War Against the Weak Essay - Critical Essays

Edwin Black

War Against the Weak

The word “eugenics,” from Greek words for “well born,” was coined by the English pioneer in statistics, Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin. Galton suggested that it might be possible to direct natural selection by encouraging marriages among people with desirable traits. Galton’s ideas remained at the level of theory until they were taken up by eugenic activists in America. Author Edwin Black traces the many strands of the American eugenics movement and argues that the movement ultimately inspired the mass murders of Jews and others by the Nazis in World War II.

The central thread of Black’s investigation is supplied by the work of American zoologist Charles Davenport, who obtained funds from the Carnegie Institute and from the widow of railroad magnate E.H. Harriman to set up a Station for Experimental Evolution at Cold Spring Harbor and a Eugenics Record Office within the station. Davenport and his lieutenant, Harry Hamilton Laughlin, were tireless in promoting eugenics and in encouraging efforts to limit births among those they deemed as unfit. Eugenicists with connections to Davenport and Laughlin were behind many legal and extralegal sterilizations of people considered to carry mental or physical taints.

Black demonstrates that the American eugenicists had many professional and organizational ties with individuals in Germany who were active in the Holocaust. However, Black may overestimate American responsibility. While the eugenicists were an energetic group, they were opposed by much of American popular opinion, and the Holocaust probably had its most important roots in Germany itself. Ultimately, Black does not offer convincing evidence that American eugenics played much of a role in the Holocaust, but he does recount a shameful and important part of American social and scientific history.

Review Sources

Booklist 99, no. 22 (August 1, 2003): 1932.

Discover 24, no. 9 (September, 2003): 77-78.

Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 14 (July 15, 2003): 945.

Library Journal 128, no. 12 (July 15, 2003): 118.

Mother Jones 28, no. 5 (September/October, 2003): 91-92.

National Review 55, no. 18 (September 29, 2003): 41-42.

The New York Times Book Review, October 5, 2003, p. 8.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 34 (August 25, 2003): 52.