Americans Creepy Obsession With Marriage

On my “todo” shelf I have a depressing pile of propaganda and bad science that I’ve been building up for almost 2 years, now. Since I started blogging here, anyhow. I felt it was important to look at some of the fundamental sources of certain ideas, to better understand them.

That project was, as you can imagine, over-ambitious. The deep wells of bullshit and horribleness that shape the American system are unfathomably ugly and imponderably stupid. I’m not kidding. Earlier this week, I went and ruined a perfectly good solo pho dinner by taking along my 1st edition of Madison’ Grant’s The Passing Of The Great Race and trying to find a tangible intellectual arc in it. By the way, I have never had anyone remark on that book when I’ve taken it places (still in quest of understanding) – I think it’s simply that most Americans have no idea what it is.

It usually sits in the stack in the corner, with Vaught’s Practical Character Reader, books on IQ testing (“how to score better on IQ tests!”) and other stuff that’s just flat-out wrong. And, as I look over at the stack, I see Richard Hofstadter’s in there, with Stephen Jay Gould, too, so it’s not all bad. But one of the other books that always has me baffled is The Kallikak Family.

The Kallikak family is a work of pseudo-science that became one of the motivating manifestoes of the eugenics movement. The US was full of these sciency guys like Madison Grant, who were well-educated in the new science of evolution that Mr Darwin had started, and they enthusiastically went barking off into the weeds pursuing their own racist, misogynist, fuckwitted white guy-ness. Yes, I know “fuckwitted white guy-ness” is not a recognized syndrome in the DSM but it should be, or would be, except the DSM is also a result of FWG-N. I’d have an illustration of a 1st edition of The Kallikak Family except they only appear rarely on Ebay and fetch a lot of money when they do. In collecting propaganda, I only aim for the cheap stuff; if I’m going to spend more than $25 on a piece of vintage propaganda, it has to be really impressive. My copy of The Kallikak Family is a modern facsimile from some PDF scan or other. The paper it’s printed on is worth something.

Scientists have hypothesized that something like an evolutionary process might result from change working on populations the way human farmers have been able to change animals through selective breeding. That goes back to the ancient greeks. But, the US had this huge intellectual drogue-chute to deal with, namely its racism. Let me be blunt: racism is stupid and it makes racists stupid. In the search for justification for slavery, Americans invented a particular form of racism. The slavery was initially a bad way of responding to a colonial labour crisis; the racism was grafted on top as a technique for social control and as a good old-fashioned American grift to avoid paying labour what it was worth. When American racists encountered Darwin’s theory, it instantly flared up into the most horrific bunch of pseudo-scientific FWG-N that has ever happened. You know the outbreak that happened in Germany in the 1930s? It was a particularly stupid interpretation of this particular American stupidity, the three apostles of which were Spencer, Grant, and Goddard.

Grant, for example, claimed and had good academic credentials; he was an educated man. But, like the scientists of their day, Goddard and Grant did not allow their lightning fleet-footed thoughts to be slowed by – you know – actual science. Science, at that time, was done as it was since the days of Epicurus: you have some thoughts, then write them down, and maybe assert a bunch of evidence, too. Most of these jackasses got their evidence the way Aristotle and Epicurus did, too: they made stuff up. That’s why it’s been so hard to write a review of The Passing Of The Great Race: it’s such a convoluted wad of bullshit that it’s hard to find a thread you can pull on that amounts to anything more than wishful thinking backed by the full force of Grant’s considerable ability at bluster. And, as happens, a horrible sort of natural selection took over: the pseudo-scientists’ blatherings were music to the aching ears of America’s systemic racists (who were getting beaten over the head by abolitionists and people who could think) – so the books that appeared to justify and systematize racism got rewarded. Grant and Goddard were intellectual big shots, the veritable Sam Harrises of their day, and their books sold very well and made them a lot of money. Which means you get: more books like that.

This is the roots of American popular psychology. I’m going to shovel all this crap into the “Psychology” column because it’s basically what, today, we would recognize as “Evolutionary Psychology”; I do not acknowledge a distinction between “popular psychology” and “mainstream psychology” because, at the time I’m talking about, pseudo-science in the service of racism revolved mostly around psychometrics. To a scientist of today, Vaught’s Practical Character Reader is clearly pseudo-science but then they sniff and publish papers that don’t replicate, based on suspicious data. Which brings me back to The Kallikak Family. It’s hard to pick all these threads apart and see where the ideas are coming from, but the first and most important things you need to know about The Kallikak Family is that it’s almost entirely a work of fiction, and that it led to the active practice of Eugenics including involuntary sterilization of “feeble minded” people and, of course, colored people.

