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The Rockfeller Foundation's Molecular Vision of Life — How the Aims of Eugenics, Social Control, and Human Engineering Shaped Molecular Biology and 20th Century Science

A Review of Lily E. Kay's The Molecular Vision of Life: Caltech, The Rockefeller Foundation, and the Rise of the New Biology (Oxford University Press, 1993)

January 16, 2009
Reviewed by Chris Masterjohn

Is the molecular biology we have inherited from the twentieth century merely a product of the scientific method, an inevitable set of conclusions spawned by the cumulative impartial deduction of theoretical principles from objective observations? Or was it molded, shaped, and directed by an elite establishment that had aims much broader than the pursuit of science?

In her 1993 book The Molecular Vision of Life, Dr. Lily E. Kay, whom a 2001 MIT News Office obituary referred to as "one of the outstanding historians of biology of her generation," argued that the "new biology" was largely created by the Rockefeller Foundation and its subsidiary program at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) through a consensus between a scientific elite and a business elite whose broader aims centered on eugenics and the need to create a mechanism of social control and human engineering:

The new science did not just evolve by natural selection of randomly distributed disciplinary variants, nor did it ascend solely through the compelling power of its ideas and its leaders. Rather, the rise of the new biology was an expresion of the systematic cooperative efforts of America's scientific establishment -- scientists and their patrons -- to direct the study of animate phenomena along selected paths toward a shared vision of science and society.

The term "molecular biology," in fact, was coined in 1938 by Warren Weaver, director of the Rokcefeller's natural sciences division, to rename for the third time the program originally known as "pscyhobiology," the aim of which was "the rationalization of human behavior."

The model Kay uses to describe this historical process is one of "consensus" that does not necessarily require the active complicity of all scientists. Many of them did not share the goals of eugenics, social control, or human engineering. Many of them, even at the elite level, were interested in the pursuit of "pure science," even though they were certainly aware of the goals of the business and administrative elites within the Rockefeller Foundation. Scientists and Foundation elites needed each other, however, and the end result was that the "new biology" would not be an open-ended investigation of "the riddle of life" but would rather be a directed investigation to answer specific questions in ways amenable to the goals of eugenics and social control.

In This Review:

The Rockefeller Foundation, Caltech, and the New Molecular Biology

The Rockefeller Foundation, founded in 1913, poured $25 million dollars of support into the molecular biology program of the United States between the years 1932 and 1959. The extent of its influence during this intensive period, however, went far beyond simple funding. The Foundation's molecular biology program permeated the academic infrastructures of all of the critical institutions, with Rockefeller trustees holding top administrative positions in universities. Officers of the foundation created an informal yet de facto peer review system, with scientific advisors providing them detailed knowledge of academic traffic and scientists and administrators consulting their judgment on academic appointments, reputations, personalities, travel, and potential projects. Warren Weaver, director of the Foundation's Natural Sciences Division, was often invited to sit in on faculty meetings.

World War I ushered in a new political and economic ideology of "cooperation" that departed from nineteenth century individualism and stressed interdisciplinary projects, "team players," and coordinating managers. The Rockfeller Foundation stepped in during this reorganization of science and played a critical role in shaping it.

The Foundation supported molecular biology projects at many institutions, but it invested the largest sums of money in six: the University of Chicago, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Standford, Columbia, Harvard, and the University of Wisconsin. Ultimately, Caltech became the most important center of the new biology. Because it lacked a medical program and an agricultural mandate, molecular biology was free to thrive there as a new, independent discipline. Caltech swiftly adopted the interdisciplinary model borrowed from post-War corporate culture, and along with the University of Chicago it garnered vast sums of money from the Rockefeller Foundation.

Caltech produced many of the "founding fathers" of molecular biology. These include Thomas Hunt Morgan, Max Delbruck, George Beadle, and Linus Pauling. James D. Watson, who with Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA at Oxford, was a disciple of Delbruck; his investigations with Crick were largely based on Pauling's paradigm of molecular structures, and he later joined Caltech.

