Hill Folk and Hereditary Pauperism: The Eugenic Family Study


Numbers are seductive to us all, alluring, like the aroma of a fine (organically grown and fairly traded) coffee. They whisper promises of clarity in our ears. Easy solutions to complex problems are likewise appealing and easily sold to a public who, while its individual members are capable of critical thinking and sacrifice, collectively believe any burden at all in the name of the greater good is a burden too much. And new methodological tools and frameworks are like powdered alcohol to academics (especially those looking to professionalize and legitimize a new discipline)—easily transported, flexible, and everyone wants to be a dealer and corner the market.

Add these individual ingredients together in a world all of a sudden uncomfortably crowded, shrinking, apparently degenerate, and confusingly modern, and you get a monumentally potent tool that would, eventually, usher in American eugenics: the family study.

The eugenic family study has its roots in a genealogical report done by Richard Dugdale in The Jukes: A Study in Crime, Pauperism, Disease and Heredity (1877), which I won’t regurgitate at length here because Wikipedia exists. In any case, what it was is far less important than what it suggested for future generations of social scientists—that one’s familial line was an accurate predictor of intelligence, success, indigence, and criminality. The more palatable offshoot of this brand of progressivism was, of course, the “fitter family” contests of the first quarter of the twentieth century.


These family studies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries located specific familial clans (like the pseudonymously named Jukes or the Kallikaks or the Nams or the Zeros) and attempted to trace their lineage and prove that imbeciles and criminals reproduced in proportionally greater numbers more imbeciles and criminals. Funded by organizations like the Eugenics Records Office at Cold Spring Harbor, and either submitted to state review boards or, in a couple of cases, published by philanthropists and eugenicists like John D. Rockefeller, these eugenic family studies were powerful artifacts of a cultural ethos. They were birthed by those taking part in a countermovement to public welfare reform in the United States, the latter of which itself had been stimulated by a public worried by the excesses of unregulated capitalism in what Twain called the “Gilded Age.”

Coetaneously, the eugenic family studies were a driving force in their own right. Proliferating between 1890 and 1924, they were read, cited, and built upon by prominent eugenicists in their efforts to maximize reproduction of the fit and reduce procreation of those deemed “feebleminded.” As such they were part of a much larger ideological and political stance, which in no small part stressed the burden on the state of families of these “degenerates.” They were no less than scientifically-sanctioned statements of bloodline worth, ontologies of heredity which would have much wider implications in decades to come.


But they were also something more, and served yet another purpose that heavily influenced their methodology, content, and scope. Because the investigators who undertook these projects—going into the countryside and seeking out the poor in rural areas and pestering them with questions about their immediate and extended families—were themselves preoccupied with privileging a merit-based hierarchy where mental capacity was equated with genetic worth (in order so that they could advance their own careers and reputations), the studies subsequently came to reflect and validate the ambitions of middle-class professionals who emerged to fill this new niche of social control in a culturally tumultuous time.


How popular did they become? Nathaniel Comfort offers a nice pithy summation for us:

“The ERO [Eugenics Records Office] introduced a novel and durable method of collecting human genetics data. Elaborating on [Francis] Galton’s idea of the eugenics ‘record,’ [Charles] Davenport developed a questionnaire of the type Galton used. But instead of marching people though his kiosk one by one, Davenport used mass-mailing, and, most effectively, ‘fieldworkers’ to collect data. The fieldworkers—more than 250 of them between 1910 and 1924—were mostly young women, many of them nursing students form the New York City area . . . [t]rainees spent a summer in Cold Spring Harbor, where their received twenty-five lectures encompassing interview methods, construction of pedigrees, and the elements of statistics and biometry. The young women then went out in the field for a year, where they catalogued and documented the hereditary patterns of the diseased and insane. The data were recorded three-by-five-inch cards and stored in a fireproof vault back at Cold Spring Harbor. By 1924, fieldworkers had filled out and filed 750,000 cards.”[1]

The result is that they helped grease the wheels for American eugenics with a potency long forgotten by high-school history textbooks, a movement which resulted in the sterilization of over 63,000 individuals between 1907 and 1964.

