About eugenics

Dr. Jerry Coyne takes-up today an effort to ‘cancel’ Ronald Fisher, a prominent biologist who favored some ideas birthed in the eugenics movement.

Unfortunately, Fisher was also an exponent of eugenics, and for this he’s recently starting to get canceled. Various organizations, like the Society for the Study of Evolution and the American Statistical Association, have taken his name off awards, and Fisher’s old University of Cambridge college, Gonville and Caius, removed their “Fisher window” (a stained glass window honoring Fisher’s statistical achievements) from their Hall last year. Further disapprobation is in store as well.

I’m never certain what is meant when people talk about, and condemn, eugenics.

“Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes

It was once a commonplace here in the south, for instance, to summarily sterilize black women held in public custody, penal or otherwise, and the specific purpose was to minimize the birth of black children. That seems to be within the meaning of eugenics, and I’m sure we can all agree that it’s wrong. But, for centuries, matchmakers coupled young people on the basis of appearance, smarts, proclivities (and probably still do) — and I read a while back that matchmakers are enjoying a sort of revival. Doesn’t that fall under the rubric of eugenics, too?

Is it eugenics, and odious, to discourage a daughter from marrying into a family with a documented congenital illness, physical or mental?

There is a good deal of talk that goes around that may rightly be described at least as eugenics-sympathetic, and nobody thinks or says much about it. Nor is it necessarily malicious in intent; no parent, for instance, should be expected to apologize for being uneasy about the prospect of a daughter marrying into a family with a history of a serious congenital illness.

I’m only thinking out loud here, but it appears to be the case that a relatively narrow range of offensive behaviors has been extrapolated to condemn a commonplace, and entirely reasonable, subset of day-to-day thought. Surely the subject would benefit by identifying just what we mean when we say ‘eugenics.’

This entry was posted in General. Bookmark the permalink.