Esther M. Zimmer Lederberg: No Supporter of Eugenics
"For the effective genetic improvement of mankind is dependent
on major changes in social conditions, and correlative changes in
human attitudes. In the first place, there can be no valid basis
for estimating and comparing the intrinsic worth of different
individuals without economic and social conditions which provide
approximately equal opportunities for all members of society instead
of stratifying them from birth into classes with widely different
Hermann J. Muller, "A Geneticist's Manifesto", 19391
"Do we not still sinfully waste a treasure of knowledge by
ignoring the creative possibilities of genetic improvement? ... to accomplish
in one or two generations of eugenic practice what would now take ten or one
Joshua Lederberg, ""Biological Future of Man", in Man and His Future, 19632
Dr. Esther M. Zimmer Lederberg was always the scientist, always the humanist.
She never supported racial theories, she opposed racism!
There are two major views concerning racism. The view entertained by most cultural
anthropologists, sociologists, and historians is that "racism" is the
ideology of slavery and aspects of social stratification
or inequality that followed slavery. Over the centuries, attempts to make this
ideology respectable evolved (often with interrelationships to Herbert Spencer's
"Social Darwinism"), in what became known as "scientific racism". Thus, the dangerous
relationship between genetics and political applications of genetics such as "eugenics".
There are geneticists who use a form of "scientific racism", redefining race not as an
ideology, but as statistical distributions of the genetics of various segments of the
population (much as Shockley attempted), such as subpopulations of Negroes, Jews,
criminals, the mentally ill, the poor, etc. For example, some
geneticists extend genetics to classify followers of specific ideologies as races.
Other examples of racism include:
Using theistic-based ideologies such as Judaism, to define a race (or "nation")
Using nation-based ideologies such as Lusotropicalism
to define a race
Using climate- or geographic-based ideologies to define a race
Note that here an ideology is used to define a race, and
is also to be understood as being inherited. Of course,
genetic diseases that affect different segments of the population, while being
of great value from the point of view of medicine, can hardly be used to redefine
racism to make racism respectable. In simple terms, these new forms of population
studies have nothing to do with the ideology of race. When they insist on redefining
race in these terms, they transcend genetics and become pseudo-scientific forms of
Using Bubonic Plague to remove black people: an example of negative eugenics
The cartoon at left, entitled "Patriotism Put to the Test",
appeared in La Discusion on July 6, 1912. The white
man recommends that as the ultimate patriotic sacrifice,
peaceful blacks should inoculate themselves with the bubonic
plague then rampant in Havana, and join the followers of
Ivonnet. It implies that as a result, Afro-Cubans would
disappear altogether. (Bibliotecca Nacional "José Martí") 5
Genetcists 6 often view eugenics
(or, as it was also known in the NAZI party, "racial hygiene") in surprising ways.
For example, the views of Ernst Mayr have been called
"positive eugenics" as opposed to "negative eugenics." "Positive eugenics" favors the
reproduction of "good" genes (think of the film Dr. Strangelove). "Negative eugenics"
favors the eradication of "bad" genes (think of any method that fosters "racial purity"
by sterilization, legal restrictions on reproduction, genocide, death camps, etc.). The
Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology (KWI-A) was the German center for studying eugenics. There,
researchers such as Eugen Fischer (support from I.G.
Farbenindustrie) could study skull shapes to identify "inferior" peoples.
7 The collection of skulls included
those obtained after the genocide of the Herero peoples in Deutsch Südwestafrika (German South West Africa) at Rehoboth
and the capital at Windhoek, the first inspector and first governor being Heinrich Göring).
The atrocities in Deutsch Südwestafrika (German South West Africa) during the
Second Reich were a forerunner of the Holocaust during the Third Reich. However, similar atrocities
also occurred in Deutsch Ostafrika
(German East Africa). The atrocities that took place in the German African colonies also presaged the
atrocities that took place in Wartheland
(German Ost). Discussions may be found:
"Report on the natives of South-West Africa and their treatment by
Germany" (also known as the British Bluebook of 1918) still censored
Hannah Arendt, "The origins of totalitarianism"
Horst Dreschsler, "Let Us Die Fighting"
Casper W. Erichsen, "The angel of death has descended violently among them: Concentration camps and
prisoners-of-war in Namibia, 1904-08"
Karla Poewe, "The Namibian Herero: a History of Their Psychosocial Disintegration
and Survival" [sic] (some might welcome a viewpoint more compatible
with the views found at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute)
Jeremy Sarkin, "Germany's Genocide of the Herero: Kaiser Wilhelm II,
His General, His Settlers, His Soldiers"
Hans-Walter Schmühl, "The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics,
Heinrich Vedder, "South West Africa in Early Times" (for
those who admire Hitler)
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories (CSHL),under the leadership of
Charles Davenport ("Heredity in Relation to
Eugenics", 1911) was historically the premier center of the
Eugenics movement in the United States. It was not until 1963 (!)
that the CSHL de-emphasized the relationship to eugenics. (For a look at how CSHL now
positions its involvement in eugenics and genetics in the 20th century, see the DNA Learning
Center website at http://www.dnalc.org.)
