So You Want to Talk About Eugenics
It is a truth universally acknowledged via various classifications of fallacy (ad hominem, guilt by association, and so on) that one cannot discount an argument or premise solely due to its origin. On the other hand, to argue that a concept is meritorious because a hypothetical version of it that has never existed in reality would be a lovely thing (especially if the concept has, thus far, in practice, wrought far more harm than good) is incredibly disingenuous.
Among atheists, those lovers of yelling out “fallacy!”, both these errors of reasoning are often called out, and rightly so. The first is usually in the form of theist’s oft-cited — and untrue — claim that Hitler was an atheist, or that those murdered under various manifestations of Communism represent victims of atheism (or, even more bewilderingly, secular humanism). As for the latter, its most common form is when a religious person engages in NALT-ing or a form of One True Scotsman where they will claim that any negativity stemming from religion is a result of a lack of “true [insert religion here].” When it comes to discussing ideologies that are not religious among those without religion, then, it makes sense that the patterns established by critically discussing religion would show up again. The ideologies with which the atheist in question disagrees might be, for example, lampooned as dogmatic and arguments in favor of it dismissed as citing a hypothetical version of it that doesn’t actually exist.
The problem comes in when the first line of reasoning is the default when the second deserves at least some consideration. Not all concepts that began in infamy stay that way, and not all concepts with negative associations are wholly negative, but forgetting origins and associations is to lack any modicum of consideration for reality.
More than once, I have heard some atheist incredulously declare that they, often a well-educated white person, cannot comprehend why a person of color would view science with suspicion, often to the mocking laughter of those around them. “How silly,” they all nod, agreeing that science’s objectivity is not contingent on those engaged in it. In one particular instance, a young STEM student (link unrelated, but cool) I met at a conference flippantly remarked that a woman of color had (“hilariously”, according to him) made connections between evolutionary/medical science and problematic matters of race.
He also mentioned eugenics and expressed his annoyance at the resistance he faced when discussing the concept. ”People who think like that lose the argument,” he concluded, “because of Godwin’s law.”
If you have ever had that thought, or anything like it, you may, instead of being ashamed, consider the next paragraph to be rife with links hand-selected for your personal benefit and growth as a human being
It isn’t Godwin or Hitler that comes to mind when many American people who are not white and/or poor and/or have disabilities, especially women, contemplate the word “eugenics.” It’s the history, legacy, and reality of the country whose eugenics program inspired that of the Nazis: the good ol’ US of A. Oppression is born when prejudice meets power, and in the case of American (and, later, German) eugenics, it was “white” prejudice against the “non-white”* paired with medical science, done under the auspices of the scientific method and afforded all the respect that science commands.
It may come as a shock to many, but the phrenology speech from Django Unchained was uttered not by a man who believed that he used the auspices of the scientific method to confirm his prejudices, but by a man who believed that he arrived at his beliefs in a respectable, scientific fashion. Phrenology might be considered laughable today, but it wasn’t then.
Think about that for a moment. Then think about how male scientists didn’t even consider studying female ducks when trying to figure out the penis shape of the aforementioned fowl. Then think about evolutionary psychology as it currently exists.
This by no means discredits science in general or suggests that science or all scientists are cesspools of racism, or sexism, or any other form of oppression. The beauty of science is that it, unlike religion, has self-correcting mechanisms built into through the scientific method itself as well as the peer review process. There is no doubt that medical science, despite any darkness in its past and present, will continue to move away from its oppressiveness and into a far more egalitarian future. Indeed, it’s our best hope to move towards that future.
In order for science to become more objective, more people of more types need to be in science to check any biases; mocking and dismissing science’s checkered past won’t exactly attract people from among the groups oppressed by it into it in recent memory. To forget its past and present wrongs will accomplish exactly nothing in the way of helping it not only to progress socially, but to advance as a discipline, one made closer to objectivity through its self-awareness of its own shortcomings.
Eugenics, as a word and concept and in practice, has only existed as a Very Horrible Thing for the populations most targeted for forcible action. There would need to be a major PR overhaul before anyone can use the term and not bring to mind white male doctors forcibly sterilizing the poor, the disabled, the non-white, and anyone they deemed unfit. To use the term without considering its implications is an ill-founded move for anyone who wants as many people as possible to become more and more accepting of science.
Especially if you’re a prominent, powerful white male scientist admonishing everyone to calm down about Nazis after you say something about eugenics.
*Addendum: Many people who would, in modern times, be perceived as “white,” would have been persecuted under eugenics programs. Indeed, many of the main groups that suffered under eugenics programs were Eastern European. Modern definitions of “white” do not apply here. The Nazis defined white as “Aryan” or ”white with non-Jewish elements.”