Eugenics: An Introduction

Eugenics. The science of improving the population by controlled breeding for desirable inherited traits. From the Greek eugenes, meaning well-born.

Animal Husbandry.  The science of breeding.

In 1883, Francis Galton, first cousin to Charles Darwin, coined “eugenics”, a pseudoscience that advocated controlled reproduction to ensure the healthy evolution of human societies.  Eugenics became increasingly popular in the early 20th century, solidifying racial hierarchies and categories of the unfit – criminals, the mentally ill, and the feebleminded.  Programs in various countries encouraged the “fit” to reproduce while discouraging the unfit through measures ranging from segregation to elimination.

Francis Galton (1822-1911) Francis Galton grew up in England and inherited a significant fortune after his father died.  His extensive travels to places like Africa reinforced his sense of a rigid hierarchy of human categories.  He was not alone in this thinking as racial and ethnic determinism pervaded Western thought during the 19th century.  Darwin’s publication of the Origin of Species (1859) further inspired Galton to pursue social betterment through selective breeding. Galton believed that humans evolved through the natural selection of inborn traits, and parents transmitted intellectual and moral qualities to their children. He acknowledged social factors but insisted that inherited talent (or lack of) persevered.  

Turn of the Century:  Eugenics takes off. Various factors played into eugenics growing popularity into the 20th century.  The “rediscovery” of Gregor Mendel’s claims of heredity as the dominant determinant in human life bolstered eugenic claims of biological determinism.  Visible signs of poverty, crime, and mental illness accompanied urban growth evoked concerns about societal “degeneration” – an oft-used term at the time.  As Diane B. Paul writes, “Middle-class people of every political persuasion – conservatives, liberals, and socialists, were alarmed by the apparent profligate breeding of what in Britain was called the “social residue.” (Paul, 235)

Alarmed by these developments and confident in their theories of selective reproduction, eugenics advocates began implementing practices to realize their visions.  Scholars have identified these practices as “positive” and “negative” eugenics. 

Positive Eugenics. Positive eugenics involved the promotion and practice of the selective breeding of the “fit.”  He pointed to the example of animal husbandry as a model to follow.  “If a twentieth part of the cost and pains,” he said, “were spent in measures for the improvement of the human race that is spent on the improvement of the breeding of horses and cattle, what a galaxy of geniuses might we create!  (Larson 180).

Negative Eugenics in Practice. The early focus on positive eugenics would give way to prohibitive measures in the twentieth century.  In the United States, Canada, and much of Northern Europe, as well as Britain, the central question was how best to discourage breeding by moral and mental defectives.” (Crook, 235)  The practice of eugenics ranged from segregation to extermination.  Practices also varied over time and from country to country.  Generally, the initial approach involved the segregation of male and female “defectives”. Some feared another option, sterilization, would promote images of extremism—however, institutional expenses coupled with improved sterilization technology made this alternative a more popular choice.  Accordingly, governments legalized the practice. Sterilization laws, for instance, had been passed in 30 American states and 3 Canadian provinces. (Paul, 236) 

Not surprisingly, the worst expression of eugenics occurred in Nazi Germany.  The Aktion T-4 programme and subsequent programs “euthanized” up to 200,000 of the country’s institutionalized mentally and physically disabled, some with the tacit consent of the families. (Paul, 236)  

Opposition.  Predicably, eugenics attracted virulent opposition from the Catholic Church, labour groups, liberal politicians, and scientific community members. The Catholic Church, already opposed to abortion and contraception, vehemently opposed sterilization. Labour groups spoke out against eugenics, knowing that many working and lower classes, especially immigrants, fell into eugenic categories of unfit.  Scientists readily challenged eugenic claims and the Mendelian foundation by highlighting the nurture side of the nature vs nurture debates of the time. 

Conclusion.  Blatant Nazi atrocities in the name of racial hygiene, coupled with scientific exposures of its falsities, undermined eugenic claims.  However, it did become one of the most influential and devastating of the broader social Darwinist movement.

This blog offers a rudimentary introduction to eugenics.  Future blogs will address more specific aspects of this topic.

Selected Bibliography

Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. Francis Galton and the Study of Heredity in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Garland, 1985.

Crook, Paul. Darwin’s Coat-Tails: Essays on Social Darwinism.  New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc., 2007.

Larson, Edward J.  Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory.  New York: Modern Library, 2006. .

Paul, Diane B. “Darwin, Social Darwinism, and Eugenics.”  Jonathan Hodge and Gregory Radick eds.  The Cambridge Companion to Darwin.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009