CSHL later became known as a center for research in genetics. However, some of the geneticists
retained their connections to eugenics. The views of the
following geneticists with regard to eugenics might prove enlightening:
Davenport, Charles 9
Lederberg, Joshua 2, 10
Muller, H. J. 1
Once again, it must be emphasized that Esther Lederberg
opposed racism. She never used her scientific discoveries in support of eugenics
or racism. However, failing to make a distinction between racism as an ideology
and instead viewing racism as being based upon a genetic distribution has led
many ignorant people — as well as distinguished scientists — to hold
"Scientist apologizes for hurtful remarks"
By MALCOLM RITTER, AP Science Writer
October 18, 2007
NEW YORK - James Watson, the 79-year-old scientific icon made
famous by his work in DNA, has set off an international furor
with comments to a London newspaper about intelligence levels
Watson, who's chancellor of the renowned Cold Spring Harbor
Laboratory in New York, has a history of provocative statements
about social implications of science. But several friends said
Thursday he's no racist. And Watson, who won a Nobel Prize in
1962 for co-discovering the structure of DNA, apologized and
says he's "mortified."
A profile of Watson in the Sunday Times Magazine of London
quoted him as saying that he's "inherently gloomy about the
prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based
on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours —
whereas all the testing says not really." While he hopes everyone
is equal, "people who have to deal with black employees find this
is not true," Watson is quoted as saying. He also said people
should not be discriminated against on the basis of color,
because "there are many people of color who are very talented."
The comments, reprinted Wednesday in a front-page article in
another British newspaper, The Independent, provoked a sharp
reaction. London's Science Museum canceled a sold-out lecture
he was to give there Friday. The mayor of London, Ken
Livingstone, said his comments "represent racist propaganda
masquerading as scientific fact.... That a man of such
academic distinction could make such ignorant comments, which
are utterly offensive and incorrect and give succor to the
most backward in our society, demonstrates why racism still
has to be fought."
In the United States, the Federation of American Scientists
said it was outraged that Watson "chose to use his unique
stature to promote personal prejudices that are racist, vicious
and unsupported by science." And Watson's employer said he wasn't
speaking for the Cold Spring Harbor research facility, where the
board and administration "vehemently disagree with these
statements and are bewildered and saddened if he indeed made
Watson is in Britain to promote his new book, "Avoid Boring
People," and a publicist for his British publisher provided this
statement Thursday to The Associated Press:
"I am mortified about what has happened," Watson said. "More
importantly, I cannot understand how I could have said what I am
quoted as having said. I can certainly understand why people,
reading those words, have reacted in the ways they have. To all
those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa,
as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only
apologize unreservedly. That is not what I meant. More
importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis
for such a belief." [...] A spokesman for The Sunday Times said
that the interview with Watson was recorded and that the newspaper
stood by the story.
Watson's new book also touches on possible racial differences in
IQ, though it doesn't go as far as the newspaper interview. In
the book, Watson raises the prospect of discovering genes that
significantly affect a person's intelligence. "...There is no
firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of
peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove
to have evolved identically," Watson wrote. "Our wanting to
reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of
humanity will not be enough to make it so."
Watson is no stranger to making waves with his scientific views.
In 2000, in a speech at the University of California, Berkeley,
he suggested that sex drive is related to skin color. "That's why
you have Latin lovers," he said, according to people who attended.
"You've never heard of an English lover. Only an English patient."
Mike Botchan, co-chair of the molecular and cell biology
department at the University of California, Berkeley, who's
known Watson since 1970, said the Nobelist's personal beliefs
are less important than the impact of what he says.
"Is he someone who's going to prejudge a person in front of
him on the basis of his skin color? I would have to say, no.
