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.

A New Year, a New Look

slorlorisblog image cloud April 2015

No, google. No I did not mean that.

I started this blog in March 2014, and it is almost unbelievable to me that it’s been a full year since its inception. Borne out of the desperate depths of a mind being slowly torn apart by the process of writing a dissertation in history, it served as a stopcock, a relief valve, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I half expected it to fade away into the pebble-strewn, rotting basement of the internet like so many others after a few weeks of no one noticing its existence or because I got bored or mad when people disagreed with me in public. I turned to it when I couldn’t imagine writing even one more word on the history of eugenics on the southern plains, cracking one more book or PDF open, shft+alt+f-ing one more footnote. I wondered, as too few of the rest of the internet seems to do, if I’d have anything useful or interesting to say about the topics and items that penetrate the fog inside of which we all walk around on a daily bases. And, as was inevitable, when there were days or weeks where this place took a distant backseat to other things going on in life, I wondered if it was dead to me.

In other words, I had very few expectations going into this. I wrote a dozen or so posts before going live so that, worst-case scenario, there’d be something here. But I remained unsure exactly who I intended my audience to be, and if they’d be interested anyway. Of course in many ways this place is a still a work in progress, both internally for me and externally as it appears to you. But I’ve settled into a comfortable rhythm here, and if it’s ok with you I think I’ll keep it around for the foreseeable future. Google seems to like it, enough people are dropping by on a daily basis, and I find I still enjoy putting down the words and the pictures. slowlorisblog has been visited a little more than five thousand times in the last year, which is plenty good enough for me. The essay with the highest number of views remains, unsurprisingly, Dark Ecology as the Higher Mysanthropy, by Steve Fuller. The pieces on the humanities getting their collective shit together, eschewing open-access for one’s dissertation, and letting evolution and math teach us how to vote remain other popular ones, along with a book review I wrote of Mark Fiege’s Republic of Nature. Strangely, this review garners consistent hits no matter the time of day or day of the week, I have no explanation for this, except that I got it up before others and now it remains sustained by the algorithmic teat of the google machine. So popular is it, in fact, that it remains the number one search result, even higher than the book’s own website,


fiege search results april 2015

You’re welcome Dr. Fiege. Maybe you remember this if I apply for a position at Colorado State?

In other you-probably-don’t-care-but-I-do news, slowlorisblog has seen some excitement. We got retweeted by that great obfuscatory compendium of thoughts that is Nein Quarterly, interacted with historians of note like Nathaniel Comfort and Jim Grossman, showed up at the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, and pinged by the eminently well-informed Karen Kelsky over at theprofessorisin.

As I say, I started this blog almost coetaneous to the moment I put the dissertation into high gear. For the curious, I went from looking like this.


To looking like this.

old man image

I added a twitter account which is followed by more than a handful of individuals I genuinely admire. As time permits I’ll be adding the audio files for conference talks I’ve given in the immediate past and going forward.

I also continue to believe that it’s absolutely vital for historians to engage the public and each other in places like this, and I’m convinced over the next decade a larger and larger percentage of new generations of historians will see such activities not as the kind of liminal, hipster space it is currently viewed as but a regular part of their daily praxis. So, onto 2015. I’ve got some scribblings in the pipeline on a myriad of subjects, including transhumanism, the hot-button issue in the profession right now that is The History Manifesto, and other assorted things that catch my fancy. So thanks for coming by today, and feel free always to drop me a line on twitter @slowlorisblog or via email at slowlorisblog[dot]gmail[dot]com.


On One Instance Where Open-Access Stinks, and Digitally Embargoing Humanities Dissertations


Rarely will you find me on the side of the fence that argues against open-access. In fact, during the course of my long and illustrious life, this is the first. And yet it’s an excellent example of how anyone who argues for the wholesale beneficence (or maleficence) of something or another is completely full of crap or woefully misinformed. Which until recently included me when it came to mandated digital publication of and open-access to dissertations.

But let’s back up a second.

What is this crazy penmonkey talking about so early on a Tuesday morning and shouldn’t he better get to it in the first paragraph if he doesn’t want to lose my interest? What’s that?! A Buzzfeed article on the 38 Things You Need to Know Right Now Oh God Please Click Me Fulfillment Lies Beyond?

