, , , , , ,

History Through Horror: The Classical Eugenics Movement and Homo Sapiens 1900 

By Jonathan Mozzochi

December, 2013


1. Introduction

2. ‘Reading’ Homo Sapiens 1900

3. Origins and Opposition

4. Trajectory 

–The Russian Version–Lenin’s Brain

–The German Version–Blood and Body

–The Swedish Version–‘Consensual’ Sterilization

–The American Version–Prefiguring the Nazi Holocaust

5. Decline 

6. Isms

7. Eugenics Residuals

–‘Human Directed Evolution’

–Kennewick Man

–‘Race’-Based Medicine

–Elasticity of ‘Race’

–Thoroughbreds and Prisons 

–Rand Paul 

–Michael Crichton

8. Conclusion


Peter Cohen’s 2000 film Homo Sapiens 1900 explores the turn-of-the-century ‘eugenics’ movement, an effort by academics, business elites, civic groups and public officials to ‘racially cleanse’ populations through often coercive measures including, but not limited to: control of sexual reproduction (selective breeding), forced sterilization, and euthanasia programs. The movement is shown to have prefigured the European Holocaust and is effectively captured through the film-within-a-film iconic image of a physician who allows an ‘inferior’ baby to die so as to spare society the burden of its upkeep. The scene includes this chilling caption: “There are times when saving a life is a greater crime than taking one.”

A bit more horror show than documentary (think Nosferatu meets Ken Burns’ Civil War)Homo Sapiens 1900 shocks while it informs. In this respect the film adheres to the conventions of its genre; but the very novelty of its approach (history through horror) is also its achilles heel. While Homo Sapiens 1900 effectively conveys the monstrosity of the eugenics project and strikes the right tone in doing so (somber, melancholy, compassionate) it also prevents us from regarding it in a contemporary setting–there really is nothing to relate to here, but plenty to recoil from.

By shining light on the origins, trajectory and ‘decline’ of the classical eugenics movement, Homo Sapiens 1900 can help us expose an inchoate, if potentially far more powerful and destructive movement, all around us today. We need to ask: How did the eugenics movement become an accepted science of its time? How did it become embedded in ivory towers, from Cambridge to Berlin, Stockholm to Moscow? Under what conditions did the movement arise and eventually dissipate?  In what novel forms is the movement still with us?

The film asks and answers these questions; it’s our job to evaluate those efforts.

‘Reading’ Homo Sapiens 1900

Homo Sapiens 1900 unsettles through its film score (a piano accompaniment that is alternatively sparse, melancholy, dissonant, and strange) narration (think Rod Steiger of The Twilight Zone meets Walter Cronkite) and entirely black and white still photos and film from the era–many jarring and bizarre. The film’s motif, “The image of man fills us at times with compassion”, conveys a somber pessimism that envelopes us. Yet the overall effect is curiously reassuring as it distances us from its subject. This distancing makes it difficult to identify the persistence of old forms of eugenics; it makes it even more difficult to spot the emergence of any new forms.

Whenever we see a film that is set in the past we tend to project our values there–overlay the narrative, if you will–with our judgments and biases. What seems bizarre to us now may have been a normative idea of that time. For instance, recall those archetypal categories of physical anthropology, the ‘Great Races’? The Caucasoid, Negroid, Mongoloid and Australoid? How mundane does ‘race betterment’ sound next to ‘Mongoloid’? Unfortunately the context within which the eugenics movement flourished is not examined very well; academic and activist opposition to these ideas are only skirted and woefully undeveloped.

The ‘It’s Alive!’ scene from the 1931 film Frankenstein appears near the beginning of Homo Sapiens 1900:Frankenstein: enlightened reason transformed into a nightmare. The scientist as the terrifying symbol of the utopian era,” a warning about the hubris of man’s attempts to control nature and perhaps cheat death. Cohen (the film maker) clearly regards the eugenics movement as a ‘road to hell paved with good intentions’ and the use of the Frankenstein clip is undoubtedly a convenient and effective framing device. It also, unfortunately, contributes to the film’s inability to grasp the particulars of each eugenics movement, none more so than the American experience. After all, Frankenstein is a morality tale about a heart-broken, rogue scientist while the eugenics movement featured powerful institutions laying the groundwork for genocide.

Origins & Opposition

The term ‘eugenics’ has its origins with Francis Galton (1822-1911), the British polymath who coined it as a means to redress the injustice of his observation that “‘inferior people’ procreate more rapidly.” The film’s narrator aptly summarizes Galton’s scientific racism: “the idea that life, society, [and] the family can be cultivated like a garden, in which the weeds must be distinguished from the useful plants, is something Galton wants to develop into a science. He calls his idea ‘eugenics’: the control of natural selection.”

