June 4, 2012

The pseudoscience of eugenics in action

From the New York Times:
Andrew Huxley, Nobel-Winning Physiologist, Dies at 94 
by Denise Gellene 
Sir Andrew Huxley, a British scientist from an illustrious family whose boyhood mechanical skills led to a career in physiology — “the mechanical engineering of living things,” he called it — and a Nobel Prize for explaining the electrical basis of bodily movement, died on Wednesday. He was 94. 
His death was announced by Cambridge University’s Trinity College, where he had served as master from 1984 to 1990. 
Professor Huxley, a half brother of the novelist Aldous Huxley, shared the 1963 Nobel in Physiology or Medicine with his collaborator and former teacher, Sir Alan Hodgkin of Britain, and Sir John Eccles of Australia for explaining how nerve cells transmit electrical signals to control every bodily action and sensation. 
Professor Huxley and Professor Hodgkin’s work further explained how anesthesia works, laid the groundwork for devices that operate prosthetic limbs, and led to the identification of certain genetic diseases. 
The two specifically explained how electricity travels the length of a single nerve cell, while Dr. Eccles described how the impulse jumps from one nerve cell to the next.
Their research solved a mystery dating from 1771, when the Italian physicist Luigi Galvani zapped the leg of a dead frog with electricity, making it twitch. Movement required electricity, but how did electrical current pulse through living things?
... “It did for the cell biology of neurons what the structure of DNA did for the rest of biology,” Dr. Eric R. Kandel, a Nobel laureate, wrote in his 2006 memoir, “In Search of Memory,” about his career in brain science. 

Jared Diamond recently described Huxley and Hodgkins' work as his favorite "deep or beautiful explanation."

By the way, some of the groundwork for Huxley and Hodgkins' breakthrough was done by Cambridge professor Richard Darwin Keynes, a fellow who had to go through life as practically the only man among his family and friends who didn't win the Nobel or have a historic Ism named after him.
Andrew Fielding Huxley was born in London on Nov. 22, 1917, the son of Leonard Huxley, a writer, and the former Rosalind Bruce. 
His grandfather Thomas Huxley was a noted 19th-century biologist and early proponent of evolutionary theory. Julian Huxley, a pioneer in the field of animal behavior, and Aldous Huxley, the author of “Brave New World” and other works, were half brothers from his father’s first marriage. 
Professor Huxley said his famous siblings had little influence on him when he was growing up; in fact, he said, they seemed more like uncles than brothers because of the age differences: Julian was 30 and Aldous was 23 when Andrew was born. He credited his technical gifts to his mother, who encouraged woodworking and was good with her hands.

He was also a direct descendant of educational reformer Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby and one of Lytton Strachey's four Eminent Victorians, and a grand-nephew of poet Matthew Arnold, whose 1851 poem "On Dover Beach" provided the mood music for Darwinism.

Correction: The two prominent writers among the three, Aldous and Julian, were related to the writing Arnolds through their mother. Andrew was not.

Here's a long Wikipedia article on the Huxley family, their accomplishments and their psychiatric problems. It concludes:
... but both the talent and the mental problems would have interested Francis Galton: "The direct result of this enquiry is... to prove that the laws of heredity are as applicable to the mental faculties as to the bodily faculties".

If you Google on 

eugenics pseudoscience

you get 115,000 pages. So, obviously, the efforts at good breeding undertaken at least since the 18th century by the friends, family, and forebearers of the original Darwinians were all for nought.


Anonymous said...

Steve, Northeast Asians living in the USA still believe in and practice eugenics. They just know enough not to defend it in public

Nanonymous said...

Andrew Huxley explained how nerves work. Another British guy, Hugh Huxley, explained no less a fundamental thing - how muscles work. It's one of the great flukes in science that Hugh still does not have a Nobel. The strange thing is that the two are said to have "no detectable relationship", yet Hugh looks like he could have easily been Andrew's first cousin (if not brother).

