Eugenics Holy War: Casualty Report


Four-year-old Naiomi Hill murdered in shame

Four-year-old Naomi Hill murdered in shame

Francis Galton never claimed that eugenics was a science, although he worked to develop a science to support its goals. Galton believed that eugenics was a kind of religion, a belief system based on faith, and more than 100 years ago he chose the word “jehad” or holy war to describe it. Naiomi, pictured on the left, is one of the several recent victims of the continuing war. An example of eugenics at its best.For eugenics to function at its most effective potential, it needs not rely on forced sterilization, large custodial institutions, restrictive marriage laws or other such blunt instruments. In its most effective form, it uses more subtle but more effective means. It simply employs the social attitudes that link a deep sense of shame to disability.

Recent cases from around the world tell us that these attitudes are still present. In the UK, Joanne Hill is on trial for drowning her four-year-old daughter Naomi. The court hear this month that this mother was ashamed of he daughter’s cerebral palsy and hearing impairment. Two weeks ago, Palestinian police stumbled on and liberated a brother and sister with mental disabilities who were kept caged and hidden in the basement by their father for more than 30 years. The father said he did not want to be laughed at for “bringing abnormal children into the world.” At the beginning of August, the grand Jury report in the case of 14-year-old Danieal Kelly who was starved to death by her mother revealed that Danieal was locked away in a dark room and neglected because her mother was ashamed of her own child.

Each of these parents is responsible for his or her own actions, but we all share some responsibility for the attitudes that lead to this deep sense of shame in many parents around the globe. While such attitudes persist, the eugenic holy war is not dead, it has simply evolved to a higher and more virulent form.

5 thoughts on “Eugenics Holy War: Casualty Report

  1. These are indeed horrible crimes, but I am skeptical of an attempt to place the blame on eugenics, of the 20th century or new varieties. People have been exposing or mistreating children who were different for thousands of years, and the sense of personal shame motivating these parents differs from a eugenic view that society as a whole could benefit from changes in the gene pool. For instance, this sense of shame would attach to disabilities caused by a somatic effect, e.g. viral infection, with no genetic causes, where eugenic concerns would not apply.

    “Francis Galton never claimed that eugenics was a science”

    Why is this a surprise? What would it even mean for eugenics, or environmentalism, to be sciences? What would it mean for environmentalism to be a science? Both are normative stances about desirable states of the world that science might provide information about how to achieve (via population and molecular genetics, or ecology and climatology).

    “Each of these parents is responsible for his or her own actions, but we all share some responsibility for the attitudes that lead to this deep sense of shame in many parents around the globe.”

    But what actions mediate this? In the Orthodox Jewish community there is widespread use of genetic testing to ensure that couples who are both carriers for lethal or very painful recessive genetic diseases do not marry. These people could make a statement by having children who would suffer from these diseases, which might help to undermine the stigma of having, e.g. a child with Down’s syndrome, but it is not obvious that the minute adjustments in broader social attitudes would justify the large amounts of resultant suffering.

    “While such attitudes persist, the eugenic holy war is not dead, it has simply evolved to a higher and more virulent form.”

    In what sense are rare horrible crimes such as these ‘higher and more virulent’ than Nazi state-sanctioned mass murder of those with disabilities? The most widespread ‘eugenic’ modern practice with large effect is prenatal diagnosis and abortion, which reduces the frequency of persons with disabilities being born into the homes of bigots or those who are unprepared to accept and love them.

  2. Nice post Dick, and thanks for the thoughts Utilitarian.

    Although Dick’s post begins by saying that Galton “never claimed that eugenics was a science”, something U implicitly endorses, in fact Galton DEFINED eugenics as “the science of improving stock — not only by judicious mating, but whatever tends to give the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had” in Inquiries into the Human Faculty of 1883, which is where he coined the term “eugenics”. It’s a curious characterization, to be sure, blending together the idea of a science with a particular subject matter–improving stock–with the gesture to the sorts of instrumental means by which that subject matter might become a reality, thus tying the “science” to the kind of political movement that eugenics was to become. And it’s not the only characterization one could give (or even that Galton gives). But it is one that Galton gives, perhaps his best known.

