Remembering Nikola Tesla, eugenicist

Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk celebrated Nikola Tesla’s birthday this week with a US$1 million donation to set up a Tesla museum in Long Island. The Serbian-American inventor, who died in 1943, was a prodigious inventor and is regarded by some of his admirers as the greatest geek who ever lived. With time, he has become a cult figure, which explains his appearance in the Oscar-nominated film The Prestige

Apart from inventing alternating electric current, Tesla was a futurist. In 1935 he gave an interview to the American magazine Liberty (now defunct) in which he peered 100 years into the future. Of interest to readers of BioEdge is his enthusiastic endorsement of eugenics, a common feeling before World War II.

“The year 2100 will see eugenics universally established. In past ages, the law governing the survival of the fittest roughly weeded out the less desirable strains. Then man’s new sense of pity began to interfere with the ruthless workings of nature.
“As a result, we continue to keep alive and to breed the unfit. The only method compatible with our notions of civilization and the race is to prevent the breeding of the unfit by sterilization and the deliberate guidance of the mating instinct.

“Several European countries and a number of states of the American Union sterilize the criminal and the insane. This is not sufficient. The trend of opinion among eugenists (sic) is that we must make marriage more difficult. Certainly no one who is not a desirable parent should be permitted to produce progeny. A century from now it will no more occur to a normal person to mate with a person eugenically unfit than to marry a habitual criminal.”

Tesla is a hard man to pigeonhole. But perhaps his views were driven by his mechanistic view of human nature. In the same interview he asserted that “Man, like the universe, is a machine”. And rather than technology adapting to human needs, humans need to adapt to technology:

“At present we suffer from the derangement of our civilization because we have not yet completely adjusted ourselves to the machine age. The solution of our problems does not lie in destroying but in mastering the machine.”

Tesla's admirers lament the fact that many of his ideas died with him. Perhaps this is one which is better off forgotten.

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