The Problem With the “Population Bomb”: Eugenics and Population Control

Newsweek’s recent article “How to Defuse the Population Bomb” confronts an old subject with a frustratingly uncritical eye. The piece details the much-discussed problem of overpopulation with a focus on its environmental and economic implications. It paints a troubling picture of a poor, dirty, and overcrowded “Africa” (referred to en masse as often as by specific countries). The answer to avoiding an even more overburdened, resource-starved earth? Massively increase birth control accessibility and family planning education in the Global South. While informed, consensual access to birth control ought to be a worldwide right, the uncritical, alarmist discourse around population control deployed here fails to incorporate a critical historical lens.


The article makes a brief foray into the history of birth control via Western intervention in the non-white world, linked to the slave trade and the era of formal colonization in the African continent. But the historical analysis stops there, before reaching the 20th century and the insidious modern history of continued Western intervention into family planning in the developing world—a history linked to eugenics and population control.

The American eugenics movement of the early 20th century was largely concerned with domestic issues of “race suicide”—the perceived demographic shift away from a white Anglo-American majority due to immigration and variable reproductive rates between racial groups. But this domestic demographic crisis was clearly linked to a parallel crisis happening at a global scale. Imperial rhetoric employed in works like Lothrop Stoddard’s hugely influential The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy was amplified by the notion that population growth in the non-white world would outstrip that of the “civilized nations.” International policymaking and philanthropy, coupled with alliances between eugenicists, neo-Malthusians, and other population control camps, would follow. The 1925 Sixth International Neo-Malthusian and Birth Control Conference in New York brought together a critical mass of parties interested in global population control. Foundational international birth control organizations such as International Planned Parenthood Federation and Pathfinder International were borne out of the intersections of the eugenics, birth control, and population control movements and the wallets of eugenically minded philanthropists like Clarence Gamble. For decades, Gamble’s Pathfinder International oversaw the distribution of untested and unsafe birth control methods throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America, while funding staffing at Puerto Rico’s Family Planning Association, which advocated for sterilization as an alternative to contraception. Coupled with the implementation of Harry H. Laughlin’s “model eugenic sterilization law” in 1936, one-third of Puerto Rican women would be sterilized by 1968. Rushed, dangerous, and ill-informed contraception initiatives, such as the one undertaken in India in the 1970, were consistently pushed and funded by American interests.

Sterilization propaganda in Puerto Rico promised success and stability after "la operación".
Sterilization propaganda in Puerto Rico promised success and stability after “la operación”.
Sterilization campaigns targeting women of color came under increasing fire from women of color activists in the the 1970s.
Sterilization campaigns targeting women of color came under increasing fire from women of color activists in the the 1970s.

All in the name of “population control” and cloaked in arguments of economic development, environmental sustainability, women’s rights…

Even today, the distribution of a little-known and under-tested drug called Quinacrine, has been cited as the “newest tool in a decades-long movement of coercive sterilization.” As reported by the Center for New Community, a racial justice research institution, the push for distribution of Quinacrine in the developing world is linked to contemporary far-right anti-immigrant organization and key players in the history of eugenics and population control.

The point is not a simplistic assertion that calls for population control are akin to calls for eugenics or neo-eugenics. Rather, we urge contemporary conversations about population control to consider critically the history of how eugenics operated within the population control movement, soiling a potentially beneficial project with racism, abuse, and violence. Alarmist calls for population control are more likely to repeat the mistakes of the past than are critical, historically nuanced conversations. Even more, when it comes to conversations about very real problems of resource depletion and poverty, we have to wonder why difficult questions of resource re-distribution and overconsumption tend to be passed over for the easy tropes of “too many Africans.” The implications of the privileging of Western luxury over “third world” bodies are hard to ignore.



Read more:

Hansen, Randall and King, Desmond. “Eugenics and World Population Control.” In Sterilized by the State: Eugenics, Race, and the Population Scare in Twentieth-Century North America.



James Watson Sells Nobel Prize

James D. Watson, the former director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (which was once the base of the Eugenics Record Office), has successfully sold his 1962 Nobel Prize for the discovery of DNA’s double-helix for $4.1 million. Watson, who was director of the genetic research facility at CSHL beginning in 1968, and later served as president, chancellor and chancellor emeritus, is planning on giving the proceeds to several universities and CSHL.


