AskDefine | Define eugenics

Dictionary Definition

eugenics n : the study of methods of improving genetic qualities by selective breeding (especially as applied to human mating) [ant: dysgenics]

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Comes from Greek meaning "good breeding". Coined in 1883 by an English scientist, Francis Galton, who was cousin of Charles Darwin.


  1. The science of improving stock, whether human or animal.
  2. A social philosophy which advocates the improvement of human hereditary qualities through selective breeding.


Extensive Definition

Sir Francis Galton systematized these ideas and practices according to new knowledge about the evolution of man and animals provided by the theory of his cousin Charles Darwin during the 1860s and 1870s. After reading Darwin's Origin of Species, Galton built upon Darwin's ideas whereby the mechanisms of natural selection were potentially thwarted by human civilization. He reasoned that, 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; and only by changing these social policies could society be saved from a "reversion towards mediocrity," a phrase he first coined in statistics and which later changed to the now common "regression towards the mean."
Galton first sketched out his theory in the 1865 article "Hereditary Talent and Character," then elaborated further in his 1869 book Hereditary Genius. He began by studying the way in which human intellectual, moral, and personality traits tended to run in families. Galton's basic argument was "genius" and "talent" were hereditary traits in humans (although neither he nor Darwin yet had a working model of this type of heredity). He concluded since one could use artificial selection to exaggerate traits in other animals, one could expect similar results when applying such models to humans. As he wrote 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.
Galton claimed that the less intelligent were more fertile than the more intelligent of his time. Galton did not propose any selection methods; rather, he hoped a solution would be found if social mores changed in a way that encouraged people to see the importance of breeding.
Galton first used the word eugenic in his 1883 Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development, a book in which he meant "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, hereditary 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 cognizance 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 generalized one than viticulture which I once ventured to use.
In 1904 he clarified his definition of eugenics 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."
Galton's formulation of eugenics was based on a strong statistical approach, influenced heavily by Adolphe Quetelet's "social physics". Unlike Quetelet, however, Galton did not exalt the "average man" but decried him as mediocre. Galton and his statistical heir Karl Pearson developed what was called the biometrical approach to eugenics, which developed new and complex statistical models (later exported to wholly different fields) to describe the heredity of traits. However, with the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel's hereditary laws, two separate camps of eugenics advocates emerged. One was made up of statisticians, the other of biologists. Statisticians thought the biologists had exceptionally crude mathematical models, while biologists thought the statisticians knew little about biology.
Eugenics eventually referred to human selective reproduction with an intent to create children with desirable traits, generally through the approach of influencing differential birth rates. These policies were mostly divided into two categories: positive eugenics, the increased reproduction of those seen to have advantageous hereditary traits; and negative eugenics, the discouragement of reproduction by those with hereditary traits perceived as poor. Negative eugenic policies in the past have ranged from attempts at segregation to sterilization and even genocide. Positive eugenic policies have typically taken the form of awards or bonuses for "fit" parents who have another child. Relatively innocuous practices like marriage counseling had early links with eugenic ideology.
Eugenics is superficially related to what would later be known as Social Darwinism. While both claimed intelligence was hereditary, eugenics asserted new policies were needed to actively change the status quo towards a more "eugenic" state, while the Social Darwinists argued 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).

Nazi Germany

mainarticle Nazi eugenics
Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler was infamous for eugenics programs which attempted to maintain a "pure" German race through a series of programs that ran under the banner of "racial hygiene". Among other activities, the Nazis performed extensive experimentation on live human beings to test their genetic theories, ranging from simple measurement of physical characteristics to the 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 whom they viewed as mentally and physically "unfit", an estimated 400,000 between 1934 and 1937. The scale of the Nazi program prompted one American eugenics advocate to seek an expansion of their program, with one complaining that "the Germans are beating us at our own game". The Nazis went further, however, killing tens of thousands of the institutionalized disabled through compulsory "euthanasia" programs.
They also implemented a number of "positive" eugenics policies, giving awards to "Aryan" women who had large numbers of children and encouraged a service in which "racially pure" single women could deliver illegitimate children. Allegations that such women were also impregnated by SS officers in the Lebensborn were not proven at the Nuremburg trials, but new evidence (and the testimony of Lebensborn children) has established more details about Lebensborn practices ( . Also, "racially valuable" children from occupied countries were forcibly removed from their parents and adopted by German people. Many of their concerns for eugenics and racial hygiene were also explicitly present in their systematic killing of millions of "undesirable" people including Jews, Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses and homosexuals during the Holocaust (much of the killing equipment and methods employed in the death camps were first developed in the euthanasia program). The scope and coercion involved in the German eugenics programs along with a strong use of the rhetoric of eugenics and so-called "racial science" throughout the regime created an indelible cultural association between eugenics and the Third Reich in the postwar years.
Some researchers, such as John Glad, have questioned the relation between eugenics and the Holocaust. They argue that, contrary to popular beliefs Hitler did not regard the Jews as intellectually inferior and did not send them to the concentration camps on these grounds. In fact, in the 1930s Germans regarded the Jews as a highly talented people. Hitler had different reasons for his genocidal policies toward the Jews. Seymour W. Itzkoff writes that the Holocaust was "a vast dysgenic program to rid Europe of highly intelligent challengers to the existing Christian domination by a numerically and politically minuscule minority". Therefore, according to Itzkoff, "the Holocaust was the very antithesis of eugenic practice." However, this proposition is not supported by most researchers. Hitler did regard Jews as being intelligent, but also considered them inferior in all other ways - morally, spiritually, artistically and physically. In his view, their intelligence enabled them to thrive, but only by undermining and perverting the civilisation of other races. The extensive Nazi propaganda comparing Jews to plagues of rats demonstrates that the Holocaust was indeed a eugenics program in its conception.

