Saturday, February 2, 2008

Won't Get Fooled Again

I just finished reading Eugenics and the Nature-Nurture debate in the twentieth century, by Aaron Gillette, published last year by Palgrave Macmillan. Gillette, an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Houston-Downtown, has another book awaiting publication, on “the development of a ‘Latin’ variety of eugenics in the early 20th century. Latin eugenics was ultimately used as a tool by Fascist Italy in an attempt to dominate the scientific life of Latin America and other Latin countries.” Ooookay.

The best I can say for Eugenics and the Nature-Nurture debate in the twentieth century is that it’s frustrating. Like many scholars, Gillette gives good research: he’s dug into the archives of twentieth-century biology and eugenics, and has unearthed some interesting material, especially on eugenics in Fascist Italy. (Historians usually focus on the US, Britain, and Germany for this topic.) I’m no expert, but I’ve read a fair amount in this area, and I’m not sure how much light he really casts on the usual US/UK suspects; Daniel Kevles’s In the name of eugenics, for example, a careful and thoughtful study of the same era, isn’t even mentioned in his bibliography. What seems to be Gillette’s main argument, that 19th and early 20th century biologists did important work in what would now be called “evolutionary psychology”, doesn’t feel like news to me.

But research is only half of the work of scholarship, and like many scholars, Gillette stumbles when he interprets his data. This produces some bloopers from the beginning of the book, which largely set its tone. He begins by telling how,

On February 15, 1978, Edward O. Wilson sat on the stage of an auditorium, waiting to address an audience. Suddenly, a young woman leapt onto the stage, grasped a pitcher of ice water, and poured it onto Wilson’s head. Others ran onto the stage and waved anti-Wilson placards, chanting, “Wilson, you’re all wet!”

Several weeks before, two of Wilson’s colleagues, Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould, wrote an attack against him in the New York Review of Books. They claimed that Wilson was an ally of eugenicists, and his theory was a dangerous pseudoscience associated with “the enactment of sterilization laws and restrictive immigration laws by the United States between 1910 and 1930 and also for the eugenics policies which led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany.”

It’s not clear who is being quoted here. Gillette gives no citation for Lewontin and Gould’s “attack”; an endnote cites John Alcock, The Triumph of Sociobiology (Oxford, 2003), p. 3, and Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate (Viking, 2002), p. 109. But he seems to be quoting from a letter published in the New York Review of Books on 13 November 1975 – three years earlier than the date he assigns to it – “prepared by a group of university faculty and scientists, high school teachers, doctors, and students who work in the Boston area” and signed by Gould and Lewontin along with many others. Sloppy, Aaron, sloppy.

I can’t see where the letter calls Wilson “an ally of eugenicists.” It does say at the outset that not Wilson’s but earlier biological-determinist theories “provided an important basis for the enactment of sterilization laws and restrictive immigration laws by the United States between 1910 and 1930 and also for the eugenics policies which led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany.” I suspect that Gillette drew on partial quotations from this letter in Alcorn and Pinker without reading the whole text, which took me about five minutes to find on the web.

More damaging to Gillette’s account, the bulk of the letter criticizes the substance of Wilson’s theory, a critique that would be extended and developed in years to come. It also undermines Gillette’s main thesis, that the non-eugenic work of early 20th-century biologists had been suppressed for ideological reasons and forgotten: the writers of the letter note the existence of that work, and comment that “Each time these ideas have resurfaced the claim has been made that they were based on new scientific information. Yet each time, even though strong scientific arguments have been presented to show the absurdity of these theories, they have not died.” The amnesia was actually to be found among the sociobiologists, and later evolutionary psychologists, who thought, or claimed for PR reasons, that they were offering new insights into human nature. (Among those PR reasons would have been the wish to dissociate themselves from the discreditable racism of their predecessors.)

Gillette undermines his own case by using the term “evolutionary psychology” anachronistically for all biological-determinist science from Darwin’s day to the present; the idea is presumably to stress the continuity of Wilson and Pinker with Robert Yerkes, Madison Grant, Julian Huxley, and other eugenicists – but that continuity is exactly what, for PR reasons, contemporary evolutionary psychologists want to deny. (I’m reminded of the way that Intelligent Design’s proponents hope that label will distance them from “Scientific Creationism”, also for PR reasons.)

Another important point from the letter (my italics, by the way):

We are not denying that there are genetic components to human behavior. But we suspect that human biological universals are to be discovered more in the generalities of eating, excreting and sleeping than in such specific and highly variable habits as warfare, sexual exploitation of women and the use of money as a medium of exchange.

This is important because one standard riposte to criticism of biological determinism is the claim that the critic believes that human beings are a “blank slate,” or as Gillette puts it, “that human behavior is almost entirely molded by environment and culture, rather than instinct or heredity” (171 note 4). Attempting to settle the question by labeling, Gillette lumps together all critics of biological determinism under the rubric of “behavioral environmentalism.” This is disingenuous, to put it gently, since among those critics are people like Noam Chomsky, who believes that language is innate and is famous for his attacks on B. F. Skinner’s behaviorism; geneticists like Richard Lewontin and Ruth Hubbard, and other biologists. Those interested might look at Alas, Poor Darwin, edited by Steven Rose and Hilary Rose (Harmony Books, 2000) which covers most of the issues Gillette believes to be settled.

