Cacogenic Cartographies: Space and Place in the Eugenic Family Study


I’ve got a new article out in the Journal of the History of Biology. It’s an historiographical re-examination of the eugenic family studies which were so critical to moving eugenics into mainstream cultural and thinking, with a specific focus on space and place as analytical frameworks.


Though only one component product of the larger eugenics movement, the eugenic family study proved to be, by far, its most potent ideological tool. The Kallikak Family, for instance, went through eight editions between 1913 and 1931. This essay argues that the current scholarship has missed important ways that the architects of the eugenic family studies theorized and described the subjects of their investigation. Using one sparsely interrogated work (sociologist Frank Wilson Blackmar’s “The Smoky Pilgrims”) and one previously unknown eugenic family study (biologist Frank Gary Brooks’ untitled analysis of the flood-zone Oklahomans) from the Southern Plains, this essay aims to introduce “environment” as a schema that allows for how the subjects of the eugenic family study were conceptualized with respect to their surroundings. Geospatially and environmentally relevant constructions of scientific knowledge were central to the project of eugenics during its formative years, but remain largely and conspicuously absent from the critical literature which engages this project to separate the fit from the unfit in American society. The dysgenic constituted a unique human geography, giving us significant insight into how concatenations of jurisprudence as well as cultural and social worth were tied to the land.


Eugenics; Family studies; Environment; Heredity; Human geography

You can read the whole essay here: marcattilio-mccracken-cacogenic-cartographies-2016:
Update, 11/2/16: The essay suggests that such studies which make use of environmentally relevant frameworks probably abound, if we but take the time to look. Here are two more.
It should also be pointed out that projects of this sort align well with the nascent field of critical cartography and the attendant matrices of spatial citizenship.

The Stubborn Little Eugenics Pamphlet That Wouldn’t Die


One of the fallacies perpetrated by the age of digitization is that anything worth scanning into an online database already has been. This is, of course, laughable. Even the most well-funded research libraries (or should I say, particularly the most well-funded research libraries) have cubic fathoms of storage space taken up by the superfluous, the redundant, the extant, and the strange. Ask any historian who’s done sustained archival research about the weirdest thing s/he has seen and you’ll get a good story. Probably it won’t even be related to the kind of work s/he does, but something stumbled upon by accident. Archival research is in many ways a weird endeavor–its feels like going through somebody’s mail in a way, even though you know the box in front of you was donated expressly for those who come after to try and make some sense of that which came before. We are so often the poorest judges of the lives we lead.

I’ve come across plenty of strange stuff, both of the why-the-hell-would-someone-keep-this and the what-in-the-name-of-Zeus-is-this variety. Electrician repair bills from the late 1920s with line items that compel me to believe said house burned down shortly thereafter, strange pictures of animals or vistas with no accompanying context or explanation, written ephemera that is both bizarre and disturbing. That kind of thing. Inevitably it makes me wonder what kind of picture would emerge of my life if all someone had was a dozen boxes of the stuff that defined my life in all its intention, abstraction, and banality.

The pamphlet pictured above is neither of the former, but of a different class of material culture history. Despite little evidence of a measurable market–academic or otherwise– and the de-legitimization of its premises by both genetics and changing cultural norms, it simply refused to go away. A testament to that fact is that its author, Kansas-born artist Corydon Granger Snyder, self-published 8 editions between 1928 and 1952.

Most of the time, anthropometry is discussed as a late-nineteenth or early twentieth-century phenomenon with perhaps its best-known footprints laid in craniometry, phrenology, and criminology, though it remained a practice with a far longer arm across the world than is commonly acknowledged even by historians of science and medicine (chronologically, intellectually, and institutionally). Snyder’s little text is proof of an incarnation which remained intimately bound with another scientific bogeyman of the first half of the twentieth century: eugenics.

Split into roughly halves, the first section of the text above sets the foundation for the second and proposes three roughly discrete but interlocking projects to be undertaken: first, that there exists an objective, quantifiable, and universally valid notion of beauty; second, that society can, and should, strive to increase its number of beautiful people and (its inevitable corollary) decrease the number of “homely” people; and third and finally, that the mechanism by which to achieve this project exists if we combine the aesthetic and tools of classical art and those of the science of genetics.

