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Blue Ribbons for Human Stock (God and White Men, part 2)

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 1, 2012

In the early decades of the twentieth century, eugenics “fell squarely in the mainstream of scientific and popular culture,” according to Yale history professor Daniel Kevles, author of the 1985 book In the Name of Eugenics.Theodore Roosevelt popularized the term “race suicide,” for what he saw as the dwindling of the old Anglo-American stock, and the young Winston Churchill advocated sterilization and labor camps for “mental defectives.” Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger decried the proliferation of “human weeds,” while progressive reformer Havelock Ellis thought that getting the reproductive choices right would require the sexual liberation of women.

Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, had coined the word “eugenics” in 1883 from the Greek for “of good birth.” But it really gained currency after 1900, with the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s work describing how different traits are inherited in pea plants—and particularly after researchers demonstrated in 1907 that Mendelian inheritance plays a role in eye color in humans, too.

Eugenicists inferred—incorrectly, as we now know—that single genes, or “unit characters,” could determine feeblemindedness, insanity, alcoholism, and even broad swaths of behavior like criminality. They also believed that society could now use this knowledge to dramatically improve the species. Huntington, the Yale geographer, described this as the fifth “most momentous” discovery in human history, after tools, speech, fire, and writing. For Fisher, likewise, it was the coming of an epoch: “We could make a new human in a hundred years.”

By the late 1920s, 376 American colleges were offering courses in eugenics. The army of enthusiasts included, at various times, the presidents of Yale, Harvard, Stanford, the American Museum of Natural History, and the universities of Michigan, Wisconsin, and California. State fairs also embraced the eugenic cause. Known for celebrating grand champion sows and other masterworks of animal husbandry, they now added a “human stock” section, where competitors vied for the blue ribbon in the “Fitter Families” contest. A traveling display warned, “Some people are born to be a burden on the rest,” above a light that flashed every 15 seconds to indicate that another “$100 of your money” had just gone “for the care of a person with bad heredity.”

To help make their case, the eugenicists developed elaborate genealogies showing how certain “unfit” families had spread their defective “germ plasm”—that is, their genes—through the generations, at terrible cost to society. The true identities of these families were hidden behind fake names. But the genealogies were often fake, too, and the harsh-sounding pseudonyms like Jukes and Kallikak served as an onomatopoeic way of getting people to feel, as Fisher did, “what awful contamination can be saved the race by a wise application of eugenics.”

Genealogies of prominent Yale and Harvard men often served as a bracing and instructive contrast. Fisher looked at the 1,394 descendants of Jonathan Edwards, Class of 1720, and reported that “something like half have been public men or men of great distinction and good influence in the world.” This biologizing of social superiority provoked one skeptic to publish a detailed account in an academic journal of how manic-depressive insanity ran through the families of Boston’s Brahmins.

Yale was “not luminously worse” than others in perpetuating this “farrago of flawed science,” according to Kevles. But it was bad enough. Proponents of eugenics included Yale president James R. Angell, celebrated football coach Walter Camp ’80, primatologist Robert Yerkes, and Yale medical school dean Milton Winternitz. Stewart Paton, who pioneered mental health services for college students during a two-year stint at Yale in the 1920s, was a eugenicist. So was Rabbi Louis L. Mann, a lecturer at Yale, who told an audience at a 1923 birth control conference that, even in ancient times, the wise men of Israel had realized the necessity of checking the multiplication of the unfit.

But though many scholars and statesmen embraced eugenics, none, writes historian Annie L. Cot, “could rival Fisher, whose struggles in the ranks of the eugenic movement were lifelong.”

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