regarding eugenics
August 2, 2007 10:01 AM   Subscribe

What's a good book about eugenics?

I have a couple of friends who have both, on separate occasions lamented that "the problem today" is that "we are keeping to many weak people alive"... or words to that effect. They believe that we are weakening ourselves as a species.
This both makes me incredibly sad for them, and gives me the absolute creeps.
(I don't know if those feelings are fair, but that's what I feel.)

I'd like to know if there are any good books about eugenics as a part of history - so I can be a little more informed about it.
(And maybe get these guys to read it, too.)
Besides "Hitler tried to build a master race, and most agreed this was a bad idea", I don't have much to contribute.

(Or is the species really doomed, and there is something wrong with me for not being concerned about it?)
posted by Tbola to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: To clarify a bit, for what it's worth - these friends do not know they share similar viewpoints, they do not bring it up in normal conversation.
It's something that comes up after a few beers, usually when I'm talking to them one-on-one.
My shock at their sentiments is usually pretty clear for them to see.
posted by Tbola at 10:08 AM on August 2, 2007

Response by poster: ps. I'm not quite sure why my question is in such a small font. that wasn't my intent.
posted by Tbola at 10:10 AM on August 2, 2007

Best answer: There is a rather recent book called "War against the Weak" that will support your claims. I think its a little heavy handed and reaching in its absolute scorn for anything resembling eugenics, but it might work for you.
posted by stormygrey at 10:16 AM on August 2, 2007

I think the association with the Nazis has produced more heat than light on eugenics -- pointing to the Nazis as an argument against eugenics is a bit like arguing that the fall of the Soviet Union disproves socialism. Yes, socialism might be wrong, but the failure of one crony-totalitarian superstate doesn't prove much; likewise the crimes of the Nazis can and arguably should be disentangled from the idea of genetic hygiene. (Try saying "genetic hygiene." Creepy, right? That's the Nazis' halo effect.)

Probably eugenics is wrong, but I don't think it makes sense to be creeped out about it. Here's some (relatively uninformed) conjecture about why it might be wrong: the life-machine is "designed" to reproduce to the limits of its environment to increase the chance of some scion surviving a cull. On this theory, even if most people born today seem (and are) "weak" and probably not very "fit," unconstrained reproduction makes sense from a species-survival point of view because the larger the pool, the more likely some member will be fit to survive the coming cull. This can be thought of as a response to radical uncertainty about the shape of future challenges to survival, which furnishes a kind of rejoinder to your buddies: how do you know who's "weak" in the relevant sense? Aren't you just assuming it's people like you?

On the other hand, here's some (also uninformed) conjecture about why eugenics might be right: the planet may be grossly overpopulated with humans already, and projections suggest population growth will continue to grow (sic) until it gets much worse. Resource exhaustion and (more plausibly) pollution will result in massive declines in quality of life, and possibly species- and planet-threatening disaster. Against this background, it makes sense to restrict reproduction, and eugenics is just a few steps away.
posted by grobstein at 10:27 AM on August 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

On the small font sidenote, I just posted a question and I see it in a small font. Your question, however, looks regular to me. Not sure why this is.
posted by craven_morhead at 10:34 AM on August 2, 2007

For info on anything there's always wikipedia.

Social Darwinism - championed by the likes of William Graham Sumner to justify slavery - is more along the lines of abolishing social programs and letting the whole survival of the fittest thing work itself out. "keeping weak people alive" doesn't necessarly mean killing them, ala eugenics.

But of course there's the idea that being all selfish and stuff is not in one's best interest. But I digress.
posted by Gregamell at 10:41 AM on August 2, 2007

Best answer: Stephen Jay Gould's "The Mismeasure of Man" covers the eugenic movement in America quite well.
posted by Large Marge at 10:49 AM on August 2, 2007

Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, was a famous Eugenist.
posted by goml at 10:50 AM on August 2, 2007

On preview, I see that Large Marge beat me to the punch. But I second her suggestion.

The Mismeasure of Man is a great read. It is primarly but intelligence and Eugenics arguments surrounding it. (forced sterilization of imbiciles and morons < actual scientific terms at the time!) br>
It talks extensively about how intelligence is measured, and the difficulty in judging smart from dumb, which can easily be applied to "How do you define "Strong"?" questions. (Answers usually end up being...Strong equals people like ME! grobstein suggests above.). It also goes into depth about nature/nurture, troubles with statistics, etc.
posted by Wink Ricketts at 10:58 AM on August 2, 2007

