Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Eugenics - A Recovered History

While I was at Gen Con, I passed by the Indiana State Library and Historical building. In front of the building was an interesting sign (both sides displayed here). For those who drop by my blog with some frequency, you'll know that I often discuss the American Eugenics program. This was a series of state laws passed in the early 1900s that forced sterilization of the "unfit," and also (in some states) required tests to prove adequacy for marriage.

So what does that mean? The interpretation varied, but basically, the various state laws were designed to improve the overall "stock" of humans by sterilizing those who appeared inferior. Naturally, the amount of money earned was a clear choice as a genetic trait that needed to be culled from the human species. So "pauperism" was deemed genetically inherited, and the poor were typically sterilized to prevent from adding to the gene pool (although genetics where not yet understood). Over the years, many methods for determining the "unfit" were found. One of the cornerstone books published in the late 1800s was often cited. Lombroso's The Criminal Man - although the book dealt with both genders. Lombroso did a study of "criminals," looking for physical attributes. And he believed he'd discovered quite a few. He published his findings in a book - sometimes making the eyes darker in photographs to enhance the effect - and the world had a photographic catalog of criminals. If you're interested in some of the traits Lombroso found, read most any H. P. Lovecraft story that has a character "degenerating" into a monster. I also have a post on Lovecraft and eugenics: American Eugenics and H. P. Lovecraft

There are many reasons why these laws passed in the United States, and it is surprising that it lasted until the 1970s before they were repealed. This was a case where tens of thousands of Americans suffered forced sterilization because it was believed they would reproduce "unfit" offspring. Another popular book that influenced this movement was The Passing of the Great Race, by Madison Grant. This book would later be described by Adolf Hilter as "his bible." Of course, fans of Lovecraft might also notice a common name "The Great Race of Yith" (an advanced race, threatened by a flying cancer of sorts -Lovecraft termed them "polyps"). Of course, Lovecraft wasn't the only author influenced by the eugenics craze. Many authors dabbled in similar writings. If you get a chance, Read Dashiell Hammett's The Degenerate. It uses Lombroso's theories to speak to the issues of criminality.

This is a large topic, so I'll leave space for later.

4 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

I remember studying up on this when I was in grad school, and found it such a shameful thing. It's important to remember that such movements were not only afoot in Nazi Germany, but in plenty of other countries as well, including the US. I remember, almost, a quote from the time. "three generations of imbeciles are enough," as a justification for sterilizing low IQ individuals.

John Goodrich said...

Yeah, one of Vermont's shameful secrets is that it had one of the more 'progressive' and successful eugenics programs in the country. UVM keeps a Special collection and a website on the subject.

William Jones said...

Charles - You're quite right about the quote. It was from a Supreme Court ruling. IQ was one of the means of determining if a person was unfit - even though there were no accurate IQ tests. In fact, these tests were often very slanted in favor of particular groups.

John - There is an interesting fiction book that deals with Vermont's eugenics program (I'm pretty sure it is Vermont). The book is SECOND GLANCE. And the site you provided is very useful. There was a great push to control "breeding" in humans. Oddly, there were several other approaches that hinted at the subject. "Teeth" and dental hygiene were often used as starting points to discuss eugenics. So if you see something about dental hygiene from the early 1900s (really up through the 1940s), it might be a sneaky approach to discussing heredity (AKA eugenics).

Jeff Edwards said...

I started to read THE COMING RACE some months ago but lost interest when it looked like a lengthy "history of the Vril-ya" was imminent. I'll pick up the book again one day.

-Jeff