Review of Preaching Eugenics

Most books on eugenics take an ideological position, trying to show the evils of eugenics, or at a minimum the racist ideology that drove it. This is not unlike the numerous books on the causes of racial inequality, each one is a series of facts and narratives that never really find an empirical cause because they routinely ignore genetic differences between racial groups, especially intelligence (behavioral differences from differences in genetics is only beginning to be investigated—but during the eugenic's era 100 years ago, differences were compared by observation rather than using personality tests.)

The book Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement, 2004, by Christine Rosen looks at how religion joined the eugenic's crusade. Rosen states, "During the first few decades of the twentieth century, eugenics flourished in the liberal Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish mainstream; clerics, rabbis, and lay leaders wrote books and articles about eugenics, joined eugenics organizations, and lobbied for eugenics legislation."

Then as now, religion has been concerned with moral values, and with rapid industrialization, massive integration, prostitution, increasing numbers of the feebleminded in asylums, poverty, rapid urbanization, venereal disease, drunkenness, etc., the nation was seen as falling into moral decay. Dysgenics was seen everywhere, as the decadent were having far more children than the fit. The religious communities were just as concerned as other sectors of society, and they joined in advocating making humans more fit so that they could be more moral.

Edwin Black wrote one of the most widely read books on eugenics: War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race, 2003. In that book, with the help of hundreds of volunteers doing research (hmmm), he dug deep to find evil in some bogus scheme to link eugenics only with a plan for Aryans to take over the world (see my review of his book on my web site). However, as Preaching Eugenics shows, Jews as well as Protestants and Catholics were not only equal players in eugenics, but the Jewish religion was well aware of eugenic practices.

Pre-Christian negative eugenics was practiced by the Spartans, who killed weak children in order to improve the martial capabilities of its soldiers; while Jews turned to eugenics on a broader scale of fitness and intellectualism.
Though there were notable racists in the American eugenic's movement, it was more progressive than repressive: "The late nineteenth century witnessed the birth and growth of social problems that sparked the reforms of the Progressive movement. The arrival of staggering numbers of new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, increased industrialization, urbanization, economic depressions, and labor upheavals all generated a feeling of social dislocation among many Americans; one social worker aptly titled his study of the country's urban conditions The City Wilderness."

Rosen notes that: "Jewish leaders' encounter with eugenics often centered on the unique qualities of the Jewish 'race' and the vicissitudes of intermarriage with non-Jews. In their explorations, rabbis turned to centuries-old Biblical prescriptions for health as evidence of the compatibility of eugenic science and Jewish faith. In an essay on 'Jewish eugenics,' published in 1916, for example, Rabbi Max Reichler cited the Mosaic code as proof of Biblical strictures against defective marriages. But racial distinctiveness proved to be a double-edged sword. Many eugenicists praised the Jewish people for their racial purity and historical attention to the power of heredity, and rabbis who supported the eugenics movement drew upon this history to demonstrate the compatibility of the two worldviews. However, this attention to cultural (and even physical) homogeneity made it easier for some eugenicists to condemn Jewish 'clannishness' and to make invidious comparisons between Jews and non-Jews."

Clannishness, tribalism, ethnocentrism of course is a highly genetic behavioral trait, and if Jews are high on this trait as research seems to show, then this would cause friction in a society where assimilation was highly valued.

The following excerpts from Preaching Eugenics shows the strong historical connection between Judaism and eugenics:

"Health certificates also earned the attention, if not the wholesale approval, of Reform rabbis. Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch of Sinai Congregation, Chicago, well-known for his own liberal championing of social causes (many of which he promoted in the pages of his periodical, the Reform Advocate), reminded the public that 'the spirit of Dean Sumner's regulation has been observed in Jewry from time immemorial' through the disciplined and serious approach to marriage taken by Jewish rabbis and Jewish parents. Without invoking the 'jargon of eugenics,' Hirsch said, rabbis had done and continued to do their part to prevent unwise marriages.

"Five months later, the leader of the Free Synagogue, Reform Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, joined Harrison in condemning intermarriage. According to the New York Times, Wise took 'emphatic ground against the intermarriage of Jews and Christians' in his weekly sermon.

"The intermarriage debate highlighted how the concept of race informed nearly every discussion of Jews in these years. Supporters of intermarriage encouraged 'race mixing' and denied that a pure Jewish race even existed. Opponents of intermarriage justified their stance by calling on Jews to fulfill their 'racial destiny' and maintain that supposedly nonexistent race purity.

"According to Talmudic teachings, the main objects of marriage were leshem piryah veribyah (the reproduction of the human race) and lethikun havlad (the augmentation of the favored stock). The latter occurred in part through strict adherence to the prohibitions against the marriage of 'defectives' such as lepers, epileptics, the deaf and the dumb, and the lame and the blind. As interpreted by Reichler, these teachings were the central principles of what he called 'Jewish eugenics.'

"Yet Reichler went one step further. He argued that Jewish eugenics had a 'distinctive feature' lacking in the current eugenics movement: an emphasis on 'psychical' as well as physical well-being. Rabbis had recognized that 'both physical and psychical qualities were inherited,' Reichler said, endeavoring 'by direct precept and law, as well as by indirect advice and admonition, to preserve and improve the inborn, wholesome qualities of the Jewish race.'

"In his 1911 book, The Social Direction of Human Evolution, Kellicott argued that a 'natural aristocracy' formed by the propitious pruning that Reichler said the Jews had undertaken 'can become the guardians and trustees of a sound inborn heritage, which, incorruptible and undefiled,' can be preserved 'in purity and vigor throughout whatever period of ignorance and decay may be in store for the nation at large.' Reichler argued that the Jews were just such a natural aristocracy, possessing three traits 'unique to Israel': sympathy, modesty, and philanthropy.

