Part Three: Philosophical Background of the Eugenics Movement

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This paper emphasizes that the roots of the eugenics movement can be traced to several different movements of scientific racism (including racial anthropology's attempt to demonstrate that American Blacks were a separate species from whites in the U.S., craniometry and craniology) and several racist nativist movements of the nineteenth century, including the Anglo-Saxon purity movement and anti-immigration advocacy. There are a number of other important philosophical underpinnings to the eugenics movement, which have been emphasized in different ways by authors with diverse political and social viewpoints. These different philosophies include social Darwinism;64 social purity, voluntary motherhood and the perfectionists;65 the naturalist tradition;66 Malthus and the neo-Malthusians;67 and the Progressive political and social movement.68 Although I will discuss each of these influences briefly, better and more detailed treatments can be found in the references indicated above.

Social Darwinism, most influential from 1860 to 1900 and best exemplified by the theories of Englishman Herbert Spencer, resulted from an application of Darwinian theory to society as a whole. Social Darwinists believed that, just as evolution was the result of a struggle for survival in which the fittest individuals prevailed, societies also rose and fell by the law of survival of the fittest. The deeply conservative implications of such a philosophy included the rejection of government welfare programs or protective legislation on the grounds that such reforms as poorhouses, orphanages, bread lines, and eight hour days enabled the unfit to survive and weakened society as a whole. Spencer believed that the poor were poor because they were unfit individuals and he felt that they should be allowed to die out to strengthen society. Social Darwinism had such an enormous impact on the American intelligentsia and in particular on the legal community that Oliver Wendell Holmes once reminded his colleagues on the Supreme Court that the United States Constitution did not include the political theories of Herbert Spencer.69

Social Darwinist theory also assumed the existence of a struggle between the individual and society, and of an adversarial relationship between the fit and unfit classes, both of which were to underlie the eugenicist myth of the feeble-minded menace, popularized in the first decades of the century. Eugenics and social Darwinism both involved a transmutation of nature into biology. The eugenics movement frequently acknowledged its debt to Spencer. For example, in 1926, Eugenical News magazine printed a story dealing with "Herbert Spencer's Advice to Japan"; the following year the work was released as an official publication of the American Eugenics Society.

Social Darwinism was itself an important component of the late nineteenth century philosophy of naturalism, which believed in the efficacy and dependability of scientific investigation, the importance of technological innovations to societal progress, and in the legitimacy of analogies (like social Darwinism) between nature and society. As John Higham has pointed out, "While the whole naturalistic trend encouraged race-thinking and lent a sharper flesh-and-blood significance to it, Darwinism added a special edge....[Evolutionary theory] not only impelled them [race-thinkers] to anchor their national claims to a biological basis, it also provoked anxiety by denying assurance that the basis would endure."70

In the natural sciences, naturalism and theories of evolution were expressed in the theory of recapitulation, which believed that fetuses and the young pass through the states of human development (phylogeny) during their development (ontogeny). Thus, less advanced humans will exhibit traits common to the young of the more advanced human forms. The biological deterministic implications of recapitulation theory provided powerful support for scientific racists, imperialists, and male supremacists. In an example of how the will to believe in scientific racism can often suppress inconsistency and even absurdity, the recapitulation movement, after forty years of acceptance by many prominent scientific theorists, including Freud and Jung, was discredited and replaced by the completely contradictory theory of neoteny. This new theory, popular in the twenties, held that adult humans exhibit the childhood characteristics of their human ancestors. The most advanced humans are now those that possess the juvenile traits of human ancestors. Although the scientific logic of the new theory required scientists to accept that Black people and white women were superior to white men, most discarded entirely the claims and data they had argued so forcefully under recapitulation and developed new explanations, now based on the theory of neoteny, to prove white racial superiority. One historian has commented,

For seventy years, under the sway of recapitulation, scientists had collected reams of objective data all loudly proclaiming the same message: adult blacks, women, and lower-class whites are like white male upper-class children. With neoteny now in vogue, these hard data could mean only one thing: upper-class adult males are inferior because they lose, while other groups retain, the superior traits of childhood. There is no escaping it....[but] supporters of human neoteny...simply abandoned their seventy years of hard data and sought new and opposite information to confirm the inferiority of blacks.71

Another tremendously influential forerunner of the eugenics movement was Malthusianism, which derived from the late eighteenth-century social and political thought of Englishman Thomas Robert Malthus. Malthus was a political economist and university professor who argued in 1798 in his most famous work, An Essay on the Principle of Population, that under natural law, population increases would always exceed increases in food supplies, or in other words, that hungry, malnourished children resulted from the objective laws of nature and not from an unfair distribution of wealth expressed in desperately low wages and in the failure of the state to provide social services.

