Black and White in America III: From Eugenics to Madness

01/24/2009 08:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

(see previous columns in this series)

Given a dangerous fallacy, it's usually only a matter of time before the danger becomes manifest. If people genetically inherit their behavior traits, then one way to protect society against criminals, perverts, and imbeciles who pollute the gene pool is to prevent the transmission of their genes. And so a dangerous fallacy led to a dangerous reality.

In 1897, a bill was introduced in the Michigan legislature that mandated the castration of all inmates of the Michigan Home for the Feeble Minded and Epileptic before their discharge, and of all persons convicted of a felony for the third time, and of those convicted of rape. But the bill did not pass. Eight years later, such a bill did pass in Pennsylvania but was vetoed by the governor. The first fully enacted law was passed by Indiana in 1907.

Children who were wards of the state were also targets. In 1898, an article in the American Journal of Psychology by Everett Flood, M.D., Superintendant of the Hospital Cottages for Children in Baldwinville, Massachusetts, reported on the "therapeutic castration" of male children who were inmates of the institution: "24 were operated on because of persistent epilepsy and masturbation, one for epilepsy with imbecility, and one for masturbation with a weakness of mind." About half the children were under 14 years of age, the others ages 15 to 17. The author reported that in all the cases the written consent of the parents was obtained. According to the report, 14 of the cases were Americans, six Irish, one Scotch, one Swedish, the others of unknown extraction. At the time of the report, 17 of the cases were still in the institution, 3 were in "lunatic hospitals", 5 at home with parents, and the location of one unknown. In other instances, girls were also altered, their ovaries removed for excessive sexuality.

By the 1920s, eugenic legislative measures of compulsory sterilization were appearing in various states for people considered to be "genetically inferior". Such laws were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1927, with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes writing the majority opinion that included the famous phrase, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

By 1935 more than 30 states had compulsory sterilization laws. More than 21,000 sterilizations had occurred -- more than 60,000 sterilizations by the 1960s. The state of Virginia continued sterilizations until 1972, with more than 7,000 women sterilized for drunkenness, feeble-mindedness, and various forms of mental illness and "immorality" -- for "hereditary inferiority".

In 1936, when the Germans had already sterilized hundreds of thousands of "genetically inferior" people, mostly women and girls, Harvard University eugenicists invited a group of German eugenicists to Harvard's 300th anniversary celebration. Harvard, of course, was not alone in its apparent affection for the ideas of eugenics. The American eugenics movement had strong financial support from important sources: the Carnegie Institution of Washington, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Kellogg family (Kellogg cereals) of Battlecreek, Michigan, and the Harriman family (Union Pacific Railroad) of New York.

Because of the Nazi horrors, the American and British eugenics movements were essentially exhausted by the end of the Second World War, but echoes of the bankrupt ideology lingered well into the latter part of the 20th century, mingled with racist notions, especially notions about the supposed inferiority of American blacks.

The echoes were amplified in the 1960s by two eminent members of the National Academy of Sciences, William Shockley and Dwight J. Ingle, one a physicist and the other a physiologist, two scientists who played publicly at amateur genetics and who suggested that low-IQ Americans (particularly blacks) were contaminating the American gene pool and that ways had to be found to encourage them to submit to sterilization. Neither scientist contributed anything to our understanding of human genetics or the origins of human intelligence, but they each created an awful public commotion and so found themselves a place in the history of the borderline-crazy eugenics movement started by Francis Galton.

