The Darwinian “Halo” – Social Darwinism and United States Immigration Policy Between 1880
Modern United States History
3 July 2012
“… If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions,
great is our sin.”1
-Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle (1839)
In the face of the popular notion of the United States as an inclusive nation, to which
Americans so eagerly subscribe, immigration has proved time and time again to be a cross-roads
of controversy, discrimination, and abuse in United States history, as much as it is a defining and
In the period of greatest immigration into the United States, between 1880 and 1925,
federal and state laws were enacted which placed restrictions on the admission of immigrants.
These restrictions were based on the alleged inferiority in intelligence, physical attributes, and
country of origin of incoming immigrants, who were primarily from Eastern and Southern
Europe and Asia. In retrospect, these laws and the rationales that empowered their enactment
have proven to be misguided and wrongly discriminatory.2 Social Darwinism informed, justified,
and enabled both the rationales and the enactment of the federal immigration laws passed
beginning in 1882 and ending in 1924, which not only imposed draconian restrictions on
immigration but also drastically changed the composition of immigrants legally admitted by
country of origin.
Understanding what the tenets of Social Darwinism were, and how they justified and
enabled the immigration laws of the age, illuminates a period of United States history to which a
large number of Americans today can trace their own family’s arrival to this country. By the
same token, revisiting Social Darwinist thought and the immigration laws, which that thought
enabled, provides a frame of reference for the current debates of public policy over immigration
from Mexico and Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere.
The first to articulate the basic tenet of what later became the theory of Social Darwinism
was the English sociologist Herbert Spencer, in his book Social Statics, first published in 1851.3
Spencer argued that fundamental laws of nature governed the modernization and progress of
society in his own time. Writing in Social Statics, Spencer presented his view that,
Progress, therefore, is not an accident, but a necessity. Instead of civilisation being
artificial, it is part of nature; all of a piece with the development of the embryo or the
unfolding of a flower. Modifications mankind have undergone, and are still undergoing,
result from a law underlying the whole organic creation; and provided the human race
continues, and the constitution of things remains the same, those modifications must end
in completeness. As surely as the tree becomes bulky when it stands alone, and slender if
one of a group . . . so surely must things be called evil and immoral disappear; so surely
must man become perfect.4
Spencer’s view of nature and of man’s place in nature is grounded in Aristotle, the
inventor of the science of biology, who posited what came to be known as scala naturae (“the
ladder of nature”) in the animal kingdom and a telos - a goal or ‘end’ to this ladder.5 This view
posits a prodigious “law underlying the whole organic creation” that drives progress
deterministically. It is a view that posits a unique position of man at the pinnacle of nature and a
destiny of perfection in society. Spencer adapted this age-old tradition to his own time of
massive industrialization and migration. In Spencer’s writings, the scala naturae became the
‘survival of the fittest’ in society, and the telos became the mission of ‘the fittest’ to perfect
society by transmitting this fitness to successive generations and to thin out the ‘unfit.’
After Charles Darwin’s publication On The Origin of Species in 1859, Spencer coined the
term ‘survival of the fittest’ in his book Principles of Biology of 1864 with reference to ‘natural
selection’ - a term, which, in Spencer’s view, applies to nature as well as to civilization.6
Spencer’s theory suggested that nature and society both composed a great organic complex, and
that the biological principles of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection could be
applied to nature as well as to social and economic forms. Survival of the “most fit” in nature
could be equated to the survival of the “most fit” in society.7 Spencer went on to posit that the
“most fit” in society could be observed in the upper echelons, the “less fit” in the lower rungs –
in other words, that social class was the product of a sort of biological meritocracy.8
Herbert Spencer was personally a pacifist, a liberal, and an internationalist, and he
fervently believed in the progress of humanity toward the state of “completeness.”9 Although he
is closely associated with Social Darwinism, Spencer never used the term himself, nor did he
intend his theories to justify a discriminatory legislative agenda. Witnessing the height of the
industrial revolution, he believed that his own age was a step toward that state of civil perfection
for which humanity was destined.10
Spencer’s version of a social ‘survival of the fittest’ does not in fact align with the
scientific principles of natural selection described by Charles Darwin.11 Spencer, and more
broadly, a generation of social scientists inspired by natural selection, in effect appropriated the
legitimacy of Darwin’s new theory (the Darwinian ‘halo’) while excluding Darwin’s method of
analysis and interpretation. The expression ‘survival of the fittest’ and the theories that
collectively became known as Social Darwinism gained great momentum both in Europe and in
America thanks in part to this legitimacy they borrowed from Darwin.
However, Social Darwinism and Scientific Darwinism followed completely different
paths of analysis and interpretation. An understanding of the distinction between the two paths is
useful to identify the limitations embedded in Social Darwinist thinking, and to better
comprehend their impact on both the enactment and the outcomes of immigration policy in the
age of Social Darwinism’s heyday in the United States.
The scientific implications of Charles Darwin’s biological theory of ‘Evolution by
Natural Selection’ are of immeasurable significance. First published in 1859, On the Origin of
Species is now regarded as one of the most groundbreaking books in the history of Western
civilization. In a few hundred pages, Darwin was able to explain how both the form and change
in living creatures could in fact be the result of probability through a mechanical process of
reproduction and adaptation.12 In Darwin’s theory, which he applied to the animal kingdom
without reference to human society, survival and extinction among living creatures depends on
the interplay of environmental factors together with ‘variations’ in the transmission of
characteristics between parents and offspring.13 Both of these in turn are subject to randomness.14
In his book, Darwin posited a scientific alternative to the theory of evolutionary development
championed by Jean Baptiste Lamarck that had held sway in Europe for much of the 18th century.
Spencer retained Lamarck’s conception of evolution in his “theory of biology” of 1864, even
after the groundbreaking characteristics of Darwin’s theory of evolution had become widely
recognized.15 This traditional conception of biological evolution was deterministic in its
emphasis on organic development, and it excluded probabilistic mechanisms of change.16
Social Darwinism, as elucidated by Herbert Spencer, and Scientific Darwinism are
predicated on entirely different premises. In Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the ‘fittest’ is
simply the creature that reproduces in a particular ecological environment. It is the product of
randomness in both genetic variance and in environment. In Social Darwinism, however, the
‘fittest’ is a term of social differentiation by rank and status that refers to the most socially robust.
