Zoltan Istvan: The Political Philosophy and Radical Science of the Transhumanist Who Would Be President

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Zoltan Istvan is running as the Transhumanist Party Candidate for the 2016 Presidential election. A sandy-haired, genial, passionate father, he’s landed at the forefront of the political transhumanist movement here in the United States over the last year or so.  Articulate on the fly, he advocates the leveraging of radical scientific thinking and technological progress to boldly transform both the world in which we live and the bodies we inhabit. He’s seemingly indefatigable, doing interviews, writing essays, and talking to anyone who appears receptive to listening about how we can live forever in a better world, shepherded by artificial intelligence, if only we are bold enough to try for it. He’s a man who enjoys a glass of Laphroaig at the end of the day, is plugged in enough to know how Google’s SEO works, and is practical enough to focus his energies where they will do the most good for transhumanism. He was also kind enough to take some time out of his day to talk with me via Skype. We talked for almost a full hour, though he had only agreed on thirty minutes.

*The following was edited for length and clarity

Thanks for joining me here, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me for a bit.

Glad to be here.

So I’ve read most of your interviews and political writing, and I don’t necessarily want to rehash at length what you’ve said elsewhere. I’ll toss some links up of your recent stuff at Motherboard and Gizmodo and Medium and Esquire so people can check them out. That’ll free me up here to try to fill in the empty spaces, if that’s ok, and will give you the chance to cover some new ground instead of reiterating the same old thing?

Sounds great, yeah, whatever you want.

But let’s start briefly at the beginning. I think one of the challenges that you have faced and will continue to face is that transhumanism evokes so many different notions, and can be hard to encapsulate especially for the person who’s never heard the word before. So when I think about transhumanism—either as a political ideology or philosophical framework—I almost automatically follow Max More and Steve Fuller, and re-characterize adherents and opponents of transhumansim as Proactionaries and Precautionaries, respectively. If you’ll allow me to define them as I understand them quickly: Proactionaries pursue an agenda of calculated risk in using science and technology (via sometimes seemingly drastic methods) to change the basic living standard of humanity for the better, but also pursue extropian goals like virtual reality, or biohacking, or even a post-human future where we radically modify our bodies to live between the stars rather than huddled up next to them. The are, in other words, pro-action. Mistakes are inevitable in such a program, proactionaries argue, and must be accepted as the price of doing business (though we should certainly try to minimize them). Precautionaries, on the other hand—the opponents of transhumanism—seek the minimization of risk and damage (to humans and their social systems, animals, and the Earth) above all else, and stasis as more important than progress, and so see the Proactionary agenda as inherently reckless and probably resulting in the destruction of the world by grey goo. Thus, they advocate precaution. Is that a more or less fair way of thinking about practical Transhumanism and opponents of its agenda, or would you add to or refine or correct it for me?

You know I would say that’s an incredibly accurate way to reflect upon it all, you definitely have those sides and yeah, the way you said it is probably the way I would write it in an article, so yeah, that is perfect.

So why is Transhumanism a viable political ideology for the first time in 2016 and for instance why aren’t we having this conversation in 2004 or 1996?

Well, I think a lot of it has to do with, and if you’ll just permit me to be honest, the personalities that arise in the movement. There have been some enigmatic figures in the last twenty years in the transhumanist movement but they may not have been that savvy in using technology to get out their message, or they may not have been that savvy with social media. Or the social media environment didn’t exist. I think there was always a political element of transhumanism. I don’t think any transhumanist didn’t want to see, for example, a transhumanist president, or a transhumanist congress. But what happened just in the last few years, with Facebook, and Twitter, and all the other social media platforms, is you have actually have a real opportunity to voice an opinion that can get out to the masses without necessarily being, for example, world famous, or having  billion dollars. So I think in many ways what has happened is transhumanism has kind of evolved to where a younger generation of transhumanists has emerged and are using social media to advocate. And that has changed the politics, because all of a sudden instead of just having a couple academics from the Ivory Tower talking you now have a social movement that is online, and it’s powerful. And it can go viral very quickly. So that’s why I think transhumanism has become political in the last year or so, or even two years. But it was always, in my opinion, political to begin with. It’s just nobody was able to get out their voice, and so nobody really tried.

Sure. I actually buy that a hundred percent, and that feeds perfectly into the next question I had for you. One of the things that intrigues me about Transhumanism as a political movement is the potential it has to violently (and in my and probably many other people’s views, necessarily) disrupt the current, entrenched two-party system. It’s been written about as a kind of ninety-degree revolution, from a left-right characterization to up-down one (following, of course, FM-2030’s notion of Upwingers and Downwingers). They say it appeals to people (young people, especially, as you say) because transhumanism talks about issues they find more relevant and pressing in the second decade of the twenty-first century (like open-source issues in economics, or biology, or information) rather than (what they see as) the constant rehash of “stale” issues (like perhaps the legitimacy of the welfare state or marriage laws or immigration or whatever). Would you say this characterization, this ninety-degree revolution—is a facile—if catchy—one, or have they hit upon something profound?

