Guten Tag, homies! Sorry to keep you waiting, I know I’ve been away for over a month, but what can a man do when he’s given a VIP invitation to Oktoberfest?
Just kidding. Remain assured yours truly doesn’t embarrass people at the parties by tanking himself with Gewurztraminer and creating a scene. So next time you feel like painting the town red, don’t hesitate to leave an RSVP. 😉
Anyway, since we’re on the topic of Germany, you must be aware of 25th anniversary of Berlin Wall’s demolition celebrated recently. For those of you who aren’t aware of its historical significance, it concretely symbolized the balkanization of Germany into Eastern and Western blocs, with radically different sociopolitical ideologies followed in both (communism in the East and capitalism in the West) due to respective influence of the political forces they fell under (Soviet Union dominated East and Allied Forces West). Spinning the clock further backwards, however, you realize the historical landscape on which the fate of both sides were shaped – the defeat Nazis and their ringleader Hitler in the real-life First Blood: Part II (admittedly, Sylvester Stallone’s massacre of the Vietcong in the namesake movie wasn’t pretty either). And like General Zod’s line of reasoning for his coup from the recent Man of Steel, Hitler predicated the entire war on ‘purity’ of species and purged several ethnic groups (especially the Jewish), known to masses by its more popular name – the Holocaust.
Today abhorred as probably the most evil person in the history of the world (though certainly not the most repulsive, there are far too many historical personalities that’ll outshine him in that department, including MVPs from his own army like Himmler and Mengele), Hitler waged a pogrom that had its foundations laid as far back as the time when human beings first learned to make dogs out of gray wolves.
‘Hold on!’ You interject. ‘What do domestication trends have to do with World War II?’
As it turned out, quite a lot actually. Humans have been selectively breeding animals and plants a long, long before someone even whispered ‘genetics’ or ‘evolution’ in hushed tones! And for good reason, too. Farmers did it so that they could get bigger yields of corns and potatoes without worrying too much about pests and insects gobbling them up. Purebred animals like dogs were inbreeding among themselves so much that they would’ve suffered from rare genetic disorders without it. Don’t think that human interference in the natural processes has stopped, though. It’s still being done today; attend a dog show or visit local farms in a Kansas-esque place. You’ll know for yourself.
Extending the same principles to human beings, however, you unravel a whole brave new world. The initial idea contemplated and called ‘eugenics’ by Francis Galton seemed rather innocuous and hypothetical: if by mating specific members of a species, you get their improved versions, wouldn’t the same thing worked for humans too? Or, to quote the same idea in Leonard Hofstader’s way: ‘Our babies will be smart and beautiful‘.
Now, some of you well-informed on the subject might be tempted to correct me here: ‘But Galton wasn’t the first to propose selective breeding among humans. Thousands of years before him, Plato also sought the state to regulate birth.’
True, but his ideas didn’t capture the public imagination the way Galton’s did. Also, Plato confined his theory mainly to ruling classes, whereas Galton gave it a more universal character. Inspired by genetics and his cousin Charles Darwin’s work, he theorized that traits such as intelligence, personality and beauty were hereditary, and so were what he perceived as defects, like crime and disease. He believed that genetically worthier people were reproducing at far lower rate compared to those whom he considered mediocre, sending the course of humanity to a downward spiral. However, he also believed that the nobler stock could be restored in two ways – positive eugenics, which focused on specific union of healthy and intellectually superior human beings, and negative eugenics, which emphasized on reduction of undesirable qualities from the inferior ones (AKA, human beings themselves).
While the first kind seemingly floats more along marriage counselling and family planning lines, the second one’s the real dark side of the moon (no relation to Pink Floyd or Michael Bay’s Transformers movie, although one could also count it as an atrocity). One exhibit you’ve already seen – the genocide carried out by Nazis. However, if you thought they were the only villains in the story, you couldn’t be more mistaken.
Around the time Galton proposed eugenics, radical socioeconomic changes were taking place. The Industrial machine was in full swing, and tempted by its promises, millions migrated to the promised lands: from rural towns to urban cities, South to North, Europe to United States, a full-fledged exodus that put even the one led by Moses to shame.
Now, if you happen to be a resident of Shanghai, London, or Mumbai, you know what it feels like to struggle for a piece of heaven. Same concerns were shared by Americans, especially the upper and middle white classes, who witnessed hordes from all over Eastern and Southern Europe and from the former Confederate States pouring into their neighborhoods, threatening their positions and narrowing opportunities for their posterity as well.
But population wasn’t the only export from Europe to America. Scientific ideas like the ones proposed by Darwin and Galton were also tucked in the cargo. And they made it into the hands of American eugenicists like Charles Davenport and Harry Laughlin, who ran Eugenics Record Office (ERO) at Cold Spring Harbour Laboratories in New York, where they kept tabs on those American citizens’ family trees whom they considered degenerates (sounds like a precursor to NSA, anyone?). They collated heredity data to prove that criminals bred criminals, sick bred sick, and libertines bred libertines (and they picked people from socially and economically lower classes, so you can take a hint at the fairness of their research). Moreover, other eugenicists like Madison Grant (who was a lawyer by the way) threw scientific racism into the mix, hailing only one race of ‘Nordics’ as truly fit to inherit the earth, while decrying the other as imperfect scourges (point to be noted, Nazis didn’t come up with this notion; they merely plagiarized the idea, just like they did for Swastika from Hinduism and Faravahar from Zoroastrianism). Furthermore, in a study published first in 1911 by ERO, drastic measures like segregation and forced sterilization to downright disturbing such as euthanasia by gas chambers were proposed (Again, bet you thought Hitler came up with this idea. Wrong! It actually was one of the several ‘remedies’ included in the study mentioned earlier. Feel free to peruse it yourself here.)