The ‘fittest’ reach their rank through innate merit, driven by natural characteristics of intelligence,
motivation, and effort.17 Social Darwinism therefore endorses a “social selection” - an inherent,
hereditary difference between the rich and the poor - whereas no such difference exists in
Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Social Darwinism rejects the randomness that forms the
basis of natural selection and attributes success and fitness to effort and talent.18 Where outcomes
in Darwin’s theory are probabilistic, outcomes in Social Darwinism are deterministic: the ‘fittest’
coincide with the rich and powerful and educated, the ‘unfit’ with the poor, powerless, and
Furthermore, Scientific Darwinism is an experimentally observable and verifiable theory,
subject to refutation by countervailing data and observations.19 Social Darwinism, on the other
hand, is a theory of social organization that rests upon a process of development supposedly at
work in human society, a process that is neither observable in nature nor verifiable by means of
the scientific method. As such, it is an unscientific hypothesis, contrary to the popular belief at
the time in which it held sway - the second half of the 19th century and early decades of the 20th
century. Although it differed fundamentally from Scientific Darwinism, Social Darwinism
flourished during this period as a “reputable” scientific theory, providing a point of departure for
restrictionists, scientific racists, and eugenicists in the United States. Its purported scientific value
legitimized their views and facilitated the incorporation of their work in public policy.
However, perhaps the greatest impact of Social Darwinism on public policy was its
misuse by contemporary social scientists seeking a scientific justification for limiting the
immense immigration into the United States. As successive waves of immigration in the last
decades of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th century drastically altered the
demographic profile of the United States, the logic of the ‘survival of the fittest’ seemed to
explain, and even justify, the tremendous economic and social disparities between Americans of
longstanding heritage, primarily of Anglo-Saxon ancestry, and the incoming immigrants made
up largely of Southern Italian, Eastern European Jewish, and Christian Orthodox people.
Oftentimes lacking in formal education and any knowledge of American culture, these
immigrants generally flowed into the lower echelons of society, forming separate enclaves in city
neighborhoods and taking up work in factories, mines, and menial labor in cities.20 As a result of
this separation, the economically and culturally dominant white upper classes in large part
perceived the immigrants as uneducated, lawless, and generally unfit to integrate within
Therefore, as the flow of immigrants continued unabated, efforts to limit their numbers
intensified. Ultimately, U.S. legislators passed a series of laws to limit the numbers of
immigrants and to restrict the races and nationalities that could enter the country. The Chinese
Exclusion Act of 1882, the Immigration Act of 1917, and the National Origins Act of 1924
imposed increasingly elaborate limits on immigration from Asia, Europe, and the rest of the
world. These restrictive immigration laws were shaped in large measure by social scientists
whose thinking was substantially impacted by the Social Darwinist tenets of superiority and
inferiority. If immigrants were evolutionarily inferior to the pre-extant and “dominant”
Americans, then it would be illogical and indeed detrimental to offer them unfettered entry. Thus,
Social Darwinism enabled social discrimination that over several decades profoundly shaped the
character of immigration into the United States.
Large-scale, racially specific restriction on immigration began with the Chinese
Exclusion Act of 1882. This act intended to stifle the large numbers of Chinese immigrants
traveling into California via Angel Island, in one of the most substantial waves of immigration in
the latter part of the 19th century.22 Large-scale Chinese immigration created a number of
complex social and economic issues that sparked an intense public reaction. During the great
California Gold Rush that began in 1849, large numbers of Chinese men (known as
“Sojourners”) made the voyage across the Pacific in search of economic opportunity, hoping to
accumulate substantial fortunes with the intent of returning to China. However, the vast majority
failed in their endeavors during the gold rush and, beleaguered by debt, was forced to accept
menial jobs as laborers, miners, factory workers, and especially railroad workers.23
These workers were initially welcomed into the state as a source of prospective tax
revenue and as a source of cheap labor, but this welcome proved short-lived.24 Chinese laborers
tended for form large, conspicuous community ghettos known as “Chinatowns”, in which crime
and unemployment ran rampant.25 Ignorant of the desperate economic circumstances suffered by
the Chinese, whites observed these lower standards of living and soon came to perceive the new
immigrants as inherently lacking in urbanity and self-respect. Anti-Chinese sentiment developed
further after the Panic of 1873, when thousands of businesses across the country were forced to
declare bankruptcy. 26 Jobs became scarce, and when white laborers sought a tangible
explanation for their decreased wages and joblessness, they targeted the Chinese (“Coolies,” as
they became known), who were much more willing to take up unpleasant, physically rigorous,
and poor paying positions.27 Chinese cultural symbols, such as the traditional ponytail and “Yeo-
Ho” poles, became the targets of restrictive domestic legislation. The Sidewalk Ordinance of
1870 prohibited all persons from carrying the “Yeo-Ho” pole on their backs in public.28 The
Queue Ordinance of 1876 declared that all jails would cut the hair of inmates to within an inch of
the scalp. This law formed a clear attack on Chinese men who, when lacking ponytails, were
subject to shame and disgrace in their own communities.29
The condition of the Chinese in California, along with their foreign customs caused
whites to see them as an inferior people, unable to maintain civilized culture. As early as 1854,
the Supreme Court of California had ruled that the testimony of a Chinese man who had
witnessed a homicide involving a white man was invalid, because the Chinese were, “… a race
of people whom nature has marked as inferior, and who are incapable of progress or intellectual
development beyond a certain point, as their history has shown … between whom and ourselves
nature has placed an impassable difference.”30 Several cartoons from this period portray white
sentiment towards the “inferior” Chinese. (Seen in Appendixes B and C)
On paper, the basis of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was phrased ambiguously: to
protect the “…good order of certain localities.”31 However, the true motivations for the
restriction were blatantly obvious. The Chinese were seen as culprits of the economic difficulties
sustained by white people of lesser means. The theory of Social Darwinism provided the
ammunition for Californians to portray the Chinese as an inherently weaker people, incapable of
meeting the standards of American civilization. Therefore, their exclusion for ten years, which
was extended by the Geary Act of 1892 for ten more years and then indefinitely in 1902,
Anti-immigration sentiment was not confined to California. On the contrary, it flourished
throughout the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was propagated by
organizations founded with the explicit purpose of protecting American society, and legitimized
by prominent social scientists whose frameworks for judging social “fitness” were incorporated
into subsequent immigration legislation. The ‘Nativists’ comprised one such movement aimed at
protecting American society and the “purity” of race of America’s founders. Their organizations,
along with their political allies, considered immigrants a lower social body, even evolutionarily
inferior, irrevocably lacking the character of white Americans and therefore responsible for
debasing American society, making it ‘less fit’ than it would otherwise be. Private Nativist
