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Eugenics (from the Greek ευγενής, for "well-born") is a social philosophy (sometimes labeled a "science") which advocates the manipulation of human reproduction for the purposes of attempting to improve the human species over generations in regards to hereditary features. The idea was first formulated by Sir Francis Galton in 1865 (though the term was not coined until 1883), and eventually came to encompass the idea of using social policies which fell into the categories of "positive" eugenics (encouraging the "most fit" to reproduce more often) and "negative" eugenics (discouraging or preventing the "less fit" from reproducing). In the first half of the twentieth century, numerous countries enacted eugenics policies and programs of many types. After World War II, however, the invocation of eugenics by the government of Nazi Germany as a justification for its racial policies caused the philosophy to become almost universally reviled. Modern inquiries into the potential use of genetic engineering have led to an increased invocation of the history of eugenics in the discourse of bioethics, usually as a cautionary tale, though some ethicists have questioned whether non-coercive eugenics programs would be inherently unethical.


Galton's theory

Selective breeding was suggested as early as the time of Plato, who believed that human reproduction should be controlled by authorities. He proposed that the selection should be performed by a fake lottery, controlled by the government, so that the people's feelings wouldn't be hurt by awareness of selection principles. Other instances of eugenics-like programs in ancient times include the city of Sparta's mythological practice of leaving weak babies outside of city borders to die.

But it was work by Sir Francis Galton in the 1860s and 1870s which systemized these ideas and practices along the lines of new knowledge about the evolution of man and animals provided by the theory of his cousin Charles Darwin. After reading Darwin's Origin of Species, Galton was struck with an interpretation of Darwin's work where the mechanisms of natural selection were potentially thwarted by human civilization, and since many human societies sought to protect the underprivileged and weak, those societies were at odds with the natural selection responsible for extinction of the weakest. Only by changing these social policies, Galton reasoned, could society be saved from a "reversion towards mediocrity"—a phrase he coined in statistics which he later changed to the now-common, "regression towards the mean."

Galton's theory, which he first sketched out in his 1865 article "Hereditary Talent and Character," and elaborated in his 1869 book Hereditary Genius, began by studying the way in which human intellectual, moral, and personality traits tended to run in families. Galton's basic argument was that "genius" and "talent" were hereditary traits in humans (though neither he nor Darwin had yet a working model of this type of heredity), and that just as one could use artificial selection to exaggerate traits in animals, one could expect similar results applying such models to humans. As he put it in the introduction to Hereditary Genius:

I propose to show in this book that a man's natural abilities are derived by inheritance, under exactly the same limitations as are the form and physical features of the whole organic world. Consequently, as it is easy, notwithstanding those limitations, to obtain by careful selection a permanent breed of dogs or horses gifted with peculiar powers of running, or of doing anything else, so it would be quite practicable to produce a highly-gifted race of men by judicious marriages during several consecutive generations.

Furthermore, according to Galton, society itself contained many conditions which were encouraging "dysgenic" conditions, claiming that the less intelligent were out-reproducing the more intelligent, a catastrophe in Darwinian terms. However, Galton did not yet elaborate on the methods which would be specifically used for this endeavor, and hoped that if social mores could change so that people could see the importance of breeding, at some point in the future a solution would be found.

As for Darwin, he read his cousin's work with interest, but dismissed its goals as too "Utopian." In his later work, The Descent of Man, Darwin noted that while Galton's formulation of the peril of civilization might be correct, the very human sensitivities that Galton thought were leading to inevitable doom were themselves also evolved and were part of a fundamental core of what distinguished man as a highly-evolved social species. On the second to last page of the book, though, he concluded on an uncharacteristically Galtonian note:

Man scans with scrupulous care the character and pedigree of his horses, cattle, and dogs before he matches them; but when he comes to his own marriage he rarely, or never, takes any such care. ... Both sexes ought to refrain from marriage if they are in any marked degree inferior in body or mind; but such hopes are Utopian and will never be even partially realised until the laws of inheritance are thoroughly known. ... On the other hand, as Mr. Galton has remarked, if the prudent avoid marriage, whilst the reckless marry, the inferior members tend to supplant the better members of society. Man, like every other animal, has no doubt advanced to his present high condition through a struggle for existence consequent on his rapid multiplication; and if he is to advance still higher, it is to be feared that he must remain subject to a severe struggle. Otherwise he would sink into indolence, and the more gifted men would not be more successful in the battle of life than the less gifted.