Malthus developed his theories, through which, like social Darwinism, a strong strain of individualism runs, in reaction to the rapid changes of eighteenth century England, particularly in industrialization, the growth of the cities, and the development of a capitalist class. One of the greatest dangers to society, according to Malthus, was the stubborn insistence on providing charitable assistance to those in great need. Such assistance merely enables the unfit to have more children, who will in turn be subjected to even greater want. Despite his professed belief that overpopulation causes poverty, Malthus rejected contraception, claiming that it would tend "to remove a necessary stimulus to industry."72 (Neo-Malthusians in England and the United States would later adapt Malthus' theories into arguments in favor of birth control.)

Galton and Pearson (and most of the American eugenicists they would inspire) were ardent Malthusians. Oliver Wendell Homes, who would write for the majority upholding eugenical sterilization in Buck v. Bell, described himself as a "devout Malthusian."73 Malthusianism appeared regularly in the literature of the eugenicists.74 Galton advocated a benign despotic rule by the families of "really good breed," and said of their treatment of the poor,

I do not see why any insolence of caste should prevent the gifted class...from treating their compatriots with all kindness, so long as they maintained celibacy. But if these continued to procreate children, inferior in moral, intellectual and physical qualities, it is easy to believe that the time may come when such persons would be considered as enemies to the State, and to have forfeited all claims to kindness.75

Malthusian theory made its way across the Atlantic as well. American eugenicists tallied the cost of everything and were particularly angered by the failure of organized philanthropy to follow eugenicist and Malthusian principles. One eugenicist said harshly, "The so-called charitable people who give to begging children and women with baskets have a vast sin to answer for. It is from them that this pauper element gets its consent to exist....So-called charity joins public relief in producing stillborn children, raising prostitutes, and educating criminals."76

The involvement of Progressive activists in the eugenics movement was briefly discussed in the introduction to this paper. A significant number of Progressives--including David Starr Jordan, Robert Latham Owen, William Allen Wilson, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Robert Latou Dickinson, Katherine Bement Davis, and Virginia Gildersleeve--were deeply involved with the eugenics movement.77 The eugenics movement in the U.S. first took root among the management of institutions--superintendents of prisons, of schools for the feeble-minded, and of asylums for the insane--and so may have been more supportive of a societal obligation to care for the disabled than the movement in England, which developed along more strictly Malthusian lines.78 Beyond this, however, the Progressive and eugenics movements shared a great many traits and values. Both the "conservative" eugenicists and the progressives tended to be white, native-born, middle- and upper-class professionals from the East Coast. Both had a fear of degeneracy, immigrants, and the city; a condescension for the poor and other cultures; a drive for human perfectibility; and immense faith in science, in their own culture and values, and, above all, in the power of government to effect social change.

It is also interesting to note that some sections of the Progressive movement were noticeably unswayed by the theories of eugenics; John Higham has noted that the anti-corruption movement rejected nativism in favor of an economic analysis that located blame for social conditions on the U.S.'s own economic institutions.79 Settlement workers and trade unionists were also aloof to eugenics for the most part.80 A more sophisticated economic analysis may have inoculated activists against the crude economics of race and individual worth promulgated by the eugenicists.

The relationship between eugenics and the women's movements of the mid- to late nineteenth century, although beyond the scope of this paper, is a fascinating and understudied topic. Linda Gordon argues that the women of the perfectionist voluntary motherhood movement of the 1860's and 1870's increasingly relied on a naive, "folkloric" hereditarianism not linked to racist or nativist views to strengthen their arguments for women's autonomy. The social purity movement of the last decades of the century grew directly out of this tradition and continued the use of eugenic arguments to bolster their views.

