Sensationalizing Pseudoscience: The Eugenic Movement’s Restriction of Freedom

In her essay “Reflections on Little Rock,” German political philosopher Hannah Arendt condemns bans on interracial marriage as fundamental violations of the inalienable rights secured by the Declaration of Independence (49). Freedom of “home and marriage,” she argues, undeniably fall under the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” which the founding fathers swore would be an integral part of their nation (US 1776). Surely, if freedom of home is a fundamental right, then the freedom to create a family must also rest under the designation of inviolable individual liberty. Arendt insists that the government’s duty is to protect these inalienable rights in the public sphere. Yet, during the first few decades of the twentieth century, state governments not only failed to protect citizens against violations of their essential freedoms– state governments endorsed these violations. Under the influence of the eugenics movement, states sanctioned over 27,000 reproductive sterilizations of citizens deemed to be “hereditary defectives” (Smith 138-139). These systematic forced sterilizations seem inconceivable in a nation founded upon individual liberties. Ultimately, the sensationalization of unchallenged and distorted science created the myth of eugenics– a dangerous narrative that compelled the American public to prioritize collective good over the individual freedoms of its “feeble-minded” citizens.

The eugenics movement arose as the socially-constructed offspring of evolutionary theories which developed during the late nineteenth century, relying upon arbitrary “evidence” in order to insist on the heritability of intellect and morality. The beginning of the movement can be traced most clearly to British statistician Francis Galton, cousin of evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin. Galton applied the principles of evolution to the human social sphere, and he coined the term “eugenics” to describe a field of research focused on detecting heritable differences through the study of physiognomy (Green 8).  Photography became one of the primary means of investigating this relationship because of it was viewed as a “passive process” affiliated with “objectivity and impartiality” (4). As a medium supporting the eugenics movement, photography linked reality to appearance. Yet despite their insistence on its objectivity, eugenicists manipulated photography into an instrument for buttressing their claims. The popularization of composite photography exemplifies Galton’s techniques for generating photographic evidence to support eugenics-based classification (fig. 1). Composite photography consisted of re-photographing several images of people onto one photograph plate, and through this process creating a single image that supposedly reflected the shared traits of a group of people. Galton used this method, which he referred to as “pictorial statistics” to “extract those physical characteristics peculiar to each type of criminality” and construct an image representative of diseased humanity (11-12). This system identified specific features as representative of mental and moral illness  (10). Ultimately, it cultivated a set of stereotypes that had the potential to provoke societal fear and reduce a citizen’s worth to his physical appearance.


Figure 1. Galton, Francis. Specimens of Composite Portraiture. 1883. General Collections Wellcome Trust, n.p.

Adhering to this image of a diseased gene pool, eugenicists portrayed laws that restricted freedom as necessary sacrifices for a common good. Danielle Allen, a Harvard professor of government, identifies sacrifice as a foundation for a democracy in her book Talking to Strangers; she asserts that “public policy does indeed construct notions of the common good” that require certain groups to succumb to the desires of the majority (45). These sacrifices, established upon the “initiation of citizens into public life,” apply to citizens’ freedoms in the “social and personal realms” (29). Within this framework of acquiescence to collective rule, limitation of certain individual freedoms can be justified– or at least, explained– within a democracy. However, the eugenics movement violated essential tenets of the political theory of necessary sacrifice. In order for a democracy to function, its policies be involve a “constant redistribution of patterns of sacrifice” (37). Sacrifice should not consistently be demanded of the same groups of people– this type of discrimination violates the “promise and consent that found the social contract” of democracy (38). Eugenics identified a segment of the population that it permanently branded as genetically inferior and routinely forced these citizens to surrender their freedoms in pursuit of a prejudiced “common good” which strove to eliminate those that did not fit the mold of white, law-abiding, middle-class America. Furthermore, Allen asserts that rigorous discussion in the public sphere must justify political actions– a democracy must “involve a discourse about loss and mutual benefaction” as a means of “distinguishing between reasonable and unreasonable claims (45-46). Yet in a society in which marginalized groups, including the institutionalized and disabled, were stripped of their freedoms, such discourse could not have been conducted on equal terms. Restrictions of freedom, then, were unconstrained by the unreasonableness of their demands, and the public sphere condoned allegations of inferiority.

