The Psychological Limits of Eugenics

Herbert A. Miller
Professor of Sociology, Olivet College

THE rapidity with which the eugenic idea has spread is little short of wonderful, and its value can not be overestimated. However, this value has been not only and not chiefly for what it has claimed for heredity, but for the attention it has turned towards sanitation and hygiene.

This is a time of great social unrest and any panacea which offers to solve our problems is eagerly embraced. Eugenics has volunteered for the service, which accounts, in part, for its rapid spread. A second reason is its simplicity. Only one principle is required to dispose of all problems. In this connection Dr. C. A. L. Reed says:

So vigorous, aggressive and all-pervading have become the demands upon the "science of being well born," that many have come wrongly to think that there is no problem other than heredity in the great problem of race culture.[1]

It is the object of this paper to show that even if a perfect eugenic system were in vogue, practically every social problem which we are now trying to solve would still remain, and I wish also to urge that in spite of what good it may have done, it has also done a very great harm in diverting attention from the really fundamental problems which underlie the question of race improvement.

The cocksureness of the eugenist is illustrated by the following quotation from Alexander Graham Bell:

The individuals have the power to improve the race, but not the knowledge what to do. We students of genetics possess the knowledge but not the power; and the great hope lies in the dissemination of our knowledge among the people at large.[2]

In similar strain, but more comprehensive and more confident, we find Davenport saying in a magazine article:

To the eugenist heredity stands as the one great hope of the human race, its savior from imbecility, poverty, disease, immorality.[3]

Let me quote further from Davenport's book, "Heredity in Relation to Eugenics."

Man is an organism—an animal: and the laws of improvement of corn and of race horses hold true of him also. Unless people accept this simple truth and let it influence marriage selection, human progress will cease.[4]



Perhaps the best definition of feeble-minded would be: "deficient in some socially important trait," and then the class would include also the sexually immoral, the criminalistic, those who can not control their use of narcotics, those who habitually tell lies by preference, and those who run away from home and school.[5]


A settlement worker in New York City inquired into the meaning of a particularly unruly and criminalistic section of his territory and found that the offenders came from one village in Calabria known as the "home of brigands. "[6]

The implication here is that the germ plasm in Calabria is bad. Finally, comparing the influence of the criminals who were sent to Virginia from England he says :

Soon better blood crowded into Virginia to redeem the colony. Upon the execution of Charles I. a host of royalist refugees sought an asylum here and the immigration of this class continued even after the Restoration. By this means was enriched a germ plasm which easily developed such traits as good manners, high culture and the ability to lead in all social affairs traits combined in a remarkable degree in the first families of Virginía.[7]

Please remember that I am not denying a great deal of good in this movement, but too little attention has been given to either psychology or sociology by the eugenists, and unjustifiable conclusions have been drawn. The vogue of these conclusions is likely to delay progress by putting our thinking back twenty years, since which time the sociologists have been patiently building up the data of social psychology.

After the theory of evolution had been pretty thoroughly understood, the Spencerian idea of its universal application was eagerly appropriated. It was simple and comprehensive. If we found a condition of social inferiority the explanation was, "a lower stage of evolution." A race was less enlightened and thus proved its biological inferiority. It was a fine case of reasoning post hoc ergo pro pier hoc. In my opinion the reasoning in the quotations I have just given is of the same sort. "A band of brigands, a bad heredity." No one would be more glad than the sociologist to find a simple explanation of social phenomena, but there is none, and, to the minds of most sociologists, I venture to say that, instead of being the one hope, eugenics barely touches the problem of fundamental race improvement, although it has a definite place.

