Forgotten Stories of the Eugenic Age #5: Creating Super-People
[Forgotten Stories of the Eugenic Age is a blog series exploring the lesser-known ways that eugenics affected and engaged American lives during the first half of the twentieth century.]
"Can science produce a superman?" science writer Waldemar Kaempffert wondered in the New York Times in 1928. "What kind of a superman do we want? And who shall dictate his specifications?"
In the early twentieth century, new genetic discoveries prompted supporters of eugenics to ponder the potential creation and characteristics of a superior human race. Many believed that encouraging the eugenically “fit” to mate and isolating or sterilizing the eugenically “unfit” would yield over time a superior population. They argued that breeding a better race represented the next step in human evolution. After all, careful husbandry had improved crops and livestock. Surely the production of "human thoroughbreds" could not be much different.
With new scientific knowledge and technologies, eugenists believed that they at last had the tools to create improved people. They were particularly interested in developing technologies for assisted reproduction, including the human application of animal husbandry techniques like artificial insemination. Dr. Julian Huxley, grandson of champion of the theory of evolution T. H. Huxley, predicted that such techniques would allow eugenically fit men and women to marry whomever they chose, but—regardless of their partners' fertility—have children with third parties who had been specially selected for their genetic qualities. (Those who might object to this cold calculation were merely exhibiting "outworn sentimentalism," said Huxley.)
Exhibiting similar thinking, Dr. George L. Streeter and Dr. Charles Davenport released a bulletin through the Carnegie Institute of Washington in 1933 discussing the eugenic implications of the quality of gametes. They wrote, "Every poultryman knows that in a setting of eggs not every egg will hatch a perfect chicken. Some eggs do not hatch at all; others produce defectives that soon succumb; from still others come chicks of inferior quality." Both in pigs and in people, as many as 25% of ova are "not good enough to hatch." According to the authors, the identification of gametes that would produce not only viable embryos but superior people could only be a worthwhile endeavor.
To detect superior gametes, scientists would need to examine genes more closely. Kaempffert wrote that marriage and childbearing between eugenically fit people was insufficient to breed a superhuman race. Successful eugenics would require a more "scientific" mode of thinking: Scientists needed to determine how to manipulate the genes that would be passed on to successive generations. "Unless we can control the interaction of the genes it is practically impossible to produce a race of supermen," Kaempffert wrote.
British scientist J. B. S. Haldane stated that with more knowledge about human genes, we could examine a newborn baby and say, for example:
He has got iso-agglutinin B and tyrosinase inhibitor J from his father, so it's twenty to one that he will get the main gene that determined his father's mathematical powers; but he's got Q4 from his mother . . . so it looks as if her father's inability to keep away from alcohol would crop up in him again; you must look out for that.
If we can understand the correspondence between genes and discrete characteristics, eugenists argued, we can largely determine the life trajectory of each human being. With such knowledge, we can facilitate the birth of the best individuals and eventually mold the human race into a finer shape.
Eugenic Health Certificates and Registries
Accordingly, selecting healthy eugenic partners for better raw materials became paramount for building super-people. In order to help fit members of the public find eugenic mates, many eugenists supported physician-issued eugenic health certificates and a eugenics registry office.
Continuing the comparison with livestock, Dr. J. H. Kellogg argued that since pedigree registries existed for horses, cattle, cats, and dogs, why not for people? "If a lady wishes to establish the standing of her pet poodle," he said, "she can do so by appealing to an official record and the puny canine may lift its head above its fellows as a born aristocrat, but nowhere on earth, as far as I know, is there to be found a registry of human thoroughbreds.” In an address before the second National Conference on Race Betterment in 1915, Kellogg argued that the world needed a "real aristocracy made up of Apollos and Venuses and their fortunate progeny." Without a eugenic registry, how could laypeople judge superiority and inferiority? How would we identify the human aristocracy?
The development of the eugenic aristocracy relied on classification schemes. One commenter, a Mr. Field of New Zealand, suggested the grouping of individuals into "three or four grades" based on their family health history. Field mused:
The “a” or top grade certificate given to a thoroughly sound and well developed person would be something worth having; a “b” would be tolerable; a “c” would conjure up visions of doctor's bills and physic for a family of future weaklings; and a “d”—well a “d” would be a pity.
