Genetics and the Alterable Course Toward Fascism

Genetics and the Alterable Course Toward Fascism

Given that theories of heritability arose before eugenic plans and that those eugenics plans preceded fascism, it is easy to understand why some would infer that hereditary thinking in Western cultural settings may have caused both the eugenics programs and the fascist movements that followed. On the face of it, of course, this is a clear example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. On the other hand, it is possible that beneath the surface is a clear causal link between hereditary theory and fascism, but it is equally possible to imagine a different course of events unfolding given only slight changes in the historical record or in human nature. In one sense, all events are caused by those that precede them, or so the determinist will claim. If this is true, then the path of history is unalterable regardless of the subject at hand. For the purposes of this essay, though, I will assume that humans have free will and that cultures have differing goals and values. I will also assume that the motives of at least some early geneticists were devoid of the values of later fascists in Germany and elsewhere. Given that most people familiar with western science accept the heritability of personality and other traits as scientific fact, I will also question whether science must be concerned with the possible applications of its theories, even when they seem almost certain to be correct.

The work of Mendel, in particular, seems to fly the flag of Objective Truth. Scientists still accept the basic laws of genetics discovered by Mendel, and most would say these truths are separate from any social programs or ideological agendas they may be used to support. Mendel’s laws are more easily verified and categorized than Darwin’s, but it was Darwin who originally captured the public imagination in the nineteenth century, with the importance of Mendelian genetics being asserted decades after their original publication. Both Darwin and Mendel were “scientific” in the sense that they collected data based on observation and recorded it with care, even if Mendel’s data now seem to be a bit more consistent than nature itself (meaning that some have suggested Mendel manipulated the data to fit his theory with greater exactness than one would expect). To state that someone’s methods are “scientific,” though, is to say almost nothing. Many methods of doing science have been employed over the years, and no Scientific Method has presented itself. The best science, it is claimed, is science that is based on mathematical models, makes predictions, is simple, can be observed repeatedly, is instrumental in producing results, or is accepted by a community of scientists.

Various theories of genetics, evolution, and social degeneration all could be classified as “scientific” by one of the methods mentioned above. What scientific method does not yield, however, is Truth (or, even, truth). One need only look to the constant modifications to scientific theory to see that the truth of science is ever changing. One must not be skeptical only of science practiced by those with a social agenda. One must be skeptical of all scientific truth. That many scientists practicing in genetics, eugenics, sociology, anthropology, and psychology did have a social agenda is not evidence in itself of bad science, though it may be evidence of bad social agendas. On the other hand, scientist such as Mendel did not appear to have an obvious social agenda, and it seems unreasonable to expect a scientist doing research in good faith to predict the abuses of his discoveries. If Foucault is correct in asserting that the nineteenth century gave rise to the study of Man, then we would expect the nineteenth century to produce a plethora of work in the so-called social sciences. Indeed, Foucault listed sciences such as economics, anthropology, and sociology as examples of fields of study that arose as men turned to study Man. Physicists and chemists and other “hard” scientists would be likely to question Foucault’s concept of science and deride the social sciences as rife with unsupportable assertions. On the other hand, Foucault’s claim that humans turned to the study of Man as subject in the nineteenth century is noteworthy.

The scientists in the new fields were not unaware that their work may be seen as unscientific, and they made every effort to produce claims objectively verifiable by relying on the universal under girding of objective science: mathematics or, at the least, quantification. These scientists observed, counted, and recorded with fervor in an effort to gain acceptance for their theories. They were in luck, in a sense, as many in society were eager for their “discoveries.” Social reformers of the nineteenth century were no different from social reformers of the twenty-first century in one respect: they felt they had given their claims credibility when they could begin their arguments with the words “studies show.” When looking for the cause (or someone to blame) for social ills, it gives great force to one’s arguments to claim scientific proof . Errors are made in all branches of science, but the social sciences are particularly vulnerable to abuses for social ends.

If fascism is defined broadly as an attempt to improve society through the elimination of undesirable elements, then many of the social sciences were born of the effort to identify and eliminate causes of social ills. For some, social ills were caused by poverty and injustice, and such individuals advocated the elimination of slavery, oppression of women, exploitation of children, and abuse of animals. For others, the ills of society stemmed from the existence of dangerous persons, and those who believed dangerous persons caused such problems advocated more government intervention to imprison or even destroy those found to be defective. It is the latter mode of thinking that leads to to the sort of autocratic and despotic fascism that most of us imagine when we hear the word “Fascism.” Hereditarianism was certainly incorporated into the arguments of fascists, but it was also used by social reformers seeking more humane treatment of prisoners, the mentally ill, and the poor. The anarchist, socialist, liberal democrat, communist, and fascist may all agree that certain personality traits are inherited. One person will see it as a reason to show compassion to individuals while another will see it as a reason to eliminate such individuals or declare them to be less than human. If hereditarianism leads inevitably to fascism, it reveals not a feature of the theory but a feature of human beings. In the struggle between acceptance and blame, acceptance seems always to lose. Before we give up in despair, however, we should remember that social reformers of a more benevolent nature have continued to use genetic research in an effort to ease suffering while recognizing the value of diverse individuals. Over the last 150 years, acceptance of the mentally ill and the disabled has increased dramatically. In addition, genetic research has helped identify the causes of some disorders and helped us cope or even find superior treatments in some cases.

