I’m always loathe to criticize a fellow ScienceBlogger, but, as the resident World War II buff and tireless debunker of Holocaust denial, I couldn’t let this one pass.

While perusing the Last 24 Hours feed yesterday, I came across a most curious statement in a slapdown by Greg Laden of an attempt by Bruce Chapman to spin an appearance of John West at the University of Minnesota as anything other than an utter disaster. The debate was over who were the true advocates of eugenics, Christians or scientists, the argument being made that more advocates of eugenics in the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century. (My answer to that question would be: Both. After all, support for eugenics in the U.S. was widespread, so much so that Hitler actually admired eugenics programs in some states and wanted to emulate them.)

Quoth Laden:

I am particularly interested in the following connections:

  • Most eugenics supporters of the early 20th century were Christians.
  • Most eugenics opposers of the early 20th century were either atheists or Jews (or both).

Had it not been for the atheists and Jews, Christian-style eugenics would have had a much more solid base. It is possible that the anti-Nazi and anti-German sentiments (the former because people were annoyed by Hitler, the latter because people had been annoyed by the Kaiser) may have paled in comparison to the “Promise of Eugenics” and it is quite likely that it would have been very difficult to get the US in to World War II.

The Germans would have been defeated anyway, by the Soviets, and all of Europe (possibly except England) would have become Soviet Bloc. Interesting prospect. Interesting ironies.

My first reaction upon seeing this was: WTF? Is he joking?

The first problem with this argument is that, in his zeal to blame Christians for supporting eugenics, he simply doesn’t have the facts to back his claims up. Maybe he’s right, but, if he’s going to make such an overreaching statement that “most” supporters of eugenics were Christians (besides, I would be surprised if most supporters of eugenics weren’t Christian, given how overwhelmingly Christians outnumbered Jews and atheists in the early part of the 20th century), even carrying it forward to make the implication that atheists and Jews, through their resistance to eugenics, prevented support for Nazi Germany’s vision of eugenics from being so great that the U.S. would not declare war on Germany, he really needs some hard numbers.

No, I don’t think that’s a strawman of what Greg said (and I’m sure someone will explain to me why if it is). In any case, he couldn’t be more hopelessly wrong in speculating that support for eugenics would have had any effect whatsoever on whether or not the U.S. entered the war. Politics and a very bad decision by Hitler after Pearl Harbor did. It wouldn’t matter if he’s absolutely correct about how many Christians supported eugenics policies, which he probably is, although it’s unclear to me whether he is correct about how many Jews and atheists opposed it. (I may have to dip into my World War II book collection to see if I can find out more.)

The reason he’s wrong is that he takes his argument one step too far, into the realm of the ridiculous. Nazi eugenics had virtually nothing to do with the reasons that the US ended up going to war with Nazi Germany. Greg can’t really be suggesting that, if Jews and atheists hadn’t been against it, the unopposed greater support for Nazi-style eugenics by Christians would have prevented the U.S. from going to war in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and that atheists and Jews were what held that desire at bay, can he? Here’s a hint in the form of a bit of history: In his hubris, Hitler foolishly declared war on the U.S. first after Pearl Harbor, effectively emasculating the isolationist sentiment that had kept the U.S. out of the war to that point. (Look it up if you don’t believe me.) Had he not done so, it would have been very difficult for Franklin D. Roosevelt to go to war with Germany. Public sentiment was all for taking revenge on Japan immediately, given that it had attacked the U.S., and leaving the European war to the Britain and the Soviet Union. Unless Greg can somehow argue that a greater support for eugenics in the US would somehow have prevented Hitler from declaring war in the wake of Pearl Harbor, thus depriving Roosevelt of the unassailable reason he needed to throw the weight of the U.S. into the war against Germany and to adopt a policy of defeating Germany first, his argument falls apart.