Well, I there’s a number factors here. To begin with they’ve definitely hit upon something more profound. I think (and kind of going more into social media) the younger generation, which is now the majority, I would say, of the transhumanists movement—which potentially could be millions around the world at this point—are sort of fed up with typical issues. They’re not really thinking of marriage laws, or social security—ok maybe they’re thinking about gay marriage laws—but they’re not necessarily thinking about the typical “Let’s have kids, let’s have a two-car garage, let’s have a mortgage.” They’re ready for something much more revolutionary, which is very typical of young people to begin with. They want something that is considerably different. Something that appeals to their youth, and that is something that really can’t be underestimated, because it’s absolutely so pivotal in everything that I’m seeing on a day-to-day basis. And so what’s happening is they just don’t care about social security—it just doesn’t affect them—what they care about it are radical things, like what are going to be the ethics of or morals in virtual reality sex? How is that going to change personal dynamics? What about space exploration? Wwhat about bionics? Can I run a hundred miles per hour when I have a certain type of exoskeleton suit? You know, these are the things that matter to this younger, upcoming generation. And that’s why all of a sudden people are very interested in it from a political point of view and wanting to say “Well, where can we go as a species?” That’s what’s exciting, that’s what’s important. A lot of the older transhumanists don’t see it that way, and are still debating stem cells and still looking at some of the older issues, whereas the younger generation, they just want to go headlong into some crazy things and that could involve all sorts of virtual realities and stuff like that. Which we don’t really have much ethical basis for or experience with; we’re just going down the road. The other day I did an interview with someone and she was telling me about how she had known a person who had some kind of virtual experience and was raped during that virtual experience and I thought “Well, we don’t have any kind of laws for virtual rape yet.” This is the kind of thing that the younger generation is very interested in discovering, and that’s where I think a lot of this kind of new political thought is going. When you compare something like that topic to social security, which most of these people haven’t even paid into, they’re just not interested. So that’s really again what I think is happening with the whole movement; it’s shifting to more exciting things that are happening in the evolution of politics as we [transhumanists] would know it.

So last thing before we move on to your particular stance on the issues. Besides a tendency to take the long view—and I’ve seen this kind of take shape slowly over the last six months or so as you’ve written more essays and articles in various spaces—Transhumanism holds tight to a certain optimism–in people, in technology, and in the future–what do you specifically say to people sets transhumanism apart from other political philosophies?

Well, I think the one thing that really sets transhumanism apart, and again this is entirely my opinion, my campaign opinion—it’s not necessarily the Transhumanist Party’s opinion, but I do believe and I think most people are on board with the idea that we can solve every single problem in the world with science and technology. Now that’s a very bold statement to make, but I do believe it.

Yes, it is.

The example I use is that MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) one of the largest nonprofits in American have been trying to stop drunk driving accident deaths which are tens of thousands every year by telling kids not to drink. But the real way to stop it is to not have people driving at all. And this is a classic technological fix to a very serious problem—I’m a father with two kids—that we’re all grateful for. I believe it’s a sort of metaphor for the entire transhumanist movement that ultimately science and technology can fix everything. Ok, not necessarily “fix,” but at least “make better.” It can at least help every single problem we have and that’s a very different [political] ideology than we’ve ever had before. The idea that we would put all our eggs with science and technology and not some other political ideology. That we would almost hold science and technology as the answer to all our problems. I think that separates political transhumanism from other types of politics that I’m aware of.

I love that example that you give because the first thing I think in terms of a technological fix to drunk driving is “let’s put a breathalyzer into every car,” but in fact one of the things that you can do is eliminate the driver as an entity from the get-go and that precludes all these other issues that have been plaguing us for decades and decades. So I wanted to move onto some shorter questions if that’s ok with you and hit some particular political stances and issues. I think another of the challenges you’ve faced and will continue to face over the next 18 months is that you’re advancing a political philosophy you want to become a viable party perhaps in 2020 or 2024, but you’re also an individual with particular beliefs. I imagine when you get questions about specific policy issues you’ve got to think for the Transhumanist Party but also yourself as a candidate. As you just said. Additionally, I know you’ve written that you don’t really expect to win a year from November. So feel free to punt on any of the following if you simply haven’t had a chance to formulate a political position yet. The first thing I wanted to turn to was this question of a jobless future. Easily one of the most often-repeated fear of a technologically driven future is that as machines get smarter and more capable, human jobs will inevitable be destroyed by the tens of thousands. You see this argument made about the auto industry—both in manufacturing and truck driving (most recently at Medium and Gizmodo)—but regarding other industries as well. Indeed, there’s a robot named Baxter developed by Rethink Robotics who recently worked 2,160 straight hours on an assembly line in Pennsylvania. It only cost $25,000 to implement, meaning it works for $11.57/hour. What do you say to folks who attack the optimism of the Transhumanist agenda by pointing to this potentially jobless future?

