Thursday, June 18, 2015

Experiments in Eugenics

Eugenics, the belief that physically, mentally, and morally fit people improve the human stock by having children who inherit their superiority, was rampant in the US from about 1890 to  1940.  It followed that the unfit should not reproduce to avoid the degeneration of humanity.  State laws were enacted to prevent them from doing so; more than 60,000 (mostly poor and disabled) people were sterilized in the United States from 1907 to 1963.
Since eugenics is plausible and sounds scientific, all the best people believed in the new science of eugenics, including the Unitarians of that era, such as David Starr Jordan, William Howard Taft, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.*   According to the Rev John H Nichols,** “[Eugenicists] were “our kind of people . . . smart people with the best intentions . . .  [Sterilizations were] done in the name of economy, efficiency, and concern for the quality of all life.”
But was eugenics science?  Scientific statements by definition are falsifiable.  An experiment to test the eugenics hypothesis would call for a group of people, in which the more fit were prevented from reproducing and the less fit were allowed to reproduce.  Then if eugenics were true, the subsequent physical and mental deterioration of the group would be observed.  If on the other hand, civilization and technology continued to develop, there would be a flaw in the eugenics hypothesis.
Such an experiment had already been done.  During the Middle Ages, the best and the brightest joined monasteries that required vows of celibacy, so the monastics reproduced at a lower rate than the general population. What happened?  Did the Dark Ages get darker?  Were there no innovations such as field rotation and the horse collar?  By the end of the 19th century was all of Europe barbarian again?  Why were the contemporary elite not illiterate peasants like their ancestors?
Not only was there the Middle Ages experiment, a second experiment was nearing completion in 1901 when the Commonwealth of Australia was formed.  From the late 18th century to the middle of the 19th century, convicts, the dregs of England, had been transported to Australia. These worst representatives of society were allowed to reproduce freely with little admixture of  “good” blood.  In a century and a half, their descendants developed a parliamentary democracy that has been sustained up to this day.
The educated elite Unitarians who promulgated eugenics could not help but be aware of these historical experiments, although their class interests would have prevented them from seeing the unsound reasoning behind eugenics science.  In effect, eugenics was an attempt to pare down the numbers of the disabled, poor, and immigrants, a policy that preserves resources for the elite. Not until the Nazi Holocaust, likewise based on eugenics, gave the science a bad name, did the elite cut their ties with it.
“So, what have we learned?” asks Rev Nichols.   “Even the best intentioned, best educated people can have their judgment clouded by assumptions that remain hidden to them – assumptions of race, class, religion or ethnicity.  These hidden views affect all of the information we take in and all that we dismiss.”
According to Rev Nichols, the conviction that every human being is a sacred child of God will save us from abuses in the name of science.  “Absent some sense of the sacred in humanity, the powerful – no matter how nice they are – will always be tempted to use their power to ‘improve’ or control our lives.”

 * “Scientific Salvation” in Elite by Mark Harris pp 77ff
** “Creating Perfect People” sermon by Rev John H Nichols, given at the First Unitarian Church of Providence RI on 2-10-08 and at First Parish in Wayland MA on 11-13-12.

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