Finally, it’s not at all clear that the Soviet Union would have won if the US hadn’t entered the war, making Greg’s seeming implication that it was those atheists and Jews who resisted eugenics who kept the entire continent of Europe from ending up under Soviet domination after World War II by preventing those darned Christian eugenicists and their admiration for Nazi eugenics from keeping us out of the war. The USSR might have won and may even have been more likely than not to have won, given that its forces could fall back so many hundreds of miles into the vastness of Russia and absorb the initial German attack, but its victory was by no means assured. Also, there was this little thing called the Lend-Lease Program, without which it is questionable whether the Soviet Union could have continued to fight long enough to recover from the devastation of operation Barbarossa and counterattack. For example, although the Soviet Union made mostly its own tanks, 2/3 of the trucks that supported its forces were made in the U.S. (Wikipedia actually has a list of the materials delivered to the USSR.) Remember, Hitler nearly captured Moscow in December 1941, and without the Allied bombing campaign of 1943 and 1944, necessitating the diversion of large amounts men and materiel to the defense of its cities and the threat of an Allied invasion from the west requiring large numbers of troops to be made unavailable for duty in the East, Hitler would have been able to throw the full force of his military might against Stalin. In this alternate history, with the U.S. occupied defeating Japan, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the resources sent to Britain and the Soviet Union through the Lend-Lease would have been drastically curtailed, if not eliminated. Even so, it’s possible that the Soviet Union would have managed to win anyway, but it was by no means anywhere near definite.

A word of advice to Greg, which I hope he’ll take as ScienceBlogger tough love: The problem with making historical arguments like this is that you should actually know the history before you make them. It’s also a bad idea to criticize someone else’s understanding of history while making glaring errors in history yourself.

Of course, I must emphasize that none of my criticism of Greg is meant to provide any tactical air support whatsoever to an idiot like John West, whose transparent attempt to link Darwin to eugenics is such transparently bad history that it should be included in the Carnival of Bad History, if not a visit from the Hitler Zombie. It’s just in refuting him we as skeptics should be very careful not to provide our own contribution to this carnival.


  1. #1 Colugo
    December 3, 2007

    Orac, you are absolutely right.

    In countering the risible “Darwin->Holocaust” claim of creationists, many evolutionists are going way too far in the other direction. I have been attempting to help put a brake on that tendency in these discussions. (See my comments in the Pharyngula threads.) I am an atheist, bioculturally trained, with a longstanding interest in the study of genocide, scientific racism, eugenics, and totalitarianism.

    Some of the problematic arguments and overstatements being made:

    1) Eugenics had little or nothing to do with Darwinism, evolutionary science or biology.
    1a) Eugenic practices (infanticide of defective infants) predate Darwin, therefore eugenics is unrelated to modern biology. (I acknowledged the antecedents myself, but went on to say that antecedent practices are hardly unique in various fields of science, or pseudoscience in the case of eugenics. After all, the ancient practice of animal breeding was one of the streams of influence for natural selection theory.)
    1b) Eugenics is anti-evolutionary since it is based on Christian Great Chain of Being. (Sure, that was an influence; it was also an influence on early evolutionary science in general.)
    2) Eugenics was a Christian conservative-driven movement. The major theorists, policy advisors, proselytizers, experts of eugenics were scientists, many of them atheists, agnostics, and Monists. And, I’m sorry, a not insignificant number of eugenicists were Jews. (I am a half-Jew myself.)

    Haeckel, Julian Huxley, Karl Pearson, Francis Crick, WD Hamilton et. al would hardly agree that eugenics is a traditionalist Christian movement with no basis in evolutionary biology. OK, RA Fisher and some others are on the Christian side.

    I appreciate that evolution biology is under siege by a powerful political movement, and that has induced a “circle the wagons” reaction. This includes a strong impulse to vindicate, exonerate, and absolve evolutionary biology in general and Darwin in particular. That is perfectly understandable. Darwin himself requires no absolution, unlike many of his contemporaries and followers.

    It is true that the creationists are egregiously distorting history. But let’s face the unpleasant facts.

    1. Darwin was no eugenicist, but he was among the first modern evolutionary theorists of what would be known as dysgenics. Sure, one can find counter-examples of antievolutionist and non-Darwinian evolutionist eugenicists, but many eugenicists, including the ones I listed above – the intellectual leaders – considered themselves Darwinists (“eclipse of Darwinism” or not).

    2. Eugenics was immensely popular within the scientific community, from the left to the right side of the political spectrum, with notable exceptions of conservative Catholics and leftist anti-hereditarians. It was a terrible social policy with a scientific stamp of approval; scientists provided the rationale. To put it in revolutionary terms, scientists and physicians were the vanguard of the eugenics movement. To be sure, Christians, conservatives, and progressives alike provided the fertile soil of mass receptivity to such a crude program to improve society and enhance humanity.

    3. Probably one of the most powerful bulwarks against eugenics was the Catholic Church. (The same Catholic Church that was deeply conflicted and compromised by pro-Nazi currents.)

