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  Raymond Pearl's "Mingled Mess"

He made the case for eugenics, with "Breeding Better Men"... then later went on to renounce the entire movement. Are there lessons for modern genetics?

By Melissa Hendricks
Illustration by Sandy Young

In 1927, a renowned Johns Hopkins biologist named Raymond Pearl published a critique assailing eugenics. The eugenicists believed in the supremacy of heredity. Good genes made a strong man strong and an intelligent man smart, while bad genes could lead to poverty, prostitution, and criminality. Improving the human race would require ridding the population of "defective protoplasm" while encouraging the superior stock to breed more. By the mid-1920s, eugenics was the prevailing model of human genetics. But Pearl had found flaws in its underlying science, and he exposed these errors in his critique. It appeared in The American Mercury, an influential magazine published by Pearl's close friend, H. L. Mencken.

The first American biologist to publicly rebuke eugenics, Pearl earned a mark as a pioneer in the annals of science. The American Philosophical Society describes him as "an inveterate opponent of most eugenic policies, and critic of eugenic research."

However, those lines do not reveal other more ambiguous details about Pearl's relationship with eugenics, starting with the fact that for many years he eagerly supported eugenics: "It is of prime importance for the welfare of state or nation that those stocks which are on the whole endowed with the best traits should contribute more, many more, individuals to the next generation than should those stocks whose characteristics are on the whole bad," he wrote in 1908.

Why did a man who once embraced eugenics decide to renounce it? Historians say that studying the past can help current generations avoid its mistakes. Examining the history of eugenics, specifically the life of one of its key scientists, might illuminate difficult issues facing today's scientists as they navigate the ethically perilous terrain of modern genetics.

However, the experience of Raymond Pearl offers no easy answers. He had some good and noble ideas, but he also harbored troubling beliefs about race. His story is not a Greek drama in which the scales fall from the eyes. Raymond Pearl was a man who changed his views — somewhat.

Pearl was born in a small New Hampshire town in 1879, the son of Frank Pearl, a grocery clerk and shoe factory foreman, and Ida May McDuffee. At age 16, he enrolled at Dartmouth College. After graduating, he earned his PhD in biology from the University of Michigan, where he also met and married Maud DeWitt, a scientist who would collaborate on many of his research projects.

Standing more than six feet tall and weighing more than 200 pounds, with thick black hair and a sonorous voice, Pearl struck a bold figure. He was a confident man — some would say overconfident — who argued his ideas forcefully without easily backing down. A man with a vibrant intellect, his interests extended beyond science into music and literature. "I have never met a man of wider knowledge or greater intellectual daring and vigor than Pearl," wrote Mencken, who considered Pearl his closest friend. Pearl was also a lover of good wine and food. With fellow bon vivant Mencken by his side, he indulged liberally in both.

A prolific scientist, Pearl wrote 17 books and hundreds of scientific papers on a broad range of topics. He also founded two journals still published today: The Quarterly Review of Biology and Human Biology. Yet a theme connected many of his diverse works: At a time when biologists were still relying on qualitative measures and graphs, Pearl introduced and championed the use of statistics. Counting and measuring, he believed, were the sacred procedures for finding the truth. He wrote a textbook on biostatistics, which he used in a course he taught at Hopkins, and went on to apply statistical techniques to a wide range of scientific problems, from analyzing the 1918 flu epidemic to studying factors that influence the reproductive rate. Pearl used statistics to determine that long life runs in families. He also demonstrated that smokers had a shorter life span than non-smokers, one of the first scientists to make this connection.

It was Pearl's interest in statistics, along with genetics, that led him into eugenics, not an unusual direction for a biologist in the first part of the 20th century. "Pretty much all human genetics was eugenics until World War II," says Jonathan Marks, A&S '75, a biological anthropologist at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte who has written about Pearl and eugenics.

The tenets of eugenics had preoccupied thinkers and writers at least as far back as Plato. But in 1883, British scientist Francis Galton distilled these notions into a scientific discipline, which he called eugenics, from the Greek words for "good in birth." Galton believed that intelligent people were born, not made, and as evidence he produced lengthy lists of families where both father and son had achieved eminence. By encouraging only the finest men and women to breed, Galton believed, the population would give rise to a race of supermen and superwomen in only a few generations — an approach that came to be called positive eugenics. Later, eugenicists added the counterpart — negative eugenics — launching research and policies designed to reduce the population's inferior genetic stock.