What is The Kallikak Family? Well, it purports to be a study of the descendants of some “feeble minded” people, and their “feeble minded” children, and the moral and intellectual damage they suffered through their poor heredity. It’s the lynch-pin argument around which eugenics organized itself, and Goddard’s data was less bias-free than the worst “let me grab 5 grad students and get them to do my survey, then I’ll publish a paper that claims my sample size was 2,291” social sciences paper. It appears that there did actually exist a Kallikak family but in the interests of something something the name was changed to protect the innocent. Goddard’s method was that he allegedly went and interviewed and assessed the members of the family and discovered, to his shock and awe, that “feeble-minded” people have “feeble-minded” children, etc. He published this, and the nascent American pseudo-scientific community collectively stood up and cheered.

I’m just going to lift the summary from the back of my edition, because it says it quite well:

Informed by eugenics research, the United States forcibly sterilized over 65,000 individuals between 1907 and 1981, and passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which turned away members of “undesirable” racial groups. Goddard’s research has since been thoroughly debunked for its sloppy methodology whereby upper-class field-workers were trained to assess feeble-mindedness at a glance.

“Debunked” is not a strong enough word. Goddard literally made this stuff up sitting at a desk somewhere. That’s how American pseudo-science and popular psychology has generally been done. But saying it has “since been” debunked is over-generous toward the incompetent stupid racist pseudo-scientists that read this gunk and built upon it. They were the “feeble-minded” ones, who didn’t adequately think about what they were looking at. Want me to show you? This is all you need:

Look at the chart header on the bottom. It’s an inheritance chart of sorts, and the top line reads “The Lawful Wife, Martin Kallikak Sr, The Nameless Feeble-Minded Girl.” The rest of the chart shows the alleged intellectual damage resulting from one branch of the family tree being born out of wedlock while the other branch was properly vetted by having some goddy words said and a cross waved about. Goddard’s point is that being born out of wedlock had something to do with causing feeble-mindedness, not the other way around.

I will note that Goddard’s theory does not explain Donald Trump, Jr. and “was born while daddy was fucking porn stars” would have made for a fascinating branch on Goddard’s charts but Goddard’s imagination was the imagination of his time and, while I’m sure there was lots of depravity going on behind closed doors, he didn’t dare put it on his charts. You may be thinking that I’m being unfair to Goddard and that perhaps Goddard elsewhere said that “perhaps cause and effect are reversed” but – no – in fact, Goddard’s book is clear that “feeble-mindedness” is a consequence of the vice of the parents, not its cause. If you cast your mind about and try to figure out where that idea came from, it’s – basically – stupid Calvinist theology. Remember, the US was full of “wealth aristocrats” like Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Carnegie, and JP Morgan – who believed that their wealth and power was a consequence of their good breeding and god liking them personally. You cannot separate out things like Carnegie and his “gospel of wealth” from The Kallikak Family because the fictional Kallikaks served as the flip-side justification for the Carnegies of the world. Carnegie had to believe there was something special about him, inherent in him, to justify his putting the screws to his laborers – when a simpler answer would have been “You’re a greedy ruthless asshole, Andy.”

What’s crazy about all this is that, still, today, there’s a sort of a social stigma to being “born out of wedlock” – the implications being that the morals of the mother were poor, and the father was sketchy. Because, god forbid, someone might have a child out of wedlock because of some stupid war, or – more likely – a rapey supervisor at a factory, or an economic system with no safety net that forced women into prostitution in order to survive. What’s crazy about all this is that if you were actually a social Darwinist you’d say that the single mom who raised her child by doing whatever it took, was a better and tougher specimen of hybrid vigor than Scarlett O’Hara (who was already clearly being flagged as sketchy because of the Irish name). That’s why it’s hard to pull a coherent thread from the tangle of bad ideas and hold it up for examination: it’s all bad and examining it reveals that it’s fractally wrong.

If any of you believe that having a child out of wedlock has any effect on the DNA of that child, please leave now. OK, there are lots of economic consequences, and we could go on about that all day, but this is not a “nature or nurture” issue: it’s “nurture” 100% or I’m going to quote the entirety of Rousseau’s Treatise on Inequality at you. [Rousseau also made a bunch of stuff up to support his case, but his framing arguments are excellent]

That’s all background material; we’re caught up and now I can talk about what I wanted to post about, today. And that is, naturally, FWG-N sufferer Joe Biden. Yes, he was a product of his times (nature or nurture?) and his times produced a lot of FWG-N, in the long, great, tradition of dumbass Americans since the early heyday of American pseudo-science. What kind of politician can say this and get away with it? In 1993, Joe Biden gave a speech supporting the Law Enforcement Act and this is what he said:

[A] “cadre of young people, tens of thousands of them, born out of wedlock, without parents, without supervision, without any structure, without any conscience developing because they literally … because they literally have not been socialized, they literally have not had an opportunity.”