Well, you know my entire program with this is I’m trying to change the culture of how people view themselves and view the world. There’s no question that we’re going to have to change this idea that we all go to work at 9-5. It doesn’t really matter who you are—whether you’re a journalist or doctor or truck driver or a waitress—all jobs will be replaced. Probably the President’s job at some point will be replaced. The idea is we need to find a way to enjoy living a different kind of perspective, we need to accept that human beings are no longer going to work, that there’s a standard of living that’s going to be acceptable—you know this is why I ultimately endorse a universal basic income, I also endorse universal preschool and a universal college education. People need to become educated in a culture that wants these things so they can see a bigger future than just this 9-5 grind, which at least in America and many other countries we’ve sort of been programmed to accept. That’s not going to be the program in 20 years; the program is going to be “What can I do with my lifespan that makes me satisfied that is creative, that is artistic, that is culturally relevant?” To be honest with you I don’t have all the answers regarding what that future is going to hold and how people are going to be different, but one thing I know for sure is that people must absolutely change. And when I say “change” I mean they’re going to have to accept a new standard of living, a new standard of how they view themselves that has to be outside of their paid profession. So it’s totally critical that people start to take that step down that path. It’s very possible we just end up being ten billion people who meditate half the time, or ten billion artists. I don’t know what the future’s going to hold but it’s inevitable and it’s going to take a complete revolution in our cultural outlook to make sense of that and to be happy with that. But I think once we accepted it life is going to be far happier and far more fulfilling.

That sounds like a radical shift. You’re talking about a whole new ethos for living, a new set of morals and values that are no longer defined by what we do for a living. I think it’s an exciting prospect for the future. Let’s build on that formulation of a new cultural framework for a moment. Much of your writing and speaking inevitably turns to radically extended or indefinite life spans. When death becomes an unusual state of being, will it be easier to abolish the death penalty as cruel and unusual punishment, and for that matter what happens to lifetime prison sentences for those who are prone to recidivism when we’re living a thousand or ten thousand years? What do we do with those people?

So there are two things here. In general, and in theory, I have been a supporter of the death penalty under certain circumstances. However, I’m no longer a supporter of it under the transhumanist agenda, and so when it comes down to my policy I’m not supporting that anymore. It’s very difficult to support the death penalty in a world where everyone’s going to eventually be living indefinitely. Realistically, in ten or fifteen years we’re probably going to have cranial implant technologies that will be able to change the basis of personality, so these criminal things that people want to do might easily be either taken out via some kind of behavior-modification technology or re-engineered through some type of genetics. Additionally, we’ll probably going to be able to have this kind of setup where you’re constantly being monitored. We’re already moving to a surveillance society. You’re just not going to be able to commit the same crimes you once wanted to do because you’re going to be observed at every single moment of your life when you want it or not. So this whole idea of crime is going to change radically over the next ten to fifteen years. And I advocate for using technology to do that, because I believe every human being—even those that are the most evil or criminal—can be changed into something that is much more useful to society. Now of course, if they don’t want that change maybe there needs to be some type of place where we could leave them. In fact in my novel [The Transhumanist Wager], there was one section that I took out of the book—it just was kind of a little too controversial—was creating nations where criminals would just be left.

Sure. Parts of Australia started their life like that.

Yeah. It’s not a punishment in a sense. The only thing is you just can’t come back. You can forge your own life, within the system. So at this point in time I don’t support the death penalty anymore. What I support is using technology to rehabilitate people and modify the things in them that don’t work well in society. Obviously if you have murderers that can’t be something that’s allowed. So people will have to accept that either you will have to be changed through some type of chip or some type of genetic engineering or you need to be withdrawn from society and put on an island. The one thing we can’t do is spend as much money as we’re spending on prisons. That’s absolutely insane. We should be spending that money on education or life-extension research. If we took just a fraction of some of the money spent on the prison system in America and put it towards life extension science we would literally triple the amount of money that’s going towards the industry right now. And that’s just from the prisons. In the age of unlimited life spans I think we need to rid ourselves of criminal intent and acts through technology.

Well that actually sets me up perfectly for the next question. So science and technology research in the United States saw federal funding somewhere in the realm of 135 billion dollars and change in 2015, with much earmarked for defense-related activities. What should that number really be?