Speaking of eugenics and Nobels, it should not pass unnoticed that frequency of relatives winning Nobel prize is many orders of magnitude higher than the frequency of Nobel prize winners in population:

Curies are famous for this. Less know is that Niels Bohr's son Aage is also a Nobel laureate. Others: Kornbergs, Braggs, Thomsons, Siegbahns (all fathers and sons), Tinbergens (brothers!). Notably (and predictably), there are no relatives winning soft "Nobels". In total, there were less than 400 science Nobelists.

Anonymous said...

Oddly, a branch of my lineage from the Ozarks was keen on eugenics in a rather barefoot way. Before the advent of the automobile and before railroads made much dent in moutainous areas (the RR arrived about 1899) in the locale relevant to this commentary), tethered to horse back or buggy, in mountainous country, folks didn't get far to court and spark etc. Negative inbreeding was a big problem for the portion of the folk on the right side of the rather dimmer Bell Curve in the region. Some families were characterized as having "tainted blood" etc. and were avoided. Of course, with the average rural family size running over five siblings and with the breeding of livestock, hunting dogs, etc., it was a little hard even for the duller folks to be environmentalists. Folks didn't have a lot of problem realizing that stuff like courtship (there was some imported "bundling") had a eugenic usefulness. And lust was just baaad breeding strategy. Of course, the absence of tee vee helped presever rationality among the not especially giften general population. A lot of families had several kids who could not merely master long divison but actually pick up on some of calculus---all because they stayed away from "tainted blood". Not a British glory story, but solid as rock, anyhow. And untold.

AllanF said...

Darwin Huxley Keynes and Galton

Wow. If one didn't know any better, one might think those 4 families (or should we call them one) are responsible for every evil thought, outside of Marxism, in the 20th century.

Would it be safe to call them the pinnacle of scientific dynasties? Actually, scientific dynasties seem fairly thin on the ground -- regression to the mean and all, I reckon. Along those lines, it would be interesting to know if there was tacit eugenic breeding within the family, or was it all just random selection bias?

AllanF said...

I stand corrected. Upon further examination, there is no apparent overlap between the Huxley and Darwin-Galton-Keynes clans.

Steve Sailer said...

Wikipedia has an article on the Huxley family. It turns out that a Huxley married a Darwin post-WWII.

Anonymous said...

The poem is simply "Dover Beach."

...the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain...

Anonymous said...

Polly Toynbee is the doyen of the British chattering classes. She is painfully PC and would be appalled at the sentiments expressed in this article. Try reading the wiki entry on her and you will see why the chatterati find HBD so har to swallow.

sunbeam said...

Okay, I have absolutely no idea what kind of point you were driving at with this article.

You start off the piece with the life and accomplishments of Andrew Huxley. You talk a bit about his family.

Then you end it with something about 115,000 pages on a google search for "eugenics pseudoscience," in the context of it being ironic.

I don't get it, what is this all about, because I'm missing it?

Anonymous said...


"Writing in The New York Times Book ­Review, Jonathan Rosen—a mild-mannered Jewish public intellectual whose most recent book was a meditation on bird-­watching—savaged Beinart for his 'Manichaean simplicities'”


Uhhhhhhhhh, since when were Jews bothered by Manichean simps, such as "opposing 'gay marriage' or 'open borders' is neo-nazi 'homophobic' and 'xenophobic' wickedness. It's odioxios too."


Anonymous said...

Genes have nothing to do with performance. That's why the sperm from prize horses, bulls,or dogs is worthless --- NOT!

AllanF said...

Wikipedia has an article on the Huxley family.

Haha. Yeah, I saw that, after writing my correction. My correction was prompted by seeing the Darwin-Galton Tree, in case you haven't seen that one. It was only after I looked at the one and wrote my correction that I then went and searched for the Huxleys.

The remarkable thing to me is how many wikipedia-articles there are among those two families.

Anonymous said...


More BS from anti-'racists'.

Dutch Boy said...

I don't think anyone has a problem with smart people marrying smart people (DIY eugenics). We DO have a problem with the government trying to implement official eugenics policies, e.g., sterilizations, Lebensborns, etc..

