Jukes and Kallikaks

Not many people remember it now, but biologists used to like the idea of eugenics, improving humans by controlling who is allowed to reproduce. In that whole muddle the Jukes and Kallikaks were iconic.

In 9th grade biology our textbooks had a chapter on genetics. Mendel and all that. I was already a fledgling genealogist. I loved the little charts that illustrated dominant and recessive genes. That’s when I assimilated the convention that squares on the charts represent men, and circles represent women.

Source: Michelle Mischke, MIT OpenCourseWare

But the genealogical gold was in the Jukes and Kallikaks. These were two “families” that had been the subject of genetic studies in the early 20th century. Our text included them to make the point eugenics had been a thing. A long time ago.

The names used for these folks, Jukes and Kallikak, were pseudonyms used to protect their privacy.

We got little summaries, in a sidebar. Just enough to whet a genealogical appetite. In my opinion it was the best part of our Biology textbook, and far too brief.

The Jukes family were “a race of criminals, paupers and harlots”, descended from “Max”, who settled on the New York frontier in the early 18th century. One of his sons married “Ada”, “mother of criminals”.

Then there were the Kallikaks. They were descended from “Martin Kallikak”, who had served in the Continental army. On his way home from the war he had a dalliance with a feeble-minded bar maid. Their descendants were a “race of degenerates.” When he got home he married a respectable Quaker woman. Their descendants were upstanding citizens.

How odd, I thought. Martin Kallikak must have had no good or bad himself if his children took after their mothers. It was a puzzle to me for a long time. How did no one ever notice that at the time?

It would be interesting if someone now were to create a genealogy project that showed the actual families, with all their complex links. I’m not going to be the one to do it but I wouldn’t mind wasting a few hours clicking around.

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