William Shockley (1910-1989) was a bizarre figure in 20th century science, a Nobel prize-winning physicist who abandoned the rigorous thinking of physics to pontificate about genetics, biology, psychology, behavior, and intelligence. His almost incomprehensible papers on racial issues were for the most part published as non-refereed essays and letters. The abstract of one paper he presented at the National Academy of Sciences in 1965 begins, "The analogy proposed here makes impure "chemically pure" elemental metals correspond to impure "genetically pure" populations..." He goes on to present a proposal to quantitatively analyze gene mixtures in populations with the assumption that each human gene corresponds to a particular human trait. But his biology was as wrong as his political proposals to sterilize people with "impurities" (bad genes). Genes are not equivalent to doping elements in crystals or metals. They are not fixed elements and they do not operate independent of other genes. Shockley remains one of the lineages that sprouted from Francis Galton -- a lineage of apparently smart people with silly ideas about biology and behavior and intelligence.

Dwight J. Ingle (1907-1978) was a noted physiologist, and as such he had a platform to speak to biologists in biological journals. His arguments, if fallacious, are at least biologically coherent. No biological evidence, he said, existed to prove that differences in the brains of ethnic groups had any relation to differences in the behavior and intelligence of these groups. He also argued that the evidence for inherited intelligence was just as faulty as the evidence for acquired intelligence. So far, so good. But then he focused on the apparent inability of a large fraction of the American black population to achieve economic and social stability. He saw the high birth-rate of blacks as a threat to the stability of the nation at large. His solution was voluntary eugenics. According to Ingle:

"The very high birth rate among indolent incompetent Negroes is a threat to the future success of this race. I do not suggest any programs which would threaten the genetic diversity of man; the same standards of genetic offensive would be applied to all races. Conception control and eugenics, especially the increased use of artificial insemination are means of achieving gains in genetically determined competence..."

Black Congressman Adam Clayton Powell (1908-1972) of New York wrote a spirited response to Ingle's proposal. He questioned Ingle's competence as a social thinker and offered a rebuttal to Ingle's eugenic ideas:

"We do spend billions of dollars on crime, delinquency, and similar social ills. If the only alternative to this is to establish a board of judges to determine who is and who is not fit for parenthood, and thus to sacrifice the very heart of our freedom, then I consider these billions of dollars money well spent."

Then Powell concluded: "In our age, when science is both monstrous and wonderful, it is frightening to see among its ranks men such as Ingle, who lack political insight and philosophical discipline."

Only a few years later, in 1969, the most insidious attack on the genetic heritage of black Americans made its appearance, an attack essentially a reprise of the befuddled genetic determinism of the 1920s. This time the band of hereditarian psychometricians minced no words: according to them, American blacks were genetically inferior to other Americans in every regard, and these psychometricians insisted they had the data to prove it. The "proof" consisted of statistical analysis of racial differences in IQ, and a collection of arguments based essentially on twin studies interpreted to show that IQ is an inherited trait.

The 1969 psychometric analysis of racial differences in IQ, carried forward with more studies and known as "Jensenism" after its chief author, provoked a sudden fetid outgrowth of "scientific" racism that hasn't yet dissipated.

During the 1980s, the myths of psychometric genetic racial superiority were amplified by others, in particular suggestions that racial group differences exist for brain size and intelligence, fetal maturation rate and skeletal development, personality and temperament, sexuality, and social organization, and that in terms of evolution the "races" can be scaled with "Negroids" less evolved than "Caucasoids" who are less evolved than "Mongoloids" -- Negroids compared to Caucasoids less intelligent, physically maturing more rapidly, more aggressive and impulsive, less law-abiding, and less mentally healthy.

It's an embarrassment to all rational scientists that this sort of research garbage finds its way into the scientific literature. In German anthropological journals of the 1930s one can find paper after paper detailing similar suggestions about Jews. Racist myths are debunked only to rise again and be debunked once more.

Why do tribal hoax myths continue to be revived after burial? One explanation is that such myths are merely justifications for the exploitation of ethnic groups at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy. Another explanation is that researchers interested in promoting racist myths can often find private funds to support them. Or maybe it's a psychiatric problem characteristic of some researchers and their media puffers, a particular line of personality development with succinct causes in childhood or even earlier. Whatever the origins, the myths keep returning. In the next column I'll consider some of the scientific myths in detail.

(to be continued)