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Where Yerkes Went Wrong (God & White Men, Part 5)

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 3, 2012

Other Yale eugenicists also allowed their work to be distorted by the cause. Robert Yerkes is remembered today as a primatologist and the founder of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University. But when he came to Yale in 1924, as a professor in the new field of psychobiology, he was better known for developing the first national program of intelligence testing—a program that provided an ostensibly scientific basis for the fight against immigration in the early 1920s.

Yerkes and a team of like-minded scholars had designed the test at the start of World War I, as a means “for the classification of men in order that they may be properly placed in the military service.” By war’s end, the US military had administered it to 1.7 million recruits. According to the test, the average native-born white American male had a mental age of 13. But his foreign-born counterparts were morons (a label coined by the eugenicists, from the Greek for “foolish”), with an average mental age barely over 11.

Yerkes wrote to key congressmen during the immigration debate to remind them of what Army testing had said about the inferiority of southern and eastern Europeans. Fisher chimed in. “The facts are known,” he declared. “It is high time for the American people to put a stop to such degradation of American citizenship, and such a wrecking of the future American race.”

In truth, the facts were badly flawed, and Fisher had reason to know it. Yerkes’s test, which supposedly gauged innate intelligence, was mainly a measure of how long a person had been in the United States and perhaps also how well he might fit in at the local country club. Among the questions asked: “Seven-up is played with A. rackets, B. cards, C. pins, D. dice.” “Garnets are usually A. yellow, B. blue, C. green, D. red.” “An air-cooled engine is used in the A. Buick, B. Packard, C. Franklin, D. Ford.”

Fisher received a sharp upbraiding from a member of his organization’s own immigration committee over “the shakiness of the evidence” used in its lobbying. Herbert S. Jennings, a geneticist at Johns Hopkins University, resigned from the AES in 1924, citing its “clearly illegitimate” arguments. Privately, he advised Fisher that a eugenics society was no place for serious researchers, whose work depends on freedom “from prejudice and propaganda.”

Fisher had been lobbying the federal government for eugenicist policies since at least 1909, when his final report for Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential commission on Americans’ health and longevity devoted a chapter to the “question of race improvement through heredity.” He had been fighting to limit immigration since 1914, when he coauthored a report to the American Genetic Association. It declared that “steamship agents and brokers all over Europe, and even in Asia and Africa, are today deciding for us the character of the American race of the future.”

Fisher’s friend, Madison Grant, likewise wrote about “being literally driven off the streets of New York City by the swarms of Polish Jews.” Grant became the leading advocate for state laws mandating involuntary sterilization of the “unfit” and banning interracial marriage. He also persuaded Virginia to discard its practice of granting the privileges of a white person to anyone with 15 white great-grandparents; state officials were soon sniffing out and harassing anyone with even “one drop” of non-white blood.

Fisher, Grant, and the AES wanted to restrict both the number of immigrants and their nationalities. They argued that each foreign country’s annual quota should be proportional to its representation in the United States as of the 1890 census—that is, before the flood of new immigrants had entered the country. Using an outdated census was a way to discriminate against southern and eastern Europeans and thereby to ensure, as Fisher put it in the New York Times, “a preponderance of immigration of the stock which originally settled this country.”

The Immigration Act of 1924—with quotas based on the 1890 census—became law that May. Congress had been “hoodwinked” by the eugenicists, Representative Emanuel Celler complained, with the result that total immigration was cut in half, and immigration from targeted countries like Italy by as much as 90 percent. The law would later become a factor in preventing Jewish refugees from escaping Nazi persecution.

In Germany, an imprisoned political extremist viewed these developments with satisfaction. Writing Mein Kampf in his cell, Adolf Hitler complained that naturalization in Germany was not all that different from “being admitted to membership of an automobile club,” and that “the child of any Jew, Pole, African, or Asian may automatically become a German citizen.” Now, though, “by excluding certain races” from the right to become American citizens, the United States had held up a shining example to the world. It was the sort of reform, Hitler wrote, “on which we wish to ground the People’s State.”

Nazi Germany would soon become the dark apotheosis of eugenics. When compulsory sterilization began there in 1933, the Nazi physician in charge of training declared he was following “the American pathfinders Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard” (author of The Rising Tide of Color against White World-Supremacy). Eugen Fischer, the leading Nazi eugenicist, would thank Grant and his racial theories for inspiring Germans to work toward “a better future for our Volk.”

As early as 1933, the New York Times was noting that if you changed Madison Grant’s “Nordic” to “Aryan,” his arguments sounded much like “recent pronouncements and proceedings in Germany.” Even so, eugenicists put Grant’s name forward four times in those years for an honorary doctorate from Yale. University officials gave his backers the polite brush-off.

Other eugenicists also backed away. When Ellsworth Huntington became president of the AES in 1934, membership was shrinking. He was obliged to lay off staff and move the operation into his university office, in a mansion at 4 Hillhouse Avenue (since demolished). The harsh, coercive measures with which eugenics had made its name were likely to raise hackles in the shifting politics of the 1930s, says Brendan Matz ’11PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in history at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. So Huntington began to promote a milder brand of reform eugenics. Nevertheless, when he was organizing a conference in 1936, Huntington asked a researcher who had recently returned from Germany to report on the Nazi sterilization program. “In the face of the present psychological situation, it is not wise to laud Germany,” Huntington advised, “but it is perfectly legitimate to say that in spite of certain mistakes Germany is also doing things which are desirable.”

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