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 privileges."
                          Hermann J. Muller, "A Geneticist's Manifesto", 1939

"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 hundred".
                          Joshua Lederberg, ""Biological Future of Man", in Man and His Future, 1963

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:

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 racism.

Eugenics thumbnail 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:

  1. "Report on the natives of South-West Africa and their treatment by Germany" (also known as the British Bluebook of 1918) still censored
  2. Hannah Arendt, "The origins of totalitarianism"
  3. Horst Dreschsler, "Let Us Die Fighting"
  4. Casper W. Erichsen, "The angel of death has descended violently among them: Concentration camps and prisoners-of-war in Namibia, 1904-08"
  5. 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)
  6. Jeremy Sarkin, "Germany's Genocide of the Herero: Kaiser Wilhelm II, His General, His Settlers, His Soldiers"
  7. Hans-Walter Schmühl, "The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics, 1927-1945"
  8. 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 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: 8

  1. Altenburg, E.
  2. Darlington, C.
  3. Davenport, Charles 9
  4. Dobzhansky, T.
  5. Lederberg, Joshua 2, 10
  6. Mayr, E.
  7. Muller, H. J. 1
  8. Price, B.
  9. Wright, S.

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 hateful views.

"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 among blacks.
      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 such comments."
      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.

1      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 Manifesto" ( Journal of Heredity, 1939, vol. 30, pp. 371-373 ), which included the following six major points:
  1. 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.
  2. The elimination of all forms of racism.
  3. The elimination of economic and social difficulties in the rearing of children.
  4. The legalization and universal dissemination of efficacious means of birth control.
  5. A widespread recognition among all people of the world that both environment and heredity are inescapably complementary factors in human well-being.
  6. 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.
2      "Man and his Future", Gordon Wolstenholme (Ed.), J. & A. Churchill Ltd., London, 1963, p. 264 ; also excerpted on the book's back page.
3      "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 color, prejudice."
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 gentle hand'."
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.
4      "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.)
5      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).
6      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.
7      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.
8      An interesting discussion that touches upon some of these questions may be found in "Interview with Professor James Crow", BioEssays, 28, 660-678, 2006.
9      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 Davenport.
        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) 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 work."
10      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".


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