Frankenstein’s Burden

Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?

– John Donne

The certainty that an objective science will always win out looks pretty doubtful by now, given how convincingly the  unscientific  takes on the guise of the  scientific. There is certainly a scientific  language, but we are confused about what Science is itself. It seems imposing and hermetic, a dizzying practice underlying everything from mumps to star travel. Science is also prone to atavism, and it has an unhealthy preoccupation with eternal life – or at least with modifying life and extending time. It has a memory, but it cannot regret. It has had great successes, but these seem to the layman to vanish in the face of its terrible failures. So the formations and reformations of racial physiology, phrenology, and IQ testing take their place alongside virology, string theory and relativity in the great index of scientific history. Is science alsoourhistories, we who seem to live beneath it? It is more like a parallel track or a roll of hieroglyphics. Perhaps science is the real Dark Continent, with all the colonial and unconscious trappings the phrase implies.

Stephanie Welch’s documentary A Dangerous Idea is a history of genetic and social engineering from Eugenics to Neoliberalism. In her finest moment – a sweeping generalization, and dead on – she connects the unsubtle ideology of fascist doctoring with the unsubtle democratic policies of welfare reform, unemployment, deregulation and urban management. The film ends with the hope for a cleansing of impurities from the American dream, but cleansing projects are rarely successful. Those old words of Mrs. Wilhelm Reich in WRecho back: “The American Dream? The American dream is dead”.

Biology as destiny… The gene is the script for life… I am gloomy about the future of Africa.

Eugenics found a receptive home in the United States in the Gilded Age, when the great American fortunes were being institutionalized. The sterilization practices of that period, the ongoing native genocide, and Jim Crow were all cited by Hitler in  Mein Kampf as major inspirations, alongside Karl May and the fairytales of the Teutonic Knights. The US government had seriously considered mass Euthanasia as an option in the 1920s, but it was deemed too risky (the same logistics and production problems later plagued IG Farben and theDeutsche Reichsbahn). Yet a solution to the unworkables and degenerates outside of the sphere of productive labor was already in place. It was the process of competitive Capitalism itself: that which does not produce must stagnate and decay, eventually finding its natural price as a zero commodity. Genetic research was underwritten by Foundations Rockefeller, Carnegie, Harriman, and Kellogg, and the proof of backwardness and genetic inferiority as the cause of poverty and degeneration was popularized by fraudulent ethnographic studies like The Jukes, magazines such as the American Journal of Eugenics(later sanitized to the American Journal of Genetics), and films like The Black Stork, masquerading as PSAs in print, roadshow, and classroom. Eugenics is one of the tactics of survival on the part for the ruling class, a noble fiction bolstered by pyramidal structures of academics who are terrified of losing their funding, and by the manipulation of bourgeois paranoia.

By 1907, the evolutionary theorists of Capital were growing impatient and they soon harnessed technologies more savage and more intricate than the herd-thinning passage of industrial time. For all its obsession with Darwin’s Descent of Man, direct medical intervention used a kind of technocratic Lamarckism in order to create seismic changes in the lifespan of a single generation. The comet in the great dark of race theory those days was one Harry Laughlin, a quack Princeton cytologist and the main lobbyist behind the 1927 Supreme Court decision that mass sterilization was constitutionally permitted because it was ‘related’ to vaccination (Indeed it was: “You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians, by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.” Jeffery Amherst, 1763). Death can be related only to life; life is likened to dream – occasionally to nightmares. Some 80,000 people, mostly Black and Indian, but also poor and white, went through this Scalian door of the Law, a variation on another Laughlin cause, the Racial Integrity Act of 1924. Laughlin was subsequently honored by the University of Heidelberg, firmly fascist and  Judenrein  by 1935. Natürlich, as he had earlier helped pass the anti-immigration act in 1924 which specifically targeted Jews and other eastern Europeans, whom he loathed almost as much as he loathed Blacks. In 1939, the so-called racial quotas used at Ellis Island were still in place and helped ensure that another 2 million wound up on Eichmann’s account legers. Thus Eugenics can be seen as the mainstream of American science, assailed every now and then by righteous partisans, it is true – but powerful in rise or ruin and capable of all manner of transformations.