To validate their theories, eugenicists borrowed freely from the newly rediscovered Mendelian genetics. The Austrian monk Gregor Mendel had shown that pea plant height and color were determined by recessive or dominant "factors," or genes, publishing these results in 1866. Eugenicists extrapolated these principles to explain complex human qualities — such as intelligence, behavior, and personality — as well as things like shiftlessness, criminality, and even carpentry and dressmaking skills.

Eugenicists believed they had found a way to solve some of the worst social problems. Poverty, crime, and illness arose from defective genes, according to the eugenicist's credo. Nature would have culled the genetically inferior from the human lot, but society had interfered through charity and aid to the poor and defective. Now society had to face the consequences. "The care of our defectives already costs the United States $100,000 annually," warned University of Virginia histologist Harvey Ernest, in 1913. "According to statistics it has been calculated that within 50 years the ratio of the fit to the unfit will be as 1:1."

Some of the solutions proposed by eugenicists now seem na´vely comical. "It seems likely that more and more people will voluntarily apply to reputable physicians for their approval before undertaking marriage or the responsibility of parenthood," wrote Lewellys Barker, director of medicine and physician-in-chief at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, in 1914. "Already a number of clergymen favour the plan by which applicants for marriage, submit voluntarily, along with their licenses, medical certificates of health and fitness."

But other writings from the same period strike a more sinister tone, particularly works by Charles Davenport, a biologist and Harvard instructor who became director of the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, the hub of eugenics research (its board of science directors included William H. Welch, founding dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine): "Why must we start an expensive campaign to keep alive those who, were they intelligent enough, might well curse us for having intervened in their behalf? Is not death nature's great blessing to the race? If we have greater power to prevent it than ever before, so much the greater is our responsibility to use that power selectively, for the survival of those of best stock; more than those who are feebleminded and without moral control."

In 1905, Pearl went to University College London to do postdoctoral work with biometrician Karl Pearson. From Pearson, Pearl gained intensive instruction in using statistics to study biology. He also learned the eugenicist's approach to biology. Pearson himself was an acolyte of Galton and had conducted his own studies on heredity with a eugenics bent. From this research, Pearson had concluded that many mental and moral characteristics — such as temper, vivacity, assertiveness, and conscientiousness — were inherited, just as were physical features, such as height and eye color.

H. L. Mencken's Saturday Night Club, of which Pearl (with the French horn) was a member. The group of Baltimore intellectuals met weekly to drink, eat, and play music.
Photo courtesy Enoch Pratt Free Library, H.L. Mencken Collection
Upon his return to the United States, Pearl wrote his own treatise on eugenics, "Breeding Better Men." In this article, he quoted at length from Pearson's research and proposed that the federal government establish a bureau for studying the improvement of human breeds. A few years later, Pearl echoed another one of Pearson's concerns in a speech titled "The Inheritance of Fecundity":

"The progressive decline of the birth rate in all, or nearly all, civilized countries is an obvious and impressive fact. Equally obvious and much more disturbing is the fact that this decline is differential. Generally it is true that those racial stocks which by common agreement are of high, if not the highest, value to the state or nation, are precisely the ones where the decline in reproduction rate has been most marked."

Pearl delivered that paper in July 1912, at the First International Eugenics Congress in London. By then, he was directing the Department of Biology at the University of Maine's Agricultural Experiment Station. But around the same time, Pearl probably also began to recognize shortcomings in the eugenics plan, says Garland Allen. A professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis, Allen has written an exhaustive study of Pearl's entanglement with eugenics called "Old Wine in New Bottles."

In Maine, Pearl had taken over a long-running research project. Station researchers had been trying for several years to increase egg production in chickens, but had had no luck. Pearl thought he knew why. His explanation came from his reading of the work of Danish botanist Wilhelm Johannsen, who had studied heredity in beans. Johannsen had concluded that an organism's phenotype — or outward features — were not always the same as its genotype — or internal genetic identity. Thus, a brown-eyed man and a brown-eyed woman might have blue-eyed children. Pearl realized that the same principle applied to chickens. A highly fertile chicken will not necessarily produce highly fertile chicks. Like would not always produce like.

If the same principle held for people, it would foil eugenicists' dream of breeding better men. There was no guarantee that a wealthy, intelligent, tall, and handsome couple would not have children who grew up to be poor, stupid, short, and ugly.

