The Progressive Movement, Genetics, and the State

Excerpt from my forthcoming book Epigenetics and Public Policy The Tangled Web of Science and Politics to be released February 2018 by Praeger

The Progressive movement in the U.S. arose in large part as a direct reaction against the social conditions and the politics of the Gilded Age in America (which roughly corresponds to the Victorian era in Britain). The Progressive movement is today known primarily for its concerted efforts to eliminate political corruption, particularly as the untoward relationships between industrialists and government officials, and in curtailing the influence of political machines at the state and local levels. In focusing on changing these political relationships, the Progressive movement thereby aimed at a fundamental reordering of the political system, while at the same time advocating for a reordering of society. Not surprisingly, these political changes also coincided with fundamental changes in the prevailing understanding of biology.

Woodrow Wilson, political progress, and evolution

A prime example of the extent of the penetration of this Progressive ideology into politics and policy, and its connection with the biology of the time, is provided by Woodrow Wilson.

In his 1913 book The New Freedom: A Call For the Emancipation of the Generous Energies of a People, which was also the campaign slogan for his 1912 presidential campaign, Wilson more explicitly identifies the convergence of this Progressive view of policy as a science with the appropriate principles from biology: “All that progressives ask or desire,” Wilson wrote, “is permission—in an era when development, evolution, is a scientific word—to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle; all they ask is recognition of the fact that a nation is a living thing and not a machine.”[1] Wilson specifically intended this application of Darwinism to government as a critique of the principles on which the U.S. Constitution was originally founded, as “a variety of mechanics…founded on the law of gravitation,”[2] which were inadequate for the new age which was then emerging. “The trouble with the theory,” Wilson continues, “is that government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton.”[3]

In other words, Wilson and other Progressives were calling for a fundamental reconception and reorganization of American politics based on the metaphor of organic evolution, and specifically a Darwinian and not Lamarckian conception of evolution. As an example of just how profound a shift Wilson imagined, consider this extended excerpt from The New Freedom:

We are in the presence of a new organization of society. Our life has broken away from the past. The life of America is not the life that it was twenty years ago; it is not the life that it was ten years ago. We have changed our economic conditions, absolutely, from top to bottom; and, with our economic society, the organization of our life. The old political formulas do not fit the present problems; they read now like documents taken out of a forgotten age.[4]

In other words, the Progressive view as articulated by Wilson saw itself as a fundamental break with the society and the politics—and the science—of before.

Progress, individualism, and the rise of the administrative State

In particular, Wilson identified the founders’ reservations about direct democracy, subject as it was to the popular passions and whims. These misgivings about democracy were manifest in the Constitutional doctrine of the separation of powers, which Wilson and other Progressives saw as an impediment to efficient and responsive government. Instead, Progressives like Wilson proclaimed their dedication to individual autonomy, direct democracy, and a government freed from the constraints of institutional checks that is finally responsive to the will of the people. Paradoxically, though, Wilson and many other Progressives also insisted that for this enhanced individuality to be realized, government must play a larger role in society in order to preserve these economic and political freedoms, specifically via the work of unelected technical experts in the government bureaucracy. In this way, the political successes of Progressivism ushered in the rise of the administrative and regulatory state.

A little known fact—outside academic public administration, that is—is that Wilson had earned a Ph.D. in political science and wrote some of the seminal works in the field of public administration, such as “The Study of Administration.”[5] From this and other academic writings, Wilson is considered one of the founders of the field of public administration.[6]

“The Study of Administration” describes this Progressive emphasis on objectivity and rational planning through Wilson’s assertion of the politics-administration dichotomy, or that public administration is or should be outside of the “hurry and strife” of politics.[7] According to Wilson, “administrative questions are not political questions,” and that “although politics sets the tasks for administration, it should not be suffered to manipulate its office.”[8] Instead, the actual conduct of government, as distinct from the subjective contests of popular politics, is the proper domain for an objective “science of administration…to straighten the paths of government, to make its business less unbusinesslike, to strengthen and purify its organization, and to crown its duties with dutifulness.”[9] The civil-service reform underway at this time (Pendleton Act,[10] etc.) was an example of this Progressive scientization of government, but this for Wilson was “but a moral preparation for what is to follow [in] clearing the moral atmosphere of official life by establishing the sanctity of public office as a public trust, and, by making the service unpartisan, it is opening the way for making it businesslike.”[11]

Science, eugenics, and the new State

However, although most standard political histories of this era focus primarily on the political innovations of the Progressives, this movement was also marked by a very strong undercurrent of imperialism, race and class-based discrimination, and eugenics.[12] Wilson’s own virulent racism, even for his time, is now practically beyond dispute[13]—as evidenced, for example, in his resegregation of the civil service and the military.[14]

