24 February 2010

Old, Obscure, Great Books Review: No. 3

The things never taught in formal education never cease to amaze me as I discover them in educating myself. There are so many lessons from the past to be learned that are applicable to contemporary problems that one wonders if these contemporary problems would even exist if the past's lessons had been learned.

For this review are two books on little-known history that are loaded with practical and (implicit) philosophical lessons on the moral and intellectual corruptness of collectivism. One is on what is now called "foreign aid," the other on pseudo-science.

East Minus West = Zero: Russia's Debt to the Western World, 862-1962, by Werner Keller; translation and introduction by Constantine Fitzgibbon; 1962, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 384pp. 

How often do collectivists denounce “Western greed” for pillaging and exploiting other parts of the world? How often do collectivists demand that the West give vast amounts of aid to “underdeveloped nations” to bring them up to our standard of living? How often is the West accused by collectivists of deliberately keeping down those poor nations? Collectivists ceaselessly demand some type of international welfare from America and the West for the benefit of some backwards nation as if they have never received any. It is just self-evident to them that if a third-world country can just get the right kind of aid in the right amount, then that nation will be on par with the West, realizing a long-overdue “justice.”

What the collectivists do not do is actually learn from reality and history. That would discredit their program. For instance, Russia received nearly a thousand-years worth of Western assistance - and consistently lagged behind. The Russians, like the second-handers in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, discovered or created nothing new in knowledge, industries, or arts on their own, depended wholly on those who did - for nearly a millennium.

Werner Keller's East Minus West = Zero starts with the background to the founding of Russia. Russia was populated by primitive, tribal clans “rooted in prehistory” when Scandinavian Varangians were, in the ninth century, trading with Greece and Baghdad via routes they established in what is now Russia. “The Eastern Slavs, across whose lands the Varangians travelled, had neither the ability nor the desire to combine politically and thus to create a state of their own. External teachers had to be called in before this could be achieved” (16). The northern Slavs decided they needed a government to settle the bloody feuds and quarrels that were breaking out with the different Scandinavian groups, however, they knew nothing about governing so they requested the Varangians provide them with a king. They obliged and Russia as a country began.

In 956 the Russian Princess Olga visited Byzantium. “The results of this first encounter with superior Western culture were to be considerable. For shortly after the Russian state visit the first steps were taken upon a path which, for over a millennium, was to be pursued by the eastern state. It was then that a policy was formulated which has not changed to this day, a policy of acquisition from the West in order to assist Russian development, of constant endeavour to ‘catch up and overtake’” (25).

Byzantine Christianity and culture began pouring in to Russia. From this the Russians became literate and learned skills like building stone architecture and composing music.

In the 15th century after the Mongol occupation ended Western influences again penetrated Russia. Ivan III brought in a large group of master builders from Western Europe so they could turn Moscow in to a city with architectural splendor equaling that of the Western capitol cities. Ivan also began arming by copying the West. Western armaments were bought and copied and Western armaments experts were brought to Russia.

Ivan IV, “the Terrible,” established mini-colonies of Europeans with all sorts of expertise that were put to work for Russia’s benefit. Upon Ivan’s request, Queen Elizabeth of England provided a navy for Russia.
The importing of know-how from the West continued for the next few centuries until Tsar Peter the Great in the 1690’s decided to start stealing the West’s know-how. A Russian mission nearly three-hundred strong toured the West gaining access to everything they could. Peter was part of the group disguised as a common NCO named Pytor Mikhailov. “Tsar Peter’s journey to the West reads like a list of instructions for all future Russian spies in the field of commerce and industry. [Peter] had money and notebooks ready in his pockets at all times. Educated persons who talked to Pytor Mikhailov noticed his superior intelligence, and the smiths and master carpenters in the Dutch shipyards were astounded at his great skill, his interest in their work, his thirst for learning and his knowledge of their crafts” (73). The next year, Peter cut short the journey because of a mutiny in Moscow. Still he managed to bring back some nine-hundred Western specialists to work for Russia.

Russia’s total dependency on buying, stealing and copying the fruits of Western knowledge continued through the centuries, knowledge which was at times used against the West, like military knowledge and armaments in Peter’s invasion of Sweden.

Keller also chronicles the voyages of discovery around Russia’s far coasts which were led, not by Russians, but by Westerners sent by the Tsars.

After Napoleon’s invasion, Alexander I determined to rebuild Petersburg so it surpasses Western cities. The rebuilding was done with Western architects, an Italian in charge of the effort. Keller sums up the Russian attitude toward architecture thus, “The mania for enormous cathedrals and vast palaces, and for the acquisition of valuable art collections, was in sharp contrast to the unbelievably old-fashioned cultural and economic conditions prevalent in the country. Russia preened herself in borrowed plumes”(157).