In addition to adeptly covering this inglorious past, A Dangerous Idea gives us clips of devious hacks like Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve. Murray is also a rabid free-market fundamentalist whose ‘scholarly work’ was cited by the notoriously illiterate Ronald Reagan, as well as by the far smarmier Bill Clinton (when the latter passed his devastating 1996 Welfare Reform Bill, a triangulated hex which put 3 million children on a ration of less than $2 a day, slowly murdered the poor by slashing medical benefits, and skyrocketed homelessness by further gutting federal housing assistance programs). Other specters include the team of Watson & Crick, who discovered (or rather, invented) the Double Helix. This model DNA structure purported to solidify the Gene Chain in a form seemingly inspired by the division of labor in a 1950s Corporation (one of the film’s best insights), and the two openly admitted that it was an unproved hypothesis. Like Kissinger, they got a Nobel Prize.

For a formula that claims to be a mechanized biological map, the math behind the Double Helix math is idiotically simplistic and flies in the face of the most basic engineering principles. So, by counting the number of ‘superior’ genes in the DNA sequence, you arrive at a clinical Malthusianism, where both physical health and intellect are nourished by enlightened molecules naturally attracted to superior organic molecular chains and repelled by inferior ones. Real neat, except that the Master Race shares some 30% of these structures with bananas, 70% with sea urchins, and almost all of them with white mice. The rightfully-dominant race of the planet is therefore mostly vegetable and almost completely rodent. This proved to be somewhat of a piss-off for the Gene Pool crowd, as DNA research had been a bottomless cash cow for decades. In what should have been the final blow, the ridiculous Human Genome Project collapsed like a rickety S&L scam, murdered by its own inescapable data. Yet DNA can indeed identify and absolve. Alas for the social geneticists, it has proved invaluable in at least freeing a few of the prisoners languishing in penitentiaries whose necessity, so they tell us, is demanded by the genetic make-up of the convicts themselves and constructed by a therapeutic state.

The gene was the easy solution to the thorny problem of how natural selection guides the evolutionary process, attributed rather irritably by Darwin to mysterious ‘random mutations’. The gene was an immortal replication machine, able to transmit or prohibit qualities down through time. But if these genetic corrections somehow failed to produce the Survival of the Fittest, then biological modification must be applied by knowledgeable experts with the best interest of humanity in mind. Despite the Frankenstein proviso, biological determinists seem unable to escape their own superstitious Calvinism: destiny and prophecy haunt the genetic factory with dreams of a fantastic perfection nature has denied. Genetic modification and cloning are but an ongoing BioWASP project which tries to justify its own crude propaganda by an empirical toxin dressed-up in the fossilized language of the Law. At heart, Murray and Co. are no more than puritans and germphobes. Their messianic desire to protect the evolutionary path of the species is a sham used by the forces of political intervention; at the very same time, they constantly claim to reject ideology and politics in favor of cold statistical truth. Results are juggled and fabricated like Ponzi schemes, and basically by the same vested interests. The models are not life processes, or Mendel, or the green world, but double-entry book keeping, Victorian repression, transnational tax havens (storehouses of ‘good’ genes?), and the penitentiary business. Biological determinism is simple bourgeois idealism at the service of economic shock therapy.

Since even the existence of the Gene itself is open to contention, the Neo-Eugenics school can also be seen as a subset of Spiritualism [i], as a profitable cult steeped in American Crankdom which fuses together a silly Grail-quest narrative, communication with the dead, mad scientist histrionics, and an almost new-agey transcendentalism into a distorted reaction which is part right-wing nostalgia and part plain snakeoil. Genes can be seen as humanity’s ghosts, carrying sin down through generations, a corruption which plants changelings in the microbial race- memory, pushing miscegenation (demonic possession), communism and moral-synapse inhibitors, slutty feminism and Negroid darkness. These ghastly particles can only be transformed into White Brothers by alchemists who understand the sober, factual basis of essential inequality. Nietzsche said, memorably, that the strong have to be protected from the weak: the party of genetic purity oozes sentimentality and terror of adaptation from every pore in its overripe being. Its true nurturing environment is gaudy advertising, sensationalist TV shows, hack testimony used to win corporate lead-poisoning cases, that weird afterlife between expert bodies and the bodies of the masses.