As a result, for all the public good proclaimed by this progressive emphasis on scientific objectivity and rationality in public policy and administration, in practice the Progressive political movement inclined itself to rather authoritarian and outright eugenic purposes. On the one hand, making policy a matter of scientific knowledge and expertise meant that only a relative few would be qualified to make administrative decisions. On the other hand, as described by James Scott, this Progressive impulse to improve society through the application of science was both boundless in its reach, and also tended to focus primarily on specific segments of the population:

Every nook and cranny of the social order might be improved upon: personal hygiene, diet, child rearing, housing, posture, recreation, family structure, and, most infamously, the genetic inheritance of the population. The working poor were often the first subjects of scientific social planning…Subpopulations found wanting in ways that were potentially threatening—such as indigents, vagabonds, the mentally ill, and criminals—might be made the objects of the most intensive social engineering.[15]

Changes in politics, changes in biology

As such, the Progressive movement in the U.S. represented a convergence of forces across all aspects of society, combined with the enhanced penetration of this new administrative State into society. Notably, these new Progressive politics were in turn informed or at least justified by the new theories emerging in both the social and the natural sciences concerning the essential biological constitution of individuals.

In contrast to the Neo-Lamarckism upon which the laissez-faire politics of the Gilded Age were based, the Progressive movement increasingly invoked Neo-Darwinism and the emerging science of genetics to explain and justify their political goals and actual policies to set the State up as the primary adjudicator of fairness in society.[16] There are scientifically justifiable explanations for this move from Neo-Lamarckian responsiveness to the nonadaptiveness of Neo-Darwinism and genetics within science, which explanations constitute the conventional scientific histories of this era. At the same time, though, this change outside of science in preferences towards the opposing account of biology also makes political sense, per the guiding model of this project, as a strategic move against an entrenched ideology premised upon Neo-Lamarckism.

Genetics and the new Progressive State

As such, the political program of the Progressive movement, including its ethnocentrism and discrimination, were increasingly justified through references to Darwin and genetics, and not to Lamarck. In turn, it is not without consequence that—regardless of the reasons—at this critical moment in the development of the science of genetics the Progressives lent increasing support to Neo-Darwinian theories of neutral mutations disconnected from the environment, and not to Neo-Lamarckian inheritance of acquired traits. It is also of consequence that this difference would go on to become a defining distinction of the new genetics—which is a primary reason epigenetics is so controversial today.

Although obviously the science itself cannot be made to shoulder the blame for these political uses of it,[17] this intersection of the rise of Progressivism with its advocacy of the new administrative State, and the commensurate rise of Neo-Darwinism and genetics in science should not be taken for granted in either political or scientific histories. Although it is obviously too much to say that the political context alone accounts for the emergence of the science of genetics as we now know it, it is surely also too much to say that this political context had no effect on the development of the science. Instead, what seems clear, per the guiding model of this project, is that the politics and the science both evolved together and influenced each other.

The political implications of this intertwining of the new administrative State and the science of genetics will be the primary focus of the next chapters.

[1] Wilson, W. (1913). The New Freedom. New York, New York: Doubleday, Page & Company.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Wilson, W. (1887). The study of administration. Political science quarterly2(2), 197-222.

[6] Hood, C. (2000). The art of the state: Culture, rhetoric, and public management. Oxford University Press.

[7] Wilson (1887), p. 210.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., p. 201.


[11] Wilson (1887), p. 210.

[12] Miller, T. J. (2012). Freedom, history, and race in progressive thought. Social Philosophy and Policy29(2), 220-254.

Paul, R. (2013). Progressive Racism. National Review. Retrieved 15 August 2017, from

Leonard, T. C. (2016). Illiberal reformers: race, eugenics, and American economics in the Progressive Era. Princeton University Press.

[13] Schuessler, J. (2015). Woodrow Wilson’s Legacy Gets Complicated. Retrieved 15 August 2017, from

Fuller, S. (2016). Making Moral Judgments from a World-Historic Standpoint: The Case of Woodrow Wilson. Society53(3), 315-318.

[14] Yellin, Eric S. Racism in the Nation’s Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson’s America. UNC Press Books, 2013.

[15] Scott, J. C. (1998). Seeing like a state: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. Yale University Press, p. 92.

[16] Engs, R. C. (2003). The progressive era’s health reform movement: a historical dictionary. Greenwood Publishing Group, pp. 115-117.

Happe, K. E. (2013). The material gene: gender, race, and heredity after the Human Genome Project. NYU Press, pp. 4, 26-24, 46.

[17] For example, historian Thomas Leonard describes T.H. Morgan as “the only geneticist to reject publicly the eugenicist idea that socially undesirable traits were the product of bad heredity,” so work in genetics obviously did not determine this combination of Progressive ideals and eugenic beliefs. However, by the same token, Morgan appears to have been relatively unique among geneticists in his denunciation of eugenics, and although Leonard describes how eventually most prominent geneticists distanced themselves from the eugenic organizations they once embraced, they did in fact originally embrace eugenics. (Leonard, T. C. (2005). Retrospectives: eugenics and economics in the Progressive Era. The journal of economic perspectives19(4), 207-224.)


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