Monday, October 04, 2010

The Guatemalan Syphilis Experiments Reflect on Everyone

When news broke last week about how the United States government funded and carried out syphilis experiments in Guatemala that had absolutely no scientific value whatsoever, the response was swift. A tone of harsh, unforgiving condemnation characterized nearly every media story, along with a punitive desire to punish those actively involved in the process. As is often true, we wished to wax indignantly about it and vent our frustration. What we might not have wanted to contemplate is our own individual role in the entire sordid mess.

I wrote a piece about adoption recently, and in it I quoted at length a doctor and eugenicist by the name of Henry Goddard. Dr. Goddard believed that those individuals of sound, strong, stable stock were themselves genetically superior to those who were not, who he labeled feeble-minded degenerates. He added that the gene pool and human race were weakened with the presence of those with chronic illnesses, of foreign extraction, or mental retardation and recommended they be removed altogether. Goddard’s definition of unfit human beings was so open-ended as to include just about anything or anyone. Those of higher social standing and class were more inclined to be deemed fit and healthy, while those not were more apt to be labeled weak and unfit to live. This wasn't the most offensive fact I uncovered. While doing additional research on Dr. Goddard, I discovered something absolutely shocking. Like me, he was a Quaker.

Goddard's other major contribution was his study of feeble-mindedness. Goddard's field-based research resulted in many publications, with the best known being The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness. Although Goddard and his assistants studied hundreds of families, the Kallikak family remains the most famous. The family was that of a Vineland student, Deborah. The name Kallikak is actually a pseudonym created from the Greek words kallos (beauty) and kakos (bad). The Kallikak family was divided into two branches–one "good" and one "bad,"–both of which originated from Deborah's great-great-great grandfather, Martin Kallikak. When Kallikak was a young soldier, he had a liaison with an "unnamed, feeble-minded tavern girl." This tryst resulted in the birth of an illegitimate son, Martin Kallikak Jr., from whom the bad branch of the family descended. Later in his life, Martin Kallikak Sr. married a Quaker woman from a good family. The good branch descended from this marriage.

Goddard's genealogical research revealed that the union with the feeble-minded girl resulted in generations plagued by feeble-mindedness, illegitimacy, prostitution, alcoholism, and lechery. The marriage of Martin Kallikak Sr. to the Quaker woman yielded generations of normal, accomplished offspring. Goddard believed that the remarkable difference separating the two branches of the family was due entirely to the different hereditary influences from the two women involved with the senior Kallikak.

Goddard's work had a powerful effect. Scholars were generally impressed by the magnitude of the study, and The Kallikak Family became very popular. Critical reaction in the popular press was positive, with more muted reaction within the scientific community. For example, James McKeen Cattell praised the contribution and conclusions but criticized the research design. The Kallikak study was a powerful ally to eugenicist movements, including that of the Nazi party, and contributed to the atmosphere in which compulsory sterilization laws were passed in many states.

When we try to understand why people can do such brutal, inhumane things to other humans, sometimes we need to be reminded that those close to us and our own allegiances can be major offenders. It’s not comforting to me to know that someone of my own faith could so violate every conceivable Testimony and principle. Still, I suppose every group of any persuasion has experienced this every now and then. And, all things being equal, what is often not talked about is how pervasive the Eugenics movement was for a time. Goddard's work is a textbook example of that old adage which states that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The problem, of course, is that once Pandora’s Box has been opened, others are free to build upon or use flawed science as a basis for even greater evil.

Nazi Germany is probably the most well-known example of this. Goddard’s teaching formed the basis for those who were practitioners of scientific racism, in part, the idea that some races of people were genetically superior to others. Echoed in Goddard’s pronouncement of degenerate people are denouncements of creative works deemed unfit for the Third Reich, called, appropriately enough, degenerate art. The Nazis may have taken the teachings of the eugenicists in an entirely novel, twisted, perverse direction, but they certainly had their inspirations. Goddard is an interesting study in that he was not regarded as a sociopath during the course of his work and was well-liked by many. He was as capable of creating worthwhile scientific discoveries as bad and even renounced his work later in life. And yet, what he brought forth into the world was latched onto by those without a conscience or much of a soul.

Eugenics had many believers for a time. People got so caught up in the movement itself that I believe they failed to understand the depths of that which they had created. And though it is an unsettling notion for any of us to contemplate, we all run the same risk ourselves in what we bring forth into the world. If we are seeking answers as to why the Guatemalan studies were allowed to proceed, not huffing and puffing, we may wish to take a look inside ourselves. Those of us who personally observed the many terrible products of a doctrine of Aryan superiority are instructed to never forget what they have seen. It astonishes me how quickly our own experiments in establishing a master race have been forgotten, as well as the names of those whose theories solidly formed it.

I mention all of this not in a spirit of jaded cynicism, but rather as a word of caution. To prevent this from happening again, I believe we need to take care not to believe that we are too pious or beyond being led in harmful directions. Science is a construct of human reasoning, but anything that provides simplistic solutions for complex problems needs to be closely examined. It seems almost reasonable in a way to eliminate diseased or otherwise damaged individuals from the human race, but we are not God. We do not understand the reasons why what we may deem abnormalities exist in the first place. So until we do, we ought to tread lightly. While that which our government has done does not reach the sadism of Josef Mengele or the Final Solution, one can still see how one idea led to another.

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