Well, look, the defense industry is a multi-trillion-dollar industry. And I think the amount of money that is going directly into the life-extension industry is in the realm of about eight billion, and half goes to Alzheimer’s anyways. And not that I would consider Alzheimer’s research “life extension” research—it’s good that we’re spending money on it, but if I were to look at a billion dollars going into Google’s “Calico” program then I could say it’s going directly into life-extension research. The United States has got a GDP, and the numbers fluctuate, but at any given moment the number is seventeen or eighteen trillion dollars, and we [in my campaign] feel that we should spend one trillion dollars over a ten-year period directly into the life-extension industry. Nothing like that has ever been done. This would be a hundred, two hundred, three hundred times more than anything that’s every taken place. And it would completely revolutionize medicine in the United States. Sort of like Obama’s brain initiative, which is awesome, but it’s only three billion dollars, and honestly that’s pretty small when you consider that the Iraq war cost approximately six trillion [counting interest over the next four decades]. So what we’d like to do is take about a three or four percent of the annual GDP and spread it over ten years—so it’s really a fraction of a percent, and we could revolutionize health care. If America values itself at around 40 trillion dollars, to spend two to three percent of our net worth over a decade to give our citizenry a solid chance to discover the very best life extension we can come up with with that money, we should. Most experts say that even with the few billion going into life-extension research now we’re probably going to reach some type of ongoing sentience in the next twenty or twenty-five years. A trillion would funnel a hundred times that commitment into it. We could at least speed up the progress, and find ways for humans to overcome their biological boundaries like dying. And I’ll tell you about this though I haven’t written about it again: the one thing that I’m going to advocate for at great expense to my libertarian base—not that I’m libertarian, but I have a lot of libertarian friends—is something that I’ve written an article about that I call the “Jethro Knights Life-Extension Tax”. And what I had suggested and what we’re going to campaign on was that everybody in the world donate one percent of their net worth one time. One percent, so if you’re worth ten thousand dollars you’d donate a hundred dollars one time, and so one, and that would contribute many, many trillions to this research. We as a world would come up with very quickly the resources to overcome biological death. I’ll send you a link to that article. When I released that article about a year ago people sort of freaked out. It’s so difficult to campaign on taxes at all, and it’s not something I necessarily think would ever get passed, but it’s very illustrative of how such a small portion of who we are as people—just one percent of one’s net worth and we could change the fate of seven billion people. And the great thing is it’s really favorable for those who don’t have much money—even at minimum wage you could contribute your one percent in one day’s work, and guarantee your immortality. This is a tax that’s going to upset the rich more.

I appreciate the link, I’ll include it. I know we’re running up a bit on time here, but I wanted to ask you quickly: You’ve mentioned in the past that at the state level there are some transhumanists running for office. Are there any, in your eyes, “closet” (or semi-open) transhumanists in Congress right now (and perhaps they don’t even know it yet) that you see as potential allies should you win the White House? Al Gore seems the closest and most obvious mainstream politician of the last ten years I can think of.

Yes, Al Gore is absolutely a transhumanist, he’s used the word transhumanist numerous times in his books, he helped launch Jason Silva’s career. But we have not recognized anyone else. It’s funny, my advisors and I just had this discussion about a month ago—there are a number of Congresspeople who are very pro-science, but I think if you asked people most would admit to being pro-science. One of the things is that a lot of the democrats that are pro-science mean it from an environmental perspective, and of course that’s great because we want to save the world too and want the earth to be pristine. But I don’t know if they’re pro-science in the way that I am trying to advocate for, as in trying to advocate that we replace human hearts with robotic hearts so we can eliminate heart disease in America. That’s the pro-science attitude I’m looking for in politicians, and I have not yet seen anyone. What I have seen is people putting more money into science and more money into technology, which is wonderful, but they haven’t thought through what that means when it comes to upgrading human beings into something very, very different. And part of the reason is as soon as you talk about these concepts that comprise transhumanism, you bring up these major other issues like overpopulation and social security, which are just such land mines for any politician. As soon as you advocate for an indefinite life span without trying to also counter the other people who are going to say “Well, great, how are we going to pay for an entire generation of people who are never work again.”

Absolutely.

