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Tesla, Eugenics And Rationalizing Dehumanization

by Alex KnappForbes
November 19th, 2012

Last Friday, the great blogger Matt Novak (who you should read often) uncovered evidence that Nikola Tesla, writing in 1935, had expressed his support for Eugenics.  Here’s what Tesla wrote in an article about his predictions for the year 2100.

The year 2100 will see eugenics universally established. In past ages, the law governing the survival of the fittest roughly weeded out the less desirable strains. Then man’s new sense of pity began to interfere with the ruthless workings of nature. As a result, we continue to keep alive and to breed the unfit. The only method compatible with our notions of civilization and the race is to prevent the breeding of the unfit by sterilization and the deliberate guidance of the mating instinct. Several European countries and a number of states of the American Union sterilize the criminal and the insane. This is not sufficient. The trend of opinion among eugenists is that we must make marriage more difficult. Certainly no one who is not a desirable parent should be permitted to produce progeny. A century from now it will no more occur to a normal person to mate with a person eugenically unfit than to marry a habitual criminal.
Tesla was hardly alone in believing this. Support for eugenics was one of the few things that people across political lines in the early 20th Century would agree on, from socialists like H.G. Wells to the Supreme Court of the United States to conservative Winston Churchill to libertarian science fiction writer Robert Heinlein. Several American states and European nations passes laws that sterilized those considered to have “undesirable” genes. Of course, it was Nazi Germany that expressed the logical end of the Eugenics movement – the insane desire for a pure race that ended in slaughter and death.

Support for Eugenics comes from one of the worst periods in scientific philosophy – the years stretching from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of World War II, in which the scientific determinism of classical physics was used as a prop to rationalize the prejudices of the age. Evolution was used to “scientifically” justify racism – to the point where the Bronx Zoo actually had an African man in their ape exhibit in 1906.

Socialists and fascists believed that they could “scientifically” plan a society that would produce superior results to the messiness and complexity of democracy. Capitalist leaders practiced the “scientific management” system of Frederick Taylor, which so dehumanized workers that it led to violent strikes and caused Congress to forbid its use at an arsenal where it had earlier been put in place.

These are just a handful of ideas from the 19th and 20th centuries – some of which are still influential today – that share the idea that science somehow makes it possible to plan biology and human organizations with clockwork precision. They also demonstrate how easy it is to cherry pick scientific ideas to fit your prejudices. But apart from the moral horrors that many of these ideas bring to the fore, what they also share is a fundamental misunderstanding of science. Especially as we understand the universe today.

In the 19th century, determinism was the purest scientific idea. From Newton on down stretched a line of scientists who diligently and cleverly began to see the world around us as being part of the simple operation of simple natural laws. The success of this science led to elites in many fields to believe that human organizations could be planned as easily as a cleverly designed watch. But of course, as the 19th Century turned into the 20th, and now the 20th into the 21st we’ve learned that the universe around us isn’t nearly that simple. From relativity to quantum mechanics to epigenetics to economics to chaos theory, we’ve learned that the world is full of complicated systems, many of which are so vastly complicated as to be unpredictable.

What’s more, as we’ve advanced scientifically, we’ve also advanced morally. Though there are still scientific racists lurking about (they call themselves the “Human BioDiversity” movement these days), racism is steadily dying. We’ve learned that democratic and market systems, which focus on local knowledge and accountability, produce far better results than “planned” societies – and are better for human freedom, to boot.

Furthermore, we’ve come to embrace and cherish those who in previous would have been housed in institutions (for “scientific reasons,” of course). Not only do we cherish them, they enrich human society as a whole when they are given the opportunity to flourish. The very people that Tesla would have wiped out include the autistic Temple Grandin, the paralyzed Stephen Hawking, the blind and deaf Helen Keller, and, of course, the mentally ill Nikola Tesla.

Nobody is “eugenically unfit.” Given the opportunity, we’re all capable of being our best selves and helping to create a better world.

In one of the Doctor Who Christmas specials, there is a set of dialogue that I absolutely cherish:
The Doctor: “Who’s she?”
Kazran Sardick: “Nobody important.”
The Doctor: ”Nobody important? Blimey, that’s amazing. You know that in nine hundred years of time and space I’ve never met anybody who wasn’t important before.”
Matt Smith sells the delivery on that, the tone of his voice stating in no uncertain terms the truth: everyone is important. And I fervently hope, that as the years go on, people stop cherry-picking science to bolster their belief that only a few people are.


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