The general consensus is that the eugenic family studies died a justifiable death by the early 1920s, succumbing to advances in genetics which ate at the crumbling foundations of easy, simplistic biological determinism. And yet, polemics invested in the notion of races and classes of hereditary worth have been with us ever since.


Further reading

Dugdale, Richard. The Jukes. New York: Putnam, 1877. Link to full text via archive.org.

Estabrook, Arthur Howard. The Jukes in 1915.Washington: Carnegie Institution, 1915. Link to full text via archive.org. 

Comfort, Nathaniel. The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

Rafter, Nicole Hahn. Creating Born Criminals. Urbana-Champagne: Illinois University Press, 1998.

—. White Trash: The Eugenic Family Studies, 1877-1919. Boston:   Northeastern University Press, 1988.

Smith, J. David and Michael Wehmeyer, Good Blood, Bad Blood: Science, Nature, and the Myth of the Kallikaks. Washington: American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 2012.


*Image 1: The Jukes, ca. 1910, by Arthur Estabrook

**Image 2: State expenses for maintaining the socially inadequate classes, Eugenical News, 1916.

***Image 3: medium family winner, fitter family contest at the Kansas Free Fair, 1927.

****Image 4: ERO data collected by Miss Devitt in Oklahoma in May and November, 1915.


[1] Comfort, The Science of Human Perfection, 40.

Dark Ecology as the Higher Misanthropy

dark ecology2

It is a signal pleasure to announce that this week slowlorisblog is hosting an essay by Dr. Steve Fuller, Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick, UK. Dr. Fuller joins us today to discuss a fascinating intellectual movement–Dark Ecology–in terms both of its historical development and the future it promises for humanity:

One of the advantages of being a certain age – and remaining alert – is that you observe intellectual history as it unfolds in public. The relevant trace here is what ‘anti-humanism’ has come to mean. Nowadays it means misanthropy, especially if you don’t call it that. However, the revolt against humanism began as a revolt against the hypocrisy of humanists, especially their pretensions to have liberated us from God yet at the same time enslave us to science. This development began in 1960s France, where it was prosecuted as a dual attack on Existentialism and Structuralism. Thus, both Sartre and Levi-Strauss — who famously confronted each other in the pages of The Savage Mind — were the enemy. After all, the reality that made life so urgent yet absurd for existentialists was one which science had discovered to operate by principles indifferent to the human condition. The anti-humanists aimed for no less than a subversion of both sides of this modernist dialectic. (Thomas Nagel’s uncompromising dualism is perhaps the last prominent philosophical project that takes the Sartre-Levi-Strauss dialectic seriously.)

At first, anti-humanism attacked the primacy of authorial intent in cultural production, understood as the last bastion of theism in the secular world (aka creation by the Word); hence, Roland Barthes’ ‘death of the author’ thesis. But Barthes didn’t go far enough because his ‘semiology’ had scientific pretensions, not so different from Levi-Strauss’. This is the context for understanding what made Foucault and Derrida fellow travellers, despite their substantive differences. Both took their cue from a Nietzsche-fortified version of Heidegger, albeit to different effect. Foucault showed that ‘the human’ didn’t become a stable object of inquiry or concern until the late 18th century, and its prosecution over the next two centuries proved an uphill struggle, generating much risk, uncertainty, repression and violence. However, Foucault’s early adopters in the anti-psychiatry movement drew a more upbeat, libertarian conclusion from this prima facie gloomy narrative.  Simply put, we need to ‘let a thousand “humans” bloom’. In a similar vein, Derrida looked on the bright side of Heidegger’s nihilism to argue that once freed from the myth of legitimising origins, we can employ deconstruction to release us from the binaries that regularly prevent our thought from fully exploring what lies ‘interstitially’ and ‘intertextually’ between the putative opposites.