As used here at the film’s outset ‘natural selection’ and ‘homo sapiens’ reference Charles Darwin’s signature theory of human evolution; indeed, they are inexplicable without it. But other than these instances, the film makes no mention of Darwin, and does not discuss the influence of his ideas on eugenics. This is a glaring omission–although in saying as much I feel a need to state clearly that I don’t consider Darwin’s ideas to be inherently racist, much less uniquely responsible for the eugenics movement. I can’t help think the film maker either intentionally omitted such background for reasons of economy (which is unfortunate) or, perhaps  internal censorship, (which is regrettable). Perhaps Cohen didn’t think the material was relevant? Perhaps he was fearful that his art would be subject to misinterpretation and/or willful misuse and abuse by fundamentalists of all stripes?

In any case, our narrator locates the philosophical roots of the eugenics movement in Enlightenment Europe, particularly in ideas popularized by Kant and Rousseau that human beings are the only self-reflective creature able to intentionally alter its environment and, reflexively, itself. The idea of improving, or perfecting, ‘races’ through scientific intervention, followed. This notion was given new meaning when harnessed to advances in biology, in particular the study of heredity. The movement found ample echoes in the ‘high arts’, in particular sculpture, painting, poetry and literature. “The concept of degeneration now has an optimistic antithesis: biology as the redeemer of the western world” the narrator intones.

There were two main schools of thought regarding heredity: Mendelism, so-called by the followers of Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) the founder of the science of genetics, which held that subjective characteristics (e.g., beauty) are not subject to generational alteration through human intervention and that the environment does not directly shape heredity and, Lamarckism, named for the followers of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, (1744-1829) who held that one could intervene in heredity to alter traits, including subjective traits (e.g., intelligence). Both schools of thought are examined through debate carried on during the 5th International Conference on Hereditary Research held in Berlin in 1927.  While the Mendelists were proven right, there were many variations of eugenics followers, from nudists to communists, and some were Mendelists while others took a more Lamarckian approach to the matter.  The film does a good job of illustrating the cultural milieu within which this debate took place, but does not effectively show how racism could remain potent after one version of the hereditary debate was vanquished: i.e., the elimination of Lamarkism as a viable model for the interpretation of heredity did not eliminate a racist interpretation of Mendelism. The very notion of effecting heredity–from any direction, if you will–can be harnessed to the forever plastic idea of ‘race’. This insight suggests a permanency to such ideas, i.e., so long as discrete ‘races’ persist, notions of ‘improving’ them using ‘science’ will naturally follow.

The film does not discuss these points.

Practitioners of eugenics used two approaches to better a ‘race’: so-called ‘positive eugenics’ or directed breeding, the encouragement of the ‘best’ people to reproduce; and, ‘negative eugenics’, the culling of the herd or pruning of the stock, discouraging ‘inferior’ races from breeding. Attempts to employ these approaches culminated in the euthanasia of babies, the ‘mercy killing’ of the genetically unfit and, of course, the Holocaust, which can be understood at least in part as an effort to apply ‘negative eugenics’ on a global scale.

Weren’t there academics and activists opposed to the hogwash of utopian racialism that eugenics represented? There were, but they are practically invisible in this film. Raymond Pearl, an American scientist in attendance for the 5th International Heredity Conference makes an appearance to deny that “there is any evidence supporting eugenics”; but his is a lonely voice in the film–and conspicuously American. Likewise, academia in general, and physical and cultural anthropologists, sociologists, and biologists in particular, are made out to have been largely united in support of eugenics.

Where is the opposition? Nowhere. This omission serves the artifice of horror at the expense of history. It is enough to note that the ‘father of American anthropology’, Franz Boas (1858-1942) was also “one of the most prominent opponents of the then popular ideologies of scientific racism…” (Wikipedia, Franz Boas) and that Boas often feuded with Madison Grant (1865-1937) “the prophet of scientific racism”(Jonathan Spiro, in Patterns of Prejudice, 2002). Grant was also a close friend of President Theodore Roosevelt and a ‘grandfather’ of the modern environmental movement. Together with co-founding the ‘Save the Redwoods League’ and supporting innovative wildlife management techniques and conservation efforts, Grant also took an active role in shaping anti-immigration policies and anti-miscegenation laws.

This the film leaves on the cutting room floor?


Homo Sapiens 1900 examines four varieties of the eugenics movement: the American, Swedish, German and Russian. Each is contextualized within a broader trend of ‘utopian movements’ prevalent during that time period–the two most influential being communism and fascism. Eugenics became popular because utopian, or well-meaning but misguided efforts to improve society were susceptible to the elegant lie of progress through racial science, or so the film argues. Racialist ideas combined with advances in science were supercharged by utopian ideas. Such efforts reached a tipping point of influence when harnessed to a powerful state, where “the nation ranks higher than the individual.”