In 1918, Pearl became the first director of Biometry and Vital Statistics (now Biostatistics) at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health (now the Bloomberg School of Public Health). He would remain there — also serving for many years as statistician at the Johns Hopkins Hospital — until his death in 1940. While at Hopkins, Pearl uncovered additional holes in the eugenicists' scheme. In a paper he published in 1919, for instance, he concluded that sterilization would not effectively rid the population of the genetically unfit. While it was true that "a very considerable number of criminals, paupers, feeble-minded, epileptic, and insane persons . . . owe their defective condition in greater or less degree to heredity," Pearl wrote, "normal" people could unknowingly carry the same defective genes and pass those genes on to their offspring. So to guarantee that all defective genes were purged from the gene pool, society would need to sterilize "normal" people, as well — a proposal, wrote Pearl, "altogether too wasteful of perfectly good and desirable hereditary material."

However, if Pearl had doubts about some of the eugenicists' strategies, they did not dissuade him from joining organizations such as the American Eugenics Society and the Galton Society, an anthropological organization whose membership was open only to those who were racially pure.

Nor, apparently, did any doubts cause Pearl to readjust his personal views on Jews or race. In June 1922, he wrote to his friend Lawrence J. Henderson, a professor of biological chemistry at Harvard, after that university had tried to impose a quota on Jewish students. "I think we do it much more neatly here," Pearl wrote. "We make no noise about it, but, for a number of years past, very quietly and skillfully means have been taken and are being planned for the future to keep down our Jewish percentage."

Discrimination against Jewish applicants, Pearl declared, "is a necessary move in the struggle for existence on the part of the rest of us." Jews have a "higher survival value" because they do not let morals or decency get in the way of their personal advancement, he said. "The Jewish mind has developed in the direction of versatility and superficiality. In the immediate struggle for existence, these traits will win out, I think, always over thoroughness and depth. . . . The real question seems to me to come to this. Whose world is this to be, ours, or the Jews?"

What's remarkable about Pearl's views is that they sprang from an authority on genetics, who appropriated the language of genetics to justify his own personal bigoted views, says Elazar Barkan, author of The Retreat of Scientific Racism (Cambridge University Press, 1992). "He uses evolution to justify xenophobia," Barkan says.

(Pearl's prejudices also infiltrated research he conducted on brain size in African Americans, Barkan reports. In one study, Pearl relied upon outdated data to support the assumption that African Americans have smaller brains than whites, even when other more up-to-date measurements contradicted this hypothesis.)

Meanwhile, interest in eugenics was growing, fueled in part by the anti-immigrant sentiment following World War I. Eugenics was a social and political movement, as well as a scientific one, that attracted lawmakers, social activists, writers, and some big names such as Theodore Roosevelt and George Bernard Shaw. Eugenicists formed "Race Betterment" organizations and held Fitter Family contests at state and county fairs, with prizes awarded to families that came closest to the eugenic ideal. They made films promoting eugenics, including The Black Stork, starring Harry Haiselden, who in his real life as a doctor, allowed mentally and physically handicapped babies to die by withholding treatment.

At state and local fairs, Fitter Family prizes were awarded to those that came closest to the eugenic ideal. Eugenics had also begun to influence legislation. With lobbying from eugenicists, Congress passed the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which set quotas that dramatically decreased immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. The law's champions used skewed data to claim that immigrants from those countries had lower IQs and higher rates of criminality — signs of their genetic inferiority.

Then, three years later, a case based on eugenic arguments came before the Supreme Court. It involved the involuntary sterilization of Carrie Buck, an 18-year-old single woman who had been admitted to the Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, in Lynchburg, Virginia, after she became pregnant. Hospital administrators wanted to sterilize Buck, claiming that she was feebleminded and immoral and had inherited these characteristics from her mother and passed them on to her daughter, Vivian. The Court ruled against Buck, with Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. writing this now-famous quote: "Three generations of imbeciles are enough." (Historians later determined that neither Carrie Buck nor her daughter was mentally retarded. Vivian had even made the honor roll at her school.) The practice of involuntary sterilization of the mentally ill and mentally retarded continued through the 1970s, with the procedure performed on more than 60,000 patients.

As these events unfolded, Pearl became increasingly dismayed at the way eugenicists were distorting science to suit their cause. Even though he apparently did not recognize his own misuse of science to justify his own biases, he recognized it in others. As an outlet for his frustrations, Pearl turned to his friend Mencken, who, like Pearl, was interested in science and human biology.

