The Guarded GateNPR coverage of The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants Out of America by Daniel Okrent. News, author interviews, critics' picks and more.
The author of the Pulitzer finalist, Great Fortune, examines how eugenics and government-supported anti-immigration initiatives in the 1920s changed policies to ban discriminated-against groups from the U.S. for more than 40 years. 125,000 first printing.
Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.
Excerpt: The Guarded Gate
The Guarded Gate
The Future Betterment of the Human Race
Charles Benedict Davenport left a vivid impression on one of his occasional collaborators during his period of greatest influence. Davenport “used to lift his eyes reverently,” Margaret Sanger would recall, “and, with his hands upraised as though in supplication, quiver emotionally as he breathed, ‘Protoplasm. We want more protoplasm.’?” When she wasn’t promoting the idea of birth control—and sometimes, tactically, when she thought it would help her cause—Sanger was one of dozens of prominent, if seemingly unlikely, Americans who waved the banner of eugenics in the first third of the twentieth century. The “protoplasm” that Davenport longed for was the genetic material that would create an improved human race—if the world followed the principles of planned breeding that embodied the eugenicist faith.
It’s not hard to picture Davenport—tall, slim, his Vandyke always impeccable, his brow invariably creased and taut—in the state Sanger described. By his own description he was beset by a “nervous” temperament. A colleague said he “liv[ed] a life of his own in the midst of others . . . out of place in almost any crowd.” When he wasn’t carried away by the nearly ecstatic bouts of optimism that arose from one or another of his studies and experiments (“life is a succession of thrills,” he exclaimed in midcareer), he was unconfident, defensive, even resentful. As a young biologist at Harvard in the 1890s, hunched over a microscope with an intensity of purpose that seemed to create its own force field, he provided a clear signal for those who didn’t grasp his zeal intuitively by spelling it out for them in words he had inscribed on his eyeshade: “I am deaf dumb and blind.”
That was a Davenportian way of saying, “Leave me alone; I have work to do.” And he had plenty: in a career that stretched for nearly five decades, Davenport published 439 scientific papers, sat on the editorial boards of eight scholarly journals, maintained memberships in sixty-four scientific and social organizations, and trained generations of American geneticists (not to mention, along the way, a busload or two of charlatans). For four of those decades, operating out of a tidy scientific principality he established in the Long Island coastal village of Cold Spring Harbor, Davenport reigned as the nation’s foremost advocate, investigator, and—there’s really no other word for it—impresario of a science that altered the face of a nation.
The scientific colossus that eventually blossomed in Cold Spring Harbor, and that along the way would develop the intellectual arguments for limiting immigration to the United States by country of origin, began life in 1890 as the biological laboratory of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, a venerable civic institution that extended its reach thirty-five miles to the east on Long Island’s north shore.I The thousands of men and women who worked in the Cold Spring Harbor laboratories over the decades to come would produce groundbreaking research in genetics, neuroscience, oncology, and other disciplines; eight of these people, including geneticist Barbara McClintock and James Watson, the codiscoverer of DNA, would win Nobel Prizes. Charles Davenport would never win a Nobel, but for a time his researches and his recommendations earned equivalent attention.
In 1898 the thirty-two-year-old Davenport was appointed director of the summer school of the biological laboratory. He was a Brooklyn boy of prominent family; another Davenport was treasurer of the Brooklyn Institute, and three more were among its donors. But anyone who might have suspected that he won his appointment through nepotism could not have been familiar with Davenport’s work, or his personality. At the time, he had not yet located the path that would eventually lead him to his intense engagement with the study of human heredity, but his school-year labors at Harvard were productive and his range was prodigious: a paper on the effects of water on the growth of frogs, a book on statistical methods, another encompassing such topics as “chemotropism in the tentacles of insectivorous plants.” He married Gertrude Crotty, a graduate student in zoology whose work he supervised, and so endeared himself to Harvard president Charles W. Eliot that Eliot invited the young couple to stay in his Cambridge house one summer while he was rusticating in Maine.
In later years Davenport would allow his ambitions to distort his work, eventually leading him dangerously past the edge of reason. But as a young man working at Harvard and beginning a family, he was a pure scientist. He was especially tantalized by an emerging field known as experimental evolution, an area of study for researchers seeking to unlock the Darwinian code in the controlled environment of the laboratory, thus abbreviating the millennia required to apprehend evolution in nature.
