U.C. Berkeley’s Malcolm Potts’ Ugly New Eugenics Blames Dark-Skinned Teenagers for War and Terrorism

U.C. Berkeley’s Malcolm Potts’ Ugly New Eugenics Blames Dark-Skinned Teenagers for War and Terrorism

July 7, 2010

The Bixby Center for Population, Health, and Sustainability at the University of California, Berkeley, features webpages stuffed with noble principles affirming women’s right to family planning access, global population stability, universal justice, and environmental sustainability. Unfortunately, Bixby’s chair, obstetrician and reproductive scientistMalcolm Potts,’ chief tactic to advance these liberal goals is with ugly appeals to 19th century racism and emotional fears toward young, poor people.

In its May-June cover story, Miller-McCune—a new magazine that boasts of “smart journalism” that “draws on academic research and other definitive sources to provide reasoned policy options and solutions for today’s pressing issues” but then delivers the same old anti-youth prejudices long moldering in mainstream media—Potts and Stanford University Earth Sciences lecturer Thomas Hayden push the absurdly bigoted notion that “young men are the true engines of war.” Tossing out the usual half-baked bio-cliches on “testosterone” and “aggression,” they argue that “careful statistical studies show that the probability of violent conflict increases as the ratio of young men in a society rises above that of older men.” (Yes, and statistically, the limited notions of “conflict” Potts and Hayden single out also increase along with the proportion of dark-skinned and poor people of all ages.) Therefore, they argue, any excess of young men in a society must be the major cause of war, violence, and terrorism.

Fortunately, they continue, this demographic ill can be rectified by liberal population control and family planning measures that prevent the births of babies who turn into violent young men. The particular young men they blame—in Palestine, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Darfur, Nigeria, the Congo, Somalia—make it clear Potts and Hayden are really citing the benefits of a world with fewer African, South Asian, and Islamic males. Population control and family planning are worthy goals, but Potts’ and Hayden’s atavistic racism and biological prejudices represent throwbacks to the worst evils of the population-cleansing eugenics movement of a century ago, whose “science” was demolished by bioethicist Stephen Jay Gould, among many others.

Potts and Hayden, of course, could have invoked the enlightened Bixby Center principles to deplore the United States and United Kingdom, aging cultures whose elderly leaders instigated two major wars and innumerable invasions and bombings responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people (nearly all in Third World countries) over the last two decades. But Western-instigated attacks against poorer states and territories are not the “conflicts” that disturb Hayden and Potts. Instead, they praise wealthier (white) cultures for a peaceability they both misidentify and misattribute to domination by older demographics who, by their politically limited definition, only deploy violence in “understandable” self defense.

Of course, in richer and poorer societies alike, it is the tribal and national elders, not the young, who instigate the wars and lead battling factions and terrorist cells—including in all of the African and Middle Eastern conflicts these authors cite. One could list the ages of the leaders who initiated and perpetuated conflict after conflict around the world and find very few who fit any definition of “young.” Potts and Hayden blame acts of war on the alleged biological flaws of the poorer young soldiers without mentioning that they were conscripted into conflicts to carry out the direct orders, under severe threat of punishment, issued by older leaders. Potts and Hayden’s thesis is not just patently delusional; it is barbaric, the worst kind of academic elitism. It’s like blaming plantation slaves for the Civil War.

Instead of their racist, youth-bashing polemics and foolish odes to cleansing young people from the population that unfortunately are published by sloppy, pandering editors like Miller-McCune’s, Hayden and Potts could have proposed humane, egalitarian solutions led by economic initiatives to reduce severe global poverty concentrated in young people–all consistent with the Bixby Center’s lofty social justice principles. They could have promoted family planning and population control among not just poorer cultures, but wealthy societies whose members consume far more resources per capita than poorer ones, promoting global instability and environmental degradation. They could have proposed careful family planning regimes aimed at reducing populations among all races and ages in a fashion structured to avoid the elder-dependency and worker-shortage perils of aging societies (well-known demographic issues Potts and Hayden slide right by). They could have found more sophisticated ways to promote women’s equality than population control strategies aimed at eliminating young women (which, they fail to note, would co-result from efforts to eliminate young men).

That Potts and Hayden’s 19th century bogies of brain-flawed, biologically overheated, dark-skinned young men are being resurrected today is a symptom of the fear and ignorance accompanying the evolution of America into a multicultural, multiracial society. Their scapegoating, and Miller-McCune’s editors in publishing it, represents a profound cowardice, a phony innocence of convenience in which elders evade their pivotal responsibility for global violence behind blaming the powerless young.

We are accumulating strongly documented 21st century research that what is called “youth violence” and “adolescent risk taking” are not the results of young age, but are simply the products of the severe socioeconomic inequality imposed on young people of the type that produces similar risks in older adults. See, for examples:

Mike A. Males (2010). Is jumping off the roof always a bad idea? A rejoinder on risk taking and the adolescent brain.Journal of Adolescent Research, 25(1): 48-63.

Mike A. Males (2009). Poverty as a determinant of young drivers’ fatal crash risks Journal of Safety Research, 40(6): 443-48.