Francesco Cassata, Building the New Man: Eugenics, Racial Science and Genetics in Twentieth-Century Italy

Francesco Cassata, Building the New Man: Eugenics, Racial Science and Genetics in Twentieth-Century Italy, trans Erin O'Loughlin (Budapest: Central European University Press 2011) 438 pp. €44.95 Hb. ISBN: 978-963-9776-83-8

Cassata’s study of the national specificity of Italian eugenics is an elegant, original, and well-researched contribution to the ongoing transnational mapping of European and international eugenics. This need for national contextualisation is integral to future historiography: as Cassata notes, ‘eugenics no longer appears as a homogeneous movement, coherent within itself and essentially reducible to the Anglo-Saxon matrix. Instead, it should be described as a “multiform archipelago,” composed of multiple national styles’ (2). Specific national factors (whether scientific, political, religious, economical, or cultural) will necessarily influence the manner in which eugenicist knowledge was produced, and in turn how that knowledge accounted for, and appeared to offer solutions to, a number of societal problems.

Building the New Man impressively traces the emergence and persistence of the Italian Eugenics Movement over eight decades. As a point of departure, Cassata stresses that the legacies of late-nineteenth-century theorists such as Cesare Lombroso and Vilfredo Pareto were crucial to the later establishment of the Italian Eugenics Society in 1913 and the subsequent Italian eugenicist project. Maria Sophia Quine has criticised Cassata for exaggerating Lombroso’s role in the emergence of Italian eugenics; a critique I find unfounded, especially considering Cassata’s emphasis on the enduring influence of  Vilfredo Pareto on Italian eugenics.1 One of the major strengths of Cassata’s study is found in its attentiveness to several intersecting conflicts within the fields of criminal anthropology, evolutionary biology, psychiatry, and eugenics. Such conflicts include those between Lamarckian, Darwinian, Haeckelian, Weismannian, and Mendelian conceptions of heredity; between proponents of positive and negative (or direct and indirect) eugenics; between theorists who regarded sterilisation and euthanasia as barbaric, and those who regarded it as a necessity.

As Quine points out, the nascent Italian science of eugenics preceded Lombroso by several decades, especially through Paolo Mantegazza’s consolidation of anthropology as an increasingly authoritative discipline, and his subsequent popularisation of Darwinism.2 While the Lombrosian school was decisively hereditarian and Darwinian compared to the French emphasis on Milieu (or environment) Lombroso’s disciples remained ambivalent regarding the etiology, extent, and management of atavism and born criminals. Cassata continuously emphasises the plurality of positions on the roles of heredity and environment within the Italian School of Criminal Anthropology, and - later - Italian eugenics; in fact, Sergi, Pareto, and Ferri denounced key aspects of the Lombrosian framework. As Quine asserts, Italian eugenicists did not inherit degeneration theory from Lombroso, but rather ‘assimilated Morel and other theorists of dégénérescence within the French school on their own terms.'3

This may be an over-simplification on Quine’s part, as Lombroso (while preferring the concepts of atavism and arrested development over degenerationism) acknowledged and incorporated degeneration and the inheritability of acquired traits into his theory. Many of these neo-Lamarckian premises would be retained (but made explicit) by later eugenicists, for example in Sergi’s and Morselli’s refutations of Mendellian and Wiesmannian proposals on the mechanisms of heredity (17-19). Nevertheless, the endeavour to draw a straight line from Lombroso to the Italian eugenics project may be misleading. In many ways, it can be argued that it was the widespread national and international critique (rather than influence) of Lombroso’s evolutionary optimism which acted as a catalyst for the Italian Eugenics project, curiously combining Social Darwinism and the neo-Lamarckian theory of dégénérescence to justify preventative eugenicist measures which went further than Lombrosian proposals of segregation and isolation.

Cassata’s curious suggestion that the Italian ‘refusal of negative eugenics (above all, sterilization) was inspired by the Lombrosian idea that biological degeneration could in reality generate genius’ seems incompatible with the widespread criticism of the Lombrosian paradigm, even from his own disciples (12-13). In fact, as Cassata notes, Sergi was in favour of both positive and negative eugenics (18). Additionally, while Lombroso himself did not go as far as to draw eugenicist conclusions, he was in favour of the death penalty as a form of natural selection in the service of social defence.4 Pareto’s theorisation of socio-economic heterogeneity and indirect ‘social selection’, on the other hand, saw direct negative selection (death penalty, exile, isolation, sterilisation) as irreconcilable with altruism and compassion as markers of civilisation (22-24).

