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Genetics, Disability, and Deafness

John Vickrey Van Cleve, Editor

Part One
Science, Culture, and Human Variation

The Science of Human Nature and the Human Nature of Science

Louis Menand

In 1889, the German biologist August Weissmann showed that mice whose tails are cut off do not produce short-tailed offspring. It was a step forward for science, but a step backward for civilization. Weissmann’s discovery was good for science because, contrary to what many scientists had believed, acquired characteristics are not, of course, heritable. Weissmann’s experiment closed the book on the neo-Lamarckianism that many scientists had adopted in order to blunt the edge on Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Darwin had left evolution to chance, and had pretty much ruled out the inevitability, if not the possibility, of progress. “Never use the word[s] higher & lower,” he had once written in a note to himself.1 But if there was something human beings could do to affect the course of evolutionary development, then the story of evolution might be a happy ending after all. If we just kept cutting those nasty-looking tails down, generation after generation, we might eventually get rid of them altogether.

Weissmann’s demonstration was bad for civilization, therefore, for precisely the same reason that it was good for science. If characters are fixed, if the genome is hermetically sealed off from the environment, then biological characteristics must be immutable. We think of Lamarckianism as retrograde, but, in a century in which white Americans and Europeans believed, almost universally, that the human races are ranked hierarchically, from higher to lower, Lamarckianism held out the hope that with dedicated exposure to Christian civilization, the lesser races might someday be raised up. If enlightenment is not heritable, though, if the tails have to be cut off again in every generation, there was no hope.

Soon after Weissmann announced his conclusions, a huge wave of immigration pounded the United States. Between 1901 and 1910, 8.8 million immigrants were admitted to the United States; 70 percent were from Southern and Eastern Europe, principally Catholics and Jews. Between 1911 and 1920, another 5.7 million people came from abroad, 59 percent of them from Southern and Eastern Europe. By 1910, 40 percent of the population of New York City was foreign-born. At a time when nationality was defined racially, and race was conceived hierarchically, there was widespread anxiety that the presence of large numbers of non-Anglo-Saxon peoples would lead to national degeneration. This is why, in the early years of the twentieth century, the doctrine of eugenicism was not limited to rabble-rousers and bigots. Many of the most educated and progressive thinkers of the time were dedicated eugenicists: Theodore Roosevelt; Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.; the sociologist Edward A. Ross; the political scientist Harold Laski; David Starr Jordan, the president of Stanford; Charles William Eliot, the president of Harvard; and even the Marxist revolutionary Emma Goldman.

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