Philosophy, Eugenics & Disability in Alberta and Places North – Dick Sobsey Parts 1 & 2

On October 25, 2008, the What Sorts Network hosted a public symposium to examine, well, philosophy, eugenics, and disability in Alberta and places north.  Four speakers were featured on the panel, Dick Sobsey, Simo Vehmas, Martin Tweedale, and Rob Wilson.  This event was video recorded and over the next month we will highlight these videos on this blog.  Videos will be featured on average twice a week, roughly every Saturday and Wednesday.

To download the full description of the symposium please click here.

We begin this series with the first two parts of the presentation by Dick Sobsey titled “Varieties of Eugenics Experience in the 21st Century.”  This presentation amounts to a summary of various kinds of eugenic motivations, justifications, and practices from the 19th century to today with a good collection of anecdotes and trivia. A transcript of both parts follows the fold.

Part 1

Highlights from part 1 include: shift from religious to scientific view of the world; quality of life; social Darwinism vs. biological capitalism.

Part 2

Highlights from part 2 include: evolution as ability to control and kill vs. development of cooperative behaviour; possible anthropological evidence for a severely handicapped child being cared for by family or community about 1,000,000 years ago; how we are all born into the world needing the care of others; source of the “hotness” scale; the first family degeneracy study; the origin of the term “jukebox”.


I want to introduce some ideas about eugenics as it developed over time and eugenics in some ways how it’s practiced today. And so if we go back and look at the 19th century, and I think you can certainly go back and say that in some way eugenics was being practiced in ancient times, etc. But I think if we look at the modern advent of eugenics anyway, in the 19th century we really had a shift in that science was replacing religion as starting to be a dominant force and one of the implications of that for example if you lived in a class system or in a royalty system, before it was sort of “I’m a king and you’re not, because God wants it that way.” Now we shifted, we needed a new explanation for the same phenomenon and now I could say, “I’m the king and you’re not because nature wants it that way, I’m more highly evolved in some way.” And so power inequity started to be explained by scientific differences instead of religious differences. I think we also see this for example, you had in the olden days you had Martin Luther who said that it was okay to kill changelings because they didn’t have a soul. In modern bioethics we talk about the lack of sentience and whether or not people don’t qualify for personhood and if they don’t qualify for personhood they don’t have moral status. Or we talk about the lack of quality of life and I’m not entirely sure that we can define quality of life or measure quality of life in some objective way any more than we can a soul, but we’re a lot more comfortable today with the quality of life explanation than the soul explanation. The theory of evolution certainly had a major impact, and I guess the way that it turned into eugenics in someway is through the concept in a sense of meta-evolution. So if you take Darwin’s theory the way that it’s explained most of the time, it talks about a natural process in which the relationship between the environment and organisms in the environment favor some and don’t favor others and those that survive, multiply, etc. are considered to be the fittest. Having discovered that to some extent we could have said “that’s fine, now we know what’s going on” but being the kind of people we are, what we tended to say is “that’s fine, now how can we take control of this process?” And so one of the things that happened is we began to say rather than whoever survives is the fittest, that we can identify who is the fittest, in many cases that meant noble of English birth, white, etc. and that we would in a sense help evolution achieve that. And of course one of the explanations that we’ve had over time is because man has interfered in some way with the natural process of evolution that therefore we need to compensate by that, since we can somehow understand what nature was trying to do and we can make that happen as a result of our manipulation of the process. I would simply point to other places where we have not been particularly successful in trying to replace natural processes with scientific control. And if you look at for example our idea of managing forests, for example, in taking over and trying to do better than nature we developed forests that have rows of trees of the same age lined up waiting for massive forest fires to occur. And so there is some question about whether our interfering with these natural processes actually in some way produces an outcome that’s better even in terms of our own expectations, let alone whatever we might conceive of as naturally desirable. It’s also interesting, Darwin was very clear in talking about his understanding of evolution and how he came to that understanding, that his concept was based heavily on Malthus, that talked about population control, competition, and that population control needed to be controlled in a sense by creating harsh conditions. And so it’s interesting because Malthus presented in a sense an economic model in which he was talking about how resources would be shared or dispersed. And it’s interesting now a lot of times, we make that reference to social Darwinism in terms of some of the practices of highly capitalistic, competitive models of the ways that things should work out there. But I think when you look at that influence you can also see that in some way our view of evolution maybe sort of started from a capitalistic model, so maybe we should talk about biological capitalism rather than social Darwinism.