    4. It is not just right wing creationists who point out the relationship of early evolutionary biology to eugenics, social Darwinism, and scientific racism, but also (and generally more responsibly) minority rights activists (especially those targeted by eugenics – African-Americans and Jews) and disability rights activists.

    5. The intellectual courage and accomplishment of figures like Franz Boas is slighted by distortions about the eugenics movement.

    6. Modern population genetics demonstrates that both dysgenic pessimism and eugenicist aspirations are scientifically unsound. Eugenics appeared more scientifically tenable in the context of pre-Modern Synthesis genetics.

    It’s better to indulge in a little cautionary hand-wringing about biology’s ancestral sins than to create what seems to me to be an increasingly problematic counter-narrative.

  2. #2 Lev P.
    December 3, 2007

    With all due respect, I have to completely disagree with you regarding potential outcome in WW2 (aka Great Patriotic War in Soviet Union).

    If you were to conduct a series of polls of Soviet citizen over the 1942-1943 winter on whether Soviet Union would win the war, you’d probably get a number shifting from 50% for “yes” to 90% after February 1943. Stalingrad battle, which ended in Feb. 1943, devastated Nazis and encouraged Soviet Union (not just the army) in ways that are hard to count.

    Yes, lend-lease was a great program, but any equipment without people is nothing. Germany had all the equipment they needed in Dec. 1941, but people like politruk Vasiliy Klochkov from Panfilov division decided the outcome of that battle (he famously said to his soldiers: “Brothers! Russia is big, but there is no space left to retreat. Behind us – Moscow!”).

    I live in New York now, but I am a grandson of a Red Army lieutenant, MIA in October 1941. My grandmother provided a lot of information about that period. This was a war when Jews like my grandfather were together with Russians, Ukrainians and many others fighting a common enemy.

    In other words, it is my firmest opinion that people like those who survived Leningrad Blockade cannot be defeated.
    Providing anti-aircraft defense, firefighting and even music on 125 grams of bread per person per day and never giving up. Americans (including my own children, I’m afraid) will never understand this. One lady said to me: “They must’ve had chicken – I mean, everybody has chicken, right? I could use a diet like that.” And I really wanted to reply: Bitch, there were no rats left in that city… 1.2 million people died, but Leningrad never surrendered.

    I can continue, but hopefully you could see my point: while it would be that much harder without lend-lease supplies or Allied bombing, the time would have come anyway when Soviet tanks rolled through Berlin. There was a Russian song: “We only need one Victory – price is no object”. Maybe 5 years later, maybe 10, but it would happen.

    If you still don’t believe me, ask Napoleon Bonaparte.

  3. #3 DLC
    December 3, 2007

    Admittedly my studies of history have not gone too far into eugenics, but it was always my impression that eugenics was an idea put forth by politicians, and that the only scientists who supported the idea did so out of political fervor rather than out of any basis in science.

  4. #4 Orac
    December 3, 2007

    With all due respect, I have to completely disagree with you regarding potential outcome in WW2 (aka Great Patriotic War in Soviet Union).

    The question is: Without Lend-Lease, would the Soviets have been able to hold out long enough to win at Stalingrad? You’re also neglecting just how much men and materiel were diverted from the Eastern Front by the Nazis to defend their cities from Allied Air attacks, something documented well in Robin Neilland’s The Bomber War: The Allied Air Offensive Against Nazi Germany. It was a huge amount and did drain troops from the Eastern Front.

    Besides, I never said that the Soviets wouldn’t have won without Lend-Lease and the U.S. being in the war. Indeed, I pointed out that there’s a good chance that they would still have managed to win. What I did say is that it wouldn’t have been the slam dunk that Greg seems to think it would have been. A very likely outcome would have been a stalemate, with Germany holding most of what they captured west of the Urals.

    Of course, these sorts of arguments (Would the USSR have still beaten Germany if Hitler hadn’t declared war on the US first, making it politically impossible for FDR to declare war on Germany?) are the sorts of discussions WWII buffs love.

  5. #5 Jud
    December 3, 2007

    (1) I hope we don’t get too caught up in this eugenics argument, which is all about culture wars, and has nothing to do with the scientific validity of evolutionary theory. I think Bill Shockley’s attitudes on social issues were lousy, but transistors still work just fine. (This is not criticism of your post, Orac, just a “this is a very interesting discussion about trees, now let’s get back to looking at the forest” comment.)

