or deafness, poverty, criminal behavior, or ‘immorality.’ Inmates were often segregated by gender to prevent them from reproducing. This was reviewed in Part II of this post.
More drastic measures were compulsory sterilization of ‘defectives.’ In the first decades of the 20th century, over 60,000 Americans were involuntarily sterilized under state statutes. In the most famous case, Buck v. Bell, sterilization of a VIrginia woman named Carrie Buck was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Nazi Germany took these measures to horrific lengths. After adopting a sterilization law modeled after the U.S. versions in 1933, the Nazis then expanded this to a campaign of euthanasia against ‘worthless’ types that included Jews, Roma, homosexuals and some political opponents. This was discussed in Part IV of this series.
During the eugenics era, various other reproductive issues were debated. One of the most contentious was birth control. Some religious groups, notably the Catholic Church, opposed birth control on ethical grounds, that it interfered with God’s plans for procreation. Other opponents of birth control argued that it would be used by the ‘most fit’ members of society to limit the size of their families, while ‘unfit’ citizens, unable to control their lustful impulses, would not make use of it. Thus birth control would have the dysgenic effect of increasing the overall ‘unfitness’ of the population. Eugenicists who favored birth control often supported it on the condition that it be selectively applied to lower classes, as a means of diminishing their rate of reproduction.
Other reproductive techniques became available during this period and were widely debated. One of the first was in vitro fertilization, or IVF. This technique would allow couples with infertility issues an option to produce and raise children. In Part V of this series we reviewed the issues raised by IVF. Many eugenicists saw IVF as a promising technique. In principle, this would enable the ‘most outstanding’ males to produce far more offspring than they could under normal circumstances. A number of Utopian eugenicists supported the idea of ‘sperm banks’ containing the seed of the most outstanding males. Women could make a voluntary choice to utilize a sperm bank. Many eugenicists were convinced that they would make excellent donors. Nobel-Prize-winning biologist and Utopian Socialist Hermann Muller was thrilled with the prospects for in vitro fertilization, following a Socialist revolution: “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!”
Cloning was at first a purely theoretical possibility. However, it inspired eugenics advocates with optimism for carrying out a program of race betterment. Once reliable techniques were developed for cloning, one could simply reproduce the ‘most outstanding’ individuals without limit. J.B.S. Haldane, who introduced the idea of cloning, stated “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.”
Today, we are faced with similar ethical issues that surrounded topics such as in vitro fertilization and cloning. Cloning is no longer a hypothetical issue, as cloning techniques have progressed from bacteria to small animals to significantly larger animals. In 1996, scientists at the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh cloned the first mammal, Dolly the sheep, from an adult cell. She was produced from an adult somatic cell by the process of nuclear transfer (as shown in Fig. VI.10 below). Dolly lived until the age of 6 and passed away from a lung disease unrelated to her being a clone.
Today, one of the most promising and powerful new technologies gives humans the possibility of altering the process of inheritance, by greatly enhancing the probability that a given trait is passed along to subsequent generations. This goes under the heading of gene drives, and is the subject of a recent post in our blog series.
Gene drives operate by cleaving the bonds in a strand of DNA at a precisely determined location. The cell’s repair mechanism can be made to copy a template from a similar DNA section in the same cell. The most powerful technique to date is “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” or CRISPR. The most commonly applied mechanism is “CRISPR-Cas9,” where Cas9 is the “genetic scissors” protein that cuts the target DNA at the desired location.
CRISPR-Cas9 was selected by Science magazine as its 2015 Breakthrough of the Year. This technology has many potential applications. First, it could be used to modify or control organisms that carry infectious diseases affecting humans. Engineering sterility or reduced fertility into these organisms raises the possibility of dramatically lowering the spread of diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, Zika, Chagas and Lyme disease. One could even imagine eliminating these diseases altogether. It would be possible to eliminate invasive species that threaten an ecosystem and reduce the biodiversity in a particular area.
CRISPR techniques could be used to control or modify organisms that damage crops or carry crop diseases. It would also be possible to eliminate weeds that compete with cultivated crops (e.g., by reversing their development of herbicide resistance). And one could modify the properties of species that are threatened or endangered.
Scientists have recognized several ethical issues posed by gene drives. First, gene drives have the potential to disperse beyond the targeted population; it is conceivable that gene drives might disperse beyond the targeted species. A second type of unintended consequence could be ‘ripple effects’ that affect the entire ecosystem to which the targeted species belongs. Natural selection pressures could corrupt or undermine the intended effect of the gene drive.
In addition, scientists worry that gene drive technology could be applied to ‘improve’ species that are neither threats nor are themselves under threat. One fear is that gene drive technology could be applied to produce traits desired by humans. The prospect that this technology might eventually be applied to humans themselves, in the pursuit of objectives reminiscent of the eugenics era, represents a frightening possibility to exploit cutting-edge science to satisfy cultural preferences. A final concern is that gene drive technology could be ‘weaponized’ as biological agents. Such techniques could be used by countries either for military purposes, or to attain advantages in fields such as agribusiness.
We will see whether countries can agree on international standards that would place strict limits and oversight on applications of gene drive technology.
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