Saturday, April 10, 2010

4/10: Eugenics

Last Updated: 04-11-2010 13:30:05

04-09-2010 23:37:10
References to eugenics have popped up in numerous contexts from the opening day, and this is not something I anticipated. I invite those who have mentioned it to focus on it more directly. How did this notion emerge in the larger discussion of evolution? How widely accepted was it? How do we see it expressed in visual culture?

04-10-2010 08:42:16
Okay, to make sure we're on the same page here...

"Eugenics" was coined by Darwin's cousin Francis Galton in 1883. He had actually been working on the idea for more than a decade before he published the term. Galton has an odd reputation. He gave us the biological concept of "nature vs. nurture," he invented linear regression and the basis of the correlation coefficient. He is thus one of the pioneer figures in population genetics.

But he also wrote all this stuff about improving the race through encouraging the best to have lots of kids and through eliminating "the unfit." American sterilization laws (more than 30 of them in the 1940s) and the horrific Nazi eugenic law are part of his legacy.

Galton was a passionate evolutionist and was deeply engaged with his cousin's theories. He published a disproof of Darwin's pangenesis theory, much to Darwin's chagrin.

But Galton was also more socially engaged than Darwin. The 19th century was a time of great fears of "degeneration." A lot of this apparently had to do with urbanization, migration, and the relatively sudden creation of a great number of highly visible poor, dirty, diseased people. These fears of degeneration have proved highly resilient. They were a huge motivating force for many Progressive Era reforms and they have continued to pop up since--for example, in debates over the population explosion in the '60s and since.

To begin to answer your question, then, Kevin, eugenics emerged and has persisted as a way to stem and reverse the perceived degradation of the human species. It is, in large measure, the effort to control human evolution.

(I would add that it the other part of it is an effort to reduce suffering through preventive measures, but that's off-topic here.)

Because eugenics has to do with manipulating heredity, it becomes extremely important after the turn of the 20th century, as researchers moved toward integrating Darwin with Mendel.

It's easy to think of evolution as a spectator sport--something that if you're very clever and/or lucky, you may get to observe. Eugenicists have wanted to make it participatory. It is the practical application of evolution and genetics to human beings.

I'll try to dig out some eugenics-related images later...

04-10-2010 09:54:18
Here is the iconic "eugenics tree":

Also, the visual culture of eugenics can be explored at this website set up by the folks at Cold Spring Harbor (epicenter of the American eugenics movement):

04-10-2010 11:27:27
Though eugenics involves heredity, one root can be found in Malthus on the validity/importance of population suppression. Malthus has often been pointed to in terms of Darwin's developing ideas on survival of the fittest and his own reading of Malthus, but it should be noted that Galton and Darwin's mutual grandfather Erasmus found Malthus a fitting reference in his evolutionist poetry. In Temple of Nature, he writes: "So human progenies if unrestrained, by climate friended and food sustained, o'er seas and soils, prolific hordes would spread erlong and deluge their terraqueous bed, but war and pestilence and disease and dearth sweep the superfluous myriads from earth."

Galton brought eugenics home, creating "good pedigree charts" in the Darwin family (beginning with Erasmus) and the Wedgwood side of their family. On the Darwin charts see the Brauer essay "Framing Darwin: A Portrait of Eugenics" in The Art of Evolution.

04-10-2010 12:49:30
Although Eugenics carries with it historical narratives of sterilization and extermination, particularly in the United States and Germany, a more insidious form exists today. New Reproductive technologies including PGD, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis and "selective reduction" along with sonograms have had a direct impact on gender selection. Although PGD was pioneered to monitor possible birth defects associated with chromosomal abnormalities, another use of such technology is gender selection. In this scenario, the male's sperm is sorted into those that produce female offspring and those that produce male offspring. With high probability, the perspective parents can in fact, opt for the gender of their choice. In selective reduction, a euphemism for aborting fetuses which are the result of multiple IVF implant and result in twins, triplets and the like, a "selection" is made as to which fetus should be terminated. Again the health of the fetus is of prime concern, but because this diagnostic technology employs an analysis of genetic material, "selections" concerning gender can also occur. What is most troubling to date, is the practice of aborting female fetuses in China and India. The cost of a sonogram in China is $12 and because of China's restrictive reproduction policy, many families opt to have a male child. As a personal choice, one can say it is an individual's right to choose, but the facts are that over 40 million girls have gone missing. Either through abortion, abandonment, infanticide or neglect the proportion of male to female births is out of whack. This has created a group of men called "bare branches" in China who have no domestic life and are engaged in sexual crimes and even "bride trafficking." An in-depth article on these issues has recently appeared in the March issue of The Economist, referring to this phenomenon as gendercide.

