As the 20th Century began, “widespread support for the principles of eugenics was enjoyed across political and class divides,” according to Adam Rutherford’s new book Control: The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics.

Titans of American industry with virtually limitless wealth plowed their millions into eugenics projects. The formal and scientific base came with the founding of the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) in Cold Spring Harbor in Long Island in 1910. Over the years, the majority of its funding would come from the philanthropy of the Carnegie Institution for Science, the Rockefeller Foundation and from the estate of Mary Harriman, the multimillionaire philanthropist and the widow of railroad tycoon E. H. Harriman.

This is part of philanthropy’s “original sin,” as my fellow Giving Review co-editor William A. Schambra aptly described it a decade ago, among his other courageous work on eugenics and progressive philanthropy throughout his career. “[N]othing says ‘root-cause solution’ like eugenics—digging up the defective genes that seemed to explain most of society’s ills, and then eradicating them forever by sterilizing their human hosts,” Schambra noted here in 2020.

Rutherford’s Control reminds us again of this historical transgression. Ian Dowbiggin’s recent review of Control in The American Conservative calls it “a ‘woke’ history of eugenics,” but the book could and should also help renew Schambra’s and others’ call for a full and fair accounting of that which progressive foundations funded and fomented in this area—and, as important, why.

As an ideology

“The key person in the ERO’s inception, and indeed the central figure for eugenics in the United States, was Charles Davenport,” writes Rutherford—a geneticist, author, and documentarian. He has worked at the scientific journal Nature and co-hosts BBC Radio 4’s weekly Inside Science program.

The grant-supported “Davenport was the driving force for the development of studying human heredity, and applying it as an ideology,” Rutherford continues in Control. “There are few men more deeply embedded in the fabric of American eugenics. …

“Davenport saw the social change of the American people as the manifest destiny of” the new science of heredity, Rutherford writes. Davenport’s “interests moved from animal heredity to the traits of humans, and though he maintained an interest in physical traits and diseases, before long he began pontificating on the standard canards of the Victorian eugenicist and social campaigner” Francis Galton. These included “alcoholism, criminality, feeblemindedness, intelligence, manic depression (and, weirdly, seafaringness).” In 1910, Rutherford reports, Davenport wrote that heredity “stands as the one great hope of the human race; its savior from imbecility, poverty, disease, immorality.”

The Davenport-led ERO had two objectives, as Rutherford tells it. They were

to campaign for the deployment of eugenics policies around the United States—specifically, for reduced immigration and the forced sterilization of “defectives”—and, principally, to compile records of families and their characters, as if constructing a national pedigree to be pored over, and from which the American stock could be improved.

Schambra highlights that Davenport also distinguished between mere charity and “root-cause” progressive philanthropy. In a booklet published in 1910, Davenport lamented that “tens of millions have been given to bolster up the weak and alleviate the suffering of the sick,” while “no important means have been provided to enable us to learn how the stream of weak and susceptible protoplasm may be checked.” Davenport insisted that “vastly more effective than ten million dollars to ‘charity’ would be ten millions to Eugenics. He who, by such a gift, should redeem mankind from vice, imbecility and suffering would be the world’s wisest philanthropist.”

In Fall 2020, Carnegie Institution for Science president Dr. Eric D. Isaacs issued a formal apology for its funding of eugenics research. After briefly overviewing that history, Isaacs’ refreshingly and admirably straightforward statement said

we have expressed our institutional distress over the impact of these actions by attempting to distance ourselves from our involvement in this morally reprehensible endeavor. There is no excuse, then or now, for our institution’s previous willingness to empower researchers who sought to pervert scientific inquiry to justify their own racist and ableist prejudices. Our support of eugenics made us complicit in driving decades of brutal and unconscionable actions by governments in the United States and around the world. As the President of the Carnegie Institution for Science, I want to express my sincere and profound apologies for this organization’s past involvement in these horrific pseudoscientific activities.

While perhaps not meant to do so, the Isaacs apology did not more largely address the effects of root-cause progressivism or those funders animated by it.
Rutherford’s Control covers funding support of eugenics by the Pioneer Fund, too. Started in 1937 by Davenport’s deputy Harry Laughlin, the fund is now home to “shallow-thinking provocateurs” who unapologetically cater to “cranks, self-styled heretics and racist fools,” as Rutherford puts it.

Knowledge in the hands of competent technicians

Rutherford describes additional Rockefeller Foundation support of various other eugenics projects, as well. In 1929, Rockefeller began funding the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics (KWIA) in Berlin. Between its founding in 1927 and its disbanding after World War II, “much of the key scientific justification for the Nazis’ ideology on racism, eugenics and racial hygiene was done here, with Eugen Fischer as its first director,” according to Rutherford.
“Although it might seem anomalous to us today, eugenics as it was perceived then fitted squarely within [the foundation’s] remit of science, public health and medicine,” along with its funding of ERO, Rutherford writes. As a Rockefeller report cited by Schambra in his “original-sin” article put it, the foundation’s funding was designed to “increase the body of knowledge which in the hands of competent technicians may be expected in time to result in substantial social control.”
Rockefeller grants “were also given to Fischer and the German eugenicist Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer to work on twin studies,” on the basis of a belief “that identical twins provided a natural experiment to extract nature from nurture,” according to Rutherford.
It is not clear what the motivation was for the Rockefeller Foundation to continue to fund German research into ideas of racial hygiene before and after Hitler’s rise to power, and the charity had all but withdrawn support before the onset of war in 1939. Nevertheless, it had provided an essential financial base for research that was wedded to the ideology that defined the Third Reich’s eugenics policies. Verschuer’s assistant, Josef Mengele, would take this idea to heart, with unimaginably cruel experimentation on twins in the concentration camp at Auschwitz throughout the war.
By 1939, Rockefeller “had pulled the financial plug on the ERO,” too, “and America had abandoned the epicenter of eugenic thinking,” Rutherford notes. “Eugenics, a scientific creed only a few decades old, had enjoyed a global blossoming at the hands of the powerful, until the deranged murderous horrors of the Nazis were revealed to the world. And then, it was all over.”
Unlike Carnegie, Rockefeller has never apologized for its role at the roots of the horrors—neither for eugenics in general, nor the specific use of it by the evil.

Our present

The second part of Control examines contemporary trends related to eugenics, or arising from the same basic rationales. Current “[p]opulation control policies that resemble eugenics,” for example, are widespread globally, including sex-selective abortion, forced sterilization, and subsidized contraception to get at various root causes. “Toxic though the word may be, the ideas underlying eugenics are not historical,” he observes. “They are our present.”
Pregnancies can be and are screened for certain genetic disorders, which can thus then be “prevented.” While Rutherford does not believe these techniques are necessarily eugenics, he acknowledges that they “share history and scientific ancestry” with eugenics.
“At its inception, eugenics was the fetishization of a science for political ends. It is no different today,” Rutherford concludes.
It is normal to wish to reduce the chance of danger or disease, and elicit control ….
… We all want our kin, our tribe, our friends and compatriots to succeed in their endeavors, in their pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. But what are we willing to do to ensure it?
Those seeking control, politicizing institutions and sectors, and asserting expertise need ask that question and assess those risks. And if and when they can, those not having control, not running those institutions and sectors, or not credentialed enough to be considered expert need ask the question, too—of themselves, of course, but also aggressively and bothersomely of those who are in control, whether “across political and class divides” or not.
The Rockefeller Foundation must apologize. More generally, we should probably all be just a little more wary of “root-cause” solutions—and any philanthropy that so confidently, and comfortably, funds their development and touts proposals based on them.