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“”We must, if we are to be consistent, and if we're to have a real pedigree herd, mate the best of our men with the best of our women as often as possible, and the inferior men with the inferior women as seldom as possible, and bring up only the offspring of the best.
|—Plato, The Republic, Book V, Pt. VI|
Eugenics is the purported study of applying the principles of natural selection and selective breeding through altering human reproduction with the goal of changing the relative frequency of traits in a human population. It was the most dangerous form of biological determinism in modern history.
Origins in brief
Eugenics was first developed in the 19th century, a misguided outgrowth of an intellectual milieu influenced by the popularity of early evolutionary theory and which included a spate of works on genetic disorders (many of which are incurable horrors), "scientific racism" and the Social Darwinism of the likes of Herbert Spencer. The term "eugenics" was coined by Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, in his 1883 book Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development. Galton was responsible for many of the early works of eugenics, including attempts to connect genetics with a most prized trait known as intelligence. In order to collect and analyze the data, Galton more or less created the field of statistics, and the major advances in this field that weren't from Galton were from his protege (and biographer) Karl Pearson.
In the United States, it was the biologist Charles Davenport who laid the groundwork for the establishment of eugenics programs. Eugenics gained traction as it was championed in the nascent Progressive Era of the late 19th century into the early 20th century, finding prominent political proponents in presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. However, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Winston Churchill were also fans of eugenics.
Some eugenics-based ideas were implemented both in the United States and in Europe. In the U.S., this strongly influenced immigration policy, as in the Johnson Immigration Act of 1924, which showed a preference for Northern Europeans, as they were believed to be somehow superior to Asians and South and Eastern Europeans. It was heavily influenced by racist theorists such as Madison Grant, who promoted immigration reform and forced sterilization.
The first U.S. state to implement eugenics was Indiana, in 1907, in which those housed in penal and mental institutions could be forcibly sterilized. The first European country to implement forced sterilization was Denmark, in 1929. California was the third U.S. state to implement eugenics, in 1909. California would go on to become responsible for a third of all of the forced sterilizations conducted in the United States (~20,000 out of ~60,000).
The Supreme Court gave legal backing to forced sterilization using eugenic ideas in the 1927 Buck v. Bell case. As Oliver Wendell Holmes, a eugenics proponent, wrote in the decision, "Three generations of imbeciles is enough." The Buck v. Bell decision encouraged more states to enact eugenics legislation. 23 states had such legislation prior to Buck v. Bell and 32 after. 18 states never had eugenics legislation.
Fun with eugenics!
One way eugenics was popularized was through "Better Baby" contests. These contests were sponsored by hospitals to determine the most "fit" baby, who all happened to be WASPs, naturally. This was spun off into "Fitter Family" contests, which would be held at state fairs, carnivals, and churches to allow entire families to compete.
Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf that he approved of the eugenics policy going on in America at the time, to the point where one could say he was inspired by the idea. When he came to power, Nazi Germany saw the most sweeping application of a eugenics program, which is unsurprising, given the Nazis' maniacal obsession with racial purity, or "racial hygiene" as they called it. The "Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring" was implemented within half a year of his rise to power, and resulted in the forced sterilization of up to 400,000 people that were diagnosed with hereditary mental or physical disabilities. This was praised by eugenicists from the US.
After the outbreak of the war, this policy was carried to another extreme: people bearing hereditary defects were designated as "unfit to live," and the eugenics program moved from sterilization to extermination. Within the scope of "Action T4," an estimated 200,000 children and adults were systematically killed in order to avoid having to bear the costs of institutional care. The groups targeted by action T4 were the incurably ill, physically or mentally disabled, emotionally distraught, and elderly people. Achieving racial purity through eugenics on a grand scale can also be seen as an important motivation behind the Holocaust, which saw the murder of millions of "undesirables," such as Jews, gypsies, Slavs, homosexuals, and the disabled.
Eugenics for Jesus
Some Christian churches, particularly the Methodists, the Presbyterians, and the Episcopalians, embraced the eugenics movement. The Methodist Church would host Fitter Family contests and Methodist Bishops endorsed one of the first eugenics books circulated to the US churches. The professor of Christian ethics and founder of the Methodist Federation for Social Service, Rev. Harry F. War, writing in Eugenics, the magazine of the American Eugenic Society, said eugenics and Christianity were both compatible because both pursued the “challenge of removing the causes that produce the weak.”
The very first experiment in positive eugenics came about at the hands of the utopian Christian communist sect the Oneida Community. It was done through selective breeding, and termed "stirpiculture" by its leader and inventor John Humphrey Noyes (the term "eugenics" had yet to be coined). This lasted from 1869-79, with the birth of 58 children (some "unfit" accidental conceptions occurred too).
