Eugenicists also believed that science is real

Robert F. Graboyes:

“Be skeptical of everything you hear, including this sentence.” That was the central message of the 48 semester-long classes I taught to medical professionals—doctors, nurses, therapists, administrators, etc. over 19 years. Officially, my courses were on the economics of healthcare, but they also encompassed ethics and a much broader look at epistemology and the philosophy of science.

While my students’ knowledge of science and medicine was vastly greater than my own, it was my point to teach them how dangerous their knowledge could be when when unleashed with inadequate skepticism and introspection. My greatest tool in this effort was to devote a couple of weeks of our course to the history of eugenics—the now-discredited but once-transcendent science of being well-born. The logo of the Second International Eugenics Congress in 1921, pictured above, declared that “Eugenics is the self direction of human evolution,” with the goal being “an harmonious entity.” Self-direction was essential, they thought because, as Alexander Graham Bell had written in 1883, “natural selection no longer influences mankind to any great extent.” (Bell was honorary president of the 1921 conference. More on him in an essay coming soon.)

In the past month, I’ve participated in one webinar and two podcasts on the topic of eugenics. I opened the webinar by arguing three things:

It is a grave error to refer to eugenics, as many do, as a “pseudoscience.” Eugenics was hard science run amok, untempered by skepticism and profoundly intolerant of dissenting viewpoints. In a recent essay, “The Briar and the Rose,” I noted that the field of mathematical statistics—the core of modern science—was to a significant degree an outgrowth of eugenics.

It is equally erroneous to assume that eugenicists were ideological troglodytes—Ku Klux Klansmen in tuxedos,so to speak. Support for eugenics spanned the ideological spectrum, but the movement was at its heart a progressive endeavor. They were profoundly optimistic that eugenics could produce a stronger, happier, healthier human species—with the caveat that some unfortunates would be swept aside in the process.

It is exceedingly dangerous to presume that eugenics is a quaint historical topic of little consequence in our far-more-enlightened era. As we discussed in these recordings, eugenics remains very much with us in spirit, if not in name, and new medical technologies offer “self-directed evolution” to a degree unimaginable to the original eugenicists. And the eugenicists’ lack of skepticism and intolerance for dissent is very much with us in science and policy discussions today