The unconditional belief in the validity of mental testing reinforced the eugenicists’ condemnations of heritable inferiority. Henry H. Goddard, a prominent American eugenicist, brought French statistician Alfred-Binet’s intelligence test into the sphere of the American eugenics movement as a method of identifying “morons.” (Bruinius 203). Since the test relied upon educational background, results conveyed fundamental inconsistencies, especially for immigrants; in one case, a tailor who spoke three languages and displayed intellectual maturity received a mental score of twelve years old on the Binet scale (Smith 122). Despite these contradictions, researchers invested an inordinate level of faith in mental testing. By one measure, Goddard declared that 83% of Jews that he tested were feeble-minded, and nearly 87% of Russians (120). These statistics contributed to media portrayal of inferior immigrants infecting the purer American lineage.

As unsubstantiated statistics permeated popular culture, they were sensationalized and created an aura of fear surrounding heritable instability. The public embraced these fears at events such as Fitter Family contests– festivals in which families competed to prove their genetic purity by submitting to arbitrary tests such as swimming competitions, intelligence exams, and physical examinations. These contests broadcasted statistics, surrounded by flashing lights, that emphasized the dangers of genetic frailty. Warnings such as “once every forty-eight seconds, a person is born in the United States who will never grow up mentally beyond that stage of a normal 8 yr old boy or girl,” portrayed in flashy media, allowed flimsy data derived from intelligence tests to transcend the realms of scientific journals into the dramatized public sphere (Bruinius 238). In the pursuit of contests and games, trophies and confirmations of familial superiority, the American public thoroughly accepted the ideals of genetic purity.
This easy acceptance of societal ideals recalls early twentieth-century French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir’s examination of the “sub-man,” a man who rejects his capacity for intellectual freedom. According to de Beauvoir’s essay “Ethics of Ambiguity,” the transition from childhood to adulthood is usually marked by the discovery of subjectivity– man discovers that values dictated by society have uncertain, challengeable origins (39). Yet if this childhood spirit of “consider[ing] values as ready made things” persists through adolescence and into adulthood, the sub-man emerges (35). Although he might “proclaim certain opinions,” the sub-man does this only to disguise his apathy; fundamentally, he “takes refuge in the ready-made values of the serious world” (44). Aside from the more apparent childishness of Fitter Family contests— the trophies, the contests, the familial rivalry– these festivities resonated with the definitions of immaturity proposed by de Beauvoir. As families strove to prove they were the “fittest” by completing arbitrary physical and mental tests to demonstrate genetic purity, they implicitly accepted the legitimacy of these ideals without examining them. De Beauvoir stresses that despite his indifference, the sub-man poses danger as a “blind uncontrolled force which anybody can get control of,” and as such, he finds himself the mechanical soldier of “all the great bloody movements” that afflict history (44).  Adhering to de Beauvoir’s terminology, America’s “genetic inferiors” were not sub-men; the real sub-men were the rest of the American public who placidly watched as individual rights were stripped from segments of society based upon unquestioned notions of heritable superiority. Thus, as the eugenic narrative built itself upon unsteady “scientific” foundations, sub-men became its avid proponents, and the idea of heritable morality became a widely circulated myth that was internalized as fact.

The dramatization of case studies also contributed to the creation of a eugenic mythology– a transition from scientific “evidence” to a widely internalized, digestible story of heritable societal inequality (fig. 2). One of the most circulated eugenic narratives was that of the Kallikaks, a family studied by Goddard whose six generations embodied the eugenicists’ theories about the pollution of family lineages. According to the study, the first Kallikak male to be studied had an illegitimate child with a mentally defective woman, and her genetic contribution caused all of the resulting grand-children and great-children to be “drunkards and misfits” (Bruinius 205). By contrast, the “normal” woman that Kallikak eventually married produced a respectable family of lawyers, politicians, and socially active citizens. Using a “simple, dramatic tone,” the story appealed to the American public because it offered a seemingly clear explanation for a sharp divide between moral, upstanding citizens and the ills afflicting society (209). As case studies such as the Kallikaks were embellished and evolved from scientific studies into stories that composed popular culture, they became accepted rationales for restrictions of freedom. Henry H. Laughlin, an American eugenicist opposed to immigration, used case studies to support testimony for stricter immigration laws (257). He recited famous case studies– “The Jukes of New York, the Kallikaks of New Jersey, and the Ishmaels of Indiana”—as an explanation of the menace of the feeble-minded (257). The story of eugenics did not remain confined to the realm of scientific experimentation– it exercised weight among the fundamental political decisions of the era.

Untitled.png eugenics tree

Harry H. Laughlin, The Second International Exhibition of Eugenics held September 22 to October 22, 1921, in connection with the Second International Congress of Eugenics in the American Museum of Natural History, New York (Baltimore: William & Wilkins Co., 1923). This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.

