views updated May 08 2018


The term eugenics, derived from the Greek eugenes, was first coined by the English mathematician and geographer Francis Galton (18221911) in his Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development (1883) to refer to one born "good in stock, hereditarily endowed with noble qualities." As an intellectual and social movement in the early twentieth century, eugenics came to mean, in the words of one of its strongest American supporters, Charles B. Davenport (18661944), "the improvement of the human race by better breeding." For both Galton and Davenport, better breeding involved using the known scientific principles of heredity. Eugenics was the human counterpart of scientific animal and plant husbandry. It seemed ironic to eugenicists that human beings paid such careful attention to the pedigrees of their farm and domestic stock while ignoring the pedigrees of their children. The ideology of eugenics was characterized by a strong belief in the power of heredity in determining physical, physiological, and mental traits; an inherent ethnocentrism and racism that included belief in the inferiority of some races and superiority of others (a view extended to ethnic groups and social classes as well); and a belief in the power of science, rationally employed, to solve social problems, including ones so seemingly intractable as pauperism, crime, violence, urban decay, prostitution, alcoholism, and various forms of mental disease, including manic depression and "feeblemindedness" (retardation).

Eugenics movements did not begin to arise in Europe or the United States until the first decade of the twentieth century, and they did not become generally effective in promoting social and political programs nationally or internationally until after 1910. The earliest eugenics movements were founded in Germany in 1904, in Britain in 1907, and in the United States in 19081910. Other eugenics movements appeared subsequently around the world: in Western Europe (France, Norway, Sweden, Denmark), Russia, Latin America (Cuba, Brazil, Mexico), Canada, and Asia (Japan). However, it was in the United States, Britain, and Germany that eugenics as an intellectual and social movement made its greatest strides and, from eugenicists' point of view, achieved its greatest ideological and political effects.

Because eugenics developed in a variety of national contexts with a wide range of ideological and political programs, its content and style varied from one country to another and over time, from the early 1900s until just before the onset of World War II. For example, British eugenicists were particularly concerned with the high fecundity and inherited mental degeneracy of the urban working class, particularly those labeled as "paupers." By contrast, American eugenicists were more concerned with the number of feebleminded who filled the prisons and insane asylums and, after World War I, with the supposed genetic deficiencies of immigrants. In Germany mentally ill, psychotic, psychopathic, and psychiatric patients along with the congenitally deaf, blind, and feebleminded were of greatest concern. German eugenicists were also particularly interested in increasing the number of "fitter" elements in society (positive eugenics)where prior to the National Socialist takeover in 1933, "fitness" was understood more in terms of class than of race. Certain core principles and beliefs did link various eugenics movements together, however, and the three major international eugenics congresses, held in 1912, 1921, and 1932, emphasized the similarities among the various movements while also revealing the differences.

The core principles of eugenics as they came to be understood by the mid-1930s were summarized in a report, Eugenical Sterilization: A Reorientation of the Problem, published in 1936 by the Committee for the Investigation of Eugenical Sterilization of the American Neurological Association. The report articulates four major principles: first, that a number of social and behavioral problems, such as "insanity, feeble-mindedness, epilepsy, pauperism, alcoholism and certain forms of criminality are on the increase"; second, that people bearing these various defective traits "propagate at a greater rate than the normal population"; third, that such defects in mental function and behavior are "fundamentally and mainly hereditary"; and fourth, that the environment in which a person was raised was of much less importance than the germ plasm inherited from his or her parents as the cause of "adverse social status," criminality, or general "social maladjustment." Significantly improving the cognitive ability of the feebleminded or making the criminal into a model citizen was deemed virtually impossible. Biology was destiny.

The Historical Development of Eugenics, 19041950

In most countries eugenics movements combined theory with various forms of social and political programs, from education committees to lobbying political leaders. Before 1925 most eugenicists were well-respected members of the scientific community, and the eugenic ideas they espoused were not considered eccentric or bizarre. The acknowledged leader of American eugenics, Charles Davenport, received his Ph.D. from Harvard, taught at the University of Chicago, and then established his own research laboratory to promote the study of heredity and its relationship to selection and evolution. In Britain, Davenport's equivalent was Karl Pearson (18571936), director of the Eugenics Record Office and Galton Professor of Eugenics at University College, London. In Germany, Eugen Fischer (18741967), the academic leader of Rassenhygiene (racial hygiene), was the director of the newly founded Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Genetics, and Eugenics (KWIA) in Berlin-Dahlem. Along with other colleagues, these investigators contributed solid work on aspects of human inheritance as well as more tenuous studies on inheritance of feeblemindedness, mental capacity, and social traits.

In addition to such conspicuous national leaders, many well-known, rank-and-file biologists, especially in the period 19101925, enthusiastically endorsed the aims of eugenics. The attraction for these biologists was that the new science of genetics appeared to offer a solution to recurrent social problems that had eluded social workers and charitable organizations. Eugenics was seen as the efficient, rational, and scientific way to solve these problems by eliminating the cause rather than treating the symptoms. These supporters all contributed in some way to spreading the eugenics message to a broader public.

Financial support for eugenics research and propaganda came from the economic, political, and social elite and clearly served several special interests. First was economic efficiency: it was expensive to let defective people be born and then spend taxpayers' money to keep them in institutions for much of their lives. Second, the eugenic argument that social problems originated in "bad genes" deflected criticism of social policies and conditions and placed the blame for social problems on individuals.

Research Methods

Eugenicists were faced with the problem of defining and measuring the traits whose patterns of inheritance they wanted to determine. Definition posed a considerable problem when the traits were complex behaviors that were often defined in different ways in different cultures or different historical periods. What counted as an alcoholic or a criminal? How was "feeblemindedness" defined? Recognizing that such conditions are culturally defined, Davenport, for example, lumped all such individuals into the category of "social defectives" or "socially inadequate persons." For most of the behavioral and mental traits in which eugenicists were interested, no objective and quantitative definitions or measurements existed. For the most part, they had to rely on highly qualitative, subjective methods of defining traits and categorizing individual behavior.

One trait that could be expressed quantitatively was intelligence, tests for which were developed, particularly in the United States. In 1912 Davenport arranged for Henry H. Goddard (18561962) to administer versions of the French Binet-Simon test to immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. Although the Binet-Simon test was intended to measure only an individual's mental functioning at a given point in time, Goddard and a host of American psychometricians considered that it also measured innate, genetically determined intelligence. Goddard coined the term "feeblemindedness" to refer to those who scored below seventy on his tests. He claimed, "Feeblemindedness is hereditary and transmitted as surely as any other character. We cannot successfully cope with these conditions until we recognize feeblemindedness and its hereditary nature, recognize it early, and take care of it" (p. 117).

Psychometricians and eugenicists maintained their belief that their tests measured innate capacity rather than merely accumulated knowledge despite the abundance of culturally specific material and terminology in the tests. Even when results from the U.S. Army tests during World War I showed that the longer recruits from immigrant families had lived in the United States, the better they did on the tests, Carl C. Brigham (18901943), a Princeton psychologist who analyzed the data, argued that the trends showed a decline in the quality of immigrants over time, not their degree of familiarity with the cultural content of the tests.

The family pedigree chart was one of the main means for displaying and analyzing data on the heredity of a behavioral trait. The data were often anecdotal and subjective and many times were obtained from second-and thirdhand sources. Typical examples are the family studies carried out through the auspices of the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor. Starting with an individual, usually incarcerated in a mental or penal institution, field-workers would interview not only that individual but as many members of the family as possible. Where possible, medical records would be obtained. The data were then organized into pedigree charts to suggest how heredity influenced many behavioral, personality, and mental traits. For example, in a study published in 1919, Davenport claimed that thalassophilia, or "love of the sea," was due to a sex-linked Mendelian recessive appearing in the families of prominent U.S. naval officers. That the condition must be sex-linked was clear to Davenport, since in pedigree after pedigree only males showed the trait. Similar simplistic arguments were extended to explain the differences between racial, ethnic, and national groups, such as the claim that blacks showed genetic tendencies toward "shiftlessness" and the Irish toward "alcoholism."

Eugenics in the Public Arena

Eugenics ideology was spread not only through scientific but also through popular channels, including the press, exhibits, the eugenicists' own popular journals such as Eugenical News, various movies, "fitter family" contests at state fairs, and even a eugenical sermon contest. The number of articles on eugenics in popular magazines rose precipitously between 1910 and 1914 and again in the 1920s, especially when the immigration restriction issue was being debated in Congress between 1921 and 1924. Most high school biology textbooks included some discussion of eugenics. By the early to mid-1920s many segments of the American, British, and wider European public were at least aware of a claim, made in the name of modern science, that many social, especially mental, traits were genetically determined, that many segments of society were genetically unfit for anything but the most menial work, and that in these respects blacks, Native Americans, and many non-Nordic or non-Anglo-Saxon groups were genetically inferior.

From the start most eugenicists were anxious to play a role in the public arena. A good deal of eugenicists' efforts focused on lobbying for compulsory sterilization laws for the "genetically unfit" and, especially in the United States, for eugenically informed immigration restriction.

The United States pioneered in the passage of eugenical sterilization laws. The majority of such laws were passed by state legislatures during the interwar period. Eugenical sterilization was aimed specifically at those individuals in mental or penal institutions who, from family pedigree analysis, were considered likely to give birth to socially defective children. Eugenical sterilization reached astounding proportions worldwide in the first half of the century. In the United States over sixty thousand eugenical sterilizations were performed between 1907 and 1963. A similar number was estimated for Sweden, while the Germans ultimately sterilized over 400,000.

In the United States eugenicists were instrumental in the passage of the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act. Immigration from Europe, especially from eastern and southern Europe, had increased significantly since the 1880s, replacing the traditional immigrant groups from northern Europe and the British Isles. IQ test scores and data on institutionalization of various immigrant groups for feeblemindedness, insanity, criminality, blindness, and so on were used to support the claim that recent immigrants were less genetically fit than the older, northern European stock. Eugenics provided an air of scientific objectivity for what various nativist groups wanted to accomplish for reasons of economics or prejudice.

Because racial policy and eugenics formed one of the cornerstones of National Socialism, eugenics research and policy found considerable support in Germany after 1933. When Fischer retired as director of the KWIA in 1942, he was succeeded by his protégé Otmar von Verschuer, one of the pioneers in the use of identical twins in genetic and eugenic research. Verschuer eventually took the institute's research into extermination and slave-labor camps, where his assistant and former doctoral student, Josef Mengele, made pairs of twins available, especially for research on pathological conditions. For example, twins (with non-twins as controls) were infected with disease agents to study the effects of the same and different hereditary constitutions on the course of disease. After they died or were killed, twins' body organs were sent back to the KWIA for analysis. Such procedures, when brought to light at the Nuremberg trials, not only shocked the world but indicated the extent to which eugenic work could so easily transgress the bounds of acceptable scientific practice.

Criticisms of Eugenics

Almost from the beginning, many of the basic premises of eugenics received critical scrutiny by biologists, medical doctors, social workers, and laypersons from all walks of life. Criticisms emerged in most countries by the mid-1920s, though the reasons differed widely.

In Catholic countries criticism of eugenics was made official by the papal encyclical Casti connubi of 1930. Prior to the encyclical, however, in countries like France eugenic claims were tempered by the prevailing theory of inheritance of acquired characters, sometimes referred to as "neo-Lamarckism" after the French zoologist Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck (17441829), who had emphasized the influence of the environment as a cause of adaptations acquired by organisms during their lifetime and passed on to their offspring. If such adaptations could be inherited, then the environment had a much larger role to play in changing human behavior than eugenicists thought. Consequently in France prior to 1930 and in the countries whose scientific culture it influenced (particularly in Latin America), eugenics was always coupled with programs for public health reforms and attention to improving environmental conditions.

Russia had a small but flourishing eugenics movement before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. With the advent of the Communist regime, some biologists hoped that the application of scientific principles to reproductive policies, as to agriculture, would receive official support. But many Soviet biologists, recognizing that complex human behaviors and social values cannot be ascribed to genes in any clear way, found the claims of Western eugenicists naive and class-based. Moreover the "hard" hereditarian line promoted by most Western eugenicists was at odds with the Communist views of the malleability of human nature and thus appeared to provide no role for the environment in shaping human destiny. The Central Committee of the Communist Party outlawed work on eugenics in 1930, making the Soviet Union the only country where eugenics was officially denounced by governmental legislation.

In Western countries like the United States and Britain, criticisms began to arise over the sloppiness of many eugenicists' research methods. Among the first and most important critics in the United States was Thomas Hunt Morgan (18661945), a geneticist at Columbia University and prior to 1915 a moderate supporter of eugenics. Morgan felt that the movement had become more propagandistic than scientific and criticized eugenical claims in print, starting with his book Evolution and Genetics (1925). He chastised eugenicists for lumping many mental and behavioral conditions together under a rubric like "feeblemindedness" and treating it as if it had a single underlying cause in a single gene. He argued that because environmental influences on mental and nervous development are so strong and since it is impossible to raise humans under controlled conditions like fruit flies, no rigorous claims could be made about a genetic basis for such traits.

Echoing similar concerns, the English mathematician and geneticist and sometime eugenicist Lancelot Hogben (18951975) made one of the clearest statements at the time about the oversimplified concept of genetics that informed much of the eugenics movement: "No statement about a genetic difference has any scientific meaning unless it includes or implies a specification of the environment in which it manifests itself in a particular manner" (Ward, p. 305). Furthermore, as Reginal C. Punnett (18751967) noted, even if a trait were found to be controlled by a single Mendelian gene, unless it was a dominant, it would take hundreds of generations of rigorous selection to eliminate it from the population.

A more public attack on eugenics came from Raymond Pearl (18791940) at Johns Hopkins University, himself a onetime eugenics supporter. Pearl and his Hopkins colleague Herbert Spencer Jennings (18681947) both agreed with the basic principles and aims of eugenics but felt that propagandists like Harry Laughlin and others made claims that went far beyond any reasonable biological evidence. Jennings wrote a series of rebuttals of Laughlin's claims and a small book (Prometheus, or Biology and the Advancement of Man ; 1925) condemning the vulgarization and racism of some eugenic writers. H. J. Muller (18901967), a student of Morgan, delivered a searing attack on "old style" eugenics at the Third International Eugenics Congress in New York City in 1932. Muller, who harbored strong eugenical beliefs as well as socialist leanings, argued that until the economic and social environment could be equalized, it would be impossible to know how much of any individual's "social inadequacy" was due to heredity and how much to environment.

