Neurophilosophy

Three generations of imbeciles are enough

I should have discussed the image that I included in yesterday’s post about eugenics. Believe it or not, the scale that is illustrated in that image – with “moron” at the top and “idiot” at the bottom – was used by physicians to aid their diagnoses.

Whether one was a moron, an imbecile (of high-, medium- or low-grade!) or an idiot depended upon one’s intelligence quotient (IQ), which was determined using the standardized test that was administered widely in the U.S. following its introduction in the early 20th century.

Anyone who scored an IQ of 70 or lower was considered to be “feeble-minded” or “mentally retarded”, and feeble-mindedness was further subdivided into categories: a “moron” had an IQ of 50-69, an “imbecile” had an IQ of 20-49 and an “idiot” had an IQ of 20 or below.

In 1927, U.S. Supreme Court passed a landmark ruling – Buck vs. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 – that upheld a statute for compulsory sterilization of those considered to be mentally retarded, “for the protection and health of the state”.

The state of Virginia had adopted the  statue in 1924.  On September 10th of that year,  Dr. Albert Sidney Priddy, superintendant of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, filed a petition to his board of directors to sterilize Carrie Buck, an 18-year-old patient at his institution.

Priddy told the board that Buck had a mental age of 9, that she was one of three children of unknown parentage, and that her 52-year-old mother, who had a mental age of 8, had a record of immorality and prostitution. Buck had by that time given birth to a child; the father was her adoptive mother’s nephew, who had raped the “feeble-minded” woman in 1923.

By the time the litigation got to the Supreme Court, Priddy had died and been replaced by his successor, Dr. James Hendren Bell. Presiding over the ruling was Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. – himself interested in eugenics – who infamously concluded the case a follows:

Carrie Buck…a feeble minded white woman…is the daughter of a feeble minded mother in the same institution, and the mother of an illegitimate feeble minded child.

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…Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

Thus, Virginia’s sterilization statute was upheld, and Carrie Buck became the first person in the state to be sterilized. (Virginia’s sterilization procedures were repealed in 1974).

But Virginia’s statute was not the first sterilization law. Other states already had such laws, but used them only inconsistently. Following the Buck vs. Bell ruling, dozens of other states added sterilization statues, and began to use them more systematically.

(Coincidentally, there’s a comprehensive and detailed post about the heritability of IQ at Three-Toed Sloth.)

Comments

  1. #1 John McKay
    October 1, 2007

    Eugenics and Racial Hygiene are such harmless sounding names for such a totalitarian practice.

  2. #2 ERV
    October 1, 2007

    Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

    Must… hold back… Fallwell joke…

  3. #3 Zeke Templin
    October 1, 2007

    Such a sad part of American science history.

  4. #4 VJB
    October 1, 2007

    We have a local organization, SARAH, that supports and employs a significant number of ‘developmentally-challenged’ people (how I hate that PC label), so we have had an excellent decades’ long lesson in accepting people’s worth by criteria beyond IQ. This measure can be useful for some purposes but as I get older I am finding it sadly lacking in defining ‘quality’ human beings.

    That being said, the intro to the movie ‘Idiocracy’, which lampoons the dumbing-down of America, is altogether too damn funny. Don’t know whether to laugh or cry at this.

  5. #5 PalMD
    October 1, 2007

    Eugenics was very popular in the US at the time, and might have continued down that road if it had not been for the example of the ultimate eugenics experiment that Hitler gave. The 1927 Johnson Immigration Act was designed on eugenic principles.

    The silly thing is that eugenics turns out not to make scientific sense…especially given the level of knowledge at the time.

  6. #6 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    October 1, 2007

    To be fair, US may have been first, but it wasn’t worst or last. Sweden in particular, but also Canada, Australia et cetera has a ‘proud’ tradition outside genocide contexts. I’m glad it’s gone.

  7. #7 Aaron Kralik
    October 2, 2007

    I am a firm believer in eugenics. no don’t crucify me just yet, i don’t want to kill babies, but don’t you think that if people have a predisposition to certain illnesses and yes “feeble mindedness” counts that they should at least be persuaded towards sterilization?

  8. #8 Francis A. Miniter
    October 4, 2010

    I recall being shocked by the case in law school. Tonight I looked up the infamous phrase, having forgotten the name of the case and the author of the words, because I picked up *The Legacy of Malthus: The Social Costs of the New Scientific Racism* by Allan Chase (Knopf 1977). The Buck v. Bell case gives one only a Zen window on the widespread horror of the pseudoscience of eugenics. Chase’s point is that a lot of the presuppositions of that pseudoscience have become rooted in our present society. Not surprisingly, those presuppositions are used to disadvantage the poor and minorities of various kinds.