Dysgenics and war


Jason Collins


January 11, 2012

Bryan Caplan has picked up on an interesting interview of Irving Fisher in the New York Times archives. Fisher states:

If war would weed out only the criminal, the vicious, the feeble-minded, the insane, the habitual paupers, and others of the defective classes, it might lay claim, with some show of justice, to the beneficent virtues sometimes ascribed to it.

But the truth is that its effects are diametrically opposite. It eliminates the young men, who should be the fathers of the next generation - men medically selected as the largest, strongest, most alert, and best endowed in every way, and at the very age when they normally would be performing the most important function which men can perform, that of fathering posterity.

Their less endowed fellows, medically rejected from military service, because of defects in stature, eyesight, hearing, mentality, &c, are left at home to reproduce the race.

The result must be a tendency toward race degeneration, and that we may look forward to as a result of this great war. …

If Fisher had of known of the events of World War II and the systematic murder of Jews, he might have been more even horrified about the dysgenic effects of war. His feeling that war was decimating Europe while leaving the United States as the last remnant of civilization might have increased if he had of seen the flow of Jewish refugees from Europe to the United States (which I consider to be one of the most important boosts that the United States has ever received).

Would Fisher have considered modern wars dysgenic? I have seen estimates (not sure how accurate) that the average IQ of the United States military is slightly above 100. However, I expect that the troops most likely to be killed (i.e. not the officers or airforce) would likely be below that mark. Most wars are now fought in developing or unstable countries, which given Fisher’s views on race, he would have seen as more benign than a war decimating Europe.

So if modern wars were eugenic, would Fisher end his pacifism and wish for world-peace?

At the end of Caplan’s post, after asking some good questions that the interviewer should have asked Fisher (I would guess that Fisher would have been comfortable answering a couple of them), Caplan summaries as follows:

We’ve learned so much from human genetic research. But when I read Fisher, I understand why the subject terrifies so many people. Hereditarianism combined with inane, half-baked moral philosophy does indeed logically imply Nazi-style homicidal mania. But don’t blame the facts of human genetics. Blame the inane, half-baked moral philosophy.

What is the appropriate boundary when discussing genetics and policy? Take this footnote from Caplan’s Cato Unbound essay from earlier this year, in which Caplan gives a slightly eugenic flavour to his policy recommendation:

There is at least one major reason to think that natalist tax credits are better than simple estimates suggest. Quebec’s program paid baby bonuses to everyone. My proposal, in contrast, only rewards parents who actually pay taxes. Since income runs in families, the extra children born are especially likely to be net taxpayers.

Similarly, I have noted the effect of incarcerating violent males in their mating prime. Obviously, the observations of Caplan and myself are at opposite ends of the spectrum to Fisher’s interventionist approach. But at what point is it fair to note a eugenic or dysgenic effect? Or use them as a pillar of an argument?