leagues oftentimes played a large role in influencing immigration legislation. For example, the
Immigration Restriction League, founded in Boston in 1894 by three Harvard graduates,
proposed to limit undesirable immigration to the United States.33 The League’s constitution
described its objective: “… to arouse public opinion to the necessity of a further exclusion of
elements undesirable for citizenship or injurious to our national character.”34 In another essay,
the League outlined the “Immigration Problem,” positing that the illiteracy of immigrants was
causing them to aggregate among themselves. These foreigners, according to the league, made
no effort to assimilate into American society and were “unaffected by the higher civilization
around them.”35 While the Immigration Restriction League was a privately run organization, it
still enjoyed great influence in government. The League was one of the first organizations to
propose a numerically based restriction system, and introduced an act to Congress in 1918,
which employed this formulaic system and influenced the government’s use of the first quota
system just three years later.36
The Nativist agenda to limit immigration was furthered by purportedly scientific research
to support the view that most foreigners (along with native blacks) were ‘feeble-minded,”
evolutionarily inferior to the white American race and therefore unfit for “higher” civilization in
the United States. Such research was closely aligned with the eugenics movement (“good
breeding” from ancient Greek). First espoused by Francis Galton, a great polymath of the age
and relative of Darwin, the eugenicists supported the notion that interracial breeding would
permanently damage the American racial stock.37 Groups like The American Breeders
Association sought to match “well-born” with “well-born” and to restrict interracial breeding.38
The ABA, along with other eugenics groups, tried to inject their ideology into popular culture,
where it became embedded in films, cartoons, religious sermons, and even school curriculums.39
The association then turned its sights towards immigration legislation, creating a committee in
1911 to lobby before Congress for increased immigration restriction.40 Henry Laughlin, an
associate of the ABA and director of the Eugenics Record Office, founded in 1910, became
another prominent lobbyist before Congress, and was eventually appointed an expert witness for
the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization.41 This committee, founded in 1893,
was responsible for researching and enacting restrictive legislation and implementing literacy
tests and immigration reception facilities.42 Eugenicist thinking of good breeding and racial
divisions aligned with Social Darwinist ideas of superior fitness and inherited characteristics:
both theories proposed differentiation of ‘more fit’ and ‘less fit,’ and of the well bred and the
Perhaps the most famous example of such “scientific” research in the service of eugenics
and exclusionism was the intelligence testing of Henry Goddard administered on Ellis Island to
incoming immigrants. Goddard was well known for translating the Binet-Simon Intelligence
Scale from French into English and distributing over 20,000 copies of the scale between 1908
and 1915.43 The scale, originally pioneered in 1904 by the French doctors Alfred Binet and
Théodore Simon, attempted to objectively gauge a subject’s deductive reasoning and
comprehension abilities through a series of simple tasks.44 The scale defined Intelligence as
equal to “Mental Age” divided by Actual Age multiplied by 100. A score of 90 or above ranged
from “Average or Normal” to “Genius or Near-Genius.” A score of below 90 ranged from “Dull”
to “Idiot.”45 Binet intended the test to be a tool for understanding and finding ways to help
children with developmental difficulties and explicitly warned against a generalized use of his
scale.46 Nevertheless, in America the use was widely generalized.
While most considered the tests unbiased, they clearly favored those with an education,
linguistic mastery of English, and cultural knowledge of the United States. One question, which
appeared in a Goddard test asked, “Are cats useful animals because they catch mice, or because
they are gentle, or because they are afraid of dogs?”47 The question was intended to be “trans-
cultural” and therefore independent of environmental factors such as geography and living
conditions of arriving immigrants. However, the question actually entails first hand experience of
cats and dogs, and their interface in a domestic family setting, as families in America had at the
In 1912, the federal government invited Henry Goddard, who was at the time research
director for a school of alleged feeble-minded boys and girls in Vineland New Jersey, to Ellis
Island to help in identifying mentally deficient immigrants.48 Goddard’s tests from this year
found that over 75% of Southern and Eastern Europeans were feeble-minded and had the
intellectual capabilities of a twelve year old.49 Further data published in 1917 in The Journal of
Mental Tests and the Immigrant is seen in “Table II. Intelligence Classification of Immigrants of
Different Nationalities” (seen in Appendix D) indicates that 83+% of Jews, 80% of Hungarians,
79% of Italians, and 87% of Russians were feeble-minded. Goddard went on to write, “… we
cannot escape the general conclusion that these immigrants were of surprisingly low
intelligence.”50 Goddard’s explanation for these results suggested that the existence of a single
recessive gene, prominent outside of the United States, was the cause of natural feeble-
mindedness.51 He was a vehement supporter of compulsory sterilization, because he believed that
the feeble-minded gene was being spread at a much faster rate than the intelligence gene of
normal Americans.52 And as for the feeble-minded already living in the United States, he wrote
in an essay entitled Intelligence is Destiny, “… the feebleminded should not be allowed to take
part in civil affairs; [and] should not be allowed to vote.”53 In his 1912 book The Kalikak Family:
A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness Goddard describes his experiences with a girl
named Deborah Kallikak who seemed to exhibit the attributes of a mentally retarded person due
to a long genetic legacy of feeble-mindedness in her family.54 The book became a bestseller and
was hailed by Eugenicists worldwide.55 Along with scientific racism, eugenics in the early 20th
century came hand in hand with Social Darwinism. The terminology of the eugenics movement,
in phrases such as, “well-born,” “inferior types,” and “feeble minded” imply a certain degree of
evolutionary difference, similar to that proposed by Social Darwinists. If it could be
demonstrated that a race was evolutionarily inferior to another, then Social Darwinist thought
about the ‘fittest’ could justify that such people would prove detrimental in American society and
should therefore be restricted from entering it.
The extensive “scientific” research on “intelligence” through Goddard’s intelligence
testing at Ellis Island, with its eugenicist underpinnings of feeble-mindedness and Social
Darwinist overtones of inherited characteristics, along with the racist prejudices sustained by the
Nativists, contributed to successive immigration quota acts that culminated in the National
Origins Act of 1924. While the Chinese and the mentally deficient were the specific targets of
earlier immigration restriction due to their perceived evolutionary inferiority, legislation of later
decades affected a much broader pool of immigrants. The Immigration Act of 1917 restricted all
undesirable aliens from the “Asiatic Barred Zone,” a vast region consisting of Southern Asia and
Northern Oceania.56 Section three of the Act also states, “That the following classes of aliens
shall be excluded from admission into the United States: all idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded
persons, epileptics, insane persons; persons who have had one or more attacks of insanity at any
time previously; persons of constitutional psychopathic inferiority…”57 These ambiguous terms
were used to exclude nearly all prospective Asian immigrants from that date onwards. The
Immigration Act of 1917 also served to increase the frequency of intelligence tests, which
became even more commonplace for hopeful immigrants.