Galton first used the word "eugenic" in his 1883 Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development, where he specified that the purpose of the work was "to touch on various topics more or less connected with that of the cultivation of race, or, as we might call it, with 'eugenic' questions." He included a footnote to the word "eugenic" which read:

That is, with questions bearing on what is termed in Greek, eugenes namely, good in stock, hereditarily endowed with noble qualities. This, and the allied words, eugeneia, etc., are equally applicable to men, brutes, and plants. We greatly want a brief word to express the science of improving stock, which is by no means confined to questions of judicious mating, but which, especially in the case of man, takes cognisance of all influences that tend in however remote a degree to give to the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had. The word eugenics would sufficiently express the idea; it is at least a neater word and a more generalised one than viriculture which I once ventured to use.

Galton's formulation of eugenics was based in a strong statistical approach, influenced heavily by Adolphe Quetelet's "social physics." Unlike Quetelet, however, Galton did not exhalt the "average man," but decried him as mediocre. Galton and his statistical heir, Karl Pearson, developed what was known as the biometrical approach to eugenics, which developed new and complex statistical models (later exported to wholly different fields) to describe the heredity of traits. With the re-discovery of the hereditary laws of Gregor Mendel, however, there split into two separate camps of eugenics advocates, one of statisticians, the other of biologists (the former thought the latter to be exceptionally crude in their mathematical models, while the latter thought the former to be ignorant of actual biology). The "biometrical" school of the study of variation in humans (and species in general) focused on mean values and distributions of variation in successive generations—looking at something like "height" or "arm length" in terms of "averages" and concentrating on the trends such averages revealed (and speculating on ways to manipulate them) in society at large. The "Mendelian" school applied combinatorial methods of analysis to problems concerning the resemblance between parents and offspring—a way of conceptualizing heredity that would concentrate on a "height factor" rather than concentrating on average or individual heights. By the 1930s, however, these had been reconciled into a single model by the work of Ronald Fisher, who developed more powerful statistical models based on the Mendelian laws.

Eugenics developed to refer to human selective reproduction with the intent to create children with desirable traits, especially those that best meet an ideal of racial purity ("positive" eugenics), as well as elimination of undesirable traits ("negative" eugenics). "Negative" eugenic policies in the past have ranged from segregation to sterilization to even genocide. "Positive" eugenic policies have been typically awards or bonuses for "fit" parents after having another child, though even relatively innocuous things like marriage counseling have had early links with eugenic ideology. Eugenics differed from what would later be known as Social Darwinism on the question of activism: while both claimed that intelligence was hereditary, eugenics claimed that new policies were needed to actively change the status quo towards a more "eugenic" state, whereas the Social Darwinists argued that society itself would naturally "check" the problem of "dysgenics" if no welfare policies were in place (for example, the poor might reproduce more, but would have higher mortality rates).

Eugenics and the state, 1890s-1945

One of the earliest modern advocates of eugenic ideas (before they were labeled as such) was Alexander Graham Bell, best known as one of the inventors of the telephone. In 1881, Bell investigated the rate of deafness on Martha's Vineyard, Mass. From this he concluded that deafness was hereditary in nature and recommended a marriage prohibition against the deaf (in his "Memoir upon the formation of a deaf variety of the human Race"). Like many other early eugenicists, he proposed controlling immigration for the purpose of eugenics, and warned that boarding schools for the deaf could be considered possible breeding places of a deaf human race.

Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler was infamous for its eugenics programs, which attempted to maintain a "pure" German race through a series of programs which ran under the banner of "racial hygiene." Among other acts, the Nazis performed extensive experimentation on live human beings to test their genetic theories, ranging from simple measurement of physical characteristics to the more ghastly experiments carried out by Josef Mengele for Otmar von Verschuer on twins in the concentration camps. During the 1930s and 1940s the Nazi regime forcibly sterilized hundreds of thousands of people who they viewed as mentally and physically "unfit," and killed tens of thousands of the institutionalized disabled in their compulsory euthanasia programs. They also implemented a number of "positive" eugenics policies, giving awards to "Aryan" women who had large numbers of children, and even encouraged a service in which "racially pure" single women would become impregnated by SS officers (Lebensborn). Many of their concerns for eugenics and racial hygiene were also explicitly present in their systematic killing of millions of "undesirable" Europeans, including Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals, during the Holocaust, and much of the killing equipment and methods employed in the death camps were first developed in their euthanasia program. The scope and coercion involved in the German eugenics programs, and the strong use of the rhetoric of eugenics and "racial science" throughout the regime, would create an indelible cultural association between eugenics and the Third Reich in the postwar years.

The nation that had the second largest eugenics movement was the United States. Beginning with Connecticut in 1896, many states enacted marriage laws with eugenic criteria, prohibiting anyone who was "epileptic, imbecile or feeble-minded" from marrying. In 1898, Charles B. Davenport, a prominent American biologist, assumed the role of director of a biological research station based in Cold Spring Harbor. Here he began experimenting with evolution of plants and animals. In 1904, Davenport received funds from the Carnegie Institution to found the Station for Experimental Evolution. 1910 heralded the Eugenics Record Office, Davenport and Harry H. Laughlin began to promote eugenics. In years to come the ERO collected a mass of family pedigrees, which concluded that those that were unfit were from economically and socially poor backgrounds. Eugenicists such as Davenport, the psychologist Henry H. Goddard, and the conservationist Madison Grant (all well respected in their time) began to lobby for various solutions to the problem of the "unfit" (Davenport favored immigration restriction and sterilization as primary methods, Goddard favored segregation in his The Kallikak Family, Grant favored all of the above and more -- even entertaining the idea of extermination). Though we now see the methodology and research methods as being highly flawed, in their time they were seen as legitimate scientific research, though they did have their scientific detractors (notably Thomas Hunt Morgan).

In 1924, the Immigration Restriction Act was passed, with eugenicists for the first time playing a central role in the Congressional debate, as expert advisers on the threat of "inferior stock" from Eastern and Southern Europe. This reduced the number of immigrants from abroad to fifteen percent of that of previous years, to control the proportion of "unfit" individuals entering the country. The new Act strengthened the existing laws prohibiting race mixing in an attempt to maintain the gene pool. Eugenic considerations also lay behind the adoption of incest laws in much of the USA, and were used to justify many anti-miscegenation laws.

Some states also practiced sterilization of "imbeciles" for much of the 20th century. The US Supreme Court ruled in the 1927 Buck v. Bell case that the state of Virginia could sterilize those they thought unfit. Between 1907 and 1963, the most significant era of eugenic sterilization, over 64,000 individuals were forcibly sterilized under eugenic legislation in the United States. A favorable report of the results of the sterilizations in California, by far the most sterilizing state, was published in book form by the biologist Paul Popenoe, and was widely cited by the Nazi government as evidence that wide-reaching sterilization programs were feasible and humane. When Nazi administrators were on trial for war-crimes in Nuremberg after World War II, they justified their mass-sterilizations (over 450,000 in less than a decade) by pointing a finger at the USA as their inspiration.

