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    "When many cures are offered for a disease, it means the disease is not curable" -Anton Chekhov

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    Sunday, October 28, 2007

    Eugenics Past and Present: I've been reading an essay from 1907 by David Starr Jordan, a great mind of his time - scientist, peace activist, president of Standford, and eugenicist. The essay is the The Human Harvest, an anti-war argument grounded in eugenics. From a eugenics perspective, wars are bad because they kill the best men, leaving behind the weakest to perpetuate the race- and weaken the human harvest. Even in the service of a profound good the the callousness and cruelty of eugenics:

    Startling results may follow from the selective breeding and preservation of paupers. In the valley of Aosta in northern Italy, and in other Alpine regions, is found the form of idiocy known as cretinism. What is the primitive cause of the cretin, and what is the causal connection of cretinism with goiter, a disease of the thyroid glands which always accompanies it, I do not know.

    It suffices for our purpose to notice that the severe military selection which ruled in Switzerland, Savoy, and Lombardy for many generations took the strongest and healthiest peasants to the wars, and left the idiot and goitrous to carry on the affairs of life at home. To bear a goiter was to be exempt from military service. Thusin some regions the disease has been a local badge of honor. It is said that when iodine lozenges were given to the children of Savoy in the hope of preventing the enlargement and degeneration of the thyroid gland, mother would take this remedy away from the boys, preferring the goiter to military service.

    In the city of Aosta the goitrous cretin has been for centuries an object of charity. There is a special hospice or asylum devoted to his care and propagation. The idiot has received generous support, while the poor farmer or laborer with brains and no goiter has had the severest of struggles. In the competition of life a premium has thus been placed on imbecility and disease. The cretin has mated with the cretin, the goiter with the goiter, and charity and religion have presided over the union. The result is that idiocy is multiplied and intensified. The cretin of Aosta has been developed as a new type of man. In fair weather the roads about the city a re lined with these awful paupers - human beings with less intelligence than the goose, with less decency than the pig.

    No acknowledgment that those cretins might have even a glimmer of a soul. The disabled are genetically impure. Eugenics caught up with the goitrous of Aosta. They were forbidden to marry and ceased to be a pollute the public streets. They also became a celebrated example of the power of eugenics to improve the human harvest public health. Many an American eugenicist cited the success of Aosta in ridding itself of goitrous cretins when advocating state eugenic boards.

    David Jordan Starr must have been horrified by World War I and it's toll on the best and brightest. he died in 1931, before the supreme triumph of eugenics in Europe. No doubt, he would have argued that eugenics was misused in Europe precisely because the best men had all perished on the battlefields of World War I. But the problem with eugenics is its denial of the humanity of those it deems unworthy - whether they be cretins or those with seizure disorders (they were sterlized, too, under the compulsory sterilization laws) or Jews.

    Science (and society) has pretty much given up on the old fashioned eugenics that relied on controlling reproduction the same way one would in plants or livestock. But we still flirt with eugenics using modern methods of RichardDawkins.net>genetic selection. It might not seem like eugenics because it isn't imposed by the state, but it is. It may be framed as a personal choice, but the end result is the same - to cull those deemed inferior or undesirable. Today prospective parents can prevent a Down's syndrome child from being born, or a child with cystic fibrosis. Tomorrow they may be able to de-select the hyperactive child or the child prone to depression. It seems like such a positive thing when framed as a personal choice that improves the life of a family, but is it good to kill off certain traits? Don't we diminish biological diversity when we do that?

    posted by Sydney on 10/28/2007 08:32:00 AM 1 comments


    You know, Moses had an alternate solution: newlyweds with no children were exempt from military service for at least 1 year.

    By Blogger Kyle, at 9:19 AM  

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