    (2) Though criticism of Nazism’s perverted, unscientific eugenics made for fine U.S. propaganda mocking all the “master race” junk, my understanding is that the extent of the Nazi program came as a shock to most Americans after the war. Prior to and even during World War II, there wasn’t enough information about Nazi extermination efforts to gin up much American sympathy for the victims. The railway lines leading to death camps were famously not priority targets for Allied bombers, which could never have been the case if public outcry over eugenics had been a major reason for entry into the war.

  6. #6 Todd
    December 3, 2007

    The assault on Moscow was the turning point on the East Front. If Guderian hadn’t been diverted to Kiev and had been allowed to make the final push into the city, Stalin’s regime probably would have collapsed. Stalingrad is often seen as the Russians valiant effort to turn the tides and no one should diminish the horrible sacrifice of the Russian people, but it was OKH’s stupid decision to pull Guderian’s Panzergruppe 2 back from Moscow and eventually relieve him of command that allowed the Red Army to finally push back the German army.

  7. #7 bob koepp
    December 3, 2007

    Quite apart from wrangling over possible alternative endings to WWII, if people are going to talk about how much public support eugenics enjoyed in the early 20th centuty, it would be a good idea to distinguish various versions of eugenics. There’s the difference between the goals of positive eugenics and negative eugenics. There’s also the seemingly important distinction between voluntary eugenics and coercive eugenics. To simply say that some person “supported eugenics” glosses over most of what’s worth discussing in this area.

  8. #8 Marcus Ranum
    December 3, 2007

    There is a lot of ideology about the importance of the US war effort in defeating Germany. But it’s mostly ideology. Without lend/lease, Russia would have probably still crushed the Germans: they had winter and the vastness of Russian real estate on their side. They also had the fact that Hitler was micro-managing the war and German military technology development strategy. To me one of the most amazing myths of WWII was the superiority of German gear – it actually was not that good (specifically the armor) it was merely superior to the US stuff. Sherman tanks sucked much worse than Tigers (which were underpowered, too heavy, and had too narrow treads) but the T-34s and ISUs that the Russians were churning out were the best tanks of the war and the quantities they were producing were incredible. German soldiers were fantastic and German armored crews were the best in the world. But the attrition rate they suffered made the end inevitable. Add to that the fact that Hitler’s technology strategy lost the Luftwaffe the air war without allied help.

    It’s very important to the US to believe that we did it – and we certainly had an important effect by forcing Germany to fight a two-front war. It would have taken longer but Russia could have done the job alone. The end would have been vastly worse for the Germans had we not been involved, for sure.

    Alternative history WWII scenarios are fun. The most likely consequence of US non-involvement in the war is the German general staff booting Hitler and suing for a separate peace with England and the US against Russia, resulting in a much longer and nastier cold war.

    A final point to ponder – a lot of US (myself included!) find it kind of silly when talking to Canadians about WWII. To hear them, you’d think they thought D-Day was a Canadian operation. We used to giggle about that behind their backs, when I was in the military history club in high school. 🙂 Well, the Russians feel the same way about the US and the English, but to a lesser degree. It’s hard for us to even comprehend the level of involvement of the Russian people in WWII. We had rationing, huge casualty lists, and a war-footing economy, but Russia was so involved that every inch of dirt was a military asset.

  9. #9 rmp
    December 3, 2007

    JUD, “I think Bill Shockley’s attitudes on social issues were lousy, but transistors still work just fine.”

    As an electronics engineer, I really appreciate this comment.

  10. #10 Jess
    December 3, 2007


    Juno Beach: 14,000 Canadian soldiers from the 3rd Canadian Infantry devision. At least 340 Canadian lives lost and another 574 wounded at the end of the fighting.

    From historian John Keegan

    “The opposition the Canadians faced was stronger than that of any other beach save Omaha. That was an accomplishment in which the whole nation could take considerable pride.”

    World War Two was the first war we found under our own flag. Canada, population-wise, is small nation. So laugh if you want but we have the right to proud of what our military contributed at Juno.

    It was a joint operation between the Brits, Americans and Canadians. It wasn’t all ours, but it was not all yours either.

    Also we joined the fight one week after the France and Great Britain. Just a final point to ponder, as you said.

