'The Guarded Gate' Review: Elites and Their Eugenics Projects

'The Guarded Gate' Review: Elites and Their Eugenics Projects

Jack B. Nimble
Jack B. Nimble
14 min read

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, 496 pages (May, 2019).

….our people refuse to apply to human beings such elementary knowledge as every successful farmer is obliged to apply to his own stock breeding. Any group of farmers who permitted their best stock not to breed, and let all the increase come from the worst stock, would be treated as fit inmates for an asylum. Yet we fail to understand that such conduct is rational compared to the conduct of a nation which permits unlimited breeding from the worst stocks, physically and morally…

T. Roosevelt to C. B. Davenport, January 3, 1913

How are we to understand the widespread enthusiasm for eugenics in the U.S. a century ago? Some scholars like Nicholas Pastore have argued that hereditarianism in general and support for eugenics in particular is more commonly found on the political right, whereas others like John Tierney argue that eugenics is another example of social engineering by the political left. The literature on eugenics is vast; a bibliography with primary sources from 1924 by UC Berkeley professor of zoology Samuel J. Holmes runs to 514 pages, and a newer online eugenics bibliography by Georgia State University law professor Paul A. Lombard runs to 20 pages. Now comes Daniel Okrent—himself the descendant of Polish shtetl Jews who immigrated to the U.S. before the 1924 law took effect—with his own account of eugenics in America. Okrent, a former editor at The New York Times, Time, and Life Magazine, is the author of several other books of popular history, including Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center and Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (an American Historical Association award winner). Okrent brings a journalist’s eye to the topic of eugenics in America, filling his book with striking quotes and anecdotes and detailing the backgrounds of some of the key figures.

What’s in a name?

Most people would probably translate the word “eugenics” as “good genes,” although, as coined by pioneering 19th Century British eugenicist Francis Galton, the word eugenic originally meant “of good birth” or “of good stock.” Galton popularized the term almost two decades before the rediscovery in 1900 of Mendel’s genetic research. The idea of good stock versus bad stock, borrowed from animal and plant breeding, is the key to understanding eugenic science and its popular appeal. Eugenics is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the practice or advocacy of controlled selective breeding of human populations.” As we will see below, eugenics is a bastardized version of Mendelian genetics and evolutionary biology applied to humans.

The early 20th Century saw many popular movements—some misguided—that claimed to be improving society. In the U.S. there was—in addition to eugenics—Prohibition, the conservation movement, the women’s rights movement, the early civil rights movement, the birth control movement and other projects created by “do-gooders” and reformers. Although it may seem incredible to modern readers, many of these do-gooders were enthusiastic proponents of eugenics. We have to let go of the notion that only stone-faced Nazis and their sympathizers were serious about eugenics in the 1920s and 1930s. With a few exceptions (like Harry H. Laughlin, whose proposed eugenic sterilization laws were a model for Nazi Germany and who received an honorary degree from a German university in 1936 for his work on behalf of the “science of racial cleansing”—see pages 370-71 of Okrent), most American proponents of eugenics were patriotic and public-spirited citizens like Theodore Roosevelt—which is not particularly reassuring.

Image designed by Harry H. Laughlin for the Second International Eugenics Congress, September 25–27, 1921, AMNH.

What, if anything, sets eugenics apart from other coercive social projects like Prohibition in the early 20th Century? The answer is that eugenics was unique among those popular movements because support for it was bi-partisan and nearly-unanimous in American society as a whole—it was mostly treated as obviously beneficial and not a hot-button topic.

Is there anything new to say about eugenics?

Okrent’s book reminds us that the history of American eugenics is more complicated than is commonly thought—it wasn’t just good guys versus bad guys. As noted above, many eugenicist scientists and their helpers were otherwise commendable people interested in societal or cultural improvement and reform. Immigration restriction united Democrats and Republicans in Congress after WWI—the restrictive Johnson-Reed (Immigration) Act of 1924 passed almost unanimously in the House and the Senate and was signed by President Calvin Coolidge (R). Persons as different as eccentric sexologist Henry Havelock Ellis and liberal Baptist pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick were anti-immigration and/or pro-eugenics. Coercive eugenic sterilization was approved by a nearly unanimous (8-1) Supreme Court in the case of Buck vs. Bell in 1927. The eugenics movement brought together elite academics like geneticists, sociologists, biostatisticians and psychologists, plus the occasional animal or plant breeder, inventor, entrepreneur and philanthropist. As Okrent says (p.172), “The eugenics bandwagon had room for everybody.”

There were some prominent persons and organizations who were supportive of immigration and critical of eugenics in the early 20th Century: the Catholic Church and many wealthy (mostly German) Jews. Prominent scientists who were anti-eugenics and/or pro-immigration included the anthropologist Franz Boas and the geneticist T. H. Morgan; critics also included politicians like President Grover Cleveland and longtime Republican House Speaker Joe Cannon, and pundits like Walter Lippmann.