In the 19th century many significant advances in the sciences were made - by Westerners. This was also the period when Russian intellectuals were able to equal their Western counterparts, and then only a few and after studying under some of the West's best minds.

When Lenin seized power in Moscow in 1917, it was the German government that financed him and helped him build the Red Army. The German government then promptly became the first target by Lenin of Soviet subversion.

After three years of attempting to industrialize Russia failed completely, Lenin declared this eternal profundity: “Our programme was right in theory, but impracticable.” “Lenin behaved in a typically Russian fashion and… the Red rulers did exactly what their predecessors had always done,” namely, live off of Western minds. Western engineers, scientists, and technology “must come to Russia so that ‘Bolshevik Progress’ might begin” (196).

The second half of East Minus West focuses on Soviet Russia’s massive importation of Western knowledge and skill. The stealing and copying of Western innovations from everything up to the atom bomb and space technology was executed on a staggering scale, often with witting or unwitting help from Western heads of state. The best - or worst - illustration of this was the Great Falls debacle when the Soviets were taking planeloads of materiel and documents out of the U.S. during the Lend-Lease plan of WWII.

Also important are the semi-philosophical ideas that were appropriated from the West and used against it. Keller does not go into detail on philosophical ideas, but one can see how these ideas actually fitted together and reached a climax in Soviet expansionism.

Keller quotes from 1846 an Englishman who was in Russia for many years: “Russian policy is to acquire all those practices of civilized countries which lead to national aggrandizement… In all spheres apart from the physical, and above all in intellectual matters, Russian policy has been to instill in her subjects maximum subservience, a superstitious terror of power and a mindless materialism” (77-78).

The first doctrine was theological. After Byzantium fell to the Turks monks fled to Russia and brought with them the idea of a new seat for the Orthodox Church, a “Third Rome.” Moscow was deemed by the Russians as this Third Rome. It was the heir of Byzantium that would protect the world’s Christians.

Russia believed it had a divine mission.

Secondly, the idea of Pan-Slavism developed with Herder and the German romantics in the 18th and 19th centuries and the Russians turned this into a doctrine of xenophobic Russian nationalism against the “corrupt West.”

Russia believed in its moral superiority to the West.

The last major philosophical idea that the Russians imported from the West was Marxism. It began when Russian émigrés in Switzerland started a Marxist socialist party. It was not hard for Marxism to capture the Russian mind. “[Marxism] appeals to the Russian desire for a Messiah, for it is a sort of a secular religion,” according to the philosopher Nikolai Berdyayev.

The communist Russians were aggressive secular religionists, armed with weapons, including atomic weapons, ultimately built for them and to be used against those builders.

East Minus West = Zero is an excellent and fascinating book. The reader will be shaking his head in disbelief over and over at Keller's account of what Westerners have done in Russia. It is also an important book for understanding Russia.

After reading East Minus West, one sees the parallels between that history and what Western businesses and governments are currently doing in other parts of the world that are at best, semi-backward, and hostile to the West. It is the same story all over again. The primary lesson to be learned is that if a country remains mired in backwards collectivism and religion it must grow itself into a culture of independent-minded, reality-oriented, thinking it if wants to progress. A millenium of Western developing of Russia at Russian direction was not enough for Russia to catch up. The "greedy, unjust exploiters" were not those providing the development. Just giving them the technology because it is "humanitarian" is unjustifiable. If they are not fit for modern science and technology, they do not deserve to have it handed to them from those who created it. Doing so is also a demonstrable danger, time and again, to the West itself.


Eugenics: Hereditarian Attitudes in American Thought, by Mark H. Haller; 1984, Rutgers University Press; 264pp.

In reading old books on late 19th and early 20th century American history one can come upon passing references to eugenics and the eugenics movement, enough to stimulate one’s interest in what it was about. Those brief, occasional, passing references to the scientists, social workers, politicians and others who believed the human race was in danger of being biologically degraded and therefore worked for laws and institutions for purposes like sterilizing people who were feebleminded and defective or restricting immigration on racial grounds, eventually arouses one’s interest in what the whole story was with eugenics.

I was even more curious about eugenics after reading Michael Crichton’s State of Fear. It has a brief appendix on the history of eugenics and its parallels with the global warming movement: widely accepted “science” that does not tolerate disagreement; bogus research generously funded by philanthropists and government; adherents in public office passing laws based on it that we are to live by; etc.