Is he someone, though, that has these beliefs? I don't know any
more. And the important thing is I don't really care," Botchan
said. "I think Jim Watson is now essentially a disgrace to his own
legacy. And it's very sad for me to say this, because he's one
of the great figures of 20th century biology."
Associated Press writers Thomas Wagner in London and Seth
Borenstein in Washington contributed to this story.
These racist views of James Watson are relatively benign when
compared to the views of an early director of Cold Spring Harbor
Laboratories, Charles Davenport. In the 1920's, eugenics was
understood to be simply another variant of racist hatred, a program
of Fascist ideology. This became public knowledge as a result of
the celebrated debate between Davenport, Morris Steggerda, and the
founder of modern cultural anthropology, Franz Boas (
"Eugenics" by Franz Boas, "The Scientific Monthly" (AAAS), vol. 3, No.
5, Nov. 1916, pp. 471-478;
click to see "Eugenics" by Franz Boas
This debate focused on "racial mixing" (or miscegenation). Thus,
James Watson's racist views have not yet diverged from Cold Spring
Harbor Laboratories' director, Charles Davenport.
At the Seventh International Congress of
Genetics in Edinburgh, May 1939, H. J. Muller reconsidered
his position with regard to eugenics and wrote "A Geneticist's
Journal of Heredity, 1939, vol. 30, pp. 371-373
which included the following six major points:
For the effective genetic improvement of mankind is dependent on major
changes in social conditions, and correlative changes in human attitudes.
In the first place, there can be no valid basis for estimating and
comparing the intrinsic worth of different individuals without economic and
social conditions which provide approximately equal opportunities for all
members of society instead of stratifying them from birth into classes with
widely different privileges.
The elimination of all forms of racism.
The elimination of economic and social difficulties in the rearing of children.
The legalization and universal dissemination of efficacious means of birth
A widespread recognition among all people of the world that both environment
and heredity are inescapably complementary factors in human well-being.
Agreement upon the direction, or directions, that any conscious selection of
genetic characteristics, especially those affecting health, intelligence, or
cooperativeness, should take.
(See Bentley Glass,
"Geneticists Embattled: Their Stand Against Rampant Eugenics
and Racism in America During the 1920s and 1930s", Proceedings
of the American Philosophical Society 130(1) 1986, pp. 130-154
It is clear that this formulation of a Geneticist's Manifesto by Muller is a much
more thoughtful view of what a science of eugenics could become. It is also clear
that in reference to Footnote #2 (below), Joshua Lederberg as well as other
geneticists who came after Muller, should have paid more attention to Muller's
Geneticists' Manifesto. We have gained much by pondering what Muller has said,
rather than espousal of scientific racism, religion, or trying to sever genetics
from its social context.
"Man and his Future", Gordon Wolstenholme (Ed.), J. & A.
Churchill Ltd., London, 1963, p. 264
; also excerpted on the book's back page.
"Given the unique cultural and racial background of metropolitan Portugal,
Portuguese explorers and colonizers demonstrated a special ability —
found among no other people in the world — to adapt to tropical lands
and peoples. The Portuguese colonizer, basically poor and humble, did not
have the exploitive motivations of his counterpart from the more
industrialized countries in Europe. Consequently, he immediately entered
into cordial relations with the non-European populations he met in the
tropics. This is clearly demonstrated through Portugal's initial contacts
with the Bakongo Kingdom in the latter part of the fifteenth century. The
ultimate proof of the absence of racism among the Portuguese, however, is
found in Brazil, whose large and socially prominent Mestiço population
is living testimony to the freedom of social and sexual intercourse between
Portuguese and non-Europeans. Portuguese non-racism is also evidenced by
the absence in Portuguese law of the racist legislation in South Africa and
until recently in the United States by non-whites from specific occupations,
facilities, etc. Finally, any prejudice or discrimination in territories
formerly or presently governed by Portugal can be traced to class, but never
Bender, G. J., "Angola under the Portuguese: The Myth and the Reality",
Univ. of Calif. Press, 1978, p. 3, 4.
"Some Portuguese thought that the 'moulding' of Africans should be carried
out with an iron hand. Carlos Eduardo de Soveral (1952, p. 136) for example,
argued in his sociological study of Angola that an African 'likes to be strongly
commanded [by Europeans] and, as all primitive beings, is so close in this
aspect to the animal, he wants and loves the vigorous hand rather than the
Bender, G. J., "Angola under the Portuguese: The Myth and the Reality",
Univ. of Calif. Press, 1978, p. 206.