All of this could have unleashed a new super-humanism (i.e. a Nietzschean humanism) that might overcome past hypocrisies in the name of humanity’s creative inexhaustibility.  But it did not come to pass. At least in the English-speaking world, the sort of Zombie Marxism that passes for ‘critical theory’ colonised the original anti-humanist impulse.  I say ‘zombie’ because this brand of Marxism, which marked the shift in attention to the Frankfurt School from Marcuse to Adorno, implicitly acknowledged the failure of Marxism as a positive political project (i.e. the proletariat failed to deliver the goods) yet clung to the negative side of the project (i.e. the demystification of all forms of power), even though one might have thought that both were part of the same package and should be judged together. But no, instead the negative side of the project acquired a life of its own – an endless quest to demystify, deconstruct and otherwise falsify anything positive put forward by those in power, regardless of their ostensible ends.  Thus began the current fashion of identifying humanism simpliciter with a hegemonic ‘dead white male’ view of the world.  Whatever else one might wish to say about Zombie Marxism, it is not a good look for a movement that still fancies itself as ‘progressive’.

One way to understand the rise of dark ecology – and the various intellectual streams that feed into it – is as a rather perverse attempt to salvage something positive from Zombie Marxism’s exceptionally negative verdict on humanism. The silver dagger that dark ecologists drive through the zombie heart is to abandon our need to identify with the human altogether, thereby absolving ourselves of any sense of guilt or responsibility for what so-called humans have done in the past or might do in the future. Gone in one fell swoop are all the endless complaining and resentment of Zombie Marxists that are often derided as ‘political correctness’. In its place, that cluster of philosophical tics that travels under the banner of ‘object oriented ontology’ (or ‘OOO’, basically the metaphysical wing of actor-network theory) provides all the key distancing moves from the human. The modern marks of the human — subjectivity and autonomy – Sartre and Levi-Strauss – are erased in OOO-speak. Instead all objects are created equal in their inherent relationality. To be human is no more than to ‘do’ (i.e. at once to perform and to represent) networks in ways that privilege Homo sapiens as nodes. Although OOO-ists appear rather indifferent to the politics of the ecology movement, they share with Green metaphysics a rather ‘open-minded’ (i.e. not necessarily positive) attitude towards humanity’s contribution to a sustainable world (read: durable network), as determined by, say, our ‘carbon footprint’. The Anglo-American Romanticist Timothy Morton may be the most ‘out there’ of this bunch.

I call dark ecology ‘misanthropic’ because it implies that there is something fundamentally unreliable about being ‘human’. However, this judgement is made not out of spite or indignation, but in hope of a new dawn and a new level playing field. In the darkest corners of dark ecology –  Nick Land’s ‘Dark Enlightenment’– it is imagined that natural selection will deliver a sense of cosmic justice, reversing what the ‘racial hygiene’ movement in the early 20th century German medical community dubbed ‘counter-selection’, namely, all the apparently clever innovations – not least mass vaccinations — that have enabled unprecedented numbers of Homo sapiens to survive over the past 250 years, only to suck up more of the planet’s resources, creating new pretexts for political conflicts and international warfare. (The movement’s leader,  Alfred Ploetz, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.) The difference between today’s forces of the Dark Enlightenment and the older racial hygiene movement (which, yes, provided a scientific basis for Nazi ideology) is that the racial hygienists generally believed that counter-selectionist strategies delayed, without overturning, the final judgement that nature delivers on who is fit to live. On the contrary, Nick Land holds that such strategies accelerate the onset of the eco-apocalypse, and for that very reason, should be promoted to hasten that catastrophic moment when the Earth arrives at a genuinely ‘posthuman’ condition.

Lest Land’s prophecy be dismissed as the misbegotten product of a febrile imagination, there is an old-style ‘small is beautiful’ environmentalist version of it, delivered in folksier tones. Thus,  Paul Kingsnorth bemoans the ‘progress trap’ (or ‘technological lock-in’) whereby nature (including humanity itself, understood properly as an animal species) becomes the long term victim of the short term successes generated by each bright new human idea that gets turned into a normal routine for bending nature to its will. Kingsnorth imagines that ‘neo-environmentalist’ technology-friendly movements such as the US-based Breakthrough Institute (whose principles I have endorsed) are among the apocalypse accelerators in our midst. Once again, the plausibility of this pessimistic verdict depends on a prior belief that our tendency to treat necessity as the mother of invention will soon backfire decisively. In both its scary and cuddly forms – Land and Kingsnorth – dark ecology is betting against the post-apocalyptic ‘us’ conferring on the ‘human’ much normative value, even if ‘we’ still look more or less like Homo sapiens.

