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July 03, 2009

On Eugenics and History (II)

I have the privilege of corresponding, from time to time, with historian of eugenics Gie van den Berghe, a professor at the University of Ghent.  I reprint below his comments on my recent post on eugenics and history:

You call Oliver Wendell Holmes' line 'Three generations of imbeciles are enough' "infamous", but that is how we judge it here and now. In fact it was, seen in its time, a courageous and logical standpoint (and of course not only the decision of Holmes but of the almost unanimous Supreme Court). So his/their decision shouldn't, in my opinion, so much be admired ('Holmes was nevertheless ready, willing, and able to utter the infamous line') then understood.

"We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concer­ned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are mani­festly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11. Three generations of imbeciles are enough".

 Generally one cites only this part of 'The Supreme Court Opinion in Buck v. Bell' (or some extract of it), but the Opinion continues and ends by the following line:

 "But, it is said, however it might be if this reasoning were applied generally, it fails when it is confined to the small number who are in the institutions named and is not applied to the ultitudes outside. It is the usual last resort of constitutional arguments to point out shortcomings of this sort. But the answer is that the law does all that is needed when it does all that it can, indicates a policy, applies it to all within the lines, and seeks to bring within the lines all similarly situated so far and so fast as its means allow. Of course so far as the operations enable those who otherwise must be kept confined to be returned to the world, and thus open the asylum to others, the equality aimed at will be more nearly reached."

This kind of argumentation had been employed in the 1920s by several eminent American and European men, frequently with a reference to the many thousands young, vigorous men who had died or ho were mutilated during the devastating Great War. In 1920, in Weimar Germany, the reknowned jurist Karl Binding and doctor Alfred Hoch pleaded wit this and other arguments for the 'euthanasia' for so-called lifes unworthy of life (Die Freigabe der Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens), and Adolf Hitler did the same in 1924 in the first part of his Mein Kampf.

his is not to claim that Nazism was founded on Darwinism. There is no direct link, but indirectly one can trace a kind of reasoning about asocial, marginal 'elements' in one's community, a community that was seen as of much greater importance than the individual. The people (Volk), the nation, the body of the nation (Volkskörper in German) had to be saved of the contaminated, rotten cells/individuals it contained. This kind of thinking generated in Great-Britain, shortly before Darwin wrote his 'On the origin of species' (1859) - think for instance of Herbert Spencer. And after the publication of Darwins masterpiece, more and more thinkers, such as Francis Galton, adopted it. Now that the motor of evolution, natural selection, was discovered, one was afraid that the biological evolution, this progress of the human species, was countered or even stopped by Civilisation. A civilisation who not only kept in live marginals that Nature normally would have eleminated (poor laws, medicine, hospitals, asiles), but even made possible that these unfit breed and multiply themselves at a faster rate then the fittest specimens of the nation.


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