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Eugenics in the Early 20th Century

A Review of the Book Race Improvement, or Eugenics (1912)

I’ll be getting back to my survey of the Great Books soon, but it has been a while since I wrote a book review, and I read an interesting work yesterday.

Throughout my life, eugenics has been something of a dirty word in intellectual circles. It usually comes up in reference to the social dangers of out of control human genetic science. From the mid twentieth century on numerous science fiction stories had cast totalitarian Eugenicists as antagonists–the best known early example is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In the Star Trek chronology the Eugenics Wars almost wiped out humanity and produce Khan Noonien Singh and his genetically engineered goons. The trope is still popular today. For example, in David Weber’s long-running Honorverse space opera series the Mesan Alignment, a group dedicated to perfecting the human genotype through genetic engineering and selective breeding, are recurring villains.

Eugenics has so many negative connotations today that we forget that in the early 20th century it was a fairly respectable idea. People were just beginning to grasp a modem understanding of things like hereditary diseases. Watson and Crick would not discover DNA for another five decades, but empirical statistical analysis was already being done to estimate the probabilities that certain human traits would be handed down to peoples offspring. There was real interest in the health implications of heredity and the possibilities of “improving the race” through selective breeding.

In 1912 La Reine Helen Carter wrote the book Eugenics or Race Improvement: A Little Book on a Great Topic. Last month Project Gutenberg released a well-proofread electronic edition. The book is short enough to read in a couple hours and gives a fascinating snapshot of the state of thought in the Eugenics Movement at the end of the Gilded Age.

La Reine Helen Baker lived in Spokane, Washington and was one of the main leaders of the women’s rights movement on the West Coast. Her influence peaked between about 1909 and 1912, when she was in high demand as a speaker at suffragette conventions and orchestrated a two year European grand tour to network with suffragettes internationally. She seems to have shamelessly leveraged this platform, along with a very modern understanding of book publicity, to sell her book and several magazine articles on her other passion: eugenics.

Baker in 1910 [from The Spokesman Review, Public Domain]

Baker in 1910 [from The Spokesman Review, Public Domain]

In the book she recommends a program of education to teach people about heredity, combined with physical examinations to allow the fittest individuals to marry each other. She also advocates the sterilization of “the unfit”, by which which she means idiots, habitual criminals, and those with serious hereditary diseases. She seems to think that leprosy and most sexually transmitted diseases are hereditary. In a newspaper article of the same period she criticizes the government for funding the leper colony in Molokai, Hawaii where “lepers are allowed to marry and perpetuate their kind”. She waivers a bit on the question of whether to sterilize alcoholics, but concludes it probably isn’t necessary since natural selection tends to destroy them and since their children “aren’t always” alcoholic themselves.

She also makes a kind of neo-Malthusian argument. The standard neo-Malthusian position is that technology increases production to counter the exponential rate of population increase. Baker argues that fitter people will produce more and that, “The world does not contain too many people, it only contains too many of the wrong sort of people.”

Baker’s writings are, unsurprisingly, infused with a strong feminist strain. She also seems to have had an ongoing flirtation with socialism and ideas about equality and social welfare appear throughout her book. She calls for paid maternity leave, sex education in school, co-education, easy divorce, and a welfare program for new mothers, including fresh milk, which sounds substantially similar to the USADA’s current Women Infants and Children (WIC) program. In fact, other than paid maternity leave, all of these things now exist in the US. Baker herself was wealthy. In the same newspaper article she claims to personally support three children’s hospital wards. Today we might be tempted to label her as a “limousine liberal”.

She was also prone to the prejudices of her time: She is horrified by the idea of mixed marriage and says that “each race” should look to its own improvement. Once, when invited to speak at a banquet, she was astounded to find out that Chinese women had been invited. She betrays a deep distrust at the idea of women pursuing careers outside the home. She believes that people are criminals because they are born to “degenerate” bloodlines, and that environment plays little role.

The main reason modern intellectuals are so distrustful of eugenics is because we know what happened later. Tthe well-meaning ideas of people like La Reine Helen Baker became fused with the more dangerous pseudo-science of Arianism. By the 1930’s the Nazis had discovered how easy it was to broaden the definition of “degenerate” to include any group that got in their way. Genocide was their preferred tool to protect the “Master Race”, not sterilization. Baker herself specifically states that she is against abortion, infanticide, or “the lethal chamber”. The fact that any of these options was under discussion by 1912 is scary in itself.

When we read an old book like this, our first impulse is to dismiss it as hopelessly archaic. Look how much our ideas have changed in the last century, right? But we will never completely escape the ethical question of how much eugenic manipulation is acceptable. Today we have sequenced the human genome and genetic testing is standard during pregnancy. We already know enough to advise certain people not to breed. We will soon have the ability, if we don’t already, to engineer custom people the way we already do seeds and vegetables. It can even be argued that, now that technology removes most forces of natural selection, we need to take control of our own evolutionary destiny. It is inevitable that some government or group, somewhere will again experiment with a policy of Eugenics because while the underlying science has advanced, the basic temptation hasn’t changed in a century.

Is 2015 the Year of the Transsexual?

