Mary Varney Rorty






Mormons and Genetics


Mary V. Rorty
Sunstone 2003



At the University of Virginia I had a colleague who is very interested in the history of genetics, and knows that I'm a Mormon. So for a number of years he has been collecting articles for me from turn of the century professional journals that refer to eugenics in the context of Mormonism; and he has come up with some very interesting stuff. In this paper I'd like to talk a bit about what we looked like to early eugenecists, then talk about why I think these issues are still of interest to us today.

This is not a scholarly paper, really. It's just an excuse for sharing some of my favorite passages. So take it as a hobbyist's paper: about an issue that is as important today, as it ever was. I'll talk about (I) Mormonism and eugenics; (II) eugenics and genetics; and (III) Mormonism and genetics.

I don't want to pretend that there is a lot of historical material available, but there is some. I am citing from three articles:
  1. "Brigham Young: An Illustration of Prepotency," of Heredity (formerly, as it says on its masthead, the American Breeders Journal) vol.VII(2), Feb.1916, pp 51-54;
  2. "The Offspring of the Mormon People," Journal of Heredity XV (2), Feb. 1924, pp 55-68; and
  3. "Eugenics and Mormonism," in volume I of Eugenics: A Journal of Race Betterment, vol I, November 1928, pp. 5-8.


I: Mormonism and Eugenics

A: Negative and Positive Eugenics

The term "eugenics" was coined by Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, in 1883. The word comes from the greek, and is usually translated 'well-born.' Galton wanted to have a short word to refer to a new science that was intended to devote itself to the good of the species, the task of improving the human stock - by what he called 'judicious mating,' of course, but also taking into account other factors which might 'give the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable." (Galton: inquiries into human faculty, 1883, pp 24-5)

Eugenics was two things: it was a young, a struggling, scientific movement involving many distinguished biologists, physicians, and social scientists; and it was a social movement based on that science. It was the form that genetic science took in the first half of the 20th century .

Historians of science speak of eugenics as having two faces: 'positive eugenics' - encouraging the birth of children with heritable characteristics that might be hoped to improve the species - and 'negative eugenics,' discouraging the birth of children with heritable, potentially undesirable characteristics. At that moment in history, of course, the science was pretty unreliable. There was a lot of confusion about what traits were heritable and what traits were not - as indeed there still is today. Much of who we are comes from the impact of the environment upon us; much comes too from our socialization and family influences. The borderline between nature and nurture is and has always been hard to draw. Among the traits considered heritable by early eugenicists were deafness, chronoplasia (dwarfism), blindness, feeblemindedness--but also laziness, shiftlessness, criminality, drunkenness, poverty. A propensity to follow certain vocations - sailor, lawyer or physician - was also thought to be a heritable trait. But because of the influence of Darwin, of Mendel and of early geneticists, there was a great deal of theoretical impetus behind the young science, and as with many scientific theories, a great deal of public interest in the social application of the scientific theories.

The American Eugenics movement had its epicenter in the Eugenics Record Office in Cold Spring Harbor, NY, established in 1910. The American branch of eugenics differed from its English parent-science in several respects. In England the main emphasis was on class markers, and its main task was to encourage the upper classes to reproduce at a higher rate. In America, land of emigrants, the strongest focus was on race and ethnicity, and the form it took was primarily negative eugenics: discouraging the marriage, or at least the reproduction, of the genetically inferior.(Hubbard, 1993, 16) The first compulsory sterilization law in the U.S. was passed in 1907, in Indiana. By 1931 some 30 states had compulsory sterilization laws on the books, although many of them were unenforced. Over the next 50 years some sources estimate that about 60,000 people were involuntarily sterilized under such laws, (1/3 of them in California) and as late as 1985, 19 states still had such laws (Hubbard, 1993, p 21; Reilly, 1992, p. 146). Hitler undertook even more extensive eugenics projects, which took the form not only of sterilization but of wholesale elimination, in the holocaust, of adults and children who had been diagnosed as disabled or mentally ill, or were of undesirable races, including jews and gypsies. Historians have traced his theories to his reading of and relations with American eugencists in the early part of the century. (Proctor, 1988)

But there were positive eugenics projects in America as well. There are photographs of the winners of "fitter family" contests in county and state fairs, modeled upon the livestock and produce shows at those same fairs, where the winners receive the same blue ribbons that were handed out for the best cows or begonias. Positive eugenics was intended to encourage the 'fit' (read handsome, healthy, successful and well to do) to marry each other, and to have large families.

