American geneticists and the eugenics movement: 1905–1935
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I have attempted to show that between 1905 and 1935, both internal and external factors were important in producing and influencing geneticists' attitudes toward the eugenics movement. Internal factors operated in several ways during this period. In the first decade of the century, discoveries within genetics supplied geneticists a mode of expression to evoke their already existing social concern by providing a new vocabulary with which to present eugenic proposals. In addition, because these findings were relatively easy to explain to the layman, it became an easy matter for geneticists to popularize eugenics. After 1915, by suggesting the complexity of inheritance, other developments within genetics helped dim their initial enthusiasm for the movement. During this period, factors external to the science of genetics also were important. By producing a general interest in social affairs among many geneticists, the intellectual and social milieu of the late 1800's lay the foundations for their early participation in the eugenics movement. In the 1920's and 1930's the subjection of genetic theory to support preconceived social and political doctrines prompted them to renounce the movement publicly.
While both internal and external factors operated on geneticists, the lesson of this study is that external factors were more important in influencing their attitudes toward the movement than internal factors. At the turn of the century, geneticists inherited from Social Darwinism a general interest in applying biological principles to the analysis of social problems; discoveries within genetics mainly provided a convenient and persuasive terminology with which to express their interest. Later, both internal and external factors caused their enthusiasm for the movement to wane, but their public renunciation of it was caused primarily by external factors alone.
The importance of external factors is seen to be even greater by considering the model I suggested to explain the development of social responsibility in modern form among scientists. According to this model, social responsibility results after a crisis in the social uses of a given science—as a response to external factors. This model appears to account satisfactorily for the emergence of geneticists' sense of social responsibility: alarmed by eugenicists' frequent endorsement of Nazi “eugenic” programs, many geneticists claimed it was their duty to explain the facts of their science to the public so that the layman could see for himself the scientific errors of racism. Geneticists were now presenting the layman the facts, though not necessarily interpreting the facts for him. This same pattern—the emergence of modern social responsibility after an externally induced crisis-appears to be present in the other examples that I gave.
The ironies revealed by this study are many. First, it is ironic that principles of genetics created feelings of both pessimism and optimism among many geneticists. Early developments in genetics-Mendel's laws, the concept of unit inheritance, and Weismann's theory-supplemented Social Darwinism in creating an atmosphere of pessimism among many geneticists by posing the grim assumption that human defects are hereditarily determined and incapable of medical cure. In recognizing the importance of heredity in development, many geneticists for a while were overly pessimistic in their forecasts of the evolutionary future of the human race. These same three genetic developments, however, by suggesting the feasibility of a eugenics program, of controlling reproduction to eliminate defective genes from the population, provided a remedy to the “problem” they had helped create.
It is also ironic that even though the classical eugenics movement has been discredited in America for over thirty years, many individuals today are speaking of certain “dangers” to society in terms remarkably similar to those used by the classical eugenicists. The explosion of the atomic bomb created a sudden awareness among the public of the dangers of gene mutation from radiation and other sources41. Today, as topics such as the “genetic load” are increasingly discussed, many individuals are experiencing a growing alarm over the future genetic condition of the American people, a marked concern over the rising genetic and financial costs to society of modern medicine for preserving “defectives” and allowing them to reproduce.
Although geneticists in the 1930's generally abandoned the ideal of using science to prescribe policy, to construct ends for social action, it was this ideal which initially attracted many of them to the eugenics movement in the first place. In the early years of the century, geneticists viewed science in a new light: as a restraint upon conduct. Hitherto, science had been valued for its products, for releasing man from old burdens, for supplying him new opportunities to enjoy and to explore life. In supporting the eugenics movement, geneticists departed from this mode. They now appealed to science, not for a particular product, but to determine who should and who should not reproduce. They let science act as a constraint upon their actions; they let science tell them that individual desires are less important than the biological and moral imperative of improving the human race42. Thus, it becomes understandable why many geneticists for a time regarded eugenics as a religion, for they had permitted biology to assume religion's traditional function of defining permissible conduct. The history of geneticists' involvement with the eugenics movement reminds us that science can play many roles and be put to many purposes.