"Rabbi Reichler was clearly well versed in eugenics literature, citing, in addition to Kellicott, Galton, Davenport, and others to bolster his claims. His work did not go unnoticed by eugenicists; an excerpt of his essay, absent the annotations, appeared in the Journal of Heredity in February 1917. Nor did secular Jewish leaders ignore it. Physician Maurice Fishberg cited the study and readily agreed with Reichler's conclusion that 'rabbinical teachings are teeming with positive eugenic suggestions.' Indeed, Fishberg claimed that 'the rabbis anticipated Galton by about sixteen hundred years.'"

Clearly, Judaism has been concerned with good breeding for a very long time. Steven Pinker, author of The Blank Slate reviewed on this web site, recently has joined other researchers in affirming that Ashkenazi Jews have an average intelligence of between 107 and 115, and that there is no feasible environmental explanation—it must be genetic. It seems we have come full circle since the early 1900s. Hitler and the Holocaust had ushered in a pseudoscience, na├»ve environmental explanations only for racial differences. Rosen states:

"Following the lead of anthropologist Franz Boas, whose research demonstrated the decisive influence of environment on the supposedly intractable racial qualities of immigrants, Fishberg rejected the hereditarian interpretations of eugenicists. Rather, he claimed that observable differences between Jews and non-Jews were due to social factors—mainly differences in religious beliefs and practices—that he called the 'separative tenets of Judaism.'"

Boas and his followers in cultural anthropology, were the primary academic advocates of radical environmentalism, and are still promoted today in social science, cultural anthropology, and to some extent psychology. His Boasian school of anthropology was not empirical, with the deception by the Samoans of Margaret Mead's cultural field research being the most famous. Boas wanted humans to be unique among all species, where genes simply did not matter, and anything would be said and research presented to prove his ideological position, bordering on scientific fraud.
Rosen notes the battle within Catholicism over sterilization, and reveals how biased moral indignation is dependent on time, place and motive. "[Edward M. East] reaffirmed the importance of birth control to eugenics but also left room for an attack on the Catholic Church, reminding readers that Fr. McClorey was 'a priest of that organization which is horrified at sterilizing imbeciles, yet castrated thousands of healthy boys to furnish sopranos for its choirs.'"

Rosen goes on to explain how Hitler's eugenic's program led to the Holocaust (false), tainted eugenics, and claims that man is incapable of directing their own evolution; but we have easily directed the genetic alteration of plants and animals for over 10,000 years. She also insinuates that it is wrong for eugenics to try and make people happier, and yet that is what it is doing today. Jews are on the cutting edge of testing for a terrible Jewish genetic disorder—Tay-Sachs disease—by testing parents for the recessive genes. Is this not eugenics to make people/children happier?

Throughout the book she belittles eugenics, implying it does not work, it is evil, humans assume too much by relying on science, etc. But unlike most authors on eugenics, she seems to reverse herself. "[T]oday fertility clinics offer parents the option of improving the health of their potential children by making use of a range of eugenic services that go by euphonious phrases such as 'family balancing' (for sex selection) and 'preimplantation genetic diagnosis' (for the selection of embryos free from inherited disease)." And again later:

"Indeed, technologies of genetic improvement are already gaining in popularity, suggesting that recognition of the excesses of our eugenic past has not erased the irrepressible urge to improve the human race. Public opinion surveys over the past decade reveal growing levels of approval for genetic engineering, for the purposes of both therapy and enhancement. A survey conducted by the National Center for Genome Resources in the late 1990s found consistently high approval ratings for allowing scientists to alter genes for the purposes of curing a fatal disease (85 percent); reducing the risk of a usually fatal disease (84 percent); and preventing children from inheriting a usually fatal disease (86 percent). An even higher percentage of physicians and geneticists approved of such use (90 and 96 percent, respectively). As for genetic enhancement, 35 percent of people polled felt it was fine to use genetic engineering to 'improve the physical characteristics children would inherit.' Another poll found that 25 percent of Americans approved of genetic engineering for the purposes of improving a person's physical appearance and 34 percent to improve a person's intelligence."

Then she flip-flops again:

"The human desire for improvement is best understood as a continuum of feeling, one that can rest comfortably alongside the very democratic urges that we assume will prevent the expression of eugenic sentiments in the future. Eugenicists earlier in the century saw nothing unusual in their simultaneous championing of the idea of innate hereditary differences and their participation in a democratic society dedicated to the principle that all men are created equal. They simply believed that the future health of democracy depended on the ability of experts such as themselves to ensure the creation of eugenically ideal children who would, in turn, prove to be better democratic citizens. Many Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish leaders agreed."

Her thinking seems entirely confused. Why is democracy inconsistent with eugenics? If a nation decides to assist or at least make it a personal decision for people to practice eugenics, why is that not compatible with reproductive or individual freedom? And if a nation has a majority of people that would like to see the society as a whole improved through eugenics, why is that inconsistent with democratic principles? The assertion that "all men are created equal" never had anything to do with genetic equality, but equality of rights.

She ends her work with noting that science cannot offer certitude, but neither can religions, politics, medicine, nor anything else. We live in an uncertain world and this is well known by scientists if not by politicians. As she calls for protection from a new eugenic return, she laments that we may be losing the very things that make us human. What makes humans unique however from other organisms is our ability, through language and foresight, to manipulate our environment to suit our needs. To that end then, eugenics makes us even more human by making us more rational, creative, and intelligent.

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