Goddard’s hereditary prejudice and biases in favor of the “good breeding” of eugenics
along with opposition towards the “feeble-minded” immigrants were confirmed in public opinion
by intelligence testing in the military. In 1917, the entrance of the U.S. into the First World War
gave another intelligence researcher, Professor Robert M. Yerkes of Harvard, the opportunity to
validate his own hereditary theory of human intelligence. In the wake of his contemporary
researchers like Goddard and Lewis Terman (Terman’s work seen in Appendix E), Yerkes put to
the test the theory of ‘native intelligence.’ He theorized that human intelligence was a fixed
endowment at birth, hereditarily passed down from parents to offspring, and independent of
geographic or cultural environment.58 The superiority and inferiority condition endorsed by
Social Darwinism in the second half of the 19th century, whereby the poor and uneducated were
deemed to be inferior because they were inherently and irreversibly lacking in the natural
endowments of the wealthy and educated, now found a large scale setting for its scientific
Yerkes, having been appointed a colonel in the army during World War I, presided over
the administration of mental tests to 1.75 million army recruits, with an Alpha Test for those who
could read and a Beta Test in visual format for those who could not. Yerkes divided recruits into
two groups; one consisted of English, Scandinavians, and Teutonic peoples, the other of Latin
and Slavic, and Jewish peoples.59 The results indicated that the average mental age of white
American adults stood at 13, a little over the level of ‘moronity’ (a term coined by Goddard).
Southern and Eastern Europeans came in at an average of 11, and ‘Negros’ at 10.60 The tests had
been developed to measure “inborn intelligence” in Yerkes’s own terminology.61 The
overarching flaw of this interpretation was that while scores clearly reflected environmental
factors such as different levels of education, culture shock, or a past of slavery, these variables
could not be accepted because the tests were presumed to measure intelligence as a hereditary
endowment and a genetic trait.
A disciple of Yerkes, Professor C. C. Brigham of Princeton University, transferred the
Army Test results into public policy in his 1923 book entitled A Study of American Intelligence.
Using Yerkes’ data, Brigham asserted that intelligence is a hereditary trait, in accordance with
the biological order that the theory of Social Darwinism had long advocated.62 Rather than on
political lines of country of origin, as Yerkes had done, Brigham applied the Army Test scores to
racial differences of Nordic and Mediterranean origin along with a third race called ‘Alpine.’63
He found that “the average intelligence of succeeding waves of immigration has become
progressively lower” and he imputed this phenomenon to two factors: one was the relative
increase in numbers of immigrants from the Mediterranean (including Eastern Europe), the other
the lower level of arriving immigrants representing each race.64 Brigham therefore concluded,
“Immigration should be not only restrictive but highly selective.”65 Brigham’s study,
supplemented by the evidence from the Army Test scores, proved decisive toward the enactment
of successive immigration laws.
The accumulation of research conducted on the military during World War I combined
with the prejudices of the latter half of the nineteenth century culminated in the passage of the
Immigration Restriction Act (a.k.a. the “National Origins Act”) of 1924. The law extended the
restrictions by country of origin and quota system first established in the “Emergency
Immigration Act of 1921.” The 1924 Act set a permanent quota by country of origin at 2% of the
people of each nation recorded in the census of 1890, despite the availability of more recent
census data from 1900 and 1910. This choice of census date is notable in that it marked the date
after which immigration shifted away from the British Isles and the Nordic countries in favor of
immigrants from the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe.66
According to Professor Mae Ngai of the University of Chicago, the new immigration law
“differentiated Europeans according to nationality and ranked them in a hierarchy of desirability.
At another level, the law constructed a white American race, in which persons of European
descent shared a common whiteness that made them distinct from those deemed to be not
white.”67 In the distribution of quota spots in the 1924 Act, the incoming mix of immigrants
would ensure that year after year the Anglo-German-Irish component of the US population
would grow consistently relative to all other groups, thereby redressing the balance of the
population of the US away from the ‘less fit’ and toward the ‘more fit.’68 President Calvin
Coolidge summarized the objective of the Immigration Act when he signed it into law: “America
must remain American.”69
The congressional debate over the act was characterized by arguments that borrowed
heavily from Social Darwinism and its scientific racist progeny. South Carolinian Senator
Ellison DuRant Smith, for example, voiced his advocacy of a “Shut the Door” immigration
policy during the debates. In traditional eugenicist fashion, he referred to a superior American
I think we now have sufficient population in our country for us to shut the door and to
breed up a pure, unadulterated American citizenship. I recognize that there is a dangerous
lack of distinction between people of a certain nationality and the breed of the dog … the
time has come when we should shut the door and keep what we have for what we hope
our own people to be.70
In the speech Smith urged his colleagues to read a book by Madison Grant entitled The
Passing of the Great Race published in 1916.71 A fellow eugenicist, Madison Grant was also an
enthusiastic Social Darwinist. A lawyer and historian by training, his statistics on race helped
establish the numbering system in the Immigration Act of 1924.72 Grant sought to view history
through the scope of race, writing in the preface of The Passing of the Great Race, “European
history has been written in terms of nationality and of language, but never before in terms of
race; yet race has played a far larger part than either language or nationality in molding the
destinies of men.”73 He was a fierce proponent of Nordic superiority and felt that intermarriage
was “… a social and racial crime of the first magnitude.”74 Grant became one of the most
prominent voices of scientific racism and immigration restriction during this period.
Not only did Social Darwinism significantly influence the debate on immigration
restriction from the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the National Origins Act of
1924, but it impacted the implementation of the 1924 Act as outlined in the Proclamation by the
President of the United States, March 22, 1929 (Seen in Appendix F, also referred to as “Table
The Act of 1924 intended to extend the restrictive quota system of immigrants allowed
into the United States, set in place by the Immigration Act of 1921. The 1921 Act had stipulated
that the number of immigrants allowed into the country from any given nation would equal 3%
of the population of that nation’s inhabitants in the US in 1890 according to the 1890 census. The
1924 Act initially reduced the number to 2% of the 1890 census, and after estimation and
rounding by statisticians, the number of immigrants to be allowed into the United States each
year was set at 150,000.
The distribution of nationalities within this number is particularly illustrative of Social
Darwinist thought. To designate the amount of immigrants per nation that would be allowed
entry into the U.S. under the new law, Congress created a Quota Board. Dr. Joseph A. Hill, the
chief statistician from the Census Bureau, was selected as chairman.75 The final plan for the
implementation of the immigration quota system that Hill presented to a senate committee in
February of 1929 required years of painstaking work for several reasons. First, in transposing the
Census data from 1890 to coincide with the census data of the current day, the board had to
define the categories outlined by the Act, such as “national origin” and “nationality.” The
difficulty of this task was greatly compounded by the drastic changes in territories and
nationalities brought on by World War I and other major events of the prior three decades.