Let’s start with a basic proposition.  PhD students (and newly minted PhDs) in the humanities already live a precarious existence. They are easily one of the most vulnerable populations to have gotten a four-year degree, for many, manymany reasons, despite the hard work they do.

In the good ole’ days, before the interwebz, PhD and MA students finishing their theses and dissertations printed out a couple copies and physically plunked them on the desk of some graduate college librarian, where they were then filed away for eternity. You wanted to read it, you had to physically go to that university library, or request a photocopy. That required time and effort, and it effectively meant that even though anyone could theoretically get ahold of anyone else’s work, in practice it was embargoed by geography and opportunity-cost. Today, the majority of graduate schools prefer (or require) the thesis or dissertation in digital form, and as part of the spirit of open-access, it has evolved to the point where as soon as you upload your work it gets sent off to UMI or someone and, shortly thereafter, made freely available to the rest of the world of scholars. If all this meant was that your brilliance and eloquence would be more easily discoverable by the walled garden of tenure-track academia to which you were trying to gain entry, there’d be no problem. But the reality is that, for those of us in the humanities (especially, though in other realms as well), the fact that your completed work sits out in the wild has increasingly meant that journal editors (less) and university press acquisitions editors (much more) have become increasingly unwilling to pick up contracts for monographs or accept articles for publication.

Why? Because as library costs become increasingly strained, library acquisitions folk themselves (the people who buy the books from the presses, and serve as the majority of the latter’s market base), already able to access your work via the subscription to the dissertation/thesis index they already pay for, have become increasingly unlikely to purchase the book unless it seems to deviate significantly from the original dissertation and/or appears highly original or significant to the discipline. Scholars (the other primary market for academic publishing) act the same way. Why pay twice for something when you can pay once?

The consequences of this process have become worrying enough that the American Historical Association stepped in last summer and strongly suggested all universities adopt a policy that allows graduate students to digitally embargo their work for a certain amount of time. Most TT (tenure-track) positions will require a new faculty member to publish a book within the first 6 years in order to go from Assistant to Associate Prof., and so the knowledge that while you go through the necessary process of revising, rewriting, and adding research your work is protected is not only crucial to a state of mind, but a job. How crucial?

Here’s a good piece from Bill Cronon, former president of the AHA, on the ramifications of mandated open-access of PhD dissertations the humanities:

My graduate students typically spend 5–8 years working on book-length manuscripts that will hopefully get them their first academic job (if that is their goal), and, when published, justify their getting tenure (assuming tenure survives all these changes—a whole different set of questions). My students’ work is very much their own. Unlike the sciences, they are not employed by me to work on grant-funded projects that I oversee as principal investigator. The vast majority never receive federal money, and most never even receive grant support beyond graduate fellowships (mainly for serving as TAs) that generally fall short of meeting basic living requirements. They support themselves mainly by teaching, which is one reason they take longer to complete their degrees than is typically true in the sciences . . . I can’t believe we would ever pass a law requiring nonacademic writers to post online the first draft of their book manuscripts; why would we demand this of newly minted PhDs even before their careers are properly launched?

The evidence is mounting that mandating open-access to dissertations is devastating to new PhDs leaving school with mountains of debt, and their job security is being further threatened by this trend in publishing. Some have argued, weakly as far as I’m concerned, that mandated open-access isn’t all that bad for book contract-seeking scholars. The majority, however, has engaged with the issue cognizant of the real-world ramifications that exist. Cronon, if I may go to him once more, offers the best summation of the range and depth of the problem and the squawks of the naysayers:

This isn’t remotely about dissing online scholarship or defending the book-length monograph as the only legitimate form of historical scholarship. It quite emphatically is not about refusing to share the fruits of historical scholarship for all time to come. It’s about preserving the full range of publishing options for early-career historians and giving them some measure of control over when and how they release their work to the world. As a practicing historian who has worked closely with a fair number of publishers for more than three decades, I can testify that concerns about online dissertations competing with books are very real. Indeed, I’ve had at least one former graduate student whose publisher refused to permit publication of an article in one of our discipline’s most prestigious journals for fear that it might undermine sales of his soon-to-be-published book. Since the publisher threatened to cancel the book contract if the article appeared, I can only imagine what it would have done had the entire dissertation been available online. In another instance, I had to intervene with a government agency to request the removal of an online version of one of my students’ dissertations that had been posted without the student’s permission and that the publisher said would likely jeopardize the book contract if it remained available for free download. I’ve had several editors from distinguished presses tell me (off the record, unsurprisingly) that although they would certainly consider publishing a revised version of a dissertation that had been posted online, the general effect of online posting would be to raise the bar for whether they would look at such a dissertation in the first place or eventually offer it a contract. And I’ve heard of university libraries that now save money by choosing systematically not to purchase university press books based on dissertations that are available online.

