The Eugenics Movement: Good Intentions Lead to Horrific Consequences

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The Eugenics Movement: Good Intentions Lead to Horrific Consequences


For thousands of years, people have tried to rank each other according to perceived superiority or inferiority. This tendency reached its peak in the first half of the twentieth century in the eugenics movement, in which adherents called upon genetics and natural selection to lend scientific credibility to an age-old argument. Although eugenics began as an honest scientific attempt to understand the differences between individuals, nations, and races, it was hijacked by politics and used to justify all manner of objectionable acts. At its best, eugenics was seen as a way to improve humanity and the human condition. At its worst, it was a way for political ideologues and tyrants to justify oppressing those held to be inferior.


One of the earliest mentions of inherent differences between groups of people is found in ancient Greece, when Socrates (c. 470-399 b.c.) suggested that some are born to lead, some to follow, and others to work. Later, others divided humanity along roughly the same lines—as rulers, aristocracy, and peasants. This trend was followed throughout Europe, in Asia, among many Native American tribes, and elsewhere. In all cases, those who led were perceived to possess some innate advantage over their followers, who, in turn, were deemed superior to those who toiled in the fields. Other cultures segregated people by race or religion, but the bottom line was always the same: some were born better than others.

None of this supposed superiority was demonstrable, however. One could say, for example, that kings and emperors were appointed by God and were, therefore, superior. But this could never be proven, and the list of kings and emperors overthrown by their subjects is long and distinguished. At the same time, there was no denying that talent, intelligence, and charisma (along with their negative counterparts) were distributed unequally among people. Some traits such as musical and mathematical talent, intelligence, criminality, and poverty seemed to run in families (especially if one overlooked certain social factors). And it was no secret that some cultures had advanced much further than others. Scientists wondered why these patterns existed; demagogues wanted to exploit them for personal or political purposes.

During the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, scientists began trying to quantify the differences that seemed so apparent between races and classes of people. By measuring skull volume, categorizing skull shapes, and performing other measurements, they believed that some "objective" criteria could determine which races were superior. Unfortunately, whether consciously or not, many of these measurements were biased in such a way as to give expected results. For example, it was obvious to all that Europe had achieved technology superior to that of most of Africa and among Native Americans. Since most of the scientists performing these experiments were European or of European extraction, their tendency was to assume that Europeans were superior to other groups, so more European skulls were deemed superior. Conducting further measurements only solidified this preconception.

In 1859 Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published his landmark book, On the Origin ofSpecies, in which he first laid out his theory of evolution by survival of the fittest. This was followed in 1870 by his book on human evolution, The Descent of Man. These volumes and the concepts contained in them were quickly seized upon as a scientific explanation for the "superiority" of some races and the apparent transmission of traits, both good and bad, among families or related groups of people. For example, if a tendency towards criminal behavior is hereditary, then one would expect "lower" classes to exhibit more criminal behavior because of the rarity of intermarriage between the very poor and the wealthy and because most prisoners were from the poor.

These lines of speculation were further fueled by papers and books published in the early years of the twentieth century in which the hereditary aspects of intelligence were touted. In some cases, virtually every negative aspect of human behavior was attributed to inherited lack of intelligence. With the advent of intelligence testing in the 1920s, scientists had another tool with which to study the effects of intelligence on human behavior. Unfortunately, this tool was neither as objective nor as accurate as promised.

All of this culminated in the eugenics movement. The term was first coined by British scientist Francis Galton (1822-1911) in 1883, when he suggested regulating family size and even marriage partners based on the genetic advantages enjoyed by the parents. Later, in the early 1900s, further testing was carried out in both Europe and America, culminating with suggestions that "inferior" people be sterilized to prevent them from passing on their genes to future generations. In this manner, it was felt, undesirable traits could be bred out of humanity, improving the human race and the human condition.