And it’s also interesting that the way that it was often being interpreted when people explained evolution they talked about tool use, weapon use, etc. In a sense, they described the ascent of man largely in terms of his ability to control and kill less fortunate human beings or other species. Now it’s interesting that more recent views of evolution, partly based in anthropology suggest that it was the development of cooperative behavior, of families, of communities, etc… When I first heard the concept in anthropology, that the reason that people learned to walk on two legs instead of four was so that they could carry groceries home, I thought that they were being, I thought they were kidding. But that’s a serious concept. One of the really interesting things along this line, Meev Leeky who was curator at the National Museum of Kenya and one of the people in finding this neutral cotomy boy who is the oldest complete homo erectus skeleton about a million years old, and a lot of times you hear about the discovery of skeletons they’re talking about the discovery of a few little bone fragments and from that they reconstruct it, but this is a virtually intact skeleton of about a 12 year old homo erectus that lived a million years ago. Now not all anthropologists agree with Leeky, but what she was saying was that this homo erectus skeleton was of a severely handicapped child, that there was severe scoliosis, that this 12 year old could not have hunted or gathered etc. And her interest in this is that what she suggests is that this actually demonstrates that there were families and communities at that time, because this individual could not have survived without that. So it’s interesting to see that at least in some cases now and some people would say this represents the feminist entry into science, that rather than whether or not you can manipulate an electric drill or Colt .45 is no longer being seen as the critical thing, but whether you can engage in cooperative behavior etc. And in fact one of the very clear things in terms of the development of intelligence that I think everybody agrees with is that part of the ability of humans to develop a higher level of intelligence is based on having infants that are born where their central nervous system is not fully developed and has a couple more years of development and this means that unlike a horse that can get up and walk around and eat on its own hopefully shortly after it’s born, that human beings in order for survival of the species depend on care-giving etc. So, but certainly the idea we had of evolution at the time tended to focus much more on a harder kind of competition.

And finally I would talk about intellectualism. And Galton, as some of you may know, some of you may be familiar with this notion of rating people on how good-looking they are on a scale of 1-10. This was another invention of Galton. And Galton went around England on the trains with a little card that he poked pins into rating everybody on whether they were 1-10 etc. and concluded that Scots were the ugliest people in the United Kingdom. Please, don’t take that from me, that was Galton’s conclusion (laughter) on a scientific basis. But the point I want to make about this, I think while some of us might engage in something like this, that person’s a 10, that person’s a 2, or whatever, I don’t think many of us today see that as a highly scientific process. What I want to point out is that when Galton was starting his work in intelligence, intelligence, beauty, athleticism, were all seen as concepts which were kind of vaguely defined. I mean, people agreed that you could be more intelligent or less intelligent, people agreed you could be more beautiful or less beautiful, but interestingly with intelligence we actually decided that not only could we have a 10 point scale, but we could have a 100 point scale. And that we would be able to measure intelligence as a unitary factor. I think right now if we tried to measure athleticism as a unitary factor, basketball players would have one idea of what athleticism was, hockey players would have a slightly different idea of what athleticism was. If we tried to say that there’s one, instead of a G as we have in intelligence, as the one central core that we have in intelligence, that there’s one central core in beauty and it might play out in different ways etc., I think people would be uncomfortable with that. Nobody denies that there’s such a thing as beauty. Nobody denies that there’s such a thing as athleticism. And I certainly wouldn’t deny that there’s such a thing as intelligence. But the idea that this is a discrete single characteristic that can be measured as one particular number that characterises an individual, didn’t start to exist until largely through Galton’s work and the people who followed him. So, we had at the same time these family degeneracy studies, or virtually at the same time, and I’ll talk about them a little bit more. And there were permeating racial and class structures, both in the roots that came from Galton and the UK and also in these degeneracy studies that started at least in the United States. Interestingly, the Jukes, the first family degeneracy study was officially published in 1877 when Dougdale says he discovered the Jukes. However, it had already been in the New York Times by 1874, not necessarily called the Jukes etc. So the Times were on the ball as usual. Talking about these groups of families, and particularly about Margaret the mother of criminals. I mentioned to a group of people yesterday that I’m particularly proud to have discovered that my ancestry actually intersects with the Jukes and who were at the time, if you read the New York Times, the principle moral failing of the Jukes was intermarriage. The proof that they were morally inferior was that they intermarried with Indians and blacks, and that was particularly a problem, even in New York State at the end of the Civil War in a lot of people’s minds. Interestingly the word Juke, although nobody really knows where it came from, Dougdale never really talks about that, none of the others actually talk about that, is a Gulla word. Some of you make know the word jukebox. Juke is an African word that in Gulla and many African languages that means “wicked place” and so what happened was during slave days and after the slave days there were places that people went to drink and dance etc. that were not really the official pubs, etc. often out in the woods, hidden places, etc. and those were the places that grew into what were called jukes later on and when they came up, they often didn’t have bands, and when they came up with these automated machines for music, those were the first places those were installed and that’s where the name jukebox came from.

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