Eugenics — The mostly unknown and untold story of scientific racism. April 9, 2019

Dr. Tom Cargill Presentation to Reno Hayek Group, April 9, 2019

“Eugenics – The mostly unknown and untold story of scientific racism”


Dr. Cargill’s pre-program summary: The word “eugenics” means “well born” and was developed by combining two Greek words (“eu” for well and genics” for born). The term was coined to describe racism backed by science, the idea that there are scientific reasons to classify people as “fit” versus “unfit.” Most people would not be surprised to learn that Nazi Germany recognized eugenics and used it as a foundation for its treatment of Jews and other “unfit” categories of persons. However, most people would be surprised to learn that in developing their brand of eugenics, the Nazis used American eugenics “scholars” as their role models. And most people would not know that eugenics was a prominent element of the American Progressive Movement of the early 20th Century.


Notes from Dr. Cargill’s talk (by Ron Knecht):

Eugenics was part of a dark and troubling period in US history – a period not accurately reflected in standard accounts and teaching today of that history. The “scientific” racism of eugenics was part of the American Progressive ideology that flowered in the second half of the 19th Century through the 1930s. This doctrine classified persons as “fit” or “unfit” based on traits assumed to be hereditary, including race, mental and physical characteristics, and country of origin. That these traits were assumed to be genetic meant they were hereditary and thus immutable and not subject to alteration via environment, nurture or other conditioning methods.


The dogma gained wide acceptance, even being reflected in some decisions of the Supreme Court of The United States – as in the statement, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” That declaration was made by Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in the case of Buck v. Bell, a 1927 decision upholding a Virginia law that authorized the state to surgically sterilize certain “mental defectives” without their consent. Eugenics doctrine had a broad reach from justifying slavery to the alleged superiority of Nordic peoples (“Aryan” races) to other races. In practice it was fostered in the US by the mushrooming of the administrative state during the progressive period, and it also provided some ostensible intellectual foundation for that mushrooming.


As discussed in James Whitman’s recent book Hitler’s American Model, Nazism drew greatly on the developing American eugenics tradition, especially as reflected in an 1894 American book (Practical Eugenics?). The fall of the Third Reich undid eugenics. In the 1990s, a few historians and others revived interest in eugenics, and the matter became a hobby interest of Dr. Cargill’s at that time. How do US history and government texts treat it now, he asks? As an afterthought if it’s even mentioned.


Let’s put eugenics in the context of intellectual history, starting with a tradition founded by English cleric and scholar Thomas Malthus in 1798. He claimed that population growth was inherently characterized by geometric growth, while the supply of resources was limited to arithmetic growth. [RK note: Both these claims have been proven completely false since then.] Thus, he foresaw a future of increasing resource scarcity and even mass starvation, a notion that gained wide popularity by 1850. So the certainty was that the world would have excess population, and the question was: Who to cut?


Pioneered by the Englishman Sir Francis Galton (also the father of fingerprinting), eugenics almost raised racism to a virtue by proposing to benefit society by improving the population – and thus answering who to cut (i.e., the least “fit”). As the doctrine migrated to the US after the Civil War, it was used first to justify low military compensation for blacks and then to justify barriers to non-Nordic immigration. Implementation of eugenics was helped by the rise of progressivism’s administrative and interventionist government over-riding the outcomes of free markets.

By 1905, 32 states had sterilization laws fostered by eugenics, and thousands of people were sterilized. In 1916, American lawyer Madison Grant published The Passing of the Great Race: Or, the Racial Basis of European History, and historian, journalist and political scientist Lathrop Stoddard followed in 1920 with The Rising Tide of Color Against White World- Supremacy. Some observations by Dr. Cargill follow.


First, “Eugenics and progressivism were made for each other,” as noted by Princeton Professor Thomas Leonard recently penned the Book Illiberal Reformers. The doctrine was an excuse for the exercise of extreme coercive collectivism, the fundamental means employed by progressivism. Minimum wage legislation was also originally another manifestation of eugenics, as it proposed to let the market pay low or no wages to the unfit persons (mainly races) so they would over time die off. Even the famous Yale economist Irving Fischer bought into such dogma.


Second, perhaps the most (in)famous proponent and activist in favor of eugenics and its derivative abuses of human beings was Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger. Besides being an outright racist, her 1933 article in the journal Birth Control Review was a strong argument against immigration to America. Sterilization of the mentally ill was a popular birth control idea from the start. And in his book, Whitman noted that Hitler’s Nuremberg laws were based on eugenics and the US’s embrace of it.


Third, the notable surprise beyond flourishing of eugenics in America, is that it has been almost completely omitted from modern history and government texts, as shown by Dr. Cargill’s survey of 13 significant high school texts published during 1998-2017. (He detailed his survey methods briefly in his presentation.) Since almost all high school students must take a US history course, this omission has given them a completely false account of very important US history, politics and government.


Eugenics was mentioned in only four of the 13 volumes, while forced sterilization andBuck v. Bell were mentioned in none. Sanger was discussed in seven of 13 books, but only as a leader of the women’s movement and the person who coined the term “birth control” (not in connection with eugenics). Progressivism was discussed in all 13 texts as an enlightened movement, but not in connection with eugenics. And the 1857 SCOTUS decision in Dred Scott was mentioned in all 13, showing how politically correct matters were treated. In sum, eugenics and its disastrous history as a key part of progressivism are at best mentioned in passing, minimized and treated as not a significant part of our history.


The road from Malthus to Auschwitz, Dr. Cargill notes, is one in which the US had a significant part that is almost completely ignored by modern standard high school history and government texts. Why? First, the writers of the books don’t themselves seem to know much about this central subject. Some writers were aware, but seemed to consider it unimportant. Third, eugenics is viewed by many progressives as the crazy uncle in the family. Also, some Republicans are closet progressives and want this history suppressed. Fifth, eugenics’ relationship to abortion makes it a taboo subject for many advocates of that practice. Finally, almost all these writers are progressives with a bias in support of the administrative state, and discussing eugenics undermines that key advocacy.


What do students lose due to these biases and omissions? First, balanced and reasonably complete perspective on US history, politics and government and the roles of various factions then and now. Second, a necessary skepticism of the ideology of catastrophe supported allegedly by science. (See also climate change and other deniers.) Third, the perils of small groups, especially of self-selected elitists, controlling social power; this often leads to bad decisions and social disasters. [RK: See also China’s one-child policy.] Finally, a profound understanding of the power of an idea.


In connection with especially this last point, Dr. Cargill summarizes the last paragraph of the last chapter of the magnum opus of J.M. Keynes, The General Theory … thusly: Well, I’ve given you all some ideas more powerful than anything else – not immediately but sooner or later. He notes that Keynes, too, was a eugenics advocate and Malthusian, not just a fiscal and monetary Keynesian.