Except for Germany and the countries it influenced or occupied, by the mid-1930s eugenics began to decline in general popularity and political effectiveness. Scholars have suggested several possible reasons for this change of fortune. Clearly both the depression of 19291933 and reports of Nazi eugenics activity played some part in a general disaffection with eugenical principles. In the depression people without jobs became "paupers" and "social inadequates" overnight with no change in their genetic makeup, while in Germany the sterilization and infamous Nuremberg Laws (1935) showed the extent to which eugenical legislation under a powerful central government could erode personal liberties. An additional factor may have been the recognition that eugenicists were increasingly out of touch with the most recent findings of laboratory genetics. Davenport's and Laughlin's simple unit-character concept did not square with recent experimental data suggesting that most traits were produced by the interaction of many genes and that evidence for a clear-cut genetic basis of complex human social behaviors was almost nonexistent.

Eugenics in the Twenty-First Century

The history of the eugenics movement raises many issues relevant to the expanding work in genomics at the beginning of the twenty-first century, especially the Human Genome Project (HGP). Since the advent of new technologies associated with test-tube babies, sequencing the human genome, cloning new organisms from adult cells, stem cell research, genetic testing, and the prospects of gene therapy, the term eugenics has once again come into popular culture. Since it is possible, through in utero testing, to determine if a fetus is male or female or has Down syndrome or a mutation for Huntingon's disease, cystic fibrosis, thalassemia, or Tay-Sachs disease, should these tests be required for all pregnant women? And if so, who should have access to the results? Can medical insurance companies refuse to cover families or their children if the mother does not undergo genetic testing of the fetus? Some medical ethicists argue that the outcomecontrolling births in order to reduce the number of "defective" people in societyis identical to that issuing from the old eugenics movement. According to this view, it makes little difference whether state legislation or social and economic pressures force people to make reproductive decisions they might not otherwise make. Other ethicists, however, argue that state coercion, as in the old eugenics movement, is qualitatively different from various forms of social pressure, since the latter still gives the individual some range of choice. In addition it can be argued that modern genetic decisions are made on a case-by-case basis and do not involve application of policies to whole groups defined racially, ethnically, or nationally.

Clearly it is in the interests of insurance companies to reduce as much as possible the medical costs incurred by their clients. And some would argue that it is also in the interest of individual families to avoid bringing a seriously disabled child into the world. But ethicists raise the question of what is "disabled" and who should be the judge. These issues have become more pressing the more costly medical care has become and the more ancillary social services are cut back. Ironically, as a result of sequencing the human genome, a project that carried with it funds for ethical considerations, geneticists now know that there is no one-to-one correspondence between genotype and phenotype and that the reading out of the genetic code is far more plastic than previously believed. Individuals with the same mutation in the cystic fibrosis gene, for example, can have quite different phenotypes (some are seriously affected and others are not or the effects manifest themselves in different organs and at different stages in development). Thus in utero genetic testing may reveal a mutant gene but will provide little information on how the child will turn out phenotypically.

While these various ethical issues are problematical, with well-defined clinical conditions, they are infinitely more so when mental, behavioral, and personality traits are the center of discussion. From the last quarter of the twentieth century many claims have been made for identifying genes that affect human behavior or personality (alcoholism, manic depression, criminality, homosexuality, shyness, aggression). No gene or group of genes has ever been isolated or shown clearly to affect any of these conditions, yet the belief that the conditions are to a significant degree genetically determined has become widespread throughout the media and in the public. Reproductive decisions based on circumstantial or nonexistent data add another level of ethical considerations in the growing debate about reproductive technologies. Recognizing the consequences of policies put forward under the guise of the old eugenics movement can help avoid some of the more obvious errors of the past.

See also Biology ; Class ; Development ; Evolution ; Family Planning ; Genetics ; Health and Disease ; Hygiene ; Lysenkoism ; Medicine: Europe and the United States ; Race and Racism ; Social Darwinism .


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Garland E. Allen


views updated May 14 2018


EUGENICS . The term eugenics, from the Greek meaning "good birth," was coined by British scientist Francis Galton (18221911). As Galton defined it in Essays in Eugenics (1909), eugenics is "the study of agencies under social control which may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations" (p. 81). Eugenics seeks to improve the human gene pool by encouraging reproduction among "desirable" members of society (positive eugenics) and by discouraging reproduction among the "undesirable" (negative eugenics).

The Origins of Eugenics

Influenced by his cousin Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, Galton researched the ancestry of eminent men in Great Britain and believed that the characteristics that led to their successespecially disposition and cognitive abilitywere inherited. Environment might have had some influence, but for Galton heredity was central to an individual's traits and personality.

In addition to believing that talent and character could be inherited, Galton recognized that society was interfering with natural selection. Though evolution by Darwinian natural selection had produced humanity, developed society was drastically altering its course. In nature, natural selection eliminated the weak and the sick, allowing only the swift and strong to survive. In civilized societies, however, weak and "feebleminded" persons were cared for and provided for through charities, government programs, and religious groups, so that natural selection was no longer operating on humanity. Galton believed that if nothing were done, society would suffer the deleterious effects of having "fit" traits diluted by "unfit" traits.

Consequently, Galton believed that civilized human society ought to take control of its own breeding practices by encouraging eugenic behavior that promoted the future health of society. He suggested that, much as farmers breed only the best livestock, humans should promote reproduction among only the best of the human stock. Only then would the human race be able to maintain its level of civilization and prevent the regression of humanity toward greater feeblemindedness and greater physical weakness. Galton's solution to the problem was to encourage individuals in the upper classeswhose success Galton attributed to inherited traitsto have more children.

After 1900, when the work of the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel (18221884) was rediscovered, the true impact of heredity permeated both the scientific community and society, and eugenics seemed to gain momentum. In his experiments with pea plants, Mendel had shown how individual characteristics such as pea color and plant height were inherited according to a regular pattern. Eugenicists applied Mendel's results to human trait inheritance, assuming that intelligence, attitude, and other complex human behaviors were the result of a clear-cut pattern of inheritance. Examining an individual's pedigree, then, could yield powerful clues about what traits that individual's offspring might inherit.

Building on this apparently solid scientific foundation, eugenic scientists in both the United Kingdom and the United States attempted to persuade governments and society to embrace eugenic measures. Established in 1910 by Charles Davenport (18661944), the Eugenics Records Office in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, served as the central clearinghouse for family pedigree information and eugenic research in the United States. Davenport and his colleague Harry H. Laughlin (18801943), superintendent of the Eugenics Records Office, developed pedigree surveys and trained fieldworkers to gather family pedigree information for hundreds of individuals. Based on their examination of such pedigrees, Davenport and Laughlin became convinced that the nation's gene pool faced threats on two fronts. Internally, "feebleminded" individuals were outbreeding the graduates of Ivy League universities, lowering the overall intelligence of the gene pool. Externally, waves of new immigrants from eastern and southern Europe threatened to overtake the Anglo-Saxon stock in the United States. Both problems were "dysgenic" because they caused a decline in the quality breeding population, so urgent action was required to prevent the further deterioration of society.

In dealing with the dysgenic effects of immigration, the Eugenics Records Office was influential in convincing the U.S. Congress to pass restrictive new laws. Psychologist Henry H. Goddard (18861957) had performed intelligence tests on immigrants at Ellis Island that seemed to support the eugenic argument that immigrants were of lower intelligence than native stock. Using Goddard's research as well as his own, Laughlin testified before Congress that the waves of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were diluting the "purity" of older American immigrant populations from northern Europe, as well as costing taxpayers millions of dollars in social services. Heavily influenced by the eugenicists' arguments, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which set immigration quotas based on the 1890 census. Consequently, immigrants of "eugenic" stock from northern and western Europe were admitted in larger numbers than the "dysgenic" stock from southern and eastern Europe.

In addition to its work with the U.S. Congress, the Eugenics Records Office provided model sterilization laws for states trying to implement "negative" eugenic measures. Scientists and fieldworkers from the Eugenics Records Office offered expert testimony in sterilization and institutionalization cases for those who had been diagnosed with a range of inherited "defects," such as alcoholism, pauperism, criminality, feeblemindedness, and insanity. Yet even before the coordinated efforts by the Eugenics Records Office, states began passing eugenic sterilization laws, beginning with Indiana in 1907. Other states soon followed, including California in 1909. In 1913 and 1917, amendments to the California law expanded the state's power to involuntarily sterilize the "feebleminded," certain prisoners, and criminals with more than three convictions.

In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court heard an appeal by a seventeen-year-old woman from Virginia named Carrie Buck. Buck, along with her mother Emma, had been labeled "feebleminded" and placed under the care of the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. After the unmarried Carrie Buck gave birth to a baby girl who was diagnosed as "feebleminded" at eight months of age, the superintendent of the institution ordered her sterilization under a new Virginia law. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court, who, having heard testimony in favor of sterilization from eugenic experts including Laughlin, ruled that the state of Virginia did indeed have the constitutional right to involuntarily sterilize Carrie Buck. In the majority opinion (Buck v. Bell 274 U.S. 200, 1927), Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes argued that the public good demanded that action be taken to sterilize Carrie Buck, because "three generations of imbeciles are enough."

The Supreme Court ruling in Buck v. Bell allowed states to continue forcibly sterilizing and institutionalizing those deemed unfit for reproduction. California had involuntarily sterilized nearly twenty thousand individuals by the time its sterilization law was overturned in 1951, more than had been sterilized in any other state. All told, over sixty thousand people in thirty-three states were sterilized for a variety of inherited "defects."

In Germany, the eugenics movement (Rassenhygiene ) gained momentum as the Nazis rose to power and passed forced sterilization laws beginning in 1933. Nazi scientists and politicians approvingly cited the American experiment with eugenics, particularly in California, in their arguments for broader powers in determining who should be sterilized. When the horrors of the Nazi regime's racial hygiene program were fully revealed, eugenics programs in the United States and elsewhere were largely discredited. Some have argued, however, that though state-sponsored eugenics is now roundly condemned, eugenic attitudes persist in less overt forms.

Religion and Eugenics

Galton recognized the potential power of eugenic ideals and the necessary conditions for their acceptance. He wrote in 1909 in his Memories of My Life, "I take Eugenics very seriously, feeling that its principles ought to become one of the dominant motives in a civilized nation, much as if they were one of its religious tenets" (p. 322). The success of eugenics lay not only in its ability to present pertinent information in support of eugenics, but also in its ability to influence one's entire way of living. Thus, the eugenicists appealed not only to the science behind their efforts but also to religious sensibilities by providing an ultimate explanation for an individual's existence: responsibility to the future of the gene pool. Eugenics required an attitude of individual submission, an ethical orientation toward the greater good. To many scientists who argued for eugenic measures, religion motivated ethical behavior better than any other social phenomenon. Hence, eugenicists went to great lengths in analyzing and appropriating religion for eugenic ends.

Davenport grounded religious belief on the apparent science of eugenics in a lecture he delivered in 1916, "Eugenics as a Religion." Noting that every proper religion has its own statement of belief, Davenport proceeded to annunciate a twelve-point creed to serve as the basis for the new religion of eugenics. For Davenport, believing in eugenics meant believing that one is the "trustee" of one's genetic material; that one believes in the power of pedigree over environment; that one should have four to six offspring; that immigration should be limited to weed out the "socially unfit"; and that one is responsible ultimately to the race. Davenport's eugenic religion required that one be responsible both to one's genetic past and to society's genetic future. Along with Davenport's creed, the American Eugenics Society provided A Eugenics Catechism (1926) in question-and-answer form. The catechism assured readers that eugenics was not antagonistic to the Bible, for eugenics was concerned with the well-being of the totality of humanity. The catechism also promised immortality through one's genetic inheritance, passed on from generation to generation.

Likewise, Paul Popenoe and Roswell Johnson's Applied Eugenics (1933) gave immortality a firm grounding in scientific knowledge. In a passage describing the long line of human descent, Popenoe and Johnson argue that one's genetic makeup is immortal because genes, as the factors that determine who one is, can be passed on to innumerable generations. The authors argue that immortality is no longer merely hope but a real possibility. Even as the body dies, the genes that contain the information to produce the body live on in one's offspring. Popenoe and Johnson conclude, "To the eugenist, life everlasting is something more than a figure of speech or a theological conceptit is as much a reality as the beat of a heart, the growth of muscles, or the activity of the mind" (p. 41). Popenoe and Johnson go so far as to argue that one passes on one's soul from generation to generation by the propagation of the genetic material; religion has but speculated about the nature of the soul and its immortality, but eugenic science has proven their relationship. According to eugenics, then, an individual passes on his or her very soul to his or her offspring. As Davenport had argued in his creed, the proper attitude is one of submission to the greater good of society and to the precious inheritance of genetic material.

Popenoe and Johnson devote an entire chapter to the subject of eugenics and its relationship to religion. Interestingly, Popenoe and Johnson begin by asserting that "natural selection favors the altruistic and ethical individual because he is more likely to leave children to carry on his endowment and his attitude" than the merely selfish, shortsighted individual. As Galton had first observed, modern society has interfered with the operation of Darwinian natural selection. But unlike Galton, Popenoe and Johnson see the problem not only in society's failure to eliminate the weak and unintelligent, but also in its failure to rid itself of selfish and shortsighted individuals. They argue that selfishness creates problems for eugenicists since eugenics is based on placing the good of the race ahead of the good of the individual. Thus, the eugenics movement requires a structure for encouraging altruism and selflessness, a structure provided by religion.

For Popenoe and Johnson, science can offer religion a solid basis for ethics, one amenable to eugenic ideals, as well as present a rational explanation for the immortality of the soul. Religion need not retreat from the field of ethics; instead, religion should reexamine its ethical groundings. Dogmatic moral injunctions are no longer tenable in a eugenic world. Popenoe and Johnson conclude that the success of eugenics depends on the individual placing the present and future good of humanity above the good of the individual. Though many societal organizations foster selfless giving, the church is the most effective at encouraging altruism. Religion and the church can be a driving force behind eugenic change if they will but base their ethical systems on a science.

The "Report and Program of the Eugenics Society of the United States of America" (1925) pointed to the central role that religion had played in fostering both dysgenic and eugenic attitudes. Still, the society wondered whether the social value of religion could be used to further eugenic ends. No doubt, religion influenced dysgenic behavior by encouraging charity and providing social services. But like Popenoe and Johnson, both of whom sat on the Eugenics Society's advisory council, the society recognized religion's potential to influence individual behavior toward eugenic ends. The Eugenics Society concluded that if further research showed that religion were in fact primarily dysgenic, then eugenics had to devise a means of using religion's moral authority while altering its message.

