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What Is Eugenics?

written by: dgemmellaro•edited by: Paul Arnold•updated: 3/15/2015

When one hears the term “eugenics" horrid images of WWII Germany come to mind, as well as the racist campaigns of the United States to prevent the mixing of what was at the time considered “inferior" black blood with “superior" white blood. But exactly what is eugenics? Is is still practiced today?

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    What Is Eugenics?

    At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, the human mind was much more inclined to search for scientific On the Origins of Species by Darwin and Huxley answers to society’s problems, especially after having seen all the “benefits" that the Industrial Revolution brought along with it. The publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in the second half of the 19th century further cemented the primacy of scientific explanations for questions that were once thought to be the domain of religious institutions.

    The term eugenics was coined by scientist Sir Francis Galton, who first used it in his 1883 book, Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development. Galton, who was certainly not the first to think this, believed that just as nature “weeds out the unfit" among animals, so too should human society “weed out" its unfit members. He believed that humans were disrupting evolution in maintaining the weak and sickly through social welfare programs, mental institutions and the like.

    This idea appealed to many people, who thought that here was a “natural" way to bring about a utopian society in which human beings would be kind, intelligent, brave and honest. Crime and disease could be eradicated. Furthermore, in societies facing social unrest due to rapid urbanization, eugenics was seen as an efficient way to deal with social problems.

    Once Gregor Mendel’s research was re-discovered, many budding eugenicists were quick to jump on the idea that many behavioral traits, including things such as criminality, pauperism and a tendency to wander, could scientifically be proven to run in families, and so the only way to make sure that “desirable" traits would come to characterize humanity was to “encourage" only those individuals possessing desirable traits to breed, much as occurs in animal breeding.

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    From the Greek for "Well Born"

    What is eugenics? Literally, the term means “well-born," from the Greek eu (well or good) and gene (born). The broader meaning of what was encompassed by the concept of eugenics however, was harder to pin down for Galton, and has been confusing throughout the entire history of eugenics thought, even to this day. Indeed, Galton defined it in many ways, including “the study of all agencies under human control which can improve or impair the racial quality of future generations", as well as “the science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those that develop them to the utmost advantage."

    Very generally, eugenics became related to influencing differential birth rates in order to create a human society characterized by an over-abundance of “desirable" traits and a decrease in, or a complete elimination of, “undesirable" traits. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the idea of bettering society through science was so widespread that virtually every country around the world had some kind of eugenics policy in place. The countries differed, though, in whether they practiced positive or negative eugenics. The difference between the two is that positive eugenics focuses on increasing the presence of desirable traits, while negative eugenics focuses on decreasing the presence of undesirable traits.

    Countries focused on negative eugenics, as well as coercive practices, and using eugenics to further strong racial and/or class prejudices, caused the most damage to the movement by engaging in such practices as segregation, sterilization (often involuntary), and, in the case of Germany's Third Reich, genocide. Most countries, however, focused their eugenic campaigns on making birth control widely available, rewarding “undesirables" for not having children or for voluntary sterilization.

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    Dangerous Eugenics

    In three countries eugenics became entrenched with strong social and racial hierarchies, in Britain, the US and Germany, and only in two did things get ugly, the US and Germany. Organized eugenics movements were first created in Germany in 1904, in England in 1907 and in the US around 1910. There were a number of societies and institutions dedicated to eugenics in these countries. One of the most notable institutions in America was the Eugenics Record Office (ERO), at Cold Spring Harbor, in New York, which published eugenics-related news, organized research, served as a repository for data on genetic traits, and training eugenic field workers.

    In the US and in Britain, the “poor" were seen to be unfit and out breeding the upper classes, so they were the targets of negative eugenics efforts. The US took these efforts to the extreme. Not only would state fairs hold contests for “best bred" humans and set up displays expounding the evils of “mixing blood", but by the 1930s, over 30 states had eugenics laws involving the compulsory sterilization of people said to be “feeble-minded", “imbeciles" and simply socially undesirable. It is estimated that between 60,000 and 70,000 sterilizations took place under these laws. It was also under the banner of eugenics that strict immigration restrictions were enacted during the 1920s, as well as the anti-miscegenation laws. And in Germany, eugenics paved the way for the Holocaust.

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    Where Does Eugenics Stand Today?

    A number of prominent individuals supported eugenics, and proponents of differential breeding could be found along the entire range of the political spectrum, from conservatives to socialists. Besides the Catholic church (which opposes any kind of interference with reproduction), only a handful of scientists, including Thomas Hunt Morgan, opposed eugenics, but not on a moral basis. They believed the science was flawed and not every human characteristic was strictly hereditary.

    Indeed, today, the idea that all human traits are strictly inherited in a Mendelian fashion is no longer accepted and so the eugenics idea of “bettering" the human race to create a social utopia has been thrown to the side. What does remain, however, is the idea of population control, today viewed as important in protecting natural resources, as well as the availability of genetic tests for certain inherited disorders. The entire field of genetic counseling, which is gaining in popularity as more and more genetic tests become available to screen potential parents and fetuses, is viewed by some as a form of eugenics, or “interference in human reproduction." Although many others disagree with this comparison. Today, therefore, under its very broadest definition, eugenics has essentially turned back into applied human genetics. The word "eugenics" is clearly emotive and controversy still rages today over which current technologies and ideas can be classed as such, although the word is hardly ever used.

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    References

    University of Virginia. Eugenics in Virginia: Buck v. Bell and Forced Sterilization.

    Kevles, Daniel. In the Name of Darwin on PBS.org.

    Controlling Human Heredity: 1865 to the Present (Paul, 1998)