There was a time in American history when an influential scientist could ask, without raising eyebrows, “Can we build a wall high enough around this country so as to keep out these cheaper races?”
That time, in the early 20th century, is explored in The Eugenics Crusade, a documentary directed by Michelle Ferrari that’s part of the PBS series American Experience. Both Ferrari’s film and the series as a whole are now in contention for Emmy nominations. The documentary shows how eugenics—the idea that human society can be bettered through forced selective breeding—flourished as a scientific, social and political force for decades.
“It’s a chapter of American history that’s just not known, and that was very motivating for me,” Ferrari explains. “The idea that this movement unfolded in the 20th century and most people don’t know anything about it and certainly don’t know the extent to which it inflected our laws.”
The eugenics movement grew out of Darwin’s theory of evolution that identified natural selection as the driver of life on earth.
“Francis Galton, who was a pioneering statistician in Britain and a cousin of Darwin’s, became really fascinated by his cousin’s work and began to wonder whether or not it would be possible to engineer evolution,” Ferrari tells Deadline. “He did a lengthy study about gifted men…and concluded from this study that intelligence was inherited.”
American thinkers ran with the notion, and succeeded in popularizing a belief that criminality, poverty, alcoholism and imbecility could be vanquished if you just prevented certain kinds of people from passing on their “defective” genes.
“By limiting the birth of people who were deemed to be unfit you were by definition enhancing the stock of human society,” Princeton University historian Keith Wailoo comments in the film. “The idea was that eugenics would solve all of these broader social problems if enacted in a robust way.”
It was a short leap from there to begin sterilizing people to keep them from reproducing. In 1907 Indiana was the first state to adopt a law allowing compulsory sterilization, followed by more than two dozen other states. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a 1924 Virginia law that compelled the sterilization of patients in mental institutions.
“The numbers are a little bit murky, but somewhere between 60 and 70,000” people were subjected to forced sterilization in the U.S., Ferrari says. “By and large they were people who were caught up in the dragnet of the state in some way. So let’s say you were arrested for loitering or drunk-and-disorderly conduct, or you were an orphan, and you’d been brought into the system in some way, you would be given these intelligence tests and provided a diagnosis and frequently the only way out of institutionalization, if you were branded a moron or less, was sterilization.”
Not surprisingly, it was a privileged set that got to pass judgment on who was fit to reproduce.
“They’re almost all white. They’re almost all Protestant, middle- to upper-middle class,” notes author Daniel Kevles in the film, “and they tended to equate human worth with the qualities that they themselves possessed.”
That group tended to view immigrants streaming into the country in the early 20th century—many from Southern and Eastern Europe—as genetic invaders. Among those expressing alarm was Madison Grant, a zoologist who published “The Passing of the Great Race” in 1916, a tome that extolled the “Nordic race” as the ideal of human evolution.
“For him [the tide of immigration] was an onslaught and an insult. And he became very enamored of the ideas of eugenics, in part because it gave him a way to kind of justify the refusal of these strangers who he found impossible to live around, much less with,” Ferrari observes. “Madison Grant was just doing full blown pseudo-science…‘The Passing of the Great Race’ is a bunch of nonsense.”
It may have been nonsense, but in Germany the Führer took a liking to it. Ferrari points out, “Hitler refers to ‘The Passing of the Great Race’ as his bible.”
The revelation of Nazi death camps at the end of World War II exposed the catastrophic impact of eugenicist ideology. Even before that, the eugenicist concept that poverty was caused by bad genes was called into question by the Great Depression, when the number of poor swelled by the millions.
“The problem of eugenic thinking was an utter ignorance of social causes of social problems,” the historian Wailoo comments, “a tendency to over-biologize.”
The last eugenics laws were not eliminated in the U.S. until the 1970s. Today, though, gene editing technology offers the prospect of altering the composition of human society by reducing or eliminating some heritable diseases, like sickle cell anemia and hemophilia.
Prenatal screening for genetic abnormalities is already routine; in Iceland optional testing has virtually eliminated Down syndrome.
“The vast majority of people who have amniocentesis, and are told that they’re going to have a baby with Down’s, abort,” not just in Iceland but elsewhere, Ferarri notes.
“Some wonder if modern day attempts to eradicate hereditary disorders equate to eugenics,” observes KnowGenetics.org, a website run by biology students at the University of San Diego. But the site goes on to state, “The most significant difference between modern genetic technologies…and the historical use of eugenics is consent. Today, individuals pursue genetic testing by choice. An individual can never be forced into testing or be required to take action, such as sterilization, based on the results of a genetic test.”
Ferrari sees that as a key distinction.
Selecting human genetic traits “is a matter of private aspirations…but it’s unlikely to wind up in the hands of the state, if I were to make a guess or a prediction,” she comments. “The ability to perfect or create a perfect being will be limited to those who can afford to do so.”