Mencken, in his memoirs, supposes that the two met not long after Pearl moved to Baltimore, when Mencken helped pull a drunken Pearl out of the gutter. Soon, Pearl joined Mencken's Saturday Night Club, a group of Baltimore intellectuals who gathered to drink, eat, and play music on Saturday nights. The group played works by Beethoven and other classical composers, with Pearl on French horn and Mencken on piano, although judging from Mencken's correspondence to Pearl, a key focus of the gatherings was the quality of the beer, Prohibition not withstanding.

In 1924, Mencken launched The American Mercury, a magazine of ideas and commentary. Mencken published works by well-known authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald. He was also especially eager to feature pieces on science and medicine, for which he sought contributions from experts in these fields. Pearl served as the magazine's biology adviser.

So when Pearl decided to expound the fallacies in eugenics, he turned to the Mercury. In 1924, he sent a letter to Mencken, proposing the critique. "It has seemed to me for a long time that there is a dreadful lot of bilge talked by the self-constituted leaders of the eugenics movement," he wrote.

Mencken accepted the proposal, but first he would publish his own essay, "On Eugenics." In typical Mencken style, he uncloaked those who claimed to have inherited their superiority, informing his readers: "Beethoven was the grandson of a cook and the son of a drunkard, and Lincoln's forebears for many generations were nobodies."

A similar ironic note echoes in passages of Pearl's own critique, which appeared in the November 1927 issue. "By superior people," Pearl wrote, "whether individuals, classes, or races, seems always to be meant either: a. 'My kind of people,' or, b. 'People whom I happen to like.'" Genetics offers no promise that superior people (however they are defined) will have superior children or that inferior people will have inferior children, he noted.

Furthermore, there was no evidence that single genes could account for complicated conditions such as poverty, crime, and prostitution. Science and propaganda, Pearl wrote, have "become almost inextricably confused, so that the literature of eugenics has largely become a mingled mess of ill-grounded and uncritical sociology, economics, anthropology, and politics, full of emotional appeals to class and race prejudices, solemnly put forth as science, and unfortunately accepted as such by the general public."

Raymond Pearl, circa 1940
Photo courtesy The Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives
The Mercury was a widely read and widely discussed publication, and Pearl's essay attracted a lot of attention among scientists and the public. Local newspapers covered its publication under headlines such as "Eugenics All Wrong About Better Babies, Savant Finds." But Pearl was not alone in his disillusionment with eugenics; he had simply articulated a skepticism that had been growing among many scientists and non-scientists. As the years went on, support for eugenics continued to dim, especially as events in Nazi Germany made starkly clear what purifying the gene pool could mean. (By then, ideas emerging from American eugenics had influenced the Nazis. In writing their own 1933 "Law for Protection Against Genetically Defective Offspring," the Nazis borrowed from model sterilization legislation drafted by American eugenicist Harry Laughlin.)

As to why Pearl made his conversion, some scholars have suggested that he was disgruntled about not gaining a leadership role in budding eugenics organizations. Others have speculated that Pearl, whose father had been a grocery clerk, was more sensitive to the class biases of eugenics. Perhaps. The stronger argument may be that Pearl simply was insulted that eugenicists had bastardized the science he held so dear.

Whatever Pearl's motivations, he was bold enough to publicly question the dogma of eugenics. "By the 1920s, it was not unusual for a biologist to turn away from eugenics," says Sharon Kingsland, a Hopkins professor of the history of science and technology and author of Modeling Nature: Episodes in the History of Population Ecology (University of Chicago Press, 1995). "But few did so openly. Pearl was unusual in that he came out with fairly direct criticism."

Pearl did not pen his article casually. "That this paper will stir the dogs up there can be no doubt," he wrote to Mencken. Indeed it did. The journal American Naturalist published a harsh rebuttal of Pearl's critique. Pearl's stance may also have contributed to his loss of a job offer at Harvard.

On the other hand, while Pearl attacked the class bias of eugenics, he did not extend his criticism to the racism and anti-Semitism at the heart of so much eugenics research and policies. He maintained prejudicial views and used shoddy science to justify them. So Pearl's record is an enigmatic one. He had the fortitude to pierce the carapace of prejudice, but not the moral vision to peel away all its layers.