One issue you will likely have to confront is that those with IQs at the lower end of the range have more children and also bear them at a younger age than those with high IQs. While most of the discussion on _The Bell Curve_ focused on the authors' somewhat questionable assertions on race there was also a fair amount of material on exactly this issue. The book won't give you arguments to counter your friends but it will likely spell out some of their concerns and some of the defenses for their position. Two obvious paths you can take is that the problem is not as great as they are claiming, or that even if it is, any solution would be worse than leaving the situation alone. They will probably not advocate concentration camps and sterilization programs. The discussion may be framed more in terms of society providing the less capable with incentives (promises of limited support) to have children.
posted by BigSky at 11:18 AM on August 2, 2007

Best answer: Daniel Kevles In the Name of Eugenics is a thoughtful look at the movement. Thirding Gould's Mismeasure though eugenics isn't its only focus.
posted by Toekneesan at 11:29 AM on August 2, 2007

What is good for the future of the species is usually of no consequence to the present-day individual. The individual doesn't really care about the direction the species is headed. The individual wants to survive and reproduce, and will not willingly sacrifice these things for the good of future generations.

What is deemed to be good for the species (by those doing the "weeding out") may not, after all, be what is good for the species. Who shall assign strong and weak characteristics? Who shall decide the acceptable ranges within those characteristics? Whoever is making those decisions is making them subjectively, due to the very nature of the decision.

If you really wanted this to work, you would have to eliminate huge percentages of the population, or restrict them from procreating, and only keep the "cream of the crop." Therefore you would face pretty stiff opposition to a drastic eugenics campaign.

Barring some cataclysmic event, natural selection will see to it that the species is steered in the direction that best suits the living environment. Perhaps future generations of humans will evolve traits that enhance the odds of successful reproduction while living in a highly organized, social urban environment. Maybe our descendents will be highly adept at dodging taxicabs as they cross the street, or have bodies more capable of resisting heart disease caused by modern diets, or maybe they'll have enhanced business sense and charisma to succeed in a modern city and attract a mate, etc. etc.
posted by Caper's Ghost at 12:53 PM on August 2, 2007

This is a little off the cuff but, a problem with eugenics is if it where ever to be implemented it would be implemented as a process of some political/social system subject to mainly subjective criteria. How, exactly would any means of criteria be fairly set up and implemented? Ok to allow only straight, pale skinned people, who have an IQ of 120+, no history of mental illness, no history of....? How do you determine if an IQ of an individual is biological, environmental, or cultural? There was recently some reports that the major crime drop in NY has more to do with lead abatement than policing policies, for example.

Essentially any eugenics implementation would be based on human interpretation which would change and likely increase to cover more "undesirable" elements.

Additionally, any system that severely restrains it's diversity of genes is at a much higher risk to catastrophe.
posted by edgeways at 1:03 PM on August 2, 2007

"War Against the Weak" is a very comprehensive book, but yes, it is heavy-handed. It does provide one of the most thorough accounts of Eugenics than any other book out there. The author, Edwin Black, is known for recruiting scores of research volunteers across the globe to scour libraries, museums, and archives for material.
posted by HotPatatta at 1:16 PM on August 2, 2007

"The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank," was a really interesting primer on eugenics for me. It's a story about Robert Graham, who created a sperm bank for "great minds," which included some Nobel winners, in an effort to weed out the population.

The book also traces the lives of children born out of the suppository, and discusses whether nature or nurture determines their outcome.
posted by i8ny3x at 1:38 PM on August 2, 2007

Best answer: Second the recommendations for Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics, and Gould, The Mismeasure of Man. And for a recent, intriguing take on "positive eugenics" (i.e., encouraging the "right" kind of person to reproduce), see Laura L. Lovett, Conceiving the Future (University of North Carolina Press, 2007).
posted by brianogilvie at 1:38 PM on August 2, 2007

nthing Gould's Mismeasure of Man
posted by kch at 3:20 PM on August 2, 2007

Best answer: Not in our genes was popular ten years ago when I was doing my Genetics degree.
posted by alasdair at 3:40 PM on August 2, 2007

While my personal opinion is that the term is an oxymoron, plugging "positive eugenics" into a search engine uncovers a lot of material both for and against.
posted by RobotHeart at 3:54 PM on August 2, 2007

Response by poster: Thank you all for your insightful answers!
I look forward to reading the recommended materials.

grobstein - to clarify why I am "creeped out" by it, I grew up relatively frail & fragile, and I imagine that I would have fallen in the "weak" category that these people bemoan are bringing you down as a species.
It's creepy that someone could somehow value me and my friendship, but another part of them sees me as a detriment to humanity.
Creepy and sad... like I said.
posted by Tbola at 5:09 AM on August 3, 2007

I have In the Name of Eugenics and The Mismeasure of Man here on my bookshelf -- both are great references. My favorite short piece on eugenics (which you may actually be able to persuade your friends to read) is "Carrie Buck's daughter," an article by Gould. It's available here:

posted by jacksides at 3:28 PM on August 5, 2007

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