The Russian Version–Lenin’s Brain

In newly triumphant revolutionary Russia (1917), the death of Lenin (1924) occasioned the establishment of a eugenics institute dedicated to studying ‘genius’. Lenin’s brain, together with that of other scientists, artists, dictators and democrats were preserved in a glass display case in the hopes of discerning the biological foundations of intelligence.

Homo Sapiens 1900 also explores the ‘utopianism’ at the center of the Russian Revolution noting that at least one Soviet scientist considered eugenics the “religion of the future and it awaits its prophets.” Herman Joseph Muller, an American geneticist and radical, is also an anti-racist who believes that the correct application of eugenics will breed a new generation of geniuses in the mold of Marx and Lenin. Conversely, he just as strongly argues that the incorrect application of its principles will produce monsters in the mold of Al Capone and Billy Sunday. Lost, of course, is the notion that eugenics itself is nonsense. In the Soviet version, however “ideas of degeneracy and decay play a subordinate role” to breakthroughs in the biological sciences, however poorly they are understood.

In any case, the movement is eventually demolished by Joseph Stalin (in his own inimitable fashion) when he brands “eugenics, genetics and fascism” as one and the same–throwing out the baby with the bathwater, as it were. The famines already experienced by the Soviet masses, and those to come, were informed by this decision. Some of the most frightening film clips are those from (presumably) Soviet propaganda films that feature lines of industrial workers pounding hammer to anvil in unison, to the following narration: “Higher capacity–physical and intellectual– leads to increased productivity. The scientific organization of labor will harmonize man and machine.” The ‘young state’ tries to apply the faulty principles of Lamarckism–with updated twists from the Soviet scientist Trofim Lysenko,  to poultry and cattle and then to breeding people, but (thankfully) doesn’t get very far. The upshot here is that the Soviet version of eugenics was tolerated by, and ultimately destroyed by, Stalin.

The German Version–Blood and Body

The German version features the physician Alfred Plutz advocating the euthanasia of babies with morphine and the coinage of the term ‘race hygiene’. Early ideas of selectively breeding humans and of the supremacy of biology are central here and the movement infiltrates and conquers German academia with its racial anthropology and notions of ‘blood purity‘. While the film doesn’t reference the back-to-nature, youth movement of the Wondervogel directly, it’s influence is everywhere in the art selected to represent the budding German eugenics movement. The nudism and anti-modern elements of the movement are an interesting contrast to the Russian version of ‘the new socialist man.’ In Germany, protecting the body demands strict guidelines against ‘racial mixing‘ which is believed will lead to degeneration and doom. The role of anti-Semitism in all this is curiously unexplored. Unsurprisingly, Hitler’s National Socialist Party is the first to adopt a policy on ‘race hygiene‘ into its platform. By the early 1930s, eugenics is official state policy.

We know the rest of that story.

The Swedish Version–‘Consensual’ Sterilization

The Swedish variety is fascinating and not as well known. As in the German and American varieties, a pioneering scientist, Herman Lundborg, visits prisons, parishes and ‘mad houses‘ to measure and evaluate inferior peoples. The film presents Swedish society in the 1920s and 1930s as “a progressive social welfare state within which ethnic conflict is virtually unknown.” How that was achieved, we are not told. But, the eugenics movement is again ‘supercharged’ as “the nation ranks higher than the individual” and race hygiene merges with the welfare state. Sterilization laws are passed “unanimously” by parliament (although not until the 1930s) and in a twist perhaps unique to Sweden and the Swedes, “the sterilization law is not compulsory. The Swedish variety is democratic. Opposition shall be overcome through persuasion.” The “passion for social justice” at the center of the Swedish ethos hangs on, if in attenuated form.

In all, Swedish eugenics policies are perhaps less monstrous than those of other states but they last–get this–well into the 1970s.

The American Version–Prefiguring the Nazi Holocaust

The American version, we are told, “gains support through an aggressive campaign against blacks and immigrants” and that “nowhere else is it so strong”. The movement is anchored in granges, eccentric scholars and then-novel forms of mass entertainment (silent movies). Again, all of this is true, but not the whole picture.

How about who funded the movement? What institutional connections did it have?

Charles Davenport, a renowned Harvard Zoologist is an early figure who set up a ‘eugenics record office’ on Long Island where field workers collected ‘eugenics data’ in mental wards, prisons and hospitals on millions of index cards (this nicely prefigures IBM’s complicity in the Holocaust.) Davenport also exemplifies that peculiar American trait of entrepreneurship, in this case wedding the profit motive to ‘racial science’, of singular importance to the spread of the nascent American eugenics movement. Of course that is my observation, not Cohens’.