Similarly, W. M. Hays, the Assistant Secretary of Agriculture, in an address before the American Breeders' Association, proposed a numerical classification of all people in the world. These numbers would "join genealogies into one numerical system, so that all relationships would be traced." Each person would be given a number that could be averaged with those of his or her family members to determine the family's quality. Hays acknowledged that this system would "somewhat divide people into classes," but stressed that "the classification would be beneficent, because it would be based on racial efficiency." Eugenists contended that a hierarchy based on "racial efficiency" would certainly possess greater validity than our current materialistic model. The Very Rev. William R. Inge predicted in 1931 that by the year 3000, individuals classified as "A-1" via mandatory mental and physical health examinations "will be as much sought after [for marriage] as wealth and titles are now."
Privacy of Genetic Information
Eugenists sought to assuage concerns about the exposure of personal genetic information, but their assurances may not have satisfied. Mr. Field promised readers that under his proposal, a eugenic examination would be "perfectly private and confidential" and "the person receiving it could then do as he or she thought fit with it." Nonetheless, he added that if a prospective bride or groom refused to present her or his certificate to the other party, the latter should be able to break an engagement without fear of a "breach of promise" reprisal in court. Furthermore, a copy of each person's certificate would be interred in government archives. Field proposed that officials could eventually use these records to determine the ancestry of all individuals committed to institutions.
Charles Davenport, the director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and the Eugenics Record Office, argued that eugenics had been unnecessarily hindered by anxieties over revealing unfavorable family secrets. Davenport claimed that this fear was unwarranted because the careful collection of records would both improve the race and benefit the individual. For example, teachers could be given information on the “family and racial characteristics of each of their pupils" so that they could instruct their students differently. Also, state eugenic boards could "scientifically" regulate marriages and childbearing. If couples who were denied permission to have a child did so anyway, "the penalty shall be sterilization of the male." In spite of eugenists’ insistence that genetic privacy would be maintained—or would not be necessary—their proposals made it clear that exposing individuals’ genetic information was essential for achieving their desired goals.
While some supporters of eugenics stressed that the enhancement of the human race required not merely better breeding but also environmental and educational adjustments, others were skeptical. Men such as Leonard Darwin, son of Charles Darwin, and Henry Fairfield Osborn, the president of the International Eugenics Congress, argued that education and environment could not, in the words of the latter, "offset the handicap of ancestry." Plant specialist Luther Burbank added that environmental improvements could "bring individuals up to their best possibilities" but the practice of eugenic selection was "10,000 times more important and effective." Los Angeles Times science writer Ransome Sutton even wrote in 1933:
Education and environment may enable an honest-minded person to overcome inborn tendencies to a limited extent, but at heart no one can ever be much better than the two sets of chromosomes which come together when individual life begins.
Because many eugenists believed that genes dictated human potentiality and that social problems largely resulted from individual moral failings, the solution to social problems lay in improving genes. Reforming society was a palliative, not a cure.
Despite the common conviction that the United States teetered on the precipice of utter mental and moral depravity, eugenists still believed that America was particularly well positioned to breed the great race of super-people.
Prof. Scott Nearing of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, known in his later life as a left-wing economist, educator, writer, and political activist, was among those who believed that America had the "most potent opportunity the world has ever known . . . for the creation of a race of Supermen and Superwomen"—a contention perhaps incompatible with his other views that pajamas should be accepted evening attire, and that all women are leeches who need men's "sufferance and generosity" to survive. A New York Times article summarized Nearing's view that the United States could best produce a stronger race due to its “national resources, the stock of the dominant races, the possibilities of leisure, the emancipation of women, the abandonment of war, the knowledge of race-making and of social adjustment, and the widespread educational machinery." That half of the population consisted of parasites presumably would not hinder this outcome.
Appearance and Characteristics
Eugenists held varying views about the possible physical appearance and characteristics of super-people, as well as the implications of a super-race for society. Nearly all believed that super-people would be healthier, taller, more muscular, and more physically attractive. Some thought that super-people would have lower child mortality and life spans extending as much as 100 years. Many also expected that super-people would possess greater intelligence and social skills. While some eugenists predicted that a number of geniuses and great leaders would emerge from this superior stock, others thought that the race would experience a more general uplifting, with no increase in the rate of human stand-outs. Due to the prevailing belief that social problems originate from poor heredity, eugenists commonly thought that a superior race would produce social and moral improvements like fewer incidents of crime, violence, "violent eroticism," "extreme indolence," and divorce.