There is much more to say and think about vis-à-vis dark ecology’s challenge to the very idea of humanity. But let me close by suggesting in historical terms the radical value re-orientation proposed by this movement. In 1962 the RAND Corporation analyst Herman Kahn – often seen as an inspiration for the character of Dr Strangelove – proposed in Thinking about the Unthinkable various scenarios about how humanity might survive the Cold War nightmare of a nuclear confrontation between the US and the USSR. The interesting feature of Kahn’s prognosis is its relatively upbeat character. He very much believed that necessity is the mother of invention, and that whatever didn’t kill us would make us stronger. He appeared confident that, even in radically diminished numbers, humanity could pick up the pieces after a thermonuclear war, though it may be difficult at first and may require several years to return to pre-war conditions. Yet, in today’s world, both the threat of nuclear holocaust and the presumption that we are bound to Earth and the bodies of our birth are up for grabs, as reflected in ‘Black Sky Thinking’. From this perspective, dark ecology’s longing for the apocalypse looks like a hangover from the Cold War – but without the optimistic edge offered by the likes of Kahn.

Steve Fuller is the Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick, UK. He is the author of twenty books, the latest of which (co-authored with Veronika Lipinska) is The Practionary Imperative: A Foundation for Transhumanism, due out with Palgrave Macmillan in July 2014. His website is here, and his twitter handle is @profstevefuller

Personhood Beyond the Human: Reflections on the Nonhuman Personhood Conference at Yale


A couple of months ago at Yale University, a group of smart, passionate, well-informed people gathered together to discuss what will likely become one of the discursive focal points of the next century in bioethics and scientific thought: granting legal personhood to non-human animals. The conference was sponsored by the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, a non-profit think tank, and officially endorsed by the Nonhuman Rights Project, who just so happened that very week to be (and is still now) prosecuting a number of cases in New York courts on behalf of Kiko, Tommy, Leo, and Hercules, chimps living in Niagara Falls, Gloversville, and in a research lab at Stony Brook University, respectively.

I was lucky enough to get to go—a great perk coincident to my living on the East Coast this year as I finish my dissertation—and it was eye-opening in a number of ways.

 Non-human animals

It would take far longer than a thousand words (the generally accepted length for science blogs, according to people who assure me you guys won’t read anything more than three pages on the internet) to fully outline the incisive, complex, and sometimes diametrically opposed philosophical wellsprings presented at the conference, and do justice to the often radical arguments made during the course of those three days. So instead, I’d like to focus on the general tone of the meeting, and a few of the representative presentations.

 So who presented, and what did they say?

Lori Gruen, from Wesleyan, took an anthropological approach in pointing out the seemingly “natural” barriers between human animals and other-than-human animals. Spoiler alert: they’re not natural at all. She spoke about the sociological tendencies of humans through history to differentiate “Self” from “Other” via expanding circles of interaction like so: me –> my family –> my tribe –> my nation –> my race –> my species. The important concepts arising from this tendency, which she suggested were either socialized from an early age or built into the way our minds work (or a combination of the two), were dual. First, the development of an entangling empathy that is most strongly felt by those who are around us, look like us, talk like us, and think like us. And second, the rhetorical trap created when we make no distinction between “personhood” (a legal instantiation of rights) and “human” (a physiological marker). Expanding that entangled empathy and recognizing the limitations it placed around our thinking by our own language, she argued, offers the potential to re-ontologize other-than-human animals in our thinking, language, and conversation.