  11. #11 Michael
    December 3, 2007

    Does a good history of the eugenics movement exist? Every conversation I’ve seen or had on the subject has the phrase, “I don’t know much about eugenics,” included in it. Usually uttered by me, but now always. I had a college history professor, who also edited a history magazine, state they had never heard of the subject!

    By the way, whether it was Canadian, Russian, British, American, German, Chinese, or Japanese blood spilt, too many good people died.

  12. #12 Alvaro
    December 3, 2007

    Laden’s statements also seem to assume that Hitler and company, and their Japanese friends, were Christian leaders…which seem an overstretch.

    That’s the problem with simplistic labels, that ofuscate reality more than illuminate it. For example, one could create a case than Christian leaders (US-based) helped beat the un-Christian racist and eugenics movement (German and Japanese leaders), which would be an equal waste of time.

    Eugenics, and the ideology behind it, was a shame. It seems an independent variable from religion.

  13. #13 Colugo
    December 3, 2007

    Michael, here are some sources.

    Race Cleansing in America by Peter Quinn

    Eugenics and Physical Anthropology

    Interview with Daniel Kevles in Stay Free! Magazine:

    STAY FREE!: There’s an interesting quote by Margaret Sanger about Charles Davenport in your book. You write: Sanger recalled that Davenport, in expressing worry about contraception of elites, “used to lift his eyes reverently and, with his hands upraised as though in supplication, quiver emotionally as he breathed. ‘Protoplasm. We want protoplasm!’ ” How important was religion to eugenics?

    KEVLES: Well, I don’t think it was fundamental. Eugenics was essentially a secular religion. In the late 19th century, evolution posed a serious challenge to Christianity, so people began searching for some kind of substitute and a number of them found it in science.

    STAY FREE!: But weren’t some eugenicists religious and enthusiastic about science?

    KEVLES: I wouldn’t say that they were religious in a conventional Christian sense. A lot of them were agnostic, some were atheist. Even clerics felt that they had to reconcile their own beliefs with science.

  14. #14 DuWayne
    December 3, 2007

    bob koepp –

    Syncronicity. I have found it very frustrating dealing with this notion of eugenics being pure evile. Somehow it seems to be a four letter word, in spite of the fact that a very small percentage of notions that fall under the heading of eugenics are somehow a horrible atrocity.

    In my response to you in another thread, I mention an example of eugenics. Invitro testing for certain disorders, is itself eugenics. Acting on it by ending a pregnancy, in which the fetus is found to carry one of many disorders, is also eugenics.

    I also spend a lot of time talking with folks about various neurological disorders (I have severe ADHD and am mildly bipolar). While I have chosen to reproduce, knowing that it is likely that one or both of my disorders will be passed to my kids (indeed my son has severe ADHD), many folks in such circumstances make the choice not to reproduce. When people choose not to reproduce for fear of passing on genetic conditions or conditions suspected of being genetic, this too is eugenics.

    Hell, just the notion of seeking particular traits in one’s mate is eugenics.

    But eugenics is a four letter word to most people. Gods forbid we can have a reasonable, rational discussion about a very important topic. There are certainly some ethical concerns that need to be addressed. There are gray areas, which will only increase as new therapies are developed and we come to understand more about the causes of various disorders, especially as it comes into conflict with neurodiversity (for example, as hard as my neurology can make things sometimes, I am very pleased with who and what I am). But when so many people start hyperventilating at the mere mention of eugenics, it just takes away from discussions that it is essential we have.

  15. #15 Schwartz
    December 3, 2007

    I agree with Orac. Such a huge number of variables and undefined statistics mades his post pretty pointless.

    A couple observations though:

    1) The US was actively engaged in the war before it was officially declared. The Nazi’s were a direct threat to the allied form of democratic governments so I can’t see how the US could ever have supported that.

    2) Even if it is true that the primary supporters of Eugenics (and someone else pointed out that there are many different ways to implement it) were Christians and Scientists, that doesn’t mean that the majority of those groups actually supported it.

  16. #16 rimpal
    December 3, 2007

    A final point to ponder – a lot of US (myself included!) find it kind of silly when talking to Canadians about WWII. To hear them, you’d think they thought D-Day was a Canadian operation. When we turn the talk towards casualties you can’t help but agree with this quip attributed to Stalin. “America provided the money, Russia, the blood, Great Britain, the time.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II_casualties I will leave it to the experts to verify these numbers and the references. But I am sure that they are not way off the mark.

