College Quarterly
Winter 2004 - Volume 7 Number 1
Notes War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race.
Edwin Black
New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003.

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

What idea did the pioneers of modern statistics Francis Galton (Charles Darwin’s cousin) and Charles Spearman, the celebrated American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, British Fabian Socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb, philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, US President Woodrow Wilson, revered feminist and Planned Parenthood pioneer Margaret Sanger, playwright George Bernard Shaw and novelist H. G. Wells share with the principal architects of the Third Reich and death camp doctor Josef Mengele? The answer is eugenics, the racist pseudo-science once taught in over 75% of the colleges and universities in the United States and the pretext for forced sterilization laws in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, as well as Switzerland, Denmark and Finland. In Germany, of course, the eugenics movement combined with Nazi politics to produce the most odious crimes in human history.

Edwin Black is no stranger to the study of organized human iniquity. His international best seller, IBM and the Holocaust, demonstrated how a clear focus on the “bottom line” and a consuming interest in technological innovation made it possible for the US business machine company to help Adolf Hitler organize the systematic extermination of Jews, as well as socialists, communists, gypsies and “mental and moral defectives,” while simultaneously helping the United States to organize men and munitions to defeat Nazi Germany in war. In the process, Black showed plainly what philosophers have known for a long time: there is no such thing as “value-free” technology.

In War Against the Weak, Edwin Black takes his ample research skills, his captivating writing style and his firm moral compass to construct a narrative of profound historical importance and contemporary relevance. Black meticulously connects the US antecedents of the hideous policies and practices of Nazism and goes a good way toward illustrating that this was no mere perversion of an otherwise benign science, but a case of taking a malign pseudo-science to its practical conclusion.

Especially compelling is the recognition that the convergence of racism and the eugenics movement is not just an ugly but antique episode from the early part of the generally disquieting twentieth century. Alberta’s forced sterilization laws, for instance, remained in place until 1972. Moreover, a case can be made that we have not significantly moved beyond the racist assumptions that infected the work of both otherwise honest and well-intentioned social reformers and plainly fraudulent scientists (Sir Cyril Burt being among the most disreputable in the latter category).

From the retention of IQ tests to the potentialities of the Human Genome Project, there are trends that demand continuing vigilance as the price of both good science and good public policy. Relatively simple issues such as questions of privacy, patent and intellectual property protection, and the prevention of pernicious practices by insurers and employers can probably be resolved happily enough through the contemporary political and judicial processes—though it will require much time and legal expense. More worrisome is the epistemological naiveté inherent in claims made by such organizations as the World Medical Association which believes that the “ethical issues raised by the Human Genome Project are not linked with the technology itself but with its proper use."

Knowledge of any sort is a social product in which are embedded the interests of those who frame the questions to which scientific inquiry provides answers. When those answers are then applied within a specific technology, the consequence is that the technology alters in some fashion our understanding—both empirical and normative—of the world. Thus, every innovation has moral implications for the simple reason that it somehow alters the nature of the world we inhabit, our perception of it, and our relationship to it. That is especially the case when we, our own bodies and minds, are both the source of the information and the interpreters of its meaning.

The mere fact that researchers are now charging down the blind alley of biogenetic reductionism in no way minimizes the potentially harmful consequences of sincerely believed error for decisions about employment and immigration, reproductive technology and policy, social justice, and both the definition and allocation of education and health care resources. Black argues that “we are faced with a potential return to eugenic discrimination not under national flags or political credos, but as a function of human genomic science and corporate globalization.”

The fact is that genes do not work the way that reductionists believe they do. That aside, there are only rare instances of direct correlations (much less causal connections) between genetic structures and physiological (much less cultural) consequences of suppositional genetic blueprints. Consequently, both enthusiasts and sceptics overstate the probability that genomic research will facilitate the human design of human beings. Those who fear that technocratic command of complicated bodies of scientific data will allow technocrats to “engineer” what they deem to be desirable social behaviour while simultaneously eliminating what is labeled deviant and criminal have little to fear from the science itself. In the alternative, those who cannot wait for such mechanisms of control to come within their reach are similarly mistaken about human biological mechanisms. Nonetheless, armed with an elaborate inventory of genetic data—possibly encoded in forthcoming national security cards—the opportunities for mischief are immense.

The temporary ascendancy of theoreticians and technicians with superficially persuasive yet substantively preposterous arguments would not be unique. When we recall that an enormous part of the problem in agriculture in the former Soviet Union arose from Stalin’s endorsement of the daffy ideas of T. D. Lysenko, a patronage that ruined Soviet agricultural research for decades (and cost scientific dissenters, to say nothing of starving people, their lives), we can more readily understand the human implications of scientific theory that is based on little more than ideological wishful thinking. An immense part of the problem of social manipulation and control in our future could similarly arise from equally fatuous thinking about what genes are and do. So, Edwin Black’s tale should serve as a material caution that harnessing political aspirations to dubious science hobbles both. Switching to the other extreme of the political spectrum for a symbolic warning, one need not anticipate the details of Auschwitz to understand the implications of tyranny.


Howard A. Doughty, B.A.(York), M.A.(Hawaii), M.A.(York), M.Ed.(Toronto), teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College, King City. His email address is howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca

Notes

• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2004 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology