Seedsmen against eugenics (a draft)
“Has anyone got good literature on species/cultural diversity as terminal or instrumental ethical value as in e.g. climate/environmental discourse?” asked Spendy.
“Oh! My man Luther Burbank does!”
Burbank (to whom we owe the Russet Burbank potato, the free-stone peach, the shasta daisy, the paradox walnut, the thornless prickly pear, nearly all of my favorite plum and rhubarb varieties, and hundreds of other great plants) is my favorite plant breeder. He worked from the 1870s to 1920s tirelessly and fanatically creating hybrids and crosses that enabled the California prune industry, countless orchard and garden favorites, and the modern french fry.
To the embarrassment those who espouse progressive ideals in 2022, eugenics was generally considered to be a progressive ideal in 1922. You’ll notice Burbank’s active career spans a time when eugenics societies were proliferating, and researchers were committing unconscionable crimes against usually unwitting subjects.
Though he’s only remembered by agronomy nerds today, Luther Burbank was a household name at the height of his productivity. In order to draw attendees to a eugenics symposium*, a society invited Lute as a keynote speaker. It would go without saying that the world-renowned breeder, who ruthlessly selects only the best parent lines for his hybrids, would support eugenics, right? So they didn’t bother to check.
Burbank in fact despised eugenics with the passion that only a plant breeder—champion of diversity—could. He accepted the invitation to keynote, and eviscerated the eugenicists: calling eugenics wrong-headed, the opposite of good sense, telling them they should go home and change careers—or at least practice on plants (implying that they would immediately see the outcome of their folly) before committing any irreversible procedures upon humans.
*I’d intended (and do intend) to do a full writeup of Burbank’s excoriation of the eugenics society for my main blog—but I temporarily can’t find my copy of Jane Smith’s lovingly researched Burbank intro Garden of Invention , and I’d like to find that and use its index to orient myself in the original sources. But I didn’t want to withhold the hammer when the iron was hot, so I would welcome any feedback, questions, or things you’d like to see in a full-scale treatment of this anecdote, or the larger question. Til then, I apologize that I’ve forgotten the name of the symposium where this occurred.