Some Misconceptions of Eugenics

"There are few questions of greater import than those relating to the forces which are moulding the innate qualities of the human race. There is no knowledge which it is more important to have widely diffused than the knowledge of the means by which our human inheritance can be improved" 

It is often a misfortune for any good movement to become a fad. When this happens it is pretty sure to enlist the support of that object of Mr. Roosevelt's wholesome dread, the 'fool reformer.' And when the 'fool reformer' gets to work, prejudice against what he advocates is inevitably aroused.

The eugenic movement has perhaps its worst enemies in its over-zealous and ultra-radical friends. The advocacy of doctrines strongly at variance with established ideals and social customs makes an impression on the public mind that is not likely to be effaced by any amount of sane and sober-minded teaching. Eugenics is in a somewhat unfortunate position in that, through a little misrepresentation, it may easily be made to appear in an unfavorable light. Pearson tells us that Francis Galton, toward the close of his life, had come to fear that the new science of eugenics would do more harm than good. And considering the volume of nonsense on the subject, that is published largely for the purpose of appealing to popular interest in sensational things, there is more or less ground for Galton's rather gloomy foreboding.

The facility with which eugenics lends itself to caricature and cheap ridicule affords a temptation which is too strong for many writers to resist. No one would wish to deprive the editor of a country paper of his opportunity to wax facetious over 'eugenic marriages' and 'eugenic babies'; but it is a different matter when the same spirit of caricature is shown in articles purporting to give a serious and scholarly discussion of the subject. There are few questions of greater import than those relating to the forces which are moulding the innate qualities of the human race. There is no knowledge which it is more important to have widely diffused than the knowledge of the means by which our human inheritance can be improved. And a peculiar obligation, therefore, rests on those who discuss this subject, to be guided, whatever their opinions may be, by a spirit of fairness, and to avoid the temptation, so often yielded to, of sacrificing strict accuracy of statement to rhetorical effect.

The more I read controversial literature the more I am impressed with the frequent employment of the device of setting up a man of straw in order to demolish the object of attack with a great show of effectiveness. Such a performance is doubtless the outcome of a common psychological failing: we all wish to be victorious in our encounters and to experience the feeling of triumph, even though we are led, like the Dutch soldier whom Irving describes as achieving a brilliant victory over a field of cabbages, to expend our energies upon purely imaginary antagonists.

The best illustration of this method of attack which I have met with in the literature of eugenics is contained in an article by Mr. Fielding-Hall on 'Eugenics and Common Sense,' which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly for September, 1914. The writer states that the eugenist takes man purely as a plant or as an animal; he wants to breed him just as animals are bred'; and then, after attempting to show that domestic animals and plants have been rendered inferior to their wild ancestors through selective breeding for particular qualities, he draws a melancholy picture of what would happen if the 'eugenists' were to put their ideas into practice. 'Therefore, suppose the eugenists had their way and established a state, what would the inhabitants of that state be like in a few generations? They would be tall, broad, muscular, beautiful, delicate to a degree, useless save for athletic contests or beauty shows, always in the doctor's hands,—eugenic doctors, of course,— brainless, incapable of affection, almost wanting in courage, to a great extent sterile.' And further on we are told that 'the eugenist omits love. He knows nothing about it or about the world'; and we are given a forecast of what the world would be if 'the Eugenists could have their way and banish love.'

One would naturally suspect that all this was written purely for the sake of humor, but a perusal of the entire article leaves no doubt of its serious purpose. Nevertheless I have found myself recurring from time to time to certain passages with the uneasy consciousness that after all I may have mistaken the intent of the author. What I have found it particularly difficult to understand is, how he came to acquire such preposterous notions of the eugenic movement. When one criticizes the doctrines of the eugenists the implication certainly is, if no one is singled out for attack, that the opinions combatted are typical or representative of eugenic teaching. Nothing could he more manifestly unfair than to attack extreme or generally discredited doctrines under the implied assumption that such views are shared by eugenists in general. But this is precisely the kind of tactics which our author pursues with apparently a naïve unconsciousness of the impropriety of such controversial methods.

As the author quotes, near the beginning of his article, from 'what he calls a leading eugenic textbook,' which, by the way, is Davenport's Heredity in Relation to Eugenics, the unsuspecting reader might be led to suppose that the various reactionary doctrines that are discussed were advocated in that volume. But not only are such doctrines not found there, but there is much that implies precisely the reverse. Where then are we to find the 'eugenists' whom our author would hold up to scorn?

I have had occasion lately to make a bibliography of articles and books on eugenics in which I have endeavored to include the titles of all contributions of any scientific value on this subject. Surely a representative publication like the Eugenics Review, the official organ of the Eugenics Education Society of England, ought to voice the opinions of Mr. Fielding-Hall's 'eugenists,' in abundance; but after running through the files of that journal from its inception to the present time, I have failed to find a single expression of what our author represents as typical eugenic doctrine. In a similar survey of the chief German journal of racial biology, the Archiv für Rassenund Gesellschafts-Biologie, my search was equally fruitless. So also was an examination of the publications of the Galton Laboratory in London, of the bulletins of the Eugenics Record Office in this country, and of various journals devoted entirely or in part to human heredity and social evolution. A few years ago there was an International Eugenics Congress held in London.