To effect greater numbers of the beautiful, regular, and proportional continues in the 1952 edition the motivation behind the first edition of the text, and is expressed in its original 1928 title: Beautiful Children from Homely Parents: If They Are Opposites (1928). It also serves as a bridge to the dual problems, in Snyder’s estimation, that his project solves: first, one which provides a systematic and authoritative exploration of beauty as it relates to type, and both as they impact reproduction. Throughout the course of the pamphlet is becomes abundantly clear that his underlying concern also engages the eugenic impulse and thus places Art and Human Genetics next to other neo-eugenic Malthusian treatises of the postwar era (like Fairfield Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet and William Vogt’s Road to Survival, both published in 1948). Just one excerpt that demonstrates this comes midway through:

It is hardly desirable in this day and age to breed a race of giants. In fact it has been stated by scientists that in the not far distant future it may be necessary to breed a smaller race in order to offset the fast diminishing food supply. It is to be hoped, however, that before that time we have a rational birth control.


Eugenics–even more than most intellectual movements–was polysemic its heyday; following it into the postwar world demonstrates how adaptable ontologies of hereditary worth which confound simple chronological, disciplinary, and rhetorical categorization really were.

The casual reading might erroneously suggest that, despite half its title, in fact there is little genetics contained within. There is no discussion of genetic mutation, alleles, or population statistics. But a closer look reveals that Snyder in fact remains very much concerned with the particulars of how genetics might be marshalled to improve the human race. Four short quotations illustrate this. On regression towards a mean, he writes:

In writings on eugenics a great deal has been said regarding height, color of hair and eyes, but little on the feature and nothing on the possibility of opposite extremes equalizing the features and creating a normal type in their offspring.

Again on regression, as a caption to profile sketches of a nuclear family with three children, he asserts (capitalization in original):

When EACH of the parents has one or more IRREGULAR features, but which are OPPOSITE to each other’s, the children will have features that are more nearly REGULAR than either of the parents.

One more time on regression, but with some injection of Mendelian inheritance:

Coming back again to the matter of facial proportions, let us first consider the fact that the children of parents having opposite extremes in features may quite closely resemble one of the parents. The chances are that at least one in three will. Nevertheless, there will be some correction towards the regular type of features. And in another generation, care in respect to any objectionable feature will remove it entirely as a family tendency.

Lastly, a clearer formulation of Mendelian inheritance, from the standpoint of art:

When one parent has REGULAR features, and the other parent has ONE or more IRREGULAR features, the children will all resemble the IRREGULAR FEATURED parent. This is because the REGULAR FEATURED parent is really a NEUTRAL, and has little or no effect in modifying the IRREGULAR features of the other parent.

Snyder’s terminology here is easily translatable to the realm of genetics, with “neutral” indicating a heterozygous parent (with one dominant and one recessive gene), and “regular” and “irregular” indicating pure recessive and dominant homozygosity, respectively. It appears that “irregularity” is the dominant trait for Snyder, for even one irregular feature dooms the next generation to the same irregularity of features. The text itself is bracketed by diagrams showing the measuring of heads, and the second half of Art

It might seem to some that Art and Human Genetics is nothing more than a peculiarly archaic but ultimately harmless pamphlet, the work of a self-employed artist at the twilight of his career feeling left behind in the modern world. But what lies behind this seemingly nostalgic but facile treatment of opposite types and marital compatibility is in actuality nothing less than an attempt to unearth the racial typology of physical anthropology, phrenology, and their far more insidious progeny: eugenics.

And so tracing individuals like Snyder after World War Two allows us to follow eugenic notions and arguments with a flashlight as they scurried to inhabit new disciplinary frameworks and discourses in the post-WWI world. To say eugenics in America after 1945 existed as a shadow of its former self is both far from and tantalizingly close to the truth; it would be far more accurate to say postwar eugenics existed as shadows of its former self, conspecific incarnations which broke off to occupy new intellectual and cultural spaces. The move was painful, cladogenetic, and rife with the ghosts (both literally and figuratively) of the past. But eugenics was a powerful idea. And ideas, unlike life, are not so easily destroyed.

Exorcising the Demons of our Past: Why Eugenics Wasn’t What You Think It Was, and Why That Matters

Science of human perfection

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

With for-profit companies offering genetic testing at prices approaching the commercially viable for the first time since the sequencing of the human genome ($1,000), eugenics as a topic of discussion in academic circles and in the popular news cycle alike will increase dramatically in frequency over the course of the next decade. In fact, it will likely be one of the conversational signposts of the twenty first century.  Designer babies, three-parent children, genomic medical therapeutics, and the stubborn persistence of racism and poor arguments disguised as science, like an eye booger clinging crustily on and just generally being a pain in the ass for everyone.

