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Monday, 29 March 2010

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John Emerson

I actually went over to read Jonah's piece, but the sight of his fat smirky face on the page forced me to close that window.

I know this is wrong, but every time Jonah comes up I think of the semen-stained dress that was his ticket to the big time. "We all crawled out fromn under Gogol's overcoat", the Russian novelists say, and Jonah just happened to crawl out from under Monica's semen-stained dress. Someone should draw a cartoon.

KWK

Methinks you may be setting up a false dilemma: one can certainly oppose eugenics on moral grounds (religiously-motivated or otherwise) without opposing science on religious grounds. I haven't read enough of my Chesterton to say for sure that's what he was doing, but your selection of quotes relating his view of the intrinsic moral value of humans doesn't convince me that he's of the same breed as modern-day climate-change deniers and Young Earth Creationists.

Furthermore, I'd be inclined to blame the Romantic literary/artistic movement for that period's anti-scientific zeitgeist at least as much as the Conservative religious/political partisans. But on that point, I'm mostly thinking out loud about issues well outside my area of expertise, so feel free to provide any evidence you've got that might set me straight.

John Emerson

It's not like eugenics was the only game in town. A lot of good Christians figured out Biblical rationalizations for a version of the purportedly Darwinian Law of the Jungle. Secular economists figured out economic reasons for the Law of the Jungle.

And as an Austrian economist Jonah accepts these arguments, though of course since his panacea hasn't been tried since 1932 for some reason, Jonah is also able to claim that pure free-marketism would be warm and fuzzy.

SEK

KWK:

Methinks you may be setting up a false dilemma

More like I'm responding to one.

one can certainly oppose eugenics on moral grounds (religiously-motivated or otherwise) without opposing science on religious grounds

Yes, absolutely, but in reality, it didn't happen so much. Most of the time the people who opposed eugenics also defended the anti-evolutionary side at Scopes; alright, that's just William Jennings Bryan, but he's an instructive example for both of us, inasmuch as his beliefs don't map onto contemporary politics whatsoever. In short, you're correct in theory, as the two beliefs aren't necessarily connected, but short in fact, because the connection may have been arbitrary, but it existed nonetheless.

John:

A lot of good Christians figured out Biblical rationalizations for a version of the purportedly Darwinian Law of the Jungle

Or they just didn't think about it. I mean, you have Sumner, who clearly did, but Carnegie? Not so much.

Karl Steel

two beliefs aren't necessarily connected
although the connection seems clear to me: "don't mess with nature; nature's fine as it is (and always has been)" it's an old style mode of conservatism, yes?

Beth

I'm as ready to knock on Jonah Goldberg as the next guy, but: I would contest the claim that eugenics was "necessary to the furtherance of scientific knowledge: it validated human society and the human body as objects of scientific inquiry." There were a lot of possible ways forward for the scientific study of human society/bodies in the late 19th century; eugenics was by no means "necessary." It seems to me that the path that eugenics took was more about the the naturalization of social prejudice, and the marshaling of science's moral/intellectual authority behind social prejudice. I think you see this in the gradual rejection of "old style" eugenics in the US in the late 20s and 30s--prominent geneticists like TH Morgan questioned it, and funding bodies like the Carnegie Institution withdrew their support of eugenics institutions like the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, which folded in 1939.

I think it's also possible that William Jennings Bryan--and others--were motivated by more than a simple religious resistance to science. They were also reacting to the negative consequences that science was bringing upon the world--for Bryan, the mechanized killing and poison gases of WWI were particularly significant. Evolutionary thinking, because it legitimized brutal competition among men, was responsible for these kinds of evils. So, get rid of evolution, maybe we'll all be nicer to each other? (This kind of rhetoric is still pretty common in contemporary creationist/creation science literature).

Anyway, I guess I mostly just disagree with the idea that science = good and resistance to science automatically = bad.

Fritz Hemker

although the connection seems clear to me: "don't mess with nature; nature's fine as it is (and always has been)" it's an old style mode of conservatism, yes?