How did eugenics start and why did it last so long - and be so influential if it was only pseudo-science? How do we learn the lessons of believing in a pseudo-science - one that lasted for decades - and basing laws and institutions on it so that we do not do something like that again? Did not intellectuals like philosophers of science, historians, sociologists, and others afterward look back at this period to analyze it and endeavor to figure out the flaws in thinking and belief that allowed science to prominently uphold and spread nonsense for so long?

These questions and others were in the back of my mind for awhile and I intended to find some books on the eugenic movement. To my surprise I could not find any - so much for our intellectuals trying to learn from the past!

Finally, I discovered Mark Haller’s Eugenics (originally published in 1963), and it is described on the back cover as “the first comprehensive history of the rise, fall, and gradual revival of the eugenics movement in the United States.” It’s the only such book I have been able to find. It seems, for whatever reasons, as far as intellectuals are concerned the eugenics movement never happened.

As we can fortunately learn from Haller’s book, eugenics began in Europe with the convergence of different streams of scientific and social thought that eventually spread to America. What was eugenics? Eugenics was “the science of the improvement of the human race by better breeding” according to an American eugenist (3).

Francis Galton (1822-1911) was a “gentleman scientist” and became interested in human heredity after his cousin, Charles Darwin, published Origin of Species. Galton coined the term, “eugenics” and provided much of its doctrine. Galton believed “that man’s character and capacities were primarily shaped by heredity and that the present generation therefore had the power to control and improve the inborn qualities of the many generations to follow. In time this became for him a new ethic and a new religion” (10). “He foresaw that eugenics might become a sort of national creed, so that law and custom would work together for the improvement of the race” (17). Galton was by no means a complete quack, however. He did make important contributions to science and was one of the first to reject the then common belief that acquired characteristics could be passed on to the next generation, so much of his work held up when Mendelian genetics were discovered.

Galton’s disciple, Karl Pearson, in his studies of heredity became convinced that environment meant nothing and heredity everything. Pearson “feared that civilization was menaced by the fecundity of the poor. He insisted that human progress came only through a struggle of class against class, in which the superior classes won, and through a struggle of race against race, in which the higher races supplanted the lower” (13-14).

The other major contributor to eugenic thought was the field called “criminal anthropology.” “Criminal anthropology grew from investigations in various of the countries of Europe and exerted wide influence both there and in the United States. It reflected the extreme hereditarian ideas which developed in the wake of evolutionary thought” (14). In France, B.A. Morel wrote on hereditary degeneration causing social ills like alcoholism, criminality, insanity, and others, eventually culminating in sterile idiocy. Another important criminal anthropologist was the Italian, Cesare Lombroso. He thought that criminals had distinct physical characteristics because they were a certain type of human defective. “So well did the theory of criminal anthropology fit the presuppositions of post-Darwinian thought that for a time it received a respectful and often uncritical reception in Europe and America” (17).

In America it was the social workers, prison wardens and physicians, insane asylum superintendents, sociologists, and the like who were the forefront of the eugenics movement. These caretakers of the “feebleminded” assigned to heredity a major role in these human deficiencies. Also, many new professional societies were forming and publishing specialized journals. “Increasingly they centered upon heredity as a major factor in the burden of dependency and delinquency. From such persons, the experts in their fields, came the theories and impulses that first led to eugenics” (26). For instance, psychiatrists came to believe in surgically sterilizing the insane so they could not propagate; Alexander Graham Bell feared that a race of deaf humans might result from the deaf intermarrying; physicians believed that “inebriety is a disease” caused by heredity (30).

The last major factor in forming American eugenics was the arrival in America in the 1890’s of European racial doctrines.

Lastly, the eugenics movement got formal intellectual leadership.

Agricultural breeders and university biologists formed the American Breeders Association in 1903. In 1906 the American eugenics movement came to be a significant force when the Association formed the “Committee on Eugenics” comprised of important intellectuals with the purpose “‘to investigate and report on heredity in the human race’ and ‘to emphasize the value of superior blood and the menace to society of inferior blood’” (62).

Charles Davenport, a professor at the University of Chicago, became the prominent eugenist among those named to the committee. A biologist and eugenist, he even met Galton and Pearson while in England. Davenport was also a man with an inferiority complex and was highly sensitive to criticism. His uncritical approach to science eventually left him out of the mainstream as scientists learned more about genetics as the years passed. In eugenics he sought confirmation for his belief that a man was determined solely by his heredity. Urging that action be taken before all the relevant information was gathered was another of his traits. One critic of Davenport and his associates said, “Their efforts seem to me to be directed not so much to discover the laws of the transmission of insanity as to fit the facts to Mendelian theory” (70).

