Mental fitness touches a nerve in everyone, myself included. It exposes one of our deepest fears, the fear of deviancy and incapability, of losing it, of not measuring up, of not being seen as a person.

The signs are everywhere. Within the disability world there is a hierarchy of worthiness with mental handicap at the bottom. The trans-humanists embrace AI as an antidote to mental decline. The potential diagnosis of dementia prompts many to consider assisted death. Most recently partisan opponents use it as the ultimate insult.

The devaluation of those assumed, assessed or ridiculed as intellectually inferior has a sordid past. It is based on what today would be described as fake or bogus science. Here’s the short version.

In 1913 Professor Henry Goddard published a best selling book, The Kallikak FamilyHe developed a family tree for Deborah Kallikak who was living in a New Jersey asylum. Goddard concluded that “feeblemindedness” was hereditary. He proposed the mass sterilization of people whom he classified as morons and imbeciles as an interim solution to the danger they represented to society. He described them as a “clog in the wheel of human progress.” Thus began the eugenics movement, (compulsory sterilization) which swept across North America. 

Goddard’s book led to an unholy alliance between science, medicine and the law to intensify negative cultural stereotypes that persist. Even the father of medicare, Tommy Douglas was caught up in eugenics fever, advocating in his masters thesis, that sterilization was a solution to the problems of “sub normal families.” Feminist Nellie McLung was another prominent eugenics advocate. Douglas renounced his views when he became Premier of Saskatchewan. McLung never did.

Goddard enjoyed widespread recognition as a pioneer and expert. There was a big problem however. Goddard had fabricated the whole story. His deceit included retouching the pictures of Deborah Kallikak to make her look sinister and dark. In the late 1920’s he recanted and reversed his opinions. 

Goddard’s book concluded that sterilization is not likely to be the “final solution.” If that phrase is familiar it is because it is associated with Hitler. The tragic fact is that Hitler used the eugenics arguments of scientists like Goddard, despite their fraudulent premise, to reinforce the Nazis deadly intent. They began their experiments towards their “final solution” with the mass extermination of people with physical and mental disabilities.

After years of living with and among people who experience some kind of wound to their intellect I have observed that:

  • Morality, worthiness and good behaviour cannot be equated with intelligence.
  • We still don’t know what intelligence is, even though we continue to measure and revere it.
  • Categories and classifications don’t reveal anything about an individual’s character or potential.
  • There are multiple forms of intelligence. It is more constructive to presume intellectual equality
  • Intelligence is enlightened by love.

The next time you see words like  idiot, imbecile, moron and retarded hurled about please remember they are more than partisan playthings. They continue to devastate.

NOTE: The real story behind the Kallikak Family and biological determinism was revealed by Stephen Jay Gould in his book, The Mismeasure of Man


“Any type of malicious behaviour or moral indiscretion in medicine starts with the assumption that somebody is not a person. That’s the beginning of the slippery slope.” Dr. Michael Shevell, McGill Faculty of Medicine

Musical selection this post is Robot Heart by Hawksley Workman. Support his music.


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  1. Susan Szpakowski

    An important post, and so true. It seems so engrained to equate identity and worthiness with the “performance” of the brain. Thus the fear of aging and dementia, and all the subtle ways we judge others. Including racial or language differences I would suggest. Thank you for tracing some of the historical roots of this pernicious tendency, and to illuminate antidotes. Seems like there could be a book here.

    • Al Etmanski

      yes,indeed Susan. Mental unworthiness does get linked to race, class, education and difference. And, I believe hinders progress on reducing/eliminating poverty, homelessness, addiction…

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