In America the world’s first sterilization laws were passed early (1907) and broadly (20 states). The American Eugenics Society would hold competitions at fairs where medical measurements are taken of participants who are then judged on ‘intelligence’ and ‘pedigree’. This nicely illustrates the movement’s street credibility, it’s resonance within American culture at large, together with the movement’s fixation on measurement, rank and classification–the trappings of modern scientific inquiry.

There is no better example of the movement’s self-assurance than The Black Stork (1917; re-released in 1924 as Are You Fit to Marry?) which sought to answer the touchstone moral question of whether to allow an ‘inferior’ baby to grow up an outcast, condemned to a life of misery for itself and (by implication) others. The film resolves the question through the application of eugenic infanticide (‘compassionate murder’) which is at the centerpiece of this silent eugenics propaganda film. The film is a re-enactment of a very public effort to apply the then novel philosophy of eugenics to an (incorrectly diagnosed) syphilitic boy. The Black Stork features the real-life doctor in whose care the child was entrusted, Dr. Harry J. Haiselden who plays the fictional Dr. Dickey

Whereas in reality the child is condemned to death, in the film the doctor is prevented from applying his theory of eugenics and the child grows up to be a “shunned monstrosity” (Wikipedia ‘The Black Stork’). Haiselden intended the film as a “date night movie for couples” who would be spurred to consider ‘race betterment’ when starting a family. Homo Sapiens 1900 introduces us to an emblematic controversy of American eugenics, but without any historical context. The defense attorney Clarence Darrow weighed in on the issue at the time–in support of Haiselden–which would have been interesting to know; instead, we are treated to a compelling, if narrow, horror show ‘set piece.’

The film cherry-picks old, turn of the century images of eugenics meetings at grange halls but fails to identify the fertile soil of white supremacy and anti-black racism that American society provided for newfangled ideas of ‘racial hygiene’. The influence of business elites on funding and directing the movement was not insubstantial, although almost entirely missing in the film. It is one thing to say Charles Davenport founded a eugenics laboratory on Long Island; it’s quite another to learn that the Carnegie Institution funded it or that, according to Edwin Black’s The Horrifying American Roots of Nazi Eugenics, the movement “would have been so much bizarre parlor talk had it not been for extensive financing by corporate philanthropies, specifically the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Harriman railroad fortune…in league with some of America’s most respected scientists hailing from such prestigious universities as Stanford, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton.”

And this: “Stanford president David Starr Jordan originated the notion of “race and blood” in his 1902 racial epistle “Blood of a Nation,” in which the university scholar declared that human qualities and conditions such as talent and poverty were passed through the blood.”

Or this: “The Harriman railroad fortune paid local charities, such as the New York Bureau of Industries and Immigration, to seek out Jewish, Italian and other immigrants in New York and other crowded cities and subject them to deportation, trumped up confinement or forced sterilization.”

There is an almost complete absence of anything regarding the economics of the movement, in particular any demographic data about its adherents or much about the institutions that funded its efforts. The eugenics movement appears–as Frankenstein–then after a struggle, is dispensed with.

Throughout all this I think Cohen overstates the ideological aspect of the movement–the utopianism–at the expense of other features.There are implications for this overstatement. For instance, the utopian drive to improve humanity that eugenics promised suggests that in a more staid and calm environment such ideas would not have taken off. That the eugenics movement wouldn’t have had the impact it did–that it wouldn’t have led to the Holocaust without a ‘utopian’ aspect–is a perfectly reasonable argument to make. But other wellsprings of horror contributed to the spread and popularity of eugenics ideas. Unfortunately the strangeness of the pictorial and filmic images reinforces the horror show aspect of the endeavor, making it difficult to link these images with pre-existing structures of racial stratification and gender inequality, in particular. Family structures, for instance, could drive, or mitigate against, eugenics. And what about religion? Christianity in particular?


Homo Sapiens 1900 suggests the American eugenics movement reached its full expression in sterilization laws, but went no further; that the less utopian American system rejected the movement quicker; and, that utopian overreach was limited by American democracy, and the damage, while reprehensible, contained. In contrast to the American experience, the effects on Swedish society were longer lasting because of that society’s melding of the ‘welfare state’ to eugenics; its (utopian) ‘passion for social justice’ perverted by a nightmare of false perfectionism. The German variety devolved into targeted genocide and the Soviet version occupational extermination, with good measures of ethnic cleansing to round out whatever 5-year-plan was underway at the time–both societies under the heel of full-blown utopian/totalitarian dictatorships.

Homo Sapiens 1900 contains an implicit argument about the decline of eugenics. Cohen argues that the movement was extinguished primarily through exposure to the light of modern genetics, which set in relief the ‘backward’ nature of eugenics. Add to this the growing involvement of America in the Allied effort during WWII and its implied ‘multi-racialism’ and the disturbing example of Nazi extermination policies, all combined to illustrate the movement’s ultimate, nefarious ends.