Eugenics and the United States, 1890s–1945

One of the earliest modern advocates of eugenics (before it was labeled as such) was Alexander Graham Bell. In 1881 Bell investigated the rate of deafness on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. From this he concluded that deafness was hereditary in nature and, through noting that congenitally deaf parents were more likely to produce deaf children, tentatively suggested that couples where both were deaf should not marry, in his lecture Memoir upon the formation of a deaf variety of the human race presented to the National Academy of Sciences on 13 November 1883. However, it was his hobby of livestock breeding which led to his appointment to biologist David Starr Jordan's Committee on Eugenics, under the auspices of the American Breeders Association. The committee unequivocally extended the principle to man. Like many other early eugenicists, Bell proposed controlling immigration for the purpose of eugenics, and warned that boarding schools for the deaf could possibly be considered as breeding places of a deaf human race.
Eugenics was supported by Woodrow Wilson, and, in 1907, helped to make Indiana the first of more than thirty states to adopt legislation aimed at compulsory sterilization of certain individuals. Although the law was overturned by the Indiana Supreme Court in 1921, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a Virginia law allowing for the compulsory sterilization of patients of state mental institutions in 1927.
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, began as director of a biological research station based in Cold Spring Harbor where he experimented with evolution in plants and animals. In 1904 Davenport received funds from the Carnegie Institution to found the Station for Experimental Evolution. The Eugenics Record Office opened in 1910 while Davenport and Harry H. Laughlin began to promote eugenics.
During the 20th century, researchers became interested in the idea that mental illness could run in families and conducted a number of studies to document the heritability of such illnesses as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression. Their findings were used by the eugenics movement as proof for its cause. State laws were written in the late 1800s and early 1900s to prohibit marriage and force sterilization of the mentally ill in order to prevent the "passing on" of mental illness to the next generation. These laws were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1927 and were not abolished until the mid-20th century. By 1945 over 45,000 mentally ill individuals in the United States had been forcibly sterilized. All in all, 60,000 Americans were sterilized. Though their methodology and research methods are now understood as highly flawed, at the time this was seen as legitimate scientific research. It did, however, have scientific detractors (notably, Thomas Hunt Morgan, one of the few Mendelians to explicitly criticize eugenics), though most of these focused more on what they considered the crude methodology of eugenicists, and the characterization of almost every human characteristic as being hereditary, rather than the idea of eugenics itself.
Some states sterilized "imbeciles" for much of the 20th century. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1927 Buck v. Bell case that the state of Virginia could sterilize those it thought unfit. The most significant era of eugenic sterilization was between 1907 and 1963, when over 64,000 individuals were forcibly sterilized under eugenic legislation in the United States. A favorable report on the results of sterilization in California, the state with the most sterilizations by far, 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 went on trial for war crimes in Nuremberg after World War II, they justified the mass sterilizations (over 450,000 in less than a decade) by citing the United States as their inspiration.
Both W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey supported eugenics or ideas resembling eugenics as a way to reduce African American suffering and improve stature.. However, methods of eugenics were applied to reformulate more restrictive definitions of white racial purity in existing state laws banning interracial marriage: the so-called anti-miscegenation laws. The most famous example of the influence of eugenics and its emphasis on strict racial segregation on such "anti-miscegenation" legislation was Virginia's Racial Integrity Act of 1924. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned this law in 1967 in Loving v. Virginia, and declared anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional.
With the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, eugenicists for the first time played an important 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 15 percent from previous years, to control the number of "unfit" individuals entering the country. While eugenicists did support the act, the most important backers were union leaders like Samuel Gompers. The new act, inspired by the eugenic belief in the racial superiority of "old stock" white Americans as members of the "Nordic race" (a form of white supremacy), strengthened the position of existing laws prohibiting race- mixing. Eugenic considerations also lay behind the adoption of incest laws in much of the U.S. and were used to justify many anti-miscegenation laws.
Various authors, notably Stephen Jay Gould, have repeatedly asserted that restrictions on immigration passed in the United States during the 1920s (and overhauled in 1965 with the Immigration and Nationality Act) were motivated by the goals of eugenics. During the early 20th 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 they would pollute the national gene pool if their numbers went unrestricted. It has been 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, Congress gave virtually no consideration to these factors. According to these authors, the restrictions were motivated primarily by a desire to maintain the country's cultural integrity against a heavy influx of foreigners. This interpretation is not, however, accepted by most historians of eugenics.
Some who disagree with the idea of eugenics in general contend that eugenics legislation still had benefits. 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 could lead to genocide was not taken seriously.