One way in which the Eugenics Society encouraged religious engagement with eugenic principles was by sponsoring a sermon contest for clergy. Submissions were judged according to their ability to present eugenic ideals in clear and coherent fashion. Most did so by interpreting religious teachings in light of eugenic ideals. One sermon claimed that the Bible was a book of eugenics because it chronicled the lineages of important leaders and prophets. Jesus was seen as the product of the highest religious and moral stock of priestly and prophetic individuals. Another sermon claimed it a sin to bring feebleminded and diseased children into the world. Finally, one sermon argued that Jesus endorsed eugenics in saying that it would have been better if Judas had never been born (Mt. 26:24; Mk. 14:21). In this view, eugenics could be a crucial tool in bringing about the ordered society of which Jesus seemingly spoke.

Because marriage was an important focus of eugenic measures, some clergy took the initiative to aid the eugenic movement by enforcing a version of "negative" eugenics. In 1912, W. T. Sumner, the dean of the Episcopal Cathedral of Chicago, announced that he would not marry couples who failed to produce a physician's certificate of good health, a move endorsed by two hundred clergy. The hope was that the clergy would aid eugenicists by preventing unprofitable unions that would pass on undesirable traits.

Eugenic scientists embraced religious language even as they critiqued the dysgenic impact of various religions. Still, they recognized religion's unequalled social power in influencing individual behavior and in urging action. Even as they criticized the dysgenic effects of unconditional religious charity and threatened to take over the entire field of ethics, eugenicists urged religion to incorporate scientific analyses into its ethical systems and embrace eugenic ideals.

Eugenics in Recent History

Interest in the history of the eugenics movement has increased markedly since the 1980s as new genetic technologies have been developed and as the Human Genome Project has completed the map of human DNA. Prenatal screening for genetic disorders, along with the legalization of abortion in the United States and the United Kingdom, has increased the debate over the social consequences of genetic knowledge. Debates have swirled around the proper use of such new technologies and the social consequences of their availability. Key concerns include the difference between notions of treatment versus notions of improvement. For example, if it becomes possible, should the genes for Tay-Sachs disease or cystic fibrosis be removed from the gene pool? Would such action constitute eugenic improvement or disease prevention?

The history of eugenics has also been invoked in debates surrounding the connection between intelligence and race. Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray's The Bell Curve (1994) worries about the dysgenic effects of variable breeding rates because, the authors argue, racial groups with lower intelligence levels are reproducing at a higher rate than races with higher IQs. Critics of The Bell Curve assert a more environmental explanation for variations in intelligence and argue that genetics are not decisive in determining an individual's intelligence.

Other scholars have maintained that the use of new genetic technologies tends to support existing social hierarchies and vested economic interests. They worry that economic interests will determine for whom and for what purpose genetic technologies will be used, which will in turn reinforce social stratification as those unable to afford genetic enhancements are left behind. If the means for enhancement are available, some argue, parents will demand that such technology be used. In this case, consumer demand, not government control, will drive a new eugenics based on the desire for "designer babies." Though they recognize the eugenic dangers, a number of theologians and ethicists have endorsed certain forms of genetic research because of their potential to relieve human suffering. For them, the promise of healing offered by genetic therapies outweighs the concerns over the misuse of new technologies and new therapies.


Allen, Garland E. "The Eugenics Records Office at Cold Spring Harbor, 19101940: An Essay in Institutional History." Osiris 2 (1986): 225264.

American Eugenics Society. A Eugenics Catechism. New Haven, Conn., 1926.

Carlson, Elof Axel. The Unfit: A History of a Bad Idea. Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., 2001. Traces the broad history of the idea of certain people as "undesirable" in connecting previous eugenic impulses with the eugenics movement in the twentieth century and the emerging issues raised by the genetic technologies of the twenty-first century.

Davenport, Charles. Heredity in Relation to Eugenics. New York, 1911. Contains Davenport's research on trait inheritance and proposes a number of eugenic measures that were successfully implemented with Davenport's aid.

Duster, Troy. Backdoor to Eugenics. 2d ed. New York, 2003. A sociologist's exploration of the potential for eugenics in social and economic policies.

Galton, Francis. Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development. London, 1883. Chronicles Galton's proposals for eugenic measures.

Galton, Francis. Memories of My Life. 3d ed. London, 1909.

Galton, Francis. Essays in Eugenics. New York, 1909.

Herrnstein, Richard J., and Charles Murray. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York, 1994.

Kevles, Daniel J. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. Cambridge, Mass., 1995. The most comprehensive history of eugenics in the United States and the United Kingdom, connecting the early twentieth-century eugenics movement with subsequent developments in genetics and with debates over the role of genetics in human behavior and intelligence.

Larson, Edward J. Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South. Baltimore, Md., 1995.

Paul, Diane B. Controlling Human Heredity: 1865 to the Present. Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1995. Provides a good introduction to eugenics, examining its appeal to scientists and intellectuals.

Popenoe, Paul, and Roswell Johnson. Applied Eugenics. 2d ed. New York, 1933. Two leading American eugenicists explore the wide-ranging implications of eugenics for society.

Nathan J. Hallanger (2005)


views updated May 23 2018


Present problems and applications

Theoretical aspects of eugenics

Proposed systems of selection


Eugenics is an applied science that seeks to maintain or to improve the genetic potentialities of the human species. In practice, eugenics is concerned with any qualities that parents confer on their children, because genetic and cultural traits are often correlated or indistinguishable, and because measures that improve one at the expense of the other are to be avoided. Genetics provides the core of eugenic theory, while any implementation must be broadly based on demography, medicine, psychology, and sociology.

Founded by Sir Francis Galton at the end of the nineteenth century, before the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s laws of heredity, the early eugenics movement had an insecure scientific foundation and soon became contaminated with class and race prejudice. In the first half of the twentieth century, eugenics was challenged by the growth of equalitarian sentiments and suffered especially from the demonstration of perverted eugenics in Nazi Germany. Since mid-century, the movement has gained respectability by repudiating its early errors and by assimilating scientific advances.

False concepts are still widely propounded in the name of eugenics, and there is disagreement even among geneticists as to the desirability and the urgency of eugenic measures. While some deterioration of hereditary capacities is sure to result from preservation of physically or mentally handicapped persons and from increased irradiation of the population, the rate of this deterioration may be exceedingly slow. Furthermore, medical procedures that ameliorate genetic handicaps do not usually restore complete physical and social normality, so that natural selection still operates against the defects. Although intelligent parents have in the recent past tended to have fewer children than the less intelligent, early predictions of declining general intelligence have not been borne out. Analysis of present trends in reproduction indicates that the increased use and effectiveness of contraception may reverse this fertility difference (Osborn 1963a; 1963b).

The case for eugenics. Three lines of reasoning support the case for eugenics. First, individual families can be spared suffering and disruption if severe hereditary defects are identified and the parents given medical advice or assistance in preventing further births.

Second, the high correlation between parents and children in mental characteristics has some of the same implications whether attributed mainly to heredity or mainly to cultural transmission. Mentally handicapped persons, whose children stand the greatest risk of mental handicap, should at least be assisted if they wish to limit their offspring. More intelligent parents who can provide healthy home environments should be encouraged to bear as many children as they can support.

Third, even a very small improvement in the intelligence of a large civilized population may be expected to increase available leadership significantly. The argument for eugenics does not depend on proving that present trends are downward but on evidence that in important respects the population would be better off with eugenic measures than without them (Shapiro 1959). The only assurance against genetic deterioration is demonstrable genetic improvement.

Modern governments and institutions cannot avoid taking action in the sphere of eugenics. Every large-scale social or economic measure alters the distribution of births among segments of the population, and this distribution determines the genetic potentials of the next generation.

Present problems and applications

Radiation effects. In the past two decades public attention has been focused on possible genetic effects of radiation, namely, gene mutations. Children born to survivors of the atomic bombs in Japan have not shown significant genetic effects, and this supports the belief that to date the deleterious effects of atomic bursts on human heredity are small in comparison with natural mutations already accumulated in concealed form. Yet in absolute numbers, the new induced mutations are probably numerous and destined to take a proportionate toll in death and suffering spread over many generations.

In medically advanced countries the population receives radiation from medical X rays that may greatly exceed the present dosage from fall-out of atomic tests. The debt incurred for future generations by use of X rays or atomic testing must be weighed against the supposed immediate gains in health or national security. Some drugs also induce mutations, and these may need to be controlled in the future. Among the consequences of induced mutations, it is likely that physical defects would be less of a threat to man’s survival under civilization than innumerable small mental impairments.

Race mixture. There is a broad consensus among geneticists that race mixture in man is no eugenic hazard. In plants and animals, the crossing of races may have unpredictable results. Especially if the parent populations were closely inbred, the new generation may show “hybrid vigor”; some other hybrids may show serious disharmonies. In the case of man there is little evidence for either hybrid vigor or hybrid disharmony, and if they occur they are overshadowed by social and cultural phenomena (Chung & Morton 1961). If some small hybrid populations appear to be genetically and culturally inferior to surrounding peoples, this may be due to isolation, inbreeding, or the quality of people who originate or who join such groups. Gene frequencies are not altered by race crossing but only by mutations and selection.

Population policies. The immediate problem of curbing world population growth overshadows problems of population quality. Nevertheless, population policies adopted now are likely to exert qualitative effects for a long time in the future, and these effects should be weighed.

Birth rate differences between educational classes or between occupations appear in most civilized countries to be unfavorable to social and genetic progress. Eugenically sound population policies would therefore reduce or reverse these differentials at the same time that they accomplish their main purpose. A program to reduce births might, for example, facilitate voluntary family limitation and at the same time extend and advertise the economic benefits of such limitation to the more fertile and less secure economic classes. A program to increase births might best achieve this by assisting with higher education and other goals that deter reproduction by persons of high ability.

Genetic counseling. Genetic factors undoubtedly play some role in nearly all diseases and abnormalities, but avoidance of reproduction is genetically indicated only in conditions for which the risk is known to be high. Even in these instances the advisability of reproduction depends on the nature of the disease, on other genetic variables, on socio-economic circumstances, and above all on the parents’ willingness to sustain the risk. People who avoid childbearing for fear of hereditary defects sometimes have negligible genetic risks and are potentially superior parents. Yet those who seek genetic advice often fail to make use of it. Many universities now have centers for genetic counseling, but hereditary diseases will remain unchecked until family planning becomes general and effective. Whether it will ever be possible to transform harmful genes to the normal form by artificial means is a subject of speculation (Hotchkiss 1965).

Theoretical aspects of eugenics

Heredity and behavior. Gallon believed that human behavior could be improved by genetic as well as by cultural progress (1883). Is there today any secure basis for such a belief? On theoretical grounds, the answer to this question is clearly yes. Over the past million years man’s forebears made rapid genetic progress with respect to intelligence and social behavior. The only known mechanism of genetic progress is natural or artificial selection of favorable variations, and selection produces permanent gains only if the selected variations are hereditary. Therefore, hereditary variation must have existed as long as mental capacities were evolving, and there is no theoretical reason to suppose that it has now disappeared. Such hereditary variation in behavior provides the necessary basis for further genetic improvement.

Many psychologists and geneticists have adduced what they regard as evidence for hereditary psychological differences. The most important variation seems to be that between individuals, whereas the observed differences between races and social classes are mainly cultural in origin. Even the concept of good and bad “family stock” is erroneous; both good and bad may occur in any family, and psychological traits shared with grandchildren or cousins must be attributed in large part to common environmental factors or to assortative (selective) mating.

Natural selection. Natural selection is the only known guiding influence in organic evolution and is a necessary correlate of reproduction in a genetically variable organism. Individuals who contribute more progeny than others to the next generation have, by definition, greater biological fitness. So far as the differences in fitness may be hereditary and the environment stable, the next generation will have a higher average ability to survive and reproduce. At equilibrium the gain in each generation is offset by new harmful mutations. The first test of fitness is survival; but even among the survivors, natural selection operates through differences in fertility.

Although it acts on whole organisms, natural selection produces evolutionary effects by changing the relative frequencies of single genes. In each generation, sexual reproduction recombines genes so that all are tested in new combinations. The ultimate frequency of a gene depends on its average effect on survival and reproduction; if it is to become frequent, a new gene must be consonant with the major existing adaptations of the species. Natural selection is therefore conservative, tending usually to stabilize established norms.

Natural selection is inefficient for at least three reasons: (1) Many deaths or reproductive failures are due to chance. (2) Individual differences in fitness are often not hereditary. (3) Most hereditary differences in fitness are small. Some of this inefficiency can be overcome under artificial selection, but at a price. When it entails breeding from a few selected individuals, artificial selection may sacrifice both genetic stability and reserve variability. The artificial reproductive success conferred by the breeder on animals with commercially valuable traits may result in feeble or sterile strains. On the other hand, natural selection adapts a species only to its present environment or set of environments, and when the environment changes radically the species may become extinct. Man can foresee some changes in the environment and can, if he will, select for long-term fitness. In the last analysis this is probably a crucial advantage of scientific eugenics over natural selection.

The genetic stability of populations. Evolution is slow not only because natural selection is inefficient but because natural populations have a great inherent genetic stability. This stability is considerable even in small populations, for example, with a few hundred breeding individuals. Because of large numbers and small individual contributions to the next generation (compared with most species), civilized human populations should be very resistant to change.

Genetic stability resides primarily in the “gene pool” of a population. Each gene has a characteristic frequency, usually determined by a stable equilibrium between opposing forces of selection and mutation. Sudden changes in selective pressures may have more effect on complex traits than on the underlying gene frequencies, but even such traits are not likely to change fast. Thus, if lactation ceases to have survival value, its dependence on several physiological systems may make it vulnerable to mutations in any of a great many genes. Before any single genetic defect reached a frequency of 2.0 per cent, most women might have one or two rarer defects that prevented lactation. But an increase from 0.1 per cent to 2.0 per cent by mutation would take at least a hundred generations. Defects of lactation that were positively selected because of effects on other traits might increase ten times this fast, but they would be few and represent coincidence only.

Probably all human behavioral traits, except some grossly pathological ones, are controlled by multiple genetic factors and by the environment. Most of these traits are graded or continuous. Natural selection tends to eliminate both extremes in such a continuum and produces evolutionary change mainly from slight differences in fitness among the more numerous intermediate individuals. Thus, the gene pool retains a large reserve of variability and accommodates any new variations that do not have extreme effects.