A Dangerous Idea also gives us articulate critics (Robert Reich trying to save his soul yet again; Ruth Hubbard, compelling and tough, for example), but it’s Baal’s clerks who own the whole horrorshow. The disembodied voice of Crick, in the most awful Home Counties accent, advocates the extermination of the disabled with a verve that would have thrilled Mengele. Watson is a bad impersonation of Dr. Phibes; his eyes tick like weevils in a hideous rictus-grin as he chatters to an audience of appreciative Monsanto operatives. Later, he defends Hitler’s health initiatives in an empty tiled chamber, unaware or indifferent to the shower heads hanging above him. Richard Dawkins, who now bravely harasses country parsons, chimes in with his 1980 supertrash hit, The Selfish Gene, a Desmond Morris-style pop potboiler which argues that only a suicidal fool would help an old lady cross the road because altruism is the flipside of extinction. His book appeared just in time for Maggie Thatcher’s rise to power, alongside the unreadable works of Friedrich Hayek and bully apologetics like Raging Bull. The other prominent ghoul is former Harvard suzerain, World Bank Chief Economist, and Clinton Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, a slippery node in the race-politics game with a yen for both Junk Science and Junk Bonds. Summers was finally slapped with a no-confidence vote at school, but emigrated to hedge-fund rapine and lucrative speaking gigs at Goldman-Sachs, JP Morgan, Lehman Brothers. Summers represents the ‘liberal’ agent in the long-term eugenic operation, perhaps the most dangerous.

The second half of the film unconvincingly pits Johnson’s Great Society against the Eugenics-Pharmaceutical Complex, Nouveau Ku Kluxery, and Watergate. Conspicuous by its absence is Johnson’s hygienic crusade against Vietnam in order to neutralize those ‘Orientals’ Westmoreland would later claim lacked the empathy and deep reverence toward life that characterizes the White Man’s West. The film does remind us that Nixon managed to sterilize some 400,000 Blacks and American Indians via Medicaid through a misunderstanding of the dichotomy voluntary/involuntary, until the Rolf case exploded the whole sickening business in 1970. Now mind, all this is going on while the Genetic Determinists are promising to eradicate the ‘violence gene’ and create a ‘harmonious society’. The soppy face of Chas Murray’s theories always calls for ‘growth’ and ‘development’ – as in structural adjustment and the extreme liberalization of markets, IMF panacea for a biologically-retrograde Third World. Banking, like the body, stores fats and circulates blood. Genetic Determinism, like finance, draws its theories from speculation, the valorization of profitable linkages, and the exceptionalism of totally ruthless forces – simply because there are so few born leaders, they represent the greatest accumulation of rightful assets in both private property and the gene pool. The financial is the biological. For the rest of us, it’s murder out there.

Although he does not appear in the film, we should mention here Stanford Professor William Bradford Shockley, Jr, whose semiconductor lab in Mount View made him one of the undisputed patriarchs of Silicon Valley. He helped give the Valley its dominant ideology: “My research leads me inescapably to the opinion that the major cause of the American Negro’s intellectual and social deficits is hereditary and racially genetic in origin and, thus, not remediable to a major degree by practical improvements in the environment.” He also generously gave his sperm to the eugenic Repository of Germinal Choice, a foundation dedicated to controlled breeding via the artificial insemination of male genius genes [ii]. Personally, Shockley the Superman was so repulsive that he had managed to alienate his entire family and his sons first read of his death in the newspaper.His true heirs however, are devout racists like Peter Thiel, who commissions digital immortality software and Saló-like utopias in New Zealand or on Mars from his Valley redoubt. And if today’s IT Geek Bourgeois is also a virulent misogynist, it is because only parthenogenesis is worthy of him and he is sensitive to old Victorian fears of feminine instability, hysteria, touch.

But under the Master Race surely lurk the Masters of the Master Race, an elite’s elite, and so on? Rank demands rarefication. Along this plane of infinite regressions, reflected in Petri dishes and monitors, arraigned on the path of the ‘mistakes’ of that object we call ‘science’, are the always-forgivable erroneous detours on the way to Redemption. If errors are admitted in the fields of science and surgical strikes, our conscience and its private, silent partners cite humanitarian interventionism rather than expediency, so that the excuse might fit the audience. This is the ‘Good European’ face of forensic pacification, the face that remains ‘decent’ (Anständig) while administrating the unspeakable. Kindly old men often tell their children that the butchers with the sharpest knives have the warmest hearts.


[i] I owe the concept of a dialectical relationship between religious literalism & zoned-out occultism to the learned Christina Ward, in an interview with Jason Louv, here.

[ii] The story plagiarizes whole chapters of Ira Levin, well-recounted here:

Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.