A blast from the eugenic past

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You can browse free PDFs of the Statistical Abstract of the United States online going back over 100 years (under “Earlier Editions”). It is filled with data on population, commerce, education, and so on. Excellent for doing quantitative history — and not just boring things like how population size has changed over time. During the heyday of eugenics, from 1925 to about 1943 / ’44, there was an entire chapter entitled “Defectives, Delinquents, and Dependents”– they didn’t mince words back then! I haven’t gone through and collected a bunch of data from it yet, but there’s all sorts of fun shit like this in the Statistical Abstract. Did railroads become safer or more dangerous over time? If you’ve got a little free time, you can figure it out.

So far I’m the only blogger who’s done a lot with it, probably because no one else wants to waste the time to sort through all the PDFs and numbers from scanned PDFs into Excel. The more recent editions at least have digital PDFs that allow you to copy & paste, and the most recent ones have Excel spreadsheets all ready to download. Play around with it — there’s a lot to discover.


  1. Well, sometimes I think we need to bring back eugenics. The only reason why it became unfashionable was because of the excesses of the Nazis and their holocaust against the Jews.

  2. kurt9 said: “[Eugenics] became unfashionable … because of the excesses of the Nazis and their holocaust against the Jews.” 
    Interestingly this is untrue. The ‘unfashionability’ of eugenics was not due to Nazis but to left wing radicals.  
    Eugenics was perfectly respectable for more than twenty years following World War Two – and included first rank biolgists such as Julian Huxley, Francis Crick and WD Hamilton.  
    It was the late 1960s radical counterculture that decided to vilify eugenics by linking it to the Nazis. Very successful propaganda it was.  
    Now everyone believes the lie.

  3. bgc, do you have a scholarly work which outlines this history in mind? in w. d. hamilton’s memoirs he makes it clear he perceived that his eugenical interests were in bad odor from his viewpoint in the 1950s.

  4. This is covered in the early part of Richard Lynn’s Dysgenics (1996), and the same story is found in Hans Eysenck’s autobiography Rebel with a cause (1997).  
    I have also seen the general late sixties counterculture versus science phenomenon using nazi smears documented in the history of psychiatry with respect to electroshock and other treatments (Shock therapy by Edward Shorter and David Healy, 2007).  
    But the best account is perhaps in Wooldridge A. Measuring the mind: education and psychology in England, c.1860?c.1990. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press; 1994. 
    Wooldridge describes (for the UK) how the political left shifted from meritocracy towards egalitarianism (from equal opportunities to equal outcomes) in the post 1945 period, in the process rejecting then demonizing IQ testing (which had originally been a leftist project).  
    So, the elite leftist socio-political intellectuals were already moving against eugenics from the 1940s (when Hamilton became aware of their disapproval), but this took a generation to percolate through to become a mass movement with the student radicals of the late 1960s.  
    Until the late 1960s plenty of people (including top notch scientists) were working and speculating in eugenics unmolested; but from the late 1960s it became virtually impossible to work on eugenics (and very difficult to work on IQ, for analogous reasons).  
    I wonder if, when future historians analyze the collapse of our civilization, this shift from meritocracy to egalitarianism on the political left in the leading modernizing societies may be seen as a major factor, or – at least – the final straw?  
    It seems easily explicable in terms of the need to build electoral alliances by creating victim/ client groups to vote for leftist intellectuals.  
    Yet without the shift from aiming at equal opportunities to to aiming at equal outcomes, a change underpinned by scientific lies, the political left would by now have disappeared.

  5. See Daniel Kevles, ‘In the Name of Eugenics’. Kevles says ‘After the Second World War, ‘eugenics’ became a word to be hedged with caveats in Britain and virtually a dirty word in the United States, where it had long been identified with racism’ (p.251 in the Penguin edition).  
    But I don’t think there was an overnight change. Eugenics was already declining in reputability before the War. See for example the way that J. B. S. Haldane got more and more anti-eugenic in the 1930s. Then the post-War revelations about the Nazis made things even worse. But it probably didn’t reach its nadir until the 1970s, when ‘blank slatism’ was in the ascendant and Marxists dominated much of the academic world.