On the other side of the ledger, Okrent assembles a mind-numbing list of early 20th Century figures, many still household names, who were pro-eugenics and/or anti-immigration. As Okrent points out, eugenics and immigration restriction were two sides of the same coin. Examples of the commingling of these two issues occur throughout his book, such as this quote from Robert DeCourcy Ward, Harvard professor and co-founder of the Immigration Restriction League:

We in the United States have a very special interest in national eugenics, for we are here forming a new race of an extraordinarily heterogeneous character, and we have a remarkably favorable opportunity for practising eugenic principles in the selection of the fathers and mothers of future American children through our power to regulate alien immigration. The United States, rather than England, should be the centre of eugenic propaganda. Yet so far our people are practically silent on this question. Most of the discussions of the immigration problem in the past have been concerned with its economic side. ‘National Eugenics in Relation to Immigration’.

Of course, not every critic of immigration was a proponent of eugenics. Some immigration critics like long-time AFL union president Samuel Gompers—himself an immigrant Jew—did use purely economic arguments for excluding most immigrants, at least in public.

Is scientific racism to blame for eugenics?

The 1920s were also a high-water mark for the nativism of the Ku Klux Klan, which shared some sentiments with the eugenics movement: anti-Catholic, anti-Jew, anti-Asian and anti-immigrant. It’s tempting to view the KKK as low-brow racism and eugenics as high-brow racism. But the KKK’s obsession with American blacks wasn’t shared by most eugenicists, and immigration from Africa wasn’t an issue in most public discussions. Also, immigration from Asia was largely prevented by the Chinese exclusion act of 1883 and the Gentlemen’s agreement of 1907 between President Roosevelt and Japan, so anti-Asian and anti-African sentiment barely figured in the agitation that led to the Immigration Act of 1924.

Okrent provides many racist anecdotes from American eugenicists of that era such as Carl Brigham, author of A Study of American Intelligence and developer of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT): “In the lily-white academic world of 1923, where this sort of arrant racism was almost endemic, Brigham could further argue that European immigration had accounted for two million newcomers who were ‘below the average negro,’ thus managing in one sentence to deprecate millions of Americans, both newly-arrived and long established” (p.319). Okrent also quotes (p.178) from a letter that the Immigration Restriction League sent to Southern states’ Congressmen arguing that immigrants from southern and eastern Europe “have not the same objections to interbreeding with the negroes that northern [European] races have.” And there is this quote (p.354) from Charles W. Eliot, President Emeritus of Harvard University, who was actually a liberal on the subject of European immigration:

You know that it is well determined by the biologists that the Jewish race is to an extraordinary degree pre-potent, that is, if a Jew marries a woman of another race, in two, at any rate in three generations, all the children will look like Jews, all of them.

Immigrants interbreeding with blacks, Jews interbreeding with non-Jews, the ‘feeble-minded’ interbreeding with anyone—fear and anxiety over the reproductive behavior of others hangs over the eugenics movement like a dirty cloud. Bastardization and miscegenation were a major preoccupation of Charles B. Davenport, one of the most important eugenicists in the U.S. (more on Davenport below).

Despite all this racist claptrap, it was class prejudice—rather than racism in the conventional sense—that explains much of the motivation of the eugenics project in the U.S. Of course, racial prejudice, religious bigotry and class snobbery all draw from the same poisoned well of hostility to outsiders. But class prejudice best explains the 25-year struggle in the early 20th Century for a literacy test applied to would-be immigrants. Okrent deals at length with the career of New England Republican Henry Cabot Lodge, Sr., who first agitated for a literacy test in 1892, only to see successive legislative versions vetoed by presidents Grover Cleveland (D), William H. Taft (R) and Woodrow Wilson (D). Wealthy, patrician and pro-civil rights, Lodge used his social and political connections to advance the cause of immigration restriction both in public and behind closed doors in Congress. Lodge finally achieved success with the Immigration Act of 1917 during WWI, which barred entry to European immigrants older than 16 who were unable to read a paragraph of ordinary text in their own language. Literacy was an easy way to separate the poor and underprivileged would-be immigrant from those who had had more advantages early in life.

