Eugenics, Part II

(This is the second of two posts on early 20th century American books that prominently featured pro-eugenic points of view.  No one must forget that the United States also had its share of eugenics proponents in that period.  The first post is here.)

Figure 1 – Title Page

The Science of Life is a large work (1480 pages) from 1934 (the American printing), by several well-known authors.  (See Figure 1.)  H. G. Wells is of course the English author of The War of the Worlds, as well as many other fiction and non-fiction works.  G. P. Wells was his son.  Julian Huxley was an English evolutionary biologist and influential author.

Their work is an in-depth look at what was known about biology and evolution at that time, in language understandable by most people.  As with The Laws of Life, the authors take the reader on a grand tour, and in the last part, turn to the implications of evolution for humanity.  After reviewing humanity’s profligate use of natural resources and discussing population growth, they turn to eugenics (see Figure 2)*:

“Certain types, it seems natural to assume, will breed more abundantly than others.  The most vital issue from the point of human biology is the question of what types will breed most, whether they will be the types most helpful in the progressive development of the world community and, if not, what measures are possible, advisable and desirable to replace nature’s method of selection-by-killing by an alternative method of selective reproduction—Eugenics: that is to say, the preferential breeding of the best.”

By page 1470 (see Figure 3), there is no hesitation in referring to those with mental challenges as “defectives”, as if they were mere machines rolling off an assembly line.  And it is here that the lament begins:

Figure 2

“Apart from this traceable (and easily controllable) increase of idiots and imbeciles, there is very little evidence that any change in the average human being is now going on.”

Of course, this “control” that we could have comes from sterilization, as described at the end of page 1469 (Figure 2).

But from their perspective, there is hope.  As the authors continue,

“In a little while, it may be possible to handle these issues with exacter definition and much more confidence.  All those who have had experience of birth-control work in the slums seem to be convinced that there is a residuum, above the level of the definable ‘defective,’ which is too stupid or shiftless or both to profit by existing birh-control methods.  These ‘unteachables’ constitute pockets of evil germ-plasm responsible for a large amount of vice, disease, defect and pauperism.”

And so their true view of much of humanity comes out.  But the eugenicist must be careful:

“But the problem of their elimination is a very subtle one, and there must be no suspicion of harshness or brutality in its solution.”

Figure 3

Finally, in a display of combined arrogance and eloquence surpassing any I have ever seen, we have the following description of the unwashed masses our three authors despise:

“There will certainly remain a considerable proportion of mankind, incapable it seems of being very much educated, incapable of broad understandings and co-operative enterprise, incapable of conscious helpful participation in the adventure of the race, and yet as reproductive as any other element in the world community.  For a number of generations, at any rate, a dead-weight of the dull, silly, under-developed, weak and aimless will have to be carried by the guiding wills and intelligences of mankind.  There seems to be no way of getting rid of them.  The panics and preferences of these relatively uneducatable minds, their flat and foolish tastes, their perversities and compensatory loyalties, their dull, gregarious resistances to comprehensive efforts, their outbreak of resentment at any too lucid revelation of their inferiority, will be a drag, and perhaps a very heavy drag on the adaptation of institutions to modern needs…”

Figure 4

And there you have it:  much of humanity is simply not up to their standards.  But note that there is no love, no care, no thought of helping people.  Their only solution is to slowly (or otherwise) eliminate the unfit.  Man is nothing more than livestock to them.  It is no wonder that this attitude could degenerate into the Nazi Holocaust that followed shortly.

No doubt the authors believed that once a utopia had been established, there would only be one class of people: the upper class.  But arrogance would still be around, as evidenced by the authors themselves.  So you can be assured that even in this envisioned world which had been put back onto a path of progress, those with an IQ of 140 would still look down on those with an IQ of 120.

*Interestingly (but not surprisingly), the Wikipedia page for this book (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Science_of_Life, last accessed 7/11/2017) makes absolutely no mention of eugenics nor the authors’ enthusiasm for it.