Second, there were gaping holes in the census information for many localities that required
certain extrapolations to fill in, in part because of a fire in 1921 that destroyed many of the
original documents.76 Finally, the Quota Board faced numerous other variables, such as
intermarriage, which it ignored entirely.77 The centerpiece of the board’s calculations for the
quota distribution the Immigration Act of 1924 was its selection of race, nationality, origin and
other social differentiations as units of classification. “’National origin,’ ‘native stock,’
‘nationality,’ and other categories in the system were not natural units of classification” notes
Professor Ngai, “they were constructed according to certain social values and political
Indeed, these were the same values and judgments enshrined in the 1924 Immigration
Act: the conflation of social and political categories (national origin, native stock, nationality)
with statistical classification of scientific standing and the notion that immigration was unnatural
to America’s character and teleology. Such was the Social Darwinist ‘halo,’ comingled with
nativist and eugenicist biases in American culture, with which Hill had to wrestle in his statistical
analysis of census data to determine the quota distribution in the implementation of the 1924 Act.
When the final quota system was accepted five years later, it was discriminatory, even
within the population parameters of the census of 1890. For instance, were African Americans to
have been counted in the quota system according to their share of US population in 1890,
African nations would have been allocated 9% of the 150,000. In the final quota distribution of
1929, no African country was granted more than 100 quota spots. The Chinese American
population in 1890, which totaled over 100,000, resulted in China being granted 100 quota spots
in the new law, a mere fraction of an actual 2% number. All peoples from Latin America were
excluded entirely. On the other hand, as shown in Table 1, Northern Europeans were granted the
bulk of the quota allocations. People from the British Isles were granted a quota of 65,000 out of
150,000, people from Germany 26,000, people from Ireland nearly 18,000. These three groups
accounted for 73% of the total quota, the rest of the world 27%. Not coincidentally, these three
groups were the most numerous groups in colonial times and in the early Republic as recorded in
the first Census in 1790.79 In the proportional distribution of Anglo, Irish and German
immigrants within the quota system, policy makers hoped they could redress the balance of the
population of the US away from the ‘less fit’ and toward the ‘more fit.’
Table 1 illustrates the “hierarchy of desirability” in the eyes of Social Darwinists in
America. Their goal (telos) of ensuring the dominance of the ‘most fit’ in U.S. society was
realized in the final distribution: Mexicans and Latin Americans became “illegal aliens,” Asians
became “unalterably foreign and unassimilable,” and the construction of a “common whiteness
… presumed to be unchangeable” delivered the “perfection” of the US population.80 Thus did the
tenets of Social Darwinist thought, the ‘survival of the fittest’ in society and the mission to
deliver the perfection of society for all humanity, come to be inscribed in the Immigration Quota
Act signed by President Coolidge in 1924, and into the quota distribution of 1929.
In 1928, H.H. Goddard expressed his regret about deeming the so-called ‘moronic’
immigrants beyond repair by means of education. Remembering his original intentions of
instructing such people at his school in Vineland, New Jersey, he remarked, “I think I have gone
over to the enemy.”81 In 1930 C. C. Brigham abjured squarely and fully his reading of the data of
the Army Tests in 1923 and he even went so far as to declare the very methodology which had
been employed in the Tests scientifically flawed.82 Lewis Terman was also led to question his
earlier methods and analyses of intelligence testing later in his life, admitting that environment
may have played a large part in determining the scores of his subjects.83 Although the intellectual
honesty of these men was commendable, the results of their tests had already contributed to the
passing of the National Origins Act in 1924, and despite their later misgivings, the act remained
in place. And thus during the following decades people from Southern and Eastern Europe were
barred from entering the United States.
In his book ‘The Legacy of Malthus’ (1977), historian and author Allan Chase estimates
that up to six million immigrants were restricted from entry into the United States between the
National Origins Act of 1924 and the Second World War, after which immigration policy finally
began to shift away from its legal strictures.84 President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered an
assertion of principle during his last State of the Union Address in January of 1961 – “It is
imperative that our immigration policy be the finest American tradition of providing a haven for
oppressed people and fully in accord with our obligations as a leader of the free world.”85 Four
years later, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement and the high tide of liberal policies in
America, Congress passed an immigration law entitled the Immigration and Nationality Act of
1965.86 This law abolished the old country of origin quota and replaced it with a preference for
family relationships - as such, the Act became known as the “Family Reunion Act.” Many
individuals were thus able to join their relatives who had come to America decades before. In so
doing, America partially redeemed its immigration policy from the discriminatory and misguided
restriction acts between 1882 and 1924.
Tragically, however, the Family Reunion Act came far too late for many hopeful
immigrants, among them the so-called “feeble-minded” Eastern European Jews who died in
concentration camps in World War II. This dreadful consequence of American immigration
legislation represents the culmination of a period of mounting xenophobia in the United States,
during which time Americans found themselves increasingly fearful of ‘backwards’ peoples
from the less civilized world infiltrating and damaging their superior society and racial breed.
White Americans of this period neglected the knowledge that their own ancestors once made the
onerous voyage across seas and borders for the very benefits and pleasures that they themselves
enjoyed. Their nation was founded and ultimately thrived on the inclusion of many diverse
peoples, and yet Americans oftentimes felt – and some continue to feel - that exclusion is the
most effective preserver of the United States.
Such was the sentiment that produced the restrictive immigration acts, beginning with the
Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and culminating in the National Origins Act of 1924. The
politicians, Nativist organizations, businessmen, academics, and general citizens of this period
used many rationales for immigration restriction, the most prominent of which was the social
theory known as Social Darwinism. The inaccurate and heavily biased “scientific research”
conducted by eugenicists and scientific racists of the time, supported Social Darwinism’s central
tenet – the notion that some peoples were naturally predetermined to be inferior to others. This
process therefore provided the opposition to immigration with a “scientific” justification for their
fears – a justification that seemed to carry with it the weight of Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking
theory of biological evolution by natural selection. By depicting immigrants as “moronic” and
even evolutionarily inferior, exclusionists could argue that admitting them into the highly
civilized United States would bring America to grief.
The US immigration policies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries teach us that social
prejudice can inform policy to a degree of excess. When social prejudice wraps itself under the
guise of science and present itself as a scientific worldview, it can become all the more
unbalanced and harmful in public policies. Social Darwinist thought was a theory intended by its
originator Herbert Spencer to be one of human progress, yet it was applied in a way that
warranted discrimination and exclusion. Unlike Darwin’s theory of biological evolution in which
probability drives both origins and outcomes in nature, Social Darwinism embodied a
deterministic conception of man’s social destiny that has both seduced and haunted humanity for
millennia. Despite Spencer’s liberal and internationalist views, his theory was used to support the
development of America as a closed society.