In the dozen years following the elucidation of the structure of DNA in 1953, 17 of 18 scientists awarded Nobel prizes for research into molecular biology were fully or partially funded by the Rockefeller Foundation under Warren Weaver's guidance.

The molecular vision of life is not the only possible vision of life. According to Kay, the Rockefeller Foundation singled out this vision from among many others and cultivated it for purposes broader than the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake:

The evolutionary, ecological, and organismic standpoints spotlighted many secrets of life to be unraveled. They supplied different kinds of knowledge about the human body and mind as well as alternative paths to understanding social and environmental maladjustments. In short, there were different possible human sciences. Why then did the Rockefeller Foundation's "Science of Man" agenda privilege a molecular vision of life? The answer to this question is embedded in the matrix that linked the particular forms of social control sought by that agenda with the specific kinds of control supplied by the new biology.

The Rockefeller Foundation and "Social Control"

The sociologist Edward Alsworth Ross coined the term "social control" in 1894 as an answer to the debate between capitalism and socialism in which he argued that class conflict and social inequality were inevitable but that "society" had to modify individual feelings, ideas, and behavior to conform to social interests — rather than nationalizing the means of production and exchange as advocated by socialists, "social control" advocated the nationalization of the thoughts, feelings, and desires that would drive the private sector.

The Rockefeller Foundation was founded in 1913, the same year that the Federal Reserve was created by the Rockefellers and related financial interests.

One of its critical missions was to support the development of social control. Trustee Harry Pratt Judson's 1913 policy outline for the foundation categorized its goals into uncontroversial ones like medicine and education and controversial ones that conflicted with human wants, for which "the real hope of ultimate security lies in reinforcing the police power of the state by training of the moral nature so painstaking and so widespread as to restrict these unsocial wants and substitute for them a reasonable self control."

John B. Watson wrote his "Behaviorist Manifesto" in 1913 as well, in which he promoted a new psychology whose "theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior."

By 1925, "social control" had become the dominant paradigm of the social sciences. In his Means of Social Control published that year, F. E. Lumley described the phenomenon as "the practice of putting forth directive stimuli or wish-patterns, their accurate transmission to, and adoption by, others whether voluntarily or involuntarily."

The type of "social control" the Rockefeller Foundation advocated was not necessarily a nefarious type that conspirators would use to control the population for their own ends. Many of the trustees and directors of the Foundation saw the institution of social control for the general good as part of their Christian duty. Raymond Fosdick offers an illustrative example. Fosdick was a foundation trustee, a counselor to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and eventually a Foundation president. He believed that technology was progressing much more rapidly than the understanding of human behavior and that social ills such as the xenophobia that manifested itself as the big red scare and post-WWI racism, were a result of this lag. He thus steered the Rockefeller Foundation towards much greater support for the human sciences than the physical sciences during his presidency in the 1930s.

Herbert Hoover, a product of the 1920s corporate culture that emphasized cooperative projects and teamwork a no longer adhered to nineteenth century ideas about individualism and laissez-faire economics, brought similar views to the highest levels of the federal government with his ascendancy to the presidency in 1929. According to Kay, "Hoover intended to plunge the nation into social programs of a scale and urgency comparable to wartime mobilization." The Chicago sociologist and Rockefeller Foundation advisor William F. Ogburn became a member of Hoover's Committee on Social Trends in the United States. He blamed growing divorce rates, delinquency, crime, mental deficiency, personality difficulties, immigrant assimilation, prostitution, alcoholism, and job instability all on the lag between the development of technology and the development of the science of social control.

The Rockefeller nexus was not in a rush to institute social control. Wickliffe Rose, head of the Foundation's International Education Board, used to remind his colleages, "Remember we are not in a hurry." Fosdick wrote in the 1920s, "There is no royal road to the millenium, no short cut to the promised land."

Molecular Biology As a Means of Social Control and Human Engineering

Scientists who followed Thomas Huxley's 1864 "protoplasmic theory of life" that attributed all physical and mental attributes of life to the physical substance within the cell and shared John B Watson's 1913 theoretical goal of "the prediction and control of behavior" would see the elucidation of the physicochemical foundations of life as the preeminent means of developing a science of social control.