Several eugenists described at length the traits of a super-people and the outcome for a super-society. For example, Scott Nearing argued that the six core traits of a superman would be "physical normality, mental capacity, aggressiveness, concentration, sympathy, and vision." Dr. Ales Hrdlicka, curator of the division of physical anthropology at the National Museum in Washington, had perhaps the most precise projection. He believed that super-people would enjoy larger and more organized brains, greater height, longer legs, shorter arms, deeper-set eyes, thinner skulls, more prominent but narrower noses, smaller mouths, larger chins, smaller and fewer teeth, a tendency toward baldness, unaffected beards, thinner bodies, shorter intestines, narrower hands and feet, and diminishing fifth toes. Even so, man would be more handsome. But he would pay for these developments with greater mental disorders and physical impairments, until eugenics once again righted these defects.
Many eugenists maintained that these "improvements" wouldn't impact all races, classes, and genders equally. Unsurprisingly, their visions of the super-future corresponded to and reinforced the prevalent prejudices of the day. Hrdlicka predicted a "widening of the breach between the more civilized and backward people" and between "the front and the back ranks." He said, "There will always be masters and servants, the pioneers of progress and the drags." French scientist and professor Daniel Berthelot contended that as humans became more "advanced," human skin "evolved" into lighter shades. One day, super-people would have skin so white, it would reflect ultraviolet rays.
Naturally, men more than women would power the super-race. According to Prof. L. Bolk, the director of the Department of Anatomy at the University of Amsterdam, the development of the human skull had gradually slowed down, which had allowed the human brain to form over a longer period of time. Since boys mature more slowly than girls, their brains must develop more slowly, so men must be the superior sex. This trend would continue and intensify in the super-race; it would take men a long time to grow up, but they would be a formidable force when they did.
Even though supermen would, of course, eclipse superwomen, male scholars did not withhold their predictions for future women’s physical appearance. Dr. Richard Root Smith attested that “the imperfect or defective type of woman is . . . very slight, thin-chested, and nervous.” In contrast, superwomen would be “compact in build, deep-chested, with steady nerves and fleshy enough for the anatomical angles to be nicely rounded out.” Dr. A. J. Read, a professor of hygiene, told a race-betterment conference audience:
The ideal woman of the eugenic age will be taller than the average woman of today. She will be plump and well rounded, but not fat. Her complexion will be ruddy or brown, not pale, because the pale skin is a badge of disease rather than health.
Perhaps unusually for an Anglican priest, the Very Rev. William R. Inge predicted that clothes for both sexes would become more “scanty” such that “beauty [could] be recognized in the body and limbs as well as in the face.” It appeared that the perfect women of tomorrow would embody the ideal of the imperfect men of today.
Not everyone who supported eugenics in whole or in part believed that the creation of a super-race was possible or even desirable. Despite J. B. S. Haldane’s tendency toward biological determinism, he rejected the possibility of perfect people because he believed that society relied upon human diversity. In a 1932 interview with the New York Times, Haldane stated that in the ideal community, all people would be able to contribute their unique talents and would be afforded the opportunity to develop and thrive as individuals. Instead of altering people to fit an arbitrary notion of perfection, “the community should be fitted to the people of which it is composed rather than the misfits [fitted] to the community.” That certain people are considered “misfits” in our society, he said, does not mean that they wouldn’t be “happy members” if society were different.
Other individuals grappled with the outcome of achieving eugenic perfection. If we could indeed, through the proper breeding of the correct gametes of the right individuals, create nearly god-like people with greater concentration, thinner skulls, fewer teeth, whiter skin, rounder angles, and diminishing fifth toes, what then? What would happen to society after we had managed to—in the words of Scott Nearing—"model the plastic, living clay of humankind into nobler, finer, more spiritual forms"?
Not all observers were sanguine. Humor magazine Life offered this uncharacteristically serious picture in 1914:
The Eugenists dream of a race of Supermen and Superwomen. Let us dream of them, too. Imagine such a race suddenly created in the United States. Thirty millions of Superpeople—each one having the strength of Jack Johnson, the mental efficiency of Edison, the moral greatness of Lincoln. Meanwhile the economic scheme remains unchanged—a small class of Superpeople owns all the land and machinery, while the other Superpeople compete with each other for jobs. What about the Superpeople who don’t get jobs? Supermen in the breadline, Supermen piling into the Bowery Mission to get out of the wind and rain, Superwomen on the streets selling their bodies for bread, Supermen on the street-corners in the Supercold of a winter evening waiting for some Supermillionaire to give them the price of a night’s lodging. It is a pretty scene, and it provokes reflection.