There are also many who have taken this as an opportunity to decry the tenure assessment system and agitate for changes in that arena as a solution to the larger problem (of recently minted PhDs as the profession’s most vulnerable population), of which mandatory open-access is but one of many contributing symptoms (though no doubt a significant one). It’s true, the system generally sucks, and more every year. At the same time, while I’m generally for agitation of any kind at any time, in this case it misses the point at the same time it obfuscates the battlefield for those of us who have years of grinding work invested in our monograph. The reality of the matter is that History Departments, representative of others in the Humanities or not, are slow-moving beasts. Whine and complain all you want, but bucking the tenure system in pursuit of some altruistic desire to level the playing field for new PhDs is not how they were built,  nor how they are maintained. Further, experimentation (as any of the proposed plans I’ve seen to shifting to new criteria by which a department can grant tenure will require) requires imagination, flexibility, a willingness to be wrong, and a certain bold come-what-may insouciance that, while demonstrated with flair and joie de vivre in the writing of many, doesn’t really personally describe many historians I’ve ever met. So suggesting change to the tenure-granting process amounts, in the end (to me, at least) like a magnificently naive way to seem to be for our cause whilst at the same time remaining spectacularly and embarrassingly standing on the sidelines.

Unlike my post last week asking the humanities to get their collective shit together, I end this one with some legitimate advice. Check with both your graduate college and department, and see if they require online publishing of the dissertation. If they don’t, great! If they do, get someone on the phone and ask why. And unless that reason’s “Because we offer all graduating PhDs a tenured position at $100,000 a year, with your very own parking spot and rhesus monkey-butler to boot!”, it’s not good enough. Use the literature here to organize a petition in your department and challenge the prevailing ignorance behind the open-access policy for theses and dissertations.

At Oklahoma State University (where I skulk the halls) all theses and dissertations are required to be submitted electronically, after which they are usually released into the wild. A digital embargo is allowed, but requires consent from one’s committee chair, and while the standard options allowed are 6 months to 2 years anecdotal evidence given to me says no requests up to 5 years have been denied. All of this is good news, except the last bit here. Awareness of this problem is so abysmal that the graduate college representative I spoke to said s/he saw only 2 requests this past spring out of 700 applications for graduation. A third of a percent.

Speak with your committee chair and get her or his advice. If s/he doesn’t have a strong opinion, maybe that’s your signal right there to pick a new mentor. Because this is obviously not an issue that’s going to go away, and it’s having a significant enough impact to reverberate across the collective arenas where such issues get discussed on a regular basis. Consider carefully what it means for your job prospects over the next decade before you decide to digitally embargo your dissertation or not. I know I will.


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

The Time Kansas Sterilized Sixty-Two Girls in a Rehabilitation School Over Eighteen Months (and almost twenty two others)

Flashing light sign at fitter family contests via APS archives

When most people hear that I study the American eugenics movement, their first question is “what the hell is that?”

So I say “You know how the Nazis went about rounding up millions of people and then either sterilized or murdered them because they weren’t the ‘right’ types of people?”

Then they’re usually all like “Oh yeah, some pretty redonk stuff going on back then. Glad this is ‘murica, where we didn’t do stuff like that.”

And then I say, in the condescending voice I’ve learned from being a student interacting with professors for nine years, “Actually, the United States sterilized over sixty thousand people during the twentieth century. Many of them before the July 14th, 1933 Law for the Prevention of Progeny of Sufferers from Hereditary Disease was approved in Germany under Hitler. In fact, the masterminds behind the German program enthusiastically credited American eugenicists for their development of eugenic ideas and practices. They gave one of the leading American eugenicists, Harry Laughlin, an honorary doctorate for it. Which he openly accepted.”

