An Earlier Bid for Mastery

New genetic knowledge may let us manipulate our nature: beef up our muscles, brush up our memory, make designer children. What’s wrong with that? Bass professor of government Michael J. Sandel proposes an answer in The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering (Harvard University Press, $18.95). Along the way, he recalls the eugenics movement (and contributions to it by Harvardians Charles Davenport, A.B. 1889, Ph.D. ’92; Theodore Roosevelt, A.B. 1880, LL.D. ’02; and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., A.B. 1861, LL.B. ’66, LL.D. ’95). In 1910, biologist and eugenic crusader Davenport opened the Eugenic Records Office in Cold Spring Harbor, New York.

In Davenport’s words, the project was to catalog “the great strains of human protoplasm that are coursing through the country.” Davenport hoped such data would provide the basis for eugenic efforts to prevent reproduction of the genetically unfit.

Reprinted from War Against the Weak by Edwin Black
Carrie Buck, ordered to undergo sterilization

…Theodore Roosevelt wrote Davenport: “Some day, we will realize that the prime duty, the inescapable duty, of the good citizen of the right type, is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world; and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type.” Margaret Sanger, pioneering feminist and advocate of birth control, also embraced eugenics: “More children from the fit, less from the unfit—that is the chief issue of birth control.”

…By the 1920s, eugenics courses were offered at 350 of the nation’s colleges and universities, alerting privileged young Americans to their reproductive duty.

But the eugenics movement also had a harsher face. Eugenics advocates lobbied for legislation to prevent those with undesirable genes from reproducing, and in 1907 Indiana adopted the first law providing for the forced sterilization of mental patients, prisoners, and paupers. Twenty-nine states ultimately adopted forced-sterilization laws, and more than 60,000 genetically “deficient” Americans were sterilized. In 1927 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of sterilization laws in the notorious case of Buck v. Bell. The case involved Carrie Buck, a seventeen- year-old unwed mother who had been committed to a Virginia home for the feeble-minded and ordered to undergo sterilization. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the opinion for the eight-to-one majority upholding the sterilization law: “We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices…. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” Referring to the fact that Carrie Buck’s mother and, allegedly, her daughter were also found to be mentally deficient, Holmes concluded: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

You might also like

Kevin Young Named 2024 Harvard Arts Medalist

Museum director and poet to be honored April 24

How Air Pollution Affects Our Brains

An expert Harvard panel discusses the links between air pollution and dementia, learning, mental health, and mood.

Steven Pinker on Apple’s Vision Pro

Professor of psychology on the science and history behind the Vision Pro.

Most popular

Klarman Hall Breaks Ground

Harvard Business School’s expansion proceeds, amid debate about capitalism.

Birthing a Legacy

Centennial celebrations for John F. Kennedy in Brookline

Adams House Will Be Renewed after Lowell

Renewal will make Adams wheelchair-accessible and add new social and activity spaces. 

More to explore

Photograph of Winthrop Bell 1910

Winthrop Bell

Brief life of a philosopher and spy: 1884-1965

Illustration of people talking to each other with colorful thought bubbles above their heads

Talking about Talking

Fostering healthy disagreement

Vacationing with a Purpose

New England “summer camps” for adults