Thursday, July 16, 2009

Eugenics in the contemporary world

I was attending and presenting at the History Teachers of Australia National Conference today, and finished by going to an amusing little session by a teacher called Kate Quin, called: 'Eugenics: how a pseudo-science changed the world'.

The background was excellent, with a detailed discussion of eugenics as a logical outcome of Darwinism, and the precursor (and direct inspiration of) the development of modern concepts of DNA. (Though one of the attendees commented that the history books seem to carefully skirt the fact that a lot of the inspiration behind DNA studies came from the 'scientific studies' associated with the Nazi death camps!) The presenter made particularly good use of Victorian (State of), archives, to demonstrate how everyone who was anyone in the intelectual elite in Melbourne in the late 19C to early 20C was a eugenics enthusiast. It was just so modern let everyone was into it, including all the great names in law, education, government, business, and charity (even including the founder of the Brotherhood of St Lawrence).

The talk tied in extraordinarily well with the Darwin exhibition I had seen at the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge the week before.

She then showed the famous eugenics tree visual, and commented that a good sign of a pseudo-science was how desperately hard people tried to justify it by bringing in every conceivable piece of evidence on matter how irrational (and unsuitable). I am afraid that I then raised a good laugh by commenting that this made eugenics last century somewhat like global warming this century.

(I wonder how many of them realised I was not being entirely funny. We had already discussed the problem of getting students to accept that people genuinely believed something that we now know is rot... How much better it would be to draw some modern concepts that 'everyone knows' and then ask" but what if we find out we are wrong? If global warming - sorry, climate change - is too sticky, try chemotherapy as an easy sample which you can't help but think future scientists will be appalled by!)

But an interesting side light of the whole presentation was the assumption that Eugenics is a Western concept, and died out in the sixties and seventies. Was it? Did it?

On the 'did it die out' thing, I pointed out that the World Health Organisation still officially hopes to improve the third world by discouraging breeding - though preferably through education as much as birth control; and Lorenzo pointed out that one of the big criticisms of Sarah Palin as a candidate for Vice Presdent of the US, was that she had knowingly brought to term a disabled child.

On the 'Western concept' part, I immediately brought up India's forced sterilisations, and China's forced one child policy.

I did like her suggestion that eugenics was tied to martial enthusiasm, and tended to die out when the West got over colonialism in the sixties and seventies. (Though I have doubts over whether the US is really 'over' it's imperial phase.) So I made the counter point that India and China may be at a similar level of political development at the moment. Indeed relations between the Han and the Uighers in China could be considered a more direct interpretation of traditional eugenics than even the one child policy.

In fact racial purity, and breeding for superiority, has been a pretty constant pattern throughout history. I can even suggest when it has been most prevalent!

Healthy and energetic societies on the way up do not stop to worry about such things. Phrases like 'cosmopolitan' and 'melting pots' tend to layer through the history books. But societies suffering the first strains of defeats after centuries of success do tend to worry. Our presenter tied the outbreak in eugenics in Britain and the Commonwealth to dismal failures of troops in the early stages of the Boer War. (She made the good point that they did not stop to consider the generally poor diet and health of the new industrial suburb recruits into the armies.) If you are a Gibbons fan, you could make similar arguments for Ancient Rome. Certainly Germany got heavily into eugenics AFTER the Great War (leading inevitably to the great death camp debates which make everybody so nervous about talking about eugenics in the modern world). The United States (which, if you believe the "decline and fall" world perspective, is probably on the decline), was doing some very unethical forced sterilisations right through the Cold War.

So what does that say about India and China today?

Nonetheless, it was very interesting how the discussion inevitably became bogged down in issues of Nazism, while ignoring the equally prevalent practices in Marxism and Communism (in fact in any 'ism' that inevitably feels that social engineering is a good thing - see Joss Weedon's "Serenity"). There was also some fairly nervous pussyfooting around issues of racism in modern Asia, until one of the Asian teachers in the room leaped in to state that she was quite happy to talk about Asian racism, and could actually get away with it only because of her race. (Which I found a nice comment on modern racism in itself).

Just as the discussion was getting bogged down, again, in issues of definition of racism, Lorenzo interrupted once more to point out that the real issue from most cultures and societies is the xenophobia not racism. He followed that up by pointing out that throughout most of history, particularly pre-modern history, religious divisions have been far more important than race; with skin colour only been an issue in the last few centuries. He suggested that the most embedded 'ism' in human affairs would probably be sexism.

I have rarely been to an academic conference session that I have enjoyed more. Yet I cannot help but be aware, that this is partly because it was so easy to stir up a lively debate: and one that so beautifully revealed various people's preconceptions, and the boundaries of their moral 'comfort zones'.

From my perspective, eugenics is just as shorthand term for a particular presentation of the sort of behaviour and belief which is prevalent in most societies through out much of history. The fact that it sometimes takes a political importance beyond just being a general background assumption that everybody knows, probably has more to do with the stage of self-conscious navel-gazing which inevitably follows a stage of unselfconscious expansion and aggrandising for any society. Nor do I really believe that Australia has completely avoided this issue in the modern world. Think for a moment about the attempted social engineering policy that we have called "multiculturalism". Consider the goals of multiculturalism, from the perspective of 'improving the species'. Now consider a future history teacher setting an essay to compare and contrast between the Social-Darwinian goals of ethnic cleansing and multiculturalism?

Personally, my main issue with the entire topic, is to call eugenics a pseudoscience. Eugenics was a genuine attempt to answer some questions, and was therefore a real science. If we can agree that science is a matter of theories, and not perfect knowledge, then all science could technically be described as pseudoscience. In reality it appears that the term pseudoscience might be attached to anything that we now like to think of as politically incorrect. In which case eugenics has been tarred with the Nazi brush, while people simply fail to assess the good and bad concepts it may have added to our understanding about the modern world. Realistically, it is no less scientific than many other things that have classified themselves as sciences, including Darwinism, communism, and in all probability economics.


  1. Pseudoscience is often a term used interchangeably for 'bad science'. I think it becomes 'pseudo' when you claim scientific process yet ignore anything that goes against your theory. Pseudoscience is derogatory and connotes more than it denotes. I agree that it was a genuine attempt - by some people - to answer questions, but it was also a genuine attempt to gloss over a lot of other things.

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