In the early part of the Shōwa era, Japanese governments executed a eugenic policy to limit the birth of children with "inferior" traits, as well as aiming to protect the life and health of mothers.
The Race Eugenic Protection Law was submitted from 1934 to 1938 to the Diet. After four amendments, this draft was promulgated as the National Eugenic Law in 1940 by the Konoe government . According to the Eugenic Protection Law (1948), sterilization could be enforced on criminals "with genetic predisposition to commit crime", patients with genetic diseases such as total color-blindness, hemophilia, albinism and ichthyosis, and mental affections such as schizophrenia, manic-depressiveness and epilepsy. . Mental illnesses were added in 1952.
The Leprosy Prevention laws of 1907, 1931 and 1953, the last one only repealed in 1996, permitted the segregation of patients in sanitarium where forced abortions and sterilization were common, even if the laws did not refer to it, and authorized punishmement of patients "disturbing peace" as most Japanese leprologists believed that the body constitution vulnerable to the disease was inheritable. There were a few Japanese leprologists such as Noburo Ogasawara who argued against the "isolation-sterilization policy" but he was denounced as a traitor to the nation at 15th conference of the Japanese Association of Leprology in 1941.
Center staff also attempted to discourage marriage between Japanese women and Korean men who had been recruited from the peninsula as laborers following its annexation by Japan in 1910. In 1942, a survey report argued that "the Korean laborers brought to Japan, where they have established permanent residency, are of the lower classes and therefore of inferior constitution...By fathering children with Japanese women, these men could lower the caliber of the Yamato minzoku."
One of the last eugenic measure of the Shōwa regime was taken by the Higashikuni government. On 19 August, 1945, the Home Ministry ordered local government offices to establish a prostitution service for allied soldiers to preserve the "purity" of the "Japanese race". The official declaration stated that : "Through the sacrifice of thousands of "Okichis" of the Shōwa era, we shall construct a dike to hold back the mad frenzy of the occupation troops and cultivate and preserve the purity of our race long into the future...."


In Canada, the eugenics movement took place early in the 20th century, particularly in Alberta, and was quite popular. The Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta was enacted in 1928, focusing the movement on the sterilization of mentally deficient individuals, as determined by the Alberta Eugenics Board. The campaign to enforce this action was backed by groups such as the United Farm Women's Group, including key member Emily Murphy.
Individuals were assessed using IQ tests like the Stanford-Binet. This posed a problem to new immigrants arriving in Canada, as many had not mastered the English language, and often their scores denoted them as having impaired intellectual functioning. As a result, many of those sterilized under the Sexual Sterilization Act were immigrants who were unfairly categorized.
The popularity of the eugenics movement peaked during the depression. Individuals sought an explanation for the financial problems of the nation, and the notion of defective breeding became a scapegoat; citizens blamed individuals considered to be subhuman. The end of the Canadian eugenics movement was brought about when the Sexual Sterilization Act was repealed in 1972.