If you believe that the Founders were Lockeans, then no, it's not a necessary strain of conservatism. Nature is stingy. Labor provides everything of value. Labor allows us to take something given in common and make it our own, property. Political societies are created for the limited end of protecting property. If you're one who believes that Locke was more Hobbesian than not, then nature is more than just stingy, it's horrible.

The question is whether you can work with nature in order to cultivate it. Read The Federalist Papers #51 to get a sense of what I mean. Working with something fairly rotten, ambition for power and fame, the Founders create a system that cultivates it and harnesses it to allow for the possibility of good government. I think that this notion of cultivation is one of the issues that separates the first wave of modernity, classical liberalism, from the second and third waves.

Of course, as a glance at Kirk or a quick perusal of Buckley and Kesler's Keeping the Tablets would tell you, conservativism is a fairly broad category.

John Emerson

Another pet idea of mine: in the Scopes trial, the Populist was Clarence Darrow, Scopes's defender. Bryan was never a Populist but was endorsed by them in 1896. and Mencken (the third lead fictionalized in "Inherit the Wind") was a Grover Cleveland Democrat who despised every President after Cleveland, and in several respects a rather nasty piece of work. Advantage: Populists.

Picador

Let's be precise: few conservatives in the 19th century supported eugenics for white people. This did not stop them from performing selective breeding with their livestock, which often of course included non-white humans. Often the plantation owners themselves even had a direct, er, "hand" in the process.

If 19th-century conservatives -- i.e., advocates of "states' rights" and "strong property rights" -- stood for anything, it was this.

Richard

I would like to co-sign Beth's comment, while also expressing astonishment that, Scott, you can read people like Jonah Goldberg without having your head explode.

Rich Puchalsky

I'm going to pretend that Goldberg doesn't exist, so that we can actually converse about this. Good post, by the way.

Part of the story of eugenics was how it was dropped. Actually, not quite dropped -- how the idea became a conservative one, via The Bell Curve, even after its original proponents had long since given up on it.

In short, the advantage of pseudoscience as a source of bad doctrine is that it is capable of being later contradicted by science. If your connection is to science as such, rather than to whatever racist or other beliefs are justified by the doctrine, then the pseudosciences will fall away. That's what happened with eugenics through the 20s and 30s. The modern version of eugenics, the belief that non-whites are genetically less intelligent than whites, is something now only defended by conservatives, because they don't care about science -- even just yesterday, someone showed up on Crooked Timber to defend the oft-disproved "science" in The Bell Curve. Their plain old racist beliefs will seize on any available justification pseudoscientific or not.

I shouldn't oversimplify, though, since I'm pretending the Goldberg isn't involved. It took the Nazis to really get people to reject that part of eugenics that had become policy. By the 40s, the science wasn't there, but various laws were on the books that various racists of all types found comforting. It took the shock of exposed fascism to get rid of most of them -- although some forced sterilizations continued up through the 70s.

SEK

Karl:

although the connection seems clear to me: "don't mess with nature; nature's fine as it is (and always has been)" it's an old style mode of conservatism, yes?

The Invisible Hand predated Darwin, certainly, and the majority of Malthus-mongers were, in fact, scared of brown people. To the extent that "social Darwinism" did exist in the works of Charles Sumner and the like, it's as scientific veneer to long-standing theories of non-interference.

Beth:

There were a lot of possible ways forward for the scientific study of human society/bodies in the late 19th century; eugenics was by no means "necessary." It seems to me that the path that eugenics took was more about the the naturalization of social prejudice, and the marshaling of science's moral/intellectual authority behind social prejudice.