The truth is, eugenics was a powerful and persuasive force in the early twentieth century. It promised to allow the manipulation of the most basic “stuff” (what early eugenicists and geneticists called germ plasm) that, it seemed, governed our biological and perhaps even our mental lives. Early work in genetics, by accessing those realms and seemingly laying them bare for scientists and philosophers alike, appeared to have finally uncovered a blueprint for all human action and interaction, simultaneously opening a window to the past and offering a guide the future. It begot Social Darwinism, and was wildly popular in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century.

Thus a narrative of human history had appeared, driven by a biological engine (Darwinian) rather than one that was sociopolitical, economic, cultural, or technological (Lockean, Marxist, Goethe-esque, Veblenian, etc.) (In a word, this is why Darwin is such a big deal, still today). Crime, racial tensions, poverty, public health, war, overpopulation, interpersonal relations, and mental disease seemed for the first time solvable problems. Thus eugenics had at its disposal both a culturally pervasive ethos and a powerful vocabulary borrowed from a number of different social- and hard-scientific disciplines.

Kansas, in particular, finds itself in a somewhat unique position. In sterilizing 3,032 people by 1963 it catapulted its relatively low state population (twenty-ninth, nationally) to the number six spot in terms of sterilizations. In the 1930s, it was third in the nation in total sterilizations.

From another angle, if you lived in Kansas’ southern neighbor, Oklahoma, from 1935 to 1963, you had roughly a 1 in 4196 chance of being forcibly sterilized. If you lived in Kansas from 1913 to 1963, you had roughly a 1 in 718 chance of being sterilized. Men were sterilized at a higher rate than women in Kansas, at a ratio of about one and a half to one. When combined with Nebraska and Oklahoma, the southern plains region enjoys the dubious distinction of contributing roughly seven percent (4,490) of the total number of persons eugenically sterilized in the United States (~63,000). Kansas accounts for a full sixty-eight percent of those on the southern plains.

What does this have to do with the sixty-two girls sterilized in 1937? Kathryn O’Loughlin McCarthy was Kansas’ first elected female congressperson, and served from 1933-1935, during the heyday of eugenic sterilization in the United States. In 1937 she initiated a firestorm by accusing the Beloit Industrial Girls School of the cruel and “wholesale” use of sterilization against its inmates by the institution as a punitive measure.

Sixty-two of the one hundred forty eight girls in residence at Beloit had been sterilized over a period of eighteen months from September 1935-March 1937, a rate far higher than at any other point in the state’s history.

More than a third of its population.

After studying eugenics for the last four years, I can tell you that’s almost unheard of. But it gets more horrifying.

It was particularly unusual because Beloit was not a mental health facility, where most of the nation’s “unfit” were sterilized, nor was it a penal facility, where a majority of the remainder were. When the firestorm broke out in 1937, almost two dozen additional girls at Beloit were scheduled for “treatment.”

A former state representative, McCarthy had a record of social activism. It would be a casual exchange between then superintendent Blanche Peterson and McCarthy that introduced the latter to the politics of control that had existed under (previous superintendent) Lucy Coyner’s tenure:

“There’s been a change in this school since my last visit.” Mrs. McCarthy remarked [to Peterson]. “There seems to be a wonderful improvement in the morale of the inmates.” “Yes?” Mrs. Peterson was pleased. “And the next time you come to see us, I hope we’ll have better furnishings. For one thing, I hope to have that off the floor.” She pointed to a shabby rug. “I think we can buy some new rugs, now that we won’t have to spend so much money for operations.” “What operations?” asked the puzzled visitor. “I don’t understand.” “Come into the office. I think you will,” Mrs. Peterson told her. [1]

The vouchers Peterson showed McCarthy were for four thousand dollars-worth of eugenic sterilization operations performed on Beloit girls at the Women’s Prison Hospital in Lansing, just a short distance away. All were performed, at a cost of twenty-five dollars to the state of Kansas, by a Dr. Outland from Kansas City. In all, a full forty-two percent of the current population of Beloit (148 girls) had been sterilized during the period 1935-1937.

Access to detailed information about the sterilized, as is so often the case in histories of eugenics, remains difficult to come by. But we know a few details. Fifty percent of the eighth-grade graduates had been subjected to the procedure. Ten of the eighteen members of the orchestra. Of the sixty two sterilized, five had one ovary removed, and eight had both, regardless of their age (one of the latter was a nine year-old girl).