KeywordsSocial Responsibility External Factor Internal Factor Atomic Bomb Genetic Theory
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- 1.These organizations are discussed in E. H. S.Burhop, “Scientists and Public Affairs,” in M.Goldsmith and A.MacKay, ed., Society and Science (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964).Google Scholar
- 2.Davenport, Director of the Eugenics Record Office and generally regarded as the leading American eugenicist of the pre-Depression era, was also one of America's prominent biologists and had done important work in the areas of embryology, experimental evolution, and genetics. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1912. Laughlin, Superintendent of the Eugenics Record Office and editor of the Eugenical News, was a trained geneticist and a former college instructor of breeding. Popenoe, senior author of one of the most widely read textbooks on eugenics, was a well-known biologist and from 1913 to 1917 edited the Journal of Heredity.Google Scholar
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- 12.A certain number of men in each scientific field (the actual number depended upon the particular field) were declared by Cattell to be “starred” by virtue of a vote of the scientists themselves.Google Scholar
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- 14.By 1915 the movement had reached the proportions of a fad. An editorial in the American Breeders' Magazine “Race and Genetics Problems,” American Breeders' Magazine, 2:230, 1911) correctly noted that eugenic proposals are “being received more readily among the intelligent and thinking part of the population than the pioneer eugenicists in their fondest hopes have allowed themselves to believe possible.” It was around this time the eugenics movement scored its first legislative success. In 1907 the Indiana legislature became the first to pass a sterilization bill based upon “eugenic” principles; by January 1935 25 states had passed similar bills.Google Scholar
- 15.In addition to these developments in genetics, an important development in psychology also helped to discredit eugenic assumptions about heredity. In 1919 the United States Army released the results of the intelligence tests it had given inductees during the war. Out of the 1.7 million inductees given the Binet Test, 47 percent of Caucasians and 86 percent of Negroes were found by eugenic standards to be feebleminded. These absurdly high figures suggested correctly that the test had made no provision for the different backgrounds of those who took it, thereby underscoring the fact that raw intelligence scores reflect the individual's training. However, since geneticists had already been shown by the aforementioned genetic findings that eugenic programs were based on scientific misjudgments, they did not need these results from psychology to convince them of that fact. Of the geneticists I studied, Castle was the only one who made direct reference to these tests. (William E. Castle, “Eugenics,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 13th ed. , pp. 1031–1032.) While the tests constituted a dramatic refutation of certain eugenic tenets, evidently they primarily influenced the general public rather than the community of geneticists.Google Scholar
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- 18.Edward M.East, Mankind at the Crossroads (New York: Charles Scribner's, 1924), p. viGoogle Scholar
- 19.Davenport's correspondence includes numerous discussions with noted geneticists concerning their participation in various eugenic meetings. For example, see H. S. Jennings to Davenport, 27 April 1923; Davenport to T. H. Morgan, 13 April 1917; Raymond Pearl to Davenport, 30 December 1920; all CBD.Google Scholar
- 20.Cited by Charles E.Rosenberg, “Charles Benedict Davenport and the Beginning of Human Genetics,” Bull. Hist. Med., 35:269, 1961.Google Scholar
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- 22.In his best-known work, Applied Eugenics, Popenoe openly preached racist views. With little evidence, he expressed his view in this book that “not only is the Negro different from the white, but he is in the large eugenically inferior to the white.” Again, “The ability of a colored man is proportionate to the amount of white blood he has.” He added, “The color line therefore exists only as the result of race experience. This fact alone is sufficient to suggest that one should not dismiss it lightly as the outgrowth of bigotry. Is it not perhaps a social adaptation with survival value?” (PaulPopenoe and Roswell H.Johnson, Applied Eugenics, [New York: Macmillan, 1926], pp. 285, 188, 280.)Google Scholar