However, other Christian churches were strongly opposed to eugenics, particularly the Catholic Church and conservative Protestants. Catholics disliked eugenic laws that allowed for sterilization; Protestants viewed eugenics as a threat to a reliance on God to cure social ills.
Godwin's Law and the types of eugenics
Because of eugenics' association with Nazi Germany, a common bullshitting tactic is to declare some historical figure that endorsed eugenics a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer (see, e.g., Margaret Sanger). This is ahistorical as not every eugenics proponent supported the measures of Nazi Germany (or were even around to see it). Indeed, if this were the case, that would make Teddy and Silent Cal Nazis as well.
Galton divided eugenic practice into "positive" and "negative eugenics." The positive variety consisted of political and economic incentives (such as tax breaks and sex education) for the "fit" to reproduce and the negative type consisted of disincentives such as birth control or forced sterilization. "Dysgenics" refers to the deterioration of the human stock -- many eugenicists concentrated on "improvement" of the human race by reversing alleged dysgenic forces. There is also a split between "liberal eugenics" and "authoritarian eugenics." Liberal eugenics promotes consensual eugenic practice while authoritarian eugenics promotes state-mandated and enforced programs. Proponents personally emphasized different aspects of eugenics, positive, negative, dysgenic forces, etc. Thus, they often disagreed on matters of policy, much less were they all Nazis.
The absurdity of eugenics
Whilst eugenics is based, in theory, in the perfectly valid science of genetics and the practice of animal husbandry, historically its application has always been far from scientific. Whereas it is (relatively) easy, for example, to breed cattle for higher milk yield, defining what is meant by a "better" human being is a very difficult question. At this point eugenics stops being scientific and starts being normative and political, and a rather nasty type of politics at that. To say nothing of the fact that there is very little room for experimentation. Eugenics drew heavily from various racist and racialist tracts of the period.
The most obvious flaw with application of eugenics is that its proponents have tended to conflate phenotypical (read: superficial) traits with genotypical traits. Any species that looks fit on the outside may carry recessive traits that don't exhibit themselves but will be passed on and vice versa. The development of the field of epigenetics, i.e. heritable environmental factors in genetic expression that occur without change to underlying DNA structures, poses further problems for eugenics.
There is no reason to believe that a selective breeding plan to encourage certain physical traits in humans could not achieve the same results that plant and animal breeders have achieved for centuries (who were without specific knowledge of the genes they were selecting in and out), but the odds are that the purebred humans with distinguishing features would be less healthy than the offspring of unconstrained mating would be, for the same reason that kennel-club purebred dogs are often less healthy than mutts. This concept of "purity" is flawed in that it creates many of the same problems as inbreeding — a loss of biodiversity can in fact lead to increased susceptibility to a common concentrated weakness. A classic example of concentration is haemophilia, which became the plague of the European royal families. (Ironically, a common element in eugenicist works was that "inferior races" would produce an overall correlation with genetic disorders.) Furthermore, changes in the environment can cause traits that were once advantageous to become liabilities virtually overnight. An example of this would be deer populations. For millions of years, natural selection favored those with large antlers as fitter specimens among the males of the species, as they could use those antlers to protect themselves and to fight other males for access to females. However, upon the rise of sport hunting, bucks with large antlers suddenly found themselves targeted specifically for them, as they made great trophies with which to establish the human hunter's prowess. The size of antlers among deer populations plunged down fast.
The extreme reductionism of eugenics often crossed into what is now comical territory. Nearly every social behavior, including things such as "pauperism" and the vaguely defined "feeble-mindedness," could be traced back to a single genetic disorder according to eugenicists, while we now know that the bulk of the 19th century disorders were the result of poor sanitation, nutrition, and healthcare. Many works of eugenics recall the similar trend evident in phrenology (indeed, there was some overlap between eugenics and phrenology).
While eugenics gained widespread support in the early 20th century (even within the scientific community) of a number of nations, there was also strong opposition during this period. The biologist Raymond Pearl, for example, once a supporter of the movement, turned against it in the late 1920s. The geneticist Lancelot Hogben argued that eugenics relied on a false dichotomy of "nature vs. nurture" and that it infected science with political value judgments; Hogben was asked by William Beveridge (the then-director of the London School of Economics) to create a "Chair of Social Biology" department on campus, gave him the finger and prevented any of his eugenic ideas from being taken seriously in the formation of the British welfare state. Clarence Darrow famously denounced it as a "cult." The Carnegie Institute, which initially funded the Eugenics Record Office, withdrew its funding after a review of its research, leading to its closing in 1939 (before the Holocaust even became public record).