The policy of removing Aboriginal children from their parents emerged from an opinion based on Eugenics theory in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Australia that the 'full-blood' tribal Aborigine would be unable to sustain itself, and was doomed to inevitable extinction, as at the time huge numbers of aborigines were in fact dying out, from diseases caught from European settlers. An ideology at the time held that mankind could be divided into a civilisational hierarchy. This white supremacist notion supposed that Northern Europeans were superior in civilisation and that Aborigines were inferior. According to this view, the increasing numbers of mixed-descent children in Australia, labelled as 'half-castes' (or alternatively 'crossbreeds', 'quadroons' and 'octoroons'). In the first half of the twentieth century, this led to policies and legislation that resulted in the removal of children from their tribe. The stated aim was to culturally assimilate mixed-descent people into contemporary Australian society. In all states and territories legislation was passed in the early years of the twentieth century which gave Aboriginal protectors guardianship rights over Aborigines up to the age of sixteen or twenty-one. Policemen or other agents of the state (such as Aboriginal Protection Officers), were given the power to locate and transfer babies and children of mixed descent, from their communities into institutions. In these Australian states and territories, half-caste institutions (both government or missionary) were established in the early decades of the twentieth-century for the reception of these separated children. The 2002 movie Rabbit-Proof Fence portrays this system and the harrowing consequences of attempting to overcome it.
In 1915 A.O. Neville was appointed the second Western Australia State Chief Protector of Aborigines. During the next quarter-century, he presided over the now notorious 'Assimilation' policy of removing mixed-race Aboriginal children from their parents. This policy in turn created the Stolen Generations and set in motion a grieving process that through the now widely accepted concept of trans-generational grief, would affect many generations to come. In 1936 Neville became the Commissioner for Native Affairs, a post he held until his retirement in 1940.
Neville believed that biological absorption was the key to 'uplifting the Native race.' Speaking before the Moseley Royal Commission, which investigated the administration of Aboriginals in 1934, he defended the policies of forced settlement, removing children from parents, surveillance, discipline and punishment, arguing that "they have to be protected against themselves whether they like it or not. They cannot remain as they are. The sore spot requires the application of the surgeon's knife for the good of the patient, and probably against the patients will."
In his twilight years Neville continued to actively promote his policy. Towards the end of his career, Neville published Australia's Coloured Minority, a text outlining his plan for the biological absorption of aboriginal people into white Australia.


From about 1934 to until 1975, Sweden sterilized more than 62,000 people with Herman Lundborg in the lead of the project. Sweden's large-scale eugenics program targeted the mentally ill. Most sterilizations were voluntary, but nine per cent of the sterilized were more or less forced to do so. As was the case in other programs, ethnicity and race were believed to be connected to mental and physical health. Still, a comprehensive critical investigation showed there is no evidence the Swedish sterilization programme targeted ethnic minorities . While many Swedes disliked the program, politicians generally supported it; the left supported it more as a means of promoting social health, while amongst the right it was more about racial protectionism. In 1999 the Swedish government began paying compensation to the victims and their families.


In Britain, eugenics never received significant state funding, but it was supported by many prominent figures of different political persuasions before World War I, including Conservative Arthur Balfour, the future Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Fabian socialists such as George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. Furthermore, its emphasis was more upon class, rather than race. Indeed, Galton expressed these views during a lecture in 1901 in which he placed the British society into groups. These groupings are shown in the figure and indicate the proportion of society falling into each group and their perceived genetic worth. Galton suggested that negative eugenics (i.e. an attempt to prevent them from bearing offspring) should be applied only to those in the lowest social group (the "Undesirables"), while positive eugenics applied to the higher classes. However, he appreciated the worth of the higher working classes to society and industry.
Sterilisation programmes were never legalised, although some were carried out in private upon the mentally ill by clinicians who were in favour of a more widespread eugenics plan.
The popularity of eugenics in Britain was reflected by the fact that only two universities established courses in this field (University College London and Liverpool University), and the position of a professorship in eugenics was never created at either. The Galton Institute, affiliated to UCL, was headed by Galton's protégé, Karl Pearson.

Other countries

Almost all non-Catholic Western nations adopted some eugenic legislations. In July 1933 Germany 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." Two provinces in Canada carried out thousands of compulsory sterilizations, and these lasted into the 1970s. Many First Nations (native Canadians) were targeted, as well as immigrants from Eastern Europe, as the program identified racial and ethnic minorities to be genetically inferior. Besides the large-scale program in the United States, other nations included Australia, Norway, France, Finland, Denmark, Estonia, Iceland, and Switzerland with programs to sterilize people the government declared to be mentally deficient. Singapore practiced a limited form of eugenics that involved discouraging marriage between university graduates and the rest through segregation in matchmaking agencies, in the hope that the former would produce better children.

