The Bio-Social Facts of American Capitalism

During the early- and mid-Twentieth Century, physical anthropologist E.A. Hooton found a comfortable, nurturing academic home at Harvard University.  He helped keep forms of racialized “science” alive by writing for academic publications, popular magazine, and making public appearances in which he championed forms of eugenics or produced studies that helped justify America’s racialized and ethnically marked inequities.  Hooton’s writings supported beliefs that race was an inherent biological state, and that intelligence and social worth were tied to genetic ancestry.  Hooton’s significance in Twentieth Century anthropology derived from the significant number of physical anthropologists he trained at Harvard, though few of his students championed these eugenic and racialized theories. While Hooton’s notions were challenged by other contemporary anthropologists like Franz Boas at Columbia University, Hooton’s work articulately expressed racist American folk models about human variation and notions that there is a biological basis for stratified social phenomena.

In 1998, after I read Hooton’s 1943 proposal for the Allied forces treatment of post-war Japan (“exile, imprison and sterilize all members of the Royal family,” let China oversee a postwar occupation, “forbid purely Japanese marriages,” etc.), I filed FOIA requests seeking a copy of Hooton’s FBI file.  The FBI eventually sent me the few pages of records they had on Hooton.  His file consisted of only two pages: a crude photo-static reproduction of a 1943 newspaper article summarizing a popular article by Professor Hooton, and a short memo by an FBI agent accompanying the article’s internal-FBI circulation.

Hooton’s FBI file contained a July 27, 1943 internal memo sent by FBI Special Agent L.B. Nichols to Clyde Tolson, drawing Mr. Tolson’s attention to a UP wire newspaper story appearing earlier that week in the Washington Daily News under the headline “Supervised Child Breeding Urged by Harvard Expert.”  This article drew on quotes from a recent article in the popular Woman’s Home Companion magazine by Professor Hooton.donate now

Nichols sent Tolson and others (indicated on the office routing stamp) within the FBI a copy of the Washington Daily News article along with an internal memo that was marked (and ignored, given that I was sent a copy from Hooton’s file), “INFORMATIVE MEMORANDUM – NOT BE SENT TO FILES,” which read:

“You will recall Dr. Hooton has always been a first-rate fool.  His latest, on scientific child breeding as set forth in the attached clipping is one for the books. It is too bad that some epidemic cannot strike a lot of our college professors.”

Respectfully,  L.B. Nichols  (FBI 62-73410-1, 7/27/43)

The Washington Daily News story (included in Hooton’s FBI file) reads as follows:

“Supervised Child Breeding Urged by Harvard Expert”

By United Press

“Dr. Ernest Hooton, a noted Harvard University anthropologist today proposed that the Government undertake the improvement of its citizens by a program of supervised breeding, sterilization of the unfit, and increased control over the development and education of its future parents.

‘If the Government has to take care of all the infirmed, aged, unemployable, and chronically antisocial, why should it not be allowed to take measures to prevent the multiplication of undesirables and to produce better human quality?’ he wrote in the current issue of the Woman’s Home Companion.

Stating that only medical men were qualified to undertake the job, but that only Government had enough authority and resources, Hooton proposed the setting up of a Department of Population headed by a Cabinet officer who was a doctor with four bureaus.


The first would be the Bureau of Adult Rehabilitation.  This would make adults below the age of 50 years insofar as the need rehabilitation.  ‘The young and the middle-aged men and women are our breeding stock.’

The second would be a Bureau of Marriage and Genetics.  This would fill our ‘supreme social need. . . The scientific improvement of marriage, reproduction and the home.’  It would function in four ways, 1. Medical and genetic supervision of marriage to prevent matings ‘bound to produce inferior offspring thru heredity or environment.’ 2. Subsidization of parents proved capable of breeding superior children to remove the economic pressure on them to practice birth control.  3. Sterilization of the feeble minded, the insane, and the habitually anti-social.  4. ‘Intensive and extensive studies of human heredity to learn exactly what produces bad and good human individuals.’

The third bureau would be known as Growth and Nutrition. ‘It’s task would be to supervise the medical physiological, psychological and nutritional care of the population from birth to maturity.  A larger order.’  Hooten said, ‘but we cannot leave the development of children wholly to the efforts of parents of variable things man does, but rearing them properly is the hardest.’

The fourth bureau would deal with educational and vocational guidance and would charged with ‘fitting the individual with a curriculum based upon his ability, personality, and social adaptability.’

Hooton said that those who opposed his program with cries of fascism and communism are those who are ‘determined to retain power over the masses . . .these are the real opponents of individual betterment.  These are the veritable fascists.’”

If the governmental human breeding bureau proposal itself didn’t suggest Professor Hooton might be a bit off his rocker, his preemptive declaration that anyone who considered his proposed final solution to be fascistic or communist, were the true fascists, broadcast a tone of righteous instability. Yet his position at Harvard made this not just the smug declaration of a garden variety street corner kook shouting to the rooftops, but an authoritative declaration affirming a certain sort of mid-Century American elite power, with ideas that themselves aligned well with the injustices of America’s economic order.

