Racist Eugenics Scholar Makes A Positive Difference

The memory of Herman Lundborg (1868-1943) is insolubly linked to the Swedish State Institute of Eugenics that he headed, and thus lives in infamy. Eugenics was the pseudoscientific belief that human populations deteriorated over time unless care was taken to weed out weak specimens and keep them from procreating. Somehow, these allegedly weak specimens tended to have foreign looks and/or a low income and education. But the social pseudo-Darwinism of the early 20th century explained that people were poor and uneducated because they were stupid, and they were stupid because they had bad genes. Bad blood. They needed to be culled from the flock, or more humanely, sterilised, not necessarily with their informed consent.

The other day I learned, by chance, that Herman Lundborg actually managed to solve a serious public health problem, thus performing a great and lasting service to the inhabitants of a small part of Sweden. This was the Lister peninsula in Blekinge province (incidentally home of the Viking chieftain Krok in F.G. Bengtsson’s immortal novel The Long Ships).

Unverricht-Lundborg disease is a rare genetic condition, also known as Baltic Epilepsy. It is a form of progressive myoclonic epilepsy that leads to early dementia. First described in Estonia by Heinrich Unverricht in the 1890s, it was found to be endemic in Lister as well (just across the Baltic Sea). Herman Lundborg’s award-winning 1901 MD thesis dealt with myoclonic epilepsy and demonstrated that Baltic Epilepsy is a recessive Mendelian trait, much like blue eyes. Recessive traits are only expressed if you get two copies of them at conception. The reason that people in Lister were so afflicted was that they commonly married their cousins to avoid splitting up land holdings. This was nothing unusual in rural Sweden, but it had tragic consequences for isolated gene pools that had acquired a recessive trait like that of Unverricht-Lundborg disease. Lundborg’s results were communicated to the people of Lister, they changed their marriage customs, and the disease disappeared in a generation.

Where Herman Lundborg went wrong was in his wider interpretation of what the Lister case meant. He believed that it demonstrated the kind of genetic deterioration that demanded a eugenic response. But in fact, such deterioration does not exist and the problem didn’t really lay with the Lister people’s genetic makeup. It lay with their social anthropology. From the point of view of “racial purity”, few populations could beat the Lister people since they were so unwilling to mix. If Lundborg had not looked at his scientific data through racist glasses, he would easily have understood that his work made a strong case for international intermarriage, not for any controlled breeding of Swedish peasant stock.

Welcome to Sweden, little Christina, whom my friends Martin & Nanna have just adopted from Lesotho.

Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

13 thoughts on “Racist Eugenics Scholar Makes A Positive Difference”

  1. Thanks for posting this. Oddly, one of my interests involves the use of “eugenics” (as you put) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These pseudo-scientific ideas were far more pervasive than some folks are willing to admit or accept. The “ideal human” (based upon gross anatomical characteristics and social class) when combined with nationalistic politics led to disasters unsupassed, usually in the form of genocide.

    All this past thinking is frightening enough, but I find the “DNA Talk” (considered cutting-edge science these days) to have similar characteristics. We look for genetic markers that we think are defects, without thinking about the consequences not only to the person, but to ourselves. What we think of as a defect may not necessarily be so.


  2. Interesting how there can be an up-side to eugenics. Would Marie Stopes have done as much for birth control and challenged the status quo to the extent she did if she hadn’t been a eugenicist? Probably not …


  3. You write “in fact, such deterioration does not exist and the problem didn’t really lay with the Lister people’s genetic makeup. It lay with their social anthropology.”

    Well, no. For this sort of disease to be pervasive, you need both requisite genes AND a social environment that encourages or endorses close breeding. So both were to “blame” but it makes no sense whatever to blame one more than the other.

    The same is true of many human traits which depend on both genetic and environmental factors. Height, for example, is a function of both genes and nutrition. The ability to speak a given human language is a function of genes (which many, if not all, other animals lack) and a specific social environment.

    Many people have fallen prey to Galton’s Fallacy: the noxious assumption that any given human trait must be caused by either genes or environment – but not both. In fact, the two factors frequently interact.

    I agree that eugenics programs have been universally immoral, but recall that so too have many efforts to cure social ills with coercive and ill-designed social (but not genetic) measures: e.g., Cambodia under Pol Pot and the USSR.


