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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|
“”Nothing ever changes, except man. Your technical accomplishments? Improve a mechanical device and you may double productivity, but improve man and you gain a thousandfold. I am such a man.
|—Khan Noonien Singh, Star Trek, "Space Seed"|
Eugenics is the purported study of applying the principles of artificial 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.
In its disturbing heyday, eugenics was a popular cause for "experts" during the Progressive Era in an appeal to "science." Liberal mainline Protestants, whose rank-and-file members later comprised the Second Ku Klux Klan, were wont to promotions of eugenics, opposed by Catholics and conservative evangelicals. Eugenics found some support among prominent African-American civil rights activists such as W. E. B. Du Bois, who desired to create an elite class of African-Americans dubbed "The Talented Tenth".
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. Galton's protege (and biographer) Karl Pearson also made major advances in statistics.
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, William Howard Taft, 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 a notorious 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.
In Israel, Ethiopian Jews were injected with birth control drug Depo-Provera to (at least temporarily) stop them from breeding. How widespread this was is still under investigation, however sources state it caused their birth rate to drop by half over a decade.
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.
Nietzschean influences on eugenics
Mussolini along with co-writer Giovanni Gentile in their work Doctrines of fascism attempted to define their ideology in a coherent manner, borrowing Nietzsche's ideas of a "Super man" or 'ubermensch'. They attempted to justify, using a misreading of Nietzsche, the creation of stronger and better human beings, which no doubt had some influence on eugenic policies. Adolf Hitler and other leading Nazis also cited Nietzsche's work to justify their policies (including eugenics) despite Nietzsche condemning German nationalism and antisemitism (his sister had edited his last unpublished book, The Will To Power, to fit such views when he was incapacitated).
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. As always, the emotionally damaged psychopaths who created the policy escaped being marked as "undesirable".
Religion and Irreligion
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.
Eugenics and humanism
The key figure in the birth of eugenics was Robert Malthus, a Protestant vicar. Robert Malthus’s “Essay on the Principle of Population” (originally published in 1798, but constantly revised by Malthus during his lifetime) was, and continues to be, fundamental in the field. Writing before the full onslaught of the industrial revolution and its impact upon agricultural production, Malthus argued that in any population the rate at which humans reproduce will grow faster than the rate of food production until there is a population crash, as humans are culled by hunger and disease. The only way to avoid this inevitable disaster was active intervention to limit population sizes. These ideas enjoyed a new lease of life with the development of evolutionary theory. Charles Darwin publicly acknowledged the debt he owed to Malthus in the development of his own theory of natural selection.
While Darwin’s theories are not eugenicist themselves, it was a combination of evolutionary theory and Malthus’s ideas about population control that gave rise to eugenics, a discipline which is intimately connected with Darwin’s family, primarily through Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton, who became the acknowledged founder of the eugenics movement. While his cousin’s anti-clerical feelings are still debated, there can be no doubt at all about Galton’s credentials as a proto-humanist. He was openly irreligious in an age when it was unpopular and even dangerous. He saw eugenics – a term he derived from the Greek for good (eu) and born (-genes) – as a secular alternative to religion. Drawing upon the new science of statistics, to which he made notable contributions, he set out to encourage the procreation of eugenic, “well-born”, individuals and to discourage, or actively prevent, the “dysgenic” populations from breeding at all.
A major factor in the discrediting of mainline eugenics was the development of Gregor Mendel’s work by geneticists in the 1930s. A key aspect of this development was the discovery of recessive genes and the consequent recognition that breeding out undesirable characteristics in large, fluid human populations would be very difficult, if not impossible. There was also a growing appreciation of the influence of environment, which ensured that many of the various characteristics dumped into the “feeble-minded” box could no longer be regarded as simply the result of heredity. All this gave rise to a movement known as “reform” eugenics, which stressed personal choice in procreation rather than coercion. In this new form it attracted a number of other serious scientists and rationalists.
It would be incorrect to suggest that mainline eugenics completely disappeared from the rationalist community after the 1930s. For example, Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA and an RPA Associate Member, was both virulently anti-religion and pro-mainline eugenics. At one point he suggested enforced sterilization via the use of doctored food, and as late as the 1960s he was advocating that couples should apply for a breeding license if they wanted to procreate.
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 depends, in theory, on the perfectly valid science of genetics and appeals to the practice of animal husbandry, historically, its application has always been far from scientific. Whereas it is (relatively) easy to, for example, breed cattle for higher milk yield, defining what is meant by a "better" human being becomes 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 its heyday.
The most obvious flaw with the 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 which don't exhibit themselves but which 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.
Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins claimed in a Tweet that "It's one thing to deplore eugenics on ideological, political, moral grounds. It's quite another to conclude that it wouldn't work in practice. Of course it would. It works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses. Why on earth wouldn't it work for humans? Facts ignore ideology." It may be true that a selective breeding plan to encourage certain physical traits in humans could achieve some results that plant- and animal-breeders (who were without specific knowledge of the genes they were selecting in and out) have achieved over the centuries. 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 gives rise to many of the same problems as inbreeding — a loss of genetic 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" and or "race mixing" 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 occurred in deer populations. For millions of years, natural selection favored male deer with large antlers as fitter specimens, 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 because of those antlers, 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).
In short, eugenics could become a legitimate science... if virtually everything about how it has been applied were changed. Any "ubermensch" would need the widest possible selection of "superior" genes, meaning that any resulting super-human would be very much mixed race, something most self-proclaimed Eugenicists would abhor. It's also important to remember that as humans are a social species, the most productive society would be one where the humans all have a strong sense of empathy, something that does have a genetic component and is extremely lacking in anyone that would openly advocate for the forcible sterilization or murder of others. This means that a proper eugenics program would begin with the sterilization of its more vocal proponents.
