The eugenics craze: All the BEST people…

by worriedmom

As 2017 rolls along, the pro-pediatric and teen transition movements only appear to be growing stronger.  In the United States, we now have some 50+ transition clinics, up from one such clinic in 2007.  School curricula are revised daily to educate our youngest students about their fluid gender identities, Jazz Jennings is now an authoritative source for kindergartners, and children are fully apprised of their opportunities to choose a different sex from the one with which they were born.  State after state has passed legislation providing that the “full affirmation” approach is now the only legally permissible therapeutic modality for people under the age of 18.  And, of course, the barrage of “transgender” “sparkle princess fairy boy” and mastectomy-receiving, happy at last, teen girl stories continues, with nary a skeptical word, much less analysis.  It’s overwhelming at times, and (despite these smiling faces) horribly sad.

It also seems as if most respected forces in our culture are lined up behind the pro-transition juggernaut.  The major professional medical associations, such as the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association, are strongly pro-transgender.  Educators at all levels, many faith communities, major corporations and needless to say what remains of the “mainstream media” could not be more uncritical and supportive of the notion of child and teen transgenderism.  Social service agencies, public and private, adopt affirmative regulations and policies in areas such as adoption and foster care; organizations that previously focused on women’s health and issues, such as Planned Parenthood and even my beloved La Leche League, rush to serve transgender people, whether this service correlates with their mission or not.  Politicians and law-makers, particularly on the liberal side of the aisle (where many of us 4thWaveNow parents previously would have located ourselves without a qualm), bend over backwards to signal their support for this newest of civil rights causes, the transgendered.

In short, all the best, seemingly most educated, and sophisticated, people and institutions in our culture are fervent–if not vociferous–supporters of the transgender lobby.  Some days, it seems as if the pro-transgender outcome is entirely foreordained.

It may well be.  By the time some of today’s children are tomorrow’s exhausted parents, gender change may be the equivalent of getting braces, or a learners driving permit.  Changing one’s gender through surgery and hormones may be as unremarkable as having tonsils or adenoids out, getting ear tubes, or an asthma inhaler.  The distinction between “boy” and “girl” may have ceased, for all intents and purposes, to be relevant to any human activity.  Certainly this seems to be the Brave New Future envisioned for us by the transgender lobby.

And yet.

Perhaps at this juncture  we might recall that there was a time, really not so very long ago, that the most esteemed thinkers in this country, and around the world, believed, and more importantly acted, on an extreme philosophy about human beings and their relationship to society.  This belief system was, in its shaky philosophic underpinnings and its questionable science, extraordinarily similar to the transgender movement.  I speak, of course, of modern-day eugenics.

There is a meticulously detailed record of the eugenic philosophy and its impacts, and no blog piece can adequately convey more than a sliver of this incredible story.  (There is a short list of excellent books about eugenics appended to the end of this blog post, for those who are curious and would like to learn more.)

To put it very simply, modern eugenics was a scientific philosophy and eventually a social movement that derived, in large part, from the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin.  Although ideas of eugenics date back to Plato, modern eugenics emerged in the mid-1800s with Sir Francis Galton, a statistician, scientist, and cousin of Charles Darwin.  Once concepts of Mendelian genetics were discovered (seemingly bolstering Galton’s theory), eugenics, literally translated as “good birth,” became an intellectual craze that by the early 1900’s had swept the United States and which endured, in some forms, right up until the 1960’s.

Using the same logic that underlies modern animal-breeding practices, eugenic theory held that societies would do best to encourage their most capable, energetic and “fit” members to reproduce, and should discourage their less-capable members from reproducing.  The concern was that the mechanism of natural selection (“survival of the fittest”) would not operate, in a modern world, to keep the weakest members from reproducing, “polluting the gene pool,” and would result in an inevitable deterioration and decline of that society.

healthy seed

Eugenicists supported both “positive eugenics” (educating and encouraging “fit” people to reproduce,  which would theoretically improve the gene pool) and “negative eugenics” (sterilizing or institutionalizing the unfit or otherwise barring them from reproducing, to remove their undesirable characteristics from a society’s “breeding stock” ).  With the hope of proving that undesirable social traits were heritable, the eugenics movement also collected massive amounts of data, documenting “family lines” and “inherited characteristics,” although it did not necessarily heed what much of that data suggested.

Eugenics did not originate, or take hold, in a vacuum.  Three underlying social forces were racism (and the ingrained belief that “the races” could be rank-ordered by desirability); persistent anxiety about the impact of immigration on the United States, including fast-paced demographic change created by large numbers of African-American people leaving the South; and, especially in the decade of the 1930’s, worry about the financial and social costs of subsidizing members of society who could not “pull their weight.”  As I believe will ultimately be shown with transgenderism, there were larger and stronger currents that caused eugenics to become wildly popular at the time and place that it did.

feeblemindedFrom today’s perspective, of course, we understand that genetics simply does not work in the way in which the eugenicists hypothesized.  Gene pools are way too large and variegated.  Subjective negative social traits such as criminality, “feeble-mindedness,” and laziness cannot be inherited (at one time people believed that humans could acquire characteristics during their lifetimes, and these traits could then be inherited).  Despite the collection of massive amounts of data, and laws giving state actors tremendous leeway in determining who was and was not “unfit,” it proved to be extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to measure undesirability and to eliminate or decrease it in a population.