At least at the outset, eugenics was not used to justify discrimination, oppression, or other evil deeds. Most early scientists in this field were well-intentioned researchers who were honestly trying to understand what led people and races to differ so widely. If these differences could be tied to scientific fact, they believed, then people could consciously work to remove unfavorable traits from humanity. This, in turn, would lead to a better human, free of inherited physical and mental deficiencies that caused people to commit crimes or indulge in behaviors that did not benefit society. While these scientists' intentions were good and their field of study well respected, the eugenics movement was ultimately found to be based on fallacious assumptions, rendering findings and conclusions that were equally fallacious. Eugenics might have faded into obscurity like other incorrect scientific assumptions, but its tenets were used in several highly destructive ways during the early decades of the twentieth century. The impact of these destructive campaigns in still being felt today.


As mentioned above, eugenics was seen as a scientific way to remove unwanted traits from humanity, just as selective breeding is seen as a way to remove unwanted traits in livestock. Since so many of society's ills were thought to be inherited, the thinking went, the solution was simply to prevent the unintelligent, the criminal, and others with these traits from having children. In the United States, 24 states passed laws between 1911 and 1930 that restricted the right of the "unfit" to have children, either by restricting marriage or by out-and-out sterilization. This trend was followed to a lesser extent in England and to a greater extent in Germany, especially after the Nazi party's rise to power in 1933. The problem with this campaign was that there was no way to prove scientifically who was "unfit." In the end, the campaign was used in purely political fashion and for entirely political aims—to dominate and oppress those whom the ruling class deemed inferior.

Eugenics began to lose its appeal in the United States in the mid-1920s, when it was shown to be ill-advised and based on unsound scientific principles. Its popularity continued in Europe, however, especially in Nazi Germany, where scientists striving for German "racial purity" advocated and then put into effect sterilization, forced abortion, and other measures designed to limit the reproduction of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, and Africans. Later, the Nazi regime took this campaign to a more extreme and horrific level: the mass execution of many of these groups in the Holocaust. Jews were the focus of this effort, and nearly 6 million of them are estimated to have been murdered in the 1930s and 1940s.

In more recent years, reexamination of many of the original studies upon which eugenics was based have shown them to be either blatantly falsified, or suffering from errors in judgment, faulty scientific understanding, erroneous assumptions, or some combination of the above. In any event, it is now accepted that the goals of the eugenics movement—bettering humanity through conscious breeding—is not only scientifically flawed but (more importantly) morally and ethically wrong.

In spite of this, there is no shortage of people today who still advance the same arguments that were discredited decades ago. In some cases, inaccurate or false information is purposely used by people because it serves their aims. In other cases, people with limited knowledge of science or genetics assume that humans can and should be bred the same way livestock are to improve the human species. Still others see genetics and Darwinism as justification for their preconceptions, hatreds, or prejudices. For whatever reason, many are willing to overlook the vast body of scientific, philosophical, moral, and ethical evidence against eugenics; others remain unaware that this evidence exists. Thus, the legacy of an originally well intentioned study of human differences became, and remains, a way to continue to foster hatred, prejudice, violence, and discrimination.

In addition to the use of eugenics to justify racial, religious, or national hatreds, there is currently some concern that similar concepts will be used for less sinister purposes today. With the availability of sophisticated genetics testing, we can now test children in utero (i.e. before they are born) for any number of genetic traits. As an increasing number of genes are linked to specific diseases or tendencies towards those diseases, the temptation grows to use this information in a number of ways. Parents, for example, routinely decide to terminate pregnancies because of the presence of serious conditions, but should they be given the option of terminating a pregnancy because of the "wrong" eye color or stature or the potential to have, say, diabetes? Can insurance companies refuse to extend medical or life insurance to unborn babies carrying the gene for Tay-Sachs disease, Gauchier's syndrome, or who are predisposed to certain types of cancer? And should people with these genetic traits be steered away from having children at all? These and similar questions remain with us, and are likely to remain for decades to come.


Further Reading


Caplan, Arthur. When Medicine Went Mad: Bioethics and the Holocaust. Humana Press, 1992.

Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1981.

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

Internet Sites

The University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics.

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The Eugenics Movement: Good Intentions Lead to Horrific Consequences

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