Soveral, Carlos Eduardo de, "Introdução a um estudo sociológico
de Angola", Boletim da Sociedade de Geografia de Lisboa 70
(April-June), pp. 127-146.
"For the production of good fruit the three factors of good stock, proper
cultivation, and favorable clamatic conditions are absolutely necessary. Are
they equally essential to the fruit known as civilization? We all admit that
race and the thing which for lack of a better name we call cultivation or
training are of vital importance, but is it also true that man cannot rise to
a high level except where the climate is propitious? From the days of Aristotle
to those of Montesquieu and Buckle, there have been men who have believed that
climate is the most important factor in determining the status of civilization.
[...] Few doubt that climate has an important relation to civilization, but
equally few consider it so important as racial inheritance, [...]"
Huntington, Ellsworth, "Civilization and Climate", Yale University Press,
1940, p. 2.
("Geographic Anthropology" was a subject taught at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute
of Anthropogy, circa 1927 - 1945.)
Helg, Aline, "Our Rightful Share: The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality,
1886-1912", University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1995,
p. 236 (Figure C-7).
The objective of eugenics may not only be concerned with disease but also
"social diseases", meaning "behavior". Esther
M. Lederberg was always the humanist as well as the scientist. Esther M.
Lederberg never conflated ideologies such as religion, racism, and eugenics
with science. While Esther M. Lederberg shared the dream of ameliorating or
remedying the effects of disease, Esther was always opposed to eugenics.
"Let the scientists say what they will. They must then provide experimental
evidence." Thus, with regard to eugenics, Esther M. Lederberg and Joshua
Lederberg held diametrically opposed and irreconcilable views. Esther M.
Lederberg never used religion to support her views, only science.
To see Esther's private commentary on her then-husband's views,
as expressed in the margins of her personal copy of "Man and His
Future", click here.
A variety of physical features were the object of study at Kaiser
Wilhelm Institute, including the shape and size of ears, eye color,
hair color, the size and shape of noses, internal organs, in addition
to skull shape. Races considered inferior, such as Jews, were
stereotyped using these very same features: sunken eyes, elongated
ears and noses. The film "Nosferatu" ("Dracula") expresses these
stereotypes circa 1927 and after: precisely when the Kaiser
Wilhelm Institute was actively underwriting these studies.
An interesting discussion that touches upon some of these questions may
be found in
"Interview with Professor James Crow", BioEssays, 28, 660-678,
In reference to the well-publicized dispute between the founder of modern
Cultural Anthropology, Franz Boas, and Charles Davenport (in collaboration
with Morris Steggarda), in which Davenport and Steggarda were unable to
provide scientific support for their views concerning racism, one must
consider that the Directors of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories (as opposed
to most of the researchers) still support the racist views of Charles
("Geneticists Embattled: Their Stand Against Rampant Eugenics
and Racism in America During the 1920s and 1930s", Proceedings of the
American Philosophical Society 130(1) 1986, pp. 130-154)
is fairly dismissive of Davenport's views. He points out the comment by
H. S. Jennings concerning Davenport, that "... Doctor Davenport seemed to be
able to explain everything so well, just by chemistry and physics ... Doctor
Davenport has decided views as to how things go—and is apt to present
the facts bearing in support of that view in his lectures, and not say
anything about other facts—except that 'Such and such a man got a
different result, which is unexplained.'... but if you happen to go and read
the article of the man that got a different result—you find those facts
just as important as the others—and you see that the theories don't
Much science fiction combined with reductionism, with views that most
researchers in Sociology, Cultural Anthropology and History would strongly
oppose. It is stated that "The basic concept of molecular biology is the
chain of information from DNA to RNA to protein. We are just now beginning to
ask questions of mental mechanism from this point of view." and "At a
considerable cost in its rate the evolutionary process might be confined to
sex-limited, -linked, or -irrelevant mutations, if any, which affect
personality." Hence, Joshua Lederberg accepts that mental and psychological
observables are due to genetics even in the absence of experimental evidence.
"MOLECULAR BIOLOGY, EUGENICS AND EUPHENICS", Joshua Lederberg, Nature,
198, 4879, 428-429, May 4, 1963
"We are just now beginning" is a euphemistic way of saying that there is
no, or very limited, scientific evidence. Esther M. Lederberg's opposing views
can be found in Anecdote #7 and this page's Footnote 6: "Let the scientists say
what they will. They must then provide experimental evidence."
To further corroborate the benevolently racist view of Joshua Lederberg,
click here to read his 1969 article, "Shockley's
Accusation of Lysenkoism".