One would naturally look to this widely representative body for authoritative expressions of eugenic doctrine. But if 'eugenists' of our author's type were represented at the Congress at all, they failed to make a single communication that found its way into the two volumes of the published proceedings. Probably no one has a better right to be regarded as an authoritative exponent of eugenic doctrine than the late Sir Francis Galton; but no one was more careful to disclaim the advocacy of any measures that are antagonistic to established social usage.

Who then are these 'eugenists' against whom Mr. Fielding-Hall does battle? I do not deny that some might be found, for almost every imaginable absurdity has its exponents. Our critic has sedulously refrained from mentioning any of the 'eugenists' by name. One escapes a certain measure of responsibility in attacking doctrines which are attributed to no one in particular. But in combatting the views of people loosely referred to as 'eugenists,' one should direct his arguments against opinions that are held by the majority, or at least a large percentage, of his opponents. It is scarcely to be supposed that any one who presumes to write on eugenics is unacquainted with the literature to which I have referred. But the author has chosen to ignore these sources of information, and has set up a eugenist man of straw who knows nothing of love, who would breed human beings as cattle are bred for points, and who is altogether a very ridiculous sort of person.

Mr. Fielding-Hall objects to the conclusion that the laws of the improvement of corn and race-horses hold true also for man. We are told that there is much yet to be learned regarding the laws of heredity (which almost any one would cheerfully admit), and that the result of breeding domestic plants and animals is to produce races that are imperfect or degenerate in many respects, however highly they may have been developed in others. But when he passes to the statement that the attempt to improve the human race by selective breeding would end only in disaster, the conclusion by no means follows. Man improves animals and plants in certain directions, to serve his own selfish purposes, and it is not to be wondered at that they are usually rendered less adapted to thrive in a state of nature. Animals are not bred for general intelligence, nor as a rule for general vigor, and hence they are usually, though in many cases not markedly, inferior in brain and general physique to their wild progenitors. Man, however, is an animal moulded to live in the somewhat artificial environment of civilized society; and if he has lost something of his ability to thrive under the conditions of primitive savagery, the loss is of no particular disadvantage under what is now his normal mode of life. But why, if human evolution should be directed by eugenists, man should become 'tall, muscular, brainless and wanting in affection,' is incomprehensible, unless the 'eugenist,' with all his other stupidities, should deliberately set out to create so stupid a product.

Few appreciate the enormous advances made in recent years in the study of heredity, and the large degree of 'scientific precision' that has already been attained in our control of the heredity of plants and animals. Our author indeed admits that 'there must be something in heredity,' but he candidly adds, 'I have no idea what it is.' With all the doubt and uncertainty that attaches to many questions of human inheritance there is no doubt that any one who had a fair knowledge of the principles of genetics, and who was given control over the matings of human beings, could in the course of a very few generations, produce a large number of very diverse types. He could breed a race of idiots, a race of dwarfs, a race of giants, an albino race, an insane race, a race of moral imbeciles, a race which would almost invariably get drunk in the presence of alcohol, a race of preëminent mental ability, or a race of unusual artistic talent. The task would be easy, as it would involve ojy the isolation of existing strains of the human species.

The possibilities of improving our inheritance, even with our present imperfect knowledge, are great. The difficulties are chiefly those of ways and means. Most eugenists agree that it is highly desirable to prevent the propagation of degenerate human beings. We know enough of the inheritance of feeble-mindedness, insanity, and several other defective traits to justify us in preventing those in whom these defects have been inherited from producing offspring. In regard to many other features of human inheritance we are still much in the dark, as eugenists realize as well as, if not better than, almost any one else. One need not fear that 'the eugenists would eliminate all disease and with it all ability'; nor is it probable that 'they would have prevented Lord Bacon from being born.' Only an imaginary eugenist would be likely to do anything so unwise.

Any one familiar with current discussions of the policy of restricting parenthood cannot fail to be impressed by the general counsel of caution which is given by those most prominent in the eugenic movement. But no one with an adequate knowledge of human heredity can have any doubt that there are several forms of human ills which could be very materially reduced by the proper restrictive measures.

Several years ago, in the valley of the Dora Baltia, there were many cretins and people afflicted with goitre. These people were allowed to marry among their own kind and the result was the production of children who were defective like their parents. As David Starr Jordan, who visited the place several times, remarks, 'They were breeding a special type of man utterly incompetent to take care of himself and utterly useless for all sorts of purposes.' A few years ago a policy of segregation was adopted: the cretins were confined during the reproductive period and not allowed to marry. At present they are nearly extinct. An opponent of eugenics might have warned us that our knowledge of the laws of heredity is not sufficient to warrant any meddling with the perpetuation of life among these people, and counselled the policy of laissez-faire. But if he had had his way, the idiots and imbeciles would still be with us.

