The Place of Suffering

[Cross-posted to NRO’s The Corner.]

Tangential to the exchange between Wesley Smith and Andrew Stuttaford on the death of Jack Kevorkian:

Here is something I was reading last week. It’s from the 1991 book In Search of Human Nature by Stanford historian Carl N. Degler. The book tracks the influence of biological ideas on the human sciences from the time of Darwin to the mid-1980s. (The book’s subtitle is The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought.)

Degler’s subject here is the great German-American anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942). Boas taught at Columbia University from 1896 on and was a tremendous influence on modern American anthropology. He was a key figure in the establishment of the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM) that prevailed in the human sciences through the middle decades of the last century. This was the system that sought to expunge (“decouple” is Degler’s word) biology altogether from anthropology, sociology, and psychology.

The key word in the SSSM is “culture,” used in the anthropological sense. (Which Boas seems to have invented. He was, according to Degler [p. 71] the first person to use the plural form of “culture,” in 1895. In We Are Doomed I tag the SSSM as “Culturism” [p.137].) A friend of mine, a geneticist, when someone ascribes some feature or other of human life to culture, snarls: “Culture? What is that? What are the upstream variables?” The answer, if you are a Culturist, is: “More culture!” It’s turtles all the way down.

Boas was not actually as dogmatic a Culturist as all that. He was a great admirer of Darwin and often left the door open for biology. The really dogmatic, Marxist-tinged Culturism that E.O. Wilson deplores in On Human Nature was really the work of the following generation of anthropologists and social scientists … though many of them, to be sure, had studied under Boas. Certainly there was more to Boas than the two-dimensional ethnic booster (he was Jewish) in Chapter Two of Kevin MacDonald’s Culture of Critique. He was a brilliant and subtle man, a committed empiricist who would, I am sure, easily have bested his current detractors in open argument. Culturism is false, but it was not preposterous in its time.

At any rate, here is the extract from Carl Degler’s book that came to mind when reading the Smith-Stuttaford exchange. It relates to the place of suffering in human life. Carefully read, there are all sorts of connections to our current concerns about demography and the affordability of entitlements. The included quotes from Boas all come from his essay “Eugenics” in Scientific Monthly 3 (Nov. 1916).

In his final objection to eugenics, Boas, the prime advocate of a cultural interpretation of man, skirted very close to accepting a biological basis
of human nature. One of the admitted attractions of eugenics, he acknowledged, was its aim of “raising a better race and to do away with increasing suffering by eliminating those who are by heredity destined to suffer and to cause suffering.” Particularly attractive, then, was “the humanitarian idea of the conquest of suffering, and the ideal of raising human efficiency to heights never before reached.” To that ideal his response was bold and uncompromising, but its premise smacked of biology: “I believe that the human mind and body are so constituted that the attainment of these ends would lead to the destruction of society.” The burden of his objection was that for human beings suffering was at once desirable and necessary. “The wish for the elimination of unnecessary suffering,” he insisted, “is divided by a narrow margin from the wish for the elimination of all suffering.” Such a goal “may be a beautiful ideal,” he conceded, but “it is unattainable.” The work of human beings will always require suffering and “men must be willing to bear” that suffering. Besides, many of the world’s great works of beauty “are the precious fruit of mental agony; and we should be poor indeed,” he was convinced, “if the willingness of man to suffer should disappear.” The worst thing of all, he warned, was that if this ideal were cultivated, “then that which was discomfort yesterday will be suffering today, and the elimination of discomforts will lead to an effeminacy that must be disastrous to the race.”

To Boas, “effeminacy” was the tendency of the people he saw around him to reduce suffering in the name of efficiency. “We are clearly drifting toward the danger-line,” he feared, “where the individual will no longer bear discomfort or pain for the sake of continuance of the race, and where our
emotional life is so strongly repressed by the desire for self-perfection — or by self-indulgence — that the coming generation is sacrificed to the living.” In modern society he saw a repetition of that tendency, which “characterized the end of antiquity, when no children were found to take the place of the passing generations.” To the extent that the “eugenic ideals of the elimination of suffering and self-development” are fostered, the sooner human beings will drift “towards the destruction of the race,” he gloomily predicted. The irony of Boas’s objections was that similar apocalyptic fears animated the eugenicists’ demands for their program. They saw the danger and the inevitable national decline as emanating from the reproductive reluctance of the educated classes, whereas Boas seemed to embrace all classes in his jeremiad.

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