The Scientific American

Madison Grant (November 19, 1865 – May 30, 1937) was an American lawyer, known primarily for his work as a eugenicist and conservationist. As a eugenicist, Grant was responsible for one of the most famous works of scientific racism, and played an active role in crafting strong immigration restriction and anti-miscegenation laws in the United States. As a conservationist, Grant was credited with the saving of many different species of animals, founding many different environmental and philanthropic organizations, and developing much of the discipline of wildlife management.

. . .

Grant is most famously the author of the popular book The Passing of the Great Race in 1916, an elaborate work of racial hygiene detailing the “racial history” of Europe. The work is considered one of the most influential and vociferous works of scientific racism and eugenics to come out of the United States. Coming out of Grant’s concerns with the changing “stock” of American immigration of the early 20th century (characterized by increased numbers of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, as opposed to Western and Northern Europe), Passing of the Great Race was a “racial” interpretation of contemporary anthropology and history, revolving around the idea of “race” as the basic motor of civilization. Similar ideas were proposed by Gustav Kossinna in Germany. Grant specifically promoted the idea of the “Nordic race” — a loosely-defined biological-cultural grouping rooted in Scandinavia — as the key social group responsible for human development; thus the subtitle of the book was The racial basis of European history. As an avid eugenicist, Grant further advocated the separation, quarantine, and eventual collapse of “undesirable” traits and “worthless race types” from the human gene pool and the promotion, spread, and eventual restoration of desirable “traits” and “worthwhile race types” conducive to Nordic society:

A rigid system of selection through the elimination of those who are weak or unfit — in other words social failures — would solve the whole question in one hundred years, as well as enable us to get rid of the undesirables who crowd our jails, hospitals, and insane asylums. The individual himself can be nourished, educated and protected by the community during his lifetime, but the state through sterilization must see to it that his line stops with him, or else future generations will be cursed with an ever increasing load of misguided sentimentalism. This is a practical, merciful, and inevitable solution of the whole problem, and can be applied to an ever widening circle of social discards, beginning always with the criminal, the diseased, and the insane, and extending gradually to types which may be called weaklings rather than defectives, and perhaps ultimately to worthless race types.

Other messages in his work include recommendations to install civil organizations through the public health system to establish quasi-dictatorships in their particular fields with the administrative powers to segregate unfavorable races in ghettos. He also mentioned that the expansion of non-Nordic race types in the Nordic system of freedom would actually mean a slavery to desires, passions, and base behaviors. In turn, this corruption of society would lead to the subjection of the Nordic community to “inferior” races who would in turn long to be dominated and instructed by “superior” ones utilizing authoritarian powers. The result would be the submergence of the indigenous Nordic races under a corrupt and enfeebled system dominated by inferior races and both in turn would be subjected by a new ruling race class.

. . .

The book was immensely popular and went through multiple printings in the United States, and was translated into a number of other languages, notably German in 1925. By 1937 the book had sold 1,600,000 copies in the United States alone. Nordic theory was also strongly embraced by the racial hygiene movement in Germany in the early 1920s and 1930s; however, they typically used the term “Aryan” instead of “Nordic”, though the principal Nazi ideologist, Alfred Rosenberg, preferred “Aryo-Nordic” or “Nordic-Atlantean”. Stephen Jay Gould described The Passing of the Great Race as “The most influential tract of American scientific racism.” Grant’s work was embraced by proponents of the National Socialist movement in Germany; Passing was the first non-German book ordered to be reprinted by the Nazis when they took power, and Adolf Hitler wrote to Grant that, “The book is my Bible”.

. . .

Historian Jonathan Spiro has argued that Grant’s interests in conservationism and eugenics were not unrelated: both are hallmarks of the early 20th-century Progressive movement, and both assume the need for various types of stewardship over their charges. Grant viewed the Nordic race lovingly as he did any of his endangered species, and considered the modern industrial society as infringing just as much on its existence as it did on the redwoods. Like many eugenicists, Grant saw modern civilization as a violation of “survival of the fittest”, whether it manifested itself in the over-logging of the forests, or the survival of the poor via welfare or charity.

. . .

At the postwar Nuremberg Trials, Grant’s Passing of the Great Race was introduced into evidence by the defense of Karl Brandt, Hitler’s personal physician and head of the Nazi euthanasia program, in order to justify the population policies of the Third Reich or at least indicate that they were not ideologically unique to Nazi Germany (it seemed to have had little effect, as Brandt was sentenced to death).

Grant’s works of scientific racism are often cited by scholars to demonstrate that many of the genocidal and eugenic ideas associated with the Third Reich did not arise specifically in Germany, and in fact that many of them had origins in the United States. As such, because of Grant’s well-connectedness and influential friends, he is often used to contradict the idea that the U.S. did not have its own history of racism, eugenics, and the popularity of quasi-Fascist ideals. Because of the strong associations his eugenics work had with the policies of Nazi Germany, his work as a conservationist has been somewhat ignored and obscured, as many organizations with which he was once associated do not generally want to overstress their connections with him.

Of course, this is brought to you courtesy of Wikipedia, whose truthiness may be suspect.

What shall we take away from this narrative . . . a direct “causal” connection between Darwinism and Nazism? No, for the hundredth time, there is no such thing, not for any idea or system of ideas in human history. People are free agents who decide what to do based on their own reasoning. They are not compelled to believe anything or act in any particular way due to some mystical forces emanating from ideas.

However, we may note that Grant had a significant impact on government policies, legislative action, and public opinion in the US and the world, mostly due to the fact that he sounded scientific. Sure, some scientists said his opinions weren’t “really” scientific, but he was very influential in professional and philanthropic circles. Anyway, we know that scientific knowledge is provisional and cannot specify absolutes, especially in ethics; so what if his eugenics beliefs were not discredited* for decades, and he fell out of favor only because of political events? At the height of his popularity, he was telling a story using as much truth as science knew at the time, so anyone who questioned him was derided as some kind of irrational, unscientific kook.

[*Was eugenics ever scientifically disproven, or did it simply become unpalatable to a few people?]

Science is not “value-neutral” at all. On the contrary, it is a peculiarly human enterprise, so it amplifies every human quality. Science is the application of technology to the investigation and control of natural forces and systems; but it is also the application of technical efficiency to theory formation (the technology of ideas) and social control (the technology of government). Thus the moral value of humanity as dominator of nature, physically and intellectually, is explicitly advocated by science. That includes human control over human nature itself; thus transhumanism is the only logical objective for evolutionary theory.


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  1. Pingback: Neo-Lamarckism « Brainbiter

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