EUGENICS • The term eugenics comes from the Greek roots for “good” and “birth”.
Eugenics is the selection of desired heritable characteristics to improve future generations-typically in reference to humans.
Although eugenics as understood today dates from the late 19th century, efforts to select matings in order to secure offspring with desirable traits date from ancient times.
Plato’s Republic (c. 387 bc) depicts a society where efforts are undertaken to improve human beings through selective breeding.
The term “eugenics” was first coined in 1883 by British explorer and natural scientist Sir Francis Galton. • Galton was influenced by his cousin Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection.
Social Darwinism • Darwin’s theory of natural selection advocated a system that would allow the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable. • Social Darwinism’s concept of “survival of the fittest” was popular in the late 19th century and helped advance the study of eugenics.
During the early 1900s, eugenics became a serious scientific study pursued by both biologist and social scientist who sought to determine the extent to which human characteristics of social importance were inherited. Their greatest concerns centered around the predictability of intelligence and certain deviant behaviors.
Social Implications • Eugenics was not confined to scientific laboratories and began to pervade culture around the globe. • For many of Galton’s supporters, the rediscovery of Mendel’s laws seemed to give scientific creditability to racist and bigoted views.
In the 19th century, divisions between the rich and poor had been exacerbated by the mass urbanization that came with the industrial revolution. Slums had become endemic to many large cities and to those with wealth, poverty was seen as expression of lesser ability & slums a breeding ground for inferior characteristics.
Sir Francis Galton • “The inferior race threatens the future of society-the state must intervene”.
In 1907, Woodrow Wilson helped make Indiana the first of more than 30 states to adopt legislation aimed at the compulsory sterilization of certain individuals. • The poor, people with low intelligence, physical handicapped, mentally ill, and criminals were targeted.
Prejudice was given a free reign and in some states the inferior label was applied to homosexuals and communists. • By the 1930s, at least 20,000 people had been sterilized in the U.S.
Immigration • Many states imposed quotas on the number of immigrants allowed to enter the country because they were considered “racially inferior types”.
Calvin Coolidge • “America must be kept American. Biological laws show that Nordics deteriorate when mixed with other races.”
It is a terrible irony that by the 1930s, Eastern Europeans-one of the primary targets of US prejudice-were seeking new homes in America in order to escape the even more extreme racist programs orchestrated by the Nazis.
Nazi Germany • Adolf Hitler’s obsession with racial purity and the Aryan ideal took the prejudice and bigotry of eugenics to even more sinister and grim conclusions.
Nazi Germany • Anyone with any mental or physical handicap was institutionalized-man, woman or child. • This usually meant extermination rather than sterilization.
Today, eugenics remains a blemish on the history of genetics. • It was a political movement with little or no grounding in science.
The study of human genetics fell into a long period of decline as scientist became reluctant to associate themselves with the subject tarnished by controversy and human suffering.
Sources • Brooks, Martin. Get a Grip on Genetics, Time Life Books. (New York, 1998) • Kuhl, Stefan. The Nazi Connection, Oxford University Press. (New York, 1994) • Bruinius, Harry. Better For All The World, Alfred A. Knopf Press. (New York, 2006) • Robinson, Tara Rodden. Genetics for Dummies, Wiley Publishing. (Hoboken, NJ, 2005) • Encyclopedia Britannica • www.eugenicsarchive.org • www.eugenics.net