A thought crossed my mind: Knowledge & confidence, and “feeblemindedness”

27 Mar 2017 Posted by

I was in London last week, and with a long flight back to SA in store, realized I’d finish the book I was reading on the plane.  Sleep and flights don’t mix well for me, so I popped out to grab a book, any book, to kill time on the flight.

Screen Shot 2017-03-27 at 3.48.52 PMThe result was this book: “Gene: An intimate history“, by Siddhartha Mukherjee, who is an assistant
professor of medicine at Columbia University, a stem cell biologist and a cancer geneticist.  So he writes with scientific rigour, but weaves some amazing stories into a scientific history of the gene.  I highly recommend the book.

Anyway, the section that jumped out at me last night, and which is triggered this “Thought crossed my mind” post, was the story of Eugenics.

In the first few decades after scientists discovered that inheritance came in the form of discrete, indivisible “units” that were passed to offspring in a predictable, statistical manner (thanks largely to the work of Mendel with his peas, a famous scientific study you may have read about, or even studied at school), people felt that it would be prudent to try to manipulate human inheritance for human benefit.

One of the originators of this idea was Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin, who suggested that it would be possible to mimic the mechanism of natural selection that Darwin had proposed a few decades earlier.  To condense a long story into a paragraph, Galton and others thought it would be possible to accelerate  “the selection of the well-fitted over the ill-fitted, and the healthy over the sick”, by selectively breeding “good stock” and preventing “bad stock” from breeding by regulating marriage.  Galton called this “Eugenics”.

In 1904, Galton presented this concept to an audience at the London School of Economics.  In the crowd were George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells, Alice Drysdale-Veckery, and a host of top scientists of the time. Galton’s 10 min speech got people riled up, in part because the theoretical basis to ‘breed out’ the sick was shaky, even then (patterns of inheritance of undesired traits like schizophrenia were not always as simple as peas – healthy parents could have schizophrenic children, and ordinary families could have extraordinary children, argued one attendee).

But some urged speed where others urged caution. HG Wells actually argued that selective inbreeding via marriage was only half the solution, and that they should also consider “the selective elimination of the weak” (by now, you should see where this is going, if you didn’t already know the macabre reputation of eugenics).

Jump ahead to 1912, Galton has been dead for one year, but a gathering of leaders in the field is held in London at the first International Conference on Eugenics. This time, in the audience are the likes of Alexander Graham Bell, the Harvard University President, Winston Churchill, and the leading scientists of that time in the field of genetics.

At this meeting a German delegation apparently spoke of “race hygiene”, and the possibility of launching a racial cleansing effort in Germany.  Is it not chilling and mind boggling, in hindsight, that such an idea would have been floated openly at a scientific conference decades before the horrors of the Holocaust?  That’s the first pause for thought right there.

Also mentioned at this meeting was the concept of mass sterilizations, which were already happening in, wait for it, the USA.  Their delegate spoke about “confinement centers” for the genetically unfit, and he boasted about how “there have been sterilized a considerable number of individuals”, because “nearly ten percent of the total population are of inferior blood, and are totally unfitted to become parents of useful citizens”

Honestly, it reads like a science fiction horror movie in the real world, but this was only 105 years ago, at a conference of the world’s leading minds.  And it gets worse, which brings me to the main point I wanted to share:

Read the following sections, they pertain to a case of a woman and her daughter in the USA, who were placed in one of these “confinement centers” or “colones” after being diagnosed as being “morons”.  The mother, Emma, was a “low grade moron”, while the daughter Carrie was a “Moron, Midde grade”

Seriously.  This was in 1924.

Screen Shot 2017-03-27 at 3.48.37 PM


A court case, initially Buck vs Priddy, later Buck vs Bell, made its way through the judicial system, until it landed up at the Supreme Court in 1927. At stake were the legal rights of the State of Virginia to sterilize Carrie Buck.  The vote went 8-1 in favour of the state, and so Carrie Buck was sterilized by tubal litigation on October 19, 1927.  Here is a section from the Supreme Court decision:

Supreme court decision imbeciles

Ok, so a couple of things jump out me as I read this story:

  1. Whenever I read of such practices, relatively recent in the grand scheme of things, I wonder “How will we, the ‘thought leaders’ and ‘knowledge custodians’ be judged in 90 years’ time”?What I’ve pasted above is a mind-boggling story of bad science and moral horror.

    If I presented this as a genuine idea at a public event in Cape Town, where the audience was not scientists but just general members of society, people would think I was kidding. Then they’d be aghast.But all of this was perpetuated only 90 years ago, in sequence, by the world’s best scientists, at the forefront of the discovery of hereditary characteristics, and then by the most qualified legal minds of the time.

    It was also observed all along by what in today’s management speak would be called “opinion leaders”, like Churchill and Bell.  And they went along with diagnoses of morons, imbeciles and idiots.  They then allowed the gene to become a tool for social power, and as mentioned, that would eventually lead to unspeakable horrors in World War2.  That this happened openly, in a scientific conference and court system, is the most amazing implication to me.

  2. Given this realization, I can’t believe how people who acquire more knowledge and experience get more confident that they are infallible.  I totally understand that “knowledge breeds confidence”, because as we learn, we understand and are better able to interpret and control our situations and environments.  But at some point, that confidence has to be contained, and stories like this are a reminder, to me anyway, to keep a sense of perspective, because time often judges current wisdom very badly.

    The more I have learned, and the deeper I have dived into specific subjects, the more nervous I have become that I’m totally wrong, out of my depth, and about to be shown up as a fraud.This is why any scientist (or expert) who stands up and expresses dogma and absolute certainty is probably a charlatan. At best, they don’t have the humility that should the natural result of exploring something in ever greater detail.  So beware those who profess absolute certainty!

    This is a very difficult balance to find, because I didn’t study for eight years after school to downplay the knowledge I have earned, and pretend that on specific subjects, everyone’s opinion is as worthy as a robust set of facts and means of thinking that I have acquired through dedicated study.

    So I must be clear – I’m not arguing for a world where expertise is devalued.  We have enough of that already, Exhibit A being Donald Drumpf.  In this post-fact world, expertise matters more than ever, and those who’ve invested the time to acquire knowledge should be heeded.  But they also have a responsibility to rein themselves in, and respect that they’re usually dealing with enormous complexity, and that current wisdom is constantly vulnerable to new discoveries.

That’s a real challenge, but as I read those sections, those thoughts crossed my mind.


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