04-10-2010 13:59:36
I’m not surprised to see eugenics come through in a discussion about evolution and visual culture. Nathaniel Comfort points to a key reason, by pointing out that eugenics is the attempt to control human evolution.

Arising in the late-19th-century, at the same time that Frederick Taylor was pursuing his efficiency studies, eugenics merged ideas about evolution with those of efficiency and control (as a strategy to stem what many in power saw as a rise of “degeneracy”). “Positive eugenics” aimed to increase the birthrate of the “fit” while simultaneously “negative eugenics” tried to decrease the birthrate of the “unfit” (involuntary sterilization, euthanasia/mass murder in the Holocaust, birth control distribution under the guise of “population control”, etc.).

Comfort also mentions American Progressivism as an early outgrowth of eugenics into the social realm, including attempts to physically and morally “clean up” cities through large-scale public hygiene projects coupled to Americanization cultural education/assimilation programs. The term “race hygiene,” as eugenics was known in most European countries, points to the pursuit of presumed purity – racial purity, cleanliness, morality… in other words, applying the metaphor in multiple directions. With the application of Mendelian ideas after 1900, eugenics took a strong hereditarian turn (in contrast to the more Lamarckian “euthenics” underlying some Progressive reforms), setting the stage for the explosion of sociopolitical policies that targeted particular groups of people, rather than aiming to clean up the environment as a route to eugenic reform.

In visual culture, outside of eugenics propaganda on display at exhibitions at state and world fairs - such as the tree image already posted, -- I argue in my book Eugenic Design: Streamlining America in the 1930s that streamline design, hot on the heels of Art Deco in the 1920s, functioned as a material embodiment/artistic expression of the ideology of eugenics in the US. It may have done so as well in Germany, as designers working with Hitler theorized that the straight line was not “natural” but rather the curves of streamlining were more appropriate for the aesthetic style of a state based upon bio-politics (see a 3-part article by Hans Scheerer).

There are tens of images I could post, but I’ll only put a few that show some of the main parallels between theories of streamlining and those of eugenics. Both streamlining and eugenics applied biological principles to society through new technologies to work towards “progress.” Both aimed to 1) eliminate “degeneracy” through controlled evolution; 2) increase the “smooth flow” of the “stream”; 3) increase biological efficiency; 4) increase hygiene and sterilization; and 4) achieve the “ideal type.” (A few images in this post, a few following below with explanations).

Because design, broadly speaking, expresses a directed aim toward subjectively determined “fitness” criteria, eugenics as social design and streamlining as industrial design worked towards similar ends in the 1930s, largely due to a deeply-held common faith that modernity and “civilization” were the product of evolutionary processes. Because eugenicists felt they understood the processes behind evolutionary change, they worked to direct evolutionary change in the direction they felt best. (This gets back to the issue of sociopolitical and economic power that I have already posted about). Their use of genetic metaphors carried over directly into the world of design (much like the 2010 Pearl Izumi ad I just posted in a different thread).

Eliminating "Degeneracy": Top image is Normal Bel Geddes's Diagram of Streamlining from his book Horizons (1932), showing how the streamlined teardrop removes all eddies that slow forward progress through "parasite drag." The image below is from an American Eugenics Society display at a Kansas State Fair in the 1920s, showing how eugenics casts some humans as parasites acting as a drag on the social/national body. The Nazis used this same idea and terminology.

Increasing the "Smooth Flow" of the "Stream": The left image is from designer Egmont Arens' lecture "Streamlining in Nature," comparing a white greyhound whose form is "in his blood" with the "stream lines" (like blood stream lines). The right is a mock-up medal for the winners of the Fitter Family Contests sponsored by the American Eugenics Society, showing the "stream of life" being poured into a eugenic baby by two classically-garbed parents (reference to western civilization and the Golden Age of Greece).