  6. I think eugenics went out of favor when the baby boomers started assuming power. Sweden, for example, had forced sterilisations until the 1970s. For the boomers everything associated with Nazism was bad, whereas their parents’ generation shared some of the Nazis’ views. While it was not fashionable to publicize eugenicist views after the WW2, it’s not like people in the academy and elsewhere who had espoused such views for a long time suddenly stopped believing in them when Nazi atrocities became known.

  7. I wonder whether the man in the pub believes in eugenics? I also wonder how one might find out, since he presumably has more sense than to be frank to an opinion pollster.

  8. Since the Statistical Abstract is a reflection of the zeitgeist — at least in the government — it’s telling that they dropped the phrase “Defectives and Delinquents” around 1943. After that, the section becomes “Crime and Criminals,” not focusing anymore on deaf-mutes, paupers in alms, etc., in addition to criminals as they had before. 
    So it looks like it had already been tainted by then, but I’m sure the 1968 counterculture really ran with it.

  9. Yet without the shift from aiming at equal opportunities to to aiming at equal outcomes, a change underpinned by scientific lies, the political left would by now have disappeared. 
    The political left had been around long before and showed no sign of going away. Why expect it to disappear?

  10. “TGGP… The political left had been around long before and showed no sign of going away. Why expect it to disappear?” 
    Because the left had all-but ‘achieved’ what it set out to achieve in its host nations: equality of opportunity/ meritocracy based on ability, and the abolition of real poverty.  
    (Actually this was achieved by science, technology and capitalism, not by socialism, but it happened anyway.) 
    If the left had been honest, it would have wound itself up in – say – 1965. If…

  11. I remember a professor of mine in the early 80s complaining that the genuine working class was largely right-wing, and the welfare class held the attitudes the working class was supposed to hold. 
    The implication – which neither of us drew – was that the left should abandon the working class and make the Revolution with the welfare class.

  12. Are there any serious scientific — as opposed to moral, political, or emotional — arguments against eugenics? What I am looking for are scientific counterarguments to the claim that there would be a non-trivial social benefit, within a reasonable period of time, if the number of children born to smart people were to significantly increase and the number born to dumb people were to significantly decrease. 
    (I’ve tried posting a longer version of my question several times and it hasn’t gone through. Was there something objectionable that was moderated out? Maybe the links were too long and that triggered something?)

  13. Are there any serious scientific 
    Not that I know of. The problem is implementing it. State control of reproduction, a la China, is not terribly palatable. A state incentive system is at least a little less unpalatble. Liberal (ie individual-directed) genetic engineering requires no state action at all; the problem is that any subpops that don’t participate won’t be affected, potentially resulting in snowballing class divergence.  
    Unless some economic revolution changes society drastically, we may need to figure out something to do about this in the next few centuries. In the small amount of data I’ve looked at, it seems about the same number of people died before reproducing in the hunter-gatherer economy as in the agricultural economy: about 50% (not counting prenatal death of fetuses). Since a much higher percentage of individuals has reproduced ever since 1800, it is likely that the mean burden of deleterious mutations per person is rising toward a new, worse equilibrium. (Because the 50% who died young before the industrial revolution probably averaged higher in deleterious mutation burden than those who reproduced.) This process may be able to produce dysgenesis in intelligence, beauty, and perhaps well-being, even if slower people /don’t/ outbreed smarter people.

