The Study of Human Heredity and Eugenics during the Nineteenth Century, Focusing on the Work of Francis Galton

views updated

The Study of Human Heredity and Eugenics during the Nineteenth Century, Focusing on the Work of Francis Galton


Francis Galton (1822-1910) first coined the term eugenics in 1883. It stems from the Greek word eugenes, meaning good in birth. Though Galton defined the term eugenics rather broadly, he essentially intended the term to mean the science of improving human stock. In other words, he intended to the give groups of people, or races, he viewed as most suitable a chance to prevail over those he viewed as less suitable. Thus eugenics was to become a study dedicated to improving human beings through selective breeding, that is by encouraging the best or most fit members of society to breed more while inhibiting or preventing those that were deemed undesirable or less suitable from having children.


Though Galton was the first person to use the actual term eugenics, one of the first people to write about and promote racial superiority in modern times was Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882), in his book Inequality of the Races (1856). Gobineau insisted that the inferiority and superiority of races is both biological and hereditary. Gobineau was also among those who promoted the notion of the superiority of the Aryan race.

In mid-nineteenth century Germany, Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) promoted the work of Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Haeckel was a believer in German and Aryan greatness and he built on an already growing German interest in spirituality, mysticism, and myth, that placed man on the top of the evolutionary scale. Aryan man, according to Haeckel, was at the pinnacle of the scale. He promoted the idea that there was a very real need to breed more from the Nordic races and less from everyone else for the sake of a better world. He referred to this notion as Monism, the concept of being at one with the universe.

An early English eugenicist, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), applied the Darwinian notion of evolution to the social sciences. Spencer was also heavily influenced by the writings of Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) who promoted the idea that there would soon be too many people alive and that this number of people could not be supported by the resources that the world had to offer. Spencer combined these ideas into a theory in which he purported that "survival of the fittest" (Spencer's phrase, not Darwin's) depended then on the people who were able to evolve upward in society to prosper.

Galton, a cousin of Darwin's, was one of the first to recognize the implications of Darwin's theory of evolution for humankind. In this new post-Darwinian world, Galton hoped that with the advanced knowledge of science, scientific principles would be used to improve both individuals and the whole of society. Galton approached this idea in a somewhat biased manner as he firmly believed that the upper classes were superior in every way. Galton had noted that many of the more important and influential people in English society were related. Even in his own family he realized there were a significant number of people whom he deemed to be functioning at genius level. Galton published his study in 1869 in a book entitled Hereditary Genius, which provided statistical background for his theory.

Galton's aim was to create a population of intellectually superior men and women. The problem with the world, according to Galton, was that there were too many poor people and too many undesirables who were wiping out the slower breeding desirables. It should be noted that Galton and his wife were not able to have children and this fact may have played a part in his thinking. Thus Galton's work sought a way to quicken evolution. He wanted humankind to have all the immediate advantages of something that, if left to nature, could take hundreds of years. In short, what Galton believed was that if the animal world could be bred for strength and agility, people could also be bred to improve the physical and mental traits of future generations. Galton hoped for a eugenic society based on the laws of heredity, which would be accepted as morally and scientifically correct. These laws would then become a moral imperative for people who wished to breed.

Early in his career Galton had gone so far as to suggest governmental intervention in order to speed up the process of selective breeding, though soon gave up on this idea. Instead, Galton was to conclude that if people were properly educated in the advantages of eugenics they would choose this way as the only way for society. People would choose to mate in a way that would be advantageous for the future of society and for their children. Towards the end of his life Galton was to outline his idea of an ideal eugenic society in his novel Kantsaywhere. In this fictional work Galton imagined an island where individuals are paired with mates by the intellectual elite, according to their physical and intellectual ability. Everyone on the island accepts this, knowing that this action is for the good of the island community as a whole.

Galton's biggest problem in his study was that he did not know what governed heredity. After his statistical study of the English upper classes he decided that heredity was governed by what he called relationships, but he never understood the science behind these, as the rediscovery of Mendel's laws of heredity did not occur until 1900.

Other early eugenicists who were influenced by Galton were Walter Weldon and Karl Pearson (1857-1936). Weldon worked in the area of biometrics—the application of statistics to biology, while Pearson used mathematical tools to refine the work of both Galton and Weldon. Thus Weldon provided the eugenics movement with the necessary statistical basis for social action while Pearson wished to encourage research so that laws of natural selection could be better understood. Unlike Galton, Pearson believed that no amount of education could be of help to the desirable. Instead, he forwarded a more aggressive policy that proposed that more intelligent people would be bred.


Prior to 1900, eugenics was considered mostly a "positive" or "soft" theory, an intellectual exercise and nothing more. However, after 1900 eugenics developed and was considered "negative" or "hard," as it became an active and sometimes politically and socially powerful movement. Scientific knowledge replaced Lamarck's notion of inheritance of acquired characteristics and the importance of the environment, and replaced it with the Weismann/Mendel germ-plasm model, in which the environment had no effect.

The largest impact of eugenics can be seen in the establishment of the various eugenic societies in Europe and the United States, and in the influence these societies had on legislation that was passed in various countries. In Germany, social Darwinism had become popular through the writings of Haeckel. Later, through the writings of Wilhelm Schallmayer and Alfred Ploetz, the notion of state interference became more widespread. Schallmayer and Ploetz proposed that in the newly created Germany the good of the state should take precedence over the individual. Thus they suggested a form of voluntary eugenics that was to be encouraged by the state. This linking of the importance of the good of the state with the limited value of the individual is important in German history. After the defeat of Germany in the First World War, the good of the state was to take precedence as Germany tried to rebuild.

Unlike Germany, there was no monolithic movement in the United States. The notion of eugenics gained support from a broad group of people ranging from conservatives to New Dealers to Socialists. In 1905 Charles Davenport (1866-1944) founded Cold Springs Harbor, the first large-scale eugenics research center in the United States. Davenport studied over 400,000 family pedigrees and he helped support eugenic family planning as well as intelligence testing.

Another effect of eugenics in the United States was the proposed emigration restriction placed on people coming from so-called inferior places, especially Italy and a number of eastern European countries. The movement also was instrumental in passing sterilization laws in about thirty states. These laws, which were designed to ensure that people with mental retardation, mental disease, and some physical diseases, such as epilepsy, would not procreate. Though these laws were to remain on the statute books until the 1970s, for the most part the notions of the eugenics movement were discredited by the 1930s. First, it became obvious that even mass sterilization would not reduce the passing on of so-called bad traits from one generation to the next. Also, social workers and anthropologists were now working closely with the lower classes and their research showed that these classes were not necessarily intellectually or socially inferior; instead, they simply lacked the means and methods to improve themselves. Secondly, support of eugenics was seen as being too close to German philosophy and, during World War II, this was viewed as un-American. Finally, when the reality of the horrors of the Holocaust became known, eugenics was no longer seen as a theory that had any advantages for a progressive caring society.


Further Reading

Burleigh, Michael. Death and Deliverance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Cowen, Ruth Schwartz. Sir Francis Galton and the Study of Heredity in the Nineteenth Century. Ann Arbor, MI, 1969.

Degler, Carl. In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinianism in American Social Thought. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Forrest, Derek W. Francis Galton: The Life and Work of a Victorian Genius. New York, 1974.

Himmelfarb, Gertrude. Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1985.

Kelves, Daniel. In the Name of Eugenics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Paul, Diane. Controlling Human Heredity: 1865 to the Present. New York: Humanities University Press, 1995.

About this article

The Study of Human Heredity and Eugenics during the Nineteenth Century, Focusing on the Work of Francis Galton

Updated About content Print Article