Pearl's contradictions are difficult to reconcile, says Marks, the University of North Carolina anthropologist, though it helps to consider when Pearl lived. "We have a tendency to pigeonhole people," he says. "Someone is a forward-thinking liberal or a right-wing conservative." In Pearl's day, racism, anti-Semitism, and class bias were rampant. Other prominent figures also appear ambiguous on these issues when viewed through our 21st-century lens. Mencken, too, as his personal papers reveal, held anti-Semitic and racist beliefs. At the same time, he was one of the few literary editors to publish the work of African-American authors such as the poet Langston Hughes.

Pearl died in 1940, at age 61, after suffering a heart attack. Perhaps if he had lived to witness World War II and the civil rights era, he would have refined his views so that they would fit tidily into one of today's familiar categories.

Instead of examining whether Pearl deserves praise or condemnation, perhaps the more instructive question to ask is what we can learn from the story of Raymond Pearl and American eugenics as we muddle through the ethical predicaments of today's genetics. Is genetics, for instance, on its way down a slippery slope toward a new form of eugenics?

"We're never going to return to a Nazi-era social eugenics," says Nathaniel Comfort, an associate professor in the History of Medicine. "The social climate is not the same now as it was then." Few Americans would tolerate eugenic practices such as sterilizing people against their wishes.

"We're never going to return to a Nazi-era social eugenics," says Comfort. "The social climate is not the same now as it was then." However, genetics has made advances that eugenicists could not have imagined. Clinicians today can test for genes linked to hundreds of conditions, and the list is growing. And scientists, using Pre-Implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD), can select the sex of an embryo created through in vitro fertilization, or exclude those that carry mutations for certain genetic disorders, before implanting the embryo in a woman's womb. Future prospects could include human cloning or human germline genetic engineering, which would confer genetic changes that would be passed down from one generation to the next. In fact, James Watson, the co-discoverer of the DNA double helix, has argued for pursuing this latter technique as a means of improving human beings, even suggesting that it could lead to a society with fewer shy, ugly, or stupid children.

How can we avoid a day when a future generation looks back and views today's time as a period when genetics was used unethically?

One positive sign is that scientists, as well as ethicists and policymakers, are actively discussing and debating these issues. Three percent of the budget for the Human Genome Project was targeted toward its ethical, social, and legal implications, notes David Valle, a geneticist and pediatrician who directs the Hopkins predoctoral training program in human genetics. "We all realize that such information could, if used in wrong ways, be harmful."

Legislation and professional guidelines may help. More broadly, experts suggest, geneticists should know the history — good and bad — of their field. Many do not, says Aravinda Chakravarti, director of the McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine. "This is an ugly phase of genetics, and people want to forget about it or they don't know about it. But there is no doubt that this is part of the human genetics background that we should know."

Such a study of history might serve as a reminder of a simple truth, one that is easy to overlook amid our fascination with the genome and technology: that human beings are not easily explained.

"The eugenicists' failing was attributing everything to genes," says Kathy Hudson, director of the Johns Hopkins Genetics and Public Policy Center. She cautions against the "single-minded focus on genetics as an explainer for everything. The over-attention to genetics can mislead people because they're not taking in the full spectrum of environmental factors."

Likewise, even as scientists today search genes for traits such as criminality, IQ, shyness, and transcendence ("the God gene"), those attributes could involve dozens, even hundreds of genes, or intricate interactions between genes and the environment. And medical conditions that have been tied to genes, such as Alzheimer's disease, cholesterol disorders, and various birth defects, might arise only under particular environmental conditions. Even a gene linked to schizophrenia, an area that Chakravarti is pursuing, might only lead to the illness when in concert with particular environmental factors. "We have this view of genes being these inflexible machines," says Chakravarti. "But maybe the majority of genes are flexible and adaptable. I don't think we understand the science of genetic variation."

Uncertainty also applies to the ethical dimensions of genetic technologies. "Almost anything being done today in this field — from genetic screening to gene therapy — has potentially suspect implications," says Comfort, the medical historian. "In short, I think what is and is not ethical in this field is still shaking down."

To someone seeking hard truths, those are dissatisfying pronouncements. But they are also words that could prevent harm. Raymond Pearl demonstrated his scientific integrity when he questioned his assumptions. "I don't know" is a phrase that eugenicists might have been wise to utter more often.

Melissa Hendricks writes from Annapolis, Maryland.
NOTE: Quotations from documents in the Enoch Pratt Free Library's H.L. Mencken Collection published by permission of the library in accordance with the terms of Mr. Mencken's bequest.

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