Eugenics. When we hear the term the images of the “final solution” come to mind — for all of us. The conservative thinks of the abortion and euthanasia movement. The civil rights community especially recalls the Tuskegee experiments and the three generations of imbeciles ruling. The ugly side of eugenics deserves all the bad press it gets. And more.
But is there a softer side to eugenics?
Whoa! Hold on there! I am NOT suggesting that there is an acceptable side to the movement. What I am suggesting is that not everything about the movement was so overtly ugly. Much of it, in fact, remains a big part of our pop culture. We are actually more accepting of eugenics than we might have ever thought.
An old book, Searchlights on Health, The Science of Eugenics published in 1921 by a collection of authors, pursues the subject in its breadth. The discussions cover personal health and personal character as well. Subjects such as reputation (18) and beauty (95), and many others, contribute to making a better people. Taken individually all of these seem pretty innocuous. We all care about our reputation, our personal health, and making ourselves presentable around others. But there is more. Much more.
For instance, should we think of human beauty as a social standard, as a simple social construct, or as merely a personal matter? We know that there is a consensus on beauty in every culture. Even in recent years in the US, we’ve seen the shift from (referencing the female form) the Calvin Klein anorexic to the return of curves, butts, etc. But what happens when we go from consensus to a standardized form?
While Scientific American called it a misunderstanding of evolution, the idea of forwarding Darwinian sex selection as the evolutionary method found a home in, of course, the beauty pageant. The article notes:
Looks were not an exclusive criterion for the judges of the 1908 inaugural Louisiana State Fair Better Babies Competition in 1908. Inspired by the social efficiency movement and its call for standardized homes, roads, and schools, the competition was not a beauty pageant so much as it was a means of establishing standards of child breeding.
It may not seem important. Can’t we watch a beauty pageant without having in mind the idea that we are advancing human evolution by providing better sex-selection criteria? The question deserves an answer.
The most fundamental answer is the best: How do we know? How do we know that physical selection is the right selection? How do we know which form is the best form to choose? What if smaller breasts have an evolutionary advantage over larger ones? The assumptions of beauty contests do not simply objectify women. They materialize women. Women are reduced to breeding objects. But think of that statement not as a principle applied to the individual participants but to the narrative of the beauty contest.
The same principle applies to the equivalent men’s competitions. The Nazi version of eugenics was not the only version in existence. It did not arise in a vacuum.
Now back to the book.
One of the principles put forth by Malthus and repeated by Sanger was that there be requirements on marriage. There should be licenses. And a license would require that people meet some sort of standard. This book makes that suggestion (145) noting that “life insurance companies demand physical examination. Why not matrimony?”
Throughout the book, there are statements about public and private morality with which the Christian will not differ, at least not in specific principle. Things like the need for marital affection, the care of one’s elders, and the problem of men taking sexual advantage of women. One might be tempted to treat these as matters of natural law. But here they show no moral foundation. They exist autonomously. But what is damning is the narrative that overlays these. Humans are treated throughout as a society in need of management.
Our idea of eugenics as extermination is a limited perspective. Eugenics goes hand-in-hand with the progressive principle of building a better society, a better world. It is a broad category rather than a narrow one.