1 Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle (London: Henry Colburn, 1839), 35.
2 In 1944 American historian Richard Hofstadter formally popularized the term “Social
Darwinism” in his book Social Darwinism in American Thought. The term ‘Social Darwinism’
first appeared as the title of a short book published in Paris by French journalist Emile Gauthier
Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought
3 Ibid, 31.
4 Herbert Spencer, Social Statics 50.
5 "Aristotle and the Great Chain," College of DuPage , http://www.cod.edu/
6 Derek Freeman et al., "The Evolutionary Theories of Charles Darwin and
Herbert Spencer [and Comments and Replies]," Current Anthropology 15, no. 3
(September 1974): 215, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2740899.
7 Spencer was only eight years younger than Charles Darwin, and the two men respected each
other highly. The two exchanged letters during their careers; on one occasion, Darwin
complimented Spencer on an essay written about population despite personally believing that
many of Spencer’s assumed principles of reproduction were, “complete rubbish.” On a separate
occasion, Spencer wrote a letter to Darwin praising On the Origin of Species, mentioning that he
himself had advanced a similar theory confined to human improvement years earlier, a reference
to his thoughts in Social Statics (1851). Darwin read Herbert Spencer’s Principles of biology,
praising its “prodigality of original thought.”
Robert J. Richards, "The Relation of Spencer’s Evolutionary Theory to
Darwin’s" (unpublished essay, University of Chicago , 2004), home.uchicago.edu/
8 Derek Freeman et al., "The Evolutionary Theories of Charles Darwin and
Herbert Spencer [and Comments and Replies]," Current Anthropology 15, no. 3
(September 1974): 216, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2740899.
9 Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought 38.
10 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. "Herbert Spencer," last
modified February 27, 2008, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/spencer/.
11 The phrase, “Survival of the Fittest” coined by Herbert Spencer, became a sort of catch phrase
for the ideology that is now known as Social Darwinism. Darwin himself did not use the phrase
until the last edition of On The Origin of Species in 1869 and not in the Social Darwinist sense.
Charles Darwin and Richard E. Leakey, The Illustrated Origin of Species
(London: The Rainbird Publishing Group Ltd, 1979), 25-30.
12 Grounded in early nineteenth century notions of natural hierarchy, Most of Darwin’s scientist
contemporaries at first rejected his assertions in On the Origin of Species. Adam Sedgwick, a
mentor of Darwin in his earlier years and a founder of modern geology wrote about the book,
“… parts of [Darwin’s On the Origin of Species] I laughed at till my sides were sore.” Satirists
even went as far as portraying Darwin himself as an ape, an overwhelmingly witty pun on
Darwin’s theory of man’s primate ancestry (Seen in Appendix A). Nevertheless, by the 1870’s,
Darwin’s theory had become widely accepted as fact in public and scientific communities.
John Van Whye, "Charles Darwin: gentlemen naturalist ," The Complete
Work of Charles Darwin Online, http://darwin-online.org.uk/darwin.html.
13 The variation that occurs in the transmission from parents to their offspring lies in the random
mutations that occur during the process of DNA replication. DNA is a double-helix molecule
located within the nucleus (center) of the cells in our bodies. The genetic information it carries
determines the traits of our bodies, like the color of our eyes and hair. This information is held
within a vast sequence of four nitrogenous bases (The double helix of the DNA molecule gives it
the likeness of a ladder, and following this analogy, the pairs of nitrogenous bases are the
horizontal bars that link the two vertical sugar-phosphate backbones). The differences in the
sequence of bases account for the physical differences of all organisms, because in separate
processes, this library of genetic information stored within DNA is “translated” into the proteins
that compose our bodies. Cells in our bodies are constantly dividing – this allows us to grow and
to replace dead cells. When cells divide in two, they must first copy the DNA stored in their
nucleus so that both cells, the new and the original, have a copy of the genetic information that
serves as the guide for the chemistry that occurs within. In this process known as “DNA
Replication,” a whole array of “mistakes” can occur, which result in changes in the sequence of
bases in the DNA. The vast majority of these mistakes, known as mutations, will have little or no
effect on the organism, but occasionally, a change will have a notable impact. In these rare
instances, the change is likely to be detrimental, (one notable example is cancer, which is the
culmination of several random mutations in the DNA) but occasionally, the change will give an
organism an advantage in its environment, like a longer neck for a giraffe living where fruit
hangs high in trees, making it more likely to survive and to pass on this trait to its offspring than
the giraffe with a shorter neck, who is less likely to pass on its genetic information to the next
generation. Over many generations, the giraffe population in this hypothetical scenario would
begin to show an increase in average neck length. The time involved in these processes is
immense; the time it took for a tiny microbe to evolve into a human is as unfathomable as the
idea is absurd, but Darwin’s theory, coupled with the discovery of the DNA molecule’s
significance by Watson and Crick in 1953, shows that it is possible.
14 Scientist and Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel, who was affiliated with the University of
Vienna and published a paper on the subject dating back to 1866, had developed the first
principles of the modern science of genetics. Although the paper remained little known until
decades later, Mendel had discovered genetic laws of inheritance driven by a pattern of genetic
transmission caused by probability and exposed to environmental factors, which aligned Charles
Darwin’s own theory of evolution. Ironically and even tragically, a book containing Mendel’s
research and conclusions was found unopened in Darwin’s extensive personal library years after
Dennis O'Neil, "Mendel's Genetics," Biological Anthropology Palomar
College, last modified December 9, 2011, http://anthro.palomar.edu/mendel/
15 The French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck had proposed a theory of evolution in 1802 based
on inherited traits, whereby parents pass on their acquired characteristics to their offspring. Over
the generations, the difference between the highly intelligent and the less intelligent would grow
increasingly pronounced as a genetically driven process. Lamarck’s theory of evolution posited
an arrangement of life forms from simple to complex, the more complex being superior and
rising up to mankind. Darwin’s theory excludes such a deterministic theory of development and
subjects each and every creature and each generation to the results of probability in reproductive
success, survival driven by environmental factors, and to random ‘variation’ in inherited traits
which today we know as genetic variation through the continuous opening and closing of the
double helix of the DNA molecule and its workings during the process of DNA replication.
"Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829)," University of California Museum of
16 Richard D. Alexander, Darwinism and Human Affairs (Seattle: University
of Washington Press, 1979), 17.
17 Steven J. Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (New York City: W. W. Norton &
Company , 1996), 113.