    With over 23 million deaths >10 million military deaths, ~12 million civilian deaths and 1 million consumed by the Holocaust, the Soviet Union suffered (or rendered in blood) much more than any other nation that took part in WW2.

    Canada’s casualties at 45,300 added up to 0.4% of its population, Australia’s at ~40,000 – 0.57%, and New Zealand’s at ~12,000 – 0.67% The UK lost over >450,000 in the war, including 67,000 civilians, 0.94% of its population. The US lost 418,500 (1,700 of whom were civilians) 0.32% of its population. The people of every nation stood up to be counted. France suffered 212,000 military deaths, >260,000 civilians, and 83,000 to the Holocaust, all of which added up to 1.35% of its population. Even if there was many a collaborator in these occupied lands, there were ordinary folk who though they nothing to offer but their courage, gladly gave everything for freedom.

    The dominion of India (which includes present day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka) suffered 87,000 military deaths, and 1.5 million civilian deaths, 0.42% of its population. The Indian contingent in WW2, which at its peak was over a million strong, is the largest volunteer force ever constituted. My grandfather, a cipher clerk in the minstry of defence of the crown dominion of Burma was among the last five people to leave Rangoon before the Japanese troops captured the city. He walked all the way over several months with a convoy of 1,000s to Dimpur, in the present day Indian state of Nagaland.

  17. #17 Blake
    December 4, 2007

    Here are a couple key texts on the history of eugenics in the United States and Britain:

    Kevles, Daniel J. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1985.

    Black, Edwin. War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2003.

    King, Desmond. In the Name of Liberalism: Illiberal Social Policy in the United States and Britain. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.

  18. #18 Greg Laden
    December 4, 2007

    Maybe I’m joking, maybe not. Certainly, most supporters of eugenics were Christians because, as you point out, so were most western politicians, scholars, etc. etc. That is not trivial, however. It is simply a point that one would not get from West’s talk, and it is worth pointing out.

    In the area of anti-racists literature and anti-Nazi literature, I think there is a very likely trend of Jews and atheists being in those camps. I can’t quantify it, it is just a hunch. I do not know if this extends to eugenics. But I think it is worth investigating.

    As to what would have happened regarding WW II had there been overwhelming support of Nazi-istic politics? Of course, you are right, this is wild speculation, as are all “what if” stories. But it is true that there was a strong movement to not get involved in WW II … it is easy to imagine a version of history in which the US either got in late, fought only the Japanese, or didn’t get in at all. It is true that anti-German sentiment that was left over from WW I was used as a tool to overcome isolationist opinions.

    If the US was not involved in the war in the ETO it is fairly easy to suggest, again as speculation, that D-Day would not have happened as it did. It is quite easy to picture a larger German, possibly Nazi state, but one has to remember the Eastern Front. The soviets would have eventually overcome the Nazis.

    Even Hitler’s declaration of war may not have happened if the US was more pro-Nazi. The lesson here is not what might have happened (that is, indeed, all wild speculation). The important issue is in what kind of society we want.

  19. #19 Orac
    December 4, 2007

    But it is true that there was a strong movement to not get involved in WW II … it is easy to imagine a version of history in which the US either got in late, fought only the Japanese, or didn’t get in at all.

    Yes, but for reasons that have nothing to do with eugenics (which was your speculation, that Jews and atheists fought support for eugenics enough to keep it from making Americans more sympathetic to Nazi Germany), or how many Christians supported eugenics, or how many.

    Even Hitler’s declaration of war may not have happened if the US was more pro-Nazi. The lesson here is not what might have happened (that is, indeed, all wild speculation). The important issue is in what kind of society we want.

    An important issue is also not to do the same things the Discovery Institute does by distorting history. Another important issue is to have facts. You don’t have the facts regarding your contention about Christian support for eugenics. Wild speculation based on good knowledge of history is not helpful. Maybe you’re right, but you and PZ saying “that sounds right” (as you mentioned in the comments) fails to convince me.

  20. #20 Colugo
    December 4, 2007

    I think there are a lot of interesting issues here. First, as Kevles notes (see my comment above), a lot of eugenicist scientists appear to be agnostics and atheists (however, there are some believing Christians among them, like Henry Fairfield Osborn and RA Fisher). Second, eugenicist advocates used religious institutions – especially liberal Christian churches – to spread their message, assuring believers that “science” (eugenics) and faith were complementary. They conducted the kind of bridge-building outreach to believers that scientists are encouraged to do, but for a very bad cause. Third, there was an alliance of progressives, including freethinkers and feminists, with reactionaries, including reactionary elites, in promoting eugenics. That is, the demographics of eugenicists included both potential Nazi sympathizers and those who would likely be opposed to Nazism. For example, the anti-Nazi left wing geneticist and eugenicist Hermann Muller, who was also opposed by Lysenkoists.

