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Although ideas concerning the mutability of so-called natural human traits have been a part of Western civilization since antiquity, the science of eugenics emerged out of a particular nineteenth-century discourse that had its roots in social Darwinism and scientific racism. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, the English scientist Sir Francis Galton used statistical studies of British families to argue that heredity governed physical ability, talent, and character, and that “reputable” families were much more likely than ordinary families to produce superior offspring. He argued, moreover, that humans possessed the ability—through a system of selective breeding—to guide the course of human evolution and ultimately improve the race. In 1883, Galton named his new science eugenics, which he derived from the Greek word eugenes, meaning “good in birth” or “noble in heredity.”
Following the publication of his famous cousin Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, Sir Francis Galton began his inquiry into human heredity and the use of science to improve the human race. His first attempt to articulate his thoughts concerning the power of nature in determining human ability came in the form of a two-part article entitled “Hereditary Talent and Character,” which was published in a popular English magazine in 1865. In another article entitled, “Hereditary Improvement,” published in 1873, Galton established his method for improving the quality of the human race. He declared that his goal was to “improve the race of man by a system which shall be perfectly in accordance with the moral sense of the present time” (Gillham 2001, pp. 195–197). To implement his plan, Galton envisioned the creation of a state agency that would gather, analyze, and distribute important pedigree data, accompanied by photographs and physical measurements, to all Englishmen interested in improving the race. This information would then be used to encourage the reproduction of those families perceived to have talent, and to discourage the reproduction of the masses of individuals perceived to be of inferior quality. Programs designed to encourage “fit” individuals to reproduce came to be known as positive or productive eugenics, and those programs designed to prohibit “unfit” individuals from reproducing came to be known as negative or selectionist eugenics.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, eugenics had become very popular among a broad array of Americans eager to remedy the social, cultural, and political upheaval caused by decades of massive industrialization, urbanization, and immigration. Men such as Charles B. Davenport and Harry Laughlin of the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, New York, embraced the new science. Women reformers such as Margaret Sanger also extolled the benefits of controlled breeding. In the 1920s, eugenicists created the American Eugenics Society, and the Eugenics Research Association. American eugenicists played a critical role in the passage of a 1924 immigration law known as the National Origins Act (or the Johnson-Reed Act), which greatly reduced the number of southern and eastern Europeans entering the United States. Harry Laughlin and other eugenicists wrote the Virginia sterilization law that became the focus of a 1927 Supreme Court decision in Buck v. Bell. The court voted to uphold forced sterilization, ultimately resulting in the sterilization of over 65,000 individuals throughout the United States. Eugenic ideology also made possible studies such as the controversial Tuskegee syphilis study, which focused on African American males and lasted forty years, from 1932 to 1972.
Eugenics was not limited to England and the United States. Societies across the globe embraced the new scientific thinking. In Germany, Alfred Ploetz and other scientists applied American eugenics to the new science of race hygiene, resulting in the creation of the Society for Racial Hygiene and the eventual Nazi extermination of millions of Jews, Gypsies, persons with disabilities, and other “unfit” individuals during World War II. Throughout the twentieth century, Scandinavian countries coerced large populations, consisting mostly of women welfare recipients, to be sterilized in an effort to reduce the number of genetic “flaws” among their offspring. In places such as Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, eugenics greatly influenced biological and cultural definitions of race and gender, as well as popular notions of national “fitness.” In Latin America, the state regulated reproduction through different legal restrictions imposed on marriage.
Eugenic thought has loomed large in the public discourse and social policy of numerous countries throughout the world since the late nineteenth century. It has assumed many forms; it has spanned the geopolitical spectrum; and although it fell into disfavor after World War II, it has experienced a resurgence in the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The advent of the Human Genome Project and other advances in genetic science has ushered in new concerns about the moral, ethical, and racial implications of selective breeding. In his recent bestselling book Freakonomics, the University of Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt caused a tremendous stir when he argued that abortion has been the most dominant factor in declining crime rates in the United States. Put simply, Levitt argued that unwanted children are more likely to become criminals, and that since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision fewer unwanted children have been born, resulting in a reduction in American crime rates. Critics have since charged Levitt with being a eugenicist who advocates the selective extermination of “at-risk” offspring. Although this was not his intent, Levitt has subsequently been forced to defend his abortion hypothesis in a number of popular media outlets. Clearly, and understandably, anything that even remotely smacks of eugenics continues to create a firestorm of controversy.
- Gillham, Nicholas Wright. 2001. A Life of Sir Francis Galton: From African Exploration to the Birth of Eugenics. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
- Daniel J. 1985. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. New York: Knopf.
- Paul, Diane B. 1995. Controlling Human Heredity, 1865 to the Present. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.
- Proctor, Robert. 1988. Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Stepan, Nancy. 1991. The Hour of Eugenics: Race, Gender, and Nation in Latin America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
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