An Interesting Weekend on the Perils of Building Better Humans

Posted by Osagie Obasogie on December 15th, 2011

Last weekend offered an interesting conversation on past and more modern attempts at building betters humans, which might ultimately say something interesting about our human future.

On Friday, the New York Times published an article on North Carolina’s deliberations on compensating victims of its eugenics program, in which nearly 8,000 people were sterilized without their consent between 1933 and 1977. This state-level program operated in the broader context of a global eugenics movement – reaching from Bloomington, Indiana, to Auschwitz  – whose ultimate goal was to use science and medicine to breed better humans by weeding out individuals deemed unfit for reproducing their ostensibly inferior traits. The Times describes a number of harrowing accounts from North Carolina during this period:

There was a 14-year-old girl deemed low-performing and “oversexed” who came from a home with poor housekeeping standards. A man who raped his daughter at 12 signed her sterilization consent when she was 16 and pregnant. A mother of five was deemed to have a low I.Q.   

Many of the victims mentioned in the Times article are still alive, including 62-year-old Charles Holt who was, in a sense, tricked into having a vasectomy as a young man. A social worker convinced his mother that this was the right thing to do since “it was a way of protecting Charles in case he were falsely accused of having fathered a child.”

Previous journalistic accounts – particularly the Winston-Salem Journal’s award-winning five-part series – have offered even more detailed descriptions of North Carolina’s chilling program and its horrific impact on people’s lives. But the New York Times has a reach and audience that may put this piece of history into mainstream consciousness.

These cases are particularly interesting in that they highlight how eugenics flourished in the United States after World War II, when eugenic ideologies were thought to have waned due to global exposure to the Holocaust’s horrors. The Times article discusses the entrenched nature of these programs by noting

about 70 percent of the North Carolina operations took place after 1945, and many of them were on poor young women and racial minorities. Nonwhite minorities made up about 40 percent of those sterilized, and girls and women about 85 percent.

Eugenics was driven by a desire to restrict reproduction to only those who were genetically gifted – a way to purify the human race for society’s betterment. But, the pursuit of human perfection is not only limited to screening or enhancement at the population level.

An example can be seen in ESPN’s broadcast of “The Marinovich Project” on Saturday evening. This one-hour documentary detailed the life of Todd Marinovich, a once heralded quarterback prospect who fell short of NFL glory. Among sports fans, the name “Marinovich” is synonymous with fanatical parenting;  Todd’s father Marv is notorious for rigorously training him to be the perfect QB from birth. Marv notes in the film:

I started from birth and [went] through a series of stretching exercises. I would grab the foot and gradually bring it back and stretch the hamstring. Quads the same way. Todd was given a limited diet. He wasn’t supposed to have any processed foods. When Todd was teething, we gave him frozen livers and kidneys. We kept them out of walkers so that they could develop hand/eye coordination. We got him to become ambidextrous so he could throw with both hands. I took him out to the football field and had him crawl hundreds of yards....One exercise that Todd did required him to stand on a balance beam in a dark room and bounce a ball while doing multiplication tables out loud.  . . . What I wanted to do was continuously raise the level of performance.

Marv notes in the film that he was quite clear about his motivations: “The question I asked myself: how well could a kid develop if you provide the perfect environment?” A 1988 article from Sports Illustrated – when Todd was in high school – offers a bit more detail on this training regimen:

What's fascinating about Marinovich, a 6'4½", 212-pound left-handed redhead, is that he is, in a real sense, America's first test-tube athlete. He has never eaten a Big Mac or an Oreo or a Ding Dong. When he went to birthday parties as a kid, he would take his own cake and ice cream to avoid sugar and refined white flour. He would eat homemade catsup, prepared with honey. He did consume beef but not the kind injected with hormones. He ate only unprocessed dairy products...

When Todd was one month old, Marv was already working on his son's physical conditioning. He stretched his hamstrings. Pushups were next. Marv invented a game in which Todd would try to lift a medicine ball onto a kitchen counter. Marv also put him on a balance beam. Both activities grew easier when Todd learned to walk. There was a football in Todd's crib from day one. "Not a real NFL ball," says Marv. "That would be sick; it was a stuffed ball."

Meanwhile, Todd's mother, Trudi, worked on the region above the neck by playing classical music (lots of Bach and Beethoven) and jazz (plenty of George Shearing and Woody Herman) in his room. Cartoons were forbidden because they were too violent. [Author's side note: Training your child from birth to play football – a sport that often leaves players with debilitating, lifelong injuries is appropriate, yet allowing him to view the animated antics of Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner is too much?]

Instead, Trudi tuned her son in to old movies like Hitchcock and Agatha Christie thrillers to spark his intellect. She dragged Todd along with his sister, Traci, now 21, to museums. To this day, when Trudi makes an unexpected turn in the car, Todd says, "Uh-oh, Mom's taking us to another museum."

Eventually Marv started gathering experts to work on every aspect of Todd's physical condition—speed, agility, strength, flexibility, quickness, body control, endurance, nutrition. He found one to improve Todd's peripheral vision. He enlisted a throwing coach and a motion coach and a psychologist. These days 13 different experts are donating their time in the name of science.

Todd became a quarterback phenom in high school, gaining national attention as the “Robo Quarterback” that ultimately landed him a football scholarship at USC. Todd’s professional career was cut short due to drug abuse – an ending not entirely unpredictable given the tremendous pressure he was put under to become what his father wanted him to be, not his own person.

One would be hard pressed to call the Marinovich’s training program a form of eugenics. However, there is an important connection in that it is the maniacal pursuit of molding individuals to excel in predetermined ways that ultimately drove eugenics at a policy level. This is the individual tragedy that’s often obscured by the population level indignities perpetrated by eugenics: even those designed to be perfect eventually suffer from the inhumanity of not being allowed to be their own person. Read together, the New York Times article and the ESPN film weave together a cautionary tale about both social and parental temptations to project a narrow view of perfection upon future generations.

Posted in Eugenics, Media Coverage, Osagie Obasogie's Blog Posts, The States


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