Davenport was hardly unique in having a dogmatic, uncritical approach to heredity, as Haller’s chapter, ‘Eugenics Orthodoxy,’ shows. Eugenists convinced themselves of some outlandish beliefs.

Haller quotes Charles R. Van Hise, president of the University of Wisconsin: “we know enough about eugenics so that if the knowledge were applied, the defective classes would disappear in a generation” (76). Also, many eugenists even believed that history is a “branch of biology.” For example, the fall of Rome was explained by the “poorer hereditary quality” of its citizens. The racial stock that founded and formed America was at risk of becoming extinct, according to eugenists. Eugenists wanted to prevent war because it was a waste of germ plasm. Not wanting to let go of their reformist cause of banning alcohol on the grounds that alcoholism was an inheritance from an acquired characteristic - Mendelian genetics discredited this - the eugenists asserted the existence of “blastophthoria.” This was the process of alcohol in the blood causing cell damage that could be hereditarily passed on.

Then there was the Big Scare the eugenists propagated in the second decade of the 20th century: the “menace of the feebleminded.” This myth “became a major force in American social thought” (95).

Eugenists concluded that the feebleminded were more prevalent in society than previously believed and were to blame for prostitution, pauperism, juvenile delinquency, and many other problems. This was deemed a menace to present and future generations and it urgently required a eugenic solution. “Hence the menace of the feebleminded became the battle cry of an intensive public crusade to extend the care and control of the mentally deficient. The menace of the feebleminded was the subject of Sunday school tracts, was lectured about before women‘s clubs, business clubs, and colleges, and was a major topic in most periodicals devoted to social reform. In virtually every state there was an organized campaign… to awaken the public and secure legislation” (109-110).

This menace was exposed as a myth when conscripts in the Army were given the new intelligence test the eugenists and others devised. The results of the tests, when applied to the population at large, showed that half the country was feebleminded! Clearly, this was not accurate. Psychologist J.E. Wallin criticized the tests: “the vast majority of delinquents and criminals who have been classed as feebleminded during the last decade… are not feebleminded at all, certainly no more feebleminded than many millions of citizens who are law-abiding, respectable, and self-supporting” (114). Nonetheless, the myth of the menace of the feebleminded continued for another decade.

Sterilization laws continued to be passed and when brought to the Supreme Court in the Buck v. Bell case were upheld as constitutional. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind” (139).

Eugenics started waning in the ‘20’s. Then “the works of many eugenists became pessimistic tracts on economics and politics with an ever thinner underpinning of science” (161). The American Genetic Association’s, Journal of Heredity, continued “to publish uncritical and naïve studies of human heredity” (168). By the ‘30’s, new, young scientists began entering the field and more often than not simply ignored eugenics than attempted to refute it.

Eugenics is rather short, limited in scope, and not an in-depth examination of the eugenics "science." It strikes me as an introduction to the subject and gives to the reader an overview, which makes it is an excellent book to start studying the subject - however, one must also stop there as well for the apparent lack of books on the subject! For what it is, Eugenics is an excellent, highly readable book.

As to my questions about how did the pseudo-science of eugenics become so widely accepted for so long, Haller's book offers some answers.

Genetics was a new science and the eugenists in particular proceeded with dogmatic certainty before they knew enough about it, drawing conclusions that suited their presupposed beliefs. They also committed many basic fallacies and were often uncritical and unprofessional as scientists. Many treated it as a religion and saw themselves as saviors of civilization from an imminient catastrophe. It also spread through propaganda and fear.

In sum, science was turned into a politicized pseudo-science, becoming a type of religion for advancing statist-collectivism at the expense of individual rights. Consider how outrageous is the "scientific" claim that the individual's genes belonged to the collective! For eugenists, the standard of the good was nature and its future. The Supreme Court even so ruled.

Does the history of eugenist "scientists" sound similar to anyone today?

It is not hard to imagine Al Gore in 1910 calling for eugenics sterilization and immigration laws because "the data is in and the debate is over!"

Old, Obscure, Great Books Review: No. 1
Old, Obscure, Great Books Review: No.2


  1. Thank you for these in-depth reviews. I never have enough time to rad all the books on all the subjects I find fascinating. With your detailed detail review and commentary, I feel like I have gained some important pearls without having to read the whole book. I look forward to reading your other reviews.

  2. Glad to hear that! That and becasue I like to is why I write them. I'm up to my eyeballs in unread books, too, so I know what you mean!