But I think something else is in play here. America dispensed with its eugenics movement when it did and how it did not because it rejected the ideas of eugenics per se, nor because it suddenly had to fight a war against the Nazis (both of which the film argues) but because it had other eugenics measures already in place–such as anti-miscegenation and hypo-descent laws, state enforced segregation of schools, housing and work, etc. Besides, I’ll bet more than a few white Americans considered eugenics ‘pointy-headed’ nonsense.

“We already cull our herd quite well, thank you very much,” I can hear them grousing.

An American version of eugenics had already been in place for generations: It was called slavery, and later, segregation (de jure and de facto). A brutal racial caste system predated the classical eugenics movement in America; therefore, there was not a great need for ‘racial hygiene’, as most of those functions were already legally and extra-legally in place. What this film fails to convey is the deep racial inequality that served as the cradle within which eugenics thrived, but ultimately, was undone by–it’s horizon limited by its redundancy.

Additionally, as the film notes took place in Germany, unanticipated institutional pressures may come to bear on any social movement. When Heinrich Himmler’s SS was criticized for the ‘positive eugenics’ effort to establish what were taken to be ‘human breeding farms’, the romantic love at the center of the bourgeois family appeared to be threatened. The film notes that this German program was phased out, while negative eugenics programs continued full steam ahead–you didn’t need breeding farms to kill undesirables. But this interplay of interests is not discussed with regard the American setting, with its deeply conservative Christianity and preformationist ideas (‘homunculus’ anyone?) that likely served as a backstop for certain eugenics efforts. This opposition to ‘positive eugenics’ says nothing about ‘negative eugenics’ programs, which were already an integral part of the American social landscape.


Arguing that the different versions of the eugenics movement were primarily expressions of the totalitarian ‘isms’ of that era, most conspicuously communism and fascism, Homo Sapiens 1900 poses American democracy as the ‘best of the rest.’ While conceding that eugenics found expression in American society–indeed, the film’s understandable pessimism is rooted in the observation that eugenics ideas were able to find fertile soil in all types of ‘civilized’ nations–it also argues that the movement dissipated quickest in America because there was no totalitarian dictatorship or welfare state to nourish it. Gains in science, especially genetics, were most pronounced in America where eugenics was eventually exposed as a ‘backwards’ science that could not withstand the light of day.

But this is misleading as the ‘utopianism’ so evident in Sweden, Germany and the Soviet Union also had an unexplored doppelganger in the nascent American empire which had already identified itself as the actually existing liberation of humanity; a utopia ready for export. While the Soviet and Nazi versions of utopia strived to create a ‘new man’, the American version offered itself as a ready-made, actually existing ‘new man’. And this utopia had the power, and riches, to export it. It also, apparently, didn’t need eugenics in that particular form, to do so. In any case, it doesn’t matter that the American version was perhaps less utopian and less totalitarian, or coddling, than other societies; what mattered is that the American version already had those structures of oppression in place. That’s why the movement expired quicker there. The film’s narrative here occludes concepts such as ‘Manifest Destiny’ and American empire building as meaningful to explaining the eugenics movement in the United States–and that’s unfortunate.

How is it that segregation in the United States is never mentioned in this film? What else is neglected during this time? How were issues of reproductive rights–birth control and abortion–woven into this movement? Where these issues intersect with racism and racial science–the film never says.

American anti-miscegenation and hypo-descent laws helped provide the stock for the stew within which ‘racial hygiene’ ideas were slowly cooked, and made to taste delicious. The Ku Klux Klan would make a massive public appearance soon after the nadir of American eugenics, further altering the American political landscape on issues of ‘race’. I can only imagine how ideas of heredity and genetics played out in that context.

There is no mention of this in Homo Sapiens 1900.

What’s needed is a follow up effort to answer some of these questions.

Eugenics Residuals

There is a disconnect between our received notions of race, racial categories, and racism and all those advances in biotechnology with their specificity,  scientific method and peer review processes. The certainty of our advances in knowledge concerning genes, chromosomes, DNA, genetic engineering, etc., is only matched by the sheer complexity such knowledge has uncovered, and continues to uncover. I’m reminded of the overused, yet still pertinent expression that there are more connections in our brains than stars in the universe. We are infinitely complex, a creature at once unsolvable and uncontrollable. And that’s good. With sufficient concentration of power, however, perhaps exercised through new biotechnology, we could become something else: Frankenstein’s monster, perhaps.