While many of the critics of eugenics admit that it is not only feasible but a social duty to eliminate our hereditary defectives, they offer various objections to any attempt toward the further improvement of the human race. There is a more or less prevalent conviction that most eugenists would have marriages determined by the state in order to develop the desired type of man. People, and especially the American people, are naturally hostile toward any system which would impose restriction or regulation of freedom of marriage. And in so far as they have been led to look upon the eugenist as a person who aims to bring about matings which will tend toward the realization of a particular eugenic ideal, they are apt to experience resentment against such an infringement upon their natural rights. Who is to decide, it is often asked, what is to be the eugenic ideal? In this connection it is well to recall the remark of Francis Galton: 'Society would be very dull if every man resembled the highly estimable Marcus Aurelius or Adam Bede. The aim of Eugenics is to represent each class by its best specimens; that done, to leave them to work out their common civilizations in their own way.'

There is a sufficient consensus of opinion as to what kind of human beings are desirable in an ideal state, so that we need not trouble ourselves about further details for some time to come. Health, good nature, moral stability, social sympathy, and intellectual ability, I think almost every one would agree, we could well have in much greater measure than at present. We want more of such stock as the Lowells, the Lees, the Edwardses, the Adamses,—the stocks that have given us our authors, statesmen, educators, and successful men of the world; and we want less of such stock as the Jukes, the Tribe of Ishmael, the Kallikaks, and other degenerates who help fill our almshouses, insane asylums, and jails. We are confronted by the fact that families that fall within the first-mentioned classes are not on the average producing enough children to keep up their present number, while many of the least desirable stock are maintaining a relatively high degree of fecundity. The recent decline of the birth-rate among the classes of society that have achieved success is a serious menace to our racial welfare. And there is no escaping the conclusion that such a decline has occurred during the past fifty years in most civilized countries of the world.

The conservative eugenist wishes to effect a change in the differential birthrate in such a way that fecundity shall be correlated with those qualities that are socially desirable instead of with qualities which we wish to eliminate.

Most eugenists are keenly alive to the difficulties of effecting such a change, and they are quite generally agreed that any success in this direction must be preceded by a general enlightenment of the public, and an awakening, in those who are physically and mentally well endowed, of a sense of obligation to perpetuate the gifts which nature has bestowed upon them. In the catalogue of sins of omission there is none greater than the sin of racial suicide in a splendidly endowed strain. As Major Leonard Darwin has remarked, 'We of this generation are absolutely responsible for the production of the next generation, and therefore of all mankind in the future; and to make every citizen realize his great racial responsibility in all things connected with marriage, to make him feel this as a deep-seated sentiment greatly affecting his actions, this is the eugenic ideal.'

Eugenics is often attacked on the ground that, since we have much to learn of the factors of organic evolution, any attempt to improve the innate qualities of men is premature. According to Mr. J. P. Milum, who contributes an article, 'The Fallacy of Eugenics,' to a recent number of the London Quarterly Review, 'Eugenics is an application to human life of the current form of the evolution theory. The weak link in the evolution theory has been the attribution of creative power to selection. It is upon that very link that the eugenist has hung his case. Natural selection having failed in human life, it must be replaced, he declares, by conscious selection. And now we find that selection has no power whatsoever! It would appear, therefore, that eugenics is an untimely birth!'

Here we have the 'fallacy of eugenics'! And since the subject can be disposed of in so simple and summary a way, it is not a little remarkable that so many of the leaders of biological thought should have been deceived by its fair promises that have no hope of realization. It is a great mistake, however, to conclude that the mutation theory, which the author represents to be orthodox evolutionary doctrine, precludes the possibility of progressive evolution through natural or any other kind of selection. This theory simply substitutes relatively large and stable variations for the minute ones to which Darwin ascribed the gradual formation of species. So far as the problem of progressive evolution in general is concerned, Professor Do Vries, the chief exponent of the mutation theory, maintains that his doctrine 'is in fullest harmony with the great principle laid down by Darwin.'

No intelligent evolutionist ever held that natural selection creates the variations which must be presupposed before selection can produce any change. Darwin understood this obvious fact as well as any one at the present time. Whatever may be said of the creative power of selection, it is a demonstrated fact that selection has played an important rôle in the improvement of many varieties of plants and animals. Certainly the animal-breeder who refused to breed from his runts and scrubs would not be very 'untimely,' even in the present backward state of the science of genetics.

Whether one adopts the theory of mutation or adheres to the original form of Darwinian doctrine, should not make the least difference in his policy in regard to checking the multiplication of defectives and incapables, or endeavoring to increase the fecundity of the better breeds of human beings. It is in these two measures that the eugenic programme essentially consists.

The fact that in certain pure lines selection has not proved sufficient to produce modification beyond a certain point, has little direct bearing on eugenic measures, for the near future at all events. It is generally admitted by mutationists that the ordinary process of selection applied to a mixed population is easily able to raise the stock to the level of its best strains. Humanity presents a mixture of strains to an extent that probably occurs in no species in a state of nature; and if selection means no more than bringing out those that are most desirable and eliminating the inferior breeds it is capable of untold benefits to society. When the human species has been raised to the level of its best specimens Nature will probably be kind enough to supply us with further mutations in the direction of progress.