Sources of variation. It has been suggested that ionizing radiation may speed human evolution by inducing more mutations. While mutations are the raw material of evolution, increased mutation rates now would probably do much more harm than good. First, nearly all mutations are harmful and must be eliminated by impaired fitness of the carriers, often extending over many generations. Second, nearly all of the possibly beneficial mutations have occurred before and are already so frequent that rare additions will not help. Third, the few new useful mutations would increase so slowly under moderate selective pressures that they would remain very rare for centuries.

Variations already present in human populations would suffice to carry human evolution forward a very long distance. New useful mutations that have arisen in the past few millennia are still in the early stages of response to natural selection. The great majority of variable genes, kept at intermediate frequencies by conflicting or inefficient selection, should have an immense potential for improving the species. Some useful genes may be mainly restricted to small populations or to certain races; intermarriage between nationalities and between races will make these generally available. Finally, man’s constantly changing environment under civilization changes the survival value of genes, making some useful that were previously neutral or harmful.

The role of an optimum environment. Early Darwinian enthusiasts supposed that natural selection was inevitably cruel and that human evolution could proceed only in a harsh environment. Diverse environments are desirable since they develop diverse potentials and, under natural selection, maintain genetic variability. But present human environments are often restricting and largely beyond control of the individual and even of the family.

Man’s future environment will probably be closer to the best than to the worst of present living standards. Eugenic planning for long-term adaptation should seek not only to equalize opportunity but to equalize it at a high economic and educational level. This would have no eugenic effect by itself but would enhance whatever selection was operative, either negative or positive.

Direction and choice in programs. A number of experts have warned that man may become dangerously dependent on medical technology. Such dependence, on a genetic basis, may develop gradually over centuries or millennia, but it is evident that throughout human evolution innate physical capacities have tended to deteriorate as compensatory mental abilities increased. In subhuman evolution, adaptability has repeatedly proved superior to specialized adaptation, and intelligence in its many aspects opens the way to almost unlimited adaptability. In any eugenic program, therefore, intelligence, broadly defined, should take precedence over physical fitness.

The above implied choice is an example of problems that would continually arise in eugenics. It is sometimes contended that the planning of human evolution would require superhuman wisdom. In practice, eugenics need not imply detailed foresight or genetic planning but would select for adaptability and diversity among variations already discernible. If the problems were faced one by one and periodically reviewed, they should be no more grave or insoluble than present political, educational, and social problems.

Dysgenic and eugenic environments. The environment is the instrument of natural selection since it sets the conditions for individual biological fitness, that is, the ability to survive and reproduce. For the continuation of our culture, and perhaps ultimately of the species, some other traits are as important as fertility. A society in which culturally important traits are positively correlated with fertility may be defined as a eugenic environment; the opposite is a dysgenic environment. One society may be eugenic within some social strata and dysgenic in others. Any discussion of a eugenic environment requires specification of the traits considered culturally important. One might assume that the greatest need in our culture is for traits leading to superior achievement in one’s chosen occupation. A thorough treatment of the subject would give weight to more specific traits such as intelligence, social maturity, and parental responsibility.

Proposed systems of selection

Promoting optimum expression of each person’s genetic capacities would not by itself constitute genetic progress. Eugenic selection, either natural or artificial, is also needed. Any deliberate program to promote eugenic selection would require much research before it could be instituted and careful monitoring of its progress.

Breeding programs. Next to preoccupation with race, the advocacy of artificial breeding programs has probably done most to make eugenics unacceptable. Early proposals were incompatible with concepts of conventional marriage and families as social units. Since the introduction of artificial insemination, the possibility of multiplying the progeny of selected men has become real. If artificial insemination from donors is practiced, all eugenists would agree that the donors should be carefully selected. But proposals for large-scale use of semen from a few great men (Muller 1960) may attach too much importance to fortunate combinations of genes that have little general value in the gene pool or in ordinary environments.

Assistance to selected families. British eugenists, especially, have advocated financial assistance, resembling scholarships, to parents with good eugenic prognosis (Blacker 1952, p. 307). This would enable them to have as many children as they wanted. Economically dependent families, with generally poorer prognosis, would be assisted in limiting their progeny.

With exceptions for grossly pathological heredity, eugenic prognosis in such a program ought to be based upon a couple’s social and cultural attainments and on physical and mental health of their earliest progeny. Discrepancies between attainments and genetic potential might be compensated by social transmission of traits, so that this eugenic program would achieve limited cultural improvement if not also genetic improvement. If future environments achieve near equality of opportunities, attainments will more closely reflect genetic capacities.

Automatic selection. Some eugenists have been dissatisfied with the potential for error or misuse in any arbitrary system of selection. Others see eugenic processes as requiring both broad application across all families and stability beyond that of most political systems. From these concerns have come suggestions for automatic selection: economic measures or social conditions under which natural selection will favor qualities of greatest value to society.

If the newest methods of contraception become widely available, they may eliminate nearly all unwanted pregnancies. This in itself would bring family size more in line with parents’ capacities for education and achievement (Osborn 1963a). The rewarding of fertility with uniform family allowances is not eugenically effective, but some countries offer other benefits. Highly effective automatic selection would require a more carefully planned eugenic environment (Osborn 1940). This might include high degrees of (1) social mobility, (2) individual opportunity, and (3) voluntary assortative marriage, that is, between persons with similar abilities. It might also require special educational, economic, and social measures to make child rearing more acceptable to socially competent persons and less so to the socially inadequate.


[Other relevant material may be found inEVOLUTION; GENETICS; RADIATION; and in the biographies ofDARWIN and GALTON.]


BLACKER, CHARLES P. 1952 Eugenics: Galton and After. London: Duckworth.

CHUNG, C. S.; and MORTON, N. E. 1961 Genetics of Interracial Crosses in Hawaii. Volume 1, pages 134–138 in International Congress of Human Genetics, Second, Rome, Proceedings. Rome: Istituto G. Mendel.

DOBZHANSKY, THEODOSIUS 1962 Mankind Evolving. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → An authoritative exposition for the general scientist of genetic principles relevant to human evolution.

Evolution and Man’s Progress. 1961 Dæedalus 90:409–586. → A symposium. See especially pages 416–476, dealing with genetic evolution.

GALTON, FRANCIS (1883) 1952 Inquiries Into Human Faculty and Its Development. London: Cassell.

HALLER, MARK H. 1963 Eugenics: Hereditarian Attitudes in American Thought. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press.

HOTCHKISS, ROLLIN D. 1965 Portents for a Genetic Engineering. Journal of Heredity 56:197–202.

MEDAWAR, PETER B. 1960 The Future of Man. New York: Basic Books; London: Methuen. → A simple discussion of some central questions.

MULLEH, HERMAN J. 1960 The Guidance of Human Evolution. Pages 423–462 in Sol Tax (editor), The Evolution of Man. Volume 2: Evolution After Darwin. Univ. of Chicago Press.

OSBORN, FREDERICK H. (1940) 1951 Preface to Eugenics. Rev. ed. New York: Harper.

OSBOBN, FREDERICK H. 1963a Excess and Unwanted Fertility. Eugenics Quarterly 10:59–72.

OSBORN, FREDERICK H. 1963b Eugenics and the Races of Man. Eugenics Quarterly 10:103–109.

SHAPIRO, HARRY L. 1959 Eugenics and Future Society. Eugenics Quarterly 6:3–7.

WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION 1957 Effect of Radiation on Human Heredity. Geneva: The Organization.


views updated May 23 2018


During the first half of the twentieth century, the movement known as eugenics profoundly influenced children and reproduction in most Western societies. The term eugenics was first popularized by Charles Darwin's cousin, Sir Francis Galton, who defined it as the use of science to improve human heredity. But that definition left many key questions unresolved: What is an improvement? What is heredity? How can science improve heredity? Who has the authority to answer these questions?

Self-proclaimed eugenics experts, drawn largely from middle-class professional and managerial backgrounds, formed a network of formal institutions, such as the American Eugenics Society and the British Eugenics Education Society, which promulgated a set of orthodox answers to these questions. These groups enjoyed political success dis-proportionate to their relatively small numbers, but they did not monopolize the meaning of eugenics. Public discourse included a variety of conflicting alternative answers to each of these questions, with differing implications for children.

What Is an Improvement?

Eugenicists' diagnoses of good and bad human traits were molded by their particular cultures' values, including their racial, religious, gender, and class prejudices. Eugenicists in the United States focused on racial and ethnic distinctions more than did British eugenicists, who tended to see class as more important than race, while French eugenicists instead emphasized nationality. Eugenic leaders from elite or managerial backgrounds depicted poverty as an inherited disease, while socialist eugenicists portrayed greed and capitalism as the pathologies. Eugenic intellectual leaders emphasized what they called the "menace of the feebleminded," but in mass culture eugenic popularizers often ranked an attractive body ahead of a brilliant mind. Although the subjective, culturally derived nature of these diagnoses is obvious in retrospect, at the time each was presented as the objectively proven verdict of science.

What Is Heredity?

Early-twentieth-century scientific understanding of heredity was transformed by rediscovery of Gregor Mendel's research on the patterns of inheritance of specific traits, and by August Weismann's demonstrations that heredity is unaffected by environment. However, many eugenicists campaigned against conditions from infectious diseases to malnutrition whose causes science now attributed to environment, not genetics. This expansive version of eugenics did not result from ignorance of science, but from a different set of concerns. In this view, calling something hereditary meant that you got it from your parents, regardless of whether you got it via genes or germs, precepts or probate. The 1922 U.S. Public Health Service film The Science of Life defined a man's heredity as "what he receives from his ancestors." What made a trait hereditary was the parents' moral responsibility for causing it, rather than the technical mechanism of its transmission. On this view, eugenics meant not simply having good genes, but being a good parent.

How Can Science Improve Heredity?

Eugenicists often categorized their methods as either positiveincreasing the reproduction of those judged fitor negativedecreasing the fertility of those judged unfit. Positive measures ranged from proposed government stipends for parents of large healthy families, to Better Baby and Fitter Family contests modeled on rural livestock shows. Negative measures included forced sterilization, ethnic restrictions on immigration, and euthanasia. In France and Latin America eugenicists generally emphasized positive measures, while the United States and Germany led in negative measures.

However, positive and negative were meant as simply arithmetic not evaluative distinctions. Negative measures often relied on coercion, but so did some pronatalist methods. In addition, negative techniques from birth control to euthanasia often were not imposed by the government, but chosen by families, sometimes even when they violated the law. Furthermore, most eugenicists employed a mix of positive and negative methods. Both positive and negative methods shared the same goals, based on shared definitions of good and bad heredity.

Eugenics and Children

Different versions of eugenics affected children in different ways. Eugenic efforts to control who had children did not explicitly prescribe how to raise them. But the eugenic assumption that heredity determined a person's essential characteristics could undercut support for efforts to improve children's environment through such means as education or health care. Furthermore, many eugenicists such as Charles Davenport endorsed Social Darwinist and neo-Malthusian assertions that disease in general, and infant mortality in particular, were valuable means of natural selection. On this view, death was nature's method for eliminating children with inheritable defects. For example, from 1915 to 1918, a prominent Chicago surgeon, Dr. Harry Haiselden, refused to treat and sometimes actively hastened the deaths of infants he diagnosed as eugenically unfit. His practice won widespread public support.

On the other hand, eugenics was also frequently invoked to support improved medical treatment, education, and welfare programs for children. The American Association for the Study and Prevention of Infant Mortality had a formal section on eugenics, while America's first major eugenic organization, the Race Betterment Foundation, promoted a broad range of preventive health measures for children, from exercise to clean milk. Eugenicists who supported social services for children argued that infant mortality was insufficiently selectivetoo random, or too likely to kill children with valued traits (such as intelligence). They also tended to define eugenics as good parenting, not limited to good genes. Such views were especially appealing to maternalist social reformers, who believed that power for women would make society more nurturing, and to advocates of scientific motherhood, who sought to professionalize homemaking. These versions of eugenics attempted to help all children, but they still depended on distinguishing between good and bad parents.

Support for programs labeled as eugenic declined in the 1930s and 1940s in the United States, in reaction to the Nazi use of eugenics to promote genocide, and in response to growing scientific understanding of the complexity of genetics. To protect genetic medicine from the prejudiced values of past eugenics, many postWorld War II scholars insisted that doctors should treat only objectively defined diseases. However, medicine has always required some evaluative judgments to distinguish good health from disease. Well-intentioned efforts to keep medicine value-free actually replicated past eugenicists' faith in the objectivity of their own diagnoses. Such efforts could not succeed in eliminating the need for value judgments in medicine, but they could obscure and delegitimate the political and ethical analyses necessary if a culture is to make such value judgments wisely.

See also: Family Patterns; Fertility Rates; Pediatrics.


Adams, Mark B., ed. 1989. The Wellborn Science: Eugenics in Germany, France, Brazil and Russia. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Briggs, Laura. 2002. Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science, and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dikotter, Frank. 1998. "Race Culture: Recent Perspectives on the History of Eugenics." American Historical Review 103: 467478.

Kevles, Daniel. 1985. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kline, Wendy. 2001. Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom.

Berkeley: University of California Press.

Larson, Edward J. 1995. Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Meckel, Richard. 1990. Save the Babies: American Public Health Re-form and the Prevention of Infant Mortality. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Paul, Diane. 1996. Controlling Human Heredity 1865 to the Present. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

Pernick, Martin S. 1996. The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of "Defective" Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures since 1915. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pernick, Martin S. 1997. "Eugenics and Public Health in American History." American Journal of Public Health 87: 17671772.

Pernick, Martin S. 2002. "Taking Better Baby Contests Seriously." American Journal of Public Health 92: 707708.

Proctor, Robert N. 1988. Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Martin S. Pernick


views updated May 29 2018



Although ideas concerning the mutability of so-called natural human traits have been a part of Western civilization since antiquity, the science of eugenics emerged out of a particular nineteenth-century discourse that had its roots in social Darwinism and scientific racism. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, the English scientist Sir Francis Galton used statistical studies of British families to argue that heredity governed physical ability, talent, and character, and that reputable families were much more likely than ordinary families to produce superior offspring. He argued, moreover, that humans possessed the abilitythrough a system of selective breedingto guide the course of human evolution and ultimately improve the race. In 1883, Galton named his new science eugenics, which he derived from the Greek word eugenes, meaning good in birth or noble in heredity.

