Book Review: War Against the Weak

I first came to appreciate history under the wise direction of a high school instructor, Mr. Wood, in his AP US History course. I remember getting one essay back with a huge x over my mistaken assertion, “Not only did Jefferson’s actions show his Federalist sentiments…” It took a while to live that one down.   In that class, I learned that history was worth paying attention to. But I had yet to develop a more nuanced view of history. America’s history in particular has many moments to be proud of. But if we are to be mature regarding our history, we must also acknowledge the moments that were not so proud. This is one of them.

This book documents the eugenics movement within the United States. Two of its main assertions are that (1) American eugenics had wide influence over both public opinion and policy and was funded by corporate America and (2) American eugenics played a large role in the development of Hitler’s Third Reich.

Before Hitler had opened concentration camps, America was systematically targeting groups of people for sterilization. Those who fit under any of the wide definitions of “unfit” or “feebleminded” could be subjected to involuntary vasectomies. Some weren’t even informed what procedure they were undergoing. Native Americans, the poor, the blind, the deaf, were all possible candidates. Other laws restricted marriage, and immigration quotas were largely determined by the advice of eugenicist experts. All of this was bankrolled by the pockets of Rockefeller and Carnegie in collaboration with government agencies such as the Department of Agriculture.

For instance, did you know that the Supreme Court found sterilization to be constitutional? Here’s an expert from the opinion of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind… Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Eugenicists believed that they were doing humanity a service by eliminating suffering. Charity was looked upon with disdain because it artificially preserved lesser strains to go on living. An eminent lawyer and eugenicist said, “Mistaken regard for what are believed to be divine laws and a sentimental belief in the sanctity of human life tend to prevent both the elimination of defective infants and the sterilization of such adults as are themselves of no value to the community. The laws of nature require the obliteration of the unfit and human life is valuable only when it is of use to the community or race.”

Put that next to a quote from Hitler’s Mein Kampf: “The demand that defective people be prevented from propagating equally defective offspring is a demand of the clearest reason and, if systematically executed, represents the most humane act of mankind. It will spare millions of unfortunates undeserved sufferings, and consequently will lead to a rising improvement of health as a whole.”

You can see very little difference between opinions expressed by Hitler and American eugenicists. In fact, when Hitler took power and began his rigorous eugenics program, the common sentiment was that Germany was beating us at our own game, as he was free from “democratic niceties.”

As a scientist myself, I found all of this deeply humbling. Science is looked upon with high esteem in America. Science ideally is completely unbiased and seeks after truth, as things really are. But scientists aren’t perfect people, and no science can be divorced from the views and opinions of the scientist who espouses them.

One scientist of the day also recognized some of the dangers that science can pose:

I have just observed in Germany some of the consequences of reversing the order as between program and discovery. The incomplete knowledge of today, much of it based on a theory of the state, which has been influenced by the racial, class, and religious prejudices of the group in power, has been embalmed in law, and the avenues to improvement in the techniques of improving the population have been completely closed.”

“The genealogical record offices have become powerful agencies of the German state and medical judgments even when possible appear to be subservient to political purposes. Apart from the injustices in individual cases, and the loss of personal liberty, the solution of the whole eugenic problem by fiat eliminates any rational solution by free competition of ideas and evidence. Scientific progress in general seems to have a very dark future. Although much of this is due to the dictatorship, it seems to illustrate the dangers which all programs run which are not continually responsive to new knowledge, and should certainly strengthen the resolve which we generally have in the U.S. to keep all agencies which contribute to such questions as free as possible from commitment to fixed programs. ”

Science is vital and valuable. But we should show a degree of humility and respect. I have been particularly worried as I have seen the reaction of the scientific community to some of Trump’s new policies. I too am not happy that climate change and environmental protections are taking a backseat. Funding for science also faces cuts. But in advocating for good science, I want to make sure that science maintains its neutrality. Science should be no respecter of persons.

Like science, history also has something to teach us. We should learn from the past, and not pass over its lessons lightly. One thing I have been thinking about while reading this book was, what would have happened if the Holocaust didn’t happen? Would America’s sterilization program only have increased? Would the Civil Rights movement have even happened? Eugenics was a really scary thing. “It took a Holocaust, a continent in cinders, and a once great nation bombed and battled into submission to force the issue.”

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