This is one of the reasons that transhumanism faces a real challenge and uphill battle in politics, because while the idea of it is probably appealing to most people who would say “Yeah, I want to be perfectly healthy and I want to live longer,” when you point out that everyone on the planet wants to do that giving you twenty billion people with a large chuck potentially on social security, most politicians are reluctant to talk about it. I do have a campaign coming up here beginning at the Huffington Post where I will start saying things like “Hey, Hilary Clinton—are you a transhumanist?” Or something like that, and hopefully it’ll get people to say “Well, what does that mean? How far are you willing to go on these kinds of issues?” And eventually, if we end up conceding, the small group of transhumanists will probably end up supporting some democratic candidate where we can pursue science and technology issues in a secular-minded way. So unfortunately I can’t answer your question and say there’s anyone out there right now. The problem is all the great people who should be running for politics are scientists and they just don’t want to be bothered with this stuff. And that’s another sad thing. I recently wrote an article saying that we should make it a law that you can’t have so many attorneys in office. You must have a complete, broad, representative population.

That’s an interesting idea.

Yeah. If you have 15% scientists in the world, then you should have 15% representation by them. If you have 15% engineers in the world, we need 15% of Congress to be engineers. Right now it’s skewed towards attorneys and the kinds of professions that, you know, generally aren’t pro-science or pro-technology but pro-legal things. And that has also been very disruptive to society.

I haven’t seen it anywhere specific, but for some reason this strikes me as a very FM-2030 notion. A neat, proportional representation I would not see as out of place in either Optimism One or Up-Wingers

Yeah, and you know I wrote about a related idea in my novel and it just amazes me that this isn’t already the case. There also needs to be a law that the female-male distribution in Congress should be pretty even, with incentives for females to run if it becomes unbalanced. I find it crazy that we have a Congress that’s still dominated by mostly white older males. Times are changing too quickly and it’s not able to keep up. The biggest problem about politics is that science and technology are making those same old white males live longer and longer and hold onto their power longer and longer, even if they don’t support the science and technology. It’s absolutely critical that we bring in diversity, and it’s absolutely critical that if we want democracy to work we do our best so that everyone is represented according to their numbers. Not just the same people who have kind of been in power since the [nineteen] fifties and are basically advocating for almost identical policies. The only difference is they’re doing through their iPhones and pretty soon they’ll be doing it through they’re cranial implants. And something is different because technology should force ethics to change; that’s what we were talking about in terms of making the death penalty illegal. At one point I did support it—if someone had murdered my entire family, sure, that person deserves the death penalty. However now I understand that, because if we have but withhold the technology to change that person then that would be me murdering that person. So, again, this kind of goes back to when you were asking what’s the difference between transhumanism and other political parties. It’s that we honestly believe that science and technology can literally solve all these problems. But we can’t get stuck in these old ethics, with cultural baggage, as I often refer to it. We need to let the technology and science lead the way. We need to listen to it.

And let science and technology drive a new ethical framework rather than recapitulating the old one and perpetuating it to infinity. Hmm. Well, thanks for answering those questions. I was wondering if I could take just a couple minutes here at the end to just indulge a little with some questions you might not regularly get asked, and so feel free to take a pass on any of them. You said recently you think there are at least 150k and perhaps a few million transhumanists in the United States right now. Your campaign has been slowly gaining attention over the last few months as well. How many hits is zoltanforamerica.com getting these days?

You know, the main website is zoltanistvan.com/. To be honest, we’re not getting that many hits—I haven’t looked at the numbers for zoltanistvan.com recently. But I can tell you that—and people ask me this all the time—they say hey, your website’s kind of old and not as savvy-looking, and part of the reason for that is my campaign doesn’t get as much funding as even other third-party campaigns. Transhumanists, because they’re so young, they don’t have that much money, so we’re just dealing with it as well as we can. But I can tell you last week, that between the interviews and articles I did I thought we were somewhere between three and four hundred thousand views of my stuff between a Popular Science article and an Esquire one, and something I had at Vice, even if the website might have only been a few thousand. Now obviously that doesn’t necessarily translate into supporters. But it translates hopefully into recognition. At the end of the day I’m not expecting in any way to win. What we’re really trying to do with my campaign, at least in 2016, is to spread transhumanism. We generally do one to two million views of our campaign every month.

I think that’s pretty good.

