Preaching Eugenics by Christine Rosen
Good Breeding Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement by Christine Rosen Oxford. 296 pp. $35.00 Reviewed by Kevin Shapiro Charles Darwin was a sicklyman whose letters reveal much anguish over the “infirmity” he feared he had passed on to his offspring. Two of his children died young, and the others were in chronically failing health. In this spectacle of illness and death, Darwin saw the hand of nature: the constitutionally weak might perish, but the vigorous and healthy would survive to enjoy life. Though he suspected that inbreeding was a culprit, he doubted anything could be done about it, lamenting to a friend, “What a book a Devil’s Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low & horridly cruel works of nature!” If Darwin was a cynic, his young cousin Francis Galton was decidedly more optimistic. A polymath and a pioneer of modern statistical analysis, Galton imagined that human beings could wrest control of their hereditary destiny by practicing what he called eugenics—that is, encouraging the reproduction of the fit, and preventing that of the feeble and degenerate. “What nature does blindly, slowly, ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly, and kindly,” he wrote with almost religious inspiration. Galton saw eugenics not as a devil’s chapbook, but as a catechism for a new kind of faith: faith in the perfectibility of mankind through provident breeding. In Preaching Eugenics, Christine Rosen documents the spread of Galton’s evangel through the churches and religious institutions of the United States in the early part of the 20th century. In many ways Darwin’s work had prepared the ground. Confronted with the scientific “fact” of evolution, many clergymen felt an acute sense of status anxiety over their role as purveyors of spiritual truth. Traditionalists and conservatives among them took refuge in the reaffirmation of biblical infallibility; for liberal religious leaders, however, the challenge was to embrace the new sciences and embark on a program of social reform—or else face irrelevance
About the Author
Kevin Shapiro is a research fellow in neuroscience and a student at Harvard Medical School.