James Watson


Watson is trying to revamp his image, which was tarnished by controversial statements about race and intelligence in recent years. In a 2007 interview with The Sunday Times of London Magazine, Watson, discussing Africa stated, “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours, whereas all the testing says not really.” He went on to suggest that black employees were not equal to whites. As a consequence, Watson says, he has been shunned by the academic community.

In an interesting turn of events, the medal was purchased by Russian mogul Alisher Usmanov, who plans to return the medal to Watson. “In my opinion, a situation in which an outstanding scientist has to sell a medal recognizing his achievements is unacceptable,” Usmanov said in a statement. “James Watson is one of the greatest biologists in the history of mankind and his award for the discovery of DNA structure must belong to him.”

Read more:

James Watson Puts Nobel Medal on Auction Block (New York Times)

Russia’s richest man buys James Watson’s Nobel medal at auction – to return it to him (Washington Post)



Eugenics’ Critics: Another Sort of ‘Defective’

Despite the power and popularity of American eugenics in the early 20th century, the movement also faced its share of critics: from the Catholic Church to Boasian anthropologists, some formally trained geneticists, and standout politicians like Emanuel Celler.  (Unfortunately, resistance from communities targeted by eugenicists, such as new immigrants and people with disabilities, is more difficult to trace.) Though their criticisms were largely unheeded in the 1910s and 1920s, their contributions to a slowly growing body of political, academic, and scientific disregard for eugenics thought would help spell the end of popular American eugenics by the end of World War II.

Now, we’ve come across a fascinating refutation of eugenics from a 1915 edition of The Day Book, a Chicago daily newspaper. In it, writer R.F. Paine writes a scathing, radically anti-corporate critique of eugenics. Stirred by the 1914 slaughter of Standard Oil strikers by Colorado militiamen, Paine suggests that the perpetrators of corporate greed and exploitation make up the true “defective” class.

It’s a welcome rebuttal to the claims of eugenicists and the philanthropists who funded them. How would such an article have been received in 1915?


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Full text:

WHERE TO BEGIN.The millions of Mrs. Harriman, relict of the great railroad “promoter,” assisted by other millions of Rockefeller and Carnegie, are to be devoted to sterilization of several hundred thousands of American “defectives” annually, as a matter of eugenics.

It is true that we don’t yet know all that the millions of our plutocracy can do to the common folks. We see that our moneyed plutocrats can own the governments of whole states, override constitutions, maintain private armies to shoot down men, women and children and railroad innocent men to life imprisonment for murder, or lesser crimes. And if we submit to such things, we ought not to be surprised if they undertake to sterilize all those who are obnoxious to them.

Of course, the proposition demands much on who are the declared “defective.”

The old Spartans, with war always in view, used to destroy, at birth, boys born with decided physical weakness. Some of our present day eugenists go farther and damn children before their birth because of parents criminally inclined. Then we have eugenic “defectives” in the insane and incurably diseased…

But isn’t there another sort of “defective,” who is quite as dangerous as any but whom discussion generally overlooks, especially discussion by senile, long-hailed pathologists, and long-eared college professors involved in the Harriman-Rockefeller scheme to sterilize?

A boy is born to millions. He either doesn’t work, isn’t useful, doesn’t contribute to human happiness, is altogether a parasite, or else he works to add to his millions, with the brutal, insane greed for more and more that caused the accumulation of the inherited millions. Why isn’t isn’t such the most dangerous “defective” of all? Why isn’t the prevention of more such progeny the first duty of eugenics? Such “defectives” directly attack the rights, liberties, happiness, lives of millions.


Talk about inheriting criminal tendencies! If there a ranker case of such than the inheritance of Standard Oil criminality as evidenced in the slaughter of mothers and their babies at Ludlow?


Sterilization of hundreds of thousands of the masses, by the Harrimans and Rockefellers? Let’s first try out the “defectives” of the sons of Harriman and Rockefeller!

Eugenics and Human Zoos: The Case of Ota Benga

In September of 1906, the Bronx Zoo drew crowds as Ota Benga, a twenty-three year old Congolese man, was put on display in the Monkey House section of the zoo. Benga, who had been taken from his home by explorer Samuel Phillips Verner, had been previously “exhibited” at the “anthropology exhibit” at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1904.

