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“Statement by Robert Yerkes for Use of American Eugenics Society,” December 22, 1939.
Robert M. Yerkes Papers. Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University.

Matthew Baum ’09, Intellectuals and Eugenics

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In December 1939, Yerkes wrote this letter showing his vehement support for the principles of applied eugenics. While Yerkes mailed his letter, across the Atlantic Ocean Nazi Germany invoked these same principles to justify the conquest of its sixth European nation. Hitler’s final solution, like American eugenics, aimed to elevate the quality of mankind by eliminating social drag, a “streamlining” idea that resonated with the increasing push for industrial efficiency. For Hitler, social drag was created by Jews and could be eliminated only by the extermination of the Jewish people. How did this happen? How could a social movement begun by some of the world’s brightest minds culminate in rampant prejudice, sterilizations, and the murder of six million Jews? Despite Yerkes’s confidence, application had outpaced knowledge. It had done so from the beginning and without anyone realizing it.

The story of eugenics is a sobering one. How can the intellectual recognize when he knows enough to recommend an application unblinded by interest? As Lippmann warned, “If his advice is followed, and he is wrong, the consequences may be incalculable.”