Human Directed Evolution (HDE)

If it is in American foreign policy that “the advisory imagination can roam–run riot, even–with a liberty impossible at home” (Perry Anderson, New Left Review, ‘American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers’, No. 83, Sept./Oct. 2013) it should come as no surprise that it is in the elite policy journal, Foreign Affairs, published by the Council on Foreign Relations, that the subject of eugenics can be broached. The biotechnologist Craig Venter of ‘mapping the human genome’ fame is now creating ‘synthetic life’, we are told, while biologists and geneticists are discussing ‘human directed evolution’. Let’s abbreviate that term ‘HDE’. (Laurie Garrett and Ron Noble, Foreign Affairs, “Biology’s Brave New World” Nov.Dec. 2013). That quote is correct–‘human directed evolution.’ How far is that from Galton’s shorthand definition of eugenics as ‘the control of natural selection’?

Venter is recorded gushing, “What we have done so far is going to blow your freakin’ mind” a comment that registers all the solemnity and pathos of a professional wrestling match. Venter’s ‘game-changing experiment’, as the authors describes it, unpacks as utopian overreach; perhaps shot through with a cult of innovation and an attendant celebrity worship. In keeping with the sports metaphors, I find such ‘cheerleading’ repugnant. The Foreign Affairs article, enmeshed as it is within the antiseptic confines of ‘national security’ considerations, fails to apprehend its subject matter, as worrisome a state of affairs as must have confronted Franz Boaz in his time.

Of course the prior eugenics movement had its cult of innovative scientists and utopian dreamers. Left to their own devices–and they often were–their programs paved the way for genocide. Do our contemporary paragons of innovation resemble so many oracles sifting through the entrails of a genetically modified cow so as to divine the next spasm of wealth creation and how to capture its inevitable flow upward? Will there be horrific unintended consequences as a result of their actions? Is there a new road to hell being paved?

History will tell.

What’s certain is that such scientific innovations as genetic engineering are taking place within a world of globalized consumer capitalism, in many places uprooting traditional forms of social cohesion and deepening social inequality. By harnessing a profit motive to poorly understood scientific innovations controlled by immensely powerful corporations, all within a context of deep racial and economic inequality, we could be witnessing the reemergence of a frightening, new eugenics movement.

Let’s take a moment to pause, and reflect upon the elements of the horror show that  is Homo Sapiens 1900. 

What of Homo Sapiens 2013?

Kennewick Man

In 1996 an ancient skeleton was unearthed along the banks of the Columbia River on the border of Oregon and Washington. A paleoanthropologist, Dr. James Chatters, did the heavy lifting on the remains, sorting some 350 bones and subjecting them to a battery of tests demanded by his discipline. Dr. Chatters then commissioned a reconstruction of the skeleton’s skull, by then dubbed ‘Kennewick Man’ for a nearby city, and the resulting visage bore a startling resemblance to the actor Patrick Stewart. Together with Dr. Chatters’ comment that he thought the skeleton most likely of ‘Caucasoid’ descent, Kennewick Man attracted the attention of a racialist pagan group, The Asatru Alliance. The ‘look’ of the skeleton suggested white people populated North America first, and were therefore America’s true indigenous peoples.

During this time I operated a small not-for-profit human rights organization in nearby Portland, Oregon called the Coalition for Human Dignity. Kennewick Man came to represent a stand-in for white America’s struggles with declining demography, Indians (the Umatilla Tribe claimed the skeleton as their descendent) and science.  Throughout the years, the skeleton has continued to carry with it an undeniably ideological component, perhaps ignited by scientists who still cannot agree as to its ultimate origins and inflamed by racists. DNA testing, furthermore, has not set the origin story of Kennewick Man definitively to rest.

As an example of the far-right using our plastic notions of race for their purposes and thereby extending this enduring controversy is a March 19, 2012 article on the website of the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens, the modern heirs to the white citizens councils of the Jim Crow era. An article entitled “Kennewick Man Revisited: The Cover-Up of Kennewick Man” by Kyle Bristow includes this gem in its second sentence: “An archeologist [Chatters] who studied the dimensions of the skull concluded that the skeleton belonged to a long dead Caucasoid–white–male…” Here the author sloppily conflates ‘Caucasoid’ with ‘white’–the first an anthropological term of dubious scientific value but undeniable contemporary resonance, the second a proxy for the author’s ‘race’–and we are left with the lurid and the absurd, as in that Patrick Stewart reconstruction.

It is but a small jump from racialist ideas about our origins to ‘race based medicine’ and ‘positive eugenics’.

Race-Based Medicine

An insidious example of contemporary eugenics residual appears in the discipline of Pharmacogenomics, a term that blends pharmacology and genomics and seeks to ‘personalize medicine’ by tailoring drugs to a person’s unique genetic makeup. That sounds promising. But there is evidence that the discipline involves ‘race-based medicine’, especially when advertising is involved. Wikipedia defines ‘race-based medicine’ as “the term for medicines that are targeted at specific ethnic clusters which are shown to have a propensity for a certain disorder.”