Being born out of wedlock is an effect not a cause. Perhaps we have discovered that becoming a politician tends to make one feeble-minded, because Biden mixes cause and effect going in both directions in the same thought. “Without any conscience developing because they literally have not been socialized” – I assume he is referring to the idea that the kids have bad parenting and so they grow up wrong. You know, like Barron Trump and Jared Kushner? Kushner’s a horrible, ruthless criminal who grew up with a father who socialized him to a life of crime. Wait ’till Barron grows up: that kid’s fucked, right?

This is the root of a deep, gnarled tree of American lunacy – that marriage matters more than a fart in a hurricane. Oh, sure, a child’s economic situation while they’re being brought up matters. And marriage may be a proxy indicator for some of those economic circumstances, but Goddard was wrong when he made up The Kallikak Family. Whether you grow up to be wealthy depends more on whether your parents are willing to bribe your way into a good law school and whether they raise you as a dishonest sociopath. Whether you grow up to be a drunken, drugged-out jackass has more to do with whether you’re a conservative talk-show host than whether your parents even knew who eachother were. This comes back to our weird obsession with “the nuclear family” – the idea that a kid needs mummy and daddy and maybe a brother or a sister and a cat or a puppy. But if you wanted to look at an American “nuclear family” from the 50s and predict if a child would be successful, the key indicators would not be “has married parents of appropriate gender” it would be:

  • Child is white and male
  • Parents own a house
  • Parents own a car
  • Parents own a dishwashing machine

A decade or so ago, I asked my dad (who wrote several weighty books on family economics in European peasantry…) whether he had any offhand information about how many kids in the 16th century grew up in a “nuclear family.” He waffled a bit, as a real historian would do, but observed that offhand it appears that most kids grew up missing at least one and often both parents. Wars took the fathers, childbirth the mothers, chicken pox and starvation the brothers and sisters. The American concern with family situation, as expressed in Goddard, is concern for a complete castle-in-the-air myth.

Now, I have a theory about that, but I’m not a historian and I have no idea how one could even do the research to back it up. I asked dad and, as usual, he waffled and said, “you could probably defend that position, but we both know it’s more complicated than that.” So, with all due waffling, Americans (and by extension, guys like Joe Biden) concern with “nuclear family” is class consciousness manifesting itself as idealizing victorian English child-rearing as presented by the English upper class. When you look at how all the little Carnegies and Morgans and Trumps and Kushners are raised, there’s the nannies and tutors and dressing up in uncomfortable-looking clothes and (perhaps) calling adults “Sir” and “M’am” because – if you are from that class when you’re speaking to one of your parent’s peers, you may be speaking to an actual peer. American ideals of family are Brit-envy – the British being the formerly pre-eminent imperial power just at the time when the American ideals of family were transitioning from just being British to wanting to be a sort of rough-and-ready knock-off of British that pays less taxes.

Meanwhile, if you step back and think about it, parental alcoholism and abuse almost certainly have a bigger determining impact on a child’s upbringing than whether their caretakers are their biological relatives. In other words, the reason that Joe Biden’s son Hunter is a corrupt piece of shit has nothing to do with the loins from which he sprung and everything to do with the fact that his father is a poor example of a man.


  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    “fuckwitted white guy-ness”

    Suffice it to say; if I were attempting to make a serious case for the superiority of the white ‘race’, white supremacists are not the examples I would choose.

  2. says

    The American (western? modern?) Nuclear Family is a peculiar and (so far) brief experiment.

    People normally live in larger quasi-family groups. Call the tribes, call them extended families, call them villages, whatever. As a parent, I can attest that these things make the work of carrying on the race infinitely easier. The modern nuclear family is, I think, only viable because the work of getting a living has become so much easier.

  3. says

    I would imagine there was also an element of nativism involved in the use of the name Kallikak. Not a good, Anglo Saxon, American name like Smith. Or Wolverton, the family the book was supposedly based on.

  4. lumipuna says

    I’ve noticed US conservatives like to bring up the large portion of children born “out of wedlock” (IIRC, over 40% in US, or some 70% of African American kids), and conflate it with children born to “single mothers”. It’s like they haven’t heard of non-married cohabitation.

  5. cartomancer says

    As for the name Kallikak… well, it’s a pretty obvious Classical reference.