In 1893 Huxley in his lecture on "Evolution and Ethics" sounded the warning against making too close connections between the physical and the social values. He said:


There is a fallacy ... in the notion that because on the whole plants and animals have advanced in perfection of organization by means of the struggle for existence, and the consequent survival of the fittest, therefore, men in society, men as ethical beings, must look to the same process to help them towards perfection.... Social progress means a checking of the cosmic process at every step and the substitution for it of another, which may be called the ethical process; the end of which is not the survival of those who may happen to be the fittest (in the respect of the whole of the conditions which obtain), but of those who are ethically best .[8]

The eugenist would say that he is in full agreement with that statement, but he seems to think that the inheritance of these ethical qualities follows the same laws as the inheritance of biological qualities. Man may be bred for qualities just as the race horse is bred, but he may not then fit social conditions any better than a race horse fits plowing. It is of interest and biological value to discover the verification of Mendel's law in the inheritance of eye color and stature, but it has no more social significance than whether Mendel's giant or late peas tasted the better. Many of the other data collected belongs in the same class. They belong to the world of description, while good and bad belong to the world of appreciation and value and are subject to entirely different laws. This is the idea which no one seemed to understand, offered by Dr. Richard C. Cabot last fall at the meeting of the Society of Sanitary and Moral Prophylaxis, when he insisted that there is no necessary relation between "the rules of sanitation and the commands of morality.."[9]

For purposes of argument I am willing to grant that imbecility and some diseases are sufficiently pathological to justify some eugenic measures, though some brief could be made for even the feeble minded, but every other one of Dr. Davenport's catalogue I will not grant. Consider some of them: "poverty, sexually immoral, criminalistic, those who can not control the use of narcotics, liars, and those who run away from home and school, good manners, high culture." A few of these may be related to imbeciles, but so far as they constitute social problems only a very small per cent, of them are the result of biological abnormality, and yet they represent conditions that seriously handicap race improvement.

Please keep this list in mind while we turn to another consideration. There are two technical terms in sociology which are gaining increased significance. They are social control and mores. The latter is one of the methods of the former. Mores was the word used by the late Professor Sumner, of Yale, to indicate the mental and moral environment into which a child is born and which he accepts as ultimate intellectual and moral authority. The widest variety of racial and social expressions must be explained by means of this post-natal psychological in-

(393) -heritance. Professor Ames, of Chicago, indicates something of the process of its acquirement:

Every human being, if he is to live at all, is, from infancy, surrounded and cared for by persons. These persons fit into and help constitute a social group. The child is nourished, sheltered, guided and disciplined by this human environment. All objects and influences are mediated by the persons near him. His very sensations are determined and modified by them.[10]

The old-time evolutionist and the modern eugenist alike make little of social control in their effort to make clear the biological control of social processes. To them environment is merely external.

Let us now turn briefly to the list quoted from Davenport: Poverty is a problem, but we may ask in the words of Professor Cooley, of Michigan :

What shall we say of the doctrine very widely, though perhaps not very clearly, held that the poor are the "unfit" in course of elimination? ... The' truth is that poverty is unfitness, but in a social and not a biological sense. That is to say, it means that feeding, housing, family life, education and opportunity are below the standards that the social type calls for, and that their existence endangers the latter in a manner analogous to the presence of inferior cattle in a herd endangers the biological type.... But since the unfitness is social rather than biological, the method of elimination must also be social, namely, reform of housing and neighborhood conditions, improvement of the schools, public teaching of trades, abolition of child labor and the humanizing of industry.[11]

The subject of sexual immorality is absorbing our attention these days. Flexner says that it

plainly is absurd to speak as if women took to prostitution simply because they were marked out fora vicious life by innate depravity or even forced into it by economic pressure.[12]

If this kind of immorality were inherent we should, according to their own confessions, begin with the elimination of the greatest moral teacher of the early church, St. Augustine, and the greatest stimulator of modern social ideals, Count Tolstoy. The sex mores of Russia today are very different from those of America, and from those of Tolstoy's youth, and from what they will be a generation hence, all without the slightest help from eugenics, solely by the psychic force of social control. To be sure a part of the prostitutes are feeble minded, but even they are prostitutes largely as a result of the mores of their group and the commercial demand for their services.

