April 30, 2005

Art and science perverted

Hitler has often made the news in recent days and weeks. First, there was the controversy surrounding “Downfall”, the recent film which recounts Hitler’s last days. Then, in the exaggerated media frenzy surrounding the recent conclave at the Vatican, commentators noted that Ratzinger, the new pope, had been a member of the Hitler Youths in his innocent years (although he was anti-Nazi himself). And, today, it is the 60th anniversary of Hitler’s suicide. In the context of this scientifically-oriented blog, this gives me an opportunity to examine how Hitler’s master plan originated in a perversion of art and science.

Hitler was a failed artist. Early on, he had shown interest and some talent in drawing, but twice he failed to be admitted in Vienna’s art school. In the 1989 documentary “Architecture of Doom”, the filmmakers assembled various visual documents to demonstrate that Hitler’s interest in arts was evident throughout the Third Reich, notably in its characteristic architecture. I remember having been fascinated by this film because it depicted this period from a very unusual angle. It is fair to say that, from art, Hitler had perverted the notions of aesthetics, of form, of symmetry, and, consciously or not, had transposed them to the pursuit of the perfect human race.

Although the above about art is partly speculative, the idea that the Nazi’s racial purification program was a perversion of science, is itself clearly not. This program derived directly from the eugenics movement, which itself was a perversion of the (admittedly dubious) work of Sir Francis Galton at the end of the 19th century and of Mendel’s principles of heredity. It was the result of taking metaphors from science too far. A more or less harmless scientific theory was transformed into a pseudo-science in order to support a pre-existing racist ideology. The Nobel laureate (Physics, 1969) Murray Gell-Mann said: “one has to proceed with caution, in that much mischief has been done in the world by exaggerating the role of scientific metaphor in human affairs. […] The Nazi racial theories are, of course, a horrible example of misapplying metaphors from science.”

What Gell-Mann failed to say however is that the repressive eugenics movement that the Nazis espoused was imported from the United States. This disturbing fact is the theme of the very thoroughly-researched 2003 book entitled “War against the weak: Eugenics and America’s campaign to create a master race” by Edwin Black. I had read an article adapted from this book in the Nov. 2003 issue of Seed Magazine. It was a real eye-opener. Several excerpts are worth reproducing here.

Black describes the situation in America at the turn of the (other) century: “Elitists, utopians, and so-called ‘progressives’ fused their smoldering race fears and class biases with their desire to better society. They reinvented Galton’s eugenics as a repressive and racist ideology, with the intent to populate the earth with vastly more of their own socioeconomic and biological kind—and less or none of everyone else.”

This movement grew more and more organized. In 1911, the “American Breeders Association” produced a “Report of the Committee to Study and to Report on the Best Practical Means for Cutting Off the Defective Germ-Plasm in the Human Population” which put forward 18 solutions, including forced segregation, sterilization, marriage restrictions, even euthanasia. The latter measure was never implemented in the United States, but others were, notably sterilization. Eugenics, and the practice of sterilization, permeated national policy and state legislations, and were endorsed by the Supreme Court. In 1927, the Supreme Court Justice Holmes wrote, in a famous decision on sterilization: “It is better for all the world if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” This was not Hitler, this issued from the Supreme Court of the United States of America! There were ultimately 60,000 sterilization surgeries performed in America…

Part of the reason the eugenics movement became so influential in the United States is that it received massive financial resources from corporate philanthropies such as the Carnegie Institution and the Rockefeller Foundation. The next step was to propagate this ideology throughout the world. Success was apparently achieved in Canada, as well as in a few European countries, most notably Germany. Over several years, American philanthropies poured in millions of dollars in support of eugenic research programs in Germany.

Black writes: “Eventually, American eugenic ideas also came to the attention of Adolf Hitler, who studied American eugenic laws and rationales and legitimized his race hatred by medicalizing it and wrapping it in this more palatable façade. Indeed, Hitler was able to recruit more followers by claiming that science was on his side.” This last sentence illustrates exactly what I mean by science being perverted, being hijacked.

After 1933, Hitler could apply what he had learned from American practices. Black writes: “American raceologists were intensely proud to have inspired the purely eugenic state the Nazis were constructing. In those early years of the Reich, Hitler and his race hygienists carefully crafted eugenic legislation modeled on laws previously introduced across America, upheld by the Supreme Court, and routinely enforced.”

Of course, Hitler’s actions went much further than what had been perpetrated in America. As Black relates: “Ten years after Virginia passed its 1924 sterilization act, Joseph DeJarnette, superintendent of Virginia’s Western State Hospital, complained in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, ‘The Germans are beating us at our own game’.” Indeed, the 60,000 American sterilizations should be compared to the 6,000,000 “euthanasiae” performed by the Nazis.

All this is in the past. But in the same manner that we should always remember the atrocities committed under the Nazi regime, we should also realize that the pseudo-scientific rationale that justified them originated in America. We heard recently of the Chinese people protesting against the silence of Japanese history books about the atrocities they committed in China. I propose that, in a similar way, American history books should relate the leading role of the United States in the eugenics movement, to accompany and put in perspective tales of their triumphal military involvement in WWII.

What is ironic is that the situation in America in terms of their rapport with the notion of life has revolved 180 degrees, at least in appearance. The power in place now holds life as sacred, from the first split-seconds of the embryo (cf. the pro-life stance) through the machine-prolonged state of the functionally dead (cf. the Terri Schiavo case). This is a far cry from the sterilizations and marriage restrictions that were routine on American soil less than a century ago.

The lesson to be learned here is that we should be careful that science is never distorted to suit or to justify ideological or political pursuits. Incidentally, it is again in the United States that there is at present the strongest tendency for this to happen: in reaction to the teaching of evolution, religious fundamentalists are pushing creationist (a.k.a. intelligent design) ideas under the disguise of “scientific” discourse; or scientific findings about climate change and global warming are discredited or simply ignored in order to preserve the American economy from any disruption. It is the responsibility of scientists to act as watchdogs. But it is also essential that the general public is accurately informed about scientific issues, so that, through the democratic process, it can prevent their governments from venturing on a slippery slope.