As attached to Harvard as he might have been—undergraduate degree, PhD, faculty appointment—Davenport did not find the university sufficiently accommodating for the work he wished to pursue. Each week, when the journal Science arrived in the Davenport household, Gertrude would scour the death notices, hoping to find news of an appropriate opening. In 1899 Charles accepted a full-time position at the University of Chicago but felt the strong pull of his seasonal appointment in Cold Spring Harbor. (Gertrude also held a faculty position at the summer school, teaching microscope technique.) For a natural scientist with interests as varied as Davenport’s, the village and its surroundings were a version of paradise: seashore and estuary, ponds and streams, meadows and forests, every imaginable environment for gathering specimens. The train to New York from nearby Oyster Bay ran frequently enough to serve the wealthy families building their country palaces in the area (among them a young New York politician named Theodore Roosevelt), and its depot was close enough to town for an inveterate walker like Davenport. For the next four decades he could be seen striding purposefully down country roads, sometimes before dawn, to get to the station and then to the wide world beyond the principality he created in Cold Spring Harbor. He had a story to tell—a story rooted in the work of a singular British gentleman scientist, then translated by Davenport into a credo for America, and characterized by both men as nothing less than the basis for a new religion.
* * *
FRANCIS GALTON’S MOTTO, a colleague said, was “Whenever you can, count.” He counted the number of dead worms that emerged from the ground near his London town house after a heavy rain (forty-five in a span of sixteen paces), and he counted the number of flea bites he suffered in 1845 while spending a night in the home of the Sheikh of Aden (ninety-seven, but even so he thought the sheikh was “a right good fellow”). Galton consumed numbers ravenously, then added them, divided them, shuffled and rearranged them so he could amaze himself with his own discoveries.
The extraordinary man who developed the theory that talent, intelligence, and even morality were bequeathed biologically believed that everything knowable could be expressed in numbers. Galton’s major discoveries—among them the individuality of fingerprints, the movement of anticyclones, the statistical law of regression to the mean—elevated his obsessive collection of data from triviality to significance. But for every one of his substantial contributions to human understanding, he probably hit upon a dozen that were trivial. His meticulously constructed “Beauty Map” of Great Britain, he believed, established that Aberdeen was home to the nation’s least attractive women. His essay “The Measure of Fidget,” published in England’s leading scientific journal, was an effort to “giv[e] numerical expression to the amount of boredom” in any audience by counting body movements per minute. Observation and enumeration convinced him that “well washed and combed domestic pets grow dull” because “they miss the stimulus of fleas.” For good or ill, and often for purposes utterly irrelevant, this lavish reverence for numbers, his belief in their power, enabled Galton to live a life both intellectually distinctive and richly productive.
Having grown up surrounded by wealth and inheriting a good deal of it while still a young man didn’t hurt. In a century (the nineteenth), a place (Victorian England), and his particular milieu (the cosseted world of wealthy amateurs), Galton was better armed than most for a life of inquiry and experimentation. His paternal grandfather, a gun manufacturer who grew rich supplying the British army with muskets, married one of the banking Barclays, whose family business was already more than a century old by the time Francis was born in 1822. A third grandparent was the daughter of a landowning Scottish nobleman descended from Richard Plantagenet, father of Richard III. These three compounded the fortune that Galton would inherit at age twenty-two, enabling him to live the life of a gentleman. His fourth grandparent may have provided the bloodlines (and Galton would come to care a great deal about bloodlines) that led him to the field of scientific inquiry. This progenitor was the obese, libidinous, polymathic physician and poet Erasmus Darwin, one of whose other grandsons would do fairly well in science himself.
We have it on the testimony of Lewis M. Terman, one of the pioneers of intelligence testing in America, that when Galton was a child, it was already clear that his IQ “was not far from 200.” Among the thousands of children Terman had personally tested by the time he announced this impressive assessment, it was true that he had yet to encounter an IQ greater than 170. It is also true that Terman arrived at his conclusion six years after Galton’s death at eighty-eight, and had never met him, much less tested him. And it’s conclusively true that Terman had a horse in this particular race: much of his career was predicated on principles first elucidated and techniques first developed by Galton himself.
Still, Terman had a point. Francis Galton was precocious to roughly the same degree that an ocean is large. He could read at two, mastered Latin at four (around the time he wrote to his sister to inform her that “I read French a little” as well), quoted freely and at length from Sir Walter Scott at five, was intimate with the Iliad by six. The spirited self-confidence that would for the next eight decades mark his prose, his speech, and virtually every delighted leap of his lush and expressive eyebrows had received an early familial boost when his father had sent seven-year-old Francis, alone, on a journey by pony from their estate in England’s West Midlands, with instructions to stay at a particular inn along the way. The boy managed without difficulty—and without ever becoming aware of the servant following a careful two miles behind.
Tall and thin, his face framed by spectacular muttonchops that seemed to provide architectural support for what an admirer called “a forehead like the dome of St. Paul’s,” Galton possessed an emotional buoyancy as well. He floated blithely from one endeavor to the next, ever productive, ever sanguine. When he wrote about his “rather unusual power of enduring physical fatigue without harmful results,” he wasn’t boasting. More than twenty books and two hundred journal articles spilled from his pen, the last of them published in his eighty-ninth year.
