Monday, September 1, 2003


Unnatural Selection

American scientists played a key role in the shameful history of eugenics

By Carl Zimmer

War Against the Weak
Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race
Edwin Black, Four Walls Eight Windows, $26

James Watson, the codiscoverer of DNA's double helix, thinks the world would be a better place if there were fewer stupid people. "If you really are stupid, I would call that a disease," Watson said on the documentary DNA, which aired in Britain in March. "The lower 10 percent who really have difficulty, even in elementary school, what's the cause of it? A lot of people would like to say, 'Well, poverty, things like that.' It probably isn't. So I'd like to get rid of that, to help the lower 10 percent." His solution: engineering the genes that influence intelligence in order to eliminate stupidity in future generations. It would be foolish for parents not to use this technology, he added, because genetically enhanced children "are going to be the ones who dominate the world."

Watson, whose own son has a learning disability, may have had the best of intentions when he uttered these words. Yet they carry sinister echoes of one of the most shameful chapters in the history of science. Ironically, that chapter unfolded at the very institute that Watson now heads: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. Now a world-renowned genetics institute, it was from 1904 to 1939 the home of the Eugenics Record Office, the headquarters for a national movement to improve the human race through selective breeding. The Cold Spring eugenicists believed that the unfit had to be prevented from passing on their defective genes for blindness, criminality, insanity, and—of course—stupidity. Time and again, they spoke of sterilizing the "submerged tenth"—the most unfit 10 percent of the population.

Echoes of this crusade reverberate not just in Watson's remarks but throughout the current debate on human genetic engineering. Unless you know the history of eugenics, though, the true significance of this is lost. A fascinating—if flawed—guide to that history is Edwin Black's book War Against the Weak. In it Black traces the roots of eugenics back to the 19th century, when British scientist Francis Galton and fellow eugenicists latched onto the newly emerging science of genetics as a key to improving the human race through better breeding. In time, these ideas gave rise to American laws that empowered doctors to sterilize people they judged to be unfit to pass on their genes. As a result, Black estimates, some 60,000 people were sterilized in the United States over the course of the 20th century.

Perhaps most chilling, though, were the ways in which American eugenicists influenced their German counterparts. "I have studied with great interest the laws of several American states concerning the prevention of reproduction by people whose progeny would, in all probability, be of no value or be injurious to the racial stock," Adolf Hitler told a Nazi confidant. The Rockefeller Foundation and other philanthropic institutions in the United States funded the research of American-trained German eugenicists even after the Nazi Party had made its genocidal intentions clear. That research played a major role in the subsequent mass murder of millions of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally disabled, and others deemed a threat to the purity of the so-called Aryan race.

War on the Weak is filled with tale after tale of arrogance, ignorance, and cruelty—accounts that Black wisely allows the eugenicists to relate in their own words. For example, Harry Haiselden, the chief of staff at German-American Hospital in Chicago, boasted of letting sickly babies die, proclaiming, "Death is the great and lasting disinfectant." Nor were these eugenicists fringe fanatics. They were embraced by universities, funded by major foundations, and given legal sanction by Congress and the Supreme Court.

When it comes to figuring out what all these wretched details add up to, however, Black falters. In lurid terms, he tries to paint the history of eugenics as an all-powerful conspiracy worthy of its own episode of The X-Files. He seems to suggest that were it not for American eugenicists, German plans for a Final Solution would never have been conceived. "Within these pages," Black promises, "you will discover the sad truth of how the scientific rationales that drove killer doctors at Auschwitz were first concocted . . . at Cold Spring Harbor." Certainly, American eugenicists gave the Nazis training and funding. But Germany had its own tradition of pseudoscientific racism reaching back well into the 19th century.

The Holocaust did brand eugenics with the bad name it so richly deserves. Yet, as James Watson's statements on stupidity suggest, the spirit of eugenics still smolders—despite the fact that, as an effort at genetic manipulation, the eugenics movement was a complete failure. It's likely that any such future attempts are doomed to fail too. Hundreds or thousands of genes play a role in intelligence, each with a tiny role in a giant cooperative venture. Not only would it be enormously difficult to manipulate so many genes in a single person, but scientists would still have to reckon with the even more complicated matter of how the environment influences those genes. Today's dreams of a master race, it seems, are as empty as they were a century ago.


The Ambient Orb $150

Photograph by Jens Mortensen.

The grapefruit-size, frosted-glass orb sits quietly on a desk, calling out to be caressed. Passersby invariably stop to touch it. They also ask why its light glows citrus green and flashes intermittently. The reason: The temperature outside has been hovering in the sixties, and it is one of the rainiest seasons on record in New York City. The orb's color, which changes with the weather, ranges from ice-cold blue to temperate green to fiery-hot red. The flashing signifies precipitation.

Beaming in the weather forecast is just one of many tasks the Ambient Orb can perform. Designed to distill a complex influx of information into an easily observable form, the softly shining ovoid can also track the stock market, local pollen levels, traffic jams, and, if specifically programmed, your grandma's glucose or a favorite baseball player's batting average. Computers at Ambient Devices, the parent company, monitor a wide variety of data, crunching each down into a linear scale that reflects up-to-the-minute changes and is wirelessly transmitted to individual orbs. Each orb user can register a preference for a particular data set through the company Web site.

David Rose, the CEO of Ambient Devices, says that the Orb is aimed at those overwhelmed by a constant barrage of information. Instead of compulsively checking the Dow-Jones average, say, Orb users can be soothed by a steady but dynamic signal that can be absorbed with an occasional glance. The light glows red if the Dow has fallen, green if it has gone up, and it flashes if it crosses a threshold. One fan of the market-tracking function is Stephen Petranek, Discover's editor in chief, who borrowed the Orb one day to test it. Now he won't give it back.

