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.

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