Now we know that a classic psychology text about the inheritance of intelligence was based largely on myth

In 1912 eugenicist and psychologist Henry Herbert Goddard published his highly influential book, The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble- Mindedness. While the book is now seen as pseudoscience, Goddard’s chronicle of a family with two hereditary lines, one presented as a cavalcade of outstanding citizens and the other rife with criminals and the “feeble-minded,” still resonates in culture, policy and science. In fact, the immutability of the inheritance of intelligence was an article of faith for much of the 20th century.

Now, 100 years later, Michael Wehmeyer and co- author J. David Smith have brought together evidence that disputes the very basis of Goddard’s book, that a degenerate line descended from the progenitor Revolutionary War soldier’s dalliance with a barmaid in Good Blood, Bad Blood: Science, Nature, and the Myth of the Kallikaks.

The pseudonymous Kallikak family so named by Goddard from the Greek Kallos (beauty) and Kakos (bad) was actually the Wolverton family, a fact discovered by a genealogist in the 1980s. With this genealogy, institutional records and interviews with Wolverton descendants, as well as other sources, the authors concluded that there was no “bad blood” at all.

“These were just poor people who lived in rural areas of New Jersey who were then cast into the quagmire of industrializing America at the turn of the 20th century,” said Wehmeyer.

Goddard used the case of a young woman he called Deborah Kallikak (Emma Wolverton), who was an inmate at his Vineland State Training School, to justify his argument for the segregation and even sterilization of people deemed intellectually inferior.

Whether Emma even had an intellectual disability is up for debate, said Wehmeyer. She could read and write and became the nanny for the institution superintendent’s children. She died at age 89, incarcerated for 81 of those years.

“It was time to tell this woman’s story to reclaim some of her dignity as a person,” said Wehmeyer. “The point of this book is that society makes decisions—it isn’t just scientists. How society responds to, takes in, and what it does with that information matters. We need to be careful who gets to make the final decision.”

Available through the American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and Amazon


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