In 1929, the Rockefeller Foundation merged with the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial and took over the International Education Board's Natural Sciences Division, appointing the physicist Max Mason as its temporary head and as the president of the Foundation. By that time, Mason had, in later Natural Science Division head Warren Weaver's words, developed "a consuming interest in behavioral research and particularly in the possibility that the physical sciences, working closely with and through the biological sciences, could shed new and revealing light on the normal and abnormal behavior of individuals, and ultimately on the social behavior of groups of men."

The "Science of Man" agenda that the Foundation articulated in 1931 called for a greater emphasis on biology and psychology and the special developments in mathematics, physics, and chemistry that are fundamental to those fields, for the purpose of the analyzing and controlling behavior:

Science has made significant progress in the analysis and control of inanimate forces, but science had not made equal advances in the more delicate, more difficult and more important problem of the analysis and control of animate forces.

Edmund E. Day, director of the Foundation's Division of Social Sciences, had written in 1930 that "the validation of the findings of social science [must be] through effective social control," by creating a system of human engineering through communication, avertising, and mass psychology.

The Rockefeller Foundation and Eugenics

The earliest means of making social control into an exact science was found in the promise of genetics. Thomas Huxley's "protoplasmic theory of life" reduced the mental attributes of the person to the physical substance within his cells. The rediscovery of Mendel's laws of heredity in 1900 suggested that each of these attributes corresponded to a single "gene" and could thus be controlled by selective breeding. In 1904, Charles B. Davenport under the aegis of the Carnegie Institution of Washington launched the eugenics movement as an alliance of businesses, Protestant churches, the American intelligentsia, and most American geneticists that would address social dysfunction by controlling the breeding of psychologial traits they associated with race and class.

The Rockefeller Foundation supported eugenic projects such as the sterilization campaign of the National Committee for Mental Hygiene to restrict breeding of the "feeble-minded." Its sibling philanthropies, the Bureau of Social Hygiene (BSH) and the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial (LSRM) advocated domestic and international programs of birth control and population control that were in part based on eugenic princples.

In the 1920s, the eugenics movement suffered major setbacks with the realizations that many genes were pleiotropic, affecting multiple traits, and many traits were polygenic, being affected by more than one gene. The polemics surrounding sterilization of the unfit and restricting immigration based on race combined with these factors to tarnish the reputation of eugenics as a science.

In 1931, Rockefeller Foundation advisor Frank R. Lillie advocated the pursuit of a scientifically sound eugenics while discarding the polemics and propaganda of the eugenics movement, stressing that the Foundation's biology program "should be kept free from all propaganda concerning eugenics, birth-control, etc.; and in such connections aim merely to furnish the indispensible scientific foundations on which social prophylaxis must depend."

It would not be until after World War II, however, that the Foundation would completely dispense with the language of eugenics. In its 1933 "Science of Man" agenda, the Foundation asked, "Can we develop so sound and extensive a genetics that we can hope to breed, in the future, superior men?"

Eugenics, however, suffered a much greater setback in the late 1940s than it had suffered in the 1920s. Kay notes a striking linguistic discontinuity between the Foundation's policy descriptions written in the 1930s and early 1940s and those written after the social taboos surrounding the Holocaust developed. Buzzwords such as "understanding" and "international cooperation" appeared as "social control," "eugenics," and "rationalization of human behavior" disappeared.

Already by 1943, the eugenics movement was declining, or at least going into hiding. Pasadena, California business leader and Caltech Associate Ezra Gosney had founded the Human Betterment Association (HBA) in 1928, the same year the Rockefeller-supported biology division at Caltech was formed. The HBA was devoted to the mass sterilization of the unfit — indeed, by 1940 half of the 30,000 sterilizations performed in the country had been performed in California — and its literature lamented the mental degeneration that was supposedly occuring because "families that send their children to an institution for the feeble-minded average twice as large as families that send a child to the university," stating emphatically that "it is time for society to act." With Gosney's death in 1942, however, Caltech absorbed the HBF and established the Gosney Research Fund, to "be devoted in perpetuity to the promotion of research into the biological bases of human qualities and for making known the results of research for the public interest," a substantial watering down of eugenic language.

By the late 1950s, however, the scientific establishment began flirting with a new science-based eugenics openly again. Linus Pauling, a critical leader of the Rockefeller-supported Caltech program, stated the following:

It will not be enough just to develop ways of treating the hereditary defects. We shall have to find some way to purify the pool of human germ plasm so that there will not be so many seriously defective children born . . . We are going to have to institute birth control, population control.

Joshua Lederberg, co-discoverer of genetic recombination in bacteria, held a similar view, which he believed to be popular among the scientific establishment:

[T]he ultimate application of molecular biology would be the direct control of nucleotide sequences in human chromosomes, coupled with recognition, selection and integration of the desired genes, of which the existing population furnishes a considerable variety. These notions of a future eugenics are, I think, the popular view of the distant role of molecular biology in human evolution.
By the late 1960s, Pauling even suggested a disturbing "yellow star" policy of eugenic prophylaxis:

There should be tattooed on the forehead of every young person a symbol showing possession of the sickle-cell gene or whatever other similar gene . . . It is my opinion that legislation along this line, compulsory testing for defective genes before marriage, and some form of semi-public display of this possession, should be adopted.

Caltech's Roert Sinsheimer, however, predicted that genetic engineering would bring us a more democratic eugenics:

The old eugenics was limited to a numerical enhancement of the best of our existing gene pool. The new eugenics would permit in principle the conversion of all the unfit to the highest genetic level.

Most of the scientists making such pronouncements in the late 1960s, according to Kay, later retracted them and admitted they had been based on social and scientific naivete. But Kay compellingly argues that the pronouncements nevertheless present us with two important historical lessons — that the progress of science results from a synthesis of the mutually reinforcing scientific and social imaginations, and that the quest for science-based social control is a resilient and durable one that has, while being repeatedly modified, resurfaced in the mind of scientists and other elites repeatedly over the course of the twentieth century.

Unconnected Dots — Allen Dulles and the CIA's MKULTRA Program

While Lily Kay provides an excellent analysis of the development of the Caltech molecular biology program, she provides us with many dots peripheral to this focus that she never connects. She states that in 1948 the Council on Foreign Relations under the leadership of Allen Dulles undertook a research project for the shaping of the industrial and agricultural development of the post-World War II world that supplied guidelines to Rockefeller Foundation interests abroad, while his brother John Foster Dulles was simultaneously a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation.

In 1953, however, John Foster Dulles became the Secretary of State under Eisenhower and Allen Dulles became the head of the CIA. Allen Dulles was head of the CIA until 1961 when he was forced to resign by JFK and was later appointed to the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination of JFK. Under Allen Dulles, the CIA imported hundreds of Nazi scientists into the military-industrial complex as part of Operation Paperclip. Dulles also oversaw the infamous MKULTRA program, which used LSD and other drugs as mind control agents, and was the basis for the Bourne Trilogy in which Matt Damon recently starred. These programs were documented by the Senate's Church Committee in the 1970s.

Kay quotes F. E. Lumley's 1925 tract, Means of Social Control:

Ideally social control would be in the hands and the interests of the inclusive group whatever it is; practically, however, it is in the hands of, and often in the interests of, some few members who have usurped power and know how to use it.

The mere mention of a connection between the Dulles brothers and the Rockefeller Foundation makes one wonder whether there may have been a dichotomy among the Foundation's trustees between those who wished to wield social control in the public interest and those who wished to wield social control as nefarious conspirators towards their own corrupt ends.

Kay reports that the Foundation's influence over research waned after World War II as the federal government's influence increased, but it appears that the Dulles family simply moved its pursuit of mind control techniques underground as the new CIA, being the first such organization to persist during peacetime, provided the opportunity for scientific research hidden from public view.

The Dulles brothers were also lawyers for Union Banking Corporation (UBC) before and during World War II while Prescott Bush and George Herbert Walker sat on its board. UBC brokered many deals in support of the Hitler regime right through the end of the war, and Bush was prosecuted for them under the Trading with the Enemy Act. The support for the Hitler regime and the MKULTRA program indicates that the Dulles brothers may have had much more extreme and nefarious ideas about eugenics, social control, and human engineering than other Rockefeller Foundation leaders like Raymond Fosdick had.