By all accounts Galton was an amiable person and a charming host, but he was also a thoroughgoing snob. He never saw reason to challenge the class system that produced him, nor did he ever miss a chance to take advantage of its benefits. And though the Galtons (like the Darwins) were ardent abolitionists, Francis didn’t doubt the inferiority of black people. This was hardly a rare attitude in Victorian England, but one would think that a man of science would seek firm evidence to support his beliefs, especially a man as data crazed as Galton. But no: “It is seldom that we hear of a white traveler [in Africa] meeting with a black chief whom he feels to be the better man,” he wrote in 1869.
The case can be made that Galton came to his belief in the heritability of talent partly because it was self-affirming—an implicit endorsement of the familial process that reached its apotheosis in his own genius. It certainly didn’t arise from his earlier work. “Until the phenomena of any branch of Knowledge have been submitted to measurement and number,” Galton declared late in life, “it cannot assume the status and dignity of a science.” But before he reached his forties, Galton’s science was neither meaningfully scientific nor particularly dignified. As a medical student—a program of study he never completed—he decided to sample every drug in the basic pharmacopoeia; working alphabetically, he never made it past croton oil, a powerful purgative that produced violent bouts of diarrhea. He did attain membership in the Royal Geographical Society after conducting a self-financed two-year expedition to southwest Africa, accompanied by nine “white or whitish people,”II ten “natives,” eighty-six oxen, thirty small cattle, and two wagons. The titles of some of the journal articles he published between 1855 and 1865 probably indicate the best way to define Galton’s nature at this point in his life: “Signals Available to Men Who Are Adrift on Wrecks at Sea,” “On a New Principle for the Protection of Riflemen,” “First Steps Towards the Domestication of Animals.” He never got around to publishing his findings from a three-month investigation into the proper temperature for brewing tea.
Charles Darwin and Francis Galton barely knew each other when young, which was partly because of their age difference (Darwin the elder by thirteen years), but more likely because grandfather Erasmus was as profligate as he was prolific: his children—twelve legitimate and (at least) two not—produced grandchildren almost too numerous to list, much less to know one another. The first substantive communication between the two cousins didn’t take place until 1853, when Darwin was forty-four and Galton thirty-one; the older man wanted to compliment the younger on his first book, The Narrative of an Explorer in South Africa.
But without Darwin’s influence, Galton would likely never have begun his explorations into the nature of heredity. In this regard, he was no different from virtually everyone else who had been exploring the boundaries of biology in the British scientific world of the 1850s. Natural scientists were clamoring for data on “tides, the analysis of life insurance tables, bills of mortality, population censuses,” wrote Janet Browne in her magnificent biography of Darwin. “Raw information flooded in from every corner of the world, piling up in London’s learned societies and in government corridors.” At the same time, philosophers were contemplating the perfectibility of society and trying to discern the meaning of the individual. The protean thinker Herbert Spencer drew on biology, anthropology, sociology, and other disciplines to build a unified theory of the structure of human society (among its tenets: all forms of public charity or welfare are interruptions in the natural order of the universe). Then, in 1859, Darwin published On the Origin of Species and imposed his revolutionary views on a new model of science—a universe liberated from the intangible and unverifiable homilies of religion, supposition, and superstition.
Darwin’s book, Galton would recall half a century later, “made a marked epoch in my own mental development as it did in that of human thought generally. Its effect was to demolish a multitude of dogmatic barriers by a single stroke.” The theory of natural selection was, to Galton, a call to revolution, an assault on “all ancient authorities whose positive and unauthenticated statements were contradicted by modern science.” If the development of species was not guided by a divine hand, he reasoned, neither were the minds of men. As physical qualities were provably heritable, so must be “the peculiarities of character.” Darwin had defined the principles of natural selection in the animal world; now Galton dared to adapt them to the lives of humans. In the words of Galton’s protégé, disciple, and biographer Karl Pearson, “the inheritance of mental and moral characters in man [became] the fundamental concept in Galton’s life and work.”
Galton first set out to prove it in two articles that arose from his research—if one must call it that—in the peculiar pages of a book called A Million of Facts. Advertised as “a useful reference on all subjects of research and curiosity, collected from the most respectable modern authorities,” the book was a weird compendium of random information compiled by a schoolteacher/publisher/hosiery manufacturer named Richard Phillips, whose singular beliefs included the conviction that the law of gravity was in error. But the volume did contain within its five hundred–plus pages a long section, headed “Biography,” that provided Galton with the raw information he would use to establish that men are born, not made.
Galton counted 605 “notabilities” who lived in the four centuries between 1453 and 1853 and concluded that fully one in six was related to someone else on the list. Never mind that Phillips included such “notabilities” as “Aikin, Dr., a tasteful writer, died 1815.” (This was the entire entry.) Or that the complete “biography” of a somewhat better-known figure, the French novelist Alain-René Lesage, read, “the author of Gil Blas was very deaf; he wrote for profit, and got fame also.” Thomas à Becket was (again, complete entry) “a factious and arrogant churchman, who was killed in 1170, at Canterbury.”