  14. Are there any serious scientific — as opposed to moral, political, or emotional — arguments against eugenics? 
    I think there are rational arguments to be made against eugenics. Eric has already highlighted some practical problems in implementing eugenic policies, so I’ll try and raise some arguments against the idea itself. I haven’t researched the issue in depth, so I’ll just highlight a couple that come to mind here: 
    * Genetic diversity would decrease. If some new disease comes along, perhaps those with a formerly undesirable trait will be able to deal with it. 
    * A large scale eugenic program would be a radical societal change. All the conservative arguments against radical change apply. 
    * I always liked this Eric Hoffer quote: 
    “The formidableness of the human species stems from the survival of its weak. Were it not for the compassion that moves us to care for the sick, the crippled, and the old there probably would have been neither culture nor civilization. The crippled warrior who had to stay behind while the manhood of the tribe went out to war was the storyteller, teacher, and artisan. The old and the sick had a hand in the development of the arts of healing and of cooking. One thinks of the venerable sage, the unhinged medicine man, the epileptic prophet, the blind bard, and the witty hunchback and dwarf.”

  15. Suffering and the value that may derive from adverse experiences are an interesting problem for transhuman life in a more euphoric far future. Adventurous and faustian types will simply engineer adverse/risky experiences for themselves if need be (something they have always done) – and if they find that actual danger of losing control and being irrevocably harmed is a necessary ambergris of such experiences, they will simply have to engineer that too. But since probably not everyone will do this, adversity may decline greatly on average, with unknown social effects.

  16. “Are there any serious scientific … arguments against eugenics? “ 
    You have to define what you mean by ‘eugenics’. You personally may be referring to the policy of state control over human reproduction (which hardly anyone favours); but politically-correct leftists also use ‘eugenics’ to refer to most of the things discussed on gnxp.com, even when these are purely scientific.

  17. The movement to suppress the scientific study of heritable differences in humans long predates WWII. It didn’t totally win out until the 1960′s though.

  18. I posted my question about eugenics here as a sort of follow-up to an exchange on one of the New York Times blogs. Since I had trouble before I won’t post the links here (I’ll try that in a follow-up), but the article was titled “Can We Increase Our Intelligence?”, and it was by Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt. My comments are numbered 2 and 102, and Sam Wang’s replies are included in comments 60, 131, and 189. Sam eventually implied that there were indeed counterarguments, involving the Flynn effect, regression to the mean, and the large number of intelligence related genes, and he suggested he might follow up with “a mathematically-oriented yet accessible source on this topic”, but he never did. 
    I could imagine though a counterargument that might go something like this: “There are thousands of genes that affect intelligence, and even the smartest people have no more than (say) 52 percent of the “good” alleles, so culling those people out will have very little impact on overall gene frequency, except in the very long run”. Seems unconvincing to me, given how easy it is to breed domestic animals, but maybe it works out mathematically, so what I wanted to know was whether anyone here was aware of arguments like this, which would render any reasonable eugenics program not just morally objectionable but ineffective as well. 
    Some other points: 
    I think what I meant by “eugenics” was perfectly clear in my original question: would there be “a non-trivial social benefit, within a reasonable period of time”. I.e., would it work? The practicality and morality of it were deliberately left unspecified. 
    Given the size of the human population, I don’t see how decreased genetic diversity could ever be a problem, unless you are talking about drastically reducing world population and breeding those who remain like racehorses. Which I’m not. 
    I’m also not thinking about any sort of coercion, state or otherwise. (And I have to point out that there are always plenty of really bad ways of go about promoting any worthwhile social goal, e.g., reducing poverty). What I have in mind is more along the lines of eugenic thinking once again becoming accepted common wisdom. Nobody would be forced to do anything, but instead of subtle social pressure at cocktail parties for people to protect the earth by limiting the size of their families, there would be subtle pressure on smart people to have kids. It would be commonly and openly acknowledged that, while there was nothing you could do about it, it was unfortunate when unintelligent people (or people with other genetic issues) had large families. It wouldn’t necessarily be the top item on anybody’s list, but it would be an issue that could be expected to come up and be given some weight whenever new laws and social policies were considered. In other words, people would deal with the issue reasonably, and as a result the playing field would be gently tilted in a positive, rather than negative, direction. 
    I guess that’s that a whole separate question, isn’t it: Is it possible for us as a culture to deal reasonably with this issue, and not go totally nuts?

