For the past decade, I’ve been at work on a true crime story that had me down a rabbit hole of research into DNA. Regular readers of this irregular blog know that science isn’t my strong suit. I may have loved it at one time but that geology class I took at Oregon State ruined it for me. Something about studying sediment formation on a late Friday afternoon in the Spring of my junior year.
This crime story had me considering DNA and hereditary genetics in ways I never imagined. The book – The Murder Gene – comes out in May. I’m working through edits on it now and early endorsements are very encouraging, given I spent 10 years writing and rewriting, and rewriting. I am eager to hear the discussions readers will have regarding this story. While this particular story is completely true, based on the murder of a girl whose family I knew, it was while writing this story that I happened upon the topic for the book I am currently writing. This one a historical novel. Fiction.
It’s intriguing to me the way writing a non-fiction book can prompt the writing of a fiction book. That happened when I was writing our family’s memoir. It was the writing of the true story of my father’s death in Vietnam that prompted the story of Zebulon Hurd, a World War II veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, in the series of Appalachian novels Mother of Rain, Burdy & Christian Bend.
This new book I’m working on has me on another trail of DNA research. One that introduced me to former Stanford professor and co-creator of the transistor radio, and the man credited with putting the silicon in Silicon Valley, Dr. William Shockley. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?
A Nobel Prize recipient, Dr. Shockley even donated his sperm to a repository of Nobel Prize receipients because he believed it would help elevate humanity if there were more offspring as smart as him.
Can you imagine such hubris? Let’s just suffice it to say, self-doubt was never a problem for Shockley.
Shockley refuted eugenics, calling it inhumane to sterilize people against their will. On that point we agree.
Denying he was a racist, Shockley he held firmly to his own thesis of what he called “raceology” :
My research leads me inescapably to the opinion that the major cause of the American Negro’s intellectual and social deficits is hereditary and racially genetic in origin and, thus, not remediable to a major degree by practical improvements in the environment.
As I listened to an interview in which he made this very statement before two blacks, one a professor at Howard University, I couldn’t help but see the folly behind his own claim: By his very declaration, Shockley proved his own ignorance and limited cognitive ability.
Lest you imagine this was in the 1940s, you should know that Dr. Shockley was touting his ideas before a national audience in 1974, the year I graduated from high school. Even Oregon, as progressive a state as one can find, was still forcibly sterilizing people in the 1980s, Georgia was forcibly sterilizing women during the Trump administration. Perhaps you won’t be surprised to learn that Shockley ran for a US Senate seat as a Republican. He lost, thank the gods for small favors. It is worth noting that Mitch McConnell was 32 years old in 1974, so he certainly would have been aware of the discussions put forth by white men like Shockley.
Dr. Shockley didn’t believe in forcibly sterilizing people. He thought there were better ways of persuading undesirables to not reproduce. He believed that the US government should set up a system of paying women to be sterilized. Not just Blacks. He thought that women in Appalachia should be paid to stop procreating because they were contributing to the dumbing down of society. According to Shockley, the problem with Appalachia is that too many women of questionable intelligence were having too many children:
I was struck by the writing in Harry Caudill’s book Night Comes to the Cumberlands. Caudill points out that when the more intelligent people left the Cumberlands sometime in the 1930s the incidence of mental retardation of those who were there went up. The family size was large. A bigger percentage of the population were even more unemployable. We need to look at that and see if there are strong hereditary factors.
Shockley advocated paying Appalachian women to have tubal ligations. He was not a proponent of males having vasectomies. The problem with vasectomies, Shockley maintained, is that they made men more likely to be more sexually active because the sperm is reabsorbed into the body. Besides, he said, such procedures were not as effective as tubal ligations, anyway.
So you see, this pursuit of power over a woman’s uterus is not new.
How to stop the subhuman progeny coming out of Appalachia and America’s Black families has long been a concern for white men of a certain economic and political standing.
Men like Dr. William Shockley, who along with other scientists including Oregon’s own Linus Pauling, was once named Time Magazine’s most influential people of the 20th Century.
Although he died in 1989, Shockley’s influence continues to this day.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of the forthcoming book The Murder Gene (Koehler Press, May, 2022). She is currently pursuing a graduate program at the University of West Scotland, UK, and Shepherd University, West Virginia.