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Encyclopedia > Eugenic

The word "eugenics" (from the Greek εὐγενής, for "well-born") was coined in 1883 by Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, to refer to the study and use of selective breeding (of animals or humans) to improve a species over generations, specifically in regards to hereditary features. Within a few years, Galton had refined his definition to include the specific varieties of "positive" eugenics (encouraging the "most fit" to reproduce more often) and "negative" eugenics (discouraging or preventing the "less fit" from reproducing). The term eugenicist can refer to a practitioner or simply an advocate of eugenics.


Early History

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.

Galton's formulation

However, the initial principle defined by Galton was directly tied to the work of Darwin, himself very influenced by Malthus. According to Darwin, the mechanisms of natural selection are thwarted by human civilization. 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. According to eugenicists, this practice would lead to an unbalanced proportion of weak or otherwise unfit citizens in society. Eugenics thus proposed actions to fix this imbalance. This basic principle inspired numerous and very diverse philosophies, scientific or pseudo-scientific theories and social practices.

In modern usage, it more commonly refers 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.

20th century advocacy and policy

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.

Germany under Adolf Hitler was infamous for its eugenics programs, which attempted to maintain a "pure" German race. Among other acts, the Nazis performed extensive experimentation on live human beings to test their genetic theories. During the 1930s and 1940s the Nazi regime forcibly sterilized hundreds of thousands of people who they viewed as mentally "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. 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 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 a 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, with the notable exception of Britain. 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 US'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.

Contemporary backlash

Though eugenics has been almost universally reviled since its ultimate fulfillment in the Holocaust, there is suspicion of whether eugenic sentiments or notions persist under other names in modern culture. Soon after World War II, many eugenicists in the United States, for example, realized that eugenics was rapidly losing popularity and created the term crypto-eugenics to describe what they thought must then be done: taking eugenics "underground." Many prominent eugenicists became 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 modern marriage counseling, a career change which initially grew out of his eugenic interests (promoting "healthy marriages" between "fit" couples) but later became an honest interest independent of what initially drew him to the topic. Occasionally various opinions on race, immigration policy, poverty, crime, or mental health are labeled as being "crypto-eugenics" though it is not a very heavily used term (often labeling as "eugenics" works well enough for the purposes of the accuser).

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 World War II, when eugenics fell out of popularity, most references to eugenics were removed from both the textbooks and future editions of the journals (whose names also often changed as well -- 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.

Post-WWII eugenics

The history of eugenics, and the concept of eugenics, have become more heavily discussed in the last ten 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, at least in the minds of many commentators (see, for example, Gattaca), just as Darwin's initial theory of evolution did in the 1880s, and the rediscovery of Mendel's laws did in the earliest years of the 20th century. The difference this time around is, however, that "eugenics" is used as a derogatory term -- not a favorable one.

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.

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.

See also

External links

Wikimedia Commons has multimedia related to:

Anti-eugenics and History of eugenics

Pro-eugenics websites

  Results from FactBites:
Eugenics Watch (2321 words)
Roots of Racism and Abortion: An Exploration of Eugenics.
Eugenics is dedicated to the proposition that all men are created unequal and the food is running short; that, in the struggle for food, those who have an inherited advantage prevail and pass the advantage on to their children who prevail even more; that this is how evolution, Yale and the English aristocracy happened.
A description of the eugenic societies and a description of their present strategy is the goal of the work of Eugenics Watch.
Future Generations (440 words)
The Case for Eugenics in a Nutshell, by Marian Van Court
Eugenics: Economics for the Long Run, by Edward M. Miller
Whether you support eugenics, oppose it, or are merely interested in learning more about it, we welcome you to participate in our discussion group.
  More results at FactBites »



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