From this dubious source (whose author, incidentally, Galton misidentified as Sir Thomas Phillips), he moved on to a gumbo of others. Galton examined page proofs of a yet-to-be-published listing of nineteen thousand prominent men (he got that author’s name wrong, too), and then a cross section of Men of the Time, a sort of Who’s Who of contemporary figures in which fully two out of seven had relatives in the volume as well. Thrilled by this gratifying discovery, he moved from the generic to the specific, counting his way through a dictionary of painters, a directory of prominent musicians (in French), lists of scientists, lists of lawyers, lists of writers. He finally concluded that one out of eight men of great accomplishment had a father, son, or brother of similar attainments.
Proving . . . what, exactly? Looked at today, Galton’s research and his conclusions seem risible. His sources were at best problematic; his measures of eminence were arbitrary (they were in many cases measures of fame, not accomplishment). He failed to see that the sons of “eminent” men were likely to enjoy careers that benefitted from their fathers’ privileged positions. Heredity certainly played a large role in determining an individual’s makeup, but to discount the influence of wealth, and educational opportunity, and social connections, and access to resources—this was preposterous.
The articles that arose from Galton’s studies were published in 1865. To amplify his research, he offered a series of eccentric extrapolations. “Most notabilities have been great eaters and excellent digesters,” he asserted, “on literally the same principle that the furnace which can raise more steam than is usual for one its size must burn more freely and well than is common.”III He also offered prescriptive counsel for the good of the nation, notably a series of incentives to encourage the inherently superior to marry each other in a mass wedding at Westminster Abbey, where Queen Victoria “will give away the brides.” Wedding presents? Five thousand pounds per couple, so they needn’t worry about earning a living and could get right down to their assigned business: fulfilling their patriotic responsibilities by making superior babies for the benefit of Britain.
In 1869 Galton expanded these articles into Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences. The supportive data that made up the bulk of the book mostly demonstrated his mania for counting and list making, the pages filled with enumeration and analysis of poets, military commanders, clergymen, even “very excellent oarsmen.” In historical digressions, Galton cited genealogies from the Roman Empire to show the durability of heredity (all those Scipios) and employed some extremely acrobatic math to calculate that precisely 1 in 3,214 ancient Athenians who reached the age of fifty was “illustrious.” The narrative chapters that begin and end the book are chiefly used to make the case that would provide ballast for the entire mode of thought that arose from Galton’s work on heredity: that selective breeding could be employed to improve the species, much as it had with dogs and horses. And in the book’s conclusions, he added a sentence that was an augury of hereditarian arguments yet to come. “Let us do what we can,” he wrote, “to encourage the multiplication of the races best suited to invent and conform to a high and generous civilization.”
Galton’s proposal for granting official certificates to those “distinctly superior in eugenic gifts.”
According to Louisa Galton, who kept a meticulous diary of her husband’s professional life, the initial edition of Hereditary Genius was generally “not well received.” An especially savage commentary, in the Saturday Review, declared Galton’s lists of “disjointed facts” to be “inert and lifeless . . . logically worth nothing.” But praise from one particular quarter provided balm for whatever wounds Galton’s ego might have suffered. Charles Darwin, his travels and energies constrained by illness, had been homebound in Kent, listening to his wife read aloud from Galton’s book. They were not fifty pages into it when he felt compelled to write to his cousin. His excitement was so intense, he said, that he felt the need to “exhale myself, else something will go wrong in my inside. I do not think I ever in all my life read anything more interesting and original.”
Some Darwin scholars have argued that the great man’s enthusiasm should not be taken as an endorsement; it could simply have been an expression of cousinly generosity, a diplomatic response to Galton’s worshipful regard for him. Additionally, in subsequent years Darwin took specific exception to certain interpretations and recommendations Galton put forth. Still, barely a year after his breathless letter, Darwin was willing to openly declare his faith in Galton’s work, in the first edition of The Descent of Man: “We now know, through the labours of Mr. Galton, that genius . . . tends to be inherited,” and it is also “certain that insanity and deteriorated mental powers run likewise in families.” This seemed, and seems, reasonable enough. But where Darwin saw tendencies, his cousin veered toward absolute conviction. And unlike Galton, Darwin did not propose that a radical reordering of society through the manipulation of marriage and child-rearing should be erected on so frail a foundation.
By the time Descent was published, in 1869, the Darwinian modes of thought that had already spread through the world of natural science had invaded distant fields of inquiry. The new journal Nature effectively became the house organ of the scientific modernism that Darwin had initiated. The mathematician W. K. Clifford declared that “all new reasoning in the sciences, biology to sociology, must [now] rely on the scientific law of evolution.” In 1864 Herbert Spencer had coined “survival of the fittest,” an epithet that mutated into a flag permanently affixed to Darwinian thinking.IV Henry Adams, who had come to London to serve as secretary to his father, the American ambassador, saw “evolution . . . rag[ing] like an epidemic.”
