Opponents were mostly the unWoke—Catholics, anti-Darwinists, and such.
Reader Terry Scambray has kindly submitted his review of a history of the eugenics movement, earlier published at New Oxford Review:
A review of The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law that Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants Out of America, by Daniel Okrent (Scribner, 2019. 402 pp.)
Daniel Okrent has marshalled a compendium of damning statements and information which demonstrates the ignominy of the eugenics movement and how its advocates desperately sought to limit immigration to the United States. Though this tale is not new, Okrent’s telling of it is clear, well organized and full of the smaller stories and details that enrich a narrative.
Francis Galton began the eugenics movement, the stimulus for which came from his cousin, Charles Darwin. As Okrent writes, “without Darwin’s influence, Galton would likely never have begun his explorations into the nature of heredity.” Darwin had supposedly demonstrated how nature made itself by the process of natural selection. Better known as “the survival of the fittest,” natural selection was thought to be the engine of evolutionary progress, relentlessly forcing nature to better itself by killing the unfit while preserving the best and the brightest.
This simple material process, however, had the profound consequence of making a Creator superfluous. Thus, as Okrent writes, “Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was revolutionary.” It showed “a universe liberated from the intangible and unverifiable homilies of religion, supposition, and superstition. If the development of the species was not guided by a divine hand, Galton reasoned, then neither were the minds of men.” Supported by a bevy of assorted “facts” which made his efforts appear scientific, Galton advocated what amounted to the selective breeding of humans with woke people like himself doing the selecting.
Okrent tells the consequential and disturbing story of how eugenicists with their impressive scientific credentials insisted that immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, especially, were inferior breeds who threatened to pollute the gene pool of Americans. Eugenics had found favor in Europe and from there it quickly spread to the United States where a broad swath of influential individuals enthusiastically got on board. Boston Brahmins like the Lodges, Cabots and the Adams’ united with labor leader, Samuel Gompers, and along with eminent scientists like Charles Davenport and popular figures like Theodore Roosevelt, Helen Keller and liberal theologians like Henry Fosdick were all proponents of restricting American citizenship to northern Europeans.
However, prominent individuals from America’s aristocracy like Charles Eliot, president of Harvard, favored immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe as did businesses who wanted cheap labor and likewise steamship companies who profited from having immigrants occupy what might otherwise be empty space in steerage in their trans-Atlantic voyages.
Literacy tests for immigrants were another plank in this guarded gate which attempted to limit immigration as well as to show the inferiority of undesirable newcomers to America. Enough opposition existed to such tests, however, so that they became a political football with Congress equivocating on the issue. President Grover Cleveland, decidedly, opposed such tests.
When it became known that Hitler and his cadres justified the Holocaust with rationales drawn from eugenics, the ardor for it cooled in the 1930’s; then outright repugnance for such ideas set in after 1945 when the horror of the Nazi death camps was revealed, shattering any lingering belief that eugenics was a shortcut to utopia.
Okrent shows how the renowned anthropologist Franz Boaz opposed the eugenics movement because he believed that environment shaped humans as opposed to their inherited, ethnic characteristics. But Boas, as a materialist, saw humans as merely one among the myriad organisms in nature just as Darwin did. For example, Boas arranged for six Alaskans to be brought to America where people could pay twenty-five cents apiece to see them on display.
When four of the Alaskans died, “Boas had the flesh stripped from their bones, which became part of the collection” at the American Museum of Natural History.
However, The Guarded Gate has some glaring omissions which devalue it as worthy history. For one thing, it fails to mention the evangelical Christians who were articulate opponents of Darwin and early on saw the calamitous destination that the eugenics’ express was headed toward. Also barely mentioned is William Jennings Bryan who was also a conspicuous critic of eugenics because he saw that Darwin’s leveling of man began the reductionism that would lead to the Final Solution. Likewise the Catholic Church was the most prominent institutional critic of eugenics as was its celebrated convert, G.K. Chesterton, its most notable individual critic.
Nonetheless, despite the opposition to immigration, between 1880 and 1924 more than 20 million immigrants arrived in America, including four and a half million Italians and two million Jews. America’s population was 50 million in 1880 and rose to around 106 million by 1920 making immigrants a substantial part of the population even subtracting those immigrants who returned to Europe which may have been a substantial number, accurate statistics on this being hard to come by. And even at that, a minuscule number were denied entry for health reasons. So the guarded gate was not as imposing it sounds.
Unfortunately Okrent also equates those who presently want America’s border laws enforced with the racists and eugenicists he chronicles. That he would offer such a false and slanderous equivalency further impairs his book.
Okrent’s biggest omission, though, is his failure to recognize that eugenics was a foreshadowing of the top down, junk science, profiteering initiatives which granted experts power, the dream of progressives from their beginning in the 19th century. And this dream has not died despite the nightmare of eugenics and the Final Solution.
Consider the top down programs which continue to poison our landscape: “sex education programs,” given the original impetus by sex-o-crat, Alfred Kinsey, the charlatan pervert; infanticide and euthanasia endorsed by governors and by intellectuals like Peter Singer, professor of Bioethics at Princeton; the continuing presence of Planned Parenthood clinics in mostly black neighborhoods, a chilling reminder of the racism inherent in the selective breeding of the eugenics program, the callousness of which is revealed by the Project Veritas videos showing Planned Parenthood officials cutting deals over the sale of baby parts.
So also with the many social programs concocted to alleviate poverty but which destroyed, for example, black families and increased poverty by making fathers redundant; the global cooling hoax along with the mass starvation hoax of the 1970’s led by Stanford’s Paul Ehrlich; trade agreements which promised to make China fair and transparent in her trading policies and her treatment of her own people! And, of course, the latest and most egregious is the global warming/ climate change cult that threatens to destroy civilization if one is to take seriously the proposals of progressives.
The Guarded Gate, then, is a parable of “scientism,” the misapplication of science into areas of human behavior that it is not equipped to deal with. So in seeking to indict America for embracing eugenics, Okrent ignores the fact that the movement was driven by a tiny minority, intellectuals, as usual, duped by this bastardization of science into trying to perfect society by ridding it of “Gregor Mendel’s recessive genes.”
Certainly it is understandable that the many material improvements in the 19th century gave people hope that such progress could be applied to solving humanity’s various conundrums. And, certainly, material improvements are often necessary to resolve such problems. But they are not sufficient to do so. Expertise has its place, but experience demonstrates that when the sublime Judaic-Christian doctrine that each individual is made in the image of God is ignored, then scientism and cults like eugenics flourish. Though progressives may see this doctrine as anachronistic, if not laughable, they would not chose to live where it is ignored.
Perhaps the best summary of the tumultuous history of immigration to America was simply and eloquently put by the late Joseph Sobran who, not incidentally, was a Catholic:
At times American Protestants were suspicious of immigrants, and though their suspicions have become notorious, they were not without reason. At any rate, the suspicions were quickly abandoned, and the immigrants were welcomed as fellow Americans. Today the immigrants are glorified and the natives disparaged, as if the immigrants were the originators, rather than the beneficiaries, of tolerance.