  4. “Eugenics was the pseudoscientific belief that human populations deteriorated over time unless care was taken to weed out weak specimens and keep them from procreating. ”

    It’s pseudoscientific when applied to humans… it’s scientific when applied to cows.


  5. “… it’s scientific when applied to cows”

    …if the desired / undesired traits are genetically simple enough. Milk production or muscle (meat) growth can be boosted this way, at the expense of loss of genetic diversity.

    Traits such as intelligence depend on so many genes that a controlled human breeding program would almost certainly fail.
    Another complication; British families that have produced a surprising number of genius-grade talents over centuries also suffer from an increased incidence of mental disease. It is speculated that there is a trade-off between conflicting traits, such as resistance against developing schizophrenia.


  6. The idea of spontaneous degeneracy isn’t scientific applied to cows either unless you take the view that cows should be maximally useful to people. Leave the cows to their own devices and they’ll simply adapt to the environment though natural selection. Given a stable environment, a cattle population will not grow less well adapted over time.


  7. (OT) NOOO!!! Dogs are race-traitors!!!!
    “Modern dogs are more Asian fusions than Euro pups, study finds” http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-12-modern-dogs-asian-fusions-euro.html
    — — — — — — — —

    The Republican / Sverigedemokraterna core constituency decoded?
    “Research states that prejudice comes from a basic human need and way of thinking” http://medicalxpress.com/news/2011-12-states-prejudice-basic-human.htm
    People who aren’t comfortable with ambiguity and want to make quick and firm decisions are also prone to making generalizations about others.

    — — — — — — —
    Re. “degeneracy” There was (is?) a widespread belief in a golden past -indeed, the narrative universe of Tolkien is a good example- and a gradual decay of the world. This kind of nostalgic attitude was unthinkingly applied to the biological world as well.


  8. What we do here in Texas is round up them varmints with undesirable behavioral traits and lock ’em up in pens, where they cain’t breed no more. Or execute ’em. THAT’S what I call selection pressure!


  9. Geneticist Michael Lynch (2010, “Rate, Molecular Spectrum and Consequences of Human Mutation”, PNAS, 107: 961-8 )has written specifically on the ‘degenerative’ effect of mutational load in humans. His wrap-up message in the paper’s abstract goes: “[A]consideration of the long-term consequences of current human behavior for deleterious-mutation accumulation leads to the conclusion that a substantial reduction in human fitness can be expected over the next few centuries in industrialized societies unless novel means of genetic intervention are developed.”
    ‘Genetic intervention’, unless I am mistaken, is a euphemism for Eugenics. In short, despite ideology, religion and intuition, mutations accumulate, and in the absence of counter selection, natural or otherwise, they cause deterioration in human wellbeing. Lynch is unhappy with this conclusion as am I. We all wish it were not so, but it is. So grow up. Get real!


  10. a substantial reduction in human fitness can be expected over the next few centuries in industrialized societies

    Assuming he’s right (which is a pretty big assumption), good thing most people don’t live in industrialized societies and that there is a constant healthy influx from more Darwinistic populations into the enfeebled West.


  11. That people continue to ignore the instincts present in all animals and to ignore absolute evidence that intelligence IS most often inherited is a disgrace. In every animal breeding program, positive traits are bred for and the result is stronger and smarter stock. To deny this is to deny 5000 years of animal husbandry. It reminds me of when communist geneticists in China, working under the socialist theory that genetics “didn’t exist” almost starved their nation to death due to incompetent management of crops. If you think the current trend where the intellectually superior aren’t breeding and the poor are is a good thing, come back in 100 years and see the result.


  12. Don’t worry. It is true that globally, people with less education have more kids. But it is not true that all “intellectually superior” people are well educated. For one thing, education isn’t universally available. For another, even where it is, the decision to study or not is largely governed by custom in your social class. And without education, a potentially “intellectually superior” person will never be recognised as such.


  13. @Richard: in all animal breeding programs, desired traits are bred for. these are only “positive” because some human with enough means to run an animal breeding program happens to want them. the result is only “stronger, smarter stock” if those are the traits being bred for.

    broiler chickens have the “positive” trait of growing to a large mass of edible muscle very, very quickly. urban backyard chicken keepers seldom touch them, as they are widely accepted to be too stupid to bother raising outside of a factory-farm setting, as well as being medically and physically somewhat frail. (plus, of course, most urban chicken farmers are more in it for the eggs. chickens bred for muscle mass may not lay well; hardly a positive trait, in general.)


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