Galton’s scientific reputation advanced in the wake of this intellectual tidal wave, accelerated by the potent fusion of his boundless energies and a concomitant gift for publicity. His astonishing productivity continued unabated, and he found new and attention-getting ways to express it. He offered £500 in prize money (and publication of their names in a forthcoming book) to people who sent him the most detailed family records, covering everything from height to “artistic faculty.” At the mobile “Anthropometric Laboratory” he set up at the International Health Exhibition in South Kensington in 1884, more than 9,300 people lined up to pay three pence apiece to be measured not just by scale or yardstick but also by a phalanx of machines largely invented by Galton himself. This array of rods, pulleys, lights, and weights could evaluate with Galtonian precision such (presumably hereditary) variables as keenness of sight, “swiftness of blow,” sensitivity to pain, and “the delicacy” of the senses. Londoners unwilling to be measured but eager to watch could stand outside the lab and gape through an open lattice constructed to accommodate their curiosity. Over the next several years Galton set up his lab in Dublin, Oxford, Cambridge, and other cities, each installation extending the reach of his renown and the public’s grasp of his theories.
One other skill proved invaluable: his fecund gift for language. In an 1874 volume titled English Men of Science, he came up with “a convenient jingle of words,” repurposed from Shakespeare, that have endured far longer than Galton’s renown: “nature and nurture.”V Nine years later, in Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development, he finally attached a name and a definition to the entire field of study he had initiated, promoted, and made his own: “eugenics,” extracted from the Greek eugenes, meaning “good in stock.”
Like the idea of state-planned marriages, equating the breeding of humans to plant and animal hybridization was a trope as old as Plato’s suggestion that humans should be selectively mated in the same fashion as sporting dogs. William Penn used it when he said that “men are more careful of the breed of their horses and dogs than of their children,” and early investigators into the nature of heredity could barely avoid it. The modern revival of the trope was best articulated by Galton himself, when he declared that just “as a new race can be obtained in animals and plants . . . with moderate care in preventing the more faulty members of the flock from breeding, so a race of gifted men might be obtained, under exactly similar conditions.” Darwin raised the same notion two years later in The Descent of Man, and as the doctrine of eugenics leapt the Atlantic and began to spread, so did easy extrapolations from man’s experiments with lower species. In 1883, addressing the National Academy of Sciences, Alexander Graham Bell suggested that just as it was possible to “modify . . . our domestic animals” through selective breeding, “we could also produce modifications or varieties of men.”
For his study of “Good and Bad Temper in English Families,” Galton gathered, analyzed, cross-referenced, and sorted appraisals of 1,981 individuals.
But “selective breeding” also implies that the process of selection would cull certain individuals from any planned breeding program, and just as ancient as Plato was the notion that undesirable “varieties” of humans could be eliminated through proscriptions on their reproduction. In 1875, on a speaking tour in upstate New York, the American suffragist Victoria Woodhull asserted that “the criminal and vicious classes were made so by their mothers during gestation.” Several years later, she declared that reproduction among the hereditarily deficient—in her view, a group that included drunkards, criminals, and carriers of “hereditary sensuality and vice”—should be considered “a crime against the nation.” The line tying Galton’s optimistic “positive eugenics” to Woodhull’s “negative eugenics” was direct; Galton himself recognized the connection, advocating the denial of “the liberty of propagating children which is now allowed to the undesirable classes.”
Inevitably, negative eugenics would address not only people afflicted with the sort of undesirable traits identified by Woodhull (as well as blindness, deafness, and other purely physical deficiencies), but races and ethnic groupings as well. In his earliest days as a eugenicist, Galton had employed his usual mathematical skills (diluted by his usual set of presuppositions) to rank the “ability” of the ancient Greek as “two grades higher” than the Victorian Era Briton, who was in turn perched two grades above the African, who was superior to the aboriginal Australian. But it was a little-noted speech he gave in August 1891 that contained the germ of a movement that was on the brink of being born. When Galton rose to speak in the theater at the Royal School of Mines, just off Piccadilly, it was to address the Seventh International Congress of Hygiene and Demography, which had brought together Europe’s and America’s leading experts in the field that would later be known as public health. This particular event was strictly for the Division of Demography.
Galton didn’t consider himself a demographer. The term itself was only fourteen years old, and his polymathic tendencies were too capacious to be summarized in a single word. But his election as president of the organization confirmed the importance of his statistical methods to the nascent field of population studies, and many of the papers delivered at this congress were dependent on them. One was devoted entirely to the data gathered from the several thousand university students who had been measured over the past several years at the Anthropological Laboratory he had set up at Cambridge. The author of that paper—logician John Venn, inventor of the so-named diagramVI—had analyzed the massive collection of measurements with Galtonian exactitude and concluded that the most brilliant students were physically . . . well, pretty much like all the others.
Galton’s presidential address was not so predictable. It did not address techniques of measurement or computation, nor did it contain references to his various studies of eminence in families. The topic, he declared at the beginning, was “the future betterment of the human race,” but tucked subtly into it was concern for an issue that had hardly been addressed in Britain up to that point yet was the logical extension of much of Galton’s work and thought. He encouraged the demographers to study the effects of legislation on national populations, and specifically to determine whether the laws would have been different “if the question of race” had been considered.
