Eugenics and the Firewall

Is science always a good thing? Anti-science always a bad one? A walk into a century ago might shed some light.
| 4 October 2011
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The pop science media today strenuously market the idea that “science” is threatened by “anti-science.”

But “science” has a restricted meaning in the view of many journalists. It means, for example, the truth of human-caused global warming, the necessity of human embryonic stem cell research, and the view that human mind is indistinguishable from the chimpanzee mind. “Anti-science” means, by contrast, doubt about human influence on global warming compared with the Sun’s cycles, confidence that adult stem cells (especially the patient’s own cells) work well, and doubt that chimpanzees really think like people.

Something is obviously wrong with the pop picture. For one thing, real sciences don’t work that way. In real science, reasoned doubt is always legitimate. Even in mathematics. Yes, even in mathematics. Recently a mathematician offered evidence that the natural numbers were inconsistent. He turned out to be mistaken, but no one blamed him for wondering. Physics has been convulsed recently as well, by neutrinos that apparently move faster than light, which is generally held to be impossible. That may turn out to be a mistake too, but reporting the data was okay. Because, contrary to the pop science media, real science happens when evidence matters.

To see how that works, let’s take a quick walk by one popular science certainty from a century ago. In the early 1900s, when Einstein and Bohr were reshaping physics, their work wasn’t considered nearly as important as this incontrovertible truth: The wrong people were having all the children.

And what was the evidence? Mostly, beliefs about human evolution accompanied by anecdotes about bad immigrant or underclass families. Before Hollywood was in full swing, there weren’t many anecdotes of bad wealthy celebrity families to balance the picture. And bad upper class families found it easier then than now to just squash bad publicity. So all other families were sitting ducks for focused intervention.

As Jane Harris Zsovan, author of Eugenics and the Firewall, explains,

Eugenics was widely accepted by the business, academic, medical and political establishment. Preachers – in evangelical and mainline churches – even preached it from the pulpit.

So much so that Helen Keller and Clarence Darrow, who are remembered today for very different things, sprang to the defense of a prominent Chicago surgeon who

electrified the nation by allowing the deaths of at least six infants he diagnosed as “defectives”. He displayed the dying infants to journalists, wrote about them for the Hearst newspapers, and starred in a feature film about his crusade.

Yes, the entertainment industry got right into the act. The synopsis of the popular silent eugenics film, The Black Stork (1917), gives some sense of this:

A young man and woman are considering marriage; eugenicist Harry J. Haiselden warns that they are ill-matched and will produce defective offspring. He is right; their baby is born defective, dies quickly and floats into heaven.

Scientific American did its bit. In 1911, it editorialized about “The Science of Breeding Better Men”:

The proper attitude to be taken toward the perpetuation of poor types is that which has been attributed to [Thomas] Huxley. “We are sorry for you,” he is reported to have said; “we will do our best for you (and in so doing we elevate ourselves, since mercy blesses him that gives and him that takes), but we deny you the right to parentage. You may live, but you must not propagate.”

The only really big institution that did not endorse eugenics was the Roman Catholic Church, and that fact was widely cited as incontrovertible evidence of the Church’s “anti-science” backwardness.

So what happened in the end? Across North America, tens of thousands of people -- disproportionately those held in low esteem anyway, were forcibly sterilized under newly passed laws. In Harris Zsovan’s Canadian province of Alberta, district nurses would order sterilization for women who had given birth out of wedlock, and had then made an adoption arrangement. Presumably, the fact that they wanted a better life for their babies more than they wanted the emotional comfort they might provide demonstrated that they were unfit parents. Many people slated for sterilization by courts, social workers, or bureaucrats were not even told that, during a routine operation, they had also been sterilized. Often, they found out the truth late in life, all hope of adoption past.

And what was the outcome of this huge outbreak of “science”? Apart from shame and disgrace, huge reparations costs. Scientific American’s current editors now say, for example,

Although our editors of a century ago pondered some lofty aspirations for the orderly future of humans, it was only three decades later that the brutal reality of a Nazi social order suffused with a eugenicist ideal brought home the practical shortcomings of the philosophy.

Perhaps the take-home point here is that “science” as understood in pop media is not necessarily a good thing, and “anti-science” is not necessarily a bad one. We are all answerable to a higher order than current popular conceptions of science.

Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

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