Lest We Forget

The Laws of Life

Figure 1 – Title plate

If we know anything of twentieth  century history, we know of the Second World War, Nazi Germany, and eugenics.  But what we have forgotten (and what some actually deny) is that eugenics was once a hot topic among the intellectual elites in the United States and Europe in general.  Prior to World War II, it was quite fashionable to believe that the application of evolutionary principles to human breeding would be the savior of the human race.  In its absence, man would be fated to make the same mistakes indefinitely, continue to make war, and generally fail to progress as he could.

Then World War II and the Holocaust happened, and eugenics got its deservedly negative reputation.  It faded from the textbooks, but not entirely from the discourse of Western civilization.  Lest we forget its vision, philosophy and attitude when it started out, I wish to display what the books of the early twentieth century presented.

First, from 1922, The Laws of Life, by William M. Goldsmith (available on Amazon as original copies or even as reprints!)  See Figure 1.

The focus of the book is life, evolution and genetics, with the latter parts of the book discussing how these laws must be applied to human breeding for the betterment of those yet to be born.

The Laws of Life - page 409

Figure 2 – page 409

Outside of Nazi Germany, there was less talk of eliminating any of the currently living.  Rather the focus was the on the eugenic alternatives of sterilization of the “unfit”, and the encouraged reproduction of the “fit”.  This was necessary, because, as Goldsmith complains (Figure 2):

“Contrast, if you will, the low rate of reproduction of the superior classes in America with the overproduction of children by the inferior classes whose mental and moral standing are often nearer that of the brute than that of civilized man.  These feeble-minded, vicious, and diseased individuals are competing with intellectual man for supremacy in the perpetuation of human characteristics.”

In eugenic thinking, there is no love for humanity, no care for the less fortunate, no thought of helping anyone to rise up, and no consideration for the possibility of educating and leading people.  Just a heartless view of people as animals to be managed.

The tie to evolution is clearly made in the following passage (Figure 3), which he quotes from Leonard Darwin, son of Charles Darwin:

“The belief that man has been slowly developed from some ape-like progenitor came towards the close of the last century [i.e., the close of the 1800’s] to be nearly universally held by thoughtful persons; this belief gave rise to a new hope that this upward march of mankind might be continued in the future; and out of this new hope sprang the eugenic ideal.”

 Of course, this is all in the best interests of future people.  For, as he quotes:

“Progress on eugenic lines will make mankind become continually nobler, happier and healthier…”

And so as with other eugenicists, his hope for man’s future is tied to this central idea.

In the second installment, I will show a more extreme example by a trio of authors more well known than Goldsmith.

The Nice Guy

A nice guy, finishing last.

Although I do not endorse every XKCD strip (www.xkcd.com), many of them point out an irony of our postmodern world, and proceed to poke us in the eye with it.  The comic here is one of them.  The three characters need some initial explanation:

  • The Nice Guy is merely trying to nurture a relationship with someone he is actually in love with.
  • The Jerk is the typical strong-willed, over-confident guy who wouldn’t dream of committing to an actual relationship; he’s too busy having a good time with the next woman.
  • The Woman is a normal young American female, raised by our current culture of entertainment and sex.  With this constant emphasis on having a good time, the Woman of course chooses to date the jerk.  He offers more of the pleasures of life.

(Of course, not all people fit into exactly one of these three categories, but without some categories, we can’t discuss trends in our society.  I know that not all Nice Guys are as innocent as the one here, not all women want to date jerks, and so on.  But I’ve seen the scenario depicted here enough times to know that it’s real and common.)

While there have always been men fitting the Nice Guy profile, the above scenario didn’t play out nearly as frequently as it does today.  A hundred years ago, Nice Guys got married like almost everyone else, because society guided everyone in that general direction.

Marriage rates today are lower than at any other time in American history.  While it is true that divorce rates are lower than they were in the 1980’s, they are still higher than any time pre-1940’s.  These are connected for the simple fact that those who do not marry cannot become divorce statistics.

Instead of a culture that guides young people down tried-and-true paths in life, what we have today is best described as anarchy:  no rules, no expectations, and no guidance (except from Hollywood—and their “guidance” is not not worth the celluloid it’s printed on).  The strongest men get their first pick of the women, but have no intention of settling down.  Women go along, because the Jerks are the most manly men around, and that makes women feel good, at least for a time.