18 Ibid, 117.
19 A testament to both his humility and his devout adherence of the scientific method, Darwin
wrote in On the Origin of Species, “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed,
which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my
theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case.”
Charles Darwin, On The Origin of Species 348.
20 "The Journey to America - The Chinese," Immigration,
21 Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought 43-46.
22 "The Journey to America - The Chinese," Immigration,
25 "The Impact of Legislation on San Francisco's Chinatown," Chinatown
Resource Guide, http://www.pbs.org/kqed/chinatown/resourceguide/lesson3.html.
26 Drew VandeCreek Ph.D., "1873-1876: The Panic of 1873," Illinois During
The Gilded Age, http://dig.lib.niu.edu/gildedage/narr3.html.
27 "Anti-Chinese Legislation and Court Cases," Museum of Chinese in
30 The People v. George W. Hall, No. 4 Cal. 399 (California Supreme Court
October 1, 1854) (The California Supreme Court Historical Society).
31 Chinese Exclusion Act, S. Res. HR 5804, N.A. Cong. (1882) (enacted)
32 1892 Geary Act, S. Res. Sess. I Chap. 60, 52d Cong. (1892) (enacted),
US immigration legislation online.
33 "Immigration Restriction League," Harvard University Library Open
Collections Program, http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/immigration/
34 "Immigration Restriction League," Harvard University Library Open
35 Harvard University Library, s.v. "Immigration Restriction League
(U.S.). Immigration Restriction League (U.S.) Records: Guide."
37 Darwin’s theory and current research in biology shows that the reverse is true in nature:
variation is the mechanism whereby organisms stay one step ahead of viruses and ensure their
survival. The match of the ‘well-born’ with one another (members of the same family or even
race) reduces the incidence of this variation, which allows us to fight viruses. As such, the match
of ‘like with like’ in effect reduces the probability of survival as compared to the match of ‘like
38 Steve Selden, "Eugenics Popularization," Eugenics Archive,
41 "Chapter Three: Eugenics Takes Shape in America," Eugenics Watch,
42 Committee on Immigration and Naturalization (1893-1946) Jurisdiction
and History ," The Center for Legislative Archives, http://www.archives.gov/
Kwame Dakwa, "The Kallikak Family," Human Intelligence
45 Alfred Binet Sc.D and Théodore Simon M.D., The development of
intelligence in children, no. 11 ed. (Vineland, NJ: The Training School at
Vineland New Jersey, 1916), http://books.google.com/
46 Steven J. Gould, The Mismeasure of Man 146-150.
47 "Henry Goddard on IQ," New Learning, http://newlearningonline.com/
48 Kwame Dakwa, "The Kallikak Family," Human Intelligence , last modified
September 21, 2002, http://www.indiana.edu/~intell/kallikak.shtml.
49 Henry H. Goddard, "Mental Tests and the Immigrant," The Journal of
Delinquency 2, no. 5 (September 1917): 249,
51 Kwame Dakwa, "The Kallikak Family," Human Intelligence
52 Henry H. Goddard, "Mental Tests and the Immigrant," The Journal of
Delinquency 2, no. 5 (September 1917): 256,
53 Henry Herbert Goddard, "'The Facts Must be Faced': Intelligence Is
Destiny ," History Matters , http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/4961/.
54 Kwame Dakwa, "The Kallikak Family," Human Intelligence
56 1917 Immigration Act, S. Res. 10384, 64th Cong. (1917) (enacted), US
immigration legislation online.
58 Steven J. Gould, The Mismeasure of Man 192-195.
59 Steven J. Gould, The Mismeasure of Man 197-204.
60 Robert M. Yerkes, Psychological Examining in the United States Army,
page #s, http://www.archive.org/stream/psychologicalexa00yerkuoft#page/n11/
61 "Robert Mearns Yerkes (1876-1956) American Comparative Psychologist ,"
Human Intelligence, http://www.indiana.edu/~intell/yerkes.shtml.
62 Carl C. Brigham, A Study of American Intelligence (Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press , 1923), http://www.archive.org/stream/
63 Dale Stout and Sue Stuart, "E. G. Boring's Review of Brigham's 'A Study
of American Intelligence': A Case-Study in Politics," Social Studies of Science
21, no. 1 (February 1991): 134, http://www.jstor.org/stable/285325.
64 Ibid, 140
65 Steven J. Gould, The Mismeasure of Man 202-203.
66 "Immigration Information," The American Immigration Homepage ,
67 Mae M. Ngai, "The Architecture of Race in American Immigration Law: A
Reexamination of the Immigration Act of 1924," The Journal of American History
86, no. 1 (June 1999): 70, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2567407.
68 ‘Hierarchy of desirability’ aligns with the age-old ‘ladder of nature,’ retained by Herbert
Spencer and Social Darwinist thought, as the driver of progress in the form of the ‘survival of the
69 Paul Lombardo, "Eugenics Laws Restricting Immigration," Eugenics
70 Ellison DuRant Smith (Address, United States Senate, Washington DC,
April 19, 1924), History Matters, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5080.
72 Paul Lombardo, "Eugenics Laws Against Race Mixing," Eugenics Archive,
73 Madison Grant, The Passing of the Great Race or The Racial Basis of
European History (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons , 1916), 2,
74 Paul Lombardo, "Eugenics Laws Against Race Mixing,"
75 United States Census Bureau, s.v. "Joseph Adna Hill ,"
76 Kellee Blake, "'First in the Path of the Firemen' The Fate of the 1890
Population Census," Prologue Magazine 28, no. 1 (Spring 1996):
77 To illustrate the factors that led to the dilemmas of Hill’s quota board, Prof. Ngai highlights in
her essay the role of Francis A. Walker, Hill’s predecessor as Census Bureau chief, and his hand
in the conflation of social categories with statistical units of classification in line with Social
…Francis A. Walker, the superintendent of the 1870 and 1880 censuses, was
president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a brilliant scholar in
the new field of statistics. He was also an ardent nativist and social Darwinist who
believed immigrants from Italy, Hungary, Austria, and Russia were ‘vast masses of
peasantry, degraded below our utmost conceptions… beaten men from beaten races,
representing the worst failures in the struggle for existence.
His [Walker’s] theory rested on the assumption that the nation possessed a natural
character and teleology, to which immigration was external and unnatural. That
assumption resonated with conventional views about America’s providential mission and
the general march of progress.
Mae M. Ngai, "The Architecture of Race in American Immigration Law: A
Reexamination of the Immigration Act of 1924," The Journal of American History
86, no. 1 (June 1999): 75, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2567407.