"Necessary" wasn't the best choice of words, as "inevitable" might have worked better, as the combination of the ubiquitous reform movements and the rediscovery of Mendelian genetics meant that the terms in which enthusiasts of the latter would think of the former would be similar. It's important to note that the first wave of eugenic-mania, which began around 1910, wasn't necessarily about social prejudice. Davenport was more concerned with preventing deaf-mutism and insanity, and while the language sounds inflammatory now ("defective and degenerate protoplasm" and the like), it didn't acquire the ominousness it has now until after WWII. Which isn't to say that there's not something very wrong with Lombroso-esque determinations of "the criminal mind," only that these are issues more of class than race.

prominent geneticists like TH Morgan questioned it, and funding bodies like the Carnegie Institution withdrew their support of eugenics institutions like the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, which folded in 1939.

Actually, it folded in 1944, and I think we all know why.

I think it's also possible that William Jennings Bryan--and others--were motivated by more than a simple religious resistance to science. They were also reacting to the negative consequences that science was bringing upon the world--for Bryan, the mechanized killing and poison gases of WWI were particularly significant. Evolutionary thinking, because it legitimized brutal competition among men, was responsible for these kinds of evils.

Absolutely. I was oversimplifying to make the Scopes swipe, but you're right that Bryan's stance against evolution and technological progress was deeply felt, and extended both to WWI, the treatment or replacement of manual laborers, etc.

Fritz:

The question is whether you can work with nature in order to cultivate it.

That seems like a strange way for animists to think about nature, and only seems applicable in light of Hobbes, i.e. I associate animism with an Erasmus Darwin-like view of nature as something to be admired for what it is, not used as a model for emulation or something to be tamed by society. But I am, frankly, out of my depths here.

Picador:

few conservatives in the 19th century supported eugenics for white people.

I see what you're getting at, but that's not really eugenics, that's just breeding. I'm not diminishing the evil of it, just noting that the body of eugenic thought that I refer to in this post is period-specific.

Richard:

while also expressing astonishment that, Scott, you can read people like Jonah Goldberg without having your head explode.

You'll note that I never posted my full review of Liberal Fascism. It's not because I couldn't finish it, only that I couldn't write and think in such close proximity to it for a prolonged period of time.

Rich:

If your connection is to science as such, rather than to whatever racist or other beliefs are justified by the doctrine, then the pseudosciences will fall away. That's what happened with eugenics through the 20s and 30s. The modern version of eugenics, the belief that non-whites are genetically less intelligent than whites, is something now only defended by conservatives, because they don't care about science

That's sort of what I was getting at: Goldberg wants to tar progressive supporters of eugenics for a form of eugenic thought that didn't exist then, i.e. Nazi and contemporary white-supremacist. The thing is, that's not what they supported, and the two are related in the same way that, say, Nazism and militarism are, and yet you don't see Goldberg comparing the United States's defense budget or national conversation on matters of war to Nazism.

Karl Steel

Thanks much, Scott, and thanks for the suggestions, Fritz.

Beth

SEK: True that about 1944. I was thinking of the year the Carnegie Foundation dropped them like a hot potato. (partly because they thought that eugenics, as practiced by Davenport, Harry Laughlin, et al., was bad science). (I'm getting all of this from a 1986 Osiris article by Garland Allen btw)

marriotr

I believe the necessary-inevitable distinction mentioned above is really important. It changes the tone and meaning of how eugenics is described. If we're going to discuss the necessary(or inevitable) elements for scientific progress, it'd probably be for the best to explain the context for the audience- I for one as a scientific philosopher am still not really sure how that connection works.

Picador

I see what you're getting at, but that's not really eugenics, that's just breeding. I'm not diminishing the evil of it, just noting that the body of eugenic thought that I refer to in this post is period-specific.

Agreed. I just think it's an important fact to frame Goldberg's "argument" (such as it is): presumably, the reason conservatives were less than enthusiastic about the eugenics movement was that it treated white people in a way that, in their minds, only non-whites and animals should be treated.

Gary Farber

Department of the past isn't dead, it isn't even past.

Of course, it was obviously liberals in charge all the time.

Scott, your preview software pouted at both my attempt to embed the link, and to post it raw. I only was able to post by reloading the page and carefully not previewing. Just mentioning so you are aware, and also you owe me four-plus minutes.

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