In addition to covering Lodge and literacy tests at length, Okrent makes it clear that immigration restriction and eugenics advocacy was a project of a small group of wealthy elitists, mostly in New York and Boston, who used their financial and political clout to disadvantage those immigrants who were most unlike themselves—the poor and uneducated. Funding for this project came from the deep pockets of elitists like Mary Harriman (the wealthiest woman in the U.S. at that time), John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Herbert Hoover, John H. Kellogg, George Eastman, Alexander Graham Bell, plus other individuals who are no longer familiar names, like Madison Grant (philanthropist, benefactor of the NY Zoological Society and co-founder of the Save the Redwoods League), John B. Trevor, Sr., Charles W. Gould, Joe Lee and Prescott Hall. And presidents or high-profile professors at some elite institutions (Princeton, Harvard, Brown, Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, Stanford and the American Museum of Natural History in New York) were also public advocates for the project.

The role of WASP elites in pushing immigration restriction and eugenics has also been emphasized by Vincent J. Cannato, but we should view these wealthy elitists in context. “These men were all enmeshed in a sturdy web of colleges, clubs, [and] museum boards ………. Harvard and Yale and Princeton (and occasionally Columbia) shaped their shared values,” (Okrent, p.325). For example, Henry Cabot Lodge (J.D., Harvard; Ph.D., Harvard), traced his ancestry in Massachusetts back to 1700, and was very much a man of his class, time and place. On the correct side of history in protecting the civil rights of African-Americans, his concern with protecting old American stock from modern European influences put him on the wrong side of history vis-à-vis the League of Nations and immigration. Okrent’s focus on class, time and place helps us understand why eugenicists and their helpers in the Boston-New York-Washington corridor confined their attention mostly to poor and uneducated eastern and southern Europeans, and largely ignored poor and uneducated American blacks. A century ago, blacks comprised only two percent of the population of the city of Boston, per U.S. census records.

Is eugenic science from the early 20th Century worthless junk?

Eugenic science is garbage all the way down. Even some of the obscene and criminal experiments that German and Japanese scientists performed on prisoners in WWII have a level of rigor and permanent value that is missing from the data collected by C. B. Davenport’s Eugenics Record Office (ERO) at Cold Spring Harbor, NY. Davenport was emphatically the Wizard of Oz behind the eugenics curtain—not a politician or patrician but someone with serious science training who could bamboozle financial elites to secure funding for his research. Okrent gives a taste of Davenport’s sloppiness in a sample ERO Individual “Analysis Card” reproduced as a frontispiece. It includes entries on personal history including “parental control over playmates,” physical traits including habitual exercise, mental accomplishments such as learning and typewriting, and temperamental traits such as “cheerful but not exuberant.” From this mass of vague narrative and qualitative data, eugenicists would somehow extract useful information that might be used to control humanity’s genetic future. Equally slapdash was Henry H. Goddard’s ‘intelligence’ testing of a haphazardly chosen sample of 200 persons passing through the Ellis Island immigration checkpoint in 1913. Invited in by the U.S. Public Health Service and using mostly language-independent questions that he had developed, Goddard concluded that “the intelligence of the average ‘third class’ immigrant is low, perhaps of moron grade.” Goddard, who coined the term “moron,” later repudiated much of his earlier eugenics work, as did Carl Brigham.

Okrent—not being a geneticist—is vague on how Davenport and like-minded scientists and popularizers twisted the breakthrough results of Gregor Mendel into a pretzel. But the misuse of genetics is clear in the material that Okrent reproduces in his book, such as these sentences from a eugenics poster displayed at Kansas Free Fair in Topeka in 1925:

Unfit human traits such as feeblemindedness, epilepsy, criminality, insanity, alcoholism, pauperism and many others run in families and are inherited in exactly the same way as color in guinea pigs. If all marriages were eugenic we could breed out most of this unfitness in three generations. (p.352.)

The naïve and totally erroneous idea that every human trait of interest was controlled by a single Mendelian gene with two or more alleles held back progress on human genetics for decades. Clarification of human genetics and evolution would depend on research on “model” species like fruit flies and bread mold, and on developments in theoretical population genetics starting in the 1920s. But that information vacuum didn’t prevent eugenicists and their popularizers from making grandiose claims about the inheritance of poorly-diagnosed human traits with no hard data. This bogus Mendelism was sold to the public in charts like the one displayed at the Kansas Free Fair circa 1925.

To put this in standard genetic terminology:

PURE = homozygous for a dominant ‘normal’ allele

TAINTED = heterozygous (note the word choice implying contamination or adulteration)

ABNORMAL = homozygous for a recessive “abnormal” allele

What’s the legacy of eugenics?

Okrent resists the temptation to compare explicitly the controversy a century ago over immigration and assimilation, ethnicity and religion, birth control and reproduction, and citizenship and nativism with the political agitation currently raging across the U.S. That is probably a wise call on his part. His book isn’t aimed at working scientists, but it would be helpful if those working in human genetics would remember that, less than a century ago, some of the most important and prestigious scientific institutions in the U.S.—the National Research Council, the U.S. Public Health Service and the Carnegie Institute of Washington—were deeply involved in supporting eugenic research. Today, working scientists view external recognition like research funding and academic honors as the ultimate markers of scientific success, and eugenicist Charles B. Davenport had a full deck: Harvard Ph.D., Harvard professorship (before his permanent move to Cold Spring Harbor), membership in the National Academy of Sciences, various fellowships and editorships, and lavish funding from the Carnegie Institute of Washington and private donors like Ms. Harriman.

