Eugenics: A Case Study of the Dangers of Technocracy

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Technocracy is the belief that government should be run by experts, with policies shaped by scientific evidence.  Advocates of technocracy have little enthusiasm for people making decisions about their own lives or those of their children because people too often choose the wrong thing.  Experts, guided by evidence, are much better situated to shape people’s decisions so that they work best for themselves and others.

Technocracy rose to prominence during the Progressive Era, but it has hardly lost its appeal to elites since then.  It is clearly the dominant mode of thought among education policy experts.  In fact, at the most recent annual conference of the Association for Education Finance and Policy, attendees wore buttons declaring their creed, “Evidence-Based.”  Let’s leave aside that appending “Based” to “Evidence” seems to negate what it is modifying, like “natural flavoring” or “based on a true story.” And let’s acknowledge that evidence is, of course, extremely useful for making good decisions.  But the motivation behind this button and the thinking that pervades education experts is that policy should be “based” on evidence, not merely informed by it.  Evidence is the foundation.  Technocracy should rule.

To repeat, evidence is a good thing.  But claims about what the evidence really says are often in dispute and science is a very limited and imperfect enterprise.  So to be ruled by evidence rather than informed by it is extremely dangerous.  Consider the example of eugenics, which is “the science of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics.”  Eugenics is now considered thoroughly disreputable, but for several decades it was the consensus approach of our scientific elite.  Its science was widely respected and its practices and policy recommendations were “evidence-based.”

It’s a little too easy to dismiss eugenics as a horrible error of our pre-scientific past.  For several decades, it was the scientific present of the most respected elites.  As Sol Gittleman put it: “The presidents of MIT, Stanford, Cornell, and Harvard all supported eugenics research, and as early as 1914, academic courses on the subject were taught at Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, Brown, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Clark, and MIT. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, meanwhile, spoke openly and wrote freely about ‘racial suicide’—their term for what would happen if the nation permitted the mixing of races.”

While laws against the “mixing of races” had been introduced during slavery, a flurry of new laws were adopted as a result of this scientific inquiry into eugenics such that 41 of the then 48 states eventually had such laws in place.  You could say that these laws were “evidence-based.”  In addition, laws calling for the forced sterilization of people deemed to be “feeble-minded” were adopted and ultimately upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.  Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously declared in his decision, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”  This ruling by the Supreme Court was also considered “evidence-based.”

During World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt organized a secret committee to consider what to do with the large number of war refugees, especially Jews, who he expected to flee Europe after the war.  Roosevelt asked Aleš Hrdlička, curator of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, to head this secret planning group.  It’s worth quoting Steve Usdin’s account of this episode at length:

The two men had carried on a lively correspondence for over a decade and the President had absorbed the scientist’s theories about racial mixtures and eugenics. Roosevelt, the scion of two families that considered themselves American aristocrats, was especially attracted to Hrdlička’s notions of human racial “stock.”

A prominent public intellectual who had dominated American physical anthropology for decades, Hrdlička was convinced of the superiority of the white race and obsessed with racial identity. Shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack he’d written to Roosevelt expressing the view that the “less developed skulls” of Japanese were proof that they were innately warlike and had a lower level of evolutionary development than other races. The president wrote back asking whether the “Japanese problem” could be solved through mass interbreeding.

Roosevelt had long resisted opening the doors to large numbers of immigrants, not as a result of political expediency, but based on his understanding of what science had to say on the matter.  In 1925 Roosevelt had written a series of columns for the Macon Telegraph in which he praised Canada’s immigration policies, which were designed “to prevent large groups of foreign born from congregating in any one locality…. If, twenty-five years ago, the United States had adopted a policy of this kind we would not have the huge foreign sections which exist in so many of our cities.”

This evidence-based resistance to increasing immigration condemned countless European Jews to their death.  It also informed the findings of the secret committee he organized as to what to do with Jewish refugees following the war: “The solution, which the President endorsed, ‘essentially is to spread the Jews thin all over the world,’ rather than allow them to congregate anywhere in large numbers.”  Apparently, he hoped to improve their stock through inter-breeding, as he speculated might be done to reduce war-like tendencies among the Japanese.

Keep in mind, eugenics was not championed by a fringe group.  It was championed by the presidents of  leading universities, researchers at the Smithsonian, and several presidents of the United States.  I’m proud to note that my alma mater, Tufts University, never offered a course in eugenics, and a Tufts medical professor, Abraham Myerson, was a leading critic of the idea, including in his testimony against forced sterilization of the “feeble-minded.” But Tufts was the exception, while more elite universities like Harvard and MIT actively pursued eugenics.  Only the close association between eugenics and the Nazis eventually brought the idea into disrepute.

Before we turn over policymaking to the current scholars at Harvard and MIT, we might want to reflect on how wrong evidence-based policies can be.  And rather than smugly asserting that past scholars were quacks while current ones are true scientists, we might want to learn the lessons of humility that the eugenics episode teaches.  Let’s be informed by evidence, but not be evidence-based.

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One Response to Eugenics: A Case Study of the Dangers of Technocracy

  1. Greg Forster says:

    As Jonah Goldberg has pointed out, we never learn from these cases in part because the gatekeepers of national memory are anxious to avoid remembering anything that makes the Left look bad. A recent book trying to make certain figures among the original Progressives look good, but unable to avoid mentioning the topic of eugenics, delicately remarked that they “were caught up in the enthusiasm for eugenics then common among the white upper middle class.” In my review of the book I said that’s a little like saying Al Capone was caught up in the glamorization of organized crime then common in Chicago.

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