Following the publication of his famous cousin Charles Darwins On the Origin of Species in 1859, Sir Francis Galton began his inquiry into human heredity and the use of science to improve the human race. His first attempt to articulate his thoughts concerning the power of nature in determining human ability came in the form of a two-part article entitled Hereditary Talent and Character, which was published in a popular English magazine in 1865. In another article entitled, Hereditary Improvement, published in 1873, Galton established his method for improving the quality of the human race. He declared that his goal was to improve the race of man by a system which shall be perfectly in accordance with the moral sense of the present time (Gillham 2001, pp. 195197). To implement his plan, Galton envisioned the creation of a state agency that would gather, analyze, and distribute important pedigree data, accompanied by photographs and physical measurements, to all Englishmen interested in improving the race. This information would then be used to encourage the reproduction of those families perceived to have talent, and to discourage the reproduction of the masses of individuals perceived to be of inferior quality. Programs designed to encourage fit individuals to reproduce came to be known as positive or productive eugenics, and those programs designed to prohibit unfit individuals from reproducing came to be known as negative or selectionist eugenics.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, eugenics had become very popular among a broad array of Americans eager to remedy the social, cultural, and political upheaval caused by decades of massive industrialization, urbanization, and immigration. Men such as Charles B. Davenport and Harry Laughlin of the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, New York, embraced the new science. Women reformers such as Margaret Sanger also extolled the benefits of controlled breeding. In the 1920s, eugenicists created the American Eugenics Society, and the Eugenics Research Association. American eugenicists played a critical role in the passage of a 1924 immigration law known as the National Origins Act (or the Johnson-Reed Act), which greatly reduced the number of southern and eastern Europeans entering the United States. Harry Laughlin and other eugenicists wrote the Virginia sterilization law that became the focus of a 1927 Supreme Court decision in Buck v. Bell. The court voted to uphold forced sterilization, ultimately resulting in the sterilization of over 65,000 individuals throughout the United States. Eugenic ideology also made possible studies such as the controversial Tuskegee syphilis study, which focused on African American males and lasted forty years, from 1932 to 1972.

Eugenics was not limited to England and the United States. Societies across the globe embraced the new scientific thinking. In Germany, Alfred Ploetz and other scientists applied American eugenics to the new science of race hygiene, resulting in the creation of the Society for Racial Hygiene and the eventual Nazi extermination of millions of Jews, Gypsies, persons with disabilities, and other unfit individuals during World War II. Throughout the twentieth century, Scandinavian countries coerced large populations, consisting mostly of women welfare recipients, to be sterilized in an effort to reduce the number of genetic flaws among their offspring. In places such as Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, eugenics greatly influenced biological and cultural definitions of race and gender, as well as popular notions of national fitness. In Latin America, the state regulated reproduction through different legal restrictions imposed on marriage.

Eugenic thought has loomed large in the public discourse and social policy of numerous countries throughout the world since the late nineteenth century. It has assumed many forms; it has spanned the geopolitical spectrum; and although it fell into disfavor after World War II, it has experienced a resurgence in the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The advent of the Human Genome Project and other advances in genetic science has ushered in new concerns about the moral, ethical, and racial implications of selective breeding. In his recent bestselling book Freakonomics, the University of Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt caused a tremendous stir when he argued that abortion has been the most dominant factor in declining crime rates in the United States. Put simply, Levitt argued that unwanted children are more likely to become criminals, and that since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision fewer unwanted children have been born, resulting in a reduction in American crime rates. Critics have since charged Levitt with being a eugenicist who advocates the selective extermination of at-risk offspring. Although this was not his intent, Levitt has subsequently been forced to defend his abortion hypothesis in a number of popular media outlets. Clearly, and understandably, anything that even remotely smacks of eugenics continues to create a firestorm of controversy.

SEE ALSO Genocide; Nazism; Population Control; Racism


Gillham, Nicholas Wright. 2001. A Life of Sir Francis Galton: From African Exploration to the Birth of Eugenics. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Kevles. Daniel J. 1985. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. New York: Knopf.

Paul, Diane B. 1995. Controlling Human Heredity, 1865 to the Present. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

Proctor, Robert. 1988. Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Stepan, Nancy. 1991. The Hour of Eugenics: Race, Gender, and Nation in Latin America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Michael A. Rembis


views updated Jun 27 2018


Eugenics was an ideology that arose in the late nineteenth century to promote improving human heredity. It posed as a scientific enterprise, but combined ethical presuppositions and political action with research on human heredity. For example, there was no scientific way to determine what constituted "improvement." Progress and improvement, however, were the watchwords of many nineteenth-century intellectuals who often failed to recognize how such concepts can be culturally loaded. Indeed, many eugenicists supposed that health, strength, intellectual acuity, and even beauty were undeniably favorable traits and should be promoted in human reproduction. Another closely related ideology was that of Social Darwinism, which nevertheless has its own distinctive if interactive history. While Social Darwinism stressed natural selection and thus human competition, eugenics focussed on artificial selection. Though some eugenicists saw eugenics as a way to evade Social Darwinism, others were avid Social Darwinists.

Classic Eugenics

The basic idea of eugenics came to Francis Galton (1822–1911), the father of the eugenics movement, in the 1860s while reading Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. Galton claimed that Darwin's theory "made a marked epoch in my own mental development, as it did in human thought generally" (Gillham 2001, p. 155). In 1869 Galton published his most famous book, Hereditary Genius, in which he traced the lineages of prominent men in British society in order to demonstrate that not only physical characteristics but also mental and moral traits were hereditary. Galton coined the phrase "nature and nurture" to describe the conflict between biological determinism and environmental determinism, and came down decidedly on the side of nature.

Galton's views on heredity not only drove him to engage in scientific research, but also motivated him to propose conscious planning to help speed up human evolution. He stated, "What nature does blindly, slowly, and ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly and kindly" (Gillham 2001, p. 328). He favored measures to encourage the "most fit" people to reproduce. This is called positive eugenics. However, he also advocated negative eugenics: restricting the reproduction of those deemed "inferior." He thought inferior people should be branded enemies of the state and "forfeited all claims to kindness" if they procreated. Further, he believed that "inferior races always disappear before superior ones" (Gillham 2001, p. 197). Galton, like subsequent eugenicists, stressed human inequality and devalued the life of those considered inferior. When Galton died, he left a bequest to endow a chair in eugenics at the University of London, which was filled by Karl Pearson (1857–1936), his hand-picked successor as leader of the eugenics movement in Britain.

The eugenics movement blossomed in the 1890s and early twentieth century, partly fueled by fears of biological degeneration. By the 1890s many Darwinists were concerned that some of the improvements of modern civilization were a mixed blessing. Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919), the leading Darwinist in Germany, already warned in the 1870s that modern medical advances allowed those with weaker physical conditions to survive and reproduce, while in earlier ages they would have perished without leaving progeny. Other Darwinists also warned that the weakening of natural selection by modern institutions would bring biological decline. However, while embracing Darwinian principles, eugenicists did not want to abandon scientific, technological, and medical progress. Rather they sought to escape the negative consequences by consciously controlling human reproduction.

Simultaneous with this fear of biological decline, many psychiatrists by the 1890s were abandoning earlier optimistic beliefs that they could provide cures for many mental illnesses. Instead, they began viewing mental illnesses as often hereditary and beyond influence. Many psychiatrists began to push for control of human reproduction as the most effective means to prevent mental illness. August Forel (1848–1931), a famous psychiatrist at Burghölzi Clinic in Zurich, began promoting eugenics in the late nineteenth century, and he decisively influenced many other psychiatrists and physicians. One medical student in Zurich who imbibed eugenics from Forel was Alfred Ploetz (1860–1940), who in 1904 began editing the first eugenics journal in the world. The following year he founded the Gesellschaft für Rassenhygiene (Society for Race Hygiene), an organization dedicated to improving human heredity. He quickly recruited many leading scientists, psychiatrists, and physicians to the cause.

Eugenics in the Early Twentieth Century

In the ensuing two decades, eugenics organizations also formed in many other countries, not only in the United States and Europe, but also in Latin America and Asia. The prominent geneticist Charles Davenport (1866–1944) founded the Eugenics Record Office in Cold Springs Harbor, New York, which became one of the leading institutions in the United States promoting eugenics by compiling family medical histories. Many wealthy patrons, including Andrew Carnegie and John
D. Rockefeller, funded eugenics organizations.

Eugenics also stimulated the rise of birth control organizations. Indeed, one of the primary goals of the pioneers in the birth control movement—including Margaret Sanger (1879–1966) in the United States and Marie Stopes (1880–1958) in Britain—was to diminish the reproductive rates of those members of society they considered inferior. In 1919 Sanger stated, "More children from the fit; less from the unfit—that is the chief issue of birth control" (Paul 1995, p. 20). Nonetheless, most eugenicists opposed the easy availability of birth control, because they feared it would lead to a decline in natality rates among the upper and middle classes, which they wanted to increase. They wanted birth control, of course, but under the control of physicians making decisions in the interests of society, not freely available to individuals.

The eugenics movement had clout far greater than reflected by the small number of people in eugenics organizations, because its influence in the medical profession, especially among psychiatrists, was strong. In some countries the eugenics movement exerted enough influence to pass legislation aimed at restricting reproduction of individuals considered "defective." The first eugenics legislation in the world was a compulsory sterilization law passed by the state of Indiana in 1907. Other states followed suit, allowing doctors to sterilize patients who had various hereditary illnesses, especially mental illnesses. On the basis of these laws, from the 1920s to the 1950s, about 60,000 people were compulsorily sterilized in the United States. The Supreme Court upheld the right of states to sterilize those with hereditary illness in the Buck v. Bell case in 1927. Denmark was the first European country to enact a sterilization law in 1929, but it was voluntary until new legislation in 1934 made it compulsory in some cases.

Nazi Eugenics and Afterward

The Nazi regime passed the most sweeping eugenics measures in the world, because Adolf Hitler and other leading National Socialists were fanatical about trying to produce a healthy master race in Germany. In 1933 the Nazis passed a compulsory sterilization law that resulted in more than 350,000 sterilizations during their twelve years in power. In 1939 Hitler secretly ordered the beginning of a "euthanasia" campaign, killing 70,000 mentally handicapped Germans within two years. The Nazis also considered the mass killing of those of races they deemed inferior—especially Jews, but also Gypsies and others—part of their eugenics program, because they believed that this would improve the human race. Many German physicians, imbued with eugenics ideals, participated in the Nazi euthanasia program and the Holocaust.

Since the Nazi era many people have mistakenly associated eugenics with right-wing, reactionary politics. However, in its early phases, most eugenicists were progressive politically, and eugenics was popular in leftist circles. Most of the early German eugenicists were non-Marxian socialists or at least sympathetic with socialism. Many anarchists, such as Emma Goldman (1869–1940), promoted eugenics, as did most Fabian socialists in Britain. The Danish government that enacted the 1929 and 1934 sterilization laws was socialist. Many liberals and conservatives supported eugenics as well, so it cut across political lines.

Despite the movement's successes, many countries rejected attempts to enact eugenics legislation, and critics of eugenics arose, challenging its premises. The Catholic Church was the staunchest adversary of eugenics, and the pope issued an encyclical in 1930 opposing eugenics, especially measures such as compulsory sterilization. Catholics and some conservative Protestants recognized that eugenics contradicted the traditional Christian attitudes toward sexual morality, compassion for the handicapped, and human equality. However, most liberal Protestants jumped on the eugenics bandwagon, seeing it as a progressive, scientific movement. By the late 1920s many German Protestant leaders supported eugenic sterilization, and Protestants in the United States sponsored prizes for the best sermons on eugenics.

By the 1960s the eugenics movement seemed dead, and the term itself had negative connotations. Eugenics suffered from its association with Nazism, but this was only one factor. The decline of biological determinism in most scholarly fields, especially psychology and the social sciences, made people suspicious of the claims of eugenics. Also, the individualism of the 1960s, along with calls for reproductive autonomy, undermined the collectivist mentality of eugenics and its desire to control reproduction. As the abortion debate heated up in the 1970s, pro-life forces and pro-choice advocates both opposed eugenics, the former because they saw it as devaluing human life, and the latter because it violated reproductive freedom.

The New Eugenics

However, advances of medical genetics in the late twentieth century led to a "new eugenics." New reproductive technologies, including amniocentesis, ultrasound, in vitro fertilization, sperm banks, genetic engineering, and cloning, opened up new possibilities to control human fertility and heredity, especially because the human genome project has now mapped human DNA. Some proponents want to use these new technologies not only to rid the world of congenital disabilities, but also to produce "designer babies." Intense debates are raging in the early 2000s over "designer babies" and reproductive cloning, because most people consider these unethical interventions in reproduction. The legalization of abortion in most countries and the widespread practice of infanticide, even though illegal, are other factors fostering the new eugenics, because this allows parents the opportunity to decide whether they want a child with particular characteristics. The big difference between this new eugenics and the old eugenics is that in most countries the decision making about human heredity is in the hands of the individual (though physicians and society often apply pressure). However, in 1995 China passed a eugenics sterilization law, which was ostensibly voluntary; especially in light of that government's one-child policy, the pressure to abort fetuses deemed defective is great.


SEE ALSO Birth Control;Chinese Perspectives:Population;Galton, Francis;Health and Disease;Holocaust;Human Cloning;In Vitro Fertilization and Genetic Screening;Nazi Medicine;Race;Rights and Reproduction;Sanger, Margaret;Social Darwinism;Wells, H. G.


Broberg, Gunnar, and Nils Roll-Hansen, eds. (1996). Eugenics and the Welfare State: Sterilization Policy in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press. Five scholars examine eugenics sterilization policies in twentieth-century Scandinavia.

Buck v. Bell, 274 US 200 (1927). This was the Supreme Court decision allowing compulsory sterilization for eugenic purposes.

Dikötter, Frank. (1998). Imperfect Conceptions: Medical Knowledge, Birth Defects and Eugenics in China. New York: Columbia University Press. Discusses attitudes toward the disabled and eugenics in medical circles and its impact on governmental policy from the nineteenth century to the present.

Gillham, Nicholas Wright. (2001). A Life of Sir Francis Galton: From African Exploration to the Birth of Eugenics. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Kevles, Daniel J. (1985). In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. Berkeley: University of California Press. This is the best comprehensive survey of eugenics ideology and policy in the Anglo-American world.

Paul, Diane B. (1995). Controlling Human Heredity: 1865 to the Present. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press. The best brief survey of the eugenics movement, focussing primarily on the United States, but also touching on other countries.

Proctor, Robert. (1988). Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Proctor shows how the German medical community embraced eugenics and collaborated with Nazi eugenics policies, including sterilization and genocide.

Schneider, William H. (1990). Quality and Quantity: The Quest for Biological Regeneration in Twentieth-Century France. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Provides excellent coverage of the eugenics movement in France in the first half of the twentieth century.

