Eugenics Record Office

By Namit Arora | Oct 2007 | Comments

James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, is in trouble again, this time for a racist remark that has led to wide criticism and his firing from the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), where he had worked for 43 years. As a byproduct, this has again ignited old debates on whether some groups and races are inherently inferior than others. The blogosphere seems to be abuzz with passionate arguments -- a particularly good exchange took place here.

Watson, it seems, "has repeatedly supported genetic screening and genetic engineering in public lectures and interviews, arguing that stupidity is a disease and the 'really stupid' bottom 10% of people should be cured". He is on record for saying that darker skinned people have stronger libidos, that beauty could be genetically engineered: "People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would be great."

Curiously enough, the CSHL also hosted the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) in the early decades on the 20th century (until 1944). The ERO once led the field of eugenics research in the US -- the first country to embark on systematic, forced sterilization programs for the purpose of eugenics. Their targets included "orphans, ne'er-do-wells, tramps, the homeless and paupers", "defective persons" who were a "menace to society", the "feeble minded", including most Russian and Polish immigrants, alcoholics, criminals, prostitutes, nomads, and other Americans "born to be a burden on the rest." While German immigrants were "thrifty, intelligent and honest," Italians had an innate "tendency to personal violence." And so the reproduction of inferior groups had to be controlled.

Eugenics, with "its emphasis on planned breeding ... provided the biological counterpart to new theories of scientific control and rational management in business." Leading universities, including Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, and Brown, offered courses in eugenics. Experts expounded on the "eugenical fitness of proposed marriages." On field trips to state fairs, students might sign up for eugenic evaluations at a Fitter Families Exhibit, which also offered contests and awarded medals certifying "A Goodly Heritage". "Madison Grant, a leading eugenicist, warned that racial mixing was 'a social and racial crime'". He cautioned:

The cross between a white man and an Indian is an Indian; the cross between a white man and a Negro is a Negro... When it becomes thoroughly understood that the children of mixed marriages between contrasted races belong to the lower type, the importance of transmitting in unimpaired purity the blood inheritance of ages will be appreciated at its full value.

Soon, twenty-eight states made inter-racial marriages invalid. Efforts now "focused on new legal definitions of who could qualify to receive a marriage license as a 'white' person." Virginia, for instance, reserved the use of "white person" only for those who had "no trace whatever of any blood other than Caucasian; but persons who have 1/16th or less of the blood of the American Indian and have no other non-Caucasian blood shall be deemed to be white persons." The legacy of this classification is alive in us even today; that is why we call Obama a black man.

The ERO -- along with the American Breeders Association, the Race Betterment Foundation (founded by Kellogg, the cereal magnate), and the American Eugenics Society -- advocated eugenics laws that were institutionalized in about half of the US states.

Some states sterilized "imbeciles" for much of the 20th century. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1927 Buck v. Bell case that the state of Virginia could sterilize those it thought unfit. The most significant era of eugenic sterilization was between 1907 and 1963, when over 64,000 individuals were forcibly sterilized under eugenic legislation in the United States. A favorable report on the results of sterilization in California, the state with the most sterilizations by far, was published in book form by the biologist Paul Popenoe and was widely cited by the Nazi government as evidence that wide-reaching sterilization programs were feasible and humane. When Nazi administrators went on trial for war crimes in Nuremberg after World War II, they justified the mass sterilizations (over 450,000 in less than a decade) by citing the United States as their inspiration. [source]

The ERO received a great deal of private funding from railroad and steel magnates. Among the notable leaders of the ERO and the eugenics movement was the father of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell. He served as the chairman of the board of scientific advisers at the ERO and advocated compulsory sterilization of those he considered "a defective variety of the human race." 

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