Eugenics Round-up

Some eugenics news items of interest…

In Dissertation Reviews, Alison Bateman-House reviews Bradley Hart’s dissertation (Cambridge, 2011; Richard Evans, advisor) on eugenics in Britain, the U.S., and Germany begs the musical question, “Really? Another dissertation on American, German, and British eugenics? Not clear what’s new here, other than casting the oldest comparison in the history of eugenics in the trendy language of things like “transnational context.” Haven’t read it yet myself, but I am curious about the argument of chapter 2 that of the three nations, only in the US was the eugenics program not derailed by WWI. Is Hart a Rassenhygiene-denier?

If you or someone you love was sterilized under North Carolina’s 1959 “Jolly Bill,” which sought to solve the problem of out-of-wedlock births by sterilization, you have until the end of June to file for compensation under the class-action suit. The Tarheels are sorry, but although the eugenicists were tried, their patience is too. Jolly indeed.

I knew that Margaret Sanger was a eugenicist with some ugly views on race, but I didn’t know that conservatives think I don’t know that. Another thing I didn’t know is that everyone in the Progressive era was racist. Gee, you learn the most interesting facts on teh interwebs! Really, though, can we be a little more careful with our language? It’s one thing to caution against judging historical actors in terms of present-day ethics; it’s another to assert that “Literally everything we have here [in the U.S.] is a result of the less douchebaggy moments of racists.” Because if that’s true, then everything we have here is also a result of the less douchebaggy moments of sexists. Sanger was criticized at the time for her views on race. We can admire Sanger’s courage on sex and gender while criticizing her on race. That’s okay: this is history, not a fairy tale.

Huh. Apparently, the new fad in Hollywood is transhumanism. The Center for Genetics and Society reviews Transcendence, a new film that  addresses issues such as regenerative and synthetic biology, consciousness uploads, and other sci-fi fantasies. Curious about the film–okay, I guess “film” is stretching it–even if it is trashy. Especially if it’s trashy, actually. I’m still uncomfortably on the fence about the linking of creepy things like prenatal genetic diagnosis and eugenics to good clean fun like making yourself into a cat or a lizard. But into the breach we go, it seems. New rule: When Johnny Depp does it, it’s no longer edgy.

Good clean fun.


11 thoughts on “Eugenics Round-up”

  1. Probably Hart is just iterating once again the well-known failure of German eugenicists to pass legislation in the 1920s only, right? Six thousand percent inflation will kind of derail such things.

    I agree, though, the review didn’t really get me all ramped up to read it. Besides your and Stern’s new books, I haven’t really seen anything on eugenics in the last three years that tries anything legitimately revisionist or interesting. You think the literature is cooling in its love affair with eugenics?

    • Thanks for the compliments! Maybe 3 years is too narrow a slice for historical work, though. The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics is 2010 and I still consider it recent. It has a few very good essays in it. Paul Lombardo is working on some interesting new material, not yet published. I have a graduate student working on genetics, eugenics, and deafness; her dissertation is very fresh and is getting terrific recognition and accolades. I have another student starting in the fall with a very revisionist turn of mind who wants to work on genetics and African-Americans. And I get loads of inquiries from students in this field, as well as invitations to write summaries of the history of eugenics. (most of them I turn down.)

      So no, I wouldn’t take one dull-sounding dissertation as a sign of flagging interest. I’ll file “Whither the history of eugenics?” for a future post. Thanks.

      • I didn’t know Lombardo was planning some more work. That’s excellent news. When I started thinking about doing a dissertation on eugenics back int eh before-times of 2011, I was a little worried by the time I was done people would be sick of it. They always tell you in writing never to chase the trends (and as any grad student who has begun a dissertation knows, suggesting that we have read enough of the literature at that point to understand the shape of it is laughable), and certainly that’s true (good scholarship will always be recognizable as good scholarship), but I’ve sat in on too many discussions where a job talk gets ripped to shreds for being too “passe,” or not “trendy” enough.

        Anyway, I’d love to know if your advanced student is putting out any articles on deafness, genetics, and eugenics, or giving a talk in the Boston area in the next year!

  2. “Is Hart a Rassenhygiene-denier?”
    Another attack on free speech on the way? Around the world there are increasing number of laws forbidding discussion sensitive subjects. Russia even forbids discussion of Neuremberg trials. As recent news has showen even private conversations can get one’s career destroyed. Forbidding such discussions fuels the claim the subject will not stand up to examination. And drives open minded people to censorship free zones like www DOT stormfront DOT org. There people can openly discuss forbidden subjects anonymously.

  3. Previous comment got censored, infamous “Your comment is awaiting moderation.”. Here is more moderate version:
    “Is Hart a Rassenhygiene-denier?” Another attack on free speech on the way? Around the world there are increasing number of laws forbidding discussion of sensitive subjects. As recent news has showen even private conversations can get one’s career destroyed. Forbidding open discussion fuels the claim the subject will not stand up to examination. It is driving people to web sites where frank discussion is still allowed. These are often called hate sites because they allow opposing views. It isn’t about hate, it’s about seeking the truth, as politically incorrect as that might be. For example WWII slave labor. How many people know that German prisoners were kept in scores of small prison camps to provide farm labor? Visit the museum of one such in Eldora, Iowa, USA.