B: Mormons and Eugenics

1: Brigham Young: An Illustration of Prepotency

It was the positive eugenecists that loved the Mormons. They loved them for their theories; and they loved them for their practices. If they were looking around the country for fit families, they would have found a lot of them in early 20th century Utah; and they might well have been quite large families, too. The importance of family trees for tracing heritable traits was extremely important for the struggling young science: and "the Mormons are among the most industrious and careful of genealogists." As the earliest article in 1916 notes,
As it is for them a duty to work for the eternal happiness of one 's ancestors, and as those ancestors must be known, if intercession is to be made for them, it results that every Mormon takes a practical interest in genealogy, and among the women of the church particularly, familiarity with genealogical methods is probably more widespread than among any other class of people in the United States."
And if you are interested in heritable traits, polygamy has a fundamental advantage of offering data about the offspring of a single husband and several wives, and thus produced "a large body of material of extraordinary value" to the eugenecist.

The article from which I am quoting is called "Brigham Young: An Illustration of Prepotency." The phenomenon of "prepotency" is particularly familiar, as the author notes, to breeders of livestock; but in the human species as well everyone can cite instances where all the children of a family "take" strongly after one parent or another.
"But never, perhaps, was the phenomenon of prepotency more graphically shown in man than in the accompanying photograph of eleven daughters of Brigham Young by eight different wives."

"How different their mothers were," writes a member of the American Breeders Association who is well acquainted with the family.
"But all the daughters are distinctly 'Youngs' in feature, voice, appearance and temperament. All are musical. All are amiable. All are adaptable, genuine, sincere, temperamental, yet reasonable, and are good mimics. All are warm-hearted, generous, excellent cooks and housewives, and have the reputation of being attractive, magnetic and sympathetic. None is great as their father was great; but all are Youngs."
The author then tells a story about a guy in Seattle who bet his companion $25 that the two women he saw approaching him on the street were Brigham Young's daughters. Upon accosting them he learned that they were granddaughters through his eldest son Brigham, and he won his bet.

2. The Offspring of the Mormon People

The science of eugenics is a population science. That means that it depends heavily upon the use of statistics to bolster its conclusions. It is an early variety of what we might now call epidemiology. The author of the 1924 article, "The Offspring of the Mormon People," was an empirical scientist. It is a very lengthy and statistically laden article, and since I hate numbers, especially with decimal points in them, I am only going to summarize some of the conclusions of his 13 page article.

The author, J.E. Hickman, weighed and compared 24,000 persons, of whom 2700 he described as of 'polygenous origins.' He made comparisons of several sorts. He compared Utah with the rest of the country. He compared urban and rural Utahans of both polygamic and monogamic families. Finally, he compared a subset of that population, 1200 students, of whom 700 were of monogamic origin, 300 were of polygenic origin, and 200 were second generation, meaning their parents were of polygenic origin.

He compared the 1200 students on weight, height, and mental ability, the latter on the basis of information given by their instructors of their grade-averages and class standing. His statistics reveal that: the male students of "Class P" are 3 inches taller, 8 pounds heavier and 7% above those in class M in school marks. (The results for the girls are as conclusive, but the difference is smaller.) Both Class M and Class P students are also taller and heavier than comparable non-Mormon children measured in other states. He concludes:
"These differences of superiority of the polygenic issue, direct and indirect, over the monagamic are too constant and are taken from too large a class to be due to chance. Ö therefore the conclusion is that the children from such a source are endowed from birth with a physical and mental advantage that manifests itself throughout the history of the individual."
Moving to the Utah population at large, he compares them on the basis of the percent that attend a high school, academy or college. Of the 20,000 offspring of the monogamic, 1 in 25 attended higher education as so defined; of the 2500 offspring of the polygamic, 1 in 5 attended higher education. Comparing Utah to other states, the author notes that in 1903 Utah "had a greater proportion of her young people attending high schools than any other state in the union except Nebraska," and is in 1924 the third lowest state in the union for illiteracy. Moral standards he measures by the number of people in each group who have committed felonies, comparing both M and P Mormons and then comparing both to non-Mormon Utahans.

The results of the crime statistics are particularly interesting. Eighty percent of the people in Utah were Mormon at the time of the article, but according to state and national sources, they were the source of only 15 percent of the crime over 35 years. And in two sample years, the results are the same.
"In 1880 and 1882, in Utah and in 4 or 5 Mormon settlements in southern Idaho, 208 Mormons and 1578 non-Mormons were arrested for offenses. Yet the Mormons furnished 80% of the population - 4/5 of the people furnished 1/8 of the crime."
The interesting thing about all the crime statistics is that imprisonment for polygamy are not included - because, as he notes, "these men were arrested and fined on an ex post facto law; they may be classed as law breakers, but not as criminals." He does not ignore those imprisonments, though; in fact, he begins the article with a passionate summary of the history of polygamy in Utah. In 1882 the Edmunds Law, outlawing polygamy, was passed, and until the time the Supreme Court sustained the constitutionality of that law, and until the Manifesto in 1890, the Mormons resisted the law.