Today, many people celebrate their heritage and explore their genetic genealogy with a DNA ancestry test kit that claims to break down their ancestry—to the nearest 0.1 percent—into categories like British/Irish, Finnish, etc. These tests are mostly harmless, but few customers realize the massive genetic privacy that they are giving up when they submit their DNA for testing, nor do they realize that—without estimates of sampling errors—the ancestry percentages are worthless. Whether the 21st Century fascination with genes, genealogy and personalized DNA testing is ushering in a new era of eugenics theory and practice through the backdoor is also a topic not covered by Okrent.

American eugenicists can be accused of many things, but thinking small isn’t one of them. To an eerie and unsettling degree, their grandiose plans anticipated the modern obsession with bioinformatics and “Big Data.” In fact, it is possible that the popular enthusiasm for eugenics 100 years ago was in part just another example of 20th Century Americans’ fondness for ambitious, large-scale science programs, like sending people to the moon and sequencing the human genome—except that those projects were based on real science. About a century ago, Willett Hays of the American Breeders Association proposed that each American be given an 11-digit number-name indicating their genetic ancestry, which preceded by decades not only modern DNA testing in general but also the proposed use of DNA-based polygenic scores to provide customized education curricula for public schoolchildren. In his 1911 book Heredity in Relation to Eugenics (which was used as a college textbook for many years), Davenport proposed having the nation’s schoolteachers collect pedigree and trait data on all 24 million American schoolchildren and their parents for analysis by his Eugenics Record Office. Nothing came of that, but Okrent notes that between 1910 and 1939, when the Eugenics Record Office was shut down by the Carnegie Institute of Washington, Davenport and his co-workers did collect records on purported mental and physical traits for almost a million Americans. That is an early and disturbing example of people giving up their privacy in the name of technological “progress.”

The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) sits on 40 hectares of prime real estate on Long Island, New York. It also sits on an enviable reputation as one of the most important centers for genetic and genomic research in the world. With its stellar faculty, technical publications, professional courses and symposium series, the CSHL serves a worldwide community of active scientists. But a century ago, the various organizations that would later merge to form the CSHL (the Carnegie Institute of Washington’s Genetics Dept., the Eugenics Record Office and the Biological Laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor) formed the nerve center of eugenics research in the U.S. To its credit, the CSHL actively promotes understanding of this troublesome history through websites and through preserving the ERO’s files—for use by historians, of course, not geneticists.

The sordid and shameful history of eugenics in the U.S. should be better known, as should the role of another prominent American institution that was central to the development of eugenics ideology. The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) at 79th Street and Central Park West in New York features an imposing entrance with the words ‘TRUTH, KNOWLEDGE, VISION’ engraved on the lintel. The phrasing is ironic, given that the AMNH tried—until the late 20th Century—to obscure knowledge of the role it played in the eugenics movement, including hosting two international eugenics conferences (1921, 1932). As Okrent describes, for decades historians were denied access to the archives detailing the eugenic activities and crackpot racial theories of long-time (1908–35) AMNH president and paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn, Sr. (who named and described Tyrannosaurus rex and other fossil species):

We now subdivide Homo sapiens into three or more absolutely distinct stocks, which in zoology would be given the rank of species, if not of genera; these stocks are popularly known as the Caucasian, the Mongolian, and the Negroid….The European variety of man… includes three very distinct subtypes, races, or stocks, namely, the Scandinavian or Nordic, the Alpine or Ostro-Slavic, and the Mediterranean, each distinguished by racial characters so profound and ancient that if we encountered them among birds or mammals we should certainly call them species rather than races. H. F. Osborn, Sr. (1927); quoted by Michael Ruse, Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology, p.268

But more recently, two AMNH curators, Dr. Rob DeSalle and Dr. Ian Tattersall, have written two important books—Race? Debunking a Scientific Myth (2011) and Troublesome Science: The Misuse of Genetics and Genomics in Understanding Race (2018)—that have helped to demolish one of the pillars that supported the eugenics and immigration-restriction movement and have contributed to restoring the AMNH’s scientific reputation. These books are a good starting point for persons wanting to understand the real story of human genetics and evolution.

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Jack B. Nimble

Jack B. Nimble is the pseudonym of an American evolutionary geneticist with over 40 years of teaching and research experience on the genetics of humans, other animals and plants.