Heart of Darkness
National Socialism is nothing but applied biology.
These days, the term “eugenics,” if used at all, evokes discredited notions of social Darwinism and other racist ideologies. But it once defined a way of seeing things that for many seemed as sound as the evolutionary principles upon which it was based. In the stunning new book, War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race, investigative journalist Edwin Black traces the development of eugenics in England, America and elsewhere. Black uncovers a long-repressed chapter of social history significant enough to command reappraisal of the legacy of eugenics for today and for the future.
Black’s last book, the award-winning bestseller IBM and the Holocaust, told of how Big Blue created what marketers call a customized business solution to help their Third Reich clients plan and carry out the Final Solution. The shocking revelation of War Against the Weak is how much German ideas about rassenhygiene (literally “race hygiene”) were modeled on research methods and social engineering practices that began in the United States decades before Adolf Hitler wrote a single word of Mein Kampf. Nearly as astonishing is the overwhelming evidence linking the eugenics movement to the highest levels of American academia, philanthropy and government. And there are other surprising facts as well.
The central theme of War Against the Weak can be summed up in the declarative sentence that opens the second chapter: “Mankind’s quest for perfection has always turned dark.” From the first statement by Herbert Spencer in the mid-1800s of the concept of the survival of the fittest to Hitler’s announcement nearly a century later that he would exterminate the Jews “like lice,” Black chronicles a descent into horror even Joseph Conrad’s character Mr. Kurtz would be loathe to imagine.
English statistician Francis J. Galton invented the term eugenics in 1883 from Greek roots meaning “well born.” A cousin of Charles Darwin, Galton also devised the first weather maps and the first system for cataloging fingerprints, another word he coined. Galton looked past Spencer, Darwin and Gregor Mendel to analyze the hereditary patterns of human beings for superior characteristics. He believed that promoting marriage among those with superior traits would improve the human species over time. He called this “positive” eugenics.
While eminent Victorians, including historian and novelist H.G. Wells, pondered managed human reproduction, American “can do” put it into practice. In the wake of the Civil War and the mass immigrations of the late 19th century, the specter of “mongrelization” haunted the American psyche. One of those concerned about the fate of the nation was Charles Benedict Davenport, a Harvard-educated zoologist. In 1902, he used his position as director of the Brooklyn Institute’s biological research center on Long Island to secure major funding from the newly formed Carnegie Institution to investigate “methods of Evolution.”
The theory embraced by Davenport and his colleagues across America was “negative” eugenics. As opposed to the positive version, it sought to improve the species from the bottom up by preventing reproduction among what was termed the “submerged tenth” of the population. It proposed segregation, sterilization and, if necessary, euthanasia to achieve its goals.
Black’s research shows that America’s elite supported these ideas from the beginning. Besides Carnegie, early patrons of Davenport’s research included the Rockefeller Foundation and Mrs. E.H. Harriman, widow of the railroad tycoon. Eugenics was taught at Harvard, Yale and Princeton. It had the approval of public figures like Margaret Sanger, Woodrow Wilson and Alexander Graham Bell. It even received the imprimatur of the U.S. Supreme Court with an opinion written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
By the late ‘20s, more than half the states in the union had laws to eliminate “undesirables.” Tens of thousands were forcibly sterilized; tens of thousands more were denied the right to marry or were institutionalized. Some died because doctors withheld treatment from them in an effort to stop “defective germ plasm” from flowing into the American gene pool. The “Ultimate Program,” as it was called in 1923, was to extend negative eugenics to every nation on earth.
Against the mongrelization of the submerged tenth, the eugenicists posed the purity of the Nordic races. Peoples of the north, they held, had forged their superiority over generations through the struggle to survive in severe environments. The weaker members had long been eliminated by natural selection. This was set out in texts like The Passing of a Great Race by American eugenicist Madison Grant, which Hitler read while imprisoned in the mid ‘20s for inciting mob violence. (The German translation was published by Hitler’s co-conspirator Julius Lehman; Hitler even wrote Grant a fan letter declaring the book his “Bible.”)
There can be no doubt, given the extensive documentation Black presents, that American eugenicists and their supporters were at least willing fellow travelers if not out-and-out collaborators in the German pursuit of racial purity. Rockefeller money was still going to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics and other Nazi research centers up to the eve of the invasion of Poland. The Eugenical News, official journal of the American Eugenics Research Association, openly praised Nazi Jewish policies even as blitzkrieg raged.
Lest anyone think it an isolated moment in American history, Black proposes that eugenics lives on in new forms. Instead of the term eugenics, with its incendiary associations, the preferred label is now the more neutral “human genetics.” However, remnants of the eugenic philosophy can be discerned in practices like premarital blood testing, IQ and other standardized tests, and so-called free market solutions to social welfare. James Watson, co-discover of the DNA double helix and current head of the laboratory complex formerly occupied by Charles Davenport, has been quoted as saying 10 percent of the world’s population suffers from irreversible genetic defects. The genetic code of the entire population of Iceland resides on an Internet database managed by IBM under the heading “Life Services—Nordic.”
The dilemma of reducing life to DNA is determining at what point it ceases to be human and therefore subject to laws of ethics and morality. In his 1998 book Homer Sacer, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben distinguishes between sovereign power, the rule of law, and “bare life,” biological existence outside state protection or religious sanctity. For Agamben, this cold logic of objectivity pervades modern politics and science alike. It’s not happenstance that non-Jewish Germans were the only prisoners not tattooed in the concentration camps and that all Jews, regardless of nationality, were officially stripped of citizenship before being murdered.
When Black differentiates, as he does throughout, between eugenics as “pseudo-science” and human genetics as pure biology, he muddles one of the fundamental lessons of his book. If nothing else, War Against the Weak is a cautionary tale of how power creates knowledge and the terrible consequences that can result. Black seems to sense this with concerns he expresses in the conclusion about “self-directed evolution,” which only the rich can afford, and the emerging “genetic underclass.”
Edwin Black has distinguished himself as a journalist for more than two decades, both in the United States and abroad. A masterpiece of research and style, War Against the Weak is arguably his most important work to date and certainly one of the noteworthy books of the year.