    • Cool it, Lee. I just went rock-climbing last night and didn’t go back to my computer.

      Who’s the one attacking free speech? The tone of this blog, as you doubtless realize, is often flippant, but there is always substance under the snark. By “Rassenhygiene-denier” I meant to invoke a large historiography on the complex and multivalent program of German human heredity research from the 1870s to the 1920s, while flippantly punning on ridiculous Holocaust-deniers. That pun was meant for entertainment purposes, to either make people laugh or wince or jump up and down and post the same comment multiple times. But behind the pun was a reference to serious scholarship.

      I refuse to get into a drawn-out argument over the Holocaust-deniers. I also refuse to get into arguments about whether there were dinosaurs on Noah’s ark, whether the sun revolves around the earth, or whether Libras can ever get along with Scorpios. People who want to argue about such things are welcome to do so, so long as it remains a verbal, reasonably civil discussion. Knock yourselves out.

      I don’t, though, censor very many posts, FYI. If you look through the comments, you’ll see I even post spam, if I think it’s amusing. If anyone starts spouting nonsense I may eventually get bored and stop replying, but so long as it stays within pretty rough-and-tumble bounds, you can have at it.

      • I was not asking you to debate about the Holocaust, or anthing else for that matter. Nor was I against your freedom to say what you said. I was just pointing out how an admittedly flippant remark might be taken very seriously by those who would forbid free speech. For example Russia has banned critical discussion of Neurmberg trials. That is very close to banning discussion of German eugenics, the Rassenhygiene. Your writing brings up very important issues and I am glad to see it. I do suggest you might want to be a bit more clear on what is satirical and what is serious. The printed word is poor at conveying the fine nuances of speech. The fact that this little exchange between us exists is a sign that freedom of speech is not all dead.

        • Thanks for this gracious comment. Agree whole-heartedly with your last sentence.
          The blurring of satire and serious is not for everyone but it’s a deliberate and integral aspect of this blog. Hence my tag-line, “Here lies truth.” I mean that in both senses. This is tacitly a blog about language.
          Always glad to debate and discuss serious issues–although watch out, sometimes I bullshit in a very deadpan way. Often it’s to make a larger point. Sometimes I’m just a smartass. Yes, there’s a risk. That risk, or one of its cousins, is present in most of what I publish. People have said the same about my last book. Keeps me on my toes.
          Thanks for reading and chiming in.

        • Dr. Comfort certainly doesn’t need me to defend him, so I will just add two things:

          1) The history of eugenics is certainly sexier than most, but writing is a craft and the intent (esp. if you’ve read this blog before) was clear enough. Bringing history of science to the public walks a fine line, and this blog does it well.

          2) “Freedom of speech” gets trotted out on teh interwebz as an a priori preclusion to legitimate criticism far too often. But discourse–conversational or written–is a polysemic-enough process (on both ends, Derrida would point out) without you muddying the waters by equating some perceived attempt by this post to shut Hart up with a violation of free speech. So let’s be clear: Telling a Rassenhygiene-denier (not that Comfort thinks Hart is, as he noted in his response to you) they are stupid is not the same as restricting speech about the atrocities of the Holocaust. We don’t let public schools teach intelligent design and we don’t have to give climate deniers the same amount of air time. You just tell them to shut up, and move on to actual work.

          • “we don’t have to give climate deniers the same amount of air time. You just tell them to shut up, and move on to actual work.”

            Things are not always the way they seem. Sometimes what appears to be climate denial is actually support for climate change. Including studies that claim global cooling, not warming. They would support work done regarding the causes of ice ages. There is the Maunder Minimum and orbital variations. The fact that temperatures are not colder supports the argument that global warming is real, that greenhouse gases really do make a significance difference. We all know that too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Clearly greenhouse gas increase has to be stopped.

            I like the way Dr. Peter Huybers sums it up:
            “Another important aspect to consider is that the orbital configuration we now have is almost exactly where it was 20,000 years ago, during the Last Glacial Maximum, but this time we’re near a glacial minimum,” he said. “If you think about what the difference is between then and now, it’s not the orbital configuration, it’s the CO2. I think that’s important to keep in mind, because it shows that glacial changes are not a simple function of the orbital configuration.”

            A short summary is here:

  4. Thank you for being open minded about discussions. You need not post any of my comments that are specifically submitted as milder versions of a prior post. No sense in wasting space on duplication.

    Separately, it might be interesting if anyone considers the effect of eugenics as practiced through femicide and selective abortion of female fetuses. The practice is much more prevalent in certain groups. The effect is as if aggressive birth control was applied to those groups. It can result in concentration of wealth in a smaller number of people for example. People tend to marry and reproduce within their (shrinking) economic class.

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