Tight genes

Walk into the deceptively serene University Library Gallery at California State University, Sacramento, and all along the clean white walls you’ll see photos and text about one of California’s dirty little secrets. With lots of light and lots of space, the exhibit, titled Human Plants, Human Harvest: The Hidden History of California Eugenics, leads you through the 20th century’s romance with selective breeding. A term coined by Charles Darwin’s cousin in 1883, eugenics refers to “the science of improving stock … to give the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable.” In other words, eugenics is the study of messing with evolution in order to build a super race.

The exhibit starts with figures like Luther Burbank, a freethinking scientist known mainly for engineering new plant varieties. But Burbank wasn’t happy just building a better peach. Here, he’s quoted as saying, “Breeding of better plants provided proof that we could breed better people.”

From there, the exhibit moves into some of the more obvious misuses of power. Scientists and philosophers and doctors in love with the idea of creating better people set up Fitter Family contests at fairs, rewarding good clean families (who happen to be white) for being ideal human beings. Photographs from these contests show signs reading, “Every 15 seconds $100 of your money goes for the care of persons with bad heredity such as the insane, feeble-minded, criminals and other defects.”

For every defect, of course, there must be a fix, so there are also pictures of signs reading, “Every 7 1/2 minutes a high grade person is born in the United States who will have the ability to do creative work and be fit for leadership. About 4 percent of all Americans come within this class.”

Since 1909, in the service of the super race, California was at the forefront of the movement to sterilize men and women in state mental hospitals who were considered unfit to reproduce. Gray Davis, while he was governor, actually had to apologize to California for the many families that never came into being because of the state’s policy.

In this exhibit about an idealistic movement fraught with systemic racism and abuse of the disabled, visitors are asked to consider the consequences. At the end of the long road from genetically altered plants to genetically altered people was Germany’s mid-century plan for a master race. A quotation from a 1938 article in the American Journal of Psychiatry regarding Germany’s enormous sterilization movement reads, “[T]heir legislation was formulated only after careful study of the California experiment.”

The show comes down on October 21, the same day the university’s Center for Science, History, Policy, and Ethics holds its first annual symposium, which happens to be on the subject of eugenics. Visit www.csus.edu/cshpe for more information.