    Christine Rosen. 2004. Preaching Eugenics. Oxford University Press. p 18:

    “Most of the Protestant leaders who supported eugenics found their way through to the movement through their earlier social service work, which was initially an outgrowth of this social gospel impulse. …

    The same influences that inspired Progressives and Social Gospelers encouraged campaigns for social justice by Reform Jews, and Jewish leaders who became involved in the eugenics movement were overwhelmingly from that tradition.”

    Jewish eugenicists cited Jewish marriages practices as having “preceded Galton by 1600 years,” as Maurice Fishberg put it.

    See Mitchell Bryan Hart. 2007. The Healthy Jew. Cambridge University Press.

    American eugenics became increasingly antisemitic in orientation, due in no small part to antisemites like Davenport and Laughlin. And certainly a good number of prominent anti-eugenicists, like psychiatrist Abraham Myerson, were Jewish.

    (I hesitate to even mention this individual, but Kevin MacDonald has written about Jewish opposition to hereditarian theories and immigration restriction in his series of antisemitic books.)

  21. #21 Colugo
    December 4, 2007

    Jonathan Marks, molecular anthropologist, UNC-Charlotte, on the eugenics movement:

    “The interesting aspect of the eugenics movement is that it was mainstream science. The Passing of the Great Race was reviewed favorably in the journal Science, by MIT geneticist Frederick Adams Woods. Every genetics textbook of the era advanced the case of eugenics, showing how genetics could be used to solve social problems …

    In fact, during the heyday of the eugenics movement, virtually every geneticist of note served below Grant and Davenport on the Advisory Board of the American Eugenics Society. One notable exception was Thomas Hunt Morgan, the great geneticist from Columbia University … Morgan published some polite reservations about eugenics in the mid-1920s, but not enough either to piss anyone off or to allow people to invoke his prestige to repudiate the movement. …

    Perhaps the most interesting paradox in the history of eugenics is that the American human genetics community, faced with the embarrassment of the Nazi enthusiasm for eugenics, set out to reinvent itself after World War II. It did so by burying its ancestor, Charles Davenport, and finding a new ancestor, Archibald Garrod, who had published some obscure work in medical genetics in the early part of the 20th century. Nobody in human genetics had cited his work for decades ….

    And then they taught that eugenics the old eugenics was the province of quacks and amateurs, and not the mainstream science that it really was. And it worked, for a while. … Modern scholarship on the subject, however, is directly descended from Daniel Kevles’ (1985) book, serialized first in The New Yorker, at the time of the initial interest in the Human Genome Project. ”

  22. #22 bob koepp
    December 4, 2007

    I’d still like to see at least a glimmer of recognition that eugenics comes in a variety of flavors. Were _all_ of these “mainstream science” in the early 20th century? Were they all part of a “bad cause?”

    Also, I cannot but wonder at the description of “Inborn Errors of Metabolism” as “some obscure work in medical genetics.”

  23. #23 Colugo
    December 4, 2007

    bob koepp: “recognition that eugenics comes in a variety of flavors.”

    Much has been made of the positive eugenics / negative eugenics distinction. But since many eugenicists advocated both, I think that there are more important variables. One is the degree of coercion. For example, the variety of policy options for preventing the breeding of the “unfit”: involuntary sterilization, voluntary sterilization incentives, tax on children, marriage license restrictions, murder. (Bertrand Russell endorsed the sterilization of feeble-minded women.) US eugenics policies involving involuntary sterilization, adopted in Scandinavia (persisting up to the 1970s) and Germany, were more coercive than in Britain. German policies, of course, became far more extreme than those of the United States, first with the mass murder of defective “useless eaters” and then the Jews.

    Another distinction is which groups were deemed problematic. British eugenicists focused on the lower classes. American eugenics was about race and class. German eugenics was obsessed with race. German eugenics also had strong esoteric and holist/organicist (the nation as organism) components. (See Proctor’s The Nazi War On Cancer and Harrington’s Reenchanted Science.) While American eugenicists used organicist rationales, organism as an ideology was developed to an extreme degree in National Socialism. Just like Nazis were holists but most holists were not Nazis, the same was true of eugenics.

