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Introduction to Eugenics

Introduction to Eugenics

Eugenics is a movement that is aimed at improving the genetic composition of the human race.  Historically, eugenicists advocated selective breeding to achieve these goals. Today we have technologies that make it possible to more directly alter the genetic composition of an individual. However, people differ in their views on how to best (and ethically) use this technology.

History of Eugenics

Logo of the Second International Congress of Eugenics, 1921. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In 1883, Sir Francis Galton, a respected British scholar and cousin of Charles Darwin, first used the term eugenics, meaning “well-born.” Galton believed that the human race could help direct its future by selectively breeding individuals who have “desired” traits. This idea was based on Galton’s study of upper class Britain.  Following these studies, Galton concluded that an elite position in society was due to a good genetic makeup.  While Galton’s plans to improve the human race through selective breeding never came to fruition in Britain, they eventually took sinister turns in other countries.

The eugenics movement began in the U.S. in the late 19th century. However, unlike in Britain, eugenicists in the U.S. focused on efforts to stop the transmission of negative or “undesirable” traits from generation to generation. In response to these ideas, some US leaders, private citizens, and corporations started funding eugenical studies.  This lead to the 1911 establishment of The Eugenics Records Office (ERO) in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. The ERO spent time tracking family histories and concluded that people deemed to be unfit more often came from families that were poor, low in social standing, immigrant, and/or minority. Further, ERO researchers “demonstrated” that the undesirable traits in these families, such as pauperism, were due to genetics, and not lack of resources.

Committees were convened to offer solutions to the problem of the growing number of “undesirables” in the U.S. population. Stricter immigration rules were enacted, but the most ominous resolution was a plan to sterilize “unfit” individuals to prevent them from passing on their negative traits. During the 20th century, a total of 33 states had sterilization programs in place. While at first sterilization efforts targeted mentally ill people exclusively, later the traits deemed serious enough to warrant sterilization included alcoholism, criminality chronic poverty, blindness, deafness, feeble-mindedness, and promiscuity. It was also not uncommon for African American women to be sterilized during other medical procedures without consent.  Most people subjected to these sterilizations had no choice, and because the program was run by the government, they had little chance of escaping the procedure.  It is thought that around 65,000 Americans were sterilized during this time period.

The eugenics movement in the U.S. slowly lost favor over time and was waning by the start of World War II. When the horrors of Nazi Germany became apparent, as well as Hitler’s use of eugenic principles to justify the atrocities, eugenics lost all credibility as a field of study or even an ideal that should be pursued.


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