- 23.Davenport's objections to the theories were at least partially entangled with his mistaken skepticism toward the chromosome theory of heredity, which even in 1921 he felt “will require a good deal of work yet before it can be adopted generally.” As a sincere (if at times uncritical) investigator, his statements on eugenics were usually marked with caution and tolerance. He continually uttered warnings to those less cautious eugenicists zealously campaigning for legislation to first accumulate evidence and only then to attempt to pass legislation. It is significant that he was greatly alarmed at the racist and propagandist elements which in the 1920's pervaded the eugenics movement, and he once commented sadly, “It is very surprising to see how conclusions of great social import are issued and accepted on wholly unscientific bases.” As a matter of personal policy, he found it desirable “to decline to associate myself with any sort of propaganda, even propaganda on eugenics” (C. B. Davenport to William Bateson, 9 February 1921; Davenport to Sewall Wright, 16 November 1932; Davenport to Mrs. E. M. East, 10 November 1916; all CBD).Google Scholar
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- 26.C. B. Davenport to H. S. Jennings, 14 June 1926; H. S. Jennings to C. B. Davenport, 16 June 1926; both CBD. Jennings, like many other geneticists of the period, felt a conflict between the time-devouring demands of experimental investigation and his desire to popularize the science and write on its social implications. Although he devoted considerable time to writing nontechnical articles addressed to the lay public, he was beseiged by more requests for articles and speeches than he could possibly handle. In response to repeated requests for such articles by G. D. Eaton, editor of Plaintalk, Jennings wrote, “I am not primarily a writer, but an experimenter.” Again: “It is mainly only when I see a place where there is a great need for setting forth what are the results of investigation that I try to do any writing of a general character—as in “Prometheus.” Although he participated in the campaign to oppose immigration restriction legislation, he could not devote himself fully to this cause because of a “heavy campaign of work in experimental breeding of lower organisms.” (H. S. Jennings to G. D. Eaton, 31 October 1927; H. S. Jennings to G. D. Eaton, 28 April 1927; H. S. Jennings to Theodora Jacobs, 26 March 1924; all from Herbert S. Jennings Papers, American Philosophical Society Library. Hereafter cited as HSJ.)Google Scholar
- 27.Analysis of America's Melting Pot. Hearings before the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, House of Representatives, 66th Cong., 3rd Sess. Serial 7-C, pp. 725–831, Washington, D.C. 1923.Google Scholar
- 28.Geneticists themselves occasionally expressed disappointment at anthropologists' ignorance of their work. As Davenport once remarked, “I think the future will find it almost inexplicable that now, 15 years after the proper way of looking at heredity and ‘species’ or ‘races’ has been made clear there are not half a dozen anthropologists who make use of the new point of view” (C. B. Davenport to Alex Hrdlicka, 5 May 1915, CBD).Google Scholar
- 29.Eugenical News, 2: 13, 1917.Google Scholar
- 30.Eugenicists, themselves generally of Anglo-Saxon stock, not surprisingly entertained an extraordinarily high opinion of their own pedigrees. Eugenicist David Starr Jordan at one time commented, “Any healthy New England family, which can show its connection with England can also show its connection with most of the nobility of England, and with royal families of all the world except China and Patagonia” (David Starr Jordan to Charles B. Davenport, 20 March 1911, CBD).Google Scholar
- 31.Probably the most influential of such men was Madison Grant, Vice-President of the Immigration Restriction League and an avid eugenicist, who served as president of the Eugenics Research Association (1919), as treasurer of the Second International Congress of Eugenics (New York, 1919), and as member of the Board of Directors of the American Eugenics Society. His most important book, The Passing of the Great Race (1916), lauded by eugenicists, was perhaps the most uncompromising and aggressive plea for the maintenance of a Protestant and “Nordic” America ever published.Google Scholar
- 32.Johnson in the 1920's had close connections with many eugenicists. He spoke highly of Grant's Passing of the Great Race, frequently quoting the book on the floor of Congress, and also of Laughlin's report. In 1923, in recognition of his many “services” to the cause of eugenics, he was elected honorary president of the Eugenics Research Association.Google Scholar
- 33.Raymond Pearl to Herbert S. Jennings, 24 November 1923, HSJ.Google Scholar
- 34.Herbert S.Jennings, Prometheus (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1925), pp. 11, 65–66. Similar views were expressed by: H. S. Jennings, “Undesirable Aliens”, The Survey, 51: 311, 1923; East, Mankind, Preface; T. H. Morgan, Evolution and Genetics (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1925), Preface and last chapter; Castle, Britannica, p. 1031; Raymond Pearl, “The Biology of Superiority”, American Mercury, 12: 266, 1927. It is interesting to note how dramatically the attitudes of these geneticists toward the eugenics movement had changed. Pearl, for example, whose enthusiasm for eugenics before the war had seemingly been boundless, now was of the view that “it would seem to be high time that eugenics cleaned house, and threw away the old-fashioned rubbish which has accumulated in the attic” (Pearl, American Mercury, p. 266).Google Scholar
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