Yes, no, it’s great! It’s fascinating. I worked it out last year, and this was before my presidential campaign, and it was pretty disappointing to my wife. She said, “Ok, in 2014 you had approximately twenty to thirty million views.” There were a couple of articles that just went completely viral, they were picked up I think by seven of the top ten Chinese sites. There was the one on ectogenesis. But we were asking ourselves, in terms of finances, “How many ads did I sell for other people?” and we came up with something like probably seven hundred thousand dollars. Of course I made a small fraction of that from my writing—so I was making some other people very wealthy. But the idea is that the message is getting out more broadly. You can see through my columns that the transhumanism movement is changing. People are hearing the word again and again and again, and once they hear it they start using it. It’s not of course necessarily only associated with me in any way. But that’s how we’ve been measuring our success, as opposed to donations which have generally remained small. We’ve been much more concerned with determining how the media is handling it all, because at the end of the day what’s most important for myself and transhumanists is that we build a culture that welcomes transhumanism as opposed to a culture that welcomes dying and going and meeting Jesus or something. We’re trying to make it so that transhumanism can work within the culture already established here in America. And if the culture’s there then people will begin to say “Well, why don’t we have more robotic body parts to end heart disease and why don’t we have exoskeleton suits to end disability?” And if we encourage this culture and get people onboard to embrace it, then pretty soon you’ll see us go back to your question about congresspeople who say “Yeah, I’m also a transhumanist”—or, actually, they’ll probably say something like “I support transhumanist technology for the better health of Americans.” And that’s a very important thing, so we spend almost all our time trying to make an impact in the media in the hopes of effecting change on that framework for Americans. And we think in two or three years if the movement continues transhumanism will be a household word. One of the things I’ve been totally impressed with is that in Europe they’re totally throwing the word around like it’s normal now. And I can tell you two or three years ago it was not a normal.

Well, I think it’ll be exciting to see how it grows as the election cycle begins to ramp up. Ok. Last question for you. I’m reading Kim Stanley Robsinson’s Green Mars right now. It’s pretty great, though Red Mars was better. What’s the last book you read purely for enjoyment, and what did you think of it?  

You know, I’ve got to be honest. If Ray Kurzweil asked me to read his book I wouldn’t right now. I check my email at two, four, six in the morning, and we also have an infant so it’s just been all coming together at once. Plus, I’m reading and writing all day every day, so it just takes too much of a toll. But one thing I still manage to do is watch a documentary every single night, or most of one. I used to be a documentary filmmaker. I worked for National Geographic, doing mini-documentaries.

Oh yeah, I read that actually.

Yeah, so usually around eleven or so I’ll get to sit down with a glass of scotch and that’s how I unwind. And the one I just watched that was great was called The Singing Revolution. It’s about how Estonia was born. Essentially, they made use of a nonviolent way to cause a revolution, and they gave birth to a nation by singing. I didn’t know this story at all. And when you get a million people singing in front of an army, you can’t do anything. It’s a very powerful documentary. I usually get up around seven in the morning and work through to ten or so at night, so I really look forward to that time where I can enjoy someone else’s ideas and explore what they’re thinking.

Zoltan Istvan on Twitter

Zoltan Istvan’s personal website

Transhumanist Party’s website

 

Hill Folk and Hereditary Pauperism: The Eugenic Family Study

jukes

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.

189-Medium-family-winner-Fitter-Families-Contest-Kansas-State-Free-Fair-1927-family-examination-summary

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.

1881-State-Expenses-for-Maintaining-State-Institutions-for-the-Socially-Inadequate-Classes-1916-Eugenical-News-vol-5

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.

126-Data-collected-by-Miss-Devitt-May-and-Nov-1915-Eugenics-Records-Office-fieldworker

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.

Endnotes

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

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

 

Sterilization-Room-Pic

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.

One Way American and Nazi Eugenics Were Pretty Much the Same

us and nazi eugenics

One of the problems the literature on the history of eugenics as a whole has is that it has a tendency to want to forget the ways American eugenics was like Nazi eugenics. It gets hidden in explorations of specific socio-cultural products or institutional aspects of the eugenics movement, or from (justified) theoretical and methodological attacks on legitimately bad histories of eugenics (like War Against the Weak or Better for all the World). It even comes from a desire to acknowledge all the ways American eugenics was like Nazi eugenics, but excavates those processes, impulses, and trends which are unique to the American experience.

Now, to be clear from the beginning: Nazi eugenics and American eugenics did spring from largely different intellectual, cultural, social, and political circumstances. But the fact of the matter is, at least 63,000 (officially, and likely many, many more) individuals were sterilized by the state in America during the twentieth century. Thus I’d like to take the eugenics movement as it operated for a large proportion of a particular profession (medical practitioners), and see where it takes us. What we’ll see is that there are some striking similarities between American and Nazi eugenics that are not so easily forgotten. Perhaps the most visible of these is the central role doctors, physicians, and other medical practitioners played in the sterilization of thousands upon thousands of “unfit” people.

United States

The eugenics movement arrived in the United States in 1907 (when the first compulsory sterilization law was enacted in Indiana) and remained a potent force until its slow decline and transformation beginning in the late 1930s. Whereas we will see below that, in Nazi Germany, eugenics enjoyed critical scientific and institutional support from medical scientists and physicians both as front-line practitioners and experimenters as well as ethical justification by medical bureaucrats, in the United States this was not the case. While at its apex in the early 1930s some thirty two states had enacted eugenic sterilization laws, the movement in the United States is characterized best as having had a diffused, decentralized, and multifaceted nature. There is no doubt that many physicians and medical practitioners in the United States were eugenicists. But what is equally certain is that, for the most part, the America eugenics movement from 1907-1945 remained, both in quality and quantity, composed of politicians, non-medical scientists (ichthyologists, entomologists, biologists, sociologists, paleontologists), and bureaucrats far more than physicians and other medical practitioners.