Stepan, Nancy L. (1991). The Hour of Eugenics: Race, Gender and Nation in Latin America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Stepan shows that medical elites in Latin America embraced eugenics, just as their counterparts in Europe and the United States.

Weikart, Richard. (2004). From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Demonstrates how the German eugenics movement (and Hitler) used Darwinian principles to devalue the life of the disabled and those of non-European races.

Weindling, Paul. (1989). Health, Race and German Politics between National Unification and Nazism, 1870–1945. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Weindling shows that the collectivist and technocratic thrust of the German eugenics movement helped prepare the way for the authoritarian policies of the Nazi regime. This is the most detailed study of the German eugenics movement available in English.


views updated May 18 2018


Eugenics, a term derived from the Greek for well-born, is the science of improved breeding applied to humans. The eugenics movement was one of several initiatives that originated in the late nineteenth century, and which focused on the problem of the urban poor. The new Darwinian biology with its emphasis on evolutionary success and survival of the fittest was seen as providing an alternative ameliorative route to the efforts of the environmentalists, the sanitarians, and the public health movement. Fear of urban degeneration coincided with the beginning of the demographic transition with its sharply lowered fertility, especially marked in the upper socioeconomic classes.

The Early Movement

The eugenics movement began in Britain, but its appeal and its organization was international. It was particularly important in the United States and Germany. Francis Galton (1822–1911), explorer and amateur scientist, and cousin of English naturalist Charles Darwin, produced the founding documents, his Hereditary Genius of 1869 and Natural Inheritance of 1889. It was nature, not nurture, he claimed, that determined that eminent men were usually the sons of eminent fathers. The statistical methods he suggested–the normal curve, correlation, and regression–were developed by his admirer, the statistician Karl Pearson (1857–1936), working at University College, London, to measure the effect of heredity. Their work lent scientific support to the idea that class differentials represented levels of inherited natural ability and of civic worth. In this intellectual climate, the so-called professional model of class structure based on the occupation of male breadwinners, proposed by statistician William Farr (1807–1883) in 1851, reached its fully developed form in the British Census of 1911. It put the professional and intellectual groups in Class I, skilled labor in Class III, and unskilled and casual labor in Class V, with fill-in classes between. This classification scheme encouraged a linear view of society with the professional class as the most highly evolved. If indeed ability was inherited, and if classes corresponded to biological subtypes as Galton supposed, the differential decline in fertility in Class I was a national catastrophe. It was a catastrophe that the eugenists sought to publicize and to remedy.

As primary education became compulsory and the poorest and most deprived began to enter the new elementary schools in the last quarter of the century, children who could not keep up academically came to be seen as a compelling problem. Mary Dendy, secretary of the Lancashire and Cheshire Association for the Permanent Care of the Feebleminded, and Ellen Pinsent, chair of the Special Schools Subcommittee of the Birmingham Education Committee, founded the National Association for Promoting the Welfare of the Feebleminded in 1896. Their "welfare" entailed segregation and control of the children they selected as feebleminded for the rest of their lives starting in 1902 on a farm at Sandlebridge in Cheshire. Seen in Galtonian terms, feeblemindedness was inherited: Segregation would prevent its propagation.

The eugenics movement began in earnest after the turn of the twentieth century, taking additional impetus from the diffusion of Mendelian theory (named after Austrian botanist Gregor Mendel) after 1901. The Eugenics Education Society's (1907) founding drive was started by Sybil Gotto, another Galton admirer, then a young widow interested in social problems. The society took the now elderly Galton as its figurehead. It was mainly a propaganda group rather than a scientific society, but its projects included teaching the science of heredity and research on the inherited nature and relationships of the urban poor–what it called its Pauper Pedigree Project, a pauper being the term for someone receiving relief under the poor law. Its methodology was typically that of the pedigree, an easily understood and convincing demonstration of heredity. It focused on the elevated fecundity of the pauper class, in which, it alleged, every family, in their terms, was studded with paupers, the impoverished, inebriates, criminals, and the feebleminded. The Royal Commission on the Care and Control of the Feeble Minded of 1909, strongly supported by the Society, led to the segregationist Mental Deficiency Act (1914). Eugenists pointed to this Act as their proudest success.

Eugenics in the United States

In the United States, eugenics was first fostered by the American Breeders' Association (founded in 1903, renamed the American Genetic Association in 1914), in which a subcommittee concerned itself with human heredity, supporting itself scientifically on Mendelism and on the collection of pedigrees. Interestingly, the stockbreeders generally were uninterested in Mendelism; it was impossible to use it in pursuing practical, quantitative objectives, such as enhanced egg production and milk yield, or even improving the racing performance of thoroughbreds. Charles B. Davenport (1866–1944), Harvard Professor of Zoology and Director of the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, New York, preached Galton and eugenics to his Harvard students. In Heredity in Relation to Eugenics (1911), he applied Mendelism to the inheritance of psychological traits such as memory, temperament, general bodily energy, and criminality as well as intelligence. Many of his exemplary pedigrees came from psychologist Henry H. Goddard, superintendent of the Training School for Defectives, Vineland, New Jersey. Low mental acumen was a unit character determined by Davenport to be a recessive condition due to the absence of a factor for intelligence. If the factor was absent in both parents, it would be absent in the children. Davenport's nominee as superintendent of the Eugenics Record Office was Harry H. Laughlin, an agriculturalist from Iowa who trained as a biologist specializing in heredity under Davenport at Cold Spring Harbor. As superintendent, he organized a collection of pedigrees mainly of poor families showing what he claimed to be inherited mental and social problems, and supported the campaign for eugenic sterilization. The first state sterilization law was passed in Indiana in 1907, and by 1917, 15 other states had legalized the sterilization of a number of different types of people deemed to be "defective." In 1923, an American Eugenics Society was formed, led by the Yale economist Irving Fisher; it soon had 28 state committees. But after World War I, the "vulgar Mendelism" of the early pedigrees was increasingly rejected by scientists. In the 1930s, the Eugenics Record Office began to lose its funding and eventually closed in 1939. Sterilization on eugenic grounds, however, continued. The numbers picked up after 1930 and the practice continued into the 1970s in the United States and Canada, until the laws permitting it were repealed one by one. Approximately 60,000 sterilizations took place under this system, usually of the poor, and often of "wayward girls," deemed "moral imbeciles" because they had given birth to a child out of wedlock. Science, in fact, mainly supplied only the rhetoric for eugenics. It was as much a political as a scientific movement, and its greatest success in the United States had been in persuading Congress in 1924 to limit immigration from the supposedly inferior populations of southern and eastern Europe.

Eugenics in Europe

In Britain, the Eugenics Society, as it was now called, led a campaign to legalize eugenic sterilization, from about 1930. But sterilization, even voluntary sterilization, was never legalized there. The Society's focus on controlling the "disturbing" fertility of the urban poor led to support for birth control clinics, though not for their rather quarrelsome advocate, Marie Stopes, even though she was an enthusiastic eugenist herself. It was also involved in setting up the International Union for the Scientific Investigation of Population Problems (IUSIPP), following a congress organized in Geneva in 1927 by Stopes's American counterpart, birth control leader Margaret Sanger (1879–1966). The congress was attended by leading eugenists from every country in which there was an organized movement. The first president of IUSIPP was American population ecologist and geneticist Raymond Pearl (1879–1940) of Johns Hopkins University, with Sir Bernard Mallet (1859–1932), retired Registrar-General of Britain, of the British Eugenics Society, as vice-president and treasurer. Its British component was the British Population Society, the members of which were all active in the Eugenics Society; IUSIPP's announcements and proceedings appeared in the Society's publication, the Eugenics Re-view. In 1936, another organization, the Population Investigation Committee was set up by the Eugenics Society as an autonomous joint committee, with the stated intention of developing a questionnaire on fertility. The project was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II, but the Committee survived, initially kept going by a series of grants from the Society. Its activities increasingly defined mainstream demography.

The country in which eugenics was both the most highly developed, and the most destructive, was Germany. Its earliest advocate was Wilhelm Schallmeyer (1857–1919), Darwinist, psychiatrist, and author of a thesis on the Pressing Problem of the Physical Degeneration of Civilised Man (1891). Like the British and American eugenists, he pointed to the burden on the state of caring for the "pauper idiot" who could produce nothing for society. Alfred Ploetz (1860–1940), a German physician, started the world's first eugenic society in 1905. Its focus was on what he termed the damage to the Caucasian race done by the protection of its weakest members. From the start it was envisaged as part of an international movement, and in 1912, the first Eugenics Congress met in London to hear papers by a mix of scientists, statisticians, social reformers and political activists. The Permanent International Eugenics Committee was an outcome of the Congress. Interrupted by World War I, there were two further international congresses, both held in United States, in 1921 and 1932.

German eugenicists soon left behind the simplistic pedigree methods of the British and the Americans. The Stuttgart statistician Wilhelm Weinberg took the lead in mathematizing Mendelism, a complex system of calculations taken up first by eugenists such as Fritz Lenz, a geneticist, and by the Munich psychiatrist Ernst Rüdin who applied it to the inheritance of schizophrenia. But, from the early 1920s, Mendelism was abandoned for Rüdin's more politically persuasive method, which he called empirical prognosis. A collection of data on the prevalence of a spectrum of different abnormalities in the families of schizophrenics could be used to point to the need for a sterilization program. The Nazi government in 1933 enacted the sterilization law, planned by Rüdin and modeled on laws in the United States, as soon as it came to power. Sterilization became compulsory for patients and families with several types of mental diseases and disabilities. Roughly 600,000 sterilizations took place. Racism was not at first a necessary part of this hereditarian program, but with state support, it expanded into systematic euthanasia, first for the inhabitants of mental hospitals, then for people with other chronic diseases, and finally for Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, Communists, and Slavs. The Nazis thus managed to justify the extermination of several million of their own citizens. After World War II ended, the Nuremberg tribunal was unable to indict anyone for forced sterilization. The German law, it was pointed out, derived from American laws and the practice of forced sterilization was still legal in the United States.

Post-World War II Eugenics

In the 1930s, the British Eugenics Society endured attacks on its science and its ideology by left-wing geneticists. The attackers, Lancelot Hogben (1895–1975) of the London School of Economics, and J. B. S. Haldane (1892–1964) of University College, London, were offended by the eugenists' conflation of social class and social worth, and their rejection of the influence of environment. Hogben placed his hopes on genetic linkage and on blood groups as a genetic marker: If a trait is linked to a blood group, he felt, it must be truly biological, and not environmentally determined. The psychiatrist Lionel Penrose (1898–1972) attacked the association of feeblemindedness with an inherited pauper class. After World War II, political changes in Britain eroded the class system. Its links to differential fertility and pauperism became less acceptable with the end of the poor law and the coming of the welfare state. The image of eugenics also suffered from its association with Naziism. Under Penrose, Annals of Eugenics became Annals of Human Genetics in 1954. In 1968, the Eugenics Review closed, and the Society turned to third world overpopulation and fertility in the Journal of Biosocial Science. In the United States, the Population Council, founded in 1952, also focused on the third world and its problems. The Council's first executive officer was the Wall Street banker Frederick Osborn (1889–1981), who had been president of the American Eugenics Society from 1946 to 1952; the offices of the Population Council and the Eugenics Society were initially at the same address. During the 1970s, eugenic sterilization of poor young women tailed off. More modern genetic counseling focused not on poverty and fertility, but on genetic disease. Amniocentesis was not expected to identify the social problem group, as the erstwhile pauper class was now called.

In 1989 the British Eugenics Society became the Galton Institute. The Institute has recently been interested in exploring its own past, a history of serious importance since the eugenic problematic has molded present day human genetics and population studies.

See also: Demography, History of; Galton, Francis; Pearl, Raymond; Quality of Population; Reproductive Technologies: Ethical Issues; Sanger, Margaret.


Broberg, Gunner, and Nils Roll-Hansen. 1996. Eugenics and the Welfare State: Sterilization Policy in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland. East Lansing: Michigan University Press.

Burleigh, Michael. 1994. Death and Deliverance: Euthanasia in Germany 1900–1945. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

Kevles, Daniel J. 1985. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mazumdar, Pauline M.H. 1992. Eugenics, Human Genetics and Human Failings: the Eugenics Society, its Sources and its Critics in Britain. London: Routledge.

Reilly, Philip R. 1991. The Surgical Solution: A History of Involuntary Sterilization in the United States. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Schneider, William H. 1990. Quality and Quantity: The Quest for Biological Regeneration in Twentieth Century France. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

Soloway, Richard A. 1990. Demography and Degeneration: Eugenics and the Declining Birthrate in Twentieth Century Britain. University of North Carolina Press.

Stepan, Nancy Leys. 1991. The Hour of Eugenics: Race, Gender and Nation in Latin America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Thomson, Mathew. 1998. The Problem of Mental Deficiency: Eugenics, Demography and Social Policy in Britain, c. 1870–1959. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Pauline M. H. Mazumdar


views updated May 29 2018

eugenics The founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, identified it as ‘the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally’. Galton was Charles Darwin's cousin and believed that human evolution could be consciously directed, by using biometry to explain the mechanisms of inheritance that would prescribe new rules for human reproduction. Eugenics, therefore, was both a theoretical system and a social cause, which aimed to bring about social and biological improvement of the human race through the application of the study of heredity to human affairs.

Galton developed probabilistic statistics by inventing the correlation coefficient to analyse heredity — his main interest in the 1870s to 1890s. The idea that heredity could be understood through statistical analysis alone, however, was challenged when the works of the Austrian monk, Gregor Mendel, were discovered at the end of the nineteenth century. In the 1860s Mendel had outlined the ‘law’ of biological inheritance of positive and recessive characteristics. Something of an intellectual rift subsequently developed between biometric and Mendelian research into heredity, symbolized above all by the hostility of Galton's disciple, Karl Pearson, to Mendelianism. Pearson, who held the first Galtonian Chair of Biometry at University College London, refused to join the Eugenics Education Society, founded in Britain in 1907 (and later known as the Eugenics Society), because he believed that they remained too sympathetic to Mendelian research into heredity. In fact the Eugenics Society tried to turn Galton's creed of human racial improvement into a reality by supporting both Mendelian and biometric research into heredity and helping others to develop a method which synthesized both theories, ‘pedigree analysis’ — and it was renamed the Galton Society after World War II.

Following the establishment of the Eugenics Education Society, enthusiasm for eugenics crossed national boundaries and it promoted an international discourse on the relationship between the quality and quantity of population.