    As for atheism and eugenics, eugenics opponents included John Dewey and Clarence Darrow, while supporters included Bertrand Russell and George Bernard Shaw.

    Shaw, 1903: “Being cowards, we defeat natural selection under cover of philanthropy: being sluggards, we neglect artificial selection under cover of delicacy and morality.”

    I am an amateur student of the history of eugenics, not an expert, but I just don’t see much support for the hypothesis that eugenics was a Christian movement resisted by atheists. (Or, to cite other possible narratives, a conservative movement resisted by progressives, or a anti-Darwinian movement resisted by true Darwinists. Not that the inverse of any of these narratives are accurate either – that is, the Discovery Institute’s narrative fails.) The history is more complicated than that.

  24. #24 DuWayne
    December 5, 2007

    bob koepp –

    I just wrote a post about it last night, posted this morning.

    Colugo –

    The problem with not making a distinction, is that it fosters the notion that eugenics is inherently evil. Considering where we are now and where we are going at a very rapid clip, there is a lot to discuss. Such a discussion is much easier if the participants aren’t going into hysterics at the mere mention of the descriptives.

    I also understand that there are a lot of variables that need to be considered. A more recent one, is gene therapy for tays sachs, which can prolong life, but are incredibly expensive. Who will or should pay for the therapy, if the parents choose not to terminate the pregnancy of a fetus that has the disease? At right around a million a year, for the rest of their life, this is not an insignificant consideration.

    To me, this is exactly the point in making distinctions. These questions are not going to go away and many of them deserve serious discussion, some will even effect public policy. I think it behooves us to stop making eugenics a bogey man and accept it for what it is, with all it’s implications. That way we can at least attempt to iron out the vast gray areas.

  25. #25 Colugo
    December 5, 2007

    Madison Grant on Christianity: selections from his book The Passing of the Great Race (1916), a massively influential tract promoting scientific racism and eugenics; Hitler called it his “Bible.”

    “The question of race has been further complicated by the effort of old-fashioned theologians to cramp all mankind into the scant six thousand years of Hebrew chronology, as expounded by Archbishop Ussher. Religious teachers have also maintained the proposition not only that man is something fundamentally distinct from other living creatures, but that there are no inherited differences in humanity that cannot be obliterated by education and environment.”

    “Early ascetic Christianity played a large part in this decline of the Roman Empire, as it was at the outset the religion of the slave, the meek, and the lowly, while Stoicism was the religion of the strong men of the time. This bias in favor of the weaker elements greatly interfered with their elimination by natural processes, and the fighting force of the empire was gradually undermined. Christianity was in sharp contrast to the worship of tribal deities which preceded it, and tended then, as it does now, to break down class and race distinctions. Such distinctions are absolutely essential to the maintenance of race purity in any community when two or more races live side by side.”

    “Before eugenics were understood much could be said from a Christian and humane view-point in favor of indiscriminate charity for the benefit of the individual. The societies for charity, altruism, or extension of rights, should have, however, in these days, in their management some small modicum of brains, otherwise they may continue to do, as they have sometimes done in the past, more injury to the race than black death or smallpox.”

  26. #26 davidp
    December 6, 2007

    “a version of history in which the US either got in late, fought only the Japanese, or didn’t get in at all”

    The US did get in late as you guys know. Australians (me), British, Canadians, Poles, French and Russians really know it. The war was 1/3 through before the US got involved, and at the time of the critical Stalingrad and El Alamein victories there were no US troops in combat in the ETO except just arrived in French Morroco and Algeria. WWII started in September 1939. Millions were dead before the Pearl Harbour attack. The US did stay out until forced. Greg’s alternative history’s starting point seems to me to be more or less what happened.

  27. #27 Colugo
    December 6, 2007

    In light of the debate, this is interesting: America Firster Charles Lindbergh was a friend and scientific collaborator of French eugenicist and pro-Nazi Alexis Carrel

    Even so, the scenario of a powerful eugenics movement keeping the US out of WWII conflates American and Nazi eugenics.

    Lothrop Stoddard, an arch-racist, anti-immigrationist, and massively influential eugenicist, was nonetheless not pro-Nazi and thought the Nazi claim that Germany was essentially Nordic was absurd. In addition, he was an agnostic who served on the board of Sanger’s American Birth Control League.

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