Re: [asa] Racial Hygiene and Science

From: wjp <>
Date: Tue Sep 08 2009 - 09:57:58 EDT


You say the nature vs nurture debate was "bunk."
But I don't think the issue is so easily dismissed.

At issue is the nature of man.
To what extent is man free? What determines or influences
the character of a person? What is the source of value?
All questions at the heart of racial hygiene.

In one sense whether you consider nature or nurture as determinative,
you might support an non-democratic society. This is why the Nazis
were socialists, non-democratic socialists.

Inasmuch as humans are no more than plants or other animals, we expect
good genetics and proper environment to grow the "best" crop.
This is what leads to authoritarian states.
It is the desire to achieve and nourish what is valuable.

The supreme value of a democratic society is individual freedom. It is not good
character, or brave and noble souls.
Inasmuch as we believe that freedom will tend to such valued ends, it entails
a certain view of the nature of man.
Perhaps that view is pseudo-Rousseauian, wherein we see man in his natural state as
free and good. It is the constraints and taint of society that draw him into sin.
Or perhaps we believe that it is only free men who can truly be noble and brave,
and that we risk thieves and murderers is unavoidable.

The point is not wholly clear to me, but it, nonetheless, seems fundamental.
The issue is close at hand and never far away, and yet can shift quickly
like two attractors.

The time and people of Nazi Germany are not overly different from ourselves
and our times. If anything, the role of nature has become more firmly
established and studied today than then. The role and place of human freedom
is likewise more eroded today than then.

As you say, we currently believe nurture to have a significant effect today.
And nature is more flexible today than then. I don't see either of those
changes as encouraging. Both argue for the physical determination of
character and behavior. So now we have genetic engineering and don't speak
of selection for race. Is that an hopeful change? Now we commonly hear
of the importance of endorphins, or early childhood education.
What is that about, but the creation of the brave new world, the perfect
child and the perfect society.

There appears to be a tension between individuals and society.
To what extent is the individual a creation of society? It is an
existentialist question. Our desire as a society to create the perfect
world entails a science of man and the world. It is the science of man
that drove the Nazis. Science turning its gaze upon mankind.

The wild and woolly world of individual freedom stands in opposition to
the suburban dream. The tension is evident in the national healthcare debate.

And where in this is Jesus? Perhaps, as always, at the Cross, tearing reality
asunder, in the split between heaven and earth, the eternal and the temporal,
the universal and particular.

Got to go. God bless us all.


On Mon, 7 Sep 2009 19:58:50 -0700, dfsiemensjr <> wrote:
> Bill,
> Nature v nurture was bunk because it held that nature was an absolute
> limitation, seen in the counter notion of Lamarkianism, which held that
> entities were almost infinitely flexible over time. Adopting these
> notions, Lysenko, backed by Stalin, nearly destroyed Soviet agriculture.
> Nature is much more flexible than the old timers recognized, so much so
> that modern techniques discover different genetic activity in identical
> twins. A more reasonable approach recognizes that one must deal with
> nature and nurture.
> Dave (ASA)
> On Mon, 7 Sep 2009 13:20:19 -0600 (MDT) Bill Powers <>
> writes:
>> 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
>> Lamarckianism.
>> 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
>> nature.
>> 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."
>> bill
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Received on Tue Sep 8 09:58:49 2009

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