Eugenists believed that modern economies encouraged undesirable — ‘dysgenic’ — differential birth rates by facilitating the survival of ‘unfit’ mental and moral defectives, the chronic sick, residual idlers, recidivist criminals, and the unemployable. The productive had to bear ever greater tax burdens in order to support the growing numbers of degenerates, and higher fiscal exactions naturally persuaded the prudent middle classes to go in for practices of family limitation. Declining fertility amongst the professional and middle classes, rising birth rates amongst the working classes, and massive reproductive surges amongst the ‘lumpenproletariat’ — the unemployed and unemployable — had to be corrected in order to avoid race suicide.

The self-appointed mission of eugenics was to protect ‘the unborn’ through a programme of selective breeding. Positive eugenics aimed to achieve racial improvement by encouraging the fit to breed, while the goal of negative eugenics was to prevent breeding amongst the unfit. In Britain, Europe, and the US, eugenic reformers advocated marriage regulation, sequestration of the mentally deficient, and sterilization — voluntary or compulsory — of the unfit. Methods for controlling human reproduction and directing demographic change were applied, however, in different ways in different national contexts.

Before World War I eugenists in Britain concentrated on obtaining the sequestration of the ‘feebleminded’, which included the mentally retarded, alcoholics, and women who had more than one illegitimate pregnancy. British eugenists also advocated voluntary and compulsory sterilization for various social categories, and some flirted with the idea of the ‘lethal chamber’ for ridding society of its unwanted; this idea had its most profound expression in Germany in the inter-war period. In Germany and elsewhere, however, negative eugenics can be seen to have accommodated rather than invented a set of political goals whose origins had a much broader cultural base.

Eugenism combined with other ideological cults in Germany during the 1930s and 40s to produce a murderous science which legitimated the ‘final solution’ implemented under the Third Reich. When Hitler held a meeting, on August 20 1942, to appoint Otto–Georg Thierack as Reich Justice Minister and Roland Freisler as President of the ‘People's Court’, he raged about the need to reconstruct the criminal justice system. He vented a tirade about the dysgenic effects of war which left only the poorest stock to breed for the future. The justice system had to be used to re-balance the equation by killing off the ‘negative’ elements of the population. Punishment was subsequently used to cleanse the ‘body of the race’ of its undesirable members. Criminals — who, according to the Führer, included the frivolous and the irritable — were not, of course, the only undesirables who were being referred to. Cleansing meant targeting Jews, Gypsies, the mentally ill, and political dissenters for elimination. The relationship between eugenics, social Darwinism, racial hygiene, and the Nazi policies of elimination is highly complex and fiercely debated by historians. Nazi population policy could be seen as a mixture of science and pseudo-science which informed but did not solely determine the murderous ideology of Fascism. However, although eugenics may not have led directly to the construction of the Final Solution, it played a significant role in providing it with a rationalist authority. It provided similar legitimate authority to the debate about population quality elsewhere.

Eugenics won enthusiastic disciples during the Progressive Era in the US, appealing to both the conservationist and the technocratic ideas of the movement. Eugenics was embraced by a number of reform movements, which espoused the ideas of Progressivism. Sex educationalists in the social hygiene movement believed that ‘eugenics will destroy that sentimentalism which leads a woman deliberately to marry a man who is absolutely unworthy of her and can only bring disease, degradation and death.’ Margaret Sanger supported her leadership of the birth control movement with eugenic arguments about stemming the tide of the reproduction of the unfit. In the US and elsewhere, however, other eugenists were extremely cautious about the question of birth control. Some were concerned that those whom they wanted to breed actually used contraception most — the middle class and the economically prudent. In Britain the Eugenics Education Society were hostile to the activities of the Neo-Malthusian League because they feared that the widespread availability of contraception would simply enhance the decline of the middle-class birth rate, which was already fearfully low.

In the US eugenics successfully influenced three other policy areas: marriage regulation, sterilization of the unfit, and immigration restriction. By 1914 thirty states passed laws preventing marriage of the mentally handicapped and the insane, together with laws restricting marriage between people suffering a venereal disease, or between those from various categories of ‘feebleminded’. The first state sterilization law was passed in Indiana in 1907, and by 1917 fifteen other states had followed suit. Sterilization was legal for habitual criminals plus various categories of the insane, mentally handicapped, and epileptic. Eugenics in the US also provided ideological justifications for immigration restriction and the development of IQ testing.

By the inter-war years eugenics in Britain focused on the declining birth rate, the changing demographic structure of the population, family allowances and family tax relief, voluntary sterilization, popularizing the idea of the eugenic marriage, and raising a eugenic consciousness throughout society. The British biologist, Julian Huxley, and the long-serving secretary of the Eugenics Education Society in the 1920s and 30s, C. P. Blacker, suggested that eugenics should become a form of social consciousness, which elevated the needs of the community above those of the individual, thereby facilitating the creation of a planned Utopian society.

‘Reform’ eugenics in Britain and Europe in the inter-war period claimed that social systems and philosophies based upon individualism, such as capitalism and nationalism, were dysgenic because rigid social stratification failed to maximize the reproduction of hereditary talents, which were distributed throughout all social divisions. Capitalism, for example, failed to provide favourable conditions for the most able amongst the labouring classes to rise to higher social and economic status and reproduce their hereditary endowments. Equally, the least able in all classes were not prevented from reproducing their inadequacies in their offspring. In place of the class system, a eugenic utopia would provide an equalized environment maximizing the possibility for the expression of desirable genetic qualities. Improvement of the social environment was crucial if a eugenically sound society was to be achieved.

While concern over the differential birth rate remained central amongst eugenic thinkers, the demographic debate broadened to include discussions of the changing age structure of the population. The transformation of the demographic structure of modern industrial societies, with smaller productive populations supporting expanding numbers of ageing, chronically sick, and unproductive dependants, led eugenists in Britain and Europe to advocate the introduction of family allowances and tax relief to encourage large families amongst both the working and the middle classes in order to check these trends. The broadening of the demographic debate was accompanied by the modernization of discussions about sterilization. The eugenic campaign for voluntary sterilization in Britain and elsewhere in Europe now suggested that the people most likely to be enthusiastic about legal voluntary sterilization would be working-class mothers with no other access to reliable birth control.

Eugenism in this period became a loose synthesis of widely divergent ideologies. The Eugenics Review reflected the broad cross-section of eugenic interpretations of demography and degeneration. British eugenists were enthusiastic about the first sterilization laws set up in Germany in 1933, admired the Nazi policy of family allowance and tax relief, which assisted ‘Aryan’ early marriage and large families, and approved of the courage of the new regime in introducing compulsory sterilization of the mentally defective. However, British eugenists were at pains to point out the differences between German and British proposals for legal sterilization. The British Eugenics Society wanted a law based on consent, with legal protection for the ‘liberty of the individual’. Blacker, in particular, perceived the need, early on, publicly to separate the identity of British from German eugenics, although he was privately aware of the members of the Society who wholeheartedly approved of the German measures.

In Britain, Europe, and the US, the popular appeal and intellectual legitimacy of eugenics declined after World War II following revelations of the mass murder perpetrated by the Third Reich. Nevertheless, eugenic ideology did continue to influence post-war ideas about the social applications of medicine. Enthusiastic supporters of social medicine, for example, believed that a form of whole-person clinical practice should mix prevention and cure by synthesizing an understanding of the effects of environment and endowment upon physiological variability. In this context doctors could use knowledge of susceptibilities to advise a pattern of life and a policy of reproduction for their patients which would prevent the onset of disease either in themselves or their offspring. Such ideas eventually provided a blueprint for genetic counselling.

The development of molecular biology and embryology since World War II have greatly enhanced the possibilities of genetically engineering future populations. While genetic counselling has currently been limited to providing prospective parents with advice about known hereditary diseases, such as Huntington's Chorea and Cystic Fibrosis, there has been popular speculation about the possibility of ‘designing’ the babies of the future. Tests for fetal gender have already resulted in controversial abortion practices amongst communities throughout the world who place a higher cultural value on a male than a female life.

For the first three decades after World War II, genetics limited its investigations largely to the hereditary nature of physiological diseases and characteristics. By contrast, contemporary molecular biology is once again beginning to cross into the social and psychological realm by claiming to be able to identify the genetic source of various forms of behaviour. The determinants of human behaviour, however, continue to be highly disputed amongst social, psychological, and biological scientists, and what has been identified in the Western media as the ‘New Eugenics’ is once again at the forefront of public debate. Some public commentators from both the scientific and lay communities have speculated that this debate is likely to become one of the most urgent in the post-industrial societies of the twenty-first century.

Dorothy Porter


Evans, R. (1997). In Search of Social Darwinism. The histiography of the concept. In Medicine and modernity. Public health and medical care in nineteenth and twentieth century Germany, (ed. M. Berg and G. Cocks). Cambridge University Press.
Kevles, D. (1985). In the name of Eugenics. Genetics and the uses of human heredity. Knopf, New York.
Mazumdar, P. M. H. (1992). Eugenics, genetics and human failings. Routledge, London.
Soloway, R. (1990). Demography and degeneration. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.

See also genocide; heredity; sterilization.


views updated Jun 11 2018


While the idea of improving humans through selective breeding is at least as old as the ancient Greeks, it gained widespread prominence after 1869. In 1883, Sir Francis Galton coined the word "eugenics," from the Greek word eugenes, meaning "well-born" or "hereditarily endowed with noble qualities," to describe this new science of directed human evolution. Galton's work, and the subsequent rediscovery of Gregor Mendel's genetic studies, convinced many scientists and social reformers that eugenic control over heredity could improve human life.

Galton's ideas swept America during the Progressive Era of the early twentieth century. At that time, many scientists and laypeople believed that eugenics could facilitate social progress by eradicating problems ranging from alcoholism and prostitution to poverty and disease. What better way to prevent such misfortunes, eugenicists asked, than to prevent the birth of people genetically susceptible to them? Eugenics seemed to offer an efficient and humane solution to society's ills. Unfounded hope in this imperfect science, however, ultimately contributed to repressive social policies, including marriage and immigration restriction, forced sterilization, segregation, and, in the case of Nazi Germany, euthanasia ("mercy killing") and genocide, all in the name of human betterment.

British Origins

Charles Darwin's theories of evolution by natural selection rocked the scientific world in 1859, and prompted his cousin, Galton, to study human evolution. Galton's first book, Hereditary Genius (1869), analyzed famous European families and concluded that "genius," which he defined as the ability to succeed in life, tended to run in families. Galton believed that individuals inherited the traits that destined them to either success or failure. Thus, success resulted from biology, not from the wealth or poverty of a person's background, and controlled breeding might permanently improve the human race.

Galton hoped to speed and direct human evolution. Writing in Inquiries into the Human Faculty and Its Development (1883), Galton defined eugenics as "the science of improving stock to give the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had." Familiar with farmers' achievements in breeding more-valuable plants and animals, Galton believed that such methods were "equally applicable to men, brutes, and plants."

Galton identified those fit folk who should have children and stigmatized those he deemed unfit for parenthood. He also believed then-accepted notions of "racial" superiority and inferiority, had more to do with class and cultural prejudice than with biological difference. Galton assumed that wealthy people like himself were fit, whereas poor folk were unfit. Northern European "white" people stood atop the evolutionary scale of fitness, followed by "whites" from southeast Europe, Asians, Native Americans, Africans, and Australian Aborigines.

Positive and Negative Eugenics

Galton identified positive and negative eugenics as the two basic methods to improve humanity. Positive eugenics used education, tax incentives, and childbirth stipends to encourage procreation among fit people. Education would convince fit parents to have more children, out of a desire to increase the common good. Lower taxes on larger families and the provision of a small birth payment for each "eugenic" child would provide further inducements. Conversely, eugenically educated but unfit people would selflessly forgo procreation, to prevent the propagation of their hereditary "taint." Believing that neither altruism nor self-interest would be enough to control the unfit, however, many eugenicists also advocated negative eugenics.

Negative eugenics sought to limit procreation through marriage restriction, segregation, sexual sterilization, and, in its most extreme form, euthanasia. In an attempt to decrease procreation among the "unfit," laws prohibited marriage to people with diseases, or other conditions believed to be hereditary. Similar restrictions banned marriage between people of different races, in order to prevent miscegenation . Popular in the United States, antimiscegenation laws sought to use science to legitimize racial prejudice. Since marriage restriction failed to stop extramarital procreation, eugenicists argued for more intrusive interventions.

Many of these more intrusive interventions relied upon segregation. For example, individuals judged unfit might be segregated in institutions such as insane asylums, tuberculosis sanatoriums, and homes for the so-called feebleminded or mentally retarded. Isolated from "normal" society, these people were also segregated by sex within the institution to prevent procreation. Segregation through incarceration, however, proved too costly to be applied to all but the most severely handicapped.

Compulsory sexual sterilization of those individuals deemed "feeble-minded" or "slow" promised eugenic and economic benefits for society. Once sterilized, such individuals posed no eugenic risk; sexual intercourse would never result in pregnancy. Sterilized individuals could therefore return to society and work, rather than remaining an economic "burden" in an institution. Many social reformers argued that compulsory sterilization was more humane than locking people away during their childbearing years.

In the case of individuals afflicted with gross physical or mental abnormalities, the most radical eugenic intervention was proposed: euthanasia. While many eugenicists theorized about euthanasia, very few seriously considered it as a real possibility. This would change with the advent of Nazi eugenics in Germany.

Mendelian Inheritance, Intelligence Testing, and American Eugenics

Galton's eugenic ideas found fertile ground in America after 1900, when scientists rediscovered Mendel's findings regarding the inheritance of physical traits in pea plants. Mendel's notions of "dominant" and "recessive" genetic traits, easily identified in "lower" organisms such as plants and animals, convinced people that human eugenic improvement was possible. Scientists assumed that even complex human traits such as intelligence and behavior behaved as simple genetic "unit characters," such as height or color in peas.

The advent of intelligence testing in the 1900s provided a new way to quantify Galton's notion of genius. American eugenicists assessed an individual's eugenic worth by combining his intelligence quotient (IQ) with a Galtonian study of the family pedigree. Psychologist Henry Herbert Goddard published one famous study, The Kallikak Family, in 1912. Goddard traced two family lines that originated with a common male ancestor, whom he called Martin Kallikak (from the Greek words for beautiful [kalos ] and bad [kakos ]). One branch appeared healthy and eugenic, descended from Martin's marriage to a "respectable" woman. The second branch was composed of "Defective degenerates" (alcoholics, criminals, prostitutes, and particularly the mentally "feebleminded") born of Martin's dalliances with a "feebleminded" tavern mistress. Goddard thus "proved" the inheritance of feeblemindedness, and its social cost.