Marginalization after World War II

After the experience of Nazi Germany, many ideas about "racial hygiene" and "unfit" members of society were publicly renounced by politicians and members of the scientific community. The Nuremberg Trials against former Nazi leaders revealed to the world many of the regime's genocidal practices and resulted in formalized policies of medical ethics and the 1950 UNESCO statement on race. Many scientific societies released their own similar "race statements" over the years, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, developed in response to abuses during the Second World War, was adopted by the United Nations in 1948 and affirmed, "Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family." In continuation, the 1978 UNESCO declaration on race and racial prejudice states that the fundamental equality of all human beings is the ideal toward which ethics and science should converge.
In reaction to Nazi abuses, eugenics became almost universally reviled in many of the nations where it had once been popular (however, some eugenics programs, including sterilization, continued quietly for decades). Many pre-war eugenicists engaged in what they later labeled "crypto-eugenics", purposefully taking their eugenic beliefs "underground" and becoming respected anthropologists, biologists and geneticists in the postwar world (including Robert Yerkes in the U.S. and Otmar von Verschuer in Germany). Californian eugenicist Paul Popenoe founded marriage counseling during the 1950s, a career change which grew from his eugenic interests in promoting "healthy marriages" between "fit" couples.
The American Life League, an opponent of abortion, charges that eugenics was merely "re-packaged" after the war, and promoted anew in the guise of the population-control and environmentalism movements. They claim, for example, that Planned Parenthood was funded and cultivated by the Eugenics Society for these reasons. Julian Huxley, the first Director-General of UNESCO and a founder of the World Wildlife Fund was also a Eugenics Society president and a strong supporter of eugenics
[E]ven though it is quite true that any radical eugenic policy will be for many years politically and psychologically impossible, it will be important for UNESCO to see that the eugenic problem is examined with the greatest care, and that the public mind is informed of the issues at stake so that much that now is unthinkable may at least become thinkable. --Julian Huxley
High school and college textbooks from the 1920s through the '40s often had chapters touting the scientific progress to be had from applying eugenic principles to the population. Many early scientific journals devoted to heredity in general were run by eugenicists and featured eugenics articles alongside studies of heredity in nonhuman organisms. After eugenics fell out of scientific favor, most references to eugenics were removed from textbooks and subsequent editions of relevant journals. Even the names of some journals changed to reflect new attitudes. For example, Eugenics Quarterly became Social Biology in 1969 (the journal still exists today, though it looks little like its predecessor). Notable members of the American Eugenics Society (1922–94) during the second half of the 20th century included Joseph Fletcher, originator of Situational ethics; Dr. Clarence Gamble of the Procter & Gamble fortune; and Garrett Hardin, a population control advocate and author of the essay The Tragedy of the Commons.
In the United States, the eugenics movement had largely lost most popular and political support by the end of the 1930s while forced sterilizations mostly ended in the 1960s with the last performed in 1981. Many US states continued to prohibit biracial marriages with "anti-miscegenation laws" such as Virginia's The Racial Integrity Act of 1924, until they were over-ruled by the Supreme Court in 1967 in Loving v. Virginia. The Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, which was designed to limit the immigration of "dysgenic" Italians, and eastern European Jews, was repealed and replaced by the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965.
However, some prominent academics continued to support eugenics after the war. In 1963 the Ciba Foundation convened a conference in London under the title “Man and His Future,” at which three distinguished biologists and Nobel laureates (Hermann Muller, Joshua Lederberg, and Francis Crick) all spoke strongly in favor of eugenics.
A few nations, notably, Canada and Sweden, maintained large-scale eugenics programs, including forced sterilization of mentally handicapped individuals, as well as other practices, until the 1970s.

Modern eugenics, genetic engineering, and ethical re-evaluation

Beginning in the 1980s, the history and concept of eugenics were widely discussed as knowledge about genetics advanced significantly. Endeavors such as the Human Genome Project made the effective modification of the human species seem possible again (as did Darwin's initial theory of evolution in the 1860s, along with the rediscovery of Mendel's laws in the early 20th century). The difference at the beginning of the 21st century was the guarded attitude towards eugenics, which had become a watchword to be feared rather than embraced.

Suggestions and ideas

A few scientific researchers such as psychologist Richard Lynn, psychologist Raymond Cattell, and doctor Gregory Stock have openly called for eugenic policies using modern technology, but they represent a minority opinion in current scientific and cultural circles. One attempted implementation of a form of eugenics was a "genius sperm bank" (1980–99) created by Robert Klark Graham, from which nearly 230 children were conceived (the best known donors were Nobel Prize winners William Shockley and J.D.Watson). In the U.S. and Europe, though, these attempts have frequently been criticized as in the same spirit of classist and racist forms of eugenics of the 1930s. Because of its association with compulsory sterilization and the racial ideals of the Nazi Party, the word eugenics is rarely used by the advocates of such programs.
Eugenicists have argued that immigration from countries with low national IQ is undesirable. According to Raymond Cattell "when a country is opening its doors to immigration from diverse countries, it is like a farmer who buys his seeds from different sources by the sack, with sacks of different average quality of contents."


