What the “science” of eugenics and the “science” of breastfeeding have in common


Yesterday I wrote about the way in which bullying can masquerade as science. I used the example of the now discredited “science” of eugenics to draw parallels with the contemporary “science” of natural mothering.

Today I’d like to draw several more parallels between eugenics and contemporary breastfeeding research.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Both reflect moral panic.[/pullquote]

1. Both reflect moral panic.

A moral panic is a widespread fear, most often an irrational one, that someone or something is a threat to the values, safety, and interests of a community or society at large. Typically, a moral panic is perpetuated by news media, fueled by politicians, and often results in the passage of new laws or policies that target the source of the panic. In this way, moral panic can foster increased social control.

In eugenics, the moral panic was explicit and loudly discussed. It was the widespread fear on the part of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant elites that “inferior” immigrants (Catholics, Jews, Southern Europeans, Asians) as well as native born Black people might acquire positions of political and economic power thereby threatening the stranglehold held by elites.

The moral panic masqueraded as science. At the the Second International Congress of Eugenics, titled Eugenics, Genetics, and the Family in 1923, papers included Pedigrees of Pauper Stocks” in England, “Individual and Racial Inheritance of Musical Traits” or “Heritable Factors in Human Fitness and Their Social Control.”

The opening address was given by Henry F. Osborn, president of the vaunted American Museum of Natural History:

In the US we are slowly waking to the consciousness that education and environment do not fundamentally alter racial values. We are engaged in a serious struggle to maintain our historic republican institutions through barring the entrance of those unfit to share in the duties and responsibilities of our well-founded government…

In breastfeeding the source of the moral panic is carefully not discussed. La Leche League International — the original lactivist organization and impetus behind nearly every current iteration of lactivism as well as the driving force behind the recommendations of the World Health Organization and the CDC — was started by those who feared the erosion of traditional “family values” that immured women in the home, relegating them to childrearing. At nearly the same time as feminist Betty Friedan was articulating “the problem that has no name,” the widespread unhappiness of American mothers, La Leche League was insisting it wasn’t a problem but a privilege and a moral imperative.

Friedan wrote:

The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—“Is this all?”

… Over and over women heard in voices of tradition … that they could desire no greater destiny than to glory in their own femininity.

La Leche League was begun explicitly as a voice of tradition, in a deliberate effort to keep mothers of young children out of the workforce, telling them that they could desire no greater destiny than to glory in breastfeeding their children.

Alas for LLL, they were not able to stop the tide of women’s emancipation. Indeed they were forced to acknowledge women’s participation in the wider world and bury the story of their origins. They settled for the next best thing: pressuring women to breastfeed and making them feel bad if they didn’t. Their moral panic over the dreadful consequences of women working was transmuted to a moral panic over the purportedly dreadful consequences not breastfeeding.

2. Both rest on a bedrock, unalterable, non-falsifiable central principle.

Eugenics rested on the bedrock assumption that white Anglo-Saxon Protestant elites represent the apogee of human evolution. The history of the world was taken as “proof” of that concept. If WASP elites held the levers of power around the world it must because of their inherent superiority. Evidence was then compiled to bolster such “proof.” To my knowledge, across the breadth of eugenics “research” there was never a paper or study that showed that supposedly “inferior” races were actually equal or superior. It is precisely the non-falsifiability of its central principle that proves that eugenics was never science.

Lactivism rests on the bedrock assumption that breastfeeding represents the apogee of human evolution. The fact that “we are still here” is taken as “proof” of that concept. If breastfeeding is the way that women fed their babies since the beginning of humanity, it must be because of the inherent superiority of breastmilk and breastfeeding. Contemporary breastfeeding “research” involve compiling data to support the central premise and ignoring data that does not. To my knowledge, across the breadth of breastfeeding “research” there has never yet been a paper or study that showed that formula was superior, let alone equal to breastfeeding. It is precisely the non-falsifiability of its central principle that makes it clear that breastfeeding research is not science.

3. Both enlist the mainstream media and government in furtherance of their goals.

As a general rule, science has no goal beyond the increase in knowledge. In contrast, both eugenics and breastfeeding “science” have twin goals of alerting us to the “danger” we face and forcing the government to act to prevent it. Eugenics blared its warnings through journals, conferences and the mainstream media. Lactivists blare their warnings through journals, conferences and the mainstream media. Rarely a day passes without a story in the media claiming that breastfeeding increases intelligence, improves immunity, and prevents disease. Almost none of those stories have solid scientific evidence behind them and as time has gone by the claims have become ever more theoretical and attenuated.

There is no existing evidence that increasing breastfeeding rates improves mortality for term infants so breastfeeding researchers tout mathematical models that have never been verified. The claim that breastfeeding increases intelligence has been gutted by studies that correct for maternal education and socio-economic status, so now we are treated to studies that claim to show that breastfeeding increases scores on subtests or increases white matter volume in the brain, with the false implication that these are proxies for intelligence. There is no evidence that breastfeeding has a meaningful impact on diseases of children so the focus has turned to claiming that breastfeeding has an impact of disease of breastfeeding mothers.

The ultimate aim is to bring government in on the side of lactivists, and they have been quite successful so far. From mandated labeling of formula falsely proclaiming that breast is best for every baby and every mother, to government sponsored programs to increase breastfeeding rates, to official recommendations from government organizations, the breastfeeding industry has been successful in “making breastfeeding great again” with the promise that increased breastfeeding rates will improve health and save money.

4. Both always return to the naturalistic fallacy.

The naturalistic fallacy is often referred to as the “is/ought fallacy,” the belief that whatever is today is what ought to be always. Eugenicists justify their hold on political and economic power by insisting that the mere fact that they hold the power means that that is the best possible way for the world to be ordered. Lactivists justify their relentless promotion of breastfeeding, even in the face of mounting harm, by insisting that the mere fact that all women breastfed prior to the advent of formula means that breastfeeding must be better than formula.

The eugenicists were spectacularly wrong, but make no mistake, they believed their “science” with complete fervor. It did not occur to them that their views were self-dealing masquerading as science. I don’t doubt that breastfeeding researchers believe their “science” with equal fervor. It does not occur to them that their views are self-dealing masquerading as science. They could learn an important lesson from the disaster that was eugenics “research.”