Galton was sixty-nine. The beetling eyebrows, apparently untamable, formed an unruly shelf above his eyes; the luxuriant sideburns that framed his face had thinned and grown gray. He had many years of public life ahead of him—he lived to nearly ninety, and worked until the end—but two sentences in his speech to the demographers could have been plucked from his text, shipped across the Atlantic, and made the credo of an American immigration restriction movement just beginning to declare itself. “Much more care is taken to select appropriate varieties of plants and animals for plantation in foreign settlements than to select appropriate types of men,” he told the demographers. “Discrimination and foresight are shown in the one case, an indifference born of ignorance is shown in the other.” It was an idea waiting for a crusade.
* * *
CHARLES DAVENPORT’S SEARCH for the world-changing protoplasm that he so desired could be said to have begun in January 1902, in the Diplomatic Room of the U.S. State Department. Theodore Roosevelt, president for just four months, found himself in control of the territories the United States had acquired during the Spanish-American War and was already planning to extend the nation’s reach to the slender waist of Central America, where he intended to build a canal connecting the oceans. Roosevelt’s closest associates were nonetheless able to step away, at least for a moment, from the administration of empire. The host for the meeting in the Diplomatic Room was Secretary of State John Hay, and Secretary of War Elihu Root was among his guests. But for the day’s particular purposes, the most important figure present was the industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who had convened the founding trustees of the Carnegie Institution of Washington for their first meeting.VII
“Gentlemen, your work now begins,” Carnegie told the group. “Your aims are high, you seek to expand known forces, to discover and utilize unknown forces for the benefit of man. Than this there can scarcely be a greater work.” The tone and cadence of Carnegie’s comments could have been accompanied by trumpets. But they came with something even better: $10 million in U.S. Steel bonds.
At the time, this initial endowment was greater than the sum that all of America’s universities—combined—had at hand to finance basic research. To Davenport the Carnegie money, which the industrialist had specifically earmarked for that purpose, gleamed like El Dorado. Tapping into it could provide not only a ticket to year-round residence in Cold Spring Harbor but could also build the facilities and house the staff he needed for a dream he had begun to nurture: a permanent laboratory devoted to the study of evolution. Shortly after the Carnegie Institution’s founding, he told the trustees that his proposed Biological Experiment Station required “a plot of ground in the country, near the sea, presenting a great variety of conditions, not too distant from a scientific center and its libraries.” And, he added, he just happened to have in mind a place that fit all those requirements. He could provide another necessary element himself: the time that evolution studies required. “My age is 36,” he said. “The chances are that I shall have 25 years” to dedicate to the laboratory. “I propose to give the rest of my life unreservedly to this work.”
The earnestness of the intention, the grandiosity of its expression: this was essential Davenport. Equally characteristic was the unrelenting campaign he waged to win the trustees’ support. Rejected on his first attempt, Davenport kept returning to the group with a ceaseless gush of appeals, each one modified in a significant way: He needed less money. He could persuade the Brooklyn Institute to provide the land. He wasn’t sure he was willing to give up tenure at Chicago, then he was. He flooded individual trustees and the members of the board’s zoological advisory committee with special appeals. At one point nobility, humility, or sheer desperation prompted him to assume an entirely new posture. “If it appears to the committee that a better director is available” to run the Biological Experiment Station, he wrote, he hoped the CIW would fund it nonetheless. Not that Davenport believed this: a few weeks later, in a letter to a trustee, he said he was “embarrassed to speak freely” about his qualifications. He then took three full pages to make them irrefutably clear.
When Charles Davenport first encountered eugenics, questions of race or ethnicity could not have been further from his mind. Human biology itself was beyond the broad scope of his interests. He was still teaching zoology at Harvard when he sent reprints of some of his scientific papers to Galton, in 1897. Davenport was particularly interested in the statistical techniques Galton had developed, and his enthusiasm brought genial acknowledgment. “What gratifies me most,” Galton told the young scientist, “is that you perceive a unity in my work although there is much variety in the subjects.” What gratified the chronically excitable Davenport was the photograph of Galton enclosed in the same letter, a prize he had requested.
Like Galton, Davenport came from a wealthy family with a powerful connection to its own past. His father had written a genealogical history that traced his roots back to Orme de Davenport, “born in the 20th year of William the Conqueror, 1086,” and paused to note with button-busting italics that Orme’s Pilgrim descendants, who settled New Haven, Connecticut, were “the constructors of society.” Also like Galton, Davenport was a counter. As a boy in 1870s Brooklyn, he kept a ledger of every penny that he earned or spent. He recorded weather statistics daily, and by his midteens was providing meteorological data directly to the federal Weather Bureau. Bird migrations, astronomical phenomena, the habits of insects—the abundance and variety of the natural world captured him as a child and kept him enraptured through a lifetime of inquiry and experimentation. Over the course of his career, Charles Davenport studied snails, mice, mosses, canaries, sheep, poultry, mollusks, and various other species. Few contemporaries achieved his stature as an animal geneticist. But the work that would make his wider reputation, and eventually stain it irredeemably, was the study of man.