The "race suicide" theory which developed during the first decade of the new century turned the ideas of voluntary motherhood upside down. Claiming that the greatly lowered birthrate of the better classes coupled with the burgeoning birthrates of immigrants and the native-born poor endangered the survival of "the race," some racial suicide theorists blamed the middle-class women of the feminist movement and chastised them for their failure to have enough children. An organized program of eugenics was the proposed solution to the crisis of race suicide. It was at this point, Gordon thinks, that eugenics "became predominantly anti-feminist and anti-birth control because antifeminists seized control of and redefined some of the basic eugenic concepts."81

It can also be argued that Gordon's thesis de-emphasized the deep racism that permeated the racial suicide period from its beginnings in 1900 to 1910. One classic racial suicide work is Robert Reid Rentoul's Race Culture; or, Race Suicide? (A Plea for the Unborn), published in New York and London in 1906. Rentoul speaks of the "terrible monstrosities" created by the racial intermarriage and points out that the Americans are "poor patriots" for repealing their racial miscegenation statutes. He goes so far as to publish the calumny that "The negro is seldom content with sexual intercourse with the white woman, but culminates his sexual furor by killing the woman, sometimes taking out her womb and eating it."82 This was no fringe publication but a mainstream work. One eugenicist recommended Rentoul's book by saying "Saner and altogether more impressive is the argument of Dr. Rentoul's earnest book, Race Culture; Or, Race Suicide?"83

Gordon also argues that the involvement of the birth control activists in the "new eugenics" of the 1920's stemmed more from the nineteenth century radical eugenics tradition she hypothesizes than from a true commitment to the racist and anti-feminist politics of the 1920's eugenics movement. Further detailed research is necessary to evaluate this interpretation. For example, in addition to the folkloric tradition of racial heredity Gordon discusses, there was also a hereditarian tradition of not naive, but self-conscious (although vague) scientific racism active in such American endeavors as phrenology and craniometry. The question of the extent to which feminists of the nineteenth century were aware of and affected by this other tradition is still open.

"Scientific racism" is a term that may be defined in several different ways. For this paper, I have adopted a slightly modified version of Barry Mehler's definition,

[Scientific racism is] the belief [often based on skin color, country of origin, or economic class] that the human species can be divided into superior and inferior genetic groups and that these groups can be satisfactorily identified so that social policies can be advanced to encourage the breeding of the superior groups and discourage the breeding of the inferior groups.84

American scientific racism in the nineteenth century was primarily preoccupied with the attempt to establish that Blacks, Orientals, and other races were in fact entirely different species of "man," which the scientific racists claimed should be seen as a genus, rather than a species. In 1735, Linnaeus, a Swedish natural historian and taxonomist, asserted that all men made up a single species. He believed that God had created the different species of animals and that, despite differences, species did not change. The theory that the integrity of the human species derived from the creation of one Adam and one Eve was called monogenism or specific unity; monogenists believed that the races arose as a result of the degeneration of human beings since creation. The separate races were essentially the same human material, but different races had degenerated to different extents. Polygenists, by contrast, believed that the races were created separately in a series of different creations. The separate races were entirely different animals. The mid-century theory of polygenism, or specific diversity, was one of the first scientific theories largely developed in the U.S. and was approvingly called "the American School of anthropology" by European scientists.85

Harvard Professor Louis Agassiz, the most prominent natural historian of the nineteenth century, was the most important promoter of polygenism. Agassiz, an abolitionist, insisted that his adoption of polygenism was dictated by objective scientific investigation. Nevertheless, Gould's translation of his letter to his mother in 1846 shortly after his emigration to the U.S., reveals a profound, visceral reaction to Blacks,

It was in Philadelphia that I first found myself in prolonged contact with negroes....It is impossible for me to repress the feeling that they are not of the same blood as us. In seeing their black faces with their thick lips and grimacing teeth, the wool on their head, their bent knees, their elongated hands, their large curved nails, and especially the livid color of the palm of their hands, I could not take my eyes off their face to tell them to stay far away. And when they advanced that hideous hand towards my plate in order to serve me, I wished I were able to depart in order to eat a piece of bread elsewhere, rather than dine with such service.86

Not surprisingly, Aggasiz was also passionately opposed to racial miscegenation. He believed that racial inter-mixture would result in the creation of "effeminate" offspring unable to maintain the American democratic traditions. Aggasiz wrote S. G. Howe, "The production of halfbreeds is as much a sin against nature, as incest in a civilized community is a sin against purity of character....No efforts should be spared to check that which is abhorrent to our better nature, and to the progress of a higher civilization and a purer morality."87

In part because the classic definition of a species revolved around the ability to mate and produce children with each other but not with others, and in part because of a drive toward racial hierarchy, the questions of hybridization and fecundity became key to the early American scientific racists. Much of this rhetoric on hybrids was to reappear in eugenicist writings where it also came to form the basis of eugenicist arguments against racial miscegenation. The early concern with fecundity was to reappear primarily to fuel eugenicist fears of differential racial fecundity leading to white racial suicide.