NOTA said...

There are different ideas and actions that are common and related to eugenics, though not quite the same.

a. Assortive mating is now common, due to women going to selective colleges and getting into selective professions that require high IQ. That nice girl you met in grad school is probably bringing genes for intelligence to the marriage.

b. Many people explicitly or implicitly think in terms of having smart, tall, healthy, happy kids when they're choosing a mate.

c. Many people looking for sperm donors or egg donors want high IQ donors, since intelligence is such a helpful thing in life.

d. A very few people think in terms of the population of the next generation, choosing to remain childless or have lots of kids for the good of the world.

a-c are fundamentally individualistic--I marry a smart girl so our one lavishly raised child will have a shot at getting into Harvard, or I'm 18 and horny at Stanford instead of back home in Springfield, IL, so I meet up with a smart girl from one of my classes instead of a state employee receptionist with an IQ of 100. In fact, a-b may have a dysgenic effect overall, since smarter people tend to have fewer kids, and most people who want to marry and have kids manage it sooner or later.

d is eugenics in the sense of Ronald Fisher stretching himself to raise nine kids, on the theory that his kids are likely to raise the IQ of the population. (Surely, he was right.).

Anonymous said...

@AllanF & Steve

From the obituary in The Telegraph

"Andrew Huxley married, in 1947, Jocelyn Richenda Pease, the daughter of the geneticist Michael Pease and his wife Helen Bowen Wedgwood, a daughter of the 1st Lord Wedgwood. She died in 2003; they had five daughters and a son."

In other words, there is a connection to Darwin, via the not so unknown Wedgewoods...

more about the Pease family



AllanF said...

geneticist Michael Pease and his wife Helen Bowen Wedgwood, a daughter of the 1st Lord Wedgwood

Sounds like a tacit breeding program to me. :-) But to be fair that's true for all the upper social classes. The question really is, were the Huxley-Darwin et al any more so than usual for their class and time.

@DutchBoy Please spare us the hyperbolic straw man. Govt policy is loathe to admit there is such a thing as human capital. All of humanity is a blank slate, held back only by a lack of good education and institutionalized racial bias.

Dutch Boy said...

Dear AllanF: Strawman? Sterilization programs and Lebenborns existed. Our current gov't is more into the dysgenics game by making it difficult for those on the ball to accumulate enough wealth to raise their brainy kids (not to mention the anti-natalist propaganda pushed at the educated).

Silver said...

We DO have a problem with the government trying to implement official eugenics policies, e.g., sterilizations, Lebensborns, etc..

That's most people's problem. It frightens the wits out of them to think they could be "marked as undesirable." Or if people are certain they couldn't be so marked, then it makes them extremely uncomfortable that anyone else could be.

Mercifully, even the simplest, most 'non-invasive' anti-dysgenic measures can be effective. Why not simply pay the poor not to have kids or to have only one? We already pay them for having kids, so we've got the payment part down pat. We just need switch the polarity of the reproductive incentive around from having children to not having them.

It's hard to think of a clearer case of win-win, really. Both financially and mentally/psychologically the poor come out streets ahead, and the rest us will, in time, have to endure fewer of the problems that the poor -- and almost exclusively the poor -- cause.

Financially, the poor will quickly become much less poor. Firstly, because children cost money, so the fewer of them they have the less money they need to spend. Secondly, because in addition to having to spend less on kids, they'd also be receiving a payment for forgoing children.

And psychologically, the poor already struggle to sort out the mess their lives are often in. Adding children to the mix surely doesn't help. Alleviating the stress too many children cause would surely be doing them a favor.

Simple as it all is, the fear the E-word generates, as mentioned in the first paragraph, means that few people are capable of even reasoning this far, let alone actually supporting such a policy. Nevertheless, we have to battle on.

NOTA said...


I expect we could move our incentives in tht direction, but I wonder how big the impact would be. People at the bottom are often not all that great at thinking in terms of incentives that will make their lives harder or easier in two or three years. And we're not going to be willing to let anyone's kids starve, even if their parents are irresponsible fools, so there is only so far the incenrives can go. Nor do I see us taking kids away or forcibly sterilizing people for having irresponsible numbers of kids they can't support.