The qualification to this is in direct settings where both forced and voluntary sterilizations did take place in the United States—some 21,000 by 1935 and 64,000 by 1960, by most estimates—and that was the prison ward and the mental hospital. Leading the charge were California, with the most involuntary sterilizations during the period in question, and Virginia, with the second most.

So who were the medical practitioners central to the American movement?

Physicians in mental hospitals and prisons: Plenty of historians have looked at the history of the vasectomy and the salpingectomy, the rise of eugenic sterilization laws, the debate at the legislative level over both the desirability and parameters of such laws, the legislative debate surrounding them, and the differences that existed between the various states when it came to implementing and sustaining involuntary sterilization of citizens.They show that medical practitioners argued for greater degrees of eugenic sterilization not only in the Eugenical News (the leading forum at the national level), but alsothe discussions at the local level by physicians at mental hospitals in Ohio, Maine, Virginia, Minnesota, North Carolina, and, of course, California,

Psychiatrists: Other historians have shown how psychiatrists as a group of professionals fighting for validation and legitimization in an environment where they were uniquely predisposed to assimilate ideas about the heritability of defective characteristics advanced eugenic ideas. Indeed, at the same time that they were facing pressure from politicians and the federal government to modernize and standardize as a scientific discipline, psychiatrists participated in the public eugenics debate both in Canada and the United States. By looking at patient court cases at mental hospitals and state asylums, national legislation, and internal debates among the rank of file of psychiatry in varied places like New York, California, Rhode Island, Mississippi, and Toronto, we can get a valuable look at how an emerging discipline navigates the waters of an often murky and ambiguous scientific endeavor.

A change in the air: Reform Eugenics: Beginning in the mid-1930s, the emergence of a new, more sophisticated genetics brought with it a “reform eugenics,” which at once recognized the perverted state the eugenics movement lay in at that moment, but still sought after the original Galton vision of a humanity free from its pernicious biology by excising the identifiably genetically unfit. This is evidenced by the fact that the Third International Congress of Eugenics, held in New York in 1932, saw an attendance of only about a hundred people. Reflecting the developments of nearly half a century of experimentation and theorizing, by this time genetics had begun to inform the movement and change its nature.

It can be marked particularly by the publication of a 1936 report by a committee of the American Neurological Association, itself a strong opponent of eugenics throughout the entirety of its existence in the United States. Headed by prominent Boston psychiatrist Abraham Myerson, and drawing upon independent conclusions as well as the findings of the Brock committee report, this group found no sound scientific basis for sterilization on account of immorality or character defect. Human conduct and character are matters of too complex a nature, too interwoven with social conditions, to permit any definite conclusions to be drawn concerning the part which heredity plays in their genesis.

This change was reified primarily in the makeup of the eugenics movement as well as a slight shift to its message. In the case of the former, it meant that medical professionals became the new spokespeople, albeit of a eugenics that was far less oppressive, naïve, confident, and involuntary than before. For some diseases, like Huntington’s chorea, it was clear that dominant genetic traits were indeed often passed from parent to offspring. In such cases, physicians from the mid-1930s on took it upon themselves to present such evidence to parents and suggest the outcome of carrying a pregnancy to term—but leave the ultimate decision to them. In the case of most other conditions, doctors began to conclude that genetic traits were, at best, only indices of a range of phenotypic presentations that were determined equally by environment—both external (what we would normally think of in the nature vs. nurture debate) and genetic (in terms of the chromosomal milieu that connected specific genes to each other).

Germany

It may surprise you to learn that the eugenics movement in Germany was not the sole creation of Hitler or the Nationalist Socialist regime. In fact, it officially began there earlier than in the United States, with the Society for Racial Hygiene coalescing in Berlin in 1905. Yet during its first two and a half decades of existence, the movement had trouble securing legitimacy and garnering a widespread following before the early 1930s. On July 14th, 1933, the Law for the Prevention of Progeny of Sufferers from Hereditary Disease was approved, and allowed (just like its American counterparts) for the sterilization of the feebleminded, schizophrenic, manic-depressive, epileptic, blind, and deaf, among a plethora of others. This law also set up the foundation for the emergence of the “eugenic courts” which oversaw all cases prosecuted by the state with the aim of involuntary sterilization. Relatively quickly, though not exclusively, eugenic sterilization morphed into the Holocaust. This is the defining feature of Nazi eugenics, and the principal way it differed from American eugenics. Both were perpetrated by medical practitioners, and grew from the notion that a portion of the population should be excised for the good of the gene pool. In Germany, as we will see, they just took it to the next logical step and eliminated the “unfit” instead of just sterilizing them.

