Painful Truth: Bad book traced poisonous path

The power of bad science is awesome to behold. A single mistake or straight-up evil idea can reverberate for decades – even if the person who came up with it in the first place tries to renounce it all.

Henry H. Goddard is one of the most damaging and tragic figures in the history of western psychology. Born in 1866, in the early 20th century he worked at Vineland Training School, a home for mentally challenged children in New Jersey.

He became interested in whether intelligence was inherited, and he coined the word “moron” as a technical term.

In 1912 he published his most influential book, The Kallikak Family, in which he supposedly traced two branches of a family, both descended from the same Revolutionary War soldier. One branch, from a “dalliance” with a feeble-minded barmaid, turned out to be of below normal intelligence and poverty stricken. The other, descended from a marriage to an upstanding Quaker woman, were upper class, industrious folks. The name Kallikak was a pseudonym, from the Greek kallos (beauty) and kakos (bad).

Goddard had an incredibly simple-minded view of genetics. He believed bad traits, like “feeble-mindedness” were passed straight along, as were positive traits. His book is filled with family trees identifying various Kallikak members as alcoholics or “sexually immoral.”

Modern re-assessments suggest that his subjects suffered from a mixture of learning disabilities, possible fetal alcohol syndrome, and plain old poverty, which is not good for test scores.

Goddard was terrified that bad genes would spread in the community. So he proposed a nice, ethical solution: lock up the feeble minded in big camps! This probably sounded slightly less horrifying in 1912 than it would after, say the Second World War.

Goddard was even invited to Ellis Island to help screen new immigrants, where he helpfully found that non-Anglo-Saxons were stupid and unfit to enter the country.

His book was a big boost for the eugenics movement. This led to laws in numerous U.S. states and Canadian provinces mandating sterilization for women who were deemed morons or immoral in some way. The laws proved so popular they stayed on the books in B.C. and Alberta until the 1970s.

Eugenics also led to odd spectacles such as Better Babies contests, in which white children were judged like prize yams at county fairs.

Then there were copycat books. The Jukes in 1915 updated an older study from the 1870s of another “family.” The first study had emphasized environment as a factor, the new one said the Jukes were born criminals.

The Kallikak Family then proved popular on the far side of the Atlantic, where it was reprinted in Germany, and again in the 1930s once the Nazis rose to power. Not that they needed any encouragement.

The weirdest part of the Kallikak story is that it found a foothold in popular culture. In the 1910s, there was talk of a Broadway play. Then in 1977, CBS premiered a sitcom called The Kallikaks, about a family of backwoods hillbillies feuding with another family named Jukes. It lasted five episodes.

One of the worst parts of this story is that Goddard didn’t go to his grave screaming about the marching morons. He actually renounced many of his views by the 1920s, and admitted that his research was flawed in many ways.

But the damage was done. His ideological descendents are still abroad, and can be found in the dark corners of the internet, trying to prove they’re genetically better than people from other races or income brackets.

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