From Science to Design (1935): An image of a Scientific American article, found in Egmont Arens' archive, which shows "Streamlining in Nature," the title of which Arens took for his own talks about streamlining. Streamlining in fish and birds derives from survival of the fittest and environmental adaptation, the article argues; Arens took this directly from the article and applied it to justify streamlining in industrial design as a mark of evolutionary fitness.

Increasing Biological Efficiency: The Burlington Zephyr ad shows the evolution of transportation, moving from oxcart or horse-drawn covered wagon, through steam-powered locomotives, to the superior streamliner engine of the day. Arens talked about this in his talk "Streamlining in Nature," saying that "a country yokel's slow wit is good enough at 3 miles per hour"; "compare that with Malcolm Campbell going 300; he has to think 100 times as fast." (paraphrase). The increase of human intelligence - - a main aim of eugenics -- was deemed necessary to compete with the evolution of technology. The lower image is Raymond Loewy's redesign of the Greyhound Bus logo, showing his decreasing the physical bodily bulk of the animal. Medical discourse argued that bulk was for draft animals (body type determines occupation), but sleekness characterized intelligence bodies prioritizing brains over brawn.

Increasing Hygiene and Sterilization: Left, Walter Dorwin Teague, WIZ Receipt Register (c.1934), from Jeffrey Meikle, Twentieth-Century Limited, 101-2, showing the before and after design that increased hygiene in the environment (less surfaces for dust collection, easier wipedown for germ removal); Poster from US American Public Health Association exhibition "Eugenics in New Germany" that toured the US from 1934-43, "If This Man Had Been Sterilized..." (giving visual form to race hygiene practices. Chapter 5 of my book Eugenic Design discusses germ theory and hygiene in popular American culture in this period, to show the close corrollations between hygiene in design for the environment, and race hygiene through eugenics.

Create the "Ideal Type": Above are 2 anthropometric composite sculptures created by Robert Latou Dickinson (eminent gynecologist, eugenicist, founder of the American Euthanasia Society) called Norma and Normman (1942), sculpted by Abram Belski for the Cleveland Health Museum (now in Harvard's Collection, recently transfered from HealthSpace Cleveland). The show the "norm" functioning as an "ideal." Industrial designers frequently talked about changing designs of a particular product type - here, an automobile by Norman Bel Geddes from Horizons - as an evolution of design toward the "ideal type" - see the text surrounding this image. The Zephyr ad comes from an exhibition catalogue of the Henry Ford Museum, Streamlining America (1986-87), 16.

The last 2 images I'll post about streamlining and eugenics are Raymond Loewy's Evolution Charts from 1934. They show the evolution of various designs over time, including telephones, chairs, goblets, trains, houses, cars, as well as female fashion and the female figure (not all included here). If you look closely, not all lineages start at the same date nor change at the same rate of speed, but he presents them in parallel as if they are all moving towards the same end: simiplified, streamlined forms devoid of ornamentation. It is as if all things, including people, are conforming to the same natural law, when in fact, design choices are made owing to decisions by designers working in particular contexts towards particular ends. At that moment, when eugenics was hugely popular, the idea of designing humans for greater beauty, intelligence, and productivity was very much in the popular press.
Raymond Loewy, Evolution Chart (1934), private collection.
Raymond Loewy, Evolution Chart (1934), private collection.
These charts raise a deep fundamental question: Are design and other human cultural productions a social construction, or something that arises owing to seemingly genetically-determined evolutionary change in the mind that makes itself manifest in cultural production? I lean strongly towards the former, but I know many others lean towards the latter. In my writing about Loewy's charts, and streamlining and eugenics, I see all of these events as an outcome of 1930s' applications of evolutionary ideas to the realm of human society, and culture, NOT as evolution itself actually at work in the realm of design, passing through the streamlined stage, say, on its way to complex "genetic architecture" today.

04-10-2010 19:05:44
First, Suzanne, thanks for pointing out the European development of "race hygiene." You're absolutely right. The historiography on US eugenics has emphasized the agricultural associations--origins in the American Breeders' Association, Davenport's definition of eugenics as "the science of improving mankind through better breeding," etc.