These connections deserve to be elucidated by reputable, scholarly research of Kay's caliber and it is unfortunate that Kay chose to avoid going down that path.

More Dots to Connect — The Rockefeller Foundation and the UN World Population Panel

Kay briefly mentions that the Rockefeller Foundation eventually moved on from supporting domestic interest in social control to supporting international concerns with overpopulation. The UN World Population Panel, headed by John D. Rockefeller 3rd, prepared a document in 1969 entitled "Wold Population: A Challenge to the United Nations and Its System of Agencies," however, that suggests the Rockefellers' interest in social control never waned.

"Contraceptive techniques (conventional and new, such as the oral steroid and intra-uterine device) can be available to parents wishing to plan their families and to governments wishing to plan their populations," the document stated.

The development of a world population program, spearheaded by the UN, which it referred to as "the world's highest authority" and "mankind's global agency," would require wholesale modification of societal values:

But even if the 'perfect pill' could be found, many serious problems would remain. Reducing fertility does not depend only on an efficient means of contraception. Fundamental values and attitudes of society are involved. Patterns of child-bearing, sometimes forming the basis of a society's cultural life, need to be modified. Deep-seated psychological, sociological and economic prejudices in favor of large families may have to be countered. Religious preconceptions must be overcome. . . . Equally important will be the effect on the attitude of the medical profession which is often less than totally committed to the family planning effort. Insofar as the training doctors have traditionally received teaches them to think of preserving rather than preventing life, this is understandable. Nevertheless it remains somewhat ironic that medical men, who were so largely responsible for creating the population problem by their magnificent achievments in the field of death control, have been reluctant to solve it by similar efforts in the field of birth control.

Achieving this form of social control would require control of mass media:

The press, radio, television and movies can play an important part in legitimizing the concept of family planning and in developing broad community acceptance of the principles of responsible parenthood. UNESCO should provide technical advices about the use of mass-media in family planning programs and design major projects in this area.

The document suggested that the World Council of Churches and other non-governmental organizations should be used to achieve "total involvement" of the community, that systems of taxation should be designed to discourage high fertility, and that teachers should train students in "population awareness" and "appropriate attitudes toward family size."

Some teachers have apparently recently gone off the deep end trying to teach their students this, like Eric Pianka.

The New Frontier in Social Control: Zbigniew Brzezinski's Technetronic Age

Zbigniew Brzezinski brought the idea of the Trilateral Commission to David Rockefeller in the early 1970s. Once formed, its members occcupied top spots in presidential cabinets from Carter through the present day. Brzezinski was National Security Advisor under Carter, had a hand in the formation of the Mujaheddin, precursor to Al-Qaeda, and played lesser roles in foreign policy under Reagan and Bush. He endorsed Barak Obama for president in September 2007 while his son Ian worked for the McCain campaign.

David Rockefeller, for his part, extends his influence far beyond the Trilateral Commission:

Brzezinski wrote a 1968 article entitled "America in the Technetronic Age" in the journal Encounter, which was co-founded by the Trotskyist-turned-neoconservative Irving Kristol and which was reportedly funded by the CIA. In it, Brzezinski promised that, not molecular biology, but electronic technology would lead to the perfect means of social control:

Human conduct will become less spontaneous and less mysterious — more predetermined and subject to deliberate "programming." . . . The same techniques could serve to impose well-nigh total political surveillance on every citizen, putting into much sharper relief than is the case today the question of privacy. . . . The achievement-oriented society might give way to the amusement-focused society, with essentially spectator spectacles (mass sports, TV) providing an opiate for increasingly purposeless masses. . . . In the technetronic society, the trend would seem to be towards the aggregation of the individual support of millions of uncoordinated citizens, easily within the reach of magnetic and attractive personalities effectively exploiting the latest communication techniques to manipulate emotions and control reason.