There’s also something in Hooton’s proactive defensive proclamation that connects with a more contemporary crackpot defender of racialist science.  It has similarities to Nicholas Wade’s dismissive attack on the over 100 professors from population genetics, evolutionary biology, and other fields who recently denounced Wade’s book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History (see this stunning letter in the New York Times from last month) in which Wade adopted of Hooton-like tone, accusing the scientists who denounce his misuse of their work and the work of colleagues of ignoring science (which apparently only he, a nonscientist, can seem to see).  Save yourself the anguish of reading Wade’s now thoroughly discredited book, and read this devastating review by anthropologist Jonathan Marks “The Genes Made Us Do It: The New Pseudo Science of Racial Difference.”

Professor Hooton’s final defensive claim that he neither a communist nor fascist is worth considering.  It would of course be wrong to call Professor Hooton a communist; his views do not align with communist philosophy. Professor Hooton was a capitalist, and his proposed solutions on how to deal with surplus laborers demonstrates his alignment with the spirit of American capitalism.  On this count he was correct: he was no communist.

But Professor Hooton also raised (if only to dismiss) whether his proposed establishment of government run breeding boards overseeing the forced sterilization of the “feeble minded” was fascistic.  In the original August 1943 Woman’s Companion article, Hooton cavalierly stated that “only an extreme optimist could estimate more than one half of our population to be physically and mentally fit.”  Because fascism links governmental functions primarily with supporting the needs of corporate owners over the needs of workers, there are elements of Hooton’s dystopian vision, that align well with fascist philosophy insofar as Hooton’s views of surplus humanity aligned with capital’s formations of surplus labor.  I don’t want to split hairs, but whatever philosophical links to fascism Hooton’s vision held, it was certainly totalitarian to the core.

The problem with Hooton’s modest proposal wasn’t that he contemplated governmental programs concerned with reproductive issues, the core problem was his complete anthropological failure to understand how a society’s demographic dynamics are linked to its economic formations.  Hooton’s fallacy was that he understood “feeble mindedness” to be a simple independent variable that caused low economic productivity and other “drains” to the efficient society he aspired to create; he failed to understand how culture helped shape the conditions under which (he imagined) only half of the American population met his criteria for being allowed to reproduce.  It is difficult to imagine a less anthropological perspective, but Hooton’s anthropology had thematic links to old Harvard racist scientistic studies stretching back to Theodore Stoddard’s 1920 The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy, which fostered notions of biological racial categories, and argued for Nordic Aryan superiority using flawed data and bigoted arguments conveniently portraying northern Europeans as those worthy of drinking dry martini’s on the veranda at the top of the evolutionary ladder, while darker imagined less-evolved races cluttered the vast landscape below. And while the rhetoric of these arguments has shifted, Professor Hooton’s inability to consider the social causes of differing participation in intellectual activities connects his project, Stoddard’s project and Nicholas Wade’s more contemporary work. Each of these works justifies social inequalities with misguided claims about biological natures not in evidence.

Given the FBI’s propensity to open files on virtually anyone who came to their attention for beliefs they found deviant, it is surprising that the FBI did not open an investigation on Hooton or his research.  Perhaps the decision to not investigate Hooton was related to the other activities the FBI was engaged in during the war, but given some similarities between Hooton’s vision of responsible breeding with those of the Nazi administration, it is surprising that FBI records do not include standard records checks to see if Hooton held ties to Nazi organizations–which I don’t imagine he did, but the FBI usually made these checks under such circumstances.  I suppose the jocular suggestion that an epidemic wipe out a swath of college professors simply shows the FBI interest in this news story as being on par with absurd news stories many of share with coworkers today by email.  Even the FBI, with its own institutional racism and class-based enforcement practices, could recognize the absurdity of Hooton’s proposal.

In the end, Hooton, Wade, and others who view human intelligence or social worth as an immutable biological property are inevitably finding answers ready-made for a technologically sophisticated out-sourced capitalist society that decreasingly has uses for human beings.  If unemployment can be blamed on laziness–not outsourcing; imprisonment on genetics—not surplus labor; academic failures on racial differences—not differences in opportunities; then the wisdom of the market remains unquestioned, and market forces can be left to take care of human needs.

At the end of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Kurt Vonnegut has Kilgore Trout speechify on just this topic, as Trout ponders a world where capitalism and technological sophistication produces a social system despising the underemployed whose jobs have been taken by the machines they were promised would liberate them.  Trout identifies this as:

“…a problem whose queasy horrors will eventually be made world-wide by this sophistication of machines,  The problem is this: How to love people who have no use?

In time, almost all men and women will become worthless as producers of goods, food, services, and more machines, as sources of practical ideas in the areas of economics, engineering, and probably medicine, too.  So—if we can’t find reasons and methods for treasuring human beings because they are human beings, then we might as well, as has so often been suggested, rub them out.

American have long been taught to hate all people who will not or cannot work, to hate even themselves for that.  We can thank the vanished frontier for that piece of common-sense cruelty.  The time is coming, if it isn’t here now, when it will no longer be common sense.  It will simply be cruel.”

Vonnegut understood how the social facts of American capitalism blame those who are surplus labor for their plight.

This old Hooton article, and Wade’s recent Troublesome Inheritance show the strains on a system that no longer needs the meaningful labor of so many of its people, and exploits and criminalizes the poverty of would-be workers. In a world where cellphones broadcast the brutal consequences of policing the dispossessed, these brutalities need justifications of the sort supplied by the Hootons and Wades of the world to maintain the imbalances of a system that champions market forces over human needs.

David Price a professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. He is the author of Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State published by CounterPunch Books.

David Price is professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University. His latest book is The American Surveillance State: How the U.S. Spies on Dissent, published this month by Pluto Press.