— William Jacobs


Birthday of the Earth

A Scotsman saw rocks as clues to the planet's age 
By Polly Shulman


The Man Who Found Time
James Hutton and the Discovery of Earth's Antiquity
Jack Repcheck, Perseus, $26

In days of old—before scientists realized that radioactive decay could act as a gauge to Earth's age—scholars consulted the scriptures for clues to Earth's antiquity. By adding together the life spans of the Biblical patriarchs, they pegged the planet's age at just under 6,000 years—a figure that stood virtually unchallenged until an 18th-century Scotsman named James Hutton began using deductive scientific logic to analyze the natural history of rocks. Largely forgotten for two centuries, Hutton has now been restored to his rightful place in science history by Jack Repcheck in this slim biography, The Man Who Found Time.

Before Hutton, mineralogists had speculated that a "universal ocean," akin to Noah's flood, once covered the entire planet. As the ocean evaporated or sank beneath the land, they said, it left behind layers of sediment that made up all the rocks and mountains seen today. Hutton, an iconoclast stirred to scientific inquiry by the Scottish Enlightenment, argued instead that many of the rock formations he saw around him could not have formed from gently precipitating ocean sediment. Rather, pressure and heat from inside Earth solidified the sediments into rocks, while fresh land formed when volcanism brought new rock components to Earth's surface.

To bolster his arguments, Hutton pointed to a series of gray schistus columns covered in red sandstone on the Scottish coast. He claimed that intense subterranean heat had forced the formerly horizontal gray stone strata to fold into a vertical formation, while new sediments had settled upon them from the sea above. Because sediments tend to settle on the ocean bottom at a modest rate—about an inch a year—it must have taken hundreds of thousands of years for them to build up. As he noted in two lectures delivered to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1785, Earth was immeasurably old—so old that he refused to name a number.

Hutton's logic impressed some Enlightenment thinkers, but others labeled him a blasphemer. It didn't help that his two-volume work, The Theory of the Earth, was written in prose so impenetrable that hardly anyone read it. One who did was geologist Charles Lyell, who summarized Hutton's ideas in a book that Charles Darwin carried on his 1831 voyage on the Beagle. Repcheck argues that it was Hutton's insight that Earth was incalculably old that helped Darwin devise his theory of evolution. And that is why he deserves this long-denied accolade.


American Cockroach
Sept. 5-Oct. 18
Grand Arts,
Kansas City, Mo.

Unleash your inner road hog with the Blurzz rocket racer.
Photograph Catherine Chalmers, courtesy of Rare Gallery.

The cockroach has been cohabiting with people from time immemorial: It migrated to America on African slave ships and is found in every human habitat—even sneaking onto the Apollo 12 spacecraft. Yet our familiarity with the omnivorous insect has bred contempt, an attitude that artist Catherine Chalmers explores in American Cockroach, her multimedia show. In one video, Burning at the Stake, a cockroach struggles in seeming terror as flames lick at its writhing limbs. In Squish, the bugs dart elegantly across the screen to the sound of beating drums. Paradoxically, the artworks—including a six-foot resin roach that hangs by a noose from the ceiling and a collage of tumbling cockroach wings, delicately veined as those of butterflies—stir up sympathy and even admiration for the ubiquitous insect. The roaches, which were not harmed during the creation of the art, also inspire awkward questions. Why, for example, are we so willing to inflict pain on a creature that predates our earliest primate ancestors by 300 million years? What would it be like to sense the world through slender antennae? And, yes, do roaches deserve more respect?

— Josie Glausiusz


Science Best-sellers

1. A Short History of Nearly Everything
By Bill Bryson,
2. Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883
By Simon Winchester,
3. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
By Mary Roach,
W. W. Norton
4. Isaac Newton
By James Gleick,
Pantheon Books
5. The Universe: 365 Days
By Robert J. Nemiroff and Jerry T. Bonnell,
Harry N. Abrams
6. The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic
By Gay Salisbury and Laney Salisbury,
W. W. Norton
7. DNA: The Secret of Life
By James D. Watson with Andrew Berry,
8. Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human
By Matt Ridley,
9. Feynman's Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life
By Leonard Mlodinow,
Warner Books
10. Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics
By John Derbyshire,
Joseph Henry Press
Exclusive to Discover from Barnes & Noble Booksellers


We also like... Books

The Primal Teen: What the New Discoveries About the Teenage Brain Tell Us About Our Kids
Barbara Strauch,
Doubleday, $24.95

Why do teenagers get so moody, sleep till noon, and engage in stunts like reckless driving and drug taking? Strauch, science editor for The New York Times, examines new research that reveals that the brain does not fully develop until past age 20 and that the frontal cortex, which regulates impulsive behavior, actually shrinks in volume during adolescence.

Our Own Devices: The Past and Future of Body Technology
Edward Tenner,
Knopf, $26

Tenner, a former editor at Princeton University Press, argues that everyday technologies have both benefited humanity and transformed it. For example, the reclining chair, once owned only by aristocrats, had evolved by the 1960s into an American staple—in the process breeding countless couch potatoes. By contrast, the invention of sneakers not only increased the popularity of exercise but also the global use and abuse of sweatshop labor.
Maia Weinstock


Books: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory eugenics archive:

Art: Read more at articles/chalmers-NYTIMES.htm.
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