As the eugenics drew further from its unsteady scientific roots into the realm of spectacle– with dramatized photographs, flashy statistics, embellished case studies— it added a religious dimension to the creation of its myth. Eugenic texts adopted a “zeal and passion” that evoked the “spirit of a religious cause,” contributing to their mass public appeals (Smith 137). As a strategy for drawing forth an audience reluctant to accept theories in line with evolution, eugenicists began to “couch their message in religious terms” (Bruinius 16). Eugenicists portrayed mental defects as an “‘original sin’ in the blood,” and thus family pedigrees depicted the “genetic roots of ‘sin’” (16). But association with religion did not end with the eugenicists’ rhetoric; eugenics societies sponsored sermon contests, in some instances with prizes up to $500 for sermons that reflected eugenic ideals (235). Many eugenic leaders were New England Protestants who used evangelical techniques to advance the movement, describing the diseased genetic line with the gravity of a “prophecy of doom” (15). This convergence of “science” with religion proved particularly potent; faith in inherent morality and superiority could now be buttressed by what eugenicists believed to be scientific proof.

Perhaps the eugenic movement’s most glaring mishandling of the processes of scientific investigation was that it presupposed an answer to the question of heritable inequality and used evidence to legitimize its beliefs. The scientific method emphasizes generating hypotheses and then rigorously testing them in pursuit of truth; eugenics, by contrast, settled upon its fundamental “truth” of genetic inequality and sought methods by which this claim could be substantiated. One interpretation of the movement proposes that “eugenics offered a theory of society which predominantly corresponded to the interests and experiences of the middle classes” (Green 14). Through this lens, eugenics concerned itself primarily with social structure and “offered a legitimation of the social status” of middle-class professions that focused on “intellectual expertise” (Green 14). As the eugenics movement condemned lower class citizens for their supposed genetic deficiencies, it empowered the professional middle class, and thus the middle class became its faithful supporters. This cyclical process, in which eugenics was constantly justified by the citizens who benefited by it, defies the principles of scientific investigation and allowed insubstantial studies to be widely circulated. Eugenics garnered acclaim in the spheres of citizens who had prominent voices– the American middle class— and, by deeming them as genetically superior to the lower classes, upheld the value of their voices. 17th century French philosopher Renee Descartes’ Discourse on Method highlights the ease with which citizens accept ideals of which they had been “persuaded only by example and custom” (6); the unquestioned reliance on societal ideals “without having ever examined whether they were true” undermines the validity of these societal foundations (8). In hordes, Americans joined the ranks of eugenicists without questioning the roots of eugenic thought, the validity of their scientific methods, and the rationale underlying the groups of people that were idolized and the groups that were demeaned.
Thus, the development of the eugenics myth from unsound scientific evidence created a rich, compelling story– one that Americans accepted with ease– of the mentally unfit serving as the root of societal issues. Sensationalized elements of scientific research, including photographs, examinations, and statistics, evolved from their experimental origins into discriminatory narratives saturated with the faith of religion.  This story cleanly divided people into groups of fit and unfit; genetically pure and impure; upstanding citizens and criminals who deserved sterilization. Reductive classification, like that employed by the eugenics movement, provoked fear that the American gene pool would become infected by inherently bad citizens. Thus, at the opening of the twentieth century, rights were shuttered for thousands of American citizens deemed unfit by eugenics. Such a mass oppression of freedom evokes the dangers of unchallenged knowledge; without active questioning of established beliefs, falsehoods and scientific distortions swelled to catastrophic proportions. In this context, freedoms were completely stripped from individuals that eugenicists identified as threats to the American breeding pool, and the eugenicists’ actions were construed as unfortunate consequences of the protection of the common good.




















Works Cited

Allen, Danielle S. Talking to Strangers. Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of   Education. Chicago, IL, USA. University of Chicago Press, 2004. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 17 November 2015.

Arendt, Hannah. “Reflections on little rock.” Dissent 6.1 (1959): 45-56. Web.

Bruinius, Harry. Better for All the World. 1st ed. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2006. Print.

De Beauvoir, Simone. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Citadel Press, 1976. Web. 6 December 2015.

Descartes, Renee. Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy. Trans. Donald A. Cress. Indianapolis: Hacket Publishing Company, 1998. Print.

Green, David. “Veins of Resemblance: Photography and Eugenics”. Oxford Art Journal 7.2 (1984): 3–16. Web.

Smith, J. David. Minds Made Feeble: The Myth and Legacy of the Kallikaks.   Rockville: Aspen Systems Corporation, 1985. Print.