The alt-right has attempted to rehabilitate eugenics. Their preferred presidential candidate Donald Trump is, according to his biographer, a big believer in it. 8chan founder Frederick "Hotwheels" Brennan is another noteworthy eugenics supporter, having written an article for Trump-supporting blog The Daily Stormer advocating in its favor. Other recent advocates for eugenics include Anders Behring Breivik and the publication Radix Journal (which also supports abortion for eugenic reasons rather than choice-related ones).
- Image archive on the American Eugenics Movement and the archive of criticisms of eugenics
- Bibliography of works related to eugenics
- Eugenics and bioethics project, Georgetown University
- Eugenics and Its Shadow, New York University
- Eugenics and the German Medical Establishment, Humanitas International
- David Micklos and Elof Carlson. Engineering American Society: The Lesson of Eugenics. Nature Reviews, vol. 1, Dec. 2000.
- Paul A. Lombardo. Disability, Eugenics, and the Culture War. Saint Louis University Journal of Health Law and Policy.
- Diane B. Paul and Hamish G. Spencer. The Hidden Science of Eugenics. Nature, 374, 302-304 (23 March 1995)
- Kenneth L. Garver and Bettylee Garver. The Human Genome Project and Eugenic Concerns. American Journal of Public Health. 54: 148-158, 1994
- Barron H. Lerner. The Black Stork: Eugenics and the death of “defective” babies in American medicine and motion pictures since 1915. New England Journal of Medicine. 1996; 335: 527.
- Rob Baker. Top Ten Unlikely and Surprising Eugenicists, Flashbak.com, (18 March 2015)
- Tomorrow's Children, a 1934 anti-eugenics flick
- All of Galton's writing on eugenics is archived at galton.org
- People and Discoveries: Charles Davenport, PBS
- Eugenic Laws Against Race Mixing, Paul Lombardo, University of Virginia.
- Brief History of American and European Eugenics Movements, excerpts from "A History of the American Eugenics Movement," University of Illinois, Ph.D. Thesis, 1988 by Barry Mehler
- Churchill and Eugenics, The Churchill Centre and Churchill Museum at the Cabinet War Rooms
- Indiana Eugenics: History and Legacy, University of Indiana
- Bent Sigurd Hansen. Something Rotten in the State of Denmark: Eugenics and the Ascent of the Welfare State, University of Helsinki
- North Carolina Set To Compensate Forced Sterilization Victims, NPR
- Findlaw.com entry on Buck v. Bell (1927)
- Alexandra Minna Stern. Sterilized in the Name of Public Health, American Journal of Public Health (Georgia was the 32nd and last state to implement a sterilization law.)
- Yolande Knell (28 February 2013). "Israeli Ethiopian birth control to be examined". BBC.
- Photography Changes Social and Cultural Hierarchies, Carol Squiers, click!
- Repentance for support of eugenics, General Board of Church and Society of the Methodist Church
- The Biological State: Nazi Racial Hygiene, 1933-1939, US Holocaust Memorial Museum
- Final Solutions: Murderous Racial Hygiene, 1939-1945, US Holocaust Memorial Museum
- T4 Program, Encyclopedia Brittanica
- "Repentance for Support of Eugenics", United Methodist Church
- Stirpiculture: Science-Guided Human Propagation and the Oneida Community onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/zygo.12319/epdf
- John C. Fletcher. Book Review: Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the deep South. New England Journal of Medicine. 1995; 333:196-197
- Liberal Eugenics: In Defense of Human Enhancement by Nicholas Agar
- Thank whatever gods ye have you were born after we discovered the polio vaccine, antibiotics, iodine fortification, and anthelmintics (deworming drugs). Especially anthelmintics.
- VL Hilts. Obeying the laws of hereditary descent: phrenological views on inheritance and eugenics. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. 1982 Jan; 18(1): 62-77.
- GE Allen. Eugenics and modern biology: critiques of eugenics, 1910-1945. Annals of Human Genetics. 2011 May; 75(3): 314-25.
- Raymond Pearl's "Mingled Mess", Johns Hopkins Magazine
- Sahotra Sarkar. Lancelot Hogben, 1895-1975. Genetics, 142, 655-660 (March, 1996)
- Looking Back on Lancelot’s Laugher, University of Pittsburgh
- "The Eugenics Cult," in Closing Arguments: Clarence Darrow on Religion, Law, and Society, ed. S.T. Joshi.  (Reprint in Thoughts in a Haystack.)
- Eugenics in New York, University of Vermont
- "Let’s see how Donald Trump handles bad news!". https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/09/29/lets-see-how-donald-trump-handles-bad-news/?utm_term=.06067b807eee.
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