Bullying as science; a cautionary tale

Anxious woman judged by different people

Its leaders have always felt that they are using science to improve society. Nature is a brilliant arbiter in ordering the natural world and can rarely be improved upon. It should, however, be supported by policies that give deference to the natural.

Defenders claims that it’s not matter of ideology. Countless studies have shown the dangers, and many of the current ills of society almost certainly stem from interfering with nature’s plan, a plan crafted by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. Why would we ignore the processes that nature has created? Why would we put ourselves at risk with beliefs that these choices don’t matter or, worse yet, that we should protect everyone’s feelings by pretending that all choices are equal?

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Natural childbirth and lactivism are based on science in the same way that eugenics is based on science.[/pullquote]

In order to prevent a future that is even worse than the present, professional societies have been created, books and journals are published, courses are taught, conferences are held and policies are promulgated. Do these policies make some people uncomfortable? Yes, they do. Do they mean pain and suffering of some individuals? Yes, but the suffering is brief and the benefits are more than worth the effort. But above all else, it must be emphasized that this is what science tells us we should do.

Think I’m talking about natural mothering — natural childbirth, breastfeeding and attachment parenting? Think again.

I’m talking about the eugenics movement. The parallels of the natural mothering movement to the eugenics movement are striking.

  • Both were undertaken by those whose traditional hold on power was being threatened.
  • Both reinscribe (eugenics) traditionally held power or returned it (natural childbirth and lactivism) to its “rightful” holders.
  • Both are appeals to nature and rely on the naturalistic fallacy.
  • Both insist that evolution has created the best possible outcome.
  • Both berate those who believe differently as inferior and defective.
  • Both were or are embraced by academia.

Adam S. Cohen explains the prominent role of Harvard University in the eugenics movement:

In August 1912, Harvard president emeritus Charles William Eliot addressed the Harvard Club of San Francisco on a subject close to his heart: racial purity. It was being threatened, he declared, by immigration…

The former Harvard president was an outspoken supporter of another major eugenic cause of his time: forced sterilization of people declared to be “feebleminded,” physically disabled, “criminalistic,” or otherwise flawed…

He also lent his considerable prestige to the campaign to build a global eugenics movement…

None of these actions created problems for Eliot at Harvard, for a simple reason: they were well within the intellectual mainstream at the University. Harvard administrators, faculty members, and alumni were at the forefront of American eugenics—founding eugenics organizations, writing academic and popular eugenics articles, and lobbying government to enact eugenics laws.

Similarly, natural mothering advocates deeply believe that childbirth, breastfeeding and mothering itself are being threatened by lazy women and greedy doctors who would rather use technology than respect the natural order.

The case for eugenics, as its supporters understood it, was remarkably simple. Nature had created a world in which Anglo-Saxon Protestant white males had achieved dominance over other races. That must be what nature intended.

Frank W. Taussig, whose 1911 Principles of Economics was one of the most widely adopted economics textbooks of its time, called for sterilizing unworthy individuals, with a particular focus on the lower classes. “The human race could be immensely improved in quality, and its capacity for happy living immensely increased, if those of poor physical and mental endowment were prevented from multiplying,” he wrote. “Certain types of criminals and paupers breed only their kind, and society has a right and a duty to protect its members from the repeated burden of maintaining and guarding such parasites.”

The case for natural mothering is remarkably simple, too. Nature has created a world in which women suffer agony in childbirth, babies die of insufficient breastmilk, and women are denied access to the wider world by being relegated to childcare. That must be what nature intended.

Supporters of eugenics insisted it was based on science, but eugenics is merely bullying masquerading as science.  Most of the scientific evidence touted by its supporters was “discovered” by eugenicists themselves.

