Behavioural Genetics: The ‘Respectable’ Face of Racism

Behavioural Genetics: The ‘Respectable’ Face of Racism

The ideas that dominate society are the ideas of the dominant class. That is why there is no such thing as pure science.

All knowledge and all science are directed to serve the ruling class, first and foremost. It decides which studies will be conducted, which will be developed, if and how results will be applied, who will benefit, and who will suffer.

Behavioural genetics features prominently in monotheistic religions. In the Christian myth of original sin, Adam and Eve disobey God, and their sinfulness is inherited by their descendants. Sections of Islam believe that a link to the divine is inherited through direct descendants of the Prophet. Feudal monarchies claimed the ‘divine right of kings’ to rule by inheritance. The modern capitalist class applies the concept of inherited or genetic behaviours to claim that every misery that it creates (poverty, inequality, racism, sexism, psychological suffering, war) is rooted in human nature, biology, or genetics.

England: The Industrial Revolution provoked mass rebellion. To counter workers’ demands for improved conditions, aristocrats and academics argued that poverty is inherited, so that raising living standards would not solve the problem. On the contrary, it would encourage ‘inferior stock’ to multiply and drag down all of  society.  The remedy: sterilize the unfit and render not one cent to charity. In this way, they transformed old-fashioned racism into the pseudoscience of eugenics. Key eugenicists included:

Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) founded ‘scientific racism’ – the perversion of scientific concepts to legitimize class oppression. He used scientific-sounding language to claim that the food supply would never keep up with the numbers of paupers unless the numbers of paupers was reduced by, essentially, letting them starve to death.

Francis Galton (1822-1911) declared that intelligence is hereditary, the rich are biologically superior, and society would be improved if the rich had more children and the poor had none. Galton coined the term ‘eugenics’ or ‘well born’ to describe efforts to eliminate poverty through selective breeding.

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) used the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ to insist that the poor are biologically unfit to live. Like Malthus and Galton, Spencer campaigned against State-funded education and medical care, opposed laws to improve working conditions, and rejected all forms of charity.

America: Eugenics found fertile ground in 19th century America, where the class struggle was raging. In 1910, the Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Harriman families funded Charles Davenport, a professor of biology at Harvard University, to ‘document’ the hereditary basis of poverty. Davenport’s work shaped the two arms of American eugenics policy: forced sterilization and racist immigration controls.

In 1907, the State of Indiana passed the world’s first compulsory sterilization law on the basis that,

heredity plays a most important part in the transmission of crime, idiocy and imbecility.

In 1913, President Theodore Roosevelt declared,

it is obvious that if in the future racial qualities are to be improved, the improving must be wrought mainly by favoring the fecundity of the worthy types…At present we do just the reverse. There is no check to the fecundity of those who are subnormal…

In 1927 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of forced sterilization, declaring

It is better for all the world if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from breeding their kind.

By 1931, thirty states had passed laws to sterilize members of the “socially inadequate classes” including: the insane, criminal, and delinquent; epileptics, alcoholics, and drug addicts; the deaf, blind, and crippled; anyone with tuberculosis, syphilis, leprosy, or any other chronic infection; and dependents on the State including inmates of government institutions, paupers, orphans, the unemployed, and the ‘feeble-minded.’ One could be labeled feebleminded for scoring poorly on an I.Q. test.

During the Great Depression, the Third International Congress of Eugenics met in New York City. The Congress called for the mass sterilization of unemployed workers and their children to eliminate,

the existence among us of a definite race of chronic paupers, a race parasitic upon the community, breeding in and through successive generations.


Germany’s 1933 Nazi Act for Averting Descendants Afflicted with Hereditary Diseases was modeled on American sterilization law. Between 1933 and 1945, Nazi Germany sterilized an estimated two million people and exterminated millions more in ‘Race Hygiene ‘death camps.

American eugenicists praised Germany’s bold pursuit of racial improvement. In 1934, the editor of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine proclaimed,

Germany is perhaps the most progressive nation in restricting fecundity among the unfit.

After calls for racial purity were discredited by the war, the American eugenics movement re-branded itself as a campaign against ‘overpopulation.’ The poor would no longer be targeted as genetically defective but as morally deficient – lazy, criminal, and far too numerous.

By the late 1960’s, America was investing millions of dollars to sterilize poor people at home and abroad. Black women were so frequently sterilized that the procedure was known as “the Mississippi appendectomy.”

Under federally-funded programs, an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 low-income persons in the United States were sterilized every year. Today, American prisoners are still forcibly sterilized in order to save the State money in welfare payments and to lower the birth rate of ‘unwanted’ populations.

Eugenics today

The social rebellion of the 1960s rejected biological solutions and demanded social ones. However, the subsequent defeat of the movements and the decades-long retreat of the working class has opened the door to a resurgence of racism and its respectable face: behavioural genetics.

Promoting biological solutions for social problems deceives the working class and undermines the class struggle. Why challenge capitalism if our misery is rooted in human nature, in our biology, in defective genes?

Eugenics has always posed as a means to relieve suffering, whether by eliminating the sufferers, by preventing them from reproducing, or by genetically engineering ‘resilient’ human beings who will tolerate their oppression and not impede the production of capital.

The promise that manipulating biology is the key to improving human health and society is as empty as every other promise made by the ruling class.

No matter how much behavioural genetics claims to be grounded in ‘science,’ no matter how much it promises to relieve the oppressed of their suffering, it is anti-working-class, and socialists have a responsibility to oppose it.

Recommended: Allan Chase (1977), The Legacy of Malthus: the Social Costs of the New Scientific Racism (1977) New York: Knopf.

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