Monday, November 9, 2015

Book Review: War Against the Weak

I have been knee-deep in research for the novel I am working on. One of the subjects of interest happens to be eugenics, a word meaning "well-born." Most people think of Nazi Germany, when the topic of eugenics comes up, but Edwin Black's book, War Against the Weak, clearly illustrates the origins of the scientific campaign for better breeding of people. Had America had a charismatic leader like Hitler, we could have easily gone down the same path.

The word eugenics was coined by a man named Francis T. Galton. A cousin to Charles Darwin, Galton was obsessed with counting and quantification. He is linked with the early development of meteorology with his 1863 book, Meteorigraphica: or Methods of Mapping the Weather. He then became interested in the idea of identity identified through the unique patterns of fingerprints. Following the rise of family lines full of geniuses, he wrote a book called Hereditary Genius.

In America, the study of heredity and development of various species began with a concentration on plants and animals. As the book proclaims, "This radical human engineering program would spring not from the medical schools and health clinics of America, but from the pastures, barns and chicken coops - because the advocates of eugenics were primarily plant and animal breeders. Essentially, they believed humans could be spawned and spayed like trout and horses." Thus, the start of the eugenics movement in America was fed along by a zoologist named Charles Benedict Davenport, working with the American Breeder's Association. Breeders were focused on creating the very best cattle and horses. Why shouldn't the same principals be applied to humanity? Thus, one breeder declared, "Every race-horse, every straight-backed bull, every premium pig tells us what we can do and what we must do for man .... The results of suppressing the poorest and breeding from the best would be the same for them as for cattle and sheep."

Pair this ideology with the financial backing of big names like Andrew Carnegie and J.D. Rockefeller and you have the beginnings of the eugenics movement in early twentieth century America. These early scientists and proponents of eugenics sought to document incidents of human defects by establishing the Eugenics Record Office. Next, came things like Stanford-Binet testing to identify intelligence levels and attempts to sterilize the weak or inferior. I was surprised to learn that Indiana was "the first jurisdiction to legislate forced sterilization of mentally impaired, poorhouse residents, and prisoners."

The book also explores the Malthusian notion (taken from Thomas Robert Malthus, who studied political economics and demography) that "A world running out of food supplies should halt charitable works and allow the weak to die off." Another influential individual tied to the eugenics movement was Margaret Sanger (the woman who campaigned for birth control for women). Although she was not a proponent of sterilization or elimination of defectives, she played a significant role in the eugenics movement.

Of course, once Hitler rose to power and used these principals to justify his desire to eliminate an entire race of people and more firmly establish a Nordic nation, American scientists and eugenicists wanted to distance themselves from the whole fiasco. Thus, eugenics quietly turned into human genetics and genetic counseling. The American Breeder's Association became the American Genetics Association. Frederick Osborne, known for switching the name of the movement to genetics, stated "The purpose of eugenics is not to breed some ... superior being, but to provide conditions ... for each succeeding generation to be genetically better qualified to deal with its environment."

Edwin Black goes on to predict how this movement will possibly play out in our own future. He states, "In the twenty-first century it will not be race, religion, or nationality, but economics that determines which among us will dominate and thrive." He goes on, "Newgenics may rise like a phoenix from the ashes of eugenics." There is already talk and advancement of things like DNA databases and digital fingerprints. Black's predictions are scary, his final conclusion worthy of repeat:

"Only one precept can prevent the dream of twentieth century eugenics from finding fulfillment in the twenty-first century genetic engineering: no matter how far or how fast the science develops, nothing should be done anywhere by anyone to exclude, infringe, repress or harm an individual based on his or her genetic makeup. Only then can humankind be assured that there will be no new war against the weak."

No comments: