Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Eugenics and Scientific Philosophy

Recently the economist David M. Levy called my attention to Stephen Heathorn's very interesting (2005) "Explaining Russell's Eugenic Discourse in the 1920s," Russell: the Journal of Bertrand Russell Studies: Vol. 25: Iss. 2, Article 4. (It criticizes Ray Monk's biography of Russell for claiming that Russell's interest in eugenics can be best explained by Russell's biography rather than, say, the intellectual currents of the time.) The piece is available at: http://digitalcommons.mcmaster.ca/russelljournal/vol25/iss2/4
Given my long-standing interest in the shared history of economics and philosophy, I should not have been surprised by Russell's flirt with eugenics in *Marriage and Morals* (1929). (Just the other day I was reading Berkeley's *The Querist*, and was amazed and saddened to find him advocate breeding in the context of many other social and progressive reforms of the Irish economy.) After all, many of the leading scientific lights of many political stripes (progressive reformers and social conservatives alike) endorsed eugenics before World War II. (The dissenting voices should not be overlooked, of course!) But this made me wonder how many of the other founders of "scientific philosophy," especially in the Vienna Circle, endorsed or opposed eugenics. Any leads most welcome!

9 comments:

  1. I remember reading a hundred year old book on human races and genetics that was intensely racist in many places, but which pooh-poohed eugenics in a chapter devoted to that topic on the basis that manipulating reproduction enough to make a difference was utterly impractical, and the admittedly messy choices of individuals weren't doing too bad of a job of selecting for better people anyway. Further evidence that the desirability of eugenics was often viewed as more a scientific question than a political one before Hitler came on the scene.

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  2. Aaron, eugenics is the origin sin of philosophy (and, hence, political economy) going back all the way to Plato and a recurring temptation of social reformers long before Darwinism ever arose. (Swift's A Modest Proposal gains it satirical value not from the topic, but the manner.)
    For example, via the Hopos list I learned that before WWI Neurath translated Galton and had modestly positive views of eugenics.(Politically Galton and Neurath have little in common.)
    Finally, eugenics has been practiced in many so-called civilized countries even after WWII. Wikipedia has useful information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compulsory_sterilization

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  3. In Marriage and Morals, Russell distinguished between positive and negative eugenics; the latter (discouragement of bad stock) he branded "at present more practical" (158), and he is clear that "mental deficiency" can "safely" be made "the subject of legal enactment" (160), and he allows that with progress of scientific knowledge "moral degeneracy" may also be considered candidate for eugenic treatment in the future. His views on race eugenics are also less than enlightened, although he recognizes that it is an "excuse for chauvinism" (163).
    The last line of the chapter on eugenics is filled with pathos.

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  4. I attempted to look this one up and found nothing incriminating so I'll ask y'all who surely know more than I. Did any of the classical pragmatists -- Peirce, James, or Dewey -- promote eugenics? My research offered me nothing to support that they did not promote it, but also nothing saying they rallied against it either.

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  5. Anonymous, while many American progressives advocated eugenics, I am pretty sure Dewey was an outspoken opponent of eugenics.

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  6. Neat! You wouldn't happen to have a source for that I could look into, would you? I am currently rather smitten with pragmatism and I appreciate how remarkably (and genuinely) progressive these men, and women, actually were.

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  7. The entry on "eugenics" in *American philosophy: an encyclopedia* edited by John Lachs, Robert B. Talisse (Routledge, 2008) strongly implies that Dewey is an opponent of eugenics (p. 256). It doesn't list a detailed source, but Dewey was opposed to rule by technical experts (see his *Freedom and culture*), so it makes sense. (Sadly, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr is listed as an advocate, so it may be worth looking at James more closely.)
    I am no expert on pragmatism, alas.

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  8. I found the relevant entry in that encyclopedia on Google Books, so I will read that and perhaps try and dig into the classical pragmatists more to see where James -- who I am particularly interested (probably because I'm most familiar with his writing compared to the other two) -- stood on the issue. Thank you for the heads up, Eric!

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  9. I've just begun research into this topic myself, and I've found Diane B. Paul's "The Politics of Heredity: Essays on Eugenics, Biomedicine, and the Nature-Nurture Debate" to be quite an interesting read. The essays are quite explicitly focussed on the political undercurrents of the history of eugenics, and less-so on the philosophical dimensions. A good read none-the-less.

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