As to the criminalistic, Lombroso with great pains made an anthropological description of the criminalistic type, but scarcely a criminologist in Europe or America to-day accepts his conclusions, and the modern science of penology is based on the system of social control.


The same is true of the use of narcotics. With the exception of the few diseased who need special care, drunkenness is the product of group mores. The most drunken people in the world are undoubtedly the husky Russian peasants.

When it comes to lying by preference, I fear that none of us would escape, though most of us have painfully learned another way, while our yellow newspaper reporters still remain.

And as for running away from home and school, we might say that every normal boy has the tendency, and there are excessive cases like that of Mr. S. S. McClure, who tells us in his autobiography that he barely escaped being a tramp, in spite of which fact he has done some things for race improvement.

We need no germ plasm to explain the difference between "the first families of Virginia" and the poor white trash. That is exactly the sort of thing that mores explain.

But there are much more fundamental obstacles to race progress than these, and I can see no way in which eugenics can help them. Such forces as social classes, race prejudice, industrial strife, the social and economic position of women, are psychological problems of fundamental importance.

Social classes are not born, they are made. In this connection Lester F. Ward, the leading American sociologist, said:

A certain kind of inferiority of the lower classes to the upper is admitted. There is a physical inferiority and there is inferiority in intelligence. This last is not the same as intellectual inferiority. Their physical inferiority is due entirely to the conditions of existence. As a subject race, as slaves, as overworked laborers or artisans, as an indigent and underfed class, their physical development has been arrested and their bodies stunted.... Their unequal intelligence has nothing to do with their capacity for intelligence. Intelligence consists in that capacity together with the supply of information for it to expend itself upon. We see, therefore, that both kinds of inferiority of the lower classes are extraneous and artificial, not inherent and natural.[13]

And again in this same connection, showing the intimate relation of classes to improvement, he says that what we need is not more ability, but more opportunity, and he estimates that if the opportunity could be made for existing ability by the abolition of social classes, the increase in the efficiency of mankind would be at least a hundredfold.

It is hardly conceivable that the breeding of the race-horse type of man will accomplish such a multiplication. We have ability enough; we only need to pry loose what we have.

Race prejudice belongs in the same category as social classes. The existence of a race is primarily caused by accidental signs which serve for identification plus the prevailing attitude towards the people bearing the signs. As Professor Ross says:


"Race" is the cheap explanation tyros offer for any collective trait that they are too stupid or too lazy to trace to its origin in the physical environment, the social environment or historical conditions.[14]

In this discussion I would like to substitute "heredity" for "race" and let the quotation read:

"Heredity" is the cheap explanation tyros offer for any collective trait that they are too stupid or too lazy to trace to its origin in the physical environment, the social environment or historical conditions.

When in a Battle Creek restaurant I saw the sign " Colored Patronage not Desired," my sympathy for the Negro enabled me to feel something as he feels, and I can assure you that the depressing force of a public opinion that approves of such discrimination is more influential on the race expression than a very large variation in the germ plasm. W. E. B. DuBois has described this form from the inside in his " Souls of Black Folk" where he says:

They must perpetually discuss the Negro problem, must live, move, have their being in it, and interpret all else in its light or darkness. From the double life that every American Negro must live as a Negro and as an American, as swept on by the current of the twentieth century while struggling in the eddies of the fifteenth—from this must arise a powerful self-consciousness and a moral hesitancy which is almost fatal to self-confidence.... To-day the young Negro. of the South who would succeed can not be frank and outspoken, but rather he is daily tempted to be silent and wary, politic and sly.... His real thoughts„ his real aspirations must be guarded in whispers; he must not criticize, he must not complain. Patience and adroitness must, in these growing black youth, replace impulse, manliness and courage. . . . At the same time, through books and periodicals, discussions and lectures he is intellectually awakened. In the conflict, some sink, some rise." [15]