The other standard move is to associate criticism of biological determinism with “the Left.” (For example, the Publishers Weekly review of Alcock’s The Triumph of Sociobiology identifies the field’s critics as “many feminist and socialist thinkers” who embrace “the competing blank-slate ‘culture is all’ theory.) If true, this only implies that leftists have better sense than rightists. But its purpose is to avoid addressing the substantive criticisms of the critics by attacking their ideology – exactly what Gillette, Pinker, and so many others accuse the critics of doing. One suspects projection.

Gillette also relies on overwrought rhetoric to present his eugenicists and sociobiologists as pitiful victims (or “casualties”) of behaviorist ideologues. Early on he tells of a hapless fellow named Craig Stanford, who,

while attending a seminar on primate societies, made the mistake of claiming that chimpanzee communities had cultures. The infuriated cultural anthropologists attending the seminar “fairly leaped across the seminar table” to verbally garrotte Stanford.

“Verbally garrotte”? Gillette continues through the book with terms like “the battle”, “the melee”, the “conflagration”; well, at least he didn’t use “Holocaust.” But only the biological determinists are haloed with such terminology. When he discusses Franz Boas, the influential anthropologist who opposed and criticized biological determinism in the first half of the 20th century, Gillette clucks disapprovingly over Boas’s adversary, the eugenicist Madison Grant:

Grant would tell anyone willing to listen how much he loathed Boas[, who] “naturally does not take stock in any anthropology which relegates him and his race to the inferior position that they have occupied throughout recorded history."

Sound familiar? See the pattern? When Boas publicly criticized government censorship during World War I,

Boas’s enemies were delighted. They maneuvered the American Anthropology Association into censoring [sic] him, in 1919, for his “anti-American statements.”

But Gillette never uses his rhetoric of violence to describe the attacks on Boas, nor does he see it as ideological suppression of dissent that, though “Boas’s troops may have been gaining control over the American Anthropology Association, the hereditarians gained control over that most critical resource of modern science: money.”

More serious, Gillette minimizes the connection of American eugenics with Nazi “race science,” which is difficult to do since as he admits, the major American eugenicists endorsed Hitler’s eugenic programs. For example, he quotes Paul Popenoe, who wrote:

Not even Hitler proposes to sterilize anyone on the ground of racial origin. My impression is that the Germans are much more anxious to weed out the undesirable elements among the non-Aryan groups. The law that has been adopted is not a half-baked and hasty improvisation of the Hitler regime, but is the product of many years of consideration by the best specialists in Germany. I must say that my impression is, from a careful following of the situation in the German scientific press, rather favorable.

Gillette comments:

Hitler’s policies and the lukewarm support he received from some American eugenicists doomed eugenics in the United States.

To which I can only say: Jesus H. Christ – you call that “lukewarm”?

Gillette mentions just once, in passing, the American sterilization laws that influenced and inspired the Nazi programs, and which continued to be implemented through the 1970s: the Italian eugenicist “Corrado Gini also rejected the practice of American sterilization in a response to Davenport’s presidential address” at the Third International Congress of Eugenics in 1932, but Gillette never draws the connecting lines. That has to be deliberate, and it doesn’t speak well for him. (And really, why did John Alcock choose a title like The Triumph of Sociobiology? It calls up such unfortunate associations.)

Nor does his claim that

Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology have absolutely no interest in creating ideological movements or becoming involved in politics. With a few notable exceptions, they even eschew making policy recommendations to improve society. Such is the beneficial result of the reaction against eugenics and racism.

Well, maybe this is true if you overlook the ballyhooed tract The Bell Curve by Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein, which said and did exactly what Gillette claims isn’t being done or said, and which got a lot of favorable media attention even before its publication in 1994. (It also got a lot of fierce criticism, from the usual “feminist and socialist thinkers.”) But maybe it’s one of Gillette’s “few notable exceptions.” The Bell Curve was another example of the pattern described by Wilson’s critics in 1975, where the same old claims are recycled periodically as new and exciting science.

Gillette’s repeated claims that evolutionary psychology today has nothing to do with eugenics don’t convince me. The eugenicists he exhumes would surely have rejected his thesis, and reasonably so. They insisted that the behavior determined by biology included things like criminality, poverty, and other kinds of deviance, and that such defects should be extirpated from society by eugenic measures, including sterilization of the carriers, whether voluntary or involuntary. Today’s biological determinists prudently refrain from making such recommendations, at least most of the time; they may, like Herrnstein and Murray, just shake their heads in sorrow and ask rhetorically, “What Is To Be Done?” This division of labor shouldn’t fool anyone who doesn’t want to be fooled. Evidently Aaron Gillette does want to be fooled.