Robert Jones, from California State-Chico, tried to work his way toward a non-speciesist definition of personhood, and suggested we had perhaps been going about this project backwards. Rather than try to find “human” qualities in various other-than-human animals species, he suggested we try to pin down what properties we find to be important in our own personhood, and then look for other places those properties are instantiated. Good stuff.

Karen Davis, PhD, and president and founder of United Poultry Concerns, talked about the morphological bias present in the current animal rights movement (a justifiable critique that remains legitimate despite the equally valid justification by the NHRP that they prosecute cases on behalf of chimps both because of the plethora of science on their side and the anthropomorphic bias of human beings). Just because non-human animals don’t look like us doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to empathize with their experience in an honest way.

Wendell Wallach, Chair of the Yale Bioethics Center, gave a talk in defense of human exceptionalism that was simultaneously skeptical of technoprogressivism as a movement. He seemed, throughout, mostly concerned that as we proceed down the path of (rightfully, he acceded) giving personhood status to other-than-human animals, we not “demean what it means to be a person.” I thought the talked smacked of a strange romantic conservatism, and had that decided “old man smell” that betrayed a fear of unseating human animals as the center of the universe.

Plenty of other interesting and insightful people spoke. Peter Singer, Lori Marino, Stephen Wise, Steve Fuller, Andrew Fenton, Yaniv Heled, and others. That they don’t appear here has everything to do with the depth and breadth of their respective talks—that is, they perhaps raised even more complex and provocative issues than there is space to discuss. Look for another treatment in a future post in terms of how these individuals fit together in exploring other-than-human personhood.

 On Technological Intelligences


But this conference wasn’t only about other-than-human animals. That is to say, it was about more than biological, organic thinking beings. Though definitely underemphasized, it was equally about technological intelligences. BINA48—perhaps the best-known representative of those forcing us to reconsider paradigm from within which we make value judgments about autonomy, decision-making, and sentience—made an appearance. And she was fantastic. Short for Breakthrough Intelligence via Neural Architecture and built by the Terasem Movement, she answered audience questions for a full half an hour, fielding queries about everything from what she likes to do during the day, to where she goes when she’s shut down, to if she thinks she has a soul.

Here’s a URL to a video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=diR0UvI44-U (there’s a really great part beginning at 19:20 worth watching)

Make no mistake. BINA’s builders don’t claim to have created an artificial intelligence. BINA’s remarkably human answers, reinforced carefully by a life-like bust and animatronics, are nevertheless the result of one of the most concerted and well-focused missions aimed at getting to the heart of cognition. And for whole, uninterrupted moments, the mood of the room—populated by lawyers, scientists, philosophers, and students— was one of sincere entrancement, punctuated by verbal and cognitive dissonances that provoked laughter. BINA, her human facilitator explained, was prone to ramble at times, her language and thinking centers building off one another in unpredictable ways. The result was that sometimes she spoke continuously for minutes about having friends, and at other times she gave one-word answers to deeper questions.

It made me wonder, not for the first time and not for the last, if whether the real question is not going to be between those who say eventually technological intelligences will be able to pass a Turing Test and fool us into thinking they are sentient, and those who say it will never happen. Perhaps, we might wonder if it’s even possible to develop a Turing Test that can tell us with one hundred percent certainty if the interaction we’re experiencing is genuine or merely excellent mimicry. I’ve seen very little discussion which makes me believe we understand the human brain—a computing machine equivalent to a supercomputer (though that remains an incomplete analogy) the size of three city blocks effectively running off of twenty watts—well enough to think our way out of Plato’s cave.

 This is all philosophically nice, but what’s the science behind personhood?

What are some criteria that everyone agrees on for personhood status? Lori Marino of the NHRP was on hand on Day Two to provide some, all of which I heartily agree with. As the science advisor for the group, in charge of preparing materials for the prosecution of their legal cases, she’s uniquely well-situated to speak authoritatively. Part of her challenge lies in educating the public about the flood of scientific evidence showing that other-than-human animals exhibit a host of abilities and phenomena that we had never been able to prove, and which are popularly used to deny them personhood status. These included, but were not limited to, scientifically established recognition of culture, mental time travel, working memory, casual inference, using tools to make tools, self-actualization, self-denial of short-term benefits in pursuit of long-term goals, and others.  She was articulate, well-informed, and well-received by the conference attendees.