- The biologist Raymond Pearl, once a supporter of the eugenics 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. William Beveridge (the director of the London School of Economics from 1919 to 1937) asked Hogben to promote eugenics on campus; Hogben gave Beveridge the finger and prevented any of his eugenic ideas from being taken seriously in the formation of the British welfare state.
- Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) famously denounced eugenics 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).
The alt-right has attempted to rehabilitate eugenics. Donald Trump (whom they idolize) is, according to his biographer, a big believer in it. Trump once told a group of all white supporters that they have "good genes". This is, of course, ironic since one trait people might target for eugenics is pattern baldness, and toupées don't get you out of carrying that trait. 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 (although he claims he has since rejected most forms of eugenics). 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).
De facto eugenic practices are spreading as the result of new reproductive technologies. The systematic screening of fetuses for Down's syndrome takes place in several countries (Iceland, Denmark, Belgium) and this has led to the vast majority of affected embryos being aborted. Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) may allow parents to determine the presence of genes predisposing to intelligence, height, cancer or other diseases. CRISPR-Cas 9 gene editing may also become a way of genetic therapy or enhancement. The actual editing of two female human embryos in China led to however to widespread outcry and a de facto moratorium on the practice.
High IQ sperm banks
Since these days sterilizing or killing stupid people is frowned upon, the emphasis is more on getting clever people to have more children, and thanks to artificial insemination you no longer need to get Nobel laureates to actually fuck lots of women.
One of the most famous was Robert K. Graham's Repository for Germinal Choice in California, active from 1980 to 1999, and apparently responsible for 215 babies. Graham pondered various eugenic methods, such as paying college graduates to have children. After initially considering West Point graduates as the ideal fathers, Graham decided to collect sperm from Nobel Prize winners, elite athletes, and people with incredibly high IQs. Most donors were anonymous, but racist physicist William Shockley and nicer polio dude Jonas Salk were reportedly involved. Curiously, there was no restriction on the women who purchased the sperm - they could be as stupid as they wished. Maybe Graham didn't believe women have DNA. Also there was apparently little or no screening for mental health issues. Author David Plotz wrote a book, The Genius Factory, which followed up on some of the births, and found that the clinic wasn't any worse than other sperm banks of the time, which often offered no screening even for the most serious genetic conditions (at least Graham had some basic screening). Nick Isel, a child of the program, wrote about how he got in contact with his father, who turned out to have exaggerated his credentials as a published author (self-published); his biological father's family had a history of mental illness, and the father wasn't exactly a success in life, later being struck off as a doctor and jailed for spousal rape. This shows the difficulty in selecting a model sperm donor, although it's not clear how much of that was inheritable.
Graham's sperm bank model has influenced modern sperm banks today, which allow couples to have greater choice in determining their sperm donors, and seek "really high quality guys" as donors.
Supporters of eugenics
- Herbert Spencer
- Bertrand Russell
- Francis Galton
- Margaret Sanger
- Christopher Langan
- Winston Churchill
- Ronald Fisher
- Robert Gayre
- Madison Grant
- Pentti Linkola
- Richard Lynn
- James Randi
- Marie Stopes
- Marian Van Court
- Anders Behring Breivik
- Frederick Brennan
- The Urantia Book
- Toby Young
- Charles Lindbergh
- Woodrow Wilson
- 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
- Paul A. Lombardo, A Century of Eugenics in America: From the Indiana Experiment to the Human Genome Era, p. 27.
- Steven A. Farber, U.S. Scientists' Role in the Eugenics Movement (1907–1939): A Contemporary Biologist's Perspective.
- Christine Rosen, Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement, p. 4.
- Thomas R. Pegram, The Ku Klux Klan, Labor, And The White Working Class During The 1920s.
- Dennis L. Durst, Eugenics and Protestant Social Reform: Hereditary Science and Religion in America, 1860-1940, p. 169.
- John H. Evans, Contested Reproduction: Genetic Technologies, Religion, and Public Debate, p. 41.
- Preaching Eugenics, p. 88-89.
- Lombardo, Paul A. (2011), A Century of Eugenics in America: From the Indiana Experiment to the Human Genome Era. pp. 74–75.
- 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
- See the Wikipedia article on haemophilia.
- 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.
- Science Daily, Genes play a role in Empathy
- See the Wikipedia article on scientific community.
- GE Allen. Eugenics and modern biology: critiques of eugenics, 1910-1945. Annals of Human Genetics. 2011 May; 75(3): 314-25.
- See the Wikipedia article on Raymond Pearl.
- Raymond Pearl's "Mingled Mess", Johns Hopkins Magazine
- See the Wikipedia article on Lancelot Hogben.
- Sahotra Sarkar. Lancelot Hogben, 1895-1975. Genetics, 142, 655-660 (March, 1996)
- See the Wikipedia article on William Beveridge.
- 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!".
- Trump told a crowd of nearly all white supporters that they have 'good genes', John Haltiwanger, Business Insider, Sep 22, 2020
- "Destroyer Of Worlds".
- A sperm bank just for supersmart people, CNN, Oct 8, 2014
- 6 Realities Of Growing Up The Product Of A Eugenics Scam, Ryan Menezes and Nick Isel, Cracked, Mar 20, 2017
- See the Wikipedia article on Repository for Germinal Choice.
- The Genius Factory: Testtube Superbabies: review of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank. By David Plotz., New York Times, July 3, 2005