Almost all non-Catholic western nations adopted some eugenics legislation. In July 1933, Britain passed a law allowing for the involuntary sterilization of "hereditary and incurable drunkards, sexual criminals, lunatics, and those suffering from an incurable disease which would be passed on to their offspring . . ." [1] Sweden forcibly sterilized 62,000 "unfits" as part of a eugenics program over a forty year period. Similar incidents occurred in Canada, Australia, Norway, Finland, Estonia, Switzerland and Iceland for people the government declared to be mentally deficient. Singapore practiced a limited form of "positive" eugenics which involved encouraging marriage between college graduates in the hope that they would produce better children.

Various authors, notably Stephen Jay Gould, have repeatedly asserted that restrictions on immigration passed in the United States during the 1920s (which were overhauled in 1965) were motivated by the goals of eugenics, in particular a desire to exclude "inferior" races from the national gene pool. In the early part of the twentieth century the United States and Canada began to receive far higher numbers of southern and eastern European immigrants. Influential eugenicists like Lothrop Stoddard and Harry Laughlin (who was appointed as an expert witness for the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization in 1920) presented arguments that these were inferior races who would pollute the national gene pool if their numbers went unrestricted. It is argued that this stirred both Canada and the United States into passing laws creating a hierarchy of nationalities, rating them from the most desirable Anglo-Saxon and Nordic peoples to the Chinese and Japanese immigrants who were almost completely banned from entering the country. However, several people, in particular Franz Samelson , Mark Snyderman , and Richard Herrnstein have argued, based on their examination of the records of the Congressional debates over immigration policy, that in fact Congress gave virtually no consideration to these factors. Rather, they maintain, the restrictions were motivated primarily by a desire to maintain the country's cultural integrity against the heavy influx of foreigners.

Some who disagree with the idea of eugenics in general contend that eugenics legislation still had benefits; namely, that advocates such as Margaret Sanger (founder of Planned Parenthood of America) found it a useful tool to urge the legalization of contraception. In its time, eugenics was seen by many as scientific and progressive, the natural application of knowledge about breeding to the arena of human life. Before the death camps of World War II, the idea that eugenics, in an ultimate expression, could lead to genocide was not taken as a serious possibility.

Stigmatization of eugenics in the post-Nazi years

In the years after the experience of Nazi Germany, many of the ideas about "racial hygiene" and "unfit" members of society rapidly were renounced publicly by members of the scientific community and politicians alike. The Nuremberg trials against former Nazi leaders revealed to the world much of the sadistic practices of the regime and resulted in formalized policies of medical ethics and the 1950 UNESCO statement on race (though, notably, American domestic policy towards race issues were still highly discriminatory).

Along with these other reactions to Nazi ideas, eugenics was almost universally reviled in many of the nations in which it had once been popular (some eugenics programs, including sterilization programs, continued quietly for many more decades, however). Many eugenicists of the previous period engaged in what they at one point labeled "crypto-eugenics," purposefully taking their eugenic beliefs "underground" and becoming highly-respected anthropologists, biologists, and geneticists in the post-war world, such as Robert Yerkes in the USA and Otmar von Verschuer in Germany. Californian eugenicist Paul Popenoe became the founder of 1950s marriage counseling, a career change which initially grew out of his eugenic interests (promoting "healthy marriages" between "fit" couples).

High school and college textbooks from the 1920s through the 1940s frequently contained chapters touting the scientific progress to be made by applying eugenic principles to the population. Many early scientific journals devoted to the study of heredity in general were run by eugenicists and featured eugenics articles alongside studies of heredity in non-human organisms. After eugenics fell out of scientific favor, most references to eugenics were removed from both the textbooks and future editions of the journals. Even the names of some journals changed to reflect new attitudes: for example, "Eugenics Quarterly" became "Social Biology" in 1969, a journal which still exists today though looks little like its predecessor. Notable members of the American Eugenics Society (1922-1994) in the second half of the 20th Century included Joseph Fletcher, originator of Situational ethics, Dr. Clarence Gamble , of the Procter and Gamble fortune, and Garrett Hardin , population control advocate and author of The Tragedy of the Commons.

