Saturday, November 15, 2014

Better for All the World by Harry Bruinius

Harry Bruinius takes the title of his book, Better for All the World, from a quote from famous United States Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.  In his opinion, written for a court majority that authorized states to forcibly sterilize some people, Holmes expressed the notion that it was better to sterilize a defective person than to permit them to have defective children who may place greater burden on government systems for justice and welfare.

This legal justification for forced sterilization was just one of the policy victories of the eugenics movement in the America. Eugenicists were also influential in establishing state marriage laws and federal immigration quotas and restrictions.

Even from its start, notions of social engineering and politics tinged the science of eugenics. Francis Galton coined the word that applied to both the study of heredity and the improvement of humanity through selective breeding over generations. Galton established the field based on concepts from his cousin Charles Darwin’s books on evolution, Gregor Mendel’s studies of plant heredity, and his own statistical studies of human characteristics. Though he mostly kept these speculations to himself, he considered the possibility of improving humans through breeding just as farmers improved plants and livestock.

American reformers of all political persuasion welcomed Galton’s ideas; they were looking for reliable, scientific means of tackling poverty and crime. Galton’s method were used to study families and supposedly proved that traits related to poverty, criminality, low intelligence, and the harder to recognize (therefore more dangerous) feeblemindedness. These studies also uncover a troubling pairing in females of feeblemindedness and fecundity. The implication was that the good stock of moral, productive Americans risked overrun by a class of hereditary degenerates. America’s best needed to produce larger family, and its poor and feebleminded needed to be restrained from passing on their inferior traits.

Much of Bruinius’ book focuses on this American eugenics movement. Representing leadership in the scientific community is Charles Davenport. He popularized the work of Galton, convinced the Carnegie Institute to fund a station to study eugenics, and did research that contributed to the early development of genetics. Representing the bridge between science and policy is Harry Laughlin. A Missourian and a protégé of Davenport, his reports and advice to Congress helped to inform restrictive immigration policy and support state programs of forced sterilization of convicts and the feebleminded, ultimately upheld in by the Supreme Court, as previously mentioned, in the case of Buck vs. Bell.

The development of eugenics policy in the U.S. was being watched overseas. In particularly, racial purity laws enacted by the Nazis in Germany explicitly cited American research and legal precedents. Many reformers in America and elsewhere were gratified by the apparent success of eugenics policies in Germany.

Even as it was reaching its peak as a political reform movement, laboratory science was undermining eugenics. Laboratory studies of the mechanisms of heredity, which had discovered chromosomes by the 1930s, were showing that heredity and the expression of traits, especially moral or personality traits, were much more complicated and harder to predict than the eugenicists assumed. Through its association with the Nazis, eugenics became wholly discredited in the public mind, though its effects lingered in American policies for decades.

Our understanding of genetics and heredity has improved a lot. Biotechnology has made a new kind of genetic engineering possible. The eugenicist dreams of eliminating disease and creating better people in future generations is more attainable than ever, at least in limited ways.

If this puts our evolution in our hands, are we ethically and morally evolved enough to use this power? Are humans intelligent animals or are we unique creatures? Are human rights inalienable characteristics of human beings, or are they social constructs, ideas that can rise, fade, or change like other ideas? How does the good of the species relate to the good of the individual? What does it mean to be a parent? The way we answer these questions, and other related to the implications of our science and technology, will establish what kind of people we are, and possibly the destiny of generations to come.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Bruinius, Harry. Better for All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America’s Quest for Racial Purity. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.