I suspect short-term pament for sterilization surgery or long-term birth control is as good as any policy we can carry out. Offer men with large outstanding child support bills some kind of relief from their bills in exchage for getting a vasectomy. Offer unwed mothers on public assistance an up-front payment for getting their tubes tied. And so on. All this amounts to making it easier to not have a baby you can't take care of than to have one, if you follow your immediate incentives.

Bruce Banner said...

But Darwin did marry a first cousin, paki-style!

Silver said...


The mild measures you put forward in your second paragraph are the kind of thing I myself have in mind. Those are the sorts of things you could even sneak in under the radar somewhat, or at least create sufficient obfuscation around them to overcome the obstructionists (consider Planned Parenthood's activities). But I think the goal should be to move society in a consciously more eugenic direction, so there should be an incrementally greater focus on the, umm, "sociobiology"(?) of the policies being enacted. That way in time what is today unspeakable -- eg sterilization of violent criminals -- will become unremarkable. So the likelihood that the impact will only be mild in the short term should not deter us. We should look at it as making a start. (There will almost definitely need to be another word for "eugenics", though, else I fear we'll be battling alarm bells for the rest of our lives.)

Nevertheless, it's worth considering some more fully-fledged scenarios because they can help us envision what the future could be like and provide us with some guidance on how we should act in the present.

For example, I've been wondering how much a 'blanket' anti-dysgenic paymet program might cost. Let's say we assume that $10,000 a year payment would be enough incentive for a girl/woman from a poor family to forgo childbirth. If we pay that to all women between the ages of 15 and 30 (you could stagger it some), by my calculation the cost comes to some $300 billion, give or take. That's a pretty hefty price tag considering the prevailing 'eugenic mood' today (ie near zero). But would it really be considered exorbitant in a eugenic-minded society? $10k, I am guessing, is almost certainly at the high end of the feasibility range (the range of subsidy amounts that would produce results), so it would probably cost even less than that. In time, of course, the need for such a program would lessen, rather than (like most social programs) increase, both because of the eugenic results of the program, but also because of the eugenic-mindedness it would engender in the populace. Simple as the program is, this is just a rough sketch of the basic outlines. But even at this simplistic level I think it can spark some ideas of the possibilities that lie ahead if only we're willing to acknowledge their moral and fiscal plausibility.

Anonymous said...

Ozarks, etc. Look, the "show quality" selective breeding the British upper class stratum provides is interesting...but I find it more practical to consider how US contemporary life obscures what rural life more than a century revealed about the role of genes in human quality. That this would be evident especially in a biologically and culturally backward area (Ozarks) is a bit closer to current nitty gritty. People sought to avoid "tained blood" so maybe they could be smart enough to learn enough to be able to do "indoor work" as they got older and their muscles and joints were less robust. The evidence of the senses supported realism. Nowadays, in a technetronic immersion, the evidence of the senses is more a source of delusion than of realism. I've frequently run across skilled blue collar people of above average native smarts who considered it self evident that genes are of central importance to IQ and to major aspects of character. In the skilled trade world, reality is replete with workplace demands that are vitually non-verbal IQ tests (e.g., how to load a truck to accommodate the competing demands of off loading, weight, size, etc.) It is among 'brainy' campus types that the delusphere distortions have proliferated in a verbal manipulative enviornment so conducive to Prufrocks. Class backwards, may we say?

Unknown said...

Searching informations about Eugenics you should read the SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE paper: Eugenicss and the Nazis, the California Connection (link below). "Here of all places" an article about Eugenics in Sweden, the country with the longest tradition of race hygiene and Eugenics legislation (the article appeared in "ECONOMIST) and probably purchase the most important book about Eugenics: Edwin Black's: War against the Weak - America's Campaign to Create a Master Race."
You will find at least a lot of new keywords for GOOGLE searches and begin to understand the importance of a free Internet.