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  • The Eugenics of History? February 5, 2015

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback


    Eugenics refers of course to the depressing strand of thinking that says that societies (for which read boffins with bow ties employed by the state) should be allowed to decide which of us can and cannot reproduce our genes. Eugenics was briefly fashionable in the 1920s and 1930s then the Nazis came along and, perhaps their only blessing, ruined the brand. We now live in a world where, thankfully, no one would admit to approving of eugenics in any form. However, Beach found himself idly wondering this morning whether there have been historic events that  created eugenic conditions unintentionally. Now one of the absurdities of eugenics is to presume to know what is and what is not positive: remember always the tautology in Darwin’s survival of the fittest, the survivors are fittest because they, err, survive. One of the reasons that eugenics will never work is that the skill set needed to prosper changes from one generation to the next. Beach and his wife do very well thanks in a twenty-first century semi democracy: how badly, though, we would have prospered in Homeric Greece… Historical filters, to use that terrible Old Testament verb ‘winnow’ populations, accentuating or reducing certain features that temporarily are advantageous. Most filters, meanwhile, will be extremely unpleasant because these filters, in the end, remove a certain section of the population from the genetic pool. Here are four examples, that might work as historic eugenics. Beach opens the question to a wider and more competent audience: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    1) The Great War: War is a nice example of anti-eugenics. You take the ‘strongest’ 25% of the population and then kill half of them in a game of Russian roulette with a neighbouring polity. Is the ‘winnowing’ here enough to really change the make up of a given society in biological terms (in social and cultural terms the answer is YES)? Might we even wonder whether different social classes in the fairly meritocratic Europe of the 1910s did not have different skill sets? It goes without saying that the middle classes in all the major combatant powers were massively overly represented in the casualty lists.

    2) The Potato Famine: The Irish Potato Famine killed perhaps a million Irish and drove twice that number abroad. Many of the dead were children or the elderly where there was no genetic selection. However, the adult survivors may have had a certain toolbox of qualities and skills to allow survival. Was the population of rural Ireland appreciably different before and after the famine? Compare with the Black Death where perhaps half of the population of Euro-Asia died of the Black death within fifty short years (most before their time). Victims will have died there, though, because of quirks in their immune systems: animal cunning and networking would not save you from the peste, in a famine they might.

    3) African Slavery in the New World: Possibly the most shameful episode in western history, at least prior to the twentieth century, involved thousands of Africans being put on boats and, with half dying in passage, and the survivors being unloaded in the New World for sale. Again did the choosing of slaves and the  death ships effectively reduce the slave populations to those with certain skill sets? Was the population of African-Americans different from the population of Africans who had been left behind three or four generations afterwards? If nothing else the slave population was more mixed, being drawn from much of central and western Africa.

    4) China’s One Child Policy: The greatest breeding program in history did not set off as an attempt at eugenics: at least it was not advertised as such. However, the aborting of ‘unpromising’ fetuses and the shocking level of infanticide has meant that there has definitely been a change in what the Chinese euphemistically call ‘genetic health’. Welcome to the future: darkness at noon.

    27 Feb 2015, Bruce T: It definitely happened, both in Africa and when the Slaves arrived in the Americas. People were brought to the US and other parts of the Americas for their agricultural skill sets. People in the area from the Senegambia region to Guinea were brought to cultivate rice in the low-country American South as they were rice growers at home. Further north in the US, West Africans from inland regions were brought for their ability to cultivate corn, peanuts, melons, and sorghum. The Mandingo people were known for their strength and endurance in the US. Most were used in the cane and cotton fields of the deep South, where work was nearly year round and the temperatures brutal. The expected lifespan of a slave in the cane fields of the Americas as a whole was roughly a year and a half after arriving. The most heinous thing, re; eugenics and slavery, in my personal opinion, was the selective breeding of slaves long after they arrived here. Kentucky and Virginia were widely known for it. Both had a surplus of slaves long before the Civil War. When Eli Whitney’s cotton gin made growing that crop extremely profitable in the Deep South, part of this surplus was sold south or “Down the river” in the terminology of the time. Many of the rest left in the Upper South began to be bred like livestock by their masters. You would have powerfully built male slaves on various plantations and farms, known as “bulls”. They would be bred to the owners strongest female field hands. These “bulls” were often rented out to neighbors, much as modern day small scale cattle farmers do to improve their stock. The issue of slave breeding is a controversial one amongst historians in the United States. However, in interviews with ex-slaves from the late 1860’s to the 1930’s, the practice was widely mentioned. In fliers advertising slave auctions in antebellum South, a female slave would often be described as “being suitable for breeding”. It went on. Slavery and its aftermath are the Great American Curse.
    27 Feb 2015, Norm writes in on a touchy subject: A tangent that fits your essay today: Why do the Europeans sport white or pale skin when it is recessive? I suspect cultural selection in the neolithic. Raiders pillaging would select any people they came across with blue eyes or red hair and haul them home for whatever…including breeding. Overtime the result was a general population similar to today’s northern European stock. The brown eyed folk got the sharp end of the stick. Selection but of the cultural sort, it had nothing to do with fitness. Touchy subject Dr. Beach…