So how does this scenario turn out?  While young people may play around with love for a time and then get happily married, other possibilities are becoming more common:

  • The Woman has been hurt by so many Jerks that she simply gives up, becoming cynical or bitter in the process, and ends up alone.  At the very least, her ability to trust other people is reduced permanently, creating yet another rift our society does not need.  (Women’s hearts are not designed to withstand multiple painful breakups.  Why did we stop protecting them?)
  • The Jerk eventually ages and runs out of women he can fool.
  • The Nice Guy ends up alone, having failed at the only strategy he seemed to have left (i.e., trying to contrast himself with the Jerk).

Would anyone argue that this sytem produces more happiness and satisfaction for a greater number of people than our former ways?

Trust Me

Interpersonal trust is a fundamental aspect of our society that is essential for liberty, prosperity and the smooth operation of all aspects of life. It simply costs more in terms of time, effort, emotion and money if we have to protect our interactions against betrayal.

Sociologists and psychologists (and those in between) study trust, and have found some disturbing things. The World Values Survey (www.worldvaluessurvey.org) has been measuring interpersonal trust since 1981, and finds that trust in the United States is in decline. Other surveys have found similar results.  (See [1].)  WVS itself puts current (2015) US interpersonal trust levels in the upper 30’s.

Decline in US interpersonal trust

This trend is not surprising, given all that is going on, culturally speaking, in the US:

Unfortunately, cultural diversity seems to work against trust. From Jonathan Haidt (here) “A recent study by Robert Putnam (titled E Pluribus Unum) found that ethnic diversity increases anomie and social isolation by decreasing people’s sense of belonging to a shared community.” People simply need a certain amount of cultural (and hence moral) homogeneity to feel that they can trust others. To state it the other way around, greater cultural and moral diversity makes it harder for people to predict what others will do, which is the essence of trust.

Of course when anyone suggests that cultural diversity might have a downside, there will be pushback. In particular, it will be tempting to look more deeply at the World Values Survey to find other nations with greater cultural diversity than the US, yet where interpersonal trust is higher. But I would caution the reader that—despite what WVS may claim—it is not valid to compare trust levels across national or linguistic boundaries. (See here for the reasoning, which would also apply to questions of trust.) The same survey question, sincerely translated into another language or asked in another nation, will not have exactly the same meaning, no matter how diligent one is. And cultural expectations of how one “should” answer the question will also vary from place to place. Therefore, the only valid use of such trend numbers is comparing them over time within a single nation.

The increasing amount of information we have about each other also seems to degrade trust. The internet, which was supposed to smooth cultural differences and promote understanding, is actually doing the opposite. (See here and [2].)

Higher divorce rates, and the fragility of our relationships in general, give us less experience with trusting relationships. To avoid being repeatedly hurt, we insulate ourselves, which means being less trusting as time goes on.

Lastly, we are clearly in a time of extremely rapid social change—as are most prosperous nations (see here). This makes it difficult for older generations to trust the younger, because it is difficult to see what boundaries the young won’t cross. Younger generations likewise cannot relate to the old.

Sadly, we should expect levels of trust to slip further, as none of the above trends are showing any signs of reversing.

[1] The declining trust graphic is from “Trust in people over time: Interpersonal trust among US public, 1960–1995”; 1960 data from Civic Culture Survey; 1962-1994 data from National Election Surveys and General Social Surveys, 1995 data from WVS. This is from the chapter entitled “Trust, Well-Being and Democracy” by Ronald Inglehart, which appears in Democracy and Trust, edited by Mark E. Warren.

[2] “Less Is More: The Lure of Ambiguity, or Why Familiarity Breeds Contempt”, Norton, Michael I., Frost, Jeana H., and Dan Ariely, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2007, Vol. 92, No. 1, 97-105.