A similar screening policy (including prenatal 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. Tests for the gene are compulsory for both partners, prior to church wedding.

United States

There are some states that require a blood test prior to marriage. While these tests are typically restricted to the detection of the sexually transmitted disease syphilis (which was the most common STD at the time these laws were enacted), some partners will voluntarily test for other diseases and genetic incompatibilities.
Harris polls in 1986 and 1992 recorded majority public support for limited forms of germ-line intervention, especially to prevent "children inheriting usually fatal genetic disease".
In 1971, lobbying by the US organization The International Association for Voluntary Sterilization (AVS), led politicians and officials at the Office for Equal Opportunity to pay for voluntary sterilization of low income Americans for birth-control purposes. AVS also focused on the International community, and its lobbying led to a US foreign policy and funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development to encourage Third World/Developing World countries to utilise abortion and sterilization in order to control their population growth. For further information see EngenderHealth.

Dor Yeshorim

Dor Yeshorim, a program which seeks to reduce the incidence of Tay-Sachs disease, Cystic Fibrosis, Canavan disease, Fanconi anemia, Familial Dysautonomia, Glycogen storage disease, Bloom's Syndrome, Gaucher Disease, Niemann-Pick Disease, and Mucolipidosis IV among certain Jewish communities, is another screening program which has drawn comparisons with liberal eugenics. In Israel, at the expense of the state, the general public is advised to carry out genetic tests to diagnose these diseases before the birth of a baby. If an unborn baby is diagnosed with one of these diseases among which Tay-Sachs is the most commonly known, the pregnancy may be terminated, subject to consent. Most other Ashkenazi Jewish communities also run screening programs because of the higher incidence of genetic diseases. In some Jewish communities, the ancient custom of matchmaking (shidduch) is still practiced, and in order to attempt to prevent the tragedy of infant death which always results from being homozygous for Tay-Sachs, associations such as the strongly observant Dor Yeshorim (which was founded by a rabbi who lost four children to Tay-Sachs with the purpose of preventing others from suffering the same tragedy) test young couples to check whether they carry a risk of passing on fatal conditions. If both the young man and woman are Tay-Sachs carriers, it is common for the match to be broken off. Judaism, like numerous other religions, discourages abortion unless there is a risk to the mother, in which case her needs take precedence. The effort is not aimed at eradicating the hereditary traits, but rather at the occurrence of homozygosity. The actual impact of this program on allele frequencies is unknown, but little impact would be expected because the program does not impose genetic selection. Instead, it encourages disassortative mating.

Ethical re-assessment

Ideological social determinists, some of which have obtained college degrees in fields relevant to eugenics, often describe eugenics as a pseudoscience. Modern inquiries into the potential use of genetic engineering have led to an increased invocation of the history of eugenics in discussions of bioethics, most often as a cautionary tale. Some ethicists suggest that even non-coercive eugenics programs would be inherently unethical, though this view has been challenged by such thinkers as Nicholas Agar.
In modern bioethics literature, the history of eugenics presents many moral and ethical questions. Commentators have suggested the new eugenics will come from reproductive technologies that will 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 predominantly motivated by individual competitiveness and the desire to create the best opportunities for children, rather than an urge to improve the species as a whole, which characterized the early 20th-century forms of eugenics. Because of this non-coercive nature, lack of involvement by the state and a difference in goals, some commentators have questioned whether such activities are eugenics or something else altogether. But critics note that Francis Galton, did not advocate coercion when he defined the principles of eugenics. In other words, eugenics does not mean coercion. It is, according to Galton who originated the term, the proper label for bioengineering of better human beings.
Daniel Kevles argues that eugenics and the conservation of natural resources are similar propositions. Both can be practiced foolishly so as to abuse individual rights, but both can be practiced wisely.
Some disability activists argue that, although their impairments may cause them pain or discomfort, what really disables them as members of society is a sociocultural system that does not recognize their right to genuinely equal treatment. They express skepticism that any form of eugenics could be to the benefit of the disabled considering their treatment by historical eugenic campaigns.
James D. Watson, the first director of the Human Genome Project, initiated the Ethical, Legal and Social Implications Program (ELSI) which has funded a number of studies into the implications of human genetic engineering (along with a prominent website on the history of eugenics), because:
In putting ethics so soon into the genome agenda, I was responding to my own personal fear that all too soon critics of the Genome Project would point out that I was a representative of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory that once housed the controversial Eugenics Record Office. My not forming a genome ethics program quickly might be falsely used as evidence that I was a closet eugenicist, having as my real long-term purpose the unambiguous identification of genes that lead to social and occupational stratification as well as genes justifying racial discrimination.
Distinguished geneticists including Nobel Prize-winners John Sulston ("I don't think one ought to bring a clearly disabled child into the world") and Watson ("Once you have a way in which you can improve our children, no one can stop it") support genetic screening. Which ideas should be described as "eugenic" are still controversial in both public and scholarly spheres. Some observers such as Philip Kitcher have described the use of genetic screening by parents as making possible a form of "voluntary" eugenics.
Some modern subcultures advocate different forms of eugenics assisted by human cloning and human genetic engineering, sometimes even as part of a new religious movement (see Raëlism, Cosmotheism, or Prometheism). These groups also talk of "neo-eugenics". "conscious evolution", or "genetic freedom".
Behavioral traits often identified as potential targets for modification through human genetic engineering include intelligence, depression, schizophrenia, alcoholism, sexual behavior (and orientation) and criminality.


