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

Social Darwinism. An Introduction

 In 1859, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.  In it, Darwin convincingly argued that all species evolved by adapting through an ongoing struggle for survival.   The book is considered one of the most influential in the natural sciences.  However, Darwin’s influence would go well beyond the biological.  Shortly after the Origin of Species publication, people began speculating on the social implication of Darwin’s theories.  

“Social Darwinism,” a term for various social theories allegedly based on Darwin’s work, described individuals and societies competing for limited resources where the fittest survived and reproduced.  These theories provided intellectual fodder for racism, imperialism, militarism, political and economic conservatism, and misguided public health practices.   

What is Natural Selection?  In other blogs, we go into more detail about Darwin’s theories.  For now, here is a 5-point synopsis of natural selection.   

  1. More species exist than their environments can sustain.
  2. As a consequence of 1, all species are in a perpetual struggle for survival.
  3. Individual members of each possess variations or traits. 
  4. Those with favourable traits survive and reproduce, passing on these traits.
  5. Over generations, as traits pass, species evolve to survive in their environment—those who don’t perish.  

Origin of Species focused on plants and animals and did not address human evolution.  However, social theorists enthusiastically applied Darwinian biological concepts to human society, identifying societies as individuals competing in a struggle leading to the evolution and improvement of nations, classes, and races.

Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, Herbert Spencer. The notion of competition between individuals and groups as inevitable and necessary predated Darwin and increasingly pervaded the 19th century.  Adam Smith advocated an economic model based on competition and minimal state intervention in his seminal work The Wealth of Nations (1776).  In his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798),Thomas Malthus, a clergyman, argued that people competed as populations outstripped limited resources – food, land, wealth.  Some, of course, would fall, but the strongest would survive. This competition, he insisted, led to social betterment, so state or private efforts to alleviate poverty were against nature.  Perhaps the strongest advocate of Social Darwinism was Herbert Spencer, who coined “survival of the fittest” in his Principles of Biology (1864).  The term helped bring attention to Darwin’s work and led to more applications to human society, including race, politics, economics, and medical practice like eugenics and euthanasia.

Politics, Social Inequality, Economics. Conservatives, concerned with the rising population of lower classes, cited natural selection as justification for refraining from poor relief in towns and cities.   Malthus and Spencer, two vehement individualists, insisted that poverty arose from flawed character and that state support for the poor contradicted the rules of nature and weakened society.  Similarly, industrialists like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie justified low wages and laissez-faire business practices that exploited weakness.  In The Gospel of Wealth (1900), Carnegie applauded “the concentration of business, industrial, and commercial, in the hands of a few and the competition to the progress of the race.” (4)

Race and Imperialism.Jacque Barzun writes that “The 19C was the heyday of physical anthropology, which divided mankind into three or more races” and “taken for an exact science in spite of its conflicting statements.” (577). Social Darwinism offered “scientific” support for racial categories that hardened in the latter part of the 19th century. Theorists applied Social Darwinist principles to nations.  Nationalists and imperialists appealed to social Darwinism to explain and justify colonial control of inferior ethnic groups and races, offering a rationale for displacement, unfair laws and even genocide.  For example, British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace supported European expansion at the expense of the “savage” and “inferior” indigenous peoples in the Americas and other continents.  Karl Pearson argued that the higher state of civilization arose racial struggle and the resulting survival of the physical and mentally fittest race. (Perry, 594)

An Infamous Legacy. Social Darwinism extended into the 20th century carrying its flawed reasoning and destructive implications with it.  Eugenics, founded by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton, inspired the sterilization and euthanizing of people deemed “unfit” – the mentally ill, criminals, developmental delayed, and people of colour – in countries like Canada, the United States, and especially Germany.  Marvin Perry contends that “The Social Darwinist notion of the struggle of the races for survival became a core doctrine of the Nazi Party after World War 1 and provided the scientific and ethical justification for genocide.  (596). Social Darwinist theories began to wane by the middle of the 20th century, mainly as Nazi atrocities realized many of the morbid implications of Social Darwinist thinking, including sterilization and, of course, the Holocaust. 

Selected Bibliography

Barzun, Jacques.  From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life.  New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2000.

Carnegie, Andrew.  The Gospel of Wealth. New York: Century, 1900. 

Hofstader, Richard. Social Darwinism in American Thought. 1955.

Koch, H.W. ed.  The Origins of the First World War. New York: Taplinger, 1972. 

Olson, Richard, ed., Science as Metaphor.  Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1971. 

Perry, Marvin. Ed. Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics, and Society. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.