Generally in looking at Hadamar, Treblinka, and Auschwitz, historians of eugenics in Germany have argued that physicians in Nazi Germany who killed were, just like any other professional, primarily motivated by a desire to raise their income, advance their careers, and benefit from the social advancement that came with participating in an ideological framework which placed them at the top of the food chain. The Nazi eugenic program was directed by the Chancellery of the Fuhrer in conjunction with the Health Department of the Reich Ministry of the Interior. In other words—it enjoyed a far more centralized, codified, and unified apparatus and voice. It came in two flavors: the euthanizing and sterilization of the disabled and terminally ill in hospitals by primarily physicians and medical practitioners, and the mass murder in the concentration camps by Nazi officers under the direction and advisement of physicians and medical practitioners.

Killing Wards: Doctors (both the newly licensed and the old), nurses, and aides all participated in this killing program. From 26 cities across Germany, caravans of the disabled and unwanted arrived at such hospitals, usually at night. Patients were not always killed outright; in fact, many of the T4 sites used more indirect (though no less fatal) methods of killing. For instance, doctors there made extensive use of the sedatives luminal and veronal, which if given in sufficient doses caused pneumonia and death within two to three days. At the same time, children 1-5 years old were murdered by way of slowly reducing their caloric intake until, over the course of several days, they starved to death. After 1941, Hitler ordered this process, which was initially centralized, altered as publicity and propaganda campaigns began to reveal the scope and mechanisms of the T4 killings. Hitler ordered the practices slightly changed and the hospitals decentralized to the countryside to avoid further publicity, and thereafter the T4 killings were characterized by a “wild euthanasia” which saw individual medical practitioners decide who lived and died with much less oversight and much more arbitrariness than before. The troublesome, irritating, sexually prolific, indigent and ill were all killed with equal equanimity.

T4 Centers and Concentration Camps: Notable names: Friedrich Mennecke (Eichberg), Imfried Eberl (Treblinka), Friedrich Entress (Auschwitz). Beginning as a location for the killing of disabled adults, the T4 killings (marked by designation 14f13) were expanded beginning in the winter of 1939-40 and beginning in late 1941 what would come to be known as the concentration camp genocide. Physicians and medical practitioners played a critical role in these activities. Some physicians (in fact, 7% of all physicians in Germany during the era, far above any other professional group) served in the SS in the camps themselves and made preliminary “special selections” that were then confirmed by other doctors after. Doctors inspected the forms of incoming unwanteds, made camp selections, oversaw the dispersal of gas, pronounced the death of those murdered, and subsequently wrote their death certificates. At the same time, 33% of all physicians were members of the Nazi Physicians League, the Nationalist Socialist arm which targeted doctors as part of its ideological agenda. 45% were members of the Nazi Party itself. This is compared to 25% for lawyers and 24% for teachers. Methods used included Zyklon B, and phenol injections to the heart

What did they get out of this? Physicians and medical practitioners enjoyed a myriad of benefits. They were named institutional director of regional hospitals; oversaw extensive and well-funded research programs (the most well-known is certainly Mengele, the most eugenically minded of these) which conducted experiments on the disabled and abled alike, as well as the old, the young, and twins; enjoyed the social status and increased pay of their position.

Concluding thoughts

From the point of view of the individual transported for sterilization, Germany and the United States in many respects would have looked very similar. Sterilization (or termination) would have been submitted or recommended by someone with medical experience. The sterilization (or euthanizing) procedure would have been approved by a doctor, or a group of doctors (the Board of Mental Health, for instance, in Kansas).  It would have been carried out by a doctor. Were American and Nazi eugenics exactly the same? Nope. They had different intellectual, sociocultural, and ideological roots. They happened under different auspices. But to the individual placed on the sterilizing (or killing) table, it didn’t matter. As historians who frequently get bound up in the larger questions driving historical inquiry, we’d do well to remember that.

The tl;dr version of this discussion is this: Doctors in the United States and Nazi Germany were absolutely crucial to the popularization and implementation of eugenic practices which stole bodily liberty from tens of thousands of people. But whereas in Germany these practices were sanctioned and directed by a more or less central state apparatus (encouraging dissenters to shut up or get out), in the United States there remained no unified federal control and no central voice or dogma, and so disagreement was allowed to propagate such that the public and professional winds of opinion changed by 1945. For the individuals sterilized, it didn’t matter though. They were getting sterilized in the name of some greater good either way.

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.