But that came later. In 1902, when Davenport visited Galton in London on his way home from a European bivalve-hunting expedition, he was preoccupied with his effort to win the Carnegie Institution’s backing for his proposed Biological Experiment Station in Cold Spring Harbor. The two men shared a quiet dinner, and the thirty-six-year-old supplicant left with the seventy-nine-year-old master’s promise of support. Back home, Davenport kept hammering the Carnegie trustees, the advisory committee, and anyone else he could enlist in the cause. Finally, the trustees granted him $34,250 (the 2019 equivalent of slightly more than a million dollars) to create the Station for Experimental Evolution, plus an additional annual appropriation enabling it “to continue indefinitely, or for a long time.” When his appointment to the directorship was confirmed a month later, Davenport commemorated the event with his usual unwieldy combination of self-effacement and rapturous zeal. “Yours unworthily,” he wrote at the bottom of the letter he sent to Gertrude that day, reporting the good news. But in the privacy of his diary he all but shouted: “THIS IS A RED LETTER DAY!”
Dynamite exploded on Cold Spring Harbor’s western shoreline in the winter of 1904; it was the only way to penetrate the frozen ground before pouring the foundations for the buildings Davenport and his staff would require. The reverberations also marked the beginning of a historic change at the Brooklyn Institute’s biological laboratory.
Until then, the warm months in Cold Spring Harbor had belonged to the student biologists at the summer school, who spent their days rambling through the fields and marshes with nets and pails and Mason jars, gathering specimens for laboratory study. “Biology is a science which permits more or less running wild on the part of its devotees,” wrote a recent Smith College graduate attending the 1902 summer session. Evenings were given over to what she called “a social atmosphere for relaxation”—campfires, good fellowship, singalongs. The best-loved song was “The Sad Fate of a Youthful Sponge,” a zoological rhyme devised by a Smith professor, who set his words to the melody of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”VIII These were biology students, after all.
The dedication ceremony for Davenport’s new venture was more sober in tone. Among the fifty dignitaries who traveled to Cold Spring Harbor via special rail car on a pleasant June day in 1904 was the featured speaker, Hugo de Vries, director of the botanic garden at the University of Amsterdam. De Vries’s topic was “The Aims of Experimental Evolution,” and his speech was as complex as it was very, very long. Yet his presence at the event, particularly in so prominent a role, was an acknowledgment of a recent discovery that had rewritten the rules of heredity and that, misinterpreted in Cold Spring Harbor, would have a profound effect on the American eugenics movement. Four years earlier, de Vries had been one of three investigators who all but simultaneously rediscovered Gregor Mendel’s lost 1866 paper, “Experiments in Hybridization.”
The story of Gregor Mendel and his pea plants has been told numberless times: how the humble monk, over the course of seven unnoticed years in the garden of an Augustinian monastery in the Moravian city of Brno, light-years distant from the Royal Societies and International Congresses and the other hubs of British scientific research, crossed and recrossed more than 10,000 pea plants, counted and classified some 300,000 peas, and in the process made one of the most celebrated scientific discoveries in history. But the idea of a recessive trait that could be passed along unnoticed through the generations before suddenly announcing itself in a pair of blue eyes, in great height, or (the early eugenicists would soon believe) in uncommon intelligence, remained unknown to the other scientific explorers of the age, including Galton and Darwin, until 1900, sixteen years after Mendel’s death.IX
De Vries in fact had already arrived at the same basic insights that Mendel had extracted from his pea plants. By conducting crossbreeding trials with a variety of evening primrose, he established that certain factors of inheritance (soon to become known as genes) were expressions of a specific characteristic (in Mendel’s studies, for instance, the color of the flowers on his pea plants); that some of these factors are dominant and others recessive; that a dominant gene would always manifest itself in combination with a recessive gene; and that the recessive gene would nonetheless be passed along to the next generation, expressing itself only if paired with another recessive gene.
Mendel’s flowers didn’t modulate into pink or mauve or any other in-between hue; they declared themselves either entirely purple (dominant) or entirely white (recessive), which made their color a “unit character”—a specific trait determined by a single pairing of genes. The best example of a unit character in humans is color blindness, a recessive trait that has a one-in-four chance of expressing itself in a child whose parents both carry the gene that manages it. As would soon be discovered, such binary, on-off determinants were far more common in lower species than in humans.
Human genetics was not a subject of inquiry at the Station for Experimental Evolution at the time of its founding, but the selection of de Vries to inaugurate the work of Davenport’s lab was certainly an affirmation of the Mendelian revolution. Although at first resistant, Davenport soon grasped Mendel’s importance, partly through the persuasive efforts of British biologist William Bateson, one of the codiscoverers of Mendel’s lost paper, who coined the terms “gene” and “genetics.” Davenport understood recessive genes. Crucially, though, he got unit characters wrong—a misapprehension that would lead him and his followers down a path strewn with danger and, in time, disaster.