What was eugenics? For those unfamiliar, eugenics was a wildly popular scientific, cultural, social, and political movement in America (most popular) during the first half of the twentieth century. Spurred by advances in genetics after the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s famous work with pea plants in 1900, it developed simultaneously to medical genetics (i.e. using knowledge about genes to improve medical care). Both stretch all the way back to the beginning of the twentieth century (though most histories of medical genetics really begin in the 1950s).

So eugenics developed alongside humanity’s first stumbling investigations about what, how, and why traits get passed along from generation to generation. Eye color, physical build, demeanor, mental ability, susceptibility to disease—these are the types of qualities a new breed of scientists called geneticists initially sought out in the base material responsible for the direction taken by human evolution. Naturally, many quickly (and early on) suggested that now that humanity had access to the “germ plasm” (as they called DNA, which wouldn’t be discovered until the 1920s) we could take a conscious hand in directing the future of human evolution.

What does this have to do with Nathaniel Comfort’s Science of Human Perfection? Everything! This book is an attempt by Comfort, an historian of genetics and medicine at Johns Hopkins University, to do two things: 1) recover the thread of “medical genetics” from the history of eugenics, and 2) Demonstrate how the larger eugenics movement, reviled in the popular mind as the twisted progeny of the Nazis unleashed upon Europe’s non-Aryan ethnicities, was in fact a far more complex phenomena that, at its heart, was about “human improvement and the relief of suffering” (x). Now “human improvement” sounds an awful lot like the superman programs of the Third Reich, but, as Comfort shows clearly, the larger aim of the movement saw “improvement” as eliminating disease, inherited disorders, as well as increased intelligence and a stronger constitution.

Comfort traces this thread of medical genetics as it gradually thickened from 1910-1930. He notes the abandonment of most geneticists of eugenics by the 1930s as two obstacles appeared: first, the complexity of designing reliable experiments that could account for the complicated milieu going on inside the “germ plasm” as it was affected by environment (this is the classic nature vs. nurture dichotomy), and second, the ethical boundaries to carrying out those experiments on human beings. Instead, scientists like Michael F. Guyer at places like the University of Wisconsin occupied themselves with mice, fruit flies, and corn.

During this process, Comfort introduces another welcome formulation of distinguishing the strands of eugenic thought: Galtonian vs. Garrodian. The former settles its gaze on the population, whilst the latter emphasizes the individual. This opens up a whole new framework for understanding American eugenics that moves beyond the positive-negative dichotomy and adds nuance without sacrificing the accomplishments of previous scholarship.

Comfort follows the narrative into the 1950s and the advent of heredity clinics (which we still have today in the form of marriage counseling as it pertains to heredity), and shows how geneticists, with the onset of the Cold War and worries about the effects of radiation on the human genome, and also now bolstered by a quarter century of advances in knowledge and technique, re-approached medical genetics in the 1950s. There, The Science of Human Perfection ends.

This is a monograph that is, importantly, thoroughly researched and convincingly argued. Despite seeing increasing popularity in the scholarship during the last twenty years or so, eugenics still remains something of the bastard stepchild of history of science in academia. To blame this trend solely on the uncomfortableness the subject tends to engender (being tied so closely with the (bio-)political) seems to come, at least in part, from a public that wishes to forget the United States ever had an active movement for forced sterilization  and a larger history of science community of scholars who have gone along with that. At the same time, this is something of a copout and a cliché all at once. American eugenics was not Nazi eugenics: in intellectual grounding, structure (both in terms of the individuals proponents and organization), praxis, or even mostly time. And the threads of American eugenics, as we can see in Comfort’s excellent treatment (and elsewhere), certainly didn’t die with Hitler in that underground bunker in April of 1945. Comfort, thankfully, elaborates with nuance and persuasiveness on both realities.

Even more welcome by those of us in the history of science who are too used to slogging through interminably boring prose, is that The Science of Human Perfection is incredibly well-written.Comfort has a wonderful way with words, and an ability to render primary sources into a compelling narrative. It is, aside from being one of the more important revisions of the historical literature on eugenics, one of the best-written studies in any sub-discipline of history I have had the pleasure of reading.

For anyone interested, Comfort runs the excellent Genotopia over at scienceblogs.

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

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

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

“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.