“The whole point of the Eugenic pseudo-scientific theories is that they are to be applied wholesale, by some more sweeping and generalizing money power than the individual husband or wife or household. Eugenics asserts that all men must be so stupid that they cannot manage their own affairs; and also so clever that they can manage each other’s.”
― G.K. Chesterton
“If we cut up beasts simply because they cannot prevent us and because we are backing our own side in the struggle for existence, it is only logical to cut up imbeciles, criminals, enemies, or capitalists for the same reasons.”
― C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics
As early as 400 BC, Plato advocated for screening the population to weed out those deemed to be weak or incompetent. The term eugenics (good growing) was coined by Francis Galton in England in the 19th century. Galton was a half-cousin of Darwin. He chose to interpret Darwin’s findings to mean that society should strive to eliminate those people who were “feeble-minded,” “deviants,” etc. His ideas were adopted by prominent individuals on both sides of the Atlantic (including Churchill).
Positive and negative laws were passed. People deemed to be strong and intelligent were encouraged to marry each other; they were asked to reproduce. Those that did not meet the government’s criteria were discouraged from or forbidden to marry each other. There were also numerous state-run programs that promoted forced sterilization of those who were disabled, had low IQ’s, engaged in criminal behavior, were “deviants,” or belonged to a minority group.
In the United States up to 60,000 people were forced to undergo sterilization after a 1927 Supreme Court decision agreed that these programs were legal. It is important to note that the criteria used to perform these procedures was left up to the states. “Feeble-minded” could mean that a woman had a baby out of wedlock. Homosexuals were called “deviants,” and African American, Native American, and Hispanic populations were targeted in certain states.
There was opposition to these laws, but it is striking to read how much a part of mainstream thinking these projects became. Religious leaders, charitable foundations, and of course politicians strongly advocated for these principles. Eugenics became a philosophy. They had their own logo and celebrated international conferences. Pope Pius XI and the Catholic church strongly opposed the movement.
It took the endorsement of Nazi Germany to begin to discredit eugenics. Under the Aktion T4 campaign, German citizens who were poor, mentally ill, blind, deaf, developmentally disabled, promiscuous (but only the promiscuous women), homosexual, and who knows what else were marginalized, segregated, sterilized, and eventually murdered on a massive scale.
It began by housing these people in sanatoriums. Maybe because there were so many eligible individuals and so little space, maybe in order to save money, German doctors began to kill them. Families were told that they had died of medical conditions, such as appendicitis. Some families became alarmed, particularly those who knew that their relative had already had an appendectomy. At great expense and inconvenience, many families took their relatives back home. To their credit, a few newspapers protested.
Hitler’s minions backed off, for a while. Within months new asylums were found. They were purposefully placed far away from the “sick” person’s home. Initially the doctors starved them to death; eventually a faster process had to be found. This is where the gas chambers and ovens started.
Residents of these neighborhoods where asylums were located noticed the smell of burning flesh. They saw human hairs floating around their towns. There was no uprising. The definition of “mentally defective” was expanded to include Jews, Roma (we no longer call them gypsies), and anyone who opposed the government (after all, you HAD to be mentally ill if you did not appreciate everything that Hitler was doing for you).
The asylums were “successful,” so much so that concentration camps on a large scale were built in countries that Hitler invaded. All of us know the rest of that story.
A few details caught my attention. Even though hundreds of thousands of Roma were killed, complete extermination was avoided because they were not as easy to find as Jewish citizens were. The Roma migrated as a way of life. One of Hitler’s lieutenants convinced him to leave a few Roma alive, so that they could be used for the amusement of German citizens. A huge park was conceived, where Roma people would be forced to settle in it. They would be fenced in. German citizens would pay to walk around the periphery, much like we do in today’s zoos, to watch them take care of their children and any livestock they may have had.
Many German doctors enthusiastically participated in the sterilization and extermination programs. Some did research in human subjects, which they later published. Once the Nuremberg war crime trials started, it was decided not to prosecute the vast majority of them. It turns out that Eugenics programs in the UK and US were similar to those practiced by Germany. Nobody wanted to shine a light on their own countries. Nothing happened to most of these German doctors. They continued to practice medicine after the war, some of them in prominent positions.
In the last decade we have witnessed an explosion of technical genetic knowledge. We are forced to deal with the ethical implications of what can be accomplished with current capabilities. Most ethicists are OK with aborting fetuses that are afflicted with genetic abnormalities like Down syndrome and Tay-Sachs disease. There is a major difference between one couple deciding on their fetus, and a government setting its own criteria for marginalizing and sterilizing vast numbers of citizens.
A larger problem awaits us. Someday it will be possible for us to have “designer babies.” You can go to the Large Box Baby store near you to order a tall male athlete with blue eyes as your next son. Again, people do not think ahead. When 90% of the boys in the neighborhood are tall and have blue eyes, the five-foot-ten Hispanic kid with dark brown eyes will be the one that girls find most attractive. Therefore, giving him a mating advantage.
We must be vigilant. Many genes have more than one function or use. For example, the sickle cell gene, which makes life miserable for people who have two copies of it, protects its bearers against severe malaria. The gene for myopia is associated with a higher IQ. If we try to eliminate these genes from our gene pool, we may end up with unintended consequences.
We should have learned our lesson from the Holocaust. Many people have not. Ethnic cleansing remains a huge problem. Racism (meaning people who believe races other than theirs are inferior or undesirable in some way) is rampant. People who know nothing of genetics think that it is OK to do everything in their power to promote “racial purity.” This ignorance exists in all continents, among all races. Many politicians have learned how to manipulate the populace. They instill a fear of immigration and they rile against people’s efforts to have everyone treated the same under the law. They have succeeded, to a greater or lesser extent. They have large followings.
They forget that, under the genetic superiority programs that they advocate, most of them would not make the cut.
When will we ever learn?