Myth-Making Aside, Eugenics Was a Mostly Progressive Enterprise
I have often stated that biologist/eugenicist Charles Davenport (pictured above) was one of the great villains of American history. A new book by Paul Martin, Villains, Scoundrels, and Rogues: Incredible True Tales of Mischief and Mayhem, includes a chapter on this odious man. Good.
But -- if the excerpt in Salon is a reliable indication, there may be other agendas afoot in Martin's writing about Davenport. Indeed, a reader of the article would never guess that eugenics was primarily supported by political progressives who rejected human exceptionalism. From "Hitler's Favorite American":
What's indisputable about the eugenics movement in this country is that it was driven by racial and class prejudice.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, white Protestant Americans feared being overrun by immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, people who traditionally had large families.
Groups such as the Race Betterment Foundation and the American Eugenics Society stoked those fears by suggesting that the superior traits of industrious Anglo-Saxons were being undermined by the lazy, degenerate masses showing up on their shores.
Meaning Catholics. And there's no question that the era featured pronounced anti-Catholic bigotry -- now, I'm afraid, in resurgence around other social issues.
There's some truth to what Martin writes, but he is more than implying that there is a nexus between supporters of eugenics a hundred years ago and the media myth today that religious and other conservatives are prejudiced and racist. Thus the excerpt concludes:
And while we can celebrate the fact that the bigoted, immoral pseudoscience of eugenics has been consigned to history's junk heap, regrettably the white supremacist attitude that shaped much of Charles Davenport's career lives on in the beliefs of diehard social Darwinists -- an outlook as persistent as a noxious weed, a kudzu of the mind.
Who are these "white supremicists"? Other than the rare crackpot and occasional KKK holdout, they exist mostly in the imaginations of MSNBC commentators and similarly fevered observers of the contemporary scene.
Let's get real. The Eugenics Movement was mostly a top-down phenomenon, driven into bigoted public policy tyranny by minions of the high academy, funded by ostensibly high-minded foundations like the Carnegie Institution for Science.
Moreover it was primarily a politically progressive movement -- technocratic at heart and claiming the mantle of "science" -- that presumed itself to possess the wisdom to improve the human herd. All of this was based, in part -- as my Discovery Institute colleagues have pointed out repeatedly -- on a misapplication of Darwinian principles.
Indeed, Martin could just as easily have said that Davenport was Margaret Sanger's favorite American. That he was Teddy Roosevelt's, and George Bernard Shaw's favorite American. That he was H.G. Wells's favorite American, and Emma Goldman's. Also, John Maynard Keynes and Oliver Wendell Holmes, of Buck v Bell infamy, enthusiastically supported eugenics! The list of progressive eugenicists goes on and on.
With regard to "white Protestants": Those who most supported eugenics were not primarily believers in orthodox concepts of salvation and the sanctity of human life. Rather, the most enthusiastic Protestant eugenicists were "Social Gospel" types -- a historical fact documented splendidly in Preaching Eugenics by Christine Rosen. From my review in The Weekly Standard:
The Social Gospel movement, led mostly by Congregationalist and Unitarian ministers, grew rapidly in these years among mainline Protestant churches. The Social Gospel reconceived Christianity as being less about faith and salvation, and more about, as Rosen writes, "ushering in the Kingdom of God on earth through [social] reform and service."
Many Social Gospel adherents viewed eugenics as God's plan to reconcile the truths of science with the Bible. Toward this end, Bible verses were reinterpreted and found to contain what had theretofore been secret eugenics messages. Thus, in one minister's sermon, Noah's flood was God's own eugenics policy for eliminating a human race that had degraded and become inferior. Others insisted that Christ's Parable of the Talents was actually about improving the population: In eugenics exegeses, "Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has will be taken from him," took on a whole new meaning.
Today's eugenicists are also primarily politically progressive academics -- such as Princeton's Peter Singer and Oxford's Julian Savulescu -- who reject human exceptionalism and the equal moral importance of all human life. Religious types who support the new eugenics, as in the original version, tend to come from the most liberal Protestant denominations.
Today's eugenics is not racist. But it is elitist. Progressives today tend to support "new eugenics" policies and policy approaches; eugenic abortion, genetic enhancement/engineering, eugenic infanticide, euthanasia, and/or transhumanist "post human" recreationism.
This isn't to say that there aren't conservatives who buy into pernicious neo-eugenics agenda items. But not those who believe in life. And certainly not those whom, in the debate about "pro-life" versus "pro-choice" views, most Salon readers would consider to be on the wrong side of history.