    How closely eugenics is tied to genetics is a tricky issue. Since genetics wasn’t developed until the first decade of the 20th-century following the “rediscovery” of Mendel and the coining of both “gene” and “genetics”, it seems anachronous to cast Galton’s ideas about heritability in terms of genetics. And the sorts of views that Galton had about the inheritance of HUMAN qualities and traits, and about superior and inferior kinds of people, long predate him. Many would argue that eugenics precursors can be found all the way back in Plato–certainly that was the view of John MacEachran, head of the Eugenics Board in Alberta for 45 years, who wrote on the topic in advocating for Alberta’s eugenic sterilization policy (JM was also the founding chair of the department I belong to). In any case, there are clearly many more ways to “improve stock” than through strictly genetic means, which is one reason why many would see continuity between (say) the eugenics of the past and transhumanist modifications of the person in the present and future.

    Eugenics is often associated with state-sponsored policies. While the most visible and most egregious excesses of eugenic enthusiasm–leading to mass murder, sterilization, and institutional confinement–have been orchestrated by state- or national-level laws and policies, it’s also clear that eugenic ideas are converted to bad outcomes for real people (especially real, vulnerable people) through more subtle means. Like everyday attitudes of fear and discrimination directed at people who just don’t measure up to certain ideas of what acceptable normality amount to. Where prenatal diagnosis and abortion fit in this mix–not just as abstract ideas about “facilitating parental choice” or “reducing the harms that disability bring”, but as practices that change the sorts of people we consider it acceptable or preferable to create–remains contentious.

  3. Spirit,

    Historically, the term ‘science,’ drawing on classical sources, had a rather broader application, e.g. the musical sciences. I think it’s fair to say that the modern use of the term ‘science’ is about descriptive knowledge of the world, and so a political ideology cannot be part of science, and Galton did not claim that eugenics was science in this sense, as opposed to a normative ethos in addition to biological science.

    It’s important to parse out the normative and descriptive elements when talking about the ‘faith’ of the eugenicists, or of eugenics as ‘pseudoscience’ that has been ‘refuted,’ lest one conflate two separate questions: Would eugenic interventions have changed the gene pool in the direction sought by the eugenicists? Are various eugenic efforts ethically permissible?

    Sometimes I see a peculiar ‘passing-the-buck,’ wherein scientists say that eugenics was bad science because of ethical reasons, while commentators on ethics say that eugenics was bad because it was pseudoscience.

    With respect to Galton, his contributions were in statistics and the precursor of what is now called quantitative genetics, the study of the relationships between phenotypic traits in relatives. The modern synthesis in evolutionary biology involved the demonstration that those phenomena could be explained by the independent variation of many Mendelian genetic loci of individually small effect.

  4. Independent of what the word “science” means, or what we think Galton meant in using the term to characterize eugenics, it doesn’t follow that “a political ideology cannot be part of science”. Nothing special about science here; the same is true of medicine, education, and family relations. We can make words whatever we like, with a hat tip to Humpty Dumpty, but that’s strictly irrelevant to whether ideologies (political or not) form a part of science or any other human endeavour. That’s to be an empirical question, one answered positively in the history of science many times.

  5. I was wrong to say that he never said it was a science, but I think it is accurate to say that he saw it as something that would become a science in the modern sense. Galton seems pretty clear throughout in portraying eugenics as a “potential science.” He talked about it as an an article of faith, something that he knew to be true without clear empirical support and repeatedly suggested that future research would produce the empirical support to provide the scientific proof. His personal contribution to developing this future science was Biometriks, which his followers Pearson and Fisher further developed into statistics. So I would have been more correct to say that Galton never claimed that there was an existing scientific basis for eugenics but believed that one would emerge. In presenting his probability theory in 1907 as the big gun for his holy war, Galton suggests, “When the desired fullness of information shall have been acquired, then and not till then, will be the moment to proclaim a ‘Jehad’ or Holy War, against customs and prejudices that impair the physical and moral qualities of our race.” So he viewed Eugenics as a kind of a priori truth for which science would eventually provide support. I agree with the “passing the buck” comment above.

    And what I meant about eugenics evolving into a higher form is not intended to say that it is worse than the dark days of gas chambers. I do intend to say that if eugenic attitudes are widely disbursed and heartily accepted throughout the population, there is little need for formal laws and gas chambers. The Nazis stopped the formal euthanasia program in 1941 but the killing went on because the principle was well accepted. After the War people like Fredrick Osborn and Sheldon Reed were explicit in the need to back off from the use of coercion and work toward convincing individuals that things were being done in their own best interest.

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