Eugenics and genetic engineering

The history of eugenics, and the concept of eugenics, have become more heavily discussed in the last twenty years as knowledge about genetics has significantly advanced. Endeavors such as the Human Genome Project have again made the possibility of effective modification of the human species seem real, just as Darwin's initial theory of evolution did in the 1860s, and the rediscovery of Mendel's laws did in the earliest years of the 20th century. The difference this time around is, however, the guarded attitude towards "eugenics"—it has become a watchword to be feared rather than embraced.

Only a few researchers, such as the controversial psychologist Richard Lynn, have openly called for eugenic policies using modern technology, but represent a minority opinion in current scientific and cultural circles. One of the best known recent cases of attempting to implement a form of eugenics in practice was a "genius sperm bank" (1980-1999) created by Robert Klark Graham, from which nearly 230 children were conceived (the best known donor was Nobel Prize winner William Shockley). In the USA and Europe, though, these attempts have generally been criticized as being in the same spirit of the classist and racist forms of eugenics of the 1930s.

At the present time, only a few governments in the world have anything which resemble eugenic programs. In 1994, China passed the "Maternal and Infant Health Care Law" which included mandatory pre-marital screenings for "genetic diseases of a serious nature" and "relevant mental disease." Those who are diagnosed with such diseases are required either to not marry or to agree to "long term contraceptive measures" or to submit to sterilization. A similar screening policy (including pre-natal screening and abortion) intended to reduce the incidence of thalassemia exists on both sides of the island of Cyprus. Since the program's implementation in the 1970s, it has reduced the ratio of children born with the hereditary blood disease from 1 out of every 158 births to almost zero.

In modern bioethics literature the spectre of eugenics looms large. Many commentators have suggested that the new "eugenics" will come from reproductive technologies which allow parents to create "designer babies" (what the biologist Lee M. Silver prominently called "reprogenetics"). It has been argued that this "non-coercive" form of biological "improvement" will be motivated more by individual competitiveness and the desire for creating "the best opportunities" for children than it will by the urge to improve the species as a whole of the early twentieth century forms of eugenics. Because of this apparently non-coercive nature, the lack of involvement by the state, and the difference in goals, it has been asked by a number of commentators whether or not this situation would actually be "eugenics," or something else; it has additionally been asked whether or not it thus carries the ethically problematic components of early twentieth century eugenics.

Though any ideas which can be constrained as "eugenic" are still highly controversial in both the public and scholarly spheres, a few distinguished scientists, including Nobel Prize winners such as John Sulston ("I don't think one ought to bring a clearly disabled child into the world") and James D. Watson ("Once you have a way in which you can improve our children, no one can stop it."), have recently spoken in support of "voluntary" eugenics.

See also


  • Elazar Barkan, The retreat of scientific racism: changing concepts of race in Britain and the United States between the world wars (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
  • Stephen J. Gould, The mismeasure of man (New York: Norton, 1981).
  • Mark Haller, Eugenics: Hereditarian attitudes in American thought (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1963).
  • Daniel Kevles, In the name of eugenics: Genetics and the uses of human heredity (New York: Knopf, 1985).
  • Stefan Khl, The Nazi connection: Eugenics, American racism, and German National Socialism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
  • Dieter Kuntz, ed., Deadly medicine: Creating the master race (Washington, DC: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2004). online exhibit
  • Donald A. MacKenzie, Statistics in Britain, 1865-1930: The social construction of scientific knowledge (Edinburgh: Edinburg University Press, 1981).
  • Diane B. Paul, "Darwin, social Darwinism and eugenics," in Jonathan Hodge and Gregory Radick, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Darwin (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 214-239.
  • Robert Proctor, Racial hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988).
  • Paul Weindling, Health, race and German politics between national unification and Nazism, 1870-1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
  • "Sterilisation of the unfit", The Guardian, July 26, 1933

Further reading

  • Edwin Black, War against the weak: Eugenics and America's campaign to create a master race (Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003). [2]

External links

Anti-eugenics and History of eugenics

Pro-eugenics websites


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