  19. Just FYI, I tried twice to post a follow-up with links to the NYT article and comments — once typing the HTML by hand, and once using the little “Adds link…” button — and neither seems to have gone through. Odd, since everything looked good in the Comment Preview, and I’m pretty sure I’ve used links in GNXP comments before.

  20. JEB: “There are thousands of genes that affect intelligence, and even the smartest people have no more than (say) 52 percent of the “good” alleles,…”. 
    This model assumes random mating with thousands of common additive variants of very small effect determining the genetic component of a person’s intelligence. Compare an IQ 150 person to an IQ 50 person where a 4% difference in “good” alleles would account for 50 of the 100 IQ point difference (assuming heritability of 0.5). If the difference between the good and bad variants caused an 0.1 point difference in IQ (genome wide association tests have established an upper limit on the effect size of common variants) there would have to be 12,500 common variants that cause a 0.1 point IQ difference. However it is even worse because the variant effect sizes are likely to follow a power law with only a few common variants producing even 0.1 point difference in IQ. So many more IQ altering variants would be required. 
    Spread out over the functional areas of the human genome this would imply virtually all regions have some minor impact but no regions have significant impact. This doesn’t match the gene expression patterns seen throughout the body. Protein expression in the brain directly affects brain function and some proteins are far more important than others. Brain endophenotypes such as regional differences in gray matter and white matter volumes correlate highly with IQ and are heritable. I.e., the patterns of biological tissue differences don’t match this model of genetic intelligence. 
    So what is happening? 
    1) There could be many different rare variants of large effect. Or SNP association tests may be missing common causative genetic factors. If so, only a modest number of variants might largely determine intelligence in each person. 
    2) Assortative mating tends to concentrate good variants and bad variants so the estimate that “the smartest people have no more than (say) 52 percent of the “good” alleles” is wrong. 
    3) The inheritance models only fit the usual IQ ranges between 70 and 130. I.e., studies of very high IQ populations might show different patterns. E.g., stochastic development factors may play a larger role in the very high IQ. Or non-additive genetic factors may play a larger role. Or the tests used to measure very high IQ might not be very reliable (more noise at the top or the “g” factor begins to separate into non-correlating intelligence subtypes). 
    4) I don’t know. 
    Note that even within families there can be considerable IQ variance. E.g., my IQ is over 160 while my brother’s IQ is around 115 and we share over half our genetic variants. 
    “…so culling those people out will have very little impact on overall gene frequency, except in the very long run” 
    Most extreme retardation in white people is organic, e.g., due to problems during the birth process or the result of an injury or disease. Keeping such people from breeding will have no eugenic effect. 
    However when genetics is the cause, eugenics would work. Assortative mating concentrates good variants and eugenics would then increase the good variants. 
    Consider embryo selection for intelligence. Suppose that two embryos are tested and a genetic IQ potential for each could be accurately predicted. The lower IQ embryo is then discarded. How much would IQ increase each generation? On average siblings differ by around 12 IQ points and about half of that is due to genetics. So IQ could be raised by about 3 points per generation until genetic variance was exhausted. (Testing 100′s of embryos for each implantation could increase IQ by 15 points per generation.) 
    In my opinion this is moot. Within a few decades brain function and the genetics of intelligence will be well understood. It should be possible to intervene with nutrition, training, drugs, gene-engineered stem cell transplants, computer implants, and wireless access to smart applications running on an Internet cloud. Society will make geniuses instead of breeding them. 
    The transition from nations, races, and social classes to a global society where all people can alter their traits as desired will be disruptive. My preference is to publicly acknowledge scientific facts while avoiding political policies likely to increase societal strife. However it is difficult to predict the policies that would minimize strife over the short and long terms.