Diseases vs. traits

While the science of genetics has increasingly provided means by which certain characteristics and conditions can be identified and understood, given the complexity of human genetics, culture, and psychology there is at this point no agreed objective means of determining which traits might be ultimately desirable or undesirable. Eugenic manipulations that reduce the propensity for criminality and violence, for example, might result in the population being enslaved by an outside aggressor it can no longer defend itself against. On the other hand, genetic diseases like hemochromatosis can increase susceptibility to illness, cause physical deformities, and other dysfunctions. Eugenic measures against many of these diseases are already being undertaken in societies around the world, while measures against traits that affect more subtle, poorly understood traits, such as criminality, are relegated to the realm of speculation and science fiction. The effects of diseases are essentially wholly negative, and societies everywhere seek to reduce their impact by various means, some of which are eugenic in all but name. The other traits that are discussed have positive as well as negative effects and are not generally targeted at present anywhere.

Slippery slope

A common criticism of eugenics is that it inevitably leads to measures that are unethical (Lynn 2001). A hypothetical scenario posits that if one racial minority group is on average less intelligent than the racial majority group, then it is more likely that the racial minority group will be submitted to a eugenics program rather than the least intelligent members of the whole population.
H. L. Kaye wrote of "the obvious truth that eugenics has been discredited by Hitler's crimes," (Kaye 1989). R. L. Hayman argued "the eugenics movement is an anachronism, its political implications exposed by the Holocaust," (Hayman 1990).
Steven Pinker has stated that it is "a conventional wisdom among left-leaning academics that genes imply genocide." He has responded to this "conventional wisdom" by comparing the history of Marxism, which had the opposite position on genes to that of Nazism:
But the 20th century suffered "two" ideologies that led to genocides. The other one, Marxism, had no use for race, didn't believe in genes and denied that human nature was a meaningful concept. Clearly, it's not an emphasis on genes or evolution that is dangerous. It's the desire to remake humanity by coercive means (eugenics or social engineering) and the belief that humanity advances through a struggle in which superior groups (race or classes) triumph over inferior ones.
Richard Lynn broadens his criticism of eugenics, by arguing that any social philosophy is capable of ethical misuse. Though Christian principles have aided in the abolition of slavery and the establishment of welfare programs, he notes that the Christian church has also burned many dissidents at the stake and allowed for the killing of large numbers of innocent people by Crusaders. Lynn argues the appropriate response is to condemn these killings, but believes Christianity does not "inevitably [lead] to the extermination of those who do not accept its doctrines," (Lynn 2001).

Genetic diversity

Eugenic policies could also lead to loss of genetic diversity, in which case a culturally accepted improvement of the gene pool would very likely, as evidenced in numerous instances in isolated island populations (e.g. the Dodo, Raphus cucullatus, of Mauritius) result in extinction due to increased vulnerability to disease, reduced ability to adapt to environmental change and other factors both known and unknown. A long-term eugenics plan might lead to a scenario similar to this because the elimination of traits deemed undesirable would reduce genetic diversity by definition. (Galton 2001, 48).
Proponents of eugenics argue that in any one generation any realistic program would make only minor changes in the gene pool, giving plenty of time to reverse direction if unintended consequences emerge, reducing the likelihood of the elimination of desirable genes. Proponents of eugenics argue that any appreciable reduction in diversity is so far in the future that little concern is needed for now.
The possible elimination of the autism genotype is a significant political issue in the autism rights movement, which claims autism is a form of neurodiversity. Many advocates of Down Syndrome rights also consider Down Syndrome (Trisomy-21) a form of neurodiversity.