Before the eugenics movement gained momentum, Hervey Backus Wilbur, Samuel Gridley Howe, and Dorothea Dix were all advocates for improved treatment of those with mental disabilities. Before eugenics the attitudes were quite different, but similar arguments were used for quite different ends. Nicole Hahn Rafter says:

Supporters of idiot education drew on two rhetorical strategies that, Joel Best has shown, are utilized frequently during campaigns to identify social problems: they argued that it would be immoral to further ignore members of this class (what Best calls ‘the rhetoric of rectitude’) and that it was socially beneficial to help them (Best’s ‘rhetoric of rationality’). Eugenic criminologists later used the same strategies to define the retarded as deviant and socially dangerous.[1]

Wilbur and his contemporaries intended to use their facilities to reduce deviance and improve the lives of the disabled. They shared the view of eugenicists that reducing deviance was a social good, but felt it could be achieved through humane treatment and education. Dix was particularly strident in her advocacy of reform for poor houses. She complained of country institutions that isolated inmates in “close, unventilated rooms; narrow dark cells; cheerless dungeons, cold and damp.”[2] It is quite conceivable that later hereditarians could have followed the compassionate lead of Wilbur, Howe, and Dix in seeking improved care and education of the disabled, rather than their elimination.

In 1925, Judge Harry Olson delivered an address on crime and heredity. Judge Olson’s address was highly acclaimed and included an impassioned plea for eugenics. Olson argues that crime is a product of heredity and, in effect, that criminals are not able to choose differently. His argument calls for compassion but also a deprivation of freedom for criminals. Rather than harsh punishment, however, he calls for farm colonies to provide segregation for delinquents. For his time, he was calling for a relatively humane treatment of such individuals. He says of the inmate on such a farm, “The need of the individual defective is likewise met, for he is given an opportunity to live to the limit of his powers, whatever their limit may be in each individual case. He will have all his worries and troubles removed, existence will no longer be anguish and agony for him, but a sensible balancing of work and play.”[3] Olson’s argument is a strange mélange of compassion and indifference, but it is not far from the approach taken today, even if the terms we use are different. Today, individuals who are severely disabled are often cared for in residential care facilities, and reproduction, when it happens, is seen as a great tragedy. It is seen as a tragedy because it is usually the result of rape committed by a staff member as residents are still not permitted sexual or reproductive freedom. Facilities today will also claim to be providing the most compassionate care possible.

Geneticists and hereditarians made every attempt to be positivistic in their claims, reporting only what could be observed, measured, counted, or deduced. From craniometry to psychometrics, the inferiority of certain races, genders, nationalities, and even families was confirmed again and again. In retrospect, it is easy to see that positivism was a cloak for prejudice, but many saw this as a way of ascertaining truth with a high degree of certainty, just as many do now.

The positivism taken by the social scientists was not what it could have been. Karl Popper claimed in 1919 that he was dubious about the claims of three specific kinds of science: Marxist theory, psychoanalysis, and individual psychology. He claimed that in order for a scientific theory to be an actual scientific theory it had to make certain kinds of claims. The riskier the claims, the more scientific the theory. The theory should, according to Popper, make a prediction and make a claim that could possibly be shown to be false. Most theories in the social sciences (psychometrics, for example) fail to make predictions or falsifiable claims. For Popper, no scientific theory is ever proven to be true. Tests of the theory can only prove it false or fail to prove it false. Theories that pass all tests are only theories that have not yet been proven false. Such theories may have instrumental value, but no one should ever be brazen enough to speak of scientific fact. In contrast, theories such as those in the social sciences posit a hypothesis and then researchers seek confirmation through observation. Popper calls this process pseudo-science.[4] Most of the sciences Foucault describes as the science of Man are pseudoscience by Popper’s reckoning. Popper was also a strong critic of totalitarian governments and the author The Open Society and Its Enemies. He was opposed to the theories of Marx, Hegel, and Plato.

In opposition to Popper, Thomas Kuhn argues that science is the product of social interaction of communities of scientists. Kuhn argues that normal science proceeds according to past achievements and evidence that is accepted by most scientists in the field. When evidence that a theory needs modification, the community must accept a paradigm shift that results in a scientific revolution. For Kuhn, scientific revolution occurs when scientists encounter unexpected anomalies that create a crisis within the community.[5] An example he does not give might involve craniometry; when it was discovered that extremely intelligent people sometimes had smaller skulls than the unintelligent, craniometrists were faced with a crisis and were forced to shift to a new paradigm such as intelligence testing. Although Kuhn gives the discovery of oxygen as an example, his theory seems particularly applicable to the social sciences, which Popper would deem pseudoscience in the first place.