    In ancient Greek “kalos” (καλὸς) means beautiful, and by extension noble and good, while “kakos” (κακός) means ugly, bad, and wicked. They tend to be regarded as polar opposites.

    So this made-up family, with its clearly “good” side that comes from marriage and its clearly “bad” side that comes from non-marriage would obviously get a name that encapsulates such a duality. For those who know ancient Greek it’s about as subtle as calling them the Goodbads.

    What puzzles me is why so many people failed to get the reference.

  6. lumipuna says

    Thanks, cartomancer. I never heard of that, though I vaguely remember hearing about this “model family”.

  7. says

    Oh, sure, a child’s economic situation while they’re being brought up matters. And marriage may be a proxy indicator for some of those economic circumstances

    I recommend untangling a certain moral attitude (people who have children out of wedlock are scum) from economic and parenting related consequences. When it comes to the latter, growing up in a loveless family where parents hate each other but are reluctant to get divorced isn’t any better than being born out of wedlock. Having your parents get divorced when you are an infant isn’t any better either. The same goes for the child growing up in poverty for any reason. Yes, children who are born out of wedlock may experience various problems that can harm their development. But the exact same problems are routinely present also in countless other situations that do not involve the child being born out of wedlock.

    Thus whenever some asshole talks about how children born out of wedlock are not properly socialized, what they really mean is: “Parents who fucked without being married were immoral scum and they must have raised the child to also be immoral scum.” This has nothing in common with a rational discussion about how growing up in a harmful environment can mess up a child.

    Meanwhile, if you step back and think about it, parental alcoholism and abuse almost certainly have a bigger determining impact on a child’s upbringing than whether their caretakers are their biological relatives.

    My parents have never been married, and I grew up without a father. As a child, I watched my cousin grow up in the “nuclear family” with a father who was an abusive alcoholic. Back then, I used to be happy that I don’t have a father at all. An absence of a father seemed much better than the bruises my cousin often had on her body.

  8. says

    Cartomancer@5 I’m guessing the name was intended as a double dog whistle by Goddard. People who knew Greek would get it was a combination of good and bad. Those who didn’t would just associate it with their existing prejudices against foreigners/immigrants.

  9. says

    I think biden was talking Fucken White Guy Code about unwed mothers. He is dog-whistling like “urban” and “welfare mothers” – he’s just another old white racist without the guts to speak his real thoughts.

  10. jrkrideau says

    This being born out of wedlock theory seems to hold water. Look at William the Bastard and his recent descendant Andrew.

  11. says

    @Marcus Ranum:

    OK, there are lots of economic consequences, and we could go on about that all day, but this is not a “nature or nurture” issue: it’s “nurture” 100% or I’m going to quote the entirety of Rousseau’s Treatise on Inequality at you.

    Discourse, but yes. That quibble doesn’t stop me from asking, have I ever told you that I love you?

    Favorite pull quote:

    it is still more useless to inquire whether there is any essential connection between the two inequalities [the first being “natural or physical” inequality, the second “moral or political” inequality – cd]; for this would be only asking, in other words, whether those who command are necessarily better than those who obey, and if strength of body or of mind, wisdom or virtue are always found in particular individuals, in proportion to their power or wealth: a question fit perhaps to be discussed by slaves in the hearing of their masters, but highly unbecoming to reasonable and free men in search of the truth.

    And let’s read more of this interesting set of observations on the Kallikaks and…

    A decade or so ago, I asked my dad (who wrote several weighty books on family economics in European peasantry…)

    Well THAT explains a lot! Well done, dad. Well done.


    In ancient Greek “kalos” (καλὸς) means beautiful, and by extension noble and good, while “kakos” (κακός) means ugly, bad, and wicked. They tend to be regarded as polar opposites.
    … it’s about as subtle as calling them the Goodbads.

    Thanks for this!

  12. says

    “Treatise” or “discourse” would be an appropriate translation from the French, but naturally, since it’s part of the title, a competent translator would use the word Rousseau chose.

    This is a painful thing for me: I am used to writing and speaking from memory and not fact-checking myself. I am used to not making mistakes – pretty much at all. I’m 58 now and sometimes the memory does not work like it used to and I make mistakes and my overweening self-confidence discourages me from checking myself. It’s really scary to realize that my mind is going.

    Anyhow, I shall look Monsieur Rousseau up when I am in Hell and will apologize personally.

  13. says

    I would live to be a fly on the wall while you and your Dad were talking.

    I was a really lucky kid. All the other kids dads wanted to toss footballs with them, while dad was telling me about Voltaire and Richelieu and the evolution of absolutism under Louis XIV. You know, the kind of thing kids are really into.

Leave a Reply