Thinning the Flock

By Michael Ruse,
director of the History and Philosophy of Science Program at Florida State University
Thursday, April 27, 2006


The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America's Quest for Racial Purity

By Harry Bruinius

Knopf. 365 pp. $30

"Three generations of imbeciles are enough." With those chilling words, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., one of the great Supreme Court justices, sealed the fate of Carrie Buck. More precisely, the court's ruling led to the sealing of Carrie Buck's fallopian tubes. Buck v. Bell put the ultimate legal stamp of approval on a practice that was already widespread: the sterilization of the supposedly genetically unfit. In 1907, Indiana became the first state to introduce sterilization laws. All told, about 65,000 people were sterilized in 33 states. After World War II, mainly because of the taint caused by similar practices in Nazi Germany, there was a decline in enthusiasm for such practices. A slow decline: The last compulsory sterilization in Oregon was as recent as 1981.

Controlling (or rather preventing) the reproduction of some members of society is called eugenics, a word derived from eugenes, the Greek term for "well born" or "good breeding." In "Better for All the World," Harry Bruinius tells the story of the United States' enthusiastic practice of eugenics. His subtitle is "The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America's Quest for Racial Purity." I am not sure how "secret" things were then or are now. Certainly, compulsory sterilization was a very public issue when in full force, and in the past 20 years, books -- notably, Daniel Kevles's "In the Name of Eugenics" -- as well as articles have been published on the topic. In 1994 there was a television drama, "Against Her Will: The Carrie Buck Story." But the topic is sufficiently important to tell again and again, and Bruinius's telling is a first-rate read.

The father of the whole movement was the Englishman Francis Galton, half cousin to Charles Darwin (they shared the same grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, the 18th-century doctor and early evolutionist). Galton became convinced that abilities are heritable -- some of his most admired studies showed that genius is passed on from generation to generation -- and he feared (as did Charles Darwin in "The Descent of Man " ) that simply letting the lower classes breed without restraint could only lead to the decline of society. Attempts to direct human breeding through eugenics arose from such fears. Bruinius's frontispiece provides an arresting illustration of the movement's motives. It is a picture of a tree of eugenics with roots in many branches of the biological and social sciences. Text written in the background describes eugenics as "the self direction of human evolution."

Eugenics came to America and flourished through the efforts of two men, Charles Davenport and Harry Laughlin. Davenport, a Harvard-educated biologist, was one of the first in America to embrace and lecture on the new findings in heredity, the theory of genetics that goes back to the findings of the Moravian monk Gregor Mendel. Laughlin was Davenport's assistant and protege. A former teacher from the Midwest, he may, Bruinius suggests, have become obsessed with questions of heritable defects because he himself was epileptic (a fact that he went to some efforts to conceal).

Davenport and Laughlin, working in their research facility at Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., and supported in part by the Carnegie Institution of Washington, were not minor, somewhat socially disreputable, fanatics. Justice Holmes's judgment proves that they had the attention of the most powerful men in the country. Bruinius reprints a letter from the then former president Theodore Roosevelt, who also expressed strong support for their endeavors.

As always with eugenics, one senses that practitioners and supporters had mixed motives. Some wanted to prevent the pollution of the Anglo-Saxon peoples by those whom they judged incompetent. Others were keen to raise the race up to some desired ideal. One certainly senses this ambivalence in the work of the Carnegie-funded group, although sometimes the two aims merge. Davenport, for example, was convinced that racial intermixing leads to degeneration and moves the group away from its desired (white, Protestant, all-American) ideals.

Bruinius suggests, rightly, that compulsory sterilization was horrible and not something of which the nation should be proud. However, because he concentrates on individuals and tries to convey their personalities, hopes and shortcomings, he fails to provide any real understanding of them or the issues that defined them. Teddy Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler had similar ideas about breeding, and evidence shows that the Nazis learned from the Americans. Yet I simply cannot see the two men as moral equivalents. Are my different judgments based simply on the fact that I know what Hitler went on to do in the Holocaust, or is it that I am not sure that sterilization is always a bad thing? After all, Hitler was strongly against smoking; the simple fact that he was for or against something is not the ultimate moral determinant. Consider a case that Bruinius mentions, that of a woman with an IQ of 71 -- just about the level that even today's Supreme Court thinks makes a person incompetent -- who had eight children out of wedlock. Is it absolutely wrong if the state says, "Get sterilized or we will keep you out of society until you are past reproductive age"? I keep thinking of all of those kids. Even if they are not genetically inferior, I doubt very much that they are going to have the warm, nurturing upbringing I have tried to give my children.

Judge me a moral monster if you will. I simply do not find these questions easy to answer, and I think a book on the subject of eugenics should at least start to grapple with them seriously. But I do not want to end on a sour note. Harry Bruinius writes well and always engagingly. If you want a good start to a problematic part of America's history, this is the book to read.

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