Discussing Politics

Under most circumstances, I do not care for discussing politics. (You can see this by how few conversations I initiate on the subject.) This is due not only to today’s acrimony, but because we don’t discuss politics correctly.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, we argue the top-level issues of the day: pending legislation, the latest riot, scandals, welfare, foreign policy. This is not our fault; these are the subjects that TV and the internet put under our noses. But disagreeing over them is a waste of effort if we actually disagree on the underlying issues, things such as human nature, what our goals as a nation should be, how we define fairness, and so on. Our stances on high-level issues arise out of these fundamentals, so it is here that any real discussion should begin.

Below, I share my stances on the fundamentals. By way of introducing them, let me say that no nation has, or ever will, realize them perfectly. That is simply not possible. They are a vision, the ideals toward which I think humanity should continue to strive. I realize that other nations and cultures may not share them, but I would argue that they are among the noblest ideals that mankind has at least tried to bring together in one place.

The rule of law. We should all live under the same set of fair laws, justly enforced. Nobody should be above the law—not even a politician who is advancing a goal I favor.

A personally-held right to life. By implication, we must have the right to personally take part in protecting that right, which directly implies the right to own reasonable means of self-protection.

A personally-held right to liberty, and by extension, a personal right to act to protect that right. Liberty is not mere freedom—the ability to do whatever we want whenever we want. It is rather freedom coupled with self-restraint out of consideration for others. Liberty requires that a people have a sufficiently similar set of morals (and sufficiently high morals at that), for if they do not, then the conflicts that will arise will be too great for liberty to survive.

An individual right to own property. People must earn life’s rewards through performance, and be able to enjoy them. Otherwise, there is no incentive to work and achieve. This implies capitalism, with all its benefits and problems. (In contrast, centrally-planned, command economies provide demotivation and poverty for almost everyone.)

A fundamental right to self-determination (i.e., the Declaration’s “pursuit of happiness”).

Our representatives should be elected by secret paper ballot. (And by the way, we should implement some of David Chaum’s ideas for verifiable-yet-secret ballots. And keep voting off the internet.)

Government must be limited. It is better when limited by a document than by a person, because individuals are more easily corrupted than systems. Therefore, political power is best when spread out among many people.

On the negative side, I oppose anarchy, and I oppose totalitarianism in all its forms.

As a result of the above, I support the Constitution of the United States in its original interpretation, and the Declaration of Independence, and the fundamental principles they lay down. Our Founding Fathers had a better understanding of human nature and the nature of government than anyone since, and deserve our respect for that achievement. Not only did they give us the blessings of liberty that we still largely have, but they accurately predicted the ways in which a nation could/would go off the rails when in decline.

Up or down?

Jonathan Haidt has done some fascinating research into how people arrive at their stances on moral issues. His findings bear directly on the problem of our divided society, explaining much of the gap between Left and Right. At the core, Haidt postulates a set of foundational but largely subconscious values, where individuals place differing amounts of importance on each particular area. Haidt’s value areas (the first 5 anyway), are the following:

  • Care/harm
  • Fairness/cheating
  • Loyalty/betrayal
  • Authority/subversion
  • Sanctity/degradation

We each have our visceral feelings on care, fairness, loyalty, etc. Subsequently, our actual moral stances on specific political and cultural issues arise out of these low-level views. This is an important psychological/sociological finding in and of itself.

One might wish such research could provide solutions to the issues that divide us, but so far none have emerged. This hasn’t stopped some follow-on researchers from trying their hand at synthesizing solutions however. For example, Kate Johnson and Joe Hoover comment on the sanctity/degradation axis here: Do conservatives value ‘moral purity’ more than liberals?

The sanctity/degradation axis is significant, as it is a primary separator of liberals and conservatives in the United States. From moralfoundations.org, Haidt’s definition of this axis is:

“[The sanctity/degradation axis] underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).”

In describing this axis, neither Haidt nor anyone else can avoid invoking images of higher versus lower, clean versus dirty, noble versus base. And despite the question in Johnson and Hoover’s title, Haidt’s research proves that conservatives do care more about sanctity and purity than liberals.

So what is Johnson and Hoover’s suggestion for bridging the growing divide in America? Their quote:

“Perhaps by focusing on values we all share, such as care and fairness, and avoiding the purity rhetoric that divides us, we may be able to communicate our needs with the other side to work toward a common goal.”

