[asa] Racial Hygiene and Science

From: Bill Powers <wjp@swcp.com>
Date: Mon Sep 07 2009 - 15:20:19 EDT

I'm reading an interesting book on Racial Hygiene, which was all the rage
in the West during the early part of the 20th century up till WWII.

The central issue for the racial hygienists was the issue of the relative
importance of nature versus nurture. They argued, as so-called
Darwinists, that nature was of much greater importance than nurture.
Whereas, the Marxists and socialists (esp. the Russians) that nurture was
of greater importance than nature, and therefore favored a form of

What is interesting here is that this scientific issue boiled over into
the political arena. The National Socialists (Nazis) claimed, and was
embraced as, the one truly scientific political party.

The similarity to our own time could be drawn, but I would rather direct
our attention to another question.

Today, we regard the science of racial hygiene as wrong. We probably
believe today that nurture is certainly of equal importance to that of

But suppose we agreed with science. Suppose that subsequent work, and
there was serious work being done, was found to support the initial
claims. What would we recommend for social policy?

Viewed in this light, there may not be much difference between the Nazi
regime and our own. Both, at least publicly, declare great respect for
science and its accepted theories. The principal difference is a
disagreement over the "right" science.

Even should you think I go to far in my analogy. The issue raises
questions regarding present Western and American notions of intrinsic
human value and by what means that value is assigned. Given the
materialistic bent of modern biology, what does the issue of nature versus
nurture entail?

The history of racial hygiene has associated nature with a Conservative
perspective regarding social policy, and a Liberal one with nurture. What
bearing does that distinction have on our culture.

This history is but one instance of the intersection of culture and
science. At one time, before science rose to the status it presently
holds, science might have been somewhat immune to such pressures and uses.
But we live in a scientific age, and everyone wants to be "scientific."


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Received on Mon Sep 7 15:21:24 2009

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