239 Days in America

A Social Media Documentary following 'Abdu'l-Bahá in 1912

Day
108
 | 
July 27, 1912
Dublin, NH
Storify Feature

The Modern Science of Breeding Better People

‘ABDU’L-BAHÁ WALKED with Agnes Parsons from Day-Spring up the hill towards Tiny May where he sat on the grass near some trees. They spoke about Agnes’s eldest son, Royall. Earlier, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had met Royall, but the boy had bolted. “He flew away from me,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá told her, “but I was very pleased with him.” Agnes wondered how he could be pleased with her son when he had acted so badly. Royall was mentally handicapped.


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Across the ocean — at exactly the same time — a group of men were talking about what should be done with people like Royall. It was the First International Eugenics Congress at the University of London, which was being held between July 24 and July 30, 1912.

Charles Davenport, a member of the American Breeders Association, was a leader in the study and application of eugenics in America. “Forget unessentials like skin color,” he said. “Focus attention on socially important defects. Then by sterilization or segregation, prevent the reproduction of the socially inadequate. Thus will the mentally incompetent strains be eliminated. . .”

Eugenics was the science of how to create a pure society by selective breeding. Charles Darwin’s son, Leonard, had captured the aspirations of many when he opened the Congress and asked: “[M]ay we not hope that the twentieth century will be known in the future as the century when the eugenic ideal was accepted as part of the creed of civilisation?”

By 1912 eugenic ideals had seeped into every facet of life, and were favored by many reformers, including scientists like Alexander Graham Bell; businessmen like Vernon Kellogg, the cereal magnate; politicians like Theodore Roosevelt; and playwrights like George Bernard Shaw. Even those whose motive was to alleviate the conditions of the poor, like Margaret Sanger, succumbed to its powerful voice. Eugenicists were especially concerned with the African, the immigrant, the mentally ill, and those they described as feeble-minded. “May we not hope,” Willett M. Hays wrote, “to advance greatly the average of efficiency, to practically lop off the defective classes below, and also increase the number of the efficient at the top?”

‘Abdu’l-Bahá had a completely different opinion about what the response to Hays’s so-called “defective classes” must be:

“Even though we find a defective branch or leaf upon this tree of humanity or an imperfect blossom,” he told Reverend Harvey’s congregation in Brooklyn last week, “it, nevertheless, belongs to this tree and not to another. Therefore, it is our duty to protect and cultivate this tree until it reaches perfection.”

Pruning, he argued, was not a strategy acceptable to humanity: “If we examine its fruit and find it imperfect, we must strive to make it perfect. There are souls in the human world who are ignorant; we must make them knowing. Some growing upon the tree are weak and ailing; we must assist them toward health and recovery.”

“If they are as infants in development, we must minister to them until they attain maturity,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said. “We should never detest and shun them as objectionable and unworthy. We must treat them with honor, respect and kindness; for God has created them.”

As Agnes and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sat talking about Royall, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explained why he had been pleased with her son. “He judged from what was within, not by externals,” Agnes heard him say, “that such people as Royall are pure, clear sighted, inspirational, even prophetic.” He assured Agnes that all are in God’s hands and that “there is a wisdom in this experience.”

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  • http://twitter.com/TheStruggleWthn Malik Nash

    I think there’s much more to say here about the psuedospeciation that the proponents of eugenics engaged in, and ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s explicit, emphatic and unequivocal rejection of it.

    • Loie Mead

      Malik, I agree with you that “there’s much more to say here about the psuedospeciation that the proponents of eugenics engaged in”. Moreover, I hope that many more individuals will follow ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s unequivocal rejection of such unscientific notions.  I hope we will hear more from you. 

    • 239Days

      Thanks for the comment, Malik. We took a look at the article and we agree: A bit more clarity with regard to how we presented Abdu’l-Baha’s comments would put them in better light. We made a small adjustment to the text in order to do so.

      In Secret of Divine Civilization, page 40, we see this quote:”Other attributes of perfection are to fear God, to love God by loving His servants, to exercise mildness and forbearance and calm, to be sincere, amenable, clement and compassionate; to have resolution and courage, trustworthiness and energy, to strive and struggle, to be generous, loyal, without malice, to have zeal and a sense of honor, to be high-minded and magnanimous, and to have regard for the rights of others. Whoever is lacking in these excellent human qualities is defective.”The quote in today’s feature in which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá uses the word “defective” can be found in  The Promulgation of Universal Peace, talk on July 14, 1912.

      Thanks again for mentioning it, Malik.