"During that period over two thousand five hundred men were imprisoned. At one time the penitentiaries in Arizona, Utah and Idaho were filled with co-habs, as they were called. In that emergency the government chartered the state prison at Detroit Michigan and sent many of the prisoners there ... Of the thousands imprisoned, liberty and amnesty were offered to each if he would abandon his wives and children; but, be it to their honor, not one accepted the olive branch at such a sacrifice. "
The author concludes the article as follows:
This is in brief the summation of the work that occupied the writer's attention every spare moment for nearly seven years. His investigations were made with a view of knowing the truth concerning the Mormon offspring of which there has been so much said and written - accusations and rebuttals, charges and counter-charges - until the people were covered with the calumny of their accusers ... You may ask for a cause of the startling results from such marriages. To your inquiry the writer may say that he has but little data on the subject; yet in brief, the cause, in part, maybe accounted for by the fact that it was due to noble men and women who entered this principle - women who sought noble companions and longed to bear the souls of men into the world. They loved them into the world and blessed their coming. In keeping with this thought a professor said: "It is quite evident that your noblest men and women have entered that principle."
My colleague suggested that this article might have been written by a church member.

3. Eugenics and Mormonism

It was not only the practices of Mormonism that attracted the attention of this first generation of eugenic scientists: the doctrines that underlay some of their social practices were of interest as well. The last of the three articles, titled "Eugenics and Mormonism," was written in 1928. The author, Roswell H. Johnson, considers polygamy tof little interest. There are at that point, he maintains, only between 200 and 300 women who are plural wives, "with death rapidly thinning their numbers." Of more interest to this author is the attitude of the Mormons toward marriage and birth.

The Doctrine of Eternal Progression heads his list. That doctrine views procreation as the provision of bodies for already-extant spirits, who come to earth to get bodies, as one stage in their pre- and post-earth progression. He quotes Brigham Young as having urged members that in order to "prepare tabernacles (bodies) for them, [=the spirits awaiting bodies] they should "take a course that will not tend to drive those spirits into the families of the wicked," which might hamper their progress.

The importance of marriage is central to the doctrine of eternal progression as he describes it. Only those who were married on earth are eligible for Godhood. Marriage is not only to one's individual advantage, but to the advantage of the other partner as well. He quotes Joseph F. Smith as having said "We believe that every man holding the holy priesthood should be married, with the very few exceptions of those who through infirmities of mind or body are not fit for marriage." So celibacy is low; marriage tends to be very young; and (he concludes from his rather scanty field work, a study of families of students at a summer session of the U of Utah) family size tends to be almost three times that of Protestant families.

One cause for this marvelous eugenic situation is that the "church has in its young people's organizations made a definite and systematic effort to teach better mate selection." He cites particularly a lesson on marriage standards prepared by Claude Richards in the Granite stake.

Further, sex is not considered indecent, "as is the implication of so many religious cults." So it is not the case that the most idealistic members are driven into celibacy.

Despite these obvious advantages and strengths, from the perspective of improving the race, Mormonism faces two threats to its otherwise excellent practice. The author worries about the effect of possible fundamentalism on their excellent practice:
So long as the Mormon stock is as good as it is now, ...the result of their high fecundity will be eugenic. But suppose the tenacious adherence to literal detail of bible and Mormon scripture, held by some Mormon literalists, should become more widespread. Then the scientific spirit of the age now pervading youth would cause a re-selection of the Mormon personnel in that only the relatively less intellectual would remain or be allowed to continue in the Mormon church, and only less intellectual persons would be converts. In such an event, the result would be dysgenic.
The other threat to sound eugenics is from the "very effective" Women's Relief Society, which "now doles out money [and other forms of support] to many morons and feeble minded and other defectives, and tolerates in this way the production of defective children. This, he argues, is unsound from the standpoint of Mormon theory, and he cites in support of this claim Apostle Parley P. Pratt, who is quoted as saying "the law of God would not suffer the idiot, the confirmed irreclaimable drunkard, the man of hereditary disease or of vicious habits, to possess or retain a wife." (Key to the Science of Theology, 1855, p. 167) He urges the Relief Society to make aid conditional on an assurance that there will be no reproduction, "by segregation, sterilization or approved contraception." He praises Utah for having an institution in which< sterilization of some of its inmates is authorized, but laments that the number of those treated is so small. (I think its only fair here to note that in the first place the law authorizing such sterilizations had only been passed in 1925 and was only three years old at that point; and in the second place, that the Church of that period was in general much more committed to the positive, rather than the negative, face of eugenics. What they were interested in was the super-fecundity of the faithful. - a stance that might seem very wishy-washy to a committed eugenicist.)