This Life piece captured the fundamental objection to the attempted creation of genetic super-people: that eugenists were seeking answers to social problems inside human bodies instead of through social reforms. Eugenists believed that perfecting the human genetic code would create a healthier, more intelligent, more moral, and more perfect race of man, which would naturally improve the society in which it lived. However, opponents argued that even if we could collectively conceptualize health, intelligence, morality, and perfection and then operationalize these concepts in our genes, our success in this regard would have little bearing on problems that result from the societies we build, not the cells in our bodies. Moreover, encouraging unequal treatment and opportunity on the basis of a hierarchy that we claim is inscribed in human bodies is not a way to produce a more moral and just society. Creating a better world is more complicated than we hope.
During his interview with the New York Times, Haldane turned to passing scientist Dr. F. E. A. Crew of the Institute of Animal Genetics in Edinburgh and asked him, “What is the perfect man?”
Crew replied, “There isn’t any. Define us a heaven and we will tell you what an angel is.”
1. “Americans of the Future to Be the ‘Super Race.’” San Francisco Chronicle, Mar. 31, 1912.
2. “Brain Power Is Stationary.” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 1, 1915.
3. “Calls Thin Woman an Imperfect Type.” New York Times, Jan. 9, 1914.
4. “Case for Eugenics: Results Achieved Through the Use of Artificial Insemination.” New York Times, May 14, 1944.
5. Darwin, Leonard. “Babes of the Future: Major Leonard Darwin Tells True Purposes of Eugenics.” New York Times, Dec. 21, 1912.
6. “Eugenics As Basis of New Aristocracy.” New York Times, Aug. 8, 1915.
7. “Eugenists Dread Tainted Aliens.” New York Times, Sep. 25, 1921.
8. “Eugenics Is Urged to Lengthen Life.” New York Times, May 15, 1937.
9. “Eugenic Women to Be Tall and Dark.” Sacramento Union, Aug. 6, 1915.
10. “Hope of Better Brains for All.” New York Times, Sep. 27, 1912.
11. Hrdlicka, Ales. “Man’s Future in the Light of His Dim Past.” New York Times, Apr. 28, 1929.
12. “Human Race Improvement: Collecting Data for Plan of Practical Eugenics.” Los Angeles Times, May 12, 1912.
13. “Huxley Sees Life Prolonged in Future.” New York Times, Oct. 29, 1926.
14. Inge, Very Rev. William R. “Eugenics Will Aid Physical Beauty and Clothes Will Be More Sensible.” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 4, 1931.
15. Kaempffert, Waldemar. “The Superman: Eugenics Sifted.” New York Times, May 27, 1928.
16. “Life’s Traits to Aid Eugenics.” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 30, 1914.
17. Laurence, William L. “Huxley Envisages the Eugenic Race.” New York Times, Sep. 6, 1937.
18. Laurence, William L. “Not a ‘Perfect Man’ in Haldane’s Utopia.” New York Times, Aug. 29, 1932.
19. P. H. D., in the Masses. “Eugenics and Economics.” Life, Apr. 2, 1914.
20. “Race of Super-Men.” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 12, 1914.
21. “Says Glands Cause Gloom and Crime.” New York Times, Oct. 2, 1921.
22. “Says Man Will Grow for Ages to Come.” New York Times, Apr. 20, 1929.
23. “Scientists Agree With Dr. Depew That Men Ought to Live to Be 100 By Observing Rules of Health.” Washington Post, Nov. 26, 1916.
24. “Scientists See Eugenics Aid in Doing Away With Crime.” New York Times, Jul. 29, 1923.
25. “Social Problems Have Proven Basis of Heredity.” New York Times, Jan. 12, 1913.
26. “Superman a Being of Nervous Force.” New York Times, Jan. 11, 1914.
27. “Supermen to Be Propagated Artificially, Says Biologist.” Los Angeles Times, Sep. 6, 1937.
28. “The Superrace: A Plea for the Evolution of That Rather Strange Production.” New York Times, Jun. 16, 1912.
29. Sutton, Ransome. “Some Born Great and Others ‘Out of Luck.’” Los Angeles Times, Jun. 25, 1933.
30. “To Breed Fine Race: W. [M]. Hays Would Begin By Classifying All People.” Washington Post, Dec. 30, 1911.
31. “Will Breed Men Like Fine Cattle.” San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 20, 1912.
Previously on Biopolitical Times:
- Forgotten Stories of the Eugenic Age #4, Part 1: The Short Life and Eugenic Death of Baby John Bollinger
- Forgotten Stories of the Eugenic Age #3: Divorce, "Crying Off," and the Perils of Eugenic Perfection
- Forgotten Stories of the Eugenic Age #2: Eugenics, Love, and the Marriage Problem
- Forgotten Stories of the Eugenic Age #1: How “Better Babies” Became “Fitter Families”
Image via Wikimedia Commons