In one of the chapters in my forthcoming book, The Science of Human Perfection, I will show that race hygiene was also very important here in the States. Perhaps more important than the agricultural associations. Just for a couple of quick examples: William H. Welch, the legendary Johns Hopkins physician who founded the school of Public Health and Hygiene (as well as my department, History of Medicine) and Adolph Meyer, the psychiatrist who gave us the concept of "mental hygiene," were charter members of the American Breeders' Association's Eugenics Committee.

And Christina, the material on eugenics and streamlining is *fascinating*. Your remarks help show that eugenic thinking is a much more fundamental expression of human needs and tendencies than most historians have acknowledged. Eugenics is not an aberration that we can safely cage in a couple of decades of the early 20th century. It's something we need to confront right through the second half of the 20th C. and on into the 21st.

I would actually like to get away from the language of social construction, though. It's just the social scientist's version of the nature/nurture debate, which I think is no longer productive. Let's talk instead about the ways in which certain impulses span multiple cultural moments, finding different expression in each. Eugenics may be one of those impulses. Design certainly is.


04-10-2010 19:51:04
I find Christina’s discussion of eugenics and streamlining very interesting and the images fascinating. It is relevant to work I have been doing on Busy Berkeley musicals of the early 1930s such as Gold Diggers of 1933, 42nd Street, and Dames. Berkeley’s musicals were noted for their beautiful geometric designs, assembly-line precision and kaleidoscopic patterns. He was famous for using large groups of chorines or showgirls whose performances on stage appeared to follow a predetermined set of laws derived from geometric patterning. These highly streamlined acts contained scenes that referred directly to reproduction, often accompanied by the famous Busby Berkeley through-the-legs crotch shot (of female and sometimes male performers) that almost always led to a kaleidoscopic sequence, filmed from above, of women’s bodies arranged to resemble scenes from nature such as the opening of a flower and its fertilisation. (I’ll see if I can post some images). In my book, Darwin’s Screens, I argue that the musical could be seen primarily in relation to Darwin’s theory of sexual display and sexual selection. A close reading of Darwin’s text, in relation to a detailed analysis of the musical (the elaborate scenes of display, dancing, singing, costume, tapping feet, the stage/bower, selection, courtship etc) offers many parallels. Carmen Miranda’s famous camp ‘Tutti Frutti Hat’ number from the 1943-colour film, The Gang’s All Here, in which Carmen Miranda wears an enormous banana headpiece, transforms her into a female counterpart of Darwin’s performing male birds with their elaborate topknots and wattles. In the musical, visual emphasis is on display, dance, and fertility rituals. In this context, Berkeley’s designs clearly harmonised with Christina’s concept of eugenic design and streamlining of the thirties. In 42nd Street, the hero serenades one of the dancers with the number: ‘I’m young and healthy’ which includes the line ‘I’m full of vitamin A’. Billy is helpfully putting his genetic endowment on display as another reason for mating. Critics have tended to interpret Busby Berkeley’s modern designs in term the influence of Fordism and the popularity of machine art without relating this to sexual selection and evolutionary processes. The musical has not been discussed before in relation to Darwinian theory, but it seems clear that there has been a strong influence, particularly given the popularity of evolutionary concepts in the 1930s. I think my answer to the question that Christina raises at the end is that in the case of the musical (but not all things) both factor are key - social construction and genetically determined factors that relate to sexual selection. In nature, many bird dances are also smooth, flowing, repetitive displays of great beauty. I look forward to reading Christina’s book.

The images below from Busby Berkeley’s musicals all suggest sexual display and sexual selection in various exotic settings.
42nd Street poster (1933) – an illustration of the famous crotch shot.
Footlight Parade (1933) - sexual display with the chorines spread out in a pyramid formation on a rotating wheel.
The Gang’s All Here (1943 – the chorines forming changing geometric patterns while holding fruit above their heads. This is followed by a scene of symbolic fertilisation.
Dames (1933) - the dancer’s bodies forming a long tunnel, not unlike a fallopian tube, which the viewer travels through to the end where the male is waiting.
Gold Diggers of 1933 - a group of chorines, with neon violins, in which each forms the petal of a flower. This is followed by a clear suggestion of fertilisation.
The Gang’s All Here (1943) - Carmen Miranda, with her enormous top-knot, looking like a Neolithic fruit goddess. Prior to this the chorines perform a fertility dance with bananas.