Brzezinksi identified a major problem of nineteenth and twentieth century industrial capitalism as the confrontation of opposing values between capital and labor classes. Two things would accomplish the resolution to this problem. First, private and public institutions would melt together: "As economic power becomes inseparably linked with political power, it becomes more invisible and the sense of individual futility increases." Second, technological programming of the population's values would allow the cultivation of talent for the "meritocratic democracy" from even among the bottom rungs of society: "The recruitment and advancement of social talent is yet to extend to the poorest and the most underprivileged, but that too is coming. No one can tell whether this will suffice to meet the unfolding challenge, but the increasingly cultivated and programmed American society, led by a meritocratic democracy, may stand a better chance."

Brzezinski advocated the death of the nation-state in favor of a world government run by interlocking networks of institutions that were a result of the blending together of the public and private spheres. He expanded on this in his 1970 book, Between Two Ages: America's Role in the Technetronic Era, in which he stated that the coming computer information grid, presumably meaning the Internet, would be used to gradually melt governments into one another, and that the World Bank could be used to establish a global taxation system. Brzezinski believed, however, that the aim to abolish national governments should be done subtly and quietly over the course of gradual regionalization, so as not to provoke adverse reactions from "the masses." He described the need for this subtlety in his 1968 article:

International co-operation will be necessary in almost every facet of life: to reform and to develop more modern educational systems, to promote new sources of food supply, to accelerate economic development, to stimulate technological growth, to control climate, to disseminate new medical knowledge. However, because the new elites have a vested interest in their new nation-states and because of the growing xenophobia among the masses in the third world, the nation-state will remain for a long time the primary focus of loyalty, especially for newly liberated and economically backward peoples. To predict loudly its death, and to act often as if it were dead, could prompt (as it did partially in Europe) an adverse reaction from those whom one would wish to influence. Hence, regionalism will have to be promoted with due deference to the symbolic meaning of national soverignty — and preferably also by encouraging those concerned themselves to advocate regional approaches.

Conclusions: Does Social Control Even Work?

Eugenics, genetic engineering (which was part of Pauling's promise of "orthomolecular psychiatry"), molecular pharmacology, and television have all failed to cure divorce, alcoholism, prostitution, deliquincy, crime, mental deficiency, job instability, and all the other ills that social control was promised to cure. And the Internet, despite Brzezinski's predictions, so far has served to undermine the established order and provide a way out of the mass media effect far more than it has served the purpose of dissolving the nation-state.

Television may indeed have become a distraction and perhaps for some people even an opiate, but none of the positive promises of social control have materialized. A 2005 study found that the lifetime prevalence of depressive, anxiety, impulse control, and substance abuse disorders — about fifty percent — is twice as high for people born after 1945 than for those born earlier, and the proportion of Americans suffering from three or more disorders — nearly a fifth — is more than triple.

While many of the promoters of social control, such as Raymond Fosdick, may have had genuinely altruistic motivations, and while others, such as the Dulles brothers, may have had much more nefarious plans, the historical evidence seems to suggest that attempts to engage in top-down manipulation of culture for any purpose only contribute to social ills.

Gideon Rachman, a columnist for the Financial Times recently remarked that "for the first time in my life, I think the formation of some sort of world government is plausible." He pointed out that the financial crisis and climate change were pushing governments toward more global solutions.

Twelve days after he wrote that article, however, the Native American Lakota People of Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming seceded from the United States and formed a tax-free republic. Their solution to the financial crisis was not world government, but more localized government and a non-fractional reserve bank where all currency is backed by gold and silver.

As long as the ability to engage in private initiative exists, it will undermine cartels. As long as social ills are solved by crushing private initiative, social ills will increase. This seems to be a governing law of nature.

Lily E. Kay's book, The Molecular Vision of Life, leaves many dots for us to connect, but it is a fascinating account of how the Rockefeller Foundation shaped the development of molecular biology and Caltech, and how the social aims of scientific and associated elites shape the development of science. And the failure of the "salvation through experts" that she documents is an important reminder of the need to maintain decentralized power in society, and to cure social ills by providing good examples in our own social lives, contributing directly to those in need, and encouraging others to do the same.

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