If you read any news at all you have probably noticed the recent deluge of stories about trans-people. The tabloids (and now the mainstream media) are obsessed with Bruce Jenner’s sex change.  MTF actress Laverne Cox, seems to be everywhere at once. Leelah Alcorn’s suicide, and subsequent time-delayed tumbler messages, have outraged millions of readers and drawn attention to the role of gender issues in many teen suicides. The New York Times, always a good barometer of the left-of-middle zeitgeist, has been dropping stories at a rate of about one a week profiling various photogenic young people with non-binary sexual identities. Brad and Angelina, always on trend, have discovered that they have a transgendered child. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Tambor turns in a stellar performance as a transitioning MTF on Amazon’s visually stunning and generally well written show Transparent. The producers of Glee, seemingly in an attempt to prop up their ratings, have announced that one of their regular characters is going to transition gender in the show’s final season.

Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent [Copyright Amazon Studios]  Fair Use Justification: This is a single low resolution still image from a television show, used for purposes of criticism or education.  There is no public domain substitute available and it does not affect Amazon Studios' future profit potential.

Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent [Copyright Amazon Studios]

Why is the media suddenly flooded with trans-related content? Are we witnessing the results some sort of transsexual conspiracy? No. Not really. Overall, any coverage that portrays transgender individuals as human beings and makes the population aware of gender issues is a good thing. It is far healthier than the way transsexuals have previously been portrayed on TV: as clowns, freaks, and sexual deviants. It helps undue some of the damage caused by pornography which objectifies transsexuals, portraying them as little more than mindless, pliable sex toys. But gender rights activists like Kate Bornstein, Riki Wilchins, and many others have been trying to raise awareness of transsexual issues in the media for decades without ever achieving an effect of this magnitude. This trend is obviously coming from another quarter; there is no way it can be attributed solely to activism and identity politics.

I believe that we are about to witness another major shift of battle lines in a culture war which has been fought for over 200 years.

Gender rights first emerged as an issue in the context of women’s rights. However women’s rights was not initially seen as a separate issues. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century the civil rights movement attempted to secure human, civil, and political rights for women, blacks, and everyone else who wasn’t an affluent white male. Most of the important nineteenth century abolitionists were also feminists; nearly all of the important feminists were abolitionists. This changed dramatically right after the civil war, when the 39th Congress passed the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Suddenly, it looked as if black Americans had a real chance of securing the full rights of citizens. The leadership of the women’s rights movement put pressure on black leaders and Radical Republican congressmen to hold out for equal rights for women as well. Unfortunately, it was believed that bringing up the question of women’s rights would be politically unpalatable and kill the entire project.

Prior to that time Frederick Douglas, the most influential and charismatic black activist of the period had been a close ally of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the acknowledged leaders of the feminist movement. They broke when Douglas told them that he planned to support the civil war amendments because blacks needed civil rights more than women did. From that point on the black rights movement remained separated from the women’s rights movement. Slowly and painfully, the ruling powers decided to accept black men as full members of the society, but dug in and continued to fight against female equality.

American women finally received the right to vote fifty-five years later, the first big victory in their campaign. Now, after many more battles, women are also–mostly–considered equal citizens of the polity.

The gender wars were far from over, though. Homosexuals and transsexuals, long an oppressed minority in America, began to assert themselves in 1969 with the Stonewall Riots. This movement too began as a coalition: homosexuals, cross-dressers, sex workers, and transsexuals. Again, after many battles, the forces of freedom pushed back the reactionary battle lines. By the 1990’s society had–grudgingly–agreed to accept the membership of homosexuals as long as they were “normal” in every other way. It had now become acceptable for a person to be gay or lesbian as long as they still fell within society’s binary conception of what a “man” or “woman” was. The establishment dug in again and “mainstream” homosexuals began doing everything they could to distance themselves from transsexuals, cross-dressers and queers who might spoil their hard-won acceptance.

The Stonewall Riots [Student Project]

Now the reactionary establishment is preparing to execute another strategic withdrawal. The “moral majority” is going to come to the decision, articulated by the mass media, that it is acceptable to be a transsexual as long an individual transitions all the way. The male-female binary must be maintained, and they will go on fighting to protect it. “Real” transsexuals, having anticipated this moment, have already begun cutting themselves loose from cross dressers, gender queers, and anyone else who doesn’t fit the correct stereotype.

But gender isn’t binary. It isn’t even a two-dimensional spectrum that runs from male to female, but a complex construct of many variables. Many people fall somewhere in the middle. The most likely result of any either-or system as a prerequisite of social acceptance is to pressure transgender people, especially young people, into seeking a full transition, dooming them to an expensive, painful, dangerous process that they might not need or want. I am completely in favor of people being able to live in their own gender, but it is ridiculous to only offer two extreme choices and tell them they have to choose.

Society will be forced to accept this too, in time. But rest assured, there will be some other group which is marginalized and made to fight for their rights. The culture war continues, exhausting our civilization and leaving us so focused on identity politics that we are unable to deal with the real issues of our time. Honestly, why are we obsessing over transgender people instead of global warming or overpopulation or a top-heavy system of wealth distribution that is a revolution waiting to happen? I wish we could just make peace in the culture war and move on to the real problems.


Further Reading:
Bornstein, K. (1994). Gender Outlaw: on Men, Women, and the Rest of Us. New York, NY: Routledge.

Epps, G. (2006). Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.

Wilchins, R. A. (1997). Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books.