One of Harvard’s most prominent psychology professors was a eugenicist who pioneered the use of questionable intelligence testing. Robert M. Yerkes, A.B. 1898, Ph.D. ’02 … developed a now-infamous intelligence test that was administered to 1.75 million U.S. Army enlistees in 1917. The test purported to find that more than 47 percent of the white test-takers, and even more of the black ones, were feebleminded. Some of Yerkes’s questions were straightforward language and math problems, but others were more like tests of familiarity with the dominant culture: one asked, “Christy Mathewson is famous as a: writer, artist, baseball player, comedian.”

In other words, the studies were poorly done, deeply biased and designed to arrive at a pre-determined conclusion … just like most of the literature on natural childbirth and breastfeeding.

It’s pretty obvious to us that the supporters of eugenics were merely seeking to consolidate their hold on the levers of power and the perquisites of wealth, but it wasn’t obvious to many at the time. It ought to be obvious to us that the supporters of natural childbirth, lactivism and attachment parenting are seeking to bolster their power, employment opportunities and self esteem but, sadly, it still has the imprimatur of science.

Ultimately, most supporters of eugenics realized their spectacular error.

Today, the American eugenics movement is often thought of as an episode of national folly—like 1920s dance marathons or Prohibition—with little harm done …

The truth is that eugenics caused tremendous harm through forced sterilization of “mental defectives” and immigration quotas crafted to keep out “undesirables.”

A few years ago, correspondence was discovered from 1941 in which Otto Frank pleaded with the U.S. State Department for visas for himself, his wife, and his daughters Margot and Anne. It is understood today that Anne Frank died because the Nazis considered her a member of an inferior race, but few appreciate that her death was also due, in part, to the fact that many in the U.S. Congress felt the same way.

It’s hardly surprising that eugenics was harmful; it was bullying masquerading as science.

The harm caused by the natural mothering movement is less serious, but more pervasive. Women who choose epidurals or undergo C-sections have been convinced that they are “defective”; women who can’t breastfeed (or choose not to) are derided as lazy; and women who dare to imagine a life beyond childrearing are jeered as “unnatural.”

The next time someone tells you that natural childbirth, lactivism and attachment parenting are “based on science,” remember: people used to believe that eugenics was based on science, too.

23 Responses to “Bullying as science; a cautionary tale”

  1. Who?
    February 7, 2018 at 8:03 pm #

    Off topic bad news courtesy of the anti-vaxxers in our world:

    No doubt public health officials are working hard to discover who he caught it from.

  2. attitude devant
    February 7, 2018 at 6:29 pm #

    Have you seen this? I literally shrieked in dismay. I expect better of Jane Brody. http://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/05/well/live/infant-microbiome-cesarean-childbirth-breastfeeding.html

    • Sue
      February 7, 2018 at 7:38 pm #


      They say that the infant microbiome is a “moving feast”, so to speak, until they are fully established on solids. Some Cesarean-born kids have their heads stuck in the “microbiome transfer area”, hence the requirement for a Cesarean. Some vaginally-born kids are managed in pristine germ-free homes, others crawl in the dirt. Swings and roundabouts.

    • Who?
      February 7, 2018 at 7:57 pm #

      Maybe the only people allowed to be in the theatre during a cs, or working with neonates should be those who were born vaginally and exclusively breastfed for six months? If ‘the personnel and environment in the newborn nursery’ supply the microbes that lead to all those undesirable outcomes?

      Curious how they don’t speculate on how many of those babies would be dead or badly injured if they had been delivered later by cs or vaginally.

      Honestly I sometimes think think people can’t hear themselves.

      • kilda
        February 8, 2018 at 12:08 am #

        sure, but they’d be dead with the right bacteria in their guts! that’s what REALLY matters.

  3. mostlyclueless
    February 7, 2018 at 1:36 pm #

    Any historians of science/medicine here? It would be interesting to see what exactly persuaded people that eugenics is pseudoscience.

    • LovleAnjel
      February 7, 2018 at 1:50 pm #

      The Holocaust. American eugenics was integral to Nazi racial policies, so supporting eugenics post-WWII was seen as supporting Nazism.