It is impossible to say whether the outcome would have been different if the science practiced by many hereditarians had been more reliable and accurate, but I am skeptical of any improved results. Fascists are just biased individuals who are likely to seek the science that suits their aims rather than survey a wide array of data. In other words, fascists had a social agenda and sought any possible support for their agenda; they did not base their agenda after becoming familiar with scientific theories of their time. Of course, seeking alternative scientific views would have proven difficult as objections to the conclusions of hereditarians were few. Some did question the results they were finding, but most forged ahead emboldened by the authority of science.

Even when scientists were careful to articulate the limits of their research, as Binet did with intelligence testing, their theories were used to support and reinforce prejudices and biases. While Binet sought to help all children learn to their fullest potential, his test was eventually used to deny education to children who were not fully adapted to the educational settings in which they found themselves.

Centuries before Darwin, Galton, or Mendel, Plato’s Republic provided a model for a possible meritocracy and eugenic society. Plato advocated rule by the fittest (meaning those with the greatest intellectual powers) members of society and also a selective breeding program to produce more rulers. In this breeding program, pairs would be matched according to their native intelligence, which would be determined by elder rulers. Plato did not see a need to extinguish all of the less intelligent members of society as they, driven by their bodily appetites, would become motivated workers struggling daily to produce goods in order to earn enough to satisfy their baser desires. Those unable to achieve this level of productivity independently would be slaves. Plato assumed that intellectual ability was the product of good parentage, and he was certain that both parents played a role in producing the best possible offspring.

In the nineteenth century, Hegel proposed another view of political philosophy without reference to eugenics. In fact, Hegel said that individuals are powerless to effect change in society. On the contrary, history makes progress toward what he called freedom through the rational movement of the Absolute Spirit. The movement of the Absolute Spirit is rational but can only be understood by humans when it is too late to change it. He famously claimed the “Owl of Minerva” flies only at dusk. Historical progress proceeded, in Hegel’s mind, at the “slaughter bench of history.” Through progress, one nation would overthrow another nation and bring synthesis of the two. The eventual result of such progress would be that all individuals would share a single will that would be in accord with the Absolute Spirit, which is embodied in the State. Any struggle against the State would be a struggle against the Absolute Spirit and would therefore be immoral. Absolute freedom, in Hegel’s mind, would be a state where no individual would have any desire to behave in a way contrary to the national will. As the most popular intellectual in Germany and perhaps all of Europe, Hegel’s philosophy had a profound influence on his generation and the generations that followed. Though Hegel claimed the Absolute Spirit acted according to Reason in a manner that was unalterable, he also said that the actions of the Absolute Spirit would be driven by world-historical individuals. For his time, he noted that Napoleon was such an individual. It is easy to imagine Hegel also identifying Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin as such individuals as well. While fascist propagandists and defenders may have used genetic research to bolster their movements, the drive toward fascism existed independently of genetics and eugenics.

Hegels most famous student and disciple, Karl Marx, altered his teacher’s theory in significant ways, but many of the elements remained the same. The Absolute Spirit, in Marx’s view (based on the philosophy of Feuerbach) was actually the spirit of Man. Also, although the actions of the Absolute Spirit are inevitable, Marx advocated direct action to effectuate change in society. Rather than one nation overthrowing another nation, Marx claimed that capitalism must be overthrown by communism. I would aver that Marx’s vision of communism has much in common with fascism and had nothing to do with eugenics.

The theories of Darwin, Mendel, Galton, and others were certainly used by fascists to justify some of their actions. The theories of eugenics also helped motivate people with the best of intentions to advocate actions that were cruel and hopelessly flawed. This is in part due to strong biases that were reinforced by inaccurate claims of scientists. Theories of genetics and evolution are not value-free, but they also do not lead to any inevitable conclusions. Where one person sees genetic theory as a means to improve the lives of individuals, another will see genetics as a way of identifying scapegoats. Skepticism of scientific claims of inferiority (or of anything else, really) and a bit of humility would go a long way toward inoculating society from the excesses and cruelty of both fascists and eugenicists. Those who are too certain of their claims are prone to irremediable, rash, and dangerous action.


[1] Nicole Hahn Rafter, Creating Born Criminals. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press), 25.

[2] Dorothea Dix, qtd. in Rafter, 25.

[3] Harry Olson, Research Studies of Crime as Related to Heredity (Chicaco: Municipal Court of Chicago, 1925) 28.

[4] Karl Popper, “Science: Conjectures and Refutations” in G. Lee Bowie, Meredith W. Michaels, and Robert C. Solomon, eds. Twenty Questions (Belmont: Thomson-Wadsworth, 2005), 98 – 106.

[5] Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972).

About ethicsbeyondcompliance

I hold a PhD in medical humanities with an major emphasis in ethics. I began teaching college-level ethics in 2000.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s