BiDil, a medication to treat congestive heart failure, was first licensed to be used with patients who ‘self-identified’ as black in the mid-2000s (so much for ‘ethnic clusters’ as the ‘science’ behind the treatment). Of course the first round of trials (experiments) would be targeted at African-Americans–did you think it could be otherwise? After the initial trials the drug was approved by the FDA, but the marketing of Bidil showed itself to be more ‘utopian’ than practical. According to Wikipedia: “This peculiar trial and licensing procedure has prompted suggestions that the licensing was in fact used as a race-based advertising scheme…Critics are concerned that the trend of research on race-specific pharmaceutical treatments will result in inequitable access to pharmaceutical innovation and smaller minority groups may be ignored.”

Subsequent studies of the drug confirmed its effectiveness among some people, but what ‘people’ is the unanswered question. The problem here lies in the relationship between one’s ‘genome’ and one’s ‘self-identified’ racial classification, and how companies should be allowed to market such products. The two concepts–‘race’ and a person’s ‘genomic map’–having multiple, overlapping and exclusive, realms. This is no problem for Henry I. Miller whose September 10, 2013 article “Race, Medicine and Political Correctness” published in the conservative Hoover Institution journal Defining Ideas comes to the winning conclusion that the solution to the problem is simple: “follow the data”. To which I would respond: Who’s following the people following the data? After deregulating, defunding and ultimately destroying agencies that would be best positioned to offer sound answers to such questions, Miller and his ilk suggest that ‘the market’ will do it. Everything else is ‘political correctness’. The subheading to this article is instructive and contains within itself the absurdity of the author’s argument: “If a drug works better for black people than whites, shouldn’t we say so to save lives?” But that is precisely what the study did not establish–only that the drug worked better for some people with particular genetic markers or genomic maps. If Miller had any ethical or intellectual ground to stand on, that is exactly what he shouldn’t say.

For Miller the lesson here is that ‘science’ is being distorted by ‘political correctness’. That’s an inelegant lie, betrayed by the articles subheading. What is actually happening is that the carnivorous jello that is ‘race’ has been opportunistically attached to a medical innovation that is itself poorly understood. The results, predictably, have a disproportionate impact on people of color.

All of this ignores the obvious: that the profit motive, when left to its own devices, will ‘find a way’ to exploit, and thereby distort, any treatment. Where ‘race’ is brought into it, or its proxies such as ‘ethnic clusters’, the plasticity of options are endless with medical treatments that resemble ‘race-based’ alcoholic beverages, video games, clothing and cars. Of course quite apart from the efficacy of any treatment is the question of access to it, a subject relegated to the mysteries of our free market system.

Elasticity of ‘Race’

Leonard Zeskind, President of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights (IREHR), an anti-racist think tank, is fond of explaining the persistence, elasticity and absurdity of the concept of ‘race’ in America through an anecdote on the Mexican American War (1846-1848). One faction of American elites was pro-war and wanted to intervene in Mexico–they were the interventionists. The anti-war or anti-interventionist side opposed the war, but on the grounds that they didn’t want their ‘blood’ mixing with that of an inferior people. The pro-war side defended its position by arguing invasion did not necessarily mean ‘race mixing’–they were just as anti-miscegenation as their loyal opponents. Both sides believed Mexicans were inferior and that white people were innately superior. This narrow ideological spectrum constituted what was acceptable debate; anything outside of it was anathema. Invade or don’t invade, pro-war or anti-war–everyone was a white supremacist.

While that spectrum of debate appears quite narrow today, it was normative then; what’s normative now may appear bizarre in the future.

Thoroughbreds & Prisons

For another contemporary eugenics residual take thoroughbred horse racing–elitist, hereditary, and ‘scientific’, served up in a casino-driven, cult of the celebrity economy. Here the full weight and precision of the science of genetic breeding is joined with the profit motive in a conspicuous display of ‘sport.’ What a thrill the owner must feel sipping Mint Juleps, his horse galloping to riches while his human offspring are granted legacies at elite universities–a sort of eugenics for the hereditary rich masquerading as a meritocracy of the intelligent. These healthy specimens–the progeny of the well-to-do and the horses–will likely receive all the benefits of our modern commercialized health care system, especially its budding ‘race based’ gene therapies, so redolent of ‘positive eugenics’. On the flip-side we can identify ‘negative eugenics’ within the American penal system and its roughly 2 million imprisoned people (African-Americans criminally–pardon the pun–overrepresented) built over three decades of racialized drug laws (sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine vs. powder, anyone?).

I was not charitable in my description of thoroughbred horse racing above, but as it’s most conspicuous home is Kentucky–home of the Derby and Rand Paul, who has his own version of eugenics he’s fighting against–I’m going to return to it.