      • sdsures
        February 7, 2018 at 2:38 pm #

        American “heroes” supporting eugenics (such as Charles Lindbergh) didn’t help. 🙁

      • EmbraceYourInnerCrone
        February 7, 2018 at 2:41 pm #

        Not enough though. It was not equated with the Nazis nearly enough. There were programs to forcibly sterilize people seen as mentally deficient or socially undesirable including women of color, poor women, immigrants, the metal ill, prison inmates all the way up until the late 70’s


        “Beginning in 1909 and continuing for 70 years, California led the country in the number of sterilization procedures performed on men and women, often without their full knowledge and consent. Approximately 20,000 sterilizations took place in state institutions, comprising one-third of the total number performed in the 32 states where such action was legal. (from The UC Santa Barbara Current)”

        “While California’s eugenics programs were driven in part by anti-Asian and anti-Mexican prejudice, Southern states also employed sterilization as a means of controlling African American populations. “Mississippi appendectomies” was another name for unnecessary hysterectomies performed at teaching hospitals in the South on women of color as practice for medical students.”

      • kilda
        February 7, 2018 at 3:02 pm #

        so it’s not that we became better people, it was just politics. That’s pretty depressing.

      • The Computer Ate My Nym
        February 7, 2018 at 8:00 pm #

        Actually, I can tell you for certain that people were involuntarily sterilized in the US at least through the 1950s. Had a patient who was sterilized by the Iowa State Eugenics Board in the 1950s. (The sterilization. Not when I saw the patient.)

      • mostlyclueless
        February 7, 2018 at 8:36 pm #

        interesting that what persuaded them was NOT science

    • Empliau
      February 7, 2018 at 5:55 pm #

      According to Reuters, about 16,500 were sterilized in Japan without consent from 1948 to – wait for it – 1996 due to intellectual and cognitive disabilities. Also Hansen’s disease.


    • Empress of the Iguana People
      February 8, 2018 at 1:09 pm #

      Bastardization of Darwin’s theories?

    • February 9, 2018 at 5:02 am #

      Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, in “The Gene” discusses this at length. Fascinating book, BTW.

      • Roadstergal
        February 9, 2018 at 7:13 am #

        This. It’s a good companion to The Mismeasure Of Man.

  4. Emilie Bishop
    February 7, 2018 at 1:32 pm #

    Great piece. The Diviners series by Libba Bray is an incredibly chilling look at the eugenics movement. Three of the four books in this YA historical fantasy series are out now, and it is probably the best social critique of America’s underbelly I’ve ever seen. They pair quite well with this article, my own experiences as a natural mothering “failure,” the current government, and the sense of dread so many of us feel right now.

    • 3boyz
      February 7, 2018 at 3:52 pm #

      I just read the first book last weekend and really loved it! The second book will be this weekend’s read. Historical fiction and fantasy are my two favorite genres and this offers a but of both. Do you know when the fourth book is about to come out? I don’t think I’ve been as excited about an anticipated book since I was waiting for Deathly Hallows 🙂

      • Emilie Bishop
        February 7, 2018 at 6:20 pm #

        The third just came out a few months ago and it’s been about two years between books. The third book really ties the eugenics movement into the whole situation and it’s very, very chilling.

    • Spamamander (no mall bans)
      February 7, 2018 at 10:02 pm #

      Oh wow. Going to go charge my Fire right this minute.

    • Hannah
      February 13, 2018 at 5:39 pm #

      Wow there’s an author I’d almost forgotten about! I loved her Great and Terrible Beauty series back in the day… I should reread that then hunt down the Diviners series…

  5. Cartman36
    February 7, 2018 at 11:59 am #

    “The next time someone tells you that natural childbirth, lactivism and attachment parenting are “based on science,” remember: people used to believe that eugenics was based on science, too.”

    Long slow cap and standing ovation for Dr. Amy!!! Another great article!

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