From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Jump to: navigation, search
"Eugenics is the self-direction of human evolution": Logo from the Second International Congress of Eugenics, 1921, depicting it as a tree which unites a variety of different fields.
"Eugenics is the self-direction of human evolution": Logo from the Second International Congress of Eugenics, 1921, depicting it as a tree which unites a variety of different fields.

Eugenics is a social philosophy which advocates the improvement of human hereditary traits through social intervention. The goals have variously been to create more intelligent people, save society resources, lessen human suffering and reduce health problems. Proposed means of achieving these goals most commonly include birth control, selective breeding, and genetic engineering. Critics argue eugenics has been applied as a pseudoscience, that it has a potential for objectifiying human characteristics and note that historically it has been a means whereby social thinking culminated in coercive state-sponsored discrimination and human rights violations, even genocide.

Selective breeding was suggested at least as far back as Plato, but the modern field was first formulated by Sir Francis Galton in 1865, drawing on the recent work of his cousin, Charles Darwin. From its inception, eugenics (derived from the Greek "well born" or "good breeding") was supported by prominent thinkers (including Alexander Graham Bell and W.E.B. DuBois) and was an academic discipline at many colleges and universities. Its scientific reputation tumbled in the 1930s, a time when Ernst Rüdin began incorporating eugenic rhetoric into the racial policies of Nazi Germany. During the postwar period both the public and the scientific community largely associated eugenics with Nazi abuses, which included enforced racial hygiene and extermination, although a variety of regional and national governments maintained eugenic programs until the 1970s.


What is eugenics?

Definitions of the term vary. The term eugenics is often used to refer to a movement and social policy that was influential during the first half of the 20th century. In a historical and broader sense eugenics can also be a study of "improving human genetic qualities". It is sometimes more broadly applied to describe any human action whose goal is to improve the gene pool. Some forms of infanticide in ancient societies, present-day reprogenetics, pre-emptive abortions and designer babies have been (sometimes controversially) referred to as eugenics.

Because of its normative goals and association with scientific racism, as well as the development of the science of genetics, the scientific community has for the most part disassociated itself from the term "eugenics", sometimes referring to it as a pseudo-science, although one can still find advocates of liberal eugenics as a social policy, though not in appreciable numbers. Modern inquiries into the potential use of genetic engineering have led to an increased invocation of the history of eugenics in discussions of bioethics, most often as a cautionary tale, while some ethicists question whether even non-coercive eugenics programs would be inherently unethical.

Eugenicists advocate specific policies which would lead to a perceived improvement of the human gene pool. Since defining what improvements are desired or beneficial is ultimately a cultural choice rather than a matter of empirical, scientific observation, eugenics has been deemed pseudo-science by many. The most disputed aspect of eugenics has been the definition of improvement of the human gene pool, such as what is a beneficial characteristic and what is a defect. Unsurprisingly, this aspect of eugenics has historically been tainted with scientific racism.

Early eugenicists were mostly concerned with perceived intelligence factors which often correlated strongly with social class. Many eugenicists took inspiration from the selective breeding of animals (where purebreeds are often strived for) as their analogy for improving human society. The mixing of races (or miscegenation) was usually considered as something to be avoided in the name of racial purity, a concept which at the time appeared to have some scientific support but remained a contentious issue until the advanced development of genetics.

Eugenics has also been concerned with the elimination of hereditary diseases such as haemophilia and Huntington's disease. However, there are several problems with labeling certain factors as "genetic defects":

  • There is no scientific consensus on what is a "defect" and what is not—it is more of a matter of social or individual choice.
  • What appears to be a defect in one context may not be so in another. This is often the case for genes with a heterozygote advantage, such as sickle cell anemia or Tay-Sachs disease, who in their heterozygote form may offer an advantage against, respectively, malaria and tuberculosis.
  • Many people can succeed in life with disabilities.
  • Many of the conditions early eugenicists identified as hereditable (pellagra is one such example) are currently considered to be wholly or at least partially attributed to environmental conditions.

Similar concerns are raised when prenatal diagnosis of congenital disorder leads to abortion (see also preimplantation genetic diagnosis).

Eugenic policies have been historically divided into two categories: positive eugenics, which encourage a designated "most fit" to reproduce more often, and negative eugenics, which discourage or prevent a designated "less fit" from reproducing. Negative eugenics need not always be coercive. A state might offer financial rewards to certain people who submit to sterilization, although some critics might reply that this incentive along with social pressure could be perceived as coercion. Positive eugenics can also be coercive. Abortion by "fit" women was illegal in Nazi Germany.