Rand Paul

Libertarian standard bearer Rand Paul read from a standard Christian Right anti-eugenics script when, according to the Associated Press (October 28, 2013) he claimed, “In your lifetime, much of your potential — or lack thereof — can be known simply by swabbing the inside of your cheek…Are we prepared to select out the imperfect among us?” For Rand Paul, contemporary eugenics is primarily about reproductive rights–and his desire to eliminate them–and not about equality or how race, class and gender interact with science. However, when the larger academic culture insists, as the writer of this article does, that “All the [eugenics] programs were abandoned by the 1970s after scientists discredited the idea” then we can understand why Rand Paul comes to the conclusions he does without agreeing with those conclusions. Paul’s statement predictably upholds the absurdity of the promise of eugenics even while it condemns it. This is, no doubt, because he has a deeply flawed understanding of ‘race’, and probably genetics.

Michael Crichton

Let’s ask a novelist to weigh in on the subject.

The late Michael Crichton: “The theory of eugenics postulated a crisis of the gene pool leading to the deterioration of the human race. The best human beings were not breeding as rapidly as the inferior ones — the foreigners, immigrants, Jews, degenerates, the unfit, and the ‘feeble minded.’ Francis Galton, a respected British scientist, first speculated about this area, but his ideas were taken far beyond anything he intended.”

While I certainly share Crichton’s outrage at such ideas–who doesn’t– his understanding of eugenics is appalling, and betrays the anti-science, conservative populism at the core of his understanding of the world. The term ‘eugenics’ was coined in 1883 by Galton, but the concept of ‘genetics’ didn’t enter the vernacular until 1905. Therefore there was no ‘crisis of the gene pool’ that kickstarted the eugenics movement, as the concept of a ‘gene pool’ didn’t exist then. Once discovered, the concept took decades after that to propagate throughout the field. Furthermore, the notion that Francis Galton’s ideas were “taken far beyond anything he intended” while true in the sense that anyone dead cannot be held responsible for the posthumous reworking of their cogitations, is cringe worthy for its denial of a more relevant detail of Galton’s work: his scientific racism, so central to the eugenics movement.


A horror-show eugenics most certainly was, but by exaggerating the bizarre aspects of its appeal Homo Sapiens 1900 simultaneously quarantines these ideas into the past and impedes us from considering them in the here and now. We are introduced to many of the primary practitioners of eugenics and the broad outlines of the movement, but other than a lone American at an international conference on heredity (Raymond Pearl) and, perversely, Joseph Stalin, there is virtually no opposition to eugenics shown in the film. Eugenics rises up from its coffin, we scream, the damage is done (to others), then it is vanquished, consigned to the dustbin of history along with all the other ‘utopian movements’ of that time period.

‘Civilization’ marches on.

A contemporary warning, while poetic and moving, comes at the end of the film but fails to convey the resonance contemporary eugenics ideas carry today: “Underneath the streets of the city lie the graveyards of civilization, the biological remnants of heredity…Today we know how heredity works. Research on human genetic makeup is in the vanguard of modern science…As political and social utopian theories lose ground, the biological ideal acquires a new lease on life. Visions on genetics and its social implications occasionally assume utopian proportions.”

Occasionally? That is not very comforting.

From Craig Venter’s mapping of the human genome to the elitism of thoroughbred horse racing, through Michael Crichton’s science-phobic moralism, onwards to Rand Paul’s lamenting the reemergence of ‘eugenics’, to geneticists contemplating HDE, it is, indeed, a brave new world.

Modern economic theory will stress that the inelegant inefficiency of ‘race’ will be ameliorated through the mysteries of competition: the stinkweed of selfishness and personal gain–greed–blossoming into the flower of the common good. Or overall good. Or mostly good. Or better than anyone else’s good. Or, perhaps, just as good as it gets.

In light of modern genomics, what data would one pick to categorize people? Would we still use language? Geography? Phenotypes–skin pigmentation, shape of the nose, eyelids? Genotypes? Genetic maps combined with some of the previous categories? To speak of ‘race’ or ‘racial categories’ in the same sentence as ‘genes’ or ‘genetic expressions’ is to enter into a hell of epistemological confusion characterized by a high degree of absurdity, tragedy and, of course, farce.

The very endeavor is absurd, as there are as many ways to allocate traits, characteristics, qualities, aptitudes, and talents as there are to invent a race. Is it better to speak of population groups here? Yes, but we really run into the same problem, especially if that term is just a proxy for ‘race’ and ‘races’.

The notion of ‘race hygiene’ is preposterous given the incredible heterogeneity of our species and the world within which it exists; but the persistence of these ideas, particularly efforts to map and thereby ‘direct’ elements of the human genome seem to transcend the era within which the classical eugenics movement thrived. Or, alternatively, perhaps that era has persisted in a new form; either way the likelihood of a resurgence of eugenics is real.

The image of man does, indeed, fill us with compassion.