Strange 'Bell' Fellows
Fischel, Jack, Commonweal
Eugenics is as American as apple pie--well, stale apple pie. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, was notoriously enamored of it. Even Norman Thomas, a putative champion of the common man, bemoaned the tendency of "those of a definitely inferior stock" to go on reproducting themselves. Now come the new kids on the genetic block, The Bell Curve authors Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein. Their explanations for the economic and social disparities in American society are hardly new. Thirty years ago Richard Hofstradter examined the long history of such schemes in his classic Social Darwinism in American Society, exposing the undemocratic agendas of those who advanced such views. Given this history and their own carefully qualified presentation of the statistical evidence, it is somewhat astonishing that Murray and Herrnstein still advance their findings as a basis for public-policy making. Indeed, what seems unqualified is The Bell Curve's poorly disguised political agenda.
The controversy over The Bell Curve is most immediately reminiscent of the furor created by the work of the psychologist Arthur Jensen and the social theorizing of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist William Shockley in the 1960s. Jensen traveled the country arguing that whites scored fifteen points higher than blacks on IQ tests. Shockley proposed that government offer cash incentives to the so-called "welfare queens" to undergo sterilization. Whatever its professed aims, The Bell Curve will inevitably enlist, as did Jensen and Shockley, the enthusiastic support of those who are committed to proving the racial superiority of whites over blacks.
That should remind us that not so long ago eugenics was considered a legitimate branch of science, and that prior to World War II eugenic research was popular on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States, for example, the Rockefeller Foundation played an important role in establishing eugenics institutions in Weimar Germany and continued to support this type of research even after the Nazi seizure of power. Hitler, in particular, corresponded with American eugenicists and relied on their "expertise" in promoting his racial policies. Eugenics was widely discredited only after its pseudoscientific claims were seen to culminate in the horror of Nazi genocide.
Despite the experience with the Nazi use of eugenics, marginal groups in the United States have continued to preach the gospel of race-science. The eugenics movement here has been kept alive through the efforts of an institution called The Pioneer Fund, established in 1937 by Wickliffe Draper, a New Engand merchant and two eugenicists, Harry Laughlin and Henry Fairfield Osborn. Draper's fortune was used to bankroll "research" on precisely the kinds of questions The Bell Curve examines. The early leadership of the fund praised much of what was done in Nazi Germany in the name of racial "science." For example, both Laughlin and Osborn defended the passage of the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 by pointing out that in America, thirty-two states prohibited marriage and sexual intercourse between blacks and whites. It is surprising, given its track record, that the fund continues to operate, and still adheres to its founding goal of "improv[ing] the character of …
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Publication information: Article title: Strange 'Bell' Fellows. Contributors: Fischel, Jack - Author. Magazine title: Commonweal. Volume: 122. Issue: 3 Publication date: February 10, 1995. Page number: 16+. © 1999 Commonweal Foundation. COPYRIGHT 1995 Gale Group.
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