During the twentieth century, many countries enacted various eugenics policies and programs, including:

Most of these policies were later regarded as coercive, restrictive, or genocidal, and now few jurisdictions implement policies that could be considered, or are explicitly labeled as, eugenic. However, some private organizations assist people in genetic counseling and reprogenetics may be considered as a form of non state-enforced, "liberal" eugenics.


Galton's theory

Selective breeding was suggested at least as far back as Plato, who believed human reproduction should be controlled by government. He recorded these views in his famous dialogue "The Republic" "The best men must have intercourse with the best women as frequently as possible, and the opposite is true of the very inferior". Plato proposed that selection be performed by a fake lottery so people's feelings wouldn't be hurt by any awareness of selection principles. Other ancient examples include the city of Sparta's mythical practice of leaving weak babies outside of city borders to die. See Infanticide.

Sir Francis Galton initially developed the ideas of eugenics.
Sir Francis Galton initially developed the ideas of eugenics.

During the 1860s and 1870s Sir Francis Galton systemized these ideas and practices according to new knowledge about the evolution of man and animals provided by the theory of his cousin Charles Darwin. After reading Darwin's Origin of Species, Galton noticed an interpretation of Darwin's work whereby the mechanisms of natural selection were potentially thwarted by human civilization. His reasoning followed that since many human societies sought to protect the underprivileged and weak, those societies were at odds with the natural selection responsible for extinction of the weakest. Only by changing these social policies, Galton thought, could society be saved from a "reversion towards mediocrity", a phrase he first coined in statistics and later changed to the now common, "regression towards the mean."

Galton's first sketched out his theory in the 1865 article "Hereditary Talent and Character," then elaborated further in his 1869 book Hereditary Genius. He began by studying the way in which human intellectual, moral, and personality traits tended to run in families. Galton's basic argument was that "genius" and "talent" were hereditary traits in humans (although neither he nor Darwin yet had a working model of this type of heredity). He concluded that since one could use artificial selection to exaggerate traits in animals, one could expect similar results when applying such models to humans. As he wrote in the introduction to Hereditary Genius:

I propose to show in this book that a man's natural abilities are derived by inheritance, under exactly the same limitations as are the form and physical features of the whole organic world. Consequently, as it is easy, notwithstanding those limitations, to obtain by careful selection a permanent breed of dogs or horses gifted with peculiar powers of running, or of doing anything else, so it would be quite practicable to produce a highly-gifted race of men by judicious marriages during several consecutive generations.

According to Galton, society already encouraged dysgenic conditions, claiming that the less intelligent were out-reproducing the more intelligent, a catastrophe in Darwinian terms. Galton did not propose any selection methods and hoped that if social mores changed in a way by which people could see the importance of breeding, at some point a solution would be found.

Galton first used the word eugenic in his 1883 Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development, a book in which he meant "to touch on various topics more or less connected with that of the cultivation of race, or, as we might call it, with 'eugenic' questions." He included a footnote to the word "eugenic" which read:

That is, with questions bearing on what is termed in Greek, eugenes namely, good in stock, hereditarily endowed with noble qualities. This, and the allied words, eugeneia, etc., are equally applicable to men, brutes, and plants. We greatly want a brief word to express the science of improving stock, which is by no means confined to questions of judicious mating, but which, especially in the case of man, takes cognisance of all influences that tend in however remote a degree to give to the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had. The word eugenics would sufficiently express the idea; it is at least a neater word and a more generalised one than viriculture which I once ventured to use.

In 1904 he clarified his definition of eugenics as:

the science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those that develop them to the utmost advantage. [1]

Galton's formulation of eugenics was based on a strong statistical approach, influenced heavily by Adolphe Quetelet's "social physics." Unlike Quetelet however, Galton did not exhalt the "average man," but decried him as mediocre. Galton and his statistical heir Karl Pearson developed what was called the biometrical approach to eugenics, which developed new and complex statistical models (later exported to wholly different fields) to describe the heredity of traits. However, with the re-discovery of Gregor Mendel's hereditary laws two separate camps of eugenics advocates emerged. One was made up of statisticians, the other of biologists. Statisticians thought the biologists had exceptionally crude mathematical models while biologists thought the statisticians knew little about biology.

Eugenics eventually referred to human selective reproduction with an intent to create children with desirable traits, generally through the approach of influencing differential birth rates. These policies were mostly divided into two categories: Positive eugenics, the increased reproduction of those seen to have advantageous hereditary traits and negative eugenics, the discouragment of reproduction by those with hereditary traits perceived as poor. Negative eugenic policies in the past have ranged from attempts at segregation to sterilization and even genocide. Positive eugenic policies have typically taken the form of awards or bonuses for "fit" parents who have another child. Relatively innocuous practices like marriage counseling had early links with eugenic ideology.