While Lombroso had advocated isolation of born criminals as a means of societal defence, he remained silent on the possibility of reproductive intervention, which would become the focal point of European eugenicist movements (11). Lombroso’s certainty that criminality and atavism would eventually cease to exist, combined with his therapeutical nihilism concerning the reform of born criminals, would be upended by later eugenicists, for whom individual atavism was less of a problem than prolonged degenerative processes over generations within the racial and national body. To counteract rampant national degeneration, certain preventative measures were needed; yet the neo-Lamarckian elements of Italian eugenics also gave rise to optimism that environmental reform could halt the degenerative process. The ‘positive’ eugenics of the Italian strand, in agreement with Quine, was thus more indebted to French neo-Lamarckian degenerationism, rather than the Lombrosian school of criminal anthropology.5 Nevertheless, Lombroso’s scepticism about artificial or negative selection (as proposed by Galton) survived into the era of Italian eugenics, in which the healthy equilibrium of natural selection was reestablished by encouraging or discouraging individuals to reproduce, depending on their inherited constitution. Such indirect reform extended to individual morality, in the hopes that increased moral education would internalise the eugenicist ideals (12, 25, 36).

A problematic aspect of Cassata’s work concerns his tendency to confound degeneration and atavism; two concepts which he constantly uses as if they were interchangeabe. Degeneration theory, as proposed by B A Morel, outlined a progressive deterioration over several generations, based on the Lamarckian notion of inheritable acquired traits. Atavism, on the other hand, denoted the sudden reappearance of ancestral traits in an individual, drawing on Darwinian notions of evolutionary regression and Haeckel’s assertion that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Atavism thus concerned individual arrested development, while degeneration traced a continuous process of familial, cultural, national, and racial deterioration.

Lombroso systematcially differentiated degeneration and atavism: whilst he included pathology in the etiology of crime in the third edition of Criminal Man, this did not constitute a wholehearted approval of degeneration theory, which he deemed too broad, ‘being used to explain pathologies from cretinism to genius, from deaf-mutism to cancer.’6 Instead, he endorsed the theory of arrested development alongside atavism, both concepts having ‘an anatomical basis’ in physical and psychological stigmata.7 Cassata’s study provides a vital contribution to historiography of the theoretical foundation of eugenics by establishing a continuity between degeneration theory, criminal and racial anthropology, and their practical implementation in the form of eugenics. However, by not distinguishing between neo-Lamarckian conceptions of degeneration and Lombrosian atavism, Cassata underestimates the extent to which the degenerationist legacy shaped and pervaded early twentieth century eugenics.

While drawing parallels and identifying differences between Italian eugenicists and the theories proposed by Darwin, Galton, and Spencer, Cassata does not outline international influences on Italian eugenics to any great extent. Staunch degenerationists such as Morel, Magnan, Legrain, Lacassagne, Maudsley, and Griesinger are only mentioned in passing or not at all, and little attention is awarded to the extensive criticism of Lombroso’s methodology and conclusions from the 1880s onwards, or indeed the conflict between the Lombrosian school of criminal anthropology and the degenerationist French school of Milieu. A comparative discussion regarding the similarities and differences between French and Italian eugenicist appropriations and practical applications of neo-Lamarckianism would have benefited Cassata’s transnational approach, and may act as a point of departure for future scholarship on the international networks and exchanges of eugenicist thought. The Italian eugenics movement, while exhibiting certain nationally specific characteristics, should not be conceived as internally homogeneous or as a closed system of knowledge, but rather as an indispensable part of a wider, more inclusive network of mutual contributions between (among others) European scientists.

Cassata, however, provides a fascinating account of the relationship between eugenics and war during the First World War and the institutionalisation of eugenics as a means for national regeneration after the war, finally culminating in the apotheosis of eugenicist thought associated with Mussolini’s fascist regime. Unlike many other historical studies of eugenics, Cassata’s study does not conclude with the end of the Second World War and Italian fascism, but instead establishes a continuity between historical eugenics and the rise of modern genetics, ‘from premarital examination to genetic counseling’ (309). Cassata illuminates the unnerving perseverance of certain conceptions of racial heterogeneity well into the 1960s, as exemplified in the conflict between Corrado Gini and the anti-racist project of UNESCO. In providing an unprecedented account of Italian eugenics, and upending traditional assumptions that eugenics ‘ended’ with the fall of the Nazi and Fascist regimes, Cassata’s study constitutes a valuable contribution to the body of knowledge on the history of eugenics, and indeed the problematic history of modern genetics.

Rebecka Klette, Birkbeck, University of London


1  Maria Sophia Quine, ‘Francesco Cassata, Building the New Man: Eugenics, Racial Science, and Genetics in Twentieth-Century Italy’, The Journal of Modern History, 85:2 (2013), pp. 454-456, 454

2 Ibid, 454-455

3 Ibid, 455

4 Cesare Lombroso, Criminal Man, trans and ed by Mary Gibson and Nicole Hahn Rafter (Durham and London: Duke University Press 2006) IV:354-355

5 Quine, 455

6 Lombroso, Criminal Man, III:221, 162

7 Ibid III:221-222, IV:228