There it is: avoid the purity rhetoric. Sounds simple. Of course the burden of changing would fall on conservatives, as they are the ones that care about this particular value.

Aside from the fact that Haidt himself has observed that people rarely budge on their fundamental values, this suggestion unfortunately fits well with the spirit of our age: At an individual level, the very idea of striving upward to some higher standard has never been less popular. (After all, that would require the existence of a higher standard, and that idea is becoming anathema also.) We lack shared, noble goals for our country’s future. This lack of any uniting vision is a key part of why we are fracturing into groups that cannot relate to each other.

But consider the alternative, which Johnson and Hoover did not propose: What if our leaders lifted up those now unconcerned with personal purity, showing them the advantages of living a life that strives for higher things? This could be in areas such as the arts, entertainment, our general level of discourse, or education. What if we were led to care more for others—not just for their mere economic status, but for their personal lives, perhaps even building back some of the social capital our society has lost?

Just a thought.

Letdowns for Radicals

In these polarized times, it is tempting to right wrongs by any tactic that will succeed. A master of this ends-justifies-the-means approach was Saul Alinsky, a community organizer of the twentieth century. He pioneered methods of agitating for social change, publishing his advice as the book Rules for Radicals. Two notable students of his tactics were Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Many radical groups to this day use his tactics to attempt to force change.

Two of his planned protests are illustrative of his general approach. (Note that these were only threatened protests; they were not actually carried out. But he was always prepared to follow through, because if anyone called his bluff, he stood to lose credibility.) Both quotes that follow are from Rules for Radicals. (I have bleeped one word in each quote.) First, a threat against the city of Chicago via its airport:

O’Hare Airport became the target…we tie up the lavatories. In the restrooms you drop a dime, enter, push the lock on the door — and you can stay there all day. What are the police going to do? Break in and demand evidence of legitimate occupancy? An intelligence study was launched to learn how many sit-down toilets for both men and women, as well as stand-up urinals, there were in the entire O’Hare Airport complex and how many men and women would be necessary for the nation’s first “sh**-in.” … The consequences of this kind of action would be catastrophic in many ways. People would be desperate for a place to relieve themselves. … O’Hare would soon become a shambles. The whole scene would become unbelievable and the laughter and ridicule would be nationwide.

Regrettably, another of his protest threats had a similar theme:

I [Alinsky] suggested that we might buy one hundred seats for one of Rochester’s symphony concerts. We would select a concert in which the music was relatively quiet. The hundred blacks who would be given the tickets would first be treated to a three-hour pre-concert dinner in the community, in which they would be fed nothing but baked beans, and lots of them; then the people would go to the symphony hall — with obvious consequences. Imagine the scene when the action began! The concert would be over before the first movement! (If this be a Freudian slip — so be it!) … The one thing that all oppressed people want to do to their oppressors is sh** on them. Here was an approximate way to do this.

His tactics were effective in certain circumstances because they harnessed the destructive energy of the disdain of one group for another, coupled with the simplicity of ninth-grade tactics. But in threatening to shut down a city’s airport or stink up its symphony, the protesters would not make any friends, nor would they build trust or community with anyone. It might be said that these were not Alinsky’s goals, nor those of the groups agitating for change. And in fact, he considered his opponents to be actual enemies, couching his advice in the language of war.

At a deeper level still, Alinsky had figured out that it was far easier to threaten or commit harm, than to do something positive. It’s easier to rally people to occupy airport restrooms than to organize them to pass out food and drink to tired travelers. It takes only one day to ruin a symphony—but 90 lifetimes to create one.

Such methods of protest thus rely on the same fundamental asymmetry between creation and destruction (i.e., good and evil*) that success in war depends on: the side willing and able to be the most damaging is the side that wins.

People who want change can choose their methods. One should always ask what sort of world we would have if a particular side wins. In comparing Alinsky’s world with, say, that of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., I think the choice is obvious.

*It’s probably not a coincidence that Alinsky devoted his book to Lucifer.