These attitudes were deep and enduring. A 1925 bibliography on eugenics published by the American Eugenics Society recommended Uncontrolled Breeding, Or Fecundity versus Civilization.88 At the First International Congress of Eugenics, V.G. Ruggeri, who despite his concern with race-mixing, put forth Mendel's monogenism to bolster his own argument in favor of monogenism; and Lucien March spoke on "The Fertility of Marriages According to Profession and Social Position." The opening of Raymond Pearl's lecture on "The Inheritance of Fecundity" made clear its position within this tradition,

The progressive decline of the birth rate in all, or nearly all, civilized countries is an obvious and impressive fact. Equally obvious and much more disturbing is the fact that this decline is differential. Generally it is true that those racial stocks which by common agreement are of high, if not the highest, value, to the state or nation, are precisely the ones where the decline in reproduction rate has been most marked.89

Another preoccupation of the early scientific racists which was to have a large affect on the eugenicists was the scandal surrounding the Census of 1840. The 1840 Census was the first to list the numbers of Americans who were either feeble-minded or mentally ill. Examining the results, Dr. Edward Jarvis discovered that the rate of insanity among Blacks was almost ten times higher in the Northern states than in the South. The figures indicated that in Maine, for example, one out of fourteen Blacks was feeble-minded or insane, while in Delaware one out of six hundred were. The findings were held to indicate the beneficence and salutary affects of slavery.90

On reexamination, Jarvis discovered massive errors in the Census figures and began to try to get them corrected. John Quincy Adams joined him in a call for Congress to either correct or disown the Census. Their campaign lasted for ten years and was ultimately unsuccessful, in large measure because of the obstructionism of pro-slavery Secretary of State John C. Calhoun.

In 1842, Dr. Josiah Clark Nott (who would later translate European racist Arthur de Gobineau's "Essai sur l'inegalite des races humaine") published an article in the prestigious American Journal of the Medical Sciences inspired by the still-standing 1840 Census figures. The article, "The Mulatto a Hybrid--Probable Extermination of the Two Races If the Whites and Blacks Are Allowed to Intermarry," argued that the low fecundity of mulattos indicated that they were the result of a union between two distinct species and warned of the possibilities of reversion, an unexpected "return to either of the parent stocks" in offspring.91 In 1921, at the Second International Conference of Eugenics, W. F. Willcox of Cornell University presented a paper, "The Distribution and Increase of Negroes in the United States," which used the Census figures from 1800 to 1920 to prove that the ratio of increase of Negroes to whites was significantly higher during the slavery years than it had been since Emancipation. The paper cited "Dr. J. C. Nott of Mobile, Alabama," who was described as "one of the few Americans who enjoyed before the war an international reputation in the field of ethnology."92

In the late nineteenth century, a series of studies of American families purportedly plagued by feeblemindedness appeared, beginning with Richard Dugdale's exposition of the Jukes family in the 1880's. All of the family studies were of families who were remarkably similar to the eugenicists: they were white, Protestant, native-born, non-city dwellers. They were of Anglo-Saxon descent and for the most part, their lineage dated to the colonial settlers. The only difference between the two--sometimes hidden in the term of art "feebleminded"--was the poverty of the rural families.93 Even Davenport conceded that feebleminded was a term of art, when he wrote in 1912, "[F]eeblemindedness is no elementary trait, but is a legal or sociological rather than a biological term."94 The family studies and the concept of the feebleminded menace provided a way to make the families, who were neither institutionalized, foreign, nor "colored," into people who were "different" or "other" from the eugenicists. In the same way, the new scientific racism was discovering many different "races" among the foreign immigrants, all previously conceived to be members of a single, "white" race. The family studies were thus one aspect of the domestic program of scientific racism.

This is only a preliminary look at the connections between the American scientific racist tradition of the mid- to late-nineteenth century and the early twentieth century eugenics movement. More examples undoubtedly exist. The extent to which the two movements echoed the same themes has not received the attention it deserves.


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