04-11-2010 11:23:00
Barbara, I love the Busby Berkeley images and your analysis of the evolutionary themes of his work. I heard your talk in London at The Art of Evolution conference and really enjoyed it. Thanks for posting some images here - I actually wanted to have some for teaching this past year after I heard your talk, so this is great.

Nathaniel, Assimina, and anyone else, I would love to have more discussion about the limitations of the social construction approach to understanding how scientific ideas function in the cultural/humanities realm. I emailed Kevin and asked if we can have a thread in this last portion about "theory" to flesh out the general move away from social construction toward materialist philosophy. Along those lines, I feel that there are also limitations to materialist philosophy with regards to addressing issues of power/inequality, so: Is there a middle ground between these two? Which authors in history and philosophy of science, or literary/visual theory, etc. negotiate these two domains well? This seems a great opportunity for our different disciplinary backgrounds to come together to point out useful theoretical models for research on the topics of this symposium.

Nathaniel, can you expand on what you mean by "social construction is just the nature/nurture debate from the social scientists' position"?

Perhaps discussion can continue in the new thread Kevin said he'd post today under the April 11-14 section.


04-11-2010 13:30:05
I think the turn to art and science as an 'art historical' discourse from the late 30s and Herbert Read's writings that certainly involved design and D'Arcy Thompson are perceived as a turn to materialist philosophy in the languages of art historical description. This is evident from the reception of Read's work and it is my point in discussing the post-war re-conceptualization of perspective and kinds of symmetry that emerge out of practices and visibilities attuned also to new kinds of matter and scales of observation with regard to the intellectual context that Martin Kemp's work might also be placed. (See my paper Perspective as art historical form after Panofsky in Acts of Seeing. Artists, scientists and the history of the visual, co-edited my me (Zidane press, 2009). In my paper in this collection of essays I isolate Martin Kemp's approach to form as 'symbolic yet not arbitrary' as indicative of his 'new take on art historical materialism'.

Social construction, yes I agree with Nathaniel, has strong social science resonances and STS resonances perhaps which have often been placed with relativism. It's not a black and while story however. Much of the new attention to techniques and practices and the visual in the history of science after Shapin, Schaffer and Rudwick have taken to some extent in mind some aspects of Bloor's strong programme and the idea that solutions to problems of knowledge contain solutions to questions of social order. Even though Rudwick in his very influential early paper on visual languages of geology references, if only in a footnote Ivins's Prints and Visual Communication.

I think the turn to practices, objects and the material culture of science in the history of science and the study of its covergences with art history opened up significantly the kinds of evidence that historians examine as opposed to claims and rhetoric only and even if one wishes to move away from terms associated with particular discourses like the social construction of facts, the turn to instruments and ethnographic vs textually based approaches to evidence have a 'common ancestor'! in earlier anthropology and ethnomethodology.

Materialist philosophy sound's good!

1 comment:

  1. Christina Cogdell’s work highlights the intimate relationship between design (and architecture) and eugenics in the 1930s. This relationship, I would argue, continued until the punk and post-modernist rebellions of the mid-1970s challenged the primacy of “the grid” and tied the typeface Helvetica to an ideology of purification through corporate control.

    It is important to understand that the idea of bettering heredity through the bettering of the environment held strong even as a lingering faith in Lamarckism gave way in the 1930s.

    Increasingly through the twentieth century, biologists and science popularizers worried the public about the rapid rate of genetic mutation in humans, and the fact that, for the first time in evolutionary history, these negative mutations were not being stamped out by the "streamlining power" of natural selection. These authors insisted that, at the very least, public policy should drive the creation of “an environment favorable to a (positive) mutation” (from Henry R. Linville’s “The Biology of Man and Other Organisms,” 1923).

    This line of thought, the idea that scientists and the cultured had to work together to create an environment that would counter the degenerative effects of modern industrial society runs through the work of Amram Scheinfeld, Frederick Osborn, Hermann Muller, Bentley Glass and other so-called reform eugenicists.

    Among other problems, the anarchic visual landscape in which the lower classes were embedded did not encourage the positive selection of what Scheinfeld labeled “social genes.” One way to keep things moving along a "natural" progressive path was to bathe the great unwashed in a stream of Swiss design.

    Ronald Ladouceur