      Corey

      • pascal molineaux

        Beautiful quote, one that would indeed further enhance the soul-stirring testimony of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as he flatly rejects any pseudoscientific classification of human beings based on physical attributes.   The qualities of the soul here identified are ones we should all strive to further develop throughout our lives. Qualities needed for a better world to be built.  We are indeed all defective in these qualities and in dire need of guidance, encouragement, effort, discipline. This is where ‘Abdul-Bahá’s shining example, words, and Teachings come in.  This is where prayer and daily effort to serve come in.  We are all defective, let us make every effort to follow the example of the Master.

  • Ellen

    how prisoners are treated is another measure

    • Loiemead

      Ellen, I believe that how the prisoner is treated is another measure of how society or humankind is progressing toward perfection in the eyes of God. I have only to consider 3 adult children to see the advancement since 1912 when ’Abdu’l-Baha spoke with Agnes about her son Royall. The first child strives through technology to reduce the disparity between rich and poor; the second child labors steadfastly through the church to inspire high school students with virtues; the third child takes books and writing into the DC Jail to free the minds of incarcerated youth. Bless ‘Abdu’l-Baha!
       

  • Nimanad

    There is still along way to go in terms of getting everyone on the right page, but ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was without question on the right page here. Everyone in society needs to be accepted for who they are. Let’s hope we see more changes sooner rather than later.

  • http://twitter.com/industrioushead Emily Morrison

    Our souls are not our bodies or our minds. Therefore, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says, we must try to help everyone to grow, because this is our purpose here in this life. I love ‘Abdu’l-Bahá! Everything he speaks about is made new. He teaches me how to respond to the challenges life presents.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/5ZIAYF6OEP5ULTPKWXF5XN2ZCI Keith

    Eugenics was more accepted in the days of Abu’l-Baha, before the Nazis. Hitler’s mythology about “superior races” was all about eugenics. But Abdu’l-Baha had the forsight to see the fallacies even before Hitler’s excesses.

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  • James Williams

    The human
    mind has always attempted to quantify, objectify, and measure its own existence.
    This is one of the operative principles behind not only eugenics, but racism and
    oppression in its myriad forms.

    Earth’s rulers
    and religious leaders did not accept either degrees of the “Peace” that
    Baha’u'llah had offered them. So an educated guess is that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá ‘knew’
    that these misguided mental constructs of human reality had to face the Light
    of the Day of God, eventually. Hence, our subsequent great world wars and
    continuing conflicts. Yet, surprisingly, Abdu’l-Baha still did not condemn mankind. He
    didn’t even berate the most accomplished ‘thinkers’ of that time, who subscribed
    to such erroneous beliefs. Instead, He presented a completely different paradigm
    in which another perspective of the human race can be seen and explored.  Even now, His words are in such stark contrast to ours, as lowly individuals, but not those words of guidance flowing from the Universal House of Justice. 

    Earth’s rulers
    and religious leaders did not accept either degrees of the “Peace” that
    Baha’u'llah had offered them. So an educated guess is that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá ‘knew’
    that these misguided mental constructs of human reality had to face the Light
    of the Day of God, eventually. Hence, our subsequent great world wars and
    continuing conflicts.
    Yet, surprisingly, Abdu’l-Baha still did not condemn mankind. He
    didn’t even berate the most accomplished ‘thinkers’ of that time, who subscribed
    to such erroneous beliefs. Instead, He presented a completely different paradigm
    in which another perspective of the human race can be seen and explored.  
    Even now, His words are in such stark contrast to ours, as lowly individuals, but not those words of guidance flowing from the Universal House of Justice. 

    • James Williams

      Thank you for both this website and your kind invitation to post our comments. However, I now know that such comments must be reviewed and edited carefully before pushing the ‘post” button. Please overlook the results of my learning process.

  • Bez

    Interesting thread – I recently watched a movie called red tails – amazed me that even only 70 years ago in the subject of battle or defense of justice, the ignorant felt color of skin was a mark of deficiency in aptitude or courage – oh how they were proven wrong… Always amazed at the ignorant “intelligent” class of leading people… How Abdul-Baha even loved these deficient folks as creation of God.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=519185703 Peter Gardner

    In my view, there are two moral questions to be contemplated. One is about loving acceptance of all kinds of people. The other is about prevention of illness.

    For example, we lovingly accept and care for a baby suffering from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. No question about that. Also, we lovingly prevent the suffering and weakness brought about by drinking alcohol while pregnant and, preferably, even before discovering that conception has taken place, which can take many weeks, sometimes. -P.G.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=519185703 Peter Gardner

      In modern times, a couple may choose to meet with a physician who is a preconception counsellor or a genetic counsellor. This is a different body of knowledge than was available early in the 20th century. It is not about race or the rejection of citizens who are handicapped. In some scenarios, there are difficult moral questions to be considered. In others, illness can be prevented or its effects greatly ameliorated by following the advice of the physician on subjects such as diet and lifestyle changes. -P.G.

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