Wasserman test records show none of the girls had a venereal disease (a common justification for eugenic sterilizations in the United States). From its inception Beloit did not even admit girls with an IQ below fifty, another common rationalization, and certainly none of the official records show below-average intelligence as a justification for sterilization. Indeed, one set of records shows one of the girls who was sterilized had an IQ of 102, which is decidedly normal.

Further, Beloit was a juvenile rehabilitation center, not a prison or a mental facility. All this points to an incontrovertible truth, and one that would be revisited in coming weeks by everyone incensed by McCarthy’s revelations: eugenic sterilization wielded at Beloit as a preventative measure or punishment, whatever the legality with respect to state and federal law regarding imbecility or criminality, would not have applied.

The state board which approved the procedures went on the defensive, calling the girls who had been sterilized “perverts, obstreperous, fighters, or near degenerates.” “I don’t believe any girl was sterilized,” one member wrote to the newspaper, “who was fit for motherhood.” Others, however, attacked the wanton abuse of power the sterilizations represented.

How in the world was the system, albeit broken in the first place, abused in such a way? Legally, the primary trouble for the girls at Beloit stemmed wholly from the draconian nature of Kansas’ eugenic sterilization laws. Kansas passed its first eugenic sterilization law in 1913. Unlike its neighbors to the south and north, however, Kansas passed a revision in 1917 which eliminated both the need for court approval and the circumscribed the ability of those marked for sterilization to appeal via the court process. In Kansas after 1917, then, jurisdiction and decision-making authority over the girls’ bodies lay effectively in the hands of the superintendent of their institution and the (often sympathetic to the latter) state boards of examiners and probate courts. This effectively meant that there existed little recourse for those who were recommended to undergo the procedure.

The archives tell one particularly Machiavellian series of moves enacted with the express intent of stripping a girl deemed “undeserving” or “undesirable” of her motherhood:

[One] victim was a girl of high school age—one whose parents had died, and who had been sent to an orphanage at Atchison. She had reached the age when the orphanage no longer could keep her. She had no place to go. It was decided to send her to the Beloit school so she would have a home. But, to do that, it was necessary to charge her with incorrigibility. It was done. She had an intelligence quotient of 115, and a negative report on her Wasserman tests and slides. Yet, in June, 1936, that girl was transferred to the state penitentiary at Lansing and sterilized! No allegation or proof that the girl was a pervert or that she was immoral or insane was made. Her crime was that she was homeless, an orphan with no relatives to look after her interests and no kindly person to protect her. [2]

McCarthy’s challenge to the system was not in vain, though it did not result in any amendment of Kansas’ sterilization law as she had hoped. When famed journalist Albert Deutsch published his castigating account of the nation’s juvenile facilities, the miscarriage of justice at Beloit featured prominently.[3]

General conditions improved at Beloit, and subsequent annual reports show no further sterilizations at the facility through 1948. But the damage was done, at least for the girls for whom motherhood was forever denied to them. At the same time, those who were sterilized were socialized to feel shame, and hide what had been done to them. If one did speak out, he or she faced an uphill battle with little support (as an orphan) or delegitimizing ontological markers (like criminality, deviance, mental incompetence, or subalternity).

The sterilizations at Beloit between September 1935 and March 1937 were, like so many others across the country, about controlling not only the current generation’s body but all subsequent generations. Eugenics sought to excise the individual from the gene pool in the name of the greater good.

Almost ten years later, between 1944 and 1946, Lula B. Benton was superintendent of the State Industrial Girls’ School at Beloit. When confronted with the history of sterilization at Beloit by a journalist, she replied: “There is [currently] no sterilization program at the Kansas Girls’ Industrial school. No inmates have been sterilized in the last 10 years. I have a good many so-near-feeble-minded—I.Q. 71. In my opinion they should be sterilized. School for feeble-minded full up [sic]—I have to keep them and try to train them. When they leave here on paroles—as is bound to happen—they will breed more of the same or worse.”[4]

These “inmates,” the “them” Benton so comfortably un-names, are not so unlike the sixty three thousand other individuals sterilized in the United States during the twentieth century. Too often, we cannot recover their voices.

[1] Dan T. Kelliher, “Sterilization: The Unholy Horror of Lost Motherhood,” Front Page Detective, July, 1938: 27.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Albert Deutsch, Our Rejected Children (Boston: Little, Brown and Co, 1950).

[4] Letter from Lula B. Benton to Albert Deutsch, reproduced in Topeka Journal, July 3, 1948.