Human Breeding Experiments Didn’t Work
November 7, 2006
I love this story in the New York Times that traces the fate of children born from Nazi Germany’s Lebensborn program, intended to breed a Master Race, and reports where they are today. Here’s a brief background: Back when the old scientific consensus supported eugenics, there were two approaches taken to improve the human stock. The first was “positive” eugenics, by which the “fit” were encouraged to breed and multiply abundantly. At the same time, “negative eugenics,” prevented the “unfit” from procreating at all. Negative eugenics led to 65,000 forced sterilizations in the USA, sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell (1927), in which Oliver Wendell Holmes infamously wrote, “Three generations of idiots is enough.”
The Times reports on the results of Germany’s positive eugenics policy, in which Aryan-looking women were impregnated by Aryan-looking men (most often, SS officers), toward the end of creating a new Master Race. It turns out that these Lebenborn children ended up as good and decent people–but certainly no indications of their being uber menchen. Indeed, most are deeply ashamed of the circumstances surrounding their conceptions.
I bring this up both because it is an interesting story and because of the relevance of the history of eugenics to us today: First, the scientific consensus is often proved wrong. Second, and more importantly, great harm can be caused when science is transformed into quasi-religion and policies pursued as dogma. Third, we always go badly off the rails when we create hierarchies of human worth. Fourth, eugenics is back–with teeth–due to the potential of genetic engineering, making the consequences that flowed from its first incarnation well worth pondering.
It may be a cliche, but it remains true, nevertheless: We forget the lessons of history at our own peril. If eugenics thinking is allowed out of its cage, it will again lead to the kind of evil that results whenever we reject the principle that human life has equal moral value simply and merely because it is human.