 A Kerfuffle at Yale

Author and futurist David Brin rounded out the conference via Skype from his study in California. He argued, much to the consternation—and yea, even anger—of the conference attendees, that as the only species on this planet to successfully navigate the Great Filter into undeniable high-order sentience humanity may have an obligation to “uplift” non-human animals to our level. Think of it as a reversal of the Prime Directive. Once our technology enables us to, he suggested, the (moral and philosophical) line of discussion brought up by the Yale conference (he had been following along to the panels remotely) suggested clear responsibilities to life on planet Earth—to aid in the uplifting of as many species as we can determine want high-order sentience. Brin was immediately (and with no little animosity) criticized for suggesting interference by the conference attendees. There was shouting even. This reaction, I thought, demonstrated a large blind spot in their awareness of just how radical most of the ideas they themselves proposed were to the bulk of society. Brin handled it well enough, telling the most vocal that he understood what he was proposing sounded elitist, presumptuous, and even immoral. He reiterated, however, that his suggestion was little more than the logical conclusion of the rest of the conference’s attempt at grappling toward (from a laudable and well-intentioned place that he agreed with, he said) full personhood status for other-than-human animals. And he was absolutely right.

 Concluding Thoughts

This is a debate that’s not going to go away. India just banned dolphin use in entertainment-related activities, and it’s likely others will soon follow suit. PETA, despite the poor public image most have of them, continues its work nationwide, aided by the Humane Society of the United States and others. More people go vegetarian or vegan every year, and as they do, restaurants and grocery stores are becoming increasingly hip to what is clearly no longer a transient fad.

So what should you say to someone who snidely says,

“People are animals.

Animals are not people.

Discussion over.”

You say to them this: No one’s talking about people. They’re talking about “personhood.” It’s a very specific legal instantiation aimed at giving other-than-human animals “freedom from” rather than, as many who pre-emptively attack the activist movement (on the grounds of an understandable but completely outmoded faith to the notion of human exceptionalism) seem to be worried about, “freedom to” (be called people).

Freedom from what? Freedom from predation, from being experimented on, from being eaten, and from being otherwise exploited. Recognizing the abilities which other-than-human animals have had all along doesn’t diminish you in any way. It’s not a zero-sum game. That was the most exciting part about the Yale conference. Because when you get that many smart, capable, and informed people in a room together who want the same thing, no amount of xenophobic hand-wringing is going to keep it from happening.


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“Perverts, obstreperous, fighters, or near degenerates,” and “I don’t believe any girl was sterilized who was fit for motherhood”: American Eugenics as Genocide



So the other day I was doing what all dissertating graduate students in the humanities (read = those of us staring unemployment in the face with little prospect of anything but a VAP for the first three years) do: sorting through an infinity of symposia posts and CFPs for conferences and book chapters, looking for anything that remotely matches what it is we do, so that we can yet again write some words for free in the hopes of adding yet one more line to the old curriculum vita. Someday I’d like to do a survey of graduate students and see if I can’t pin down the average cost/line of a humanities’ vita (in both time and money), though perhaps not because I’m pretty sure it would be horrifying.

But I digress. If nothing else, this process keeps us sharp: we get all sorts of practice re-thinking and re-framing what it is we do, or think we do, and that can help when some philosophy of ethics professor emeritus has nothing better to do but show up at one of your conference talks and asks how you think moral nihilism can inform your arguments about violence, or what R.M. Hare would say about the state legislating the body in the name of public healthcare for the greater good.

