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Unnatural Selection
Discover, September 2003

A review of War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race by Edwin Black (Four Walls Eight Windows)

James Watson, the codiscoverer of DNA's double helix, thinks the world would be a better place if there were fewer stupid people. "If you really are stupid, I would call that a disease," Watson said on the documentary DNA, which aired in Britain in March. "The lower 10 percent who really have difficulty, even in elementary school, what's the cause of it? A lot of people would like to say, 'Well, poverty, things like that.' It probably isn't. So I'd like to get rid of that, to help the lower 10 percent." His solution: engineering the genes that influence intelligence in order to eliminate stupidity in future generations. It would be foolish for parents not to use this technology, he added, because genetically enhanced children "are going to be the ones who dominate the world."

Watson, whose own son has a learning disability, may have had the best of intentions when he uttered these words. Yet they carry sinister echoes of one of the most shameful chapters in the history of science. Ironically, that chapter unfolded at the very institute that Watson now heads: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. Now a world-renowned genetics institute, it was from 1904 to 1939 the home of the Eugenics Record Office, the headquarters for a national movement to improve the human race through selective breeding. The Cold Spring eugenicists believed that the unfit had to be prevented from passing on their defective genes for blindness, criminality, insanity, and—of course—stupidity. Time and again, they spoke of sterilizing the "submerged tenth"—the most unfit 10 percent of the population.

Echoes of this crusade reverberate not just in Watson's remarks but throughout the current debate on human genetic engineering. Unless you know the history of eugenics, though, the true significance of this is lost. A fascinating—if flawed—guide to that history is Edwin Black's book War Against the Weak. In it Black traces the roots of eugenics back to the 19th century, when British scientist Francis Galton and fellow eugenicists latched onto the newly emerging science of genetics as a key to improving the human race through better breeding. In time, these ideas gave rise to American laws that empowered doctors to sterilize people they judged to be unfit to pass on their genes. As a result, Black estimates, some 60,000 people were sterilized in the United States over the course of the 20th century.

Perhaps most chilling, though, were the ways in which American eugenicists influenced their German counterparts. "I have studied with great interest the laws of several American states concerning the prevention of reproduction by people whose progeny would, in all probability, be of no value or be injurious to the racial stock," Adolf Hitler told a Nazi confidant. The Rockefeller Foundation and other philanthropic institutions in the United States funded the research of American-trained German eugenicists even after the Nazi Party had made its genocidal intentions clear. That research played a major role in the subsequent mass murder of millions of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally disabled, and others deemed a threat to the purity of the so-called Aryan race.

War on the Weak is filled with tale after tale of arrogance, ignorance, and cruelty—accounts that Black wisely allows the eugenicists to relate in their own words. For example, Harry Haiselden, the chief of staff at German-American Hospital in Chicago, boasted of letting sickly babies die, proclaiming, "Death is the great and lasting disinfectant." Nor were these eugenicists fringe fanatics. They were embraced by universities, funded by major foundations, and given legal sanction by Congress and the Supreme Court.

When it comes to figuring out what all these wretched details add up to, however, Black falters. In lurid terms, he tries to paint the history of eugenics as an all-powerful conspiracy worthy of its own episode of The X-Files. He seems to suggest that were it not for American eugenicists, German plans for a Final Solution would never have been conceived. "Within these pages," Black promises, "you will discover the sad truth of how the scientific rationales that drove killer doctors at Auschwitz were first concocted . . . at Cold Spring Harbor." Certainly, American eugenicists gave the Nazis training and funding. But Germany had its own tradition of pseudoscientific racism reaching back well into the 19th century.

The Holocaust did brand eugenics with the bad name it so richly deserves. Yet, as James Watson's statements on stupidity suggest, the spirit of eugenics still smolders—despite the fact that, as an effort at genetic manipulation, the eugenics movement was a complete failure. It's likely that any such future attempts are doomed to fail too. Hundreds or thousands of genes play a role in intelligence, each with a tiny role in a giant cooperative venture. Not only would it be enormously difficult to manipulate so many genes in a single person, but scientists would still have to reckon with the even more complicated matter of how the environment influences those genes. Today's dreams of a master race, it seems, are as empty as they were a century ago.

Copyright © 2003 Carl Zimmer. Reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission from the author.

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