Convinced that "feeblemindedness" and other complex antisocial behaviors behaved like simple Mendelian traits, eugenicists lobbied for compulsory sterilization laws. Between 1907 and the mid-1930s, such laws were adopted by thirty-two American states. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld these laws in 1927, when Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled that, "the principle that sustains compulsory vaccination of schoolchildren is broad enough to cover the cutting of the fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough." "Feebleminded" individuals were prominent among the more than 60,000 individuals sterilized in the United States under eugenic sterilization laws between 1927 and 1979.

Nazi Eugenics

Eugenics is commonly associated with the Nazi racial hygiene program that began in 1933 and ended in May 1945, with Germany's defeat near the end of World War II. Although the German eugenics movement existed long before the Nazis came to power, scholars have shown that Nazi eugenicists were inspired by American eugenic studies and sterilization, as well as their antimiscegenation and immigration restriction laws.

Goddard's Kallikak study was well respected among German eugenicists who, like American eugenicists, emphasized genetics as the basis of human differences. German racial hygienists also praised the American eugenicist Madison Grant's racist book, The Passing of the Great Race, which Adolf Hitler referred to as his "Bible." The 1933 Nazi "Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Progeny," relied on American examples, especially the model law drafted by American eugenicist Harry Hamilton Laughlin. In 1936 the University of Heidelberg awarded Laughlin an honorary degree for his contributions to "racial hygiene." Laughlin's degree was ordered and signed by Hitler.

The Nazis instituted state-supported positive eugenics programs that encouraged "racially fit" women to reproduce, as well as a massive negative eugenics program that included euthanasia. Ultimately, the Nazis sterilized about 400,000 people and euthanized another 70,000 individuals that were judged to be feebleminded or otherwise unfit. The euthanasia program fore-shadowed the extermination of six million Jewish victims, along with millions of others, notably Gypsies and homosexuals, in the Holocaust.

Demise of Eugenics

Early on, some scientists objected to the eugenicists' insistence that heredity overwhelmed environmental influences in shaping human life. Others objected to the eugenicists' methodologies, noting that family studies often relied on hearsay evidence and biased observation rather than direct, quantifiable, empirical measurements. Others challenged the eugenicists' reliance on phenotypic traits such as body form to diagnose presumed underlying genetic causes. Developments in genetics increasingly undermined this simplistic reasoning from phenotype to genotype.

Instead, genetic studies increasingly revealed the complex nature of most human phenotypic traits. Human traits rarely result from the action of single gene pairs, and expression depends on complex environmental influences. Moreover, many genes induce pleiotropic effects: that is, a single gene may influence more than one phenotypic characteristic. If multiple genes cause single traits, or if single genes are involved in many effects, then any attempt to "breed out" traits becomes virtually impossible. Moreover, if, as most eugenicists believed, negative traits are recessive factors in single-gene disorders, then most "bad" genes are harbored in apparently normal, heterozygous carriers. The Hardy-Weinberg theorem, formulated in 1908, made it clear that eugenic selection directed solely against affected individuals would barely reduce the incidence of a trait in the larger population. To decrease such defects by half would require forty generations (1,000 years) of perfect negative eugenics.

The Hardy-Weinberg theorem alone, unfortunately, did not dissuade most geneticists from eugenics. Many continued to believe, as geneticist Herbert Spencer Jennings wrote in 1930, that preventing the "propagation of even one congenitally defective individual puts a period to at least one line of operation of this devil. To fail to do at least so much would be a crime." Nevertheless, the most bigoted aspects of eugenics dwindled after 1946, as scientists recoiled from the horrors of Nazi atrocities.

The dream of improving human life through genetic intervention remains with us today. While genetic knowledge and technology have changed since the Holocaust, the cultural and political context surrounding the pursuit of genetic improvement has undergone even greater transformations. The goal of present genetic intervention is not group improvement, but individual therapy. Modern conceptions of individual, patient, and human rights reduce the risk of abuses committed in the name of eugenics. While negative eugenics has been largely eliminated as neither possible nor socially acceptable, positive eugenics are still considered desirable among some people who propose genetic engineering for the development of children with superior traits. The ethical issues surrounding genetic engineering and cloning are still debated in light of the history of the eugenics movement.

see also Cloning: Ethical Issues; Gene Therapy: Ethical Issues; Hardy-Weinberg Equilibrium; Inheritance Patterns; Reproductive Technology: Ethical Issues.

Gregory Michael Dorr


Gould, Stephen J. The Mismeasure of Man, revised and expanded ed. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1996.

Kevles, Daniel J. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. NewYork: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.

Kuhl, Stefan. The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Paul, Diane B. Controlling Human Heredity, 1865 to the Present. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1995.

. The Politics of Heredity: Essays on Eugenics, Biomedicine, and the Nature-Nurture Debate. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

Pernick, Martin. The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of Defective Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures since 1915. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Proctor, Robert. Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis. Cambridge, MA: HarvardUniversity Press, 1988.

Reilly, Philip R. The Surgical Solution: A History of Involuntary Sterilization in the United States. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

Selden, Steven. Inheriting Shame: The Story of Eugenics and Racism in America. NewYork: Teachers College Press, 1999.

Internet Resource

"Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement." <>.


views updated Jun 08 2018


Eugenics was defined in 1904 by Sir Francis Galton (1822–1911), who coined the word, as "the science which deals with all the influences that improve and develop the inborn qualities for a race" (Nature [1904] 70:82). From this innocuous beginning, the eugenics movement gave support to some of the twentieth century's most frightening decisions about population, including many thousands of forced sterilizations in the United States and Nazi Germany, and the deaths of thousands of persons deemed too inferior to be allowed to live. At the height of its influence in the period between the two world wars, it had few enemies: official Catholicism and the extreme left were almost alone in their opposition. The movement lost its political support after World War II; sterilization legislation was repealed in the 1960s and 1970s. However, a shadow of the old eugenics still persists in the early twenty-first century in the form of genetic counseling of individuals at risk and also in efforts at population control in underdeveloped countries.

The eugenics movement proper began in the early twentieth century with the founding of eugenics societies in various countries. But for decades before that, there had been a pervasive feeling that humanity and human society were degenerating. In art and literature as well as science, degeneration was the focus of discussion. In Germany Max Nordau (1849–1923) argued that all modern art was a product of disease, and in Italy Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909) claimed to recognize criminal types by their degenerate physiognomy. From the mid-nineteenth century on, "meliorist" groups seeking to improve society—in Britain, the Social Science Association (1857), Charity Organisation Society (1869), the Society for the Study and Cure of Inebriety (1884), The National Association for the Care of the Feeble-Minded (1896), and the Moral Education League (1898)—concerned themselves with the minds and bodies of the urban poor and the influence of poisons such as city life, syphilis, and alcoholism. All but the Society for the Study and Cure of Inebriety had many women members.

In the last decades of the century, birthrates began to fall: steeply among the upper classes, but far less steeply among the so-called residuum, the slum-dwellers of the industrial cities. As early as 1865 Sir Francis Galton (1822–1911), a cousin of Charles Darwin (1809–1882), had suggested that talent and character were hereditary; in 1869 his Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences appeared. If talent was hereditary, and the talented were failing to reproduce, society was doomed. The addition of Mendelian theory around 1900 gave scientific support to the fears of the upper classes that social value was hereditary and could die out.

The first eugenics society, the German Racial Hygiene Society, was founded in 1905, and the Eugenics Education Society of Britain in 1907. In the United States, legislation to permit sterilization of "undesirables" antedated the eugenics movement. The American Breeders Association began in 1903 and included a section on eugenics. The Eugenics Record Office was founded the same year. The French Eugenics Society was set up in 1912. These four represent a cross-section of the early movement, with a basic program in common, and each with some national elements. Other groups came to be set up later, but these formed the backbone of the movement. All looked to Galton as their inspiration, used his new word eugenics, and subscribed to his definition.

The German Racial Hygiene Society incorporated Aryanism, with its racist mythology, and social hygiene, in the persons of Wilhelm Ploetz (1860–1940), a physician and journalist, the organizer of the group, and his friends Ernst Rüdin (1874–1952), a psychiatrist; Richard Thurnwald (1869–1954), an anthropologist; and Anastasius Nordenholz (1862–1953), a social scientist. The original Berlin group sponsored subgroups in Munich, Freiburg, Dresden, and Stuttgart. By 1913 there were 425 members: physicians, university teachers, and biologists, very few of them women. The German attitude to genetic theory was very sophisticated: Wilhelm Weinberg's (1862–1937) mathematical Mendelism was available by 1908, and he himself was a member of the Stuttgart chapter. Mendelism explained the inheritance of such conditions as schizophrenia, as Rüdin claimed to have demonstrated in 1916, but in 1920 he and his colleagues in Munich abandoned Mendelism for "empirical prognosis," a theory-less collection of family data that accorded better with the group's plans for sterilization of mental patients and the "socially worthless."

The Eugenics Education Society in London, with Galton as its figurehead, had 1,047 members by the outbreak of World War I, at least a third of them women, many of them also members of the activist social societies out of which it was formed. Its original organizer was Sybil Gotto (later Sybil Neville-Rolfe), a youthful social activist inspired by Galton's books, and a lawyer friend of Galton's named Montague Crackanthorpe (1832–1913), its second president, later succeeded by Leonard Darwin (1850–1943), a son of Charles Darwin. Local groups formed elsewhere, for example in Cambridge. Most of the membership belonged to the educated middle class: they spoke on its behalf, with an aggressively outspoken class-consciousness. The Society's focus was particularly on the defective heredity of the "pauper class," those who were dependent on relief. Pauperism was seen as having many causes—inebrity, venereal disease, and feeblemindedness—but the Society's project of collecting pedigrees of pauper families underlined its insistence that the root of social failure was bad heredity. Pedigrees linking several families showing an interbreeding pauper class, studded with alcoholics, syphilitics, and the feebleminded, were prepared for the Society by Eric J. Lidbetter, a Poor Law Relieving Officer. The differential fertility of classes suggested that soon most of society would be replaced by descendents of the prolific paupers. Proposed remedies mirrored those of the Association for the Care of the Feeble-Minded, with its segregated farm schools and institutions, where the feebleminded could be interned for life. The Society began a campaign to legalize voluntary sterilization in 1930; it was unsuccessful.

Not all eugenists belonged to the Society: the statistician Karl Pearson (1857–1936), an admirer of Galton, despised the amateurishness of the Society's science and its reliance on drawing-room talks. His group was actively hostile to Mendelism and preferred Galtonian statistics—the new techniques of frequency and standard deviation, the socalled bell curve, regression, and correlation. The Society itself used simple pedigrees, with no emphasis on any particular scientific method.

The American eugenists were Mendelian to the core. The American Breeders' Association was mainly concerned with the breeding of animals and plants for agriculture, but it had a section devoted to eugenics. In 1910 its Secretary was the biologist Charles Davenport (1866–1944), head of the Carnegie Institute's Station for Experimental Evolution at Cold Stream Harbor, set up in 1904. The Association's journal published articles explaining Mendelism to agricultural breeders, who were rather unreceptive. The eugenics committee, however, was very active, and keenly interested in racial degeneration under the chairmanship of David Starr Jordan (1851–1931) of Stanford University. Harry H. Laughlin (1880–1943), who was doing breeding experiments with poultry at the Experiment Station, made contact with Davenport, and in 1910, joined him in setting up the Eugenics Record Office, also at Cold Stream Harbor. It was funded by a private donor, Mary Williamson Averell Harriman (1851–1932), who was interested in horse breeding.

Laughlin and Davenport worked together to train teams of field workers who would go out, armed with a "Trait Book," and collect human pedigrees. Their standardized pedigree diagrams were soon adopted by other eugenists. Beginning with brachydactyly (a harmless condition producing very short fingers and toes) and albinism, clear examples of Mendelian inheritance, they went on to include pedigrees showing insanity, alcoholism, criminality, and feeblemindedness. The workers visited state institutions, hospitals, and inbred rural communities in search of material. Davenport showed the way in Eugenics: The Science of Human Improvement by Better Breeding (1910). The Eugenics Records Office's pedigrees appeared in his Heredity in Relation to Eugenics (1911), but thousands more were archived at the Eugenics Record Office. Laughlin wrote on the legal aspects of sterilization. Speaking to the First National Conference on Race Betterment in 1914, he estimated that about 10 percent of the population was defective, and that their numbers would increase to a level that would destroy society. Therefore, he thought, these individuals must be institutionalized and sterilized. Laughlin was later to concern himself actively with immigration control on racial grounds.

Legislation enabling involuntary sterilization on hereditarian grounds of the insane, feeble minded, and "moral imbeciles"—often single mothers—was already being enacted in the United States before this work appeared. The Indiana law of 1907, a model law often copied elsewhere, authorized the sterilization of inmates of state institutions. The California Act came in 1909. Between 1905 and 1918 seventeen states voted on sterilization bills, and by 1920, 3,233 persons had been sterilized in the United States. When the laws were repealed in the 1960s, 63,678 had been sterilized, many after 1930, mainly of the feebleminded and mentally ill. These laws provided a template for the Nazi sterilization law of 1933.

The First International Congress of Eugenics was held in London in 1912. The seven hundred participants represented a progressive elite, optimistically advocating a mixture of new science, politics, and social reform, their movement dedicated to the raising of the human race to new levels of beauty and productivity, while weeding out its supposed defectives. Women supported it as a scientific validation of their authority in the reproductive sphere. The French sent a delegation to the Congress; after the meeting, they went home to start their own society. The differential birthrate was not a focus in France. The famous pediatrician Adolphe Pinard (1844–1934) led the way with pronatalism, a drive to reverse the fall of the French birthrate, and his puériculture, a new insistence on careful management and feeding of both infants and pregnant mothers. These two elements formed the core of French eugenics. Neither had anything to do with heredity, although the discussion of genetic defect more usual in other countries was later to appear in France as well.

By 1914 the founding societies were well established. The series of International Congresses, continued in the United States after World War I, bound the movement together and enabled concepts produced in one country to take root in others. The eugenics movement swept up some of the most influential thinkers of the time; so far, there had been very little opposition.

See alsoDarwin, Charles; Degeneration; Galton, Francis; Lombroso, Cesare; Marriage and Family; Mendel, Gregor; Population, Control of; Race and Racism; Science and Technology.


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Pauline M. H. Mazumdar

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