II: Eugenics and Genetics


So much for the readings from the history of eugenics in the early part of the last century. The history of eugenics is not entirely positive. The science of the times, as I suggested at the beginning, was not adequate to sufficiently differentiate hereditary traits and behaviors from environmental or socialized ones. The net result, especially for negative eugenics, was often to conceal racist and classist prejudices and discrimination in a pseudo-scientific cloak. Indeed, after WWII and public revelation of the atrocities of the holocaust in Germany, with 6 million dead for the sake of racial purity and improvement of the aryan race, the very term "eugenics" fell into disrepute. When we seek for heritable traits today, we do it under the label of genetics, not of eugenics.

There has been a contemporary re-evaluation of the historical period from which I have been quoting, and a re-examination (and eventual elimination) of some of the social engineering practices associated with it. Early positive eugenicists loved polygamy; but if you look under "mormon eugenics" on Google, today's substitute for yellowing journals, you will find as the first listing a recent book by Linda Walker called Fatal Inheritance: Mormon Eugenics in which she blames polygamy for many of the genetic ills of the present generation of Utah residents. Early negative eugenicists encouraged compulsory sterilizations; but despite Oliver Wendell Holmes' judgment in Buck v. Bell that "three generations of idiots is enough," America's history of legalizing them has become a source of shame for contemporaries. On Marcb 11 of this year, 3 hours after listening to my colleague from the University of Virginia speak about the history of involuntary eugenic sterilization, Governor Gray Davis of California issued an apology to the victims of the California law legalizing eugenic sterilization, making California the fifth state to issue such an apology. In our current liberal constitutional state, we try to be very conscious of our class and race biases. We acknowledge that the only heritable cause of poverty is often that the people in question did not inherit any money. I suspect that as you listened to some of the passages I was quoting from 80 and 90 years ago you thought that we had maybe grown more tolerant, more sensitive to people's rights, and more scientifically sophisticated. And indeed, one hopes that we have.

III: Genetics and Mormonism


But I wanted to raise the spectre of our eugenic past for several reasons. First, our past is still with us, and although the eugenics of the past, through advances in science and terminological transformations has become the genetics of the present, many of the ethical issues associated with it are as alive today as they were at the turn of the last century. We need to know our history, lest we be doomed to repeat it.

Second, we are living in an age of rapid advances in genetic science, and in the nation where many of them are being made. The human genome was recently mapped in its entirety - an extraordinary accomplishment, but only the very first step of what is anticipated to be a great advance in our understanding of human health and disease. Molecular genetics is the new young science of this century, as eugenics was of the last; and like eugenics in its day, it has a great deal of scientific investment and public interest. The current biotechnological advances are being financed in very large part by our tax money, and are focused very heavily on human genetic sciences: molecular medicine, genetic therapies, human stem cell research. There is a lot of science fiction on the science pages of our major newspapers and periodicals, and a lot of what we call in my trade "consequentialist thinking"--justification of present actions by anticipated, or at least hoped for, future consequences and results.

There is a third reason for wanting to discuss eugenics and genetics in this scientifically advanced and technology-heavy society. The United States, unlike practically any other developed nation, does not regulate reproductive technologies. The tendency here is to leave all reproductive decisions up to parents - an approach that europeans are beginning to call "liberal eugenics." And because of the absence of any legal limits on reproductive decisions, decisions about whether to embark upon genetic therapies or genetic enhancements, as they begin to become scientifically and technologically feasible in the future, will be made by us as individuals - if not us, our children, for their children and our grandchildren.

We have a second obligation as well, our obligations as citizens of this country. On the national level, heated debates are currently going on, in state and national legislative bodies, in independently constituted advisory committees, and certainly on the international level in the UN, in the European Union and in many individual European states, about what policies should govern human genetic research - research that may influence the future of the species, and research that in our present state of knowledge is equivalent to human experimentation.

So far as I know, the church has not taken a position on any of the current debates that are guiding the future path of genetic research. So it is up to us as individuals, as progenitors and as citizens, to educate ourselves and to think about eugenics and genetics; to figure out what the relevance of the new genetics is to our lives and the lives of our families, and what the social implications might be for ourselves and our fellow citizens.


Photo credits:
(1) Heredity, 1916
(2) Heredity, 1916
(3) Special Collections, J. Willard Marriot Library, University of Utah