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Column: The false, racist theory of eugenics once ruled science. Let’s never let that happen again

Warning: This post contains explicit language.

When President Donald Trump, frustrated during a bipartisan immigration meeting in the White House, reportedly asked last month why the U.S. was protecting immigrants from “shithole countries,” he appeared to be privileging the immigration status, if not the biology, of some people from certain lands. It harkens back to an era when race mattered a great deal in terms of one’s status, rights and opportunities — all to our nation’s social detriment.

Between the late 1890s and the late 1930s, “White Anglo-Saxon Protestants” on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean were obsessed with the future of their country’s gene pool and how different immigrants might taint it.

Supporting these fears was a theoretical framework called eugenics, first proposed in 1883 by Sir Frances Galton, the British polymath and naturalist, and a pioneer in many other fields such as meteorology, psychology and anthropometrics.

Galton, the younger, first cousin of Charles Darwin (who played an outsized role in influencing Sir Francis’s education and intellectual life), was born on this day in 1822. We come today not to praise Francis Galton but to bury him along with his faulty and dangerous pseudoscience of eugenics.

The word eugenics is taken from the Greek root, “eugenes,” namely good in stock or hereditarily endowed with noble qualities. Galton coined the term in his 1883 book, “Inquiries into the Human Faculty and its Development.” The idea was to propose a way to ‘give to the more suitable races … a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable.” In a 1904 issue of the American Journal of Sociology, Galton defined eugenics more succinctly as “the science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those that develop them to the utmost advantage.” Galton also coined the phrase “nature versus nurture.”

Sir Francis’s social theories on who was eugenically worthy spread like wildfire among white intellectuals in almost every developed Western nation. For example, in July of 1912, one year after Galton’s death, the threat of inferior races polluting the Western body politic was discussed at the first International Congress of Eugenics in London. Sitting in the audience were Britain’s Prime Minister Lord Balfour, Winston Churchill and Charles Darwin’s son Leonard, along with the ambassadors of Greece, France and (wait for it) Norway.

During the Progressive era (1900-1920), a generation of American reformers sought to fix several social problems of the day, which included urban poverty, assimilating the huge number of immigrants coming to American shores, and public health crises such as epidemics, high infant mortality rates and explosive population growth. Many of these reformers used inappropriate eugenic explanations for their management of those deemed to be socially undesirable: so-called “mental defectives” (which included those labeled with newly-created clinical terms like “imbeciles,” “idiots,” and “morons”); the blind, deaf, mentally ill and “crippled”; orphans, unwed mothers, epileptics, Native Americans, African Americans, foreigners, poor residents from the mountains and hollows of Appalachia and many other “outsider” groups.

“Inferior races,” eugenic theorists concluded, were a drain on the economic, political and moral health of American life. Some African American intellectuals, too, supported the theory, arguing we should focus on the “talented tenth” of every race.

One of the dirtiest realities of the American eugenics movement is that, with relatively few prominent exceptions, it is difficult to find a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant man (or woman) of means who did not endorse such theories. As the “social Darwinist” Herbert Spencer famously opined, it was a matter of the “survival of the fittest.” “Race suicide,” a term introduced in 1901 by the University of Wisconsin sociologist and best-selling author Edward A. Ross, was a concern that captured the American conversation all the way up to the White House. Behind his “bully pulpit,” President Theodore Roosevelt repeatedly wrung his hands over the issue.

Other influential eugenicists who fretted over the American protoplasm included grant makers from both the Rockefeller and Carnegie Foundations, U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, David Starr Jordan, the president of Stanford University, psychologist Henry H. Goddard, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, R-Mass., auto magnate Henry Ford, inventor of the telephone Alexander Graham Bell, botanist Luther Burbank, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Robert A. Millikan, a Nobel laureate in physics, novelists Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis, economist William Z. Ripley, birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, advocate for the blind Helen Keller, African-American scholar W.E.B. Dubois, and the creator of the wellness movement, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg.

The solution of the day was to quarantine, cordon off and prevent these “undesirables” from contaminating the “superior” mostly white, native-born citizens. Moreover, racial groups deemed “eugenically superior,” specifically White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, were encouraged to reproduce at greater rates, a concept often referred to as “positive eugenics.”

Those adjudged to have “inferior genes” were discouraged from reproducing through the establishment of “negative eugenics” programs, such as state-mandated sterilization laws for “mental defectives,” restrictions against who could marry whom, birth control policies, harsh adoption laws and loud nativist calls for laws restricting the entry of “swarthy,” “unkempt” and “unassimilable” immigrants. In essence, eugenics offered Americans in positions of power an authoritative scientific language to substantiate their biases against those they feared as dangerous. Indeed, few of the “social eugenics policies” had a greater impact than the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, which blocked the entry of the millions of Eastern and Southern European and Asian immigrants seeking refuge on our shores for the following 40 years. How many millions of them died or lived tortured lives in their native lands because of this stringent and prejudiced policy is difficult to enumerate.

One of the biggest fans of the American eugenics movement was Adolf Hitler, the chancellor of Nazi Germany. When the world discovered the role eugenics played in Hitler’s campaign to cleanse the Third Reich of its “unfit,” it drummed a final nail into the eugenics movement coffin.

Once the theory of an armchair population biologist, eugenics too quickly transmogrified into a racist and harmful evidence base for ridding nations of those the dominant society did not like or feared. The problem, of course, was that the evidence base was false and poorly constructed.

If Francis Galton is remembered at all, it should be poorly, despite his many other intellectual contributions. Some consider eugenics to be merely the weird, step-uncle of modern, scientifically-grounded genetics. Yet this bit of history reminds us to constantly evaluate and test our theories for evidence of racism and prejudice before implementing them and harming the innocent.

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