Many eugenicists drew from earlier articulations of scientific racism to argue that human racial differences were not unlike differences between species. Eugenicists like Henry Fairfield Osborn constructed evolutionary trees that placed the “primitive races” alongside gorillas and chimpanzees in a hierarchy that culminated with the Caucasian “race.” Based on these twisted, racist anthropological understandings, the violent placing of Ota Benga in the Bronx Zoo may not have appeared unnatural to many “educated” white Americans.


“Existing Facts of Human Ascent.” Henry Fairfield Osborn, 1926.


The Zoo debacle is also explained by the fact that it occurred under the auspices of Madison Grant – budding eugenicist and founder of the New York Zoological Society and the Bronx Zoo.

On September 10, 1906, the New York Times reported on the opening of the “Man and Monkey” show, which put Benga and an orangutan in the same cage to perform:

“The performance of man and monkey is not easy to describe. Certainly Dohong is a very patient beast. Many times Benga grabbed him by the forepaws, swung him as though he were a bag, and then dropped him. Then man and monkey grinned. On other occasions Benga pushed the monkey before him. In this attitude the pigmy was not much taller than the orang-outang, and one had a good opportunity to study their points of resemblance. Their heads are much alike, and both grin in the same way when pleased. Sometimes the man and the monkey hugged each other. That pleased the children, and they laughed uproariously.”


New York Times, September 10, 1906.


An ensuing controversy emerged, led by African American clergyman, as well as white religious leaders who thought the exhibit was a “promotion of Darwinism.” Eventually, Benga was removed from the zoo to be placed in the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, a church-sponsored orphanage, and later relocated to live with a white family in Lynchburg, Virginia. Working at a Lynchburg tobacco factory, he began planning a return to the Congo.

Benga’s return became impossible when World War I broke out in 1914, halting passenger ship traffic. With no hope to return, Benga became depressed. On March 20, 1916, Benga built a ceremonial fire and shot himself in the heart with a stolen pistol. His exceptional life is a testament to the violent dehumanization that came with eugenics’ racist misunderstandings of human evolution and human difference, permitted and fueled by Western society’s inability to see outside of its ethnocentric lens to recognize humanity in non-white “others.”


Ota Benga (1883-1916).

Read more:

Bradford, Phillips Verner. Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo.

Spiro, Jonathan. Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant.

Qureshi, Sadiah. Exhibitions, Empire, and Anthropology in Nineteenth-Century Britain.

A History of UCSF: The Story of Ishi






“Law and Order”: State Violence and People with Disabilities

Two recent news stories call attention to the inability of police officers and the criminal justice system to deal fairly and constructively with the disabled community.

Last night, two men with intellectual disabilities were executed after being found guilty of murder. Robert Wayne Holsey was executed by lethal injection in Georgia, after the state Supreme Coart rejected his lawyer’s argument that the state’s “unusually strict standard for judging mental disability violated the Constitution,” reports the New York Times. Holsey had an I.Q. of around 70, putting him on the borderline of the legal level of disability that would have made his execution illegal. In a similar case, Paul Goodwin was put to death in Missouri, after being convicted of murder. His IQ was said to be around 73, also on the precipice of a seemingly arbitrary borderline of legal disability.

In Maryland, a grand jury recently declined to indict a police officer involved in the death of 26-year-old Robert Ethan Saylor. Saylor, who has Down Syndrome, was killed in an altercation with police who were attempting to remove him from a movie theater. He was unarmed.

In August, the Twitter hashtag #disabilitysolidarity called attention to experiences of prejudice, intersectionality, and police discrimination faced by people with disabilities. The issues are especially pertinent for people of color with disabilities, who face multi-layered discrimination in their encounters with law enforcement. Participants highlighted the death of Kajieme Powell, a black man who was shot and killed by police officers in St. Louis this summer. Mental health advocates who watched video footage of the altercation said it was clear that Powell was dealing with an untreated or under-treated mental illness.

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Read more:

How misunderstanding disability leads to police violence (The Atlantic, May 2014)

Police brutality’s hidden victims: the disabled (The Daily Beast, September 2014)







Photos from our 11/20 performative program A Eugenic (Un)Haunting are up on the A/P/A Facebook page. Be sure to like our Facebook page to stay up to date on other Haunted Files news, projects, and programs!

Check back soon for the release of the night’s video footage, which includes presentations and performances from Loretta Ross, Sonny Singh & Sxip Shirey, Sonia Guinansaca, and many more.