In the station’s early years, most of the other experimenters who came to work there were drawn by the alluring combination of Mendel’s science, Davenport’s missionary zeal, and Carnegie’s money. Ten acres adjoining the lab were soon populated by breeding menageries of sheep, cats, finches, snails, moths, and carloads of other species, along with a long line of scientists who were queued up to study them. Marine biologists set up their tanks on the first floor of the main laboratory building, ornithologists and entomologists encamped on the second, and the local people Davenport described as “interesting and intelligent neighbors” made their land available for experiments both botanical and zoological.
Davenport did everything. He prowled pet shops and animal shows to acquire breeding stock, buttonholed those interesting (and in many cases wealthy) neighbors for additional funds, and recruited “corresponding members” working in distant labs (Francis Galton accepted, but only on the condition that the appointment was strictly honorary). He also conducted his own notable studies of chickens and canaries, and began a years-long correspondence with Alexander Graham Bell about the sheep experiments Bell was conducting in Nova Scotia. “I have recently killed off all my four-nippled rams,” Bell wrote to Davenport in 1904, “retaining only rams that have six nipples” for breeding. When four-nippled culls inevitably popped up in future generations, he added, Davenport would be welcome to them.
It was the express wish of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to see animal and plant breeders working together that led to the founding of the American Breeders Association; it was the Mendelian revolution that imbued their collaboration with greater meaning. At the ABA’s first meeting, in December 1903, attendees heard papers on soybeans, sheep, corn, and teaching “thremmatology”—a recent (and blessedly short-lived) coinage denoting “the science of breeding.” At its second meeting, topics included the improvement of cigar-wrapper tobacco and the breeding of mildew-resistant sand cherries. Then, at the 1906 annual conference in Lincoln, Nebraska, eugenics finally made its public debut and the Washington Post memorialized the moment. Even in a newspapering era that held little regard for accuracy and less for subtlety, the article bore a headline guaranteed to catch the eye: SCIENCE TO MAKE MEN AND WOMEN BETTER.
The story itself wasn’t quite so sanguine about the power of science. It reported that the American Breeders Association had appointed “a committee on eugenics, the science of the breeding of man.” The committee didn’t have any answers yet, but speaking for the group, Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Willet M. Hays explained that such progress had already been made in “modifying the heredity” of plants and animals through careful crossbreeding that “the question is naturally suggested as to how heredity in man may be improved.”
By adding human breeding to its remit, the ABA began the first American effort to elevate Galtonian theory into something both programmatic and, at least as conceived, scientific. The very membership of the committee suggested heft. The chairman was naturalist David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford University. Members included Bell, as celebrated a scientist (even if his science was far removed from biology) as there was in America; Luther Burbank, the “Wizard of Horticulture” who might have been Bell’s closest rival in public esteem; the University of Chicago sociologist Charles R. Henderson; and Charles Benedict Davenport of Cold Spring Harbor, New York, who more than anyone else would bring eugenics into wide public consciousness, introduce it into the nation’s political debate, and elevate it into the realm of scientific respectability.
I. The acronym derived from the institute’s name could be considered spookily premonitory, or merely unfortunate.
II. Galton used “whitish” to describe two black men who “have lived with Whites all their lives.”
III. Galton revisited this idea in an 1884 paper, “The Weights of British Noblemen During the Last Three Generations.”
IV. Darwin himself didn’t use the term until the fifth edition of Origin of Species, published ten years after the original. The term “social Darwinism” did not gain wide currency until it was used by the American historian Richard Hofstadter in the title of his Social Darwinism in American Thought, published in 1944.
V. From The Tempest, Act IV: Prospero describes Caliban as “A devil, a born devil, on whose nature / Nurture can never stick.”
VI. Venn was not the only eponym at the congress; other attendees included John Langdon Down, who first identified the genetic syndrome that bears his name, and Joseph Lister, whose advances in sterilization were later commemorated in the names of a pathogenic bacterium. And a mouthwash.
VII. The CIW should not be confused with the better-known Carnegie Corporation (also known as the Carnegie Foundation) or the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. After Andrew Carnegie retired from business to devote the remainder of his life to philanthropy, he endowed twenty-three separate organizations bearing his name. In 2007 the CIW rebranded itself the Carnegie Institution for Science.
VIII. Opening stanza: “There was a little blastula no bigger than a germ / Who performed invagination from his mother’s mesoderm. / And soon his nascent cilia with joy began to squirm / In ecstasy supreme.”
IX. Eighteen months before he died, Darwin received a copy of a treatise on plant hybrids by the German botanist W. O. Focke. After Darwin’s death the book was found in his library, the three pages that mention Mendel’s experiments still uncut.