So I ran across a call for chapters in a new edited collection titled something like An Anthology of Genocide: Women. It used the following as a way to begin the discussion about genocide:

Our approach is a four point comparative framework derived from earlier Holocaust studies (Ofer and Weitzman 1998) that examines (1) the impact of culturally defined roles of women; (2) women’s “anticipatory reactions,” not just in the sense of what perpetrators would do to men, but to women as well. In examining anticipatory reactions, we explore women’s political and social awareness as the genocidal process unfolds; (3) the extent that women were treated differently than men; and (4) their reactions and processes as women to the physical and emotional circumstances of experiencing genocide.

Eugenics hits on every one of these points. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more ridiculous it seemed that I hadn’t written anything about it. After all, even though they came from very different intellectual places, Nazi eugenics (definitely a genocide) and American eugenics didn’t look all that different to the people getting sterilized (which the Nazis started with before moving on to murder). The Nazis targeted Jews and gypsies and homosexuals, and American eugenicists targeted the “feebleminded,” African Americans and American Indians, the indigent, and the insane.

So I wrote a proposal for a chapter, and I sent it in, and it’s been stuck a little in my mind ever since. Of course American eugenics was a genocide, but I’ve rarely seen that particular word used to describe it except in the really bad (for other reasons), polemical histories of eugenics (like War against the Weak, and Better for all the World). In fact, I think historians of American eugenics have been, to a certain degree, counter-programmed to avoid that connection. As if it were somehow incapable of being framed that way, as if it will obscure the narrative in some way, because no centralized state apparatus directed its activities under a specific ideology or schema. Which is, to my thinking, a limiting act. Taking “genocide” off the table eschews ways of interacting with the data and the narratives in an unhelpful way.

Because in fact, not all genocides are the same. Not all genocides make international headlines, spawn sprawling legal tribunals, or shape the popular consciousness of subsequent generations (how many of your friends who didn’t go to graduate school in the humanities have heard of eugenics?). In fact sometimes genocide, or something very much like it, can hide in plain sight, adumbrated, tentative outlines the only evidence it ever existed. American eugenics remains the perfect example of this type of genocide. From 1907-1960, more than sixty-three thousand individuals were forcibly sterilized in mental facilities, reform schools, prisons, and health clinics in the United States.

American eugenics remains a potent example of genocide because those official sixty-three thousand sterilized were accompanied by thousands, and ultimately unknowably more, for whom records were purposefully obscured, lost, or altered. American eugenics serves as an example of genocide not for stealing the lives of the current generation, but for terminating a priori the lives of the next. The creation of ontological markers of hereditary worth, the complicity of scientific apparatuses and epistemologies, the cooperation and collaboration of neighbors, professionals, and even the victims themselves—all of these activities and processes mark the discourse and praxis of American eugenics.

eugenics as genocide


I think that we need to push the operative boundaries of genocide theory in order to return vocality to the individuals persecuted by the apparatuses of the American state. Letters from victims, newspaper coverage, and institutional correspondence; these are the doors and windows into American eugenics, and it remains one of the most compelling narratives of biopower and genocide in the twentieth century. Rebecca M. Kluchin has written about the difficulty in histories of eugenics in “locating the voices of the sterilized.”[1] Recovering those voices reveals that men women underwent radical transformations in self-identity as fathers and husbands, wives and mothers, and citizens. Their reactions to being forcibly sterilized were manifold, in accordance with the experiences they underwent not only in the physical (before, on the operating table, and after) but emotional realms as well. Sometimes they understood what was being done to them, and why, but most of the time they did not.

The history of American eugenics has been elided, which is a grave disservice to its people, despite and perhaps especially because of its connection with that most famous example of genocide under the Third Reich, and its own resemblance to other genocides throughout history. So let’s see what happens when we talk about it in that way. A little more American humility, and a little less smugness, would do us all good.

letters from beloit


[1] Rebecca M. Kluchin, “Locating the Voices of the Sterilized,” The Public Historian 29, no. 3 (Summer 2007): 131-144.

*Image one: Sterilization table, 1937.

**Image two: Eugenic sterilizations by state, 1935.

***Image three: Excerpt from Beloit, Kansas, State Industrial Girls School, where between September 1935 and March 1937 62 girls were forcibly sterilized as a punitive measure under Kansas’ eugenic sterilization law.