‘By the skillful and sustained use of propaganda, one can make a people see even heaven as hell or an extremely wretched life as paradise.‘
These were Hitler’s words, but they weren’t put to practice only by him. The eugenicists did that, too. They skewed their findings, minced the words, and raised enough hullabaloo to align the public opinion on their side, along with politicos and even US presidents like Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge. Propagandist contests like Better Babies and Fitter Family for future were commonly held at state fairs, courses related to eugenics became part of many universities’ curriculum, and the estates of America’s affluent magnates, like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, donated largess for research into eugenics related programs. In this way, the phenomenon seeped into the cultural psyche of American, and once it was corrupted, it became rather easier to mandate the proposed solutions (except for manslaughter) as mandatory law. Legislation related to race-restricted marriages (Racial Integrity Act, 1924), restrictions on immigration (Immigration act 1924), and compulsory sterilization (Buck vs Bell and Planned Parenthood of America) were passed and accepted by over thirty states.
The United States wasn’t the only country indulging in the racist vendetta, though. Canada also imposed sterilization acts on indigenous Canadians and immigrants. Kids of half-Aboriginal, half-white descent were snatched away from their parents in Australia, to be raised in ‘re-education’ camps and trained to become laborers or servants for ‘purebred’ Europeans. In contrast to their attitude toward their colonies, the Brits weren’t interested so much in dealing with the race theme as much as they were interested in the social hierarchy at home, and despite its native origins (Galton was a Brit) and support from well-known figures like G.B. Shaw, John Maynard Keenan, and Winston Churchill, eugenics never made it big in there (except may be for one legal act on sterilization of the feeble-minded, but it was never passed by the British Parliament). And Germany, well, the most famous example comes from there so I won’t need to rehash it here. Don’t think all evil rapscallions came from West, though. The eugenic movement went as far as Far East. The Japanese especially championed its use to forcibly neuter people with history in serious disorders, such as schizophrenia and epilepsy, as well criminals and early Korean migrants. So did the Koreans (at least North Korea still follows the policy) and the Chinese (although their form of eugenics was instituted in the form of one-child family program, not to selectively breed but to check the growing population).
Atomic Bomb, the most lethal weapon created ever, is known to have its underpinnings in the Manhattan Project, everyone knows this. But another genocidal tool Americans unwittingly created was perhaps even more baneful. When the surviving Nazi officers were put on trial for their crimes in World War II, many cited American eugenics policies as their inspiration in their defense. Hitler himself was known to follow the developments on American eugenics closely, and even praised USA in his autobiography, in which he wrote: ‘There is today one state in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception (of immigration) are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but (the US), in which an effort is made to consult reason at least partially. By refusing immigrants on principle to elements in poor health, by simply excluding certain races from naturalisation, it professes in slow beginnings a view that is peculiar to the People’s State.‘ Although Fat Man had enough firepower to wipe Nagasaki off earth’s face, but the explosive combination of human breeding and bigotry tore through the very fabric of humanity itself.
‘We are blind to our own blindness.’ This phrase, enlightening us of our cognitive biases, is quite witty. But I believe it is only half-complete, at least for the people who miss all subtlety cues. A fuller and better version would be ‘We are blind to our own blindness, until some maniac starts blowing things up and wakes us.‘ Almost three decades before the Nazis realized ERO’s fatal remedy in their infamous Final Solution, a bloody ethnic cleansing that left behind a shocking body count as the basic identity of the WWII, American public and politicos alike hailed eugenics as the next step in human advancement, going as far as to legalize many of the inhuman methodologies short of killing itself based on a half-baked theory. Of course, most of these programs never caught much attention later because Hitler ripped the comfortable blindfold off everyone’s eyes and showed them to what extremes humans could take moral liberties with science. The most fitting subtitle to his ideology comes perhaps from The Joker’s dialogue in The Dark Knight: ‘You see, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.‘
After the rude awakening, the acts related to forced sterilization and segregation were repealed, compensations were paid to the victims (though not everywhere, especially in Sweden until the turn of century), and the science of eugenics fell out of public favor, gradually ebbing out of the general scene until its legacy remained as merely a dark stain on the human history. Many elements of eugenics were, however, salvaged and assimilated by its more rational and anodyne cousin, genetics (for example, the genes responsible for hereditary diseases such as Down Syndrome and Tay-Sachs are identified through genetic testing).
Despite its notoriety, eugenics did raise a very important question, and that question pertains to the fundamental nature of humanity itself: What makes us who we are? Our genes, or our upbringing?
Having strummed the chords of nature versus nurture debate, that’s exactly what I am going to tackle in my next post. So stay tuned.
- Wikipedia link to the history of eugenics
- A historical analysis of the eugenics by Kevin Nilsson
- An article by Edwin black explaining the influence of American Eugenics on Nazis
- Award winning graphic novel Maus, for those interested in a detailed look at the plight of prisoners in Nazi camps at Auschwitz
- Since I mentioned Berlin Wall at the outset of the post, I thought it fitting to close the loop with a glance at its history as well