Monday, 15 July 2013

The devastating history of eugenics chronicled in War Against the Weak

From The Week of July 8th, 2013

Though the question of what we individually owe to our fellow man is the pressing, sociological issue of this new, global civilization, there's an equally important debate to be had. What do we owe the least fortunate among us? From the mentally ill to the physically deficient, millions of people never receive a fair shot at a successful life. Is this merely a necessary outgrowth of a democratic, capitalist system, that some of us simply will be left behind, or is this inequality a consequence of poor ethics and poor morals? Perhaps, some day, we will have answers to these questions. Perhaps one will help solve the other. But until that day, we have only our past actions to go by. And where misfits are concerned, this is decidedly grim, a truth relentlessly demonstrated in Edwin Black's thorough examination of eugenics.

A scientific movement that grew out of nineteenth-century revelations of the remarkable role evolution plays in the advancement of life on Earth, eugenics is an ethical framework that argues for the purification of the human species through proper breeding and genetic engineering. Popular in the first half of the 20th century, it was originally confined to agricultural and horticultural fields before being seized upon by scientists and philosophers as a means by which to eliminate human malformations. After all, would the world not be better if disabilities from Spina bifida to blindness could be erased from the gene pool? Imagine the benefits to society if it, and its people, could be relieved of the costs of caring for those who, because of some genetic deficiency, cannot care for themselves.

However innocent the origins of this view of humanity's future, eugenics soon took on a sinister air, made all the more obvious with hindsight. For how could the enfeebled and the disabled be trusted to remove themselves from the gene pool? Would it not be prudent for society to sterilize them as a means of assuring that such genetic mistakes would die out with them? Armed with scientific funding from powerful, turn-of-the-century trusts, an American organization set out to lobby state legislatures to pass sweeping laws that would make commonplace the forced exclusion of deficients from the gene pool. Drawing on biased, reprehensible science, the American Breeders Association became a haven for racial purists who disseminated their ugly conclusions not only throughout North America, but to a receptive Europe eager to have its white, Nordic superiority re-affirmed by sham science. Of these new, European adherents, none were as enthusiastic as the group of German scientists who would go onto play key roles in Hitler's attempted extermination of the Jewish population, participating, in the name of eugenics, the worst crime in modern history.

A lacerating account of the history of eugenics, War Against The Weak is a shattering examination of one of organized science's darkest hours. Mr. Black, who possesses a first-class mind for research, has not only assembled an authoritative account of the attempt by a small group of humans to play god over the future of an entire species; he has brought to light, with color and compassion, the many thousands of souls who suffered at their hands. For the eugenics movement was not a victimless crime. It was not simply a foolish idea rooted in a series of unfortunate misapprehensions. It was a systematic attempt to strip groups of innocent people of their basic human rights, passing judgement on them in a manner that is both abhorrent and obscene. From the American Breeders Association's first steps into the arena of public policy, through to the unimaginable Holocaust into which it eventuated, the work reveals the corporations and the actors, the governments and the bodies that sought to destroy the individual freedoms we all hold so dear.

Though the work's most obvious quality is its exceptional thoroughness -- Mr. Black presents the reader with pages and pages of sources that must have taken years to organize and compile --, its most enduring virtue is the manner in which it exposes us to an inescapable truth about the human mind, that it is unavoidably biased. Shaped by its social, cultural and economic environments, and hardened by personal experience, it favors conclusions it likes and ignores those it finds unpleasant. In this, it creates for the individual a narrowed view of the world that, while agreeable to the individual's sensibilities, is colored in the extreme. We now know, thanks to the work of both social and scientific crusaders, that the physical, intellectual and emotional differences between the races are at best negligible. And yet, seeking to find an explanation that justified their distaste for the tide of non-white, non-Nordic ethnicities flooding into their homeland, these eugenicists created pseudo science, convinced receptive governments of its voracity, and then implemented a program of social engineering criminal in its intent and tragic in its scope.

War Against the Weak has its blind spots. For all its rigor, Mr. Black's account is nonetheless a polemic against eugenics. He has no time for seemingly any argument in its favor. Given eugenics' costs, this is understandable, though, regrettable. We should be able to have a debate about what society owes the individual. We should be able to have discussions about the blessings of genetic engineering. But these are areas now profoundly poisoned by the sins of our past, certainly where the author is concerned.

An absolute must-read for anyone even mildly interested in science, justice and human nature... (5/5 Stars)

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