Heterozygous recessive traits

In some instances efforts to eradicate certain single-gene mutations would be nearly impossible. In the event the condition in question was a heterozygous recessive trait, the problem is that by eliminating the visible unwanted trait, there are still as many genes for the condition left in the gene pool as were eliminated according to the Hardy-Weinberg principle, which states that a population's genetics are defined as pp+2pq+qq at equilibrium. With genetic testing it may be possible to detect all of the heterozygous recessive traits, but only at great cost with the current technology. Under normal circumstances it is only possible to eliminate a dominant allele from the gene pool. Recessive traits can be severely reduced, but never eliminated unless the complete genetic makeup of all members of the pool was known, as aforementioned. As only very few undesirable traits, such as Huntington's disease, are dominant, the practical value for "eliminating" traits is quite low.
However, there are examples of eugenic acts that managed to lower the prevalence of recessive diseases, although not influencing the prevalence of heterozygote carriers of those diseases. The elevated prevalence of certain genetically transmitted diseases among the Ashkenazi Jewish population (Tay-Sachs, Cystic Fibrosis, Canavan's disease and Goucher's disease), has been decreased in current populations by the application of genetic screening.



Some supporters of eugenics allege that a dysgenic decline in intelligence is occurring, which may lead to the collapse of civilization, and justify eugenic programs on that basis.

Potential benefits

Small differences in average IQ at the group level might theoretically have large effects on social outcomes. Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray altered the mean IQ (100) of the U.S. National Longitudinal Survey of Youth's population sample by randomly deleting individuals below an IQ of 103 until the population mean reached 103. This calculation was conducted twice and averaged together to avoid error from the random selection. This test showed that the new group with an average IQ of 103 had a poverty rate 25% lower than a group with an average IQ of 100. Similar substantial correlations in high school drop-out rates, crime rates, and other outcomes were measured.
Indeed, many studies suggest that IQ correlates with various socioeconomic factors. However, to what extent IQ is a cause of these socioeconomic factors, as opposed to a consequence of them, is disputed. Studies have suggested, for example, that education increases an individual's IQ -- although other studies have shown that education has little to no effect.



  • *Elof Axel Carlson, The Unfit: A History of a Bad Idea (Cold Spring Harbor, New York: Cold Spring Harbor Press, 2001). ISBN 0-87969-587-0
  • Daniel Kevles, In the name of eugenics: Genetics and the uses of human heredity (New York: Knopf, 1985).
  • Dieter Kuntz, ed., Deadly medicine: creating the master race (Washington, DC: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2004). online exhibit
  • Ruth C. Engs, The Eugenics Movement: An Encyclopedia. (Westport CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005). ISBN 0-313-32791-2.
  • John Glad, Future Human Evolution: Eugenics in the Twenty-First Century. (Hermitage Publishers, 2008). ISBN 1-55779-154-6.
  • 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 Jay Gould, The mismeasure of man (New York: Norton, 1981).
  • Ewen & Ewen, Typecasting: On the Arts and Sciences of Human Inequality (New York, Seven Stories Press, 2006).*Edwin Black, War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race (Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003). ISBN 1-56858-258-7
  • Dinesh D'Souza, The End of Racism (Free Press, 1995) ISBN 0-02-908102-5
  • Galton, David, Eugenics: The Future of Human Life in the 21st Century (Abacus, 2002) ISBN 0-349-11377-7
  • Robert L. Hayman, Presumptions of justice: Law, politics, and the mentally retarded parent. Harvard Law Review 1990, 103, 1202-71. (p. 1209)
  • Joseph, J. (2004). The Gene Illusion: Genetic Research in Psychiatry and Psychology Under the Microscope.New York: Algora. (2003 United Kingdom Edition by PCCS Books)
  • Joseph, J. (2005). The 1942 “Euthanasia” Debate in the American Journal of Psychiatry. History of Psychiatry, 16, 171-179.
  • Joseph, J. (2006). Missing Gene: Psychiatry, Heredity, and the Fruitless Search for Genes.New York: Algora.
  • H. L. Kaye, The social meaning of modern biology 1987, New Haven, CT Yale University Press. (p. 46)
  • Tom Shakespeare, "Back to the Future? New Genetics and Disabled People", Critical Social Policy 46:22-35 (1995)
  • Wahlsten, D. (1997). Leilani Muir versus the Philosopher King: eugenics on trial in Alberta. Genetica 99: 185-198.
  • Tom Shakespeare, Genetic Politics: from Eugenics to Genome, with Anne Kerr (New Clarion Press, 2002).
  • Nancy Ordover, American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2003). ISBN 0-8166-3559-5
  • Gina Maranto, "Quest for Perfection: The Drive to Breed Better Human Beings" Diane Publishing Co. (June 1996) ISBN 0-7881-9431-3

Films and Documentaries

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