Monday, February 1, 2016

Eugenics and Other Specious Biological Constructs

My previous post was triggered by Tyler Cowen’s evident attachment to the negative freedom criterion beloved by libertarians; that’s why he recommended Mill, who was hardly free of the national and racial stereotypes typical of his age and social station.  But I should say a word about his actual argument.

It appears to be true that there was an affinity between early 20th century Progressives and eugenics, but there was hardly a one-to-one mapping between these groups.  Some Progressives, apparently including Dewey, were skeptical, and many eugenics enthusiasts, like Irving Fisher, were resolutely anti-Progressive.  Something else was going on.

I think it helps to step back from this one issue for a moment and consider the larger terrain.  Over the past few centuries there have been repeated waves of intellectual and political fervor stemming from crude biological visions of human life.  It comes in a blinding flash: we are animals!  We are subject to the same laws that govern all other species!  Politics and culture are just biology in disguise!

And so simplistic assumptions about population growth and environmental carrying capacity have been with us since Malthus (and even earlier as Cohen showed).  Social Darwinism identified economic competition with phenotypic selection.  The eugenics crowd thought we could improve the human race the same way corn and cattle are selectively bred.  First generation sociobiologists carried similar baggage.  The core inspiration is neither left nor right, but biologically determinist at the level of crude analogy.

If you’ve ever tried to reason with a population growth fundamentalist you’ll recognize what I’m talking about.  Forget about demographic transitions or distinctions between the cost and feasibility of sustaining populations of various sizes.  It all comes down to petri dishes and exponential growth.  There’s something about the simplistic biological vision that captivates the mind and crowds out subtler forms of reasoning.

Just to be clear, I’m not arguing that biology doesn’t matter.  Of course people are organisms.  Of course population matters, and human traits have continued to evolve through the past two million years of our existence.  No doubt our emotional proclivities at some level have a genetic component.  But all of these things are complex and multiply caused.  The starting point is evidence and an open mind, not to mention real biology in all its intricacies, and not simplistic stereotypes.

So eugenics was one expression of a continuing thread in modern, “scientific” culture.  You could spin it to fit with progressivism or conservatism, but its real source lies elsewhere.

3 comments: said...

This whole meme by many conservatives and libertarians that progressivism equalt eugenics is getting really annoying. Yes, lots of early 20th century progressives supported eugneics, befoe Hitler completely made such support super politically unacceptable. But as you note, Peter, this was far from a one-tone mapping, with some progresives not supporting it and some conservatives supporting it. The current meme is getting louder, but it is fundamentally flawed.

What is more annoying is that the meme is reappearing, although without the label of "eugenics," with lots of studies coming out about relations between IQ and economic success across and within nations. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of these are coming out of conservatives and libertarians, but let us not dare tar any of them with that label "eugenics," which is just for bad progressives, even ones now who must pay for all the sins of past progressives.

Magpie said...

So eugenics was one expression of a continuing thread in modern, “scientific” culture. You could spin it to fit with progressivism or conservatism, but its real source lies elsewhere.

I suspect you have a very good point there, and one many would readily subscribe to. Unfortunately you (or anyone else, for that matter) don't suggest where that "elsewhere" is.

And I might be mistaken for I haven't gathered the statistics, but I think if one were to dig on those details, one would discover that most of the social Darwinists and eugenicists were -- at least -- what one would call in our times "upper middle class".

In Britain, for instance, Eton College comes up very frequently in the biographical profiles of eugenicists. The several eugenic societies in Britain seemed to have been as much a social gathering for the well off as a centre for the promotion of eugenics.

Wallfly said...

I've always understood (perhaps wrongly) that 1) eugenics had wide appeal across the political spectrum (perhaps in part due to it being largely a hypothetical - until the Nazis put it into practice) and 2) it had its roots in Malthusian pessimism.

I also came understand (more recently) the Malthusian pessimism was actually on track to becoming a reality (as evidenced by food insecurity, etc) until the arrival of industrial nitrogen fixing process in the early 20th C.