78 Ibid, 74.
79 "1790 Census," in 1790 Census (1790),
80 Mae M. Ngai, "The Architecture of Race in American Immigration Law: A
Reexamination of the Immigration Act of 1924," The Journal of American History
86, no. 1 (June 1999): http://www.jstor.org/stable/2567407.
81 Steven J. Gould, The Mismeasure of Man 174.
82 Ibid, 232-233.
83 Ibid, 190.
84 Allan Chase, The Legacy of Malthus (Champaign, IL: University of
Illinois Press, 1980), 26.
85 Dwight D. Eisenhower, "State of the Union 1961" (Address, Washington,
DC, January 12, 1961), From Revolution to Reconstruction ... and what happened
afterwards , http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/P/de34/speeches/de_1961.htm.
86 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, a.k.a. the Hart-Cellar Act, S.
Res. 2580, 89th Cong. (1965) (enacted), US immigration legislation online.
"You Know How It Is Yourself!" cartoon, Calisphere - University of
I. N. Choynski, "The tables turned: you sabe him?" cartoon, Calisphere
- University of California , http://content.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/hb4b69n6kx/
Henry H. Goddard, "Mental Tests and the Immigrant," The Journal of
Delinquency 2, no. 5 (September 1917):
Professor Lewis Terman of Stanford University employed similar methods of intelligence
testing via his Stanford-Binet Test, establishing a new gauge for the ‘feeble-minded’ by
administering the test to citizens of California. His test was an original adaptation of the Binet-
Simon Scale, as a means of establishing innate superiority and inferiority in endowment of
intelligence. He believed that the improvement of society rested on the tracking of individuals
into the work best suited for their respective level of intelligence, from factories to the White
House and everything in between, boldly asserting in 1922, “There is nothing about an individual
as important as his IQ.” He was an avid eugenicist, joining the California based “Human
Betterment Foundation,” that fiercely advocated compulsory sterilizations in the state.
Terman extensively tested people for their purported intelligence levels, documenting
many examples of his analyses and procedures in his work The Measurement of Intelligence.
Ironically, Terman dedicated this book to the memory of Alfred Binet, who had explicitly
warned against the extension of his intelligence scale outside of the classroom (The procedure
and results of one of Terman’s intelligence tests is seen below). Terman went even further in his
belief that the ‘feeble-minded’ were incapable of education and needed to be institutionalized; he
viewed them as a threat to the improvement of society and advocated their sterilization.
Terman’s research, while not specific to immigrants, furthered the notion of intelligence as a
fixed endowment at birth, which was used by restrictionists in the immigration debate. The
Social Darwinist dream of a historical development toward a perfection of society, a society of
the ‘fittest,’ found prominent scientific advocates in H. H. Goddard and Lewis Terman.
"Lewis Madison Terman," Human Intelligence , http://www.indiana.edu/
B. R. Hergenhahn, An Introduction to the History of Psychology
(Independence, Kentucky: Wadsworth Publishing, 2008), 6, s.v. "Terman's position
on the inheritance of intelligence ," by B. R. Hergenhahn,
"'Human Sterilization,' Human Betterment Foundation ," DNA Learning
Center , http://www.dnalc.org/view/
XII, 5. Interpretation of fables (score 4)
The Miller, His Son, and the Donkey
A miller and his son were driving their donkey to a neighboring town to sell him. They had not
gone far when a child saw them and cried out: “What fools those fellows are to be trudging
along on foot when one of them might be riding.” The old man, hearing this, made his son get on
the donkey, while he himself walked. Soon, they came upon some men. “Look,” said one of them,
“see that lazy boy riding while his old father has to walk.” On hearing this, the miller made his
son get off, and he climbed on the donkey himself. Farther on they met a company of women,
who shouted out: “Why, you lazy old fellow, to ride along so comfortably while your poor boy
there can hardly keep pace by the side of you!” And so the good-natured miller took his boy up
behind him and both of them rode. As they came to the town a citizen said to them, “Why, you
cruel fellows! You two are better able to carry the poor little donkey than he is to carry you.”
“Very well,” said the miller, “we will try.” So both of them jumped to the ground, got some
ropes, tied the donkey’s legs to a pole and tried to carry him. But as they crossed the bridge the
donkey became frightened, kicked loose and fell into the stream.
Procedure. Present the [fable] above. The method is to say to the subject:
“You know what a fable is? You have heard fables?” Whatever the answer, proceed to explain a
fable as follows: “A fable, you know, is a little story, and is meant to teach us a lesson. Now, I
am going to read a fable to you. Listen carefully, and when I am through I will ask you to tell me
what lesson the fable teaches us. Ready; listen.” After reading the fable, say: “What lesson does
that teach us?” Record the response verbatim…
The Miller, His Son, and the Donkey
Full credit; score 2. “When you try to please everybody you please nobody.” “Don’t listen
to everybody; you can’t please them all.” “Don’t take every one’s advice.” “Don’t try to do what
everybody tells you.” “Use your own judgment.” “Have a mind of your own.” “Make up your
mind and stick to it.” “Don’t be wishy-washy.” “Have confidence in your own opinions.”
Half credit; score 1. Interpretations which are generalized but somewhat inferior: “Never
take any one’s advice” (too sweeping a conclusion). “Don’t take foolish advice.” “Take your
own advice.” “It teaches us that people don’t always agree.”
Correct idea but not generalized: “They were fools to listen to everybody.” “They should
have walked or rode just as they thought best, without listening to other people.”
Unsatisfactory; score 0. Type (1), incorrect generalization: “To do right.” “To do what
people tell you.” “To be kind to old people.” “To be polite.” “To serve others.” “Not to be cruel
to animals.” “To have sympathy for beasts of burden.” “To be good-natured.” “Not to load things
on animals that are small.” “That it is always better to leave things as they are.” “That men were
not made for beasts of burden.”
Type (2), very crude interpretations stated in concrete terms: “Not to try to carry the
donkey.” “That walking is better than riding.” “The people should have been more polite to the
old man.” “That the father should be allowed to ride.”
Type (3), irrelevant responses: “The men were too heavy for the donkey.” “They ought to
have stayed on and they would not have fallen into the stream.” “It teaches about a man and he
lost his donkey.”
Type (4), efforts to repeat the story.
Type (5), inability to respond.
The following [is] the response of an 18-year-old delinquent (intelligence level 10 years) to the
Miller, Son, and Donkey. “They was all big fools and mean to the donkey.”
One does not require very profound psychological insight to see that a person of this degree of
comprehension is not promising material for moral education. His weakness in the ability to
generalize a moral situation is not due to lack of instruction, but is inherent in the nature of his
mental processes, all of which have the infantile quality of average 9- or 10-year intelligence.
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