When we remember that more than ten per cent. of the population of the United States belong to this class, we can feel that human progress can not proceed without limit until we have modified our race mores. The sad thing about it is the popular view that the race question is to be explained on biological grounds, and that any race except that to which we have been born is on a lower stage of evolution. We condemn them without trial. Wherever there is white contact with Indians the whole attitude is permeated with the idea that there is no good Indian but a dead one, and their efforts to change their conditions always comes face to face with this prejudice. Much of our immigrant problem is of the same sort. We condemn them in toto, as the brigands of Calabria were condemned in the quotation given. Lord Byron expressed the force of other men's opinion when he said:

I made men think I was what I was not, and I became what they thought me.

We can not escape the great and unjustified discouragement that will come to those we suspect do not belong to the race-horse type. The door of hope is closed to them, while the race horses can not fail to get

(396) a self-satisfied snobbishness that will make the discouraged plow horse stop in the middle of the furrow. In the same way, registered human pedigrees will inhibit the common stock from making its contribution.

The eugenists have a good deal to say about immigrants. Among the Polish immigrants in America we have a great disproportion of criminals. In the Cook County jail in Chicago they are altogether out of proportion to any other nationality, and the same thing is true in the Detroit House of Correction. The Bohemians, who belong to the same race stock and live in adjoining territory in Europe, have very few criminals, and in Austria there are fourteen cases of litigation among Poles to one among Bohemians. The Polish immigrants are 31.6 per cent. illiterate, and the Bohemians, 3 per cent. The Poles are probably the most devoted to the church and the Bohemians the most rabid freethinkers of all our immigrants. The social problems arising from these facts have nothing whatever to do with biological inheritance.

Now let us consider the classic example of bad heredity, the Jukes family. Almost everything that is said about the Negro can also be said about them. They lived in New York in the nineteenth century, but they were not a part of it. They were socially ostracized, and built up mores among themselves that had no part in the current civilization. It is barely possible that they averaged mentally inferior to their more socialized neighbors, but the sociologist does not need the inheritance of base characteristics to explain their criminality, prostitution and poverty.

If eugenics succeeds in establishing in the popular mind the tremendous social value of heredity that it is trying to establish, it will overthrow a mass of valuable work of the last decade which has been pointing the way to a fundamental solution of many of our social problems. What if certain people do stand higher on the Binet tests than others; it is yet to be proved that that indicates elemental social value. Psycho-physical parallelism may prevail, but that does not necessarily include psycho-physico-social parallelism.

The position of women has been created in much the same way as races and classes. Alfred Russel Wallace in his last book, " Social Environment and Moral Progress," puts the cart in this eugenic matter where it belongs. He says that when social justice shall have been established and women are free to choose their mates without the artificial conditions that now prevail, then natural selection will take care of itself. I myself am convinced that as a move for race improvement, the equal suffrage of women, with the eventual consequent assumption of intellectual and moral responsibility and economic independence, would be infinitely more valuable than all the eugenic laboratories in the world.

We should use all the forces of science in dealing with pathological conditions, but an attempt at artificial selection of mental and moral characteristics is aiming in the wrong direction.


  1. Lancet-Clinic, January 3, 1914.
  2. Journal of Heredity, January, 1914, P1. 1.
  3. C. B. Davenport, Pop. Sci. Mo.
  4. P. 1.
  5. P. 9
  6. P. 183.
  7. P. 207.
  8. D. Appleton and Company, pp. 80, 81.
  9. See The Survey, October 25, 1913.
  10. Psychological Bulletin, VIII., p. 407.
  11. C. H. Cooley, "Social Organization," pp. 294, 296.
  12. Abraham Flexner, "Prostitution in Europe," quoted from The Survey, January 17, 1914.
  13. Publications of the American Sociological Society, pp. 7, 8.
  14. " Social Psychology," p. 3.
  15. "Souls of Black Folk," p. 203, McClurg, 1903.

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