Finally, of course, sterilizing people who are incapable of giving informed consent or who objnazi posterect to it eventually came to be considered to be a human rights violation (except in the current pediatric transition context of course).  The death knell for the eugenics movement came during the post-World War II Nazi war crimes trials at Nuremburg, during which it was revealed that American eugenics theory provided much of the rationale for the Final Solution.  As noted above, however, it took decades longer before mandatory sterilization and sequestration laws were entirely removed from the books.

For a movement that ended in widespread censure, if not to say collective amnesia, eugenics sure was popular while it lasted.  And part of the reason for this popularity was that it received the intellectual imprimatur and endorsement of the finest minds and most elite and revered institutions both in the United States and abroad.  Consider some of the most prominent supporters of the eugenics movement:

  • President Teddy Roosevelt;
  • Helen Keller;
  • G. Wells;
  • Winston Churchill;
  • Alexander Graham Bell;
  • John Maynard Keynes;
  • Victoria Woodhull;
  • Luther Burbank; and
  • E.B. duBois.

Source , source, source, source

Funding for the eugenics movement came from distinguished organizations, such as the Carnegie Foundation and the WK Kellogg Foundation, as well as influential leaders of the oil, railroad, and steel industries (the Harrimans, the Rockefellers, and others).  Eugenics ideas were ratified and endorsed by virtually every powerful institution in society, from the United States Supreme Court on down.  In the notorious Buck v. Bell case (which incidentally has never been overturned), pre-eminent jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. ruled that “It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”

oliver wendell holmes

The elite educational establishment (the best and the brightest, if you will) was fully on board – at one point over 375 American colleges offered eugenics courses, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Cornell.  According to a 2016 article in Harvard Magazine,

Harvard’s role in the [eugenics] movement was in many ways not surprising. Eugenics attracted considerable support from progressives, reformers, and educated elites as a way of using science to make a better world. Harvard was hardly the only university that was home to prominent eugenicists. Stanford’s first president, David Starr Jordan, and Yale’s most acclaimed economist, Irving Fisher, were leaders in the movement. The University of Virginia was a center of scientific racism, with professors like Robert Bennett Bean, author of such works of pseudo-science as the 1906 American Journal of Anatomy article, ‘Some Racial Peculiarities of the Negro Brain.’

Sadly, many religious leaders, particularly mainline Protestants supportive of the “Social Gospel” movement, became strong proponents of eugenics ideology:

Many Social Gospel adherents viewed eugenics as God’s plan to reconcile the truths of science with the Bible. Toward this end, Bible verses were reinterpreted and found to contain what had theretofore been secret eugenics messages. Thus, in one minister’s sermon, Noah’s flood was God’s own eugenics policy for eliminating a human race that had degraded and become inferior. Others insisted that Christ’s Parable of the Talents was actually about improving the population: In eugenics exegeses, ‘Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has will be taken from him,’ took on a whole new meaning.

Early feminists, such as the National Federation of Women’s Clubs and the National League of Women Voters, as well as pioneering birth control activists, such as Margaret Sanger, were strong eugenics backers.  The cultural and academic current was irresistible: receiving support from virtually all elite sectors of society, by 1910, there was an extensive and vibrant network of pro-eugenics research institutes and conferences, as well as lobbying groups and professional associations.

margaret sanger

Was there any pushback against the eugenics movement before its Nazi-engendered demise?   As Andrea DenHoed put it in the New Yorker last year, “there was widespread skepticism about eugenics among those whom Oliver Wendell Holmes once referred to as ‘the thick-fingered clowns we call the people,’ but the opposition wasn’t large or organized enough to effectively counter the influential network behind the movement.”  The Catholic Church and its lay members also mounted opposition to the eugenics philosophy, but were far less effective in thwarting eugenics legislation in the United States, than in Europe.  Even as early as 1910, some scientists began to discover that the field of genetics did not work the way eugenics thought it did (these scientific caveats were mostly ignored or explained away).  Generally speaking, then, eugenics ideas were considered entirely self-evident and socially beneficial, and opponents were consigned to the ranks of “fundamentalist fanatics” and backwoods retrogrades. Concerns or skepticism were simply dismissed or ignored as ignorant, backwards, and out of step with “modern” realities.  Even as scientific knowledge advanced, and eugenics’ principles no longer appeared factually certain, the “true believers” in eugenics persisted and continued to harm the most vulnerable members of society.

Future blog posts will explore the similarities between the foundational understandings and aims of the eugenics movement and modern-day transition theory.  For now, however, the parallel is simply that eugenics, like pediatric transgender philosophy, was a theory that was whole-heartedly embraced and promoted by the social, intellectual, cultural and scientific elites of its day – until it wasn’t.  It is indeed frightening to contemplate whether eugenics would ever have been discredited, had it not been for the fact that the Germans took it to its logical conclusion.  But is this what comes of letting “all the best people” make life and death decisions for the rest of us? What happens when they’re wrong?


Interested in learning more?  Check out these sources:

War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race, by Edwin Black

Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck, by Adam Cohen

The Nazi Connection, by Stefan Kuhl

In 1984, the New Yorker ran a four-part series entitled The Annals of Eugenics (reproduced here) (paywall) which is also very much worth the reader’s time.

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