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The Return of Eugenics

A hundred years ago, the best American minds promoted them. They're back -- and we have far fewer resources with which to resist

Economist Tyler Cowen, on progressives and eugenics:

The subtitle of Thomas Leonard’s new and excellent book is the apt Race, Eugenics & American Economics in the Progressive Era.

I take it you all know by now this is quite an ugly story, namely that both early progressives and late 19th century American economists were often quite appalling racists and eugenicists, and that such racism was built into the professional structure of economics in a fairly fundamental way, including but not restricted to the American Economics Association.

The link is to a review of the book in The New Republic. Here’s how Malcolm Harris’s review begins:

The 1926 case Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes is a favorite liberal American story. On one side, a substitute accused of teaching evolution, the famed progressive attorney Clarence Darrow, and science itself. On the other, the state of Tennessee, creationism, and the populist demagogue William Jennings Bryan, who by the end of the trial was only days from death. Scopes lost the battle, but reason and progress won the war and the film adaptation. The Scopes Monkey Trial, as it was called, is a progressive touchstone, and in the minds of many it continues to describe the difference between the two mainstream American political ideologies.

When one revisits the primary material, however, the mainstream liberal narrative is far too simple. Jennings Bryan railed against evolution, true, but not just evolution as we understand the theory today. His never-delivered closing statement indicted the “dogma of darkness and death” as a danger to the country’s moral fabric. It sounds far out, but at the time evolution came with a social agenda that its proponents taught as fact. Jennings Bryan didn’t use its name; today, we call it eugenics.

Scopes was charged for teaching from a textbook called A Civic Biology: Presented in Problems, published in 1914. The book taught Darwin’s doctrine as fact, but it didn’t leave his conclusions there[Emphasis mine — RD]. The author, George William Hunter, not only asserted the biological difference of races, he insisted on the vital importance of what he called “the science of being well born”—eugenics. Like most progressives of the time, Hunter believed in “the improvement of man” via scientific methods. That meant promoting personal hygiene, proper diet, and reproductive control. A Civic Biology also has suggestions for what to do with “bad-gened” people, in a section called “The Remedy.” “If such people were lower animals,” the books says, “we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity would not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race. Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe.”

The textbook was wrong, both about degenerate genes and humanity’s near-term tolerance for genocide. Read between the twin specters of human engineering, The Holocaust and the American slave-breeding industry—the abolition of which was younger than Jennings Bryan—the warning in his closing argument seems not only warranted, but prophetic:

Science is a magnificent material force, but it is not a teacher of morals. It can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of the machine. It can also build gigantic intellectual ships, but it constructs no moral rudders for the control of storm-tossed human vessels. It not only fails to supply the spiritual element needed, but some of its unproven hypotheses rob the slip of its compass and thus endanger its cargo.

“Some of its unproven hypotheses rob the slip of its compass and thus endanger its cargo” is a near-perfect criticism of evolutionary theory and the era’s progressive thought as a whole. And if today’s liberals were to revisit their ideological foundations with some attention, they might not like what they see.

Read the whole review.  Harris concludes, weirdly, by saying it’s hard for him to see what any of this history has to do with our current era. Really, he can’t? The Browsers encapsulation points the way:

We can relativise such behaviour as a product of its time and alien to us now. But advances in genetics are forcing societies to confront basic questions of eugenics once again, and with better science. What are our moral arguments this time?

Cowen argues for a Millian conception of individual liberty as a prophylactic against neo-eugenics. I don’t see how that is strong enough to counter the will to power in contemporary liberalism, in both its progressive and conservative iterations, but especially in its progressive form.

Broadly speaking, the absolute telos of contemporary progressives is the Self, liberated from all bonds — especially sexual — that inhibit free choice. In its extreme popular form, we have the absurdity of people actually believing that a human being who is biologically male is rightly called female if he wishes to be. The transhumanists know what they’re doing. Our culture is sleepwalking into a world in which there is no such thing as human nature, and no such thing as humanity. Seriously, if we cannot agree on what it means to be human, aside from conscious desire, how can we agree to put limits on the individual will?

We can’t. To answer the Browser, there are no arguments strong enough to overcome the nominalism of our time, because reason is weak. Reason has to start from assumed premises, but it appears that there are no widely uncontested premises. In the Progressive Era, the liberal Protestants promulgated eugenics. Only the fundamentalists and the Catholics spoke against it. American Christianity today is far too weak to meaningfully oppose eugenics, when the argument for eugenics is stated as the liberation of personal choice. This is not because progressivism is evil, necessarily, but because of what most in our society believe about the status of individuals and the meaning (or non-meaning) of nature. Under liberalism, in both its conservative and progressive forms, the individual and his desires have come to be near-sacrosanct, and of course in the modern era, Nature is seen as inert matter, devoid of inherent meaning.

What’s to stop it? Where are the arguments that people will listen to, and be convinced by? You tell me. How do you argue with “I feel…”?



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