Eugenics differed from what would later be known as Social Darwinism. While both claimed intelligence was hereditary, eugenics asserted that new policies were needed to actively change the status quo towards a more "eugenic" state, while the Social Darwinists argued society itself would naturally "check" the problem of "dysgenics" if no welfare policies were in place (for example, the poor might reproduce more but would have higher mortality rates).

Eugenics and the state, 1890s-1945

One of the earliest modern advocates of eugenic ideas (before they were labeled as such) was Alexander Graham Bell, best known as one of the inventors of the telephone. In 1881 Bell investigated the rate of deafness on Martha's Vineyard, Mass. From this he concluded that deafness was hereditary in nature and recommended a marriage prohibition against the deaf ("Memoir upon the formation of a deaf variety of the human Race"). Like many other early eugenicists he proposed controlling immigration for the purpose of eugenics and warned that boarding schools for the deaf could possibly be considered as breeding places of a deaf human race.

Many prominent African American thinkers have supported eugenics or ideas resembling eugenics, including but not limited to W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey, who saw it as a way to reduce African American suffering and improve the stature of African Americans.

"We do not stand alone": Nazi poster from 1936 with flags of other countries with compulsory sterilization legislation.
"We do not stand alone": Nazi poster from 1936 with flags of other countries with compulsory sterilization legislation.

Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler was infamous for eugenics programs which attempted to maintain a "pure" German race through a series of programs which ran under the banner of "racial hygiene." Among other activities, the Nazis performed extensive experimentation on live human beings to test their genetic theories, ranging from simple measurement of physical characteristics to the more ghastly experiments carried out by Josef Mengele for Otmar von Verschuer on twins in the concentration camps. During the 1930s and 1940s the Nazi regime forcibly sterilized hundreds of thousands of people whom they viewed as mentally and physically "unfit" and killed tens of thousands of the institutionalized disabled through compulsory euthanasia programs. They also implemented a number of "positive" eugenics policies, giving awards to "Aryan" women who had large numbers of children and encouraged a service in which "racially pure" single women were impregnated by SS officers (Lebensborn). Many of their concerns for eugenics and racial hygiene were also explicitly present in their systematic killing of millions of "undesirable" Europeans including Jews, gypsies and homosexuals during the Holocaust (and much of the killing equipment and methods employed in the death camps were first developed in their euthanasia program). The scope and coercion involved in the German eugenics programs along with a strong use of the rhetoric of eugenics and so-called "racial science" throughout the regime created an indelible cultural association between eugenics and the Third Reich in the postwar years.

The second largest eugenics movement was in the United States. Beginning with Connecticut in 1896 many states enacted marriage laws with eugenic criteria, prohibiting anyone who was "epileptic, imbecile or feeble-minded" from marrying. In 1898 Charles B. Davenport, a prominent American biologist began as director of a biological research station based in Cold Spring Harbor where he experimented with evolution in plants and animals. In 1904 Davenport received funds from the Carnegie Institution to found the Station for Experimental Evolution. The Eugenics Record Office opened in 1910 while Davenport and Harry H. Laughlin began to promote eugenics.

A pedigree chart from The Kallikak Family meant to show how one "illicit tryst" could lead to an entire generation of "imbeciles".
A pedigree chart from The Kallikak Family meant to show how one "illicit tryst" could lead to an entire generation of "imbeciles".

In years to come the ERO collected a mass of family pedigrees and concluded that those who were unfit came from economically and socially poor backgrounds. Eugenicists such as Davenport, the psychologist Henry H. Goddard and the conservationist Madison Grant (all well respected in their time) began to lobby for various solutions to the problem of the "unfit" (Davenport favored immigration restriction and sterilization as primary methods, Goddard favored segregation in his The Kallikak Family, Grant favored all of the above and more, even entertaining the idea of extermination). Though their methodology and research methods are now understood as highly flawed, at the time this was seen as legitimate scientific research although they did have scientific detractors (notably Thomas Hunt Morgan).

In 1924, the Immigration Act of 1924 was passed, with eugenicists for the first time playing a central role in the Congressional debate as expert advisers on the threat of "inferior stock" from Eastern and Southern Europe. [2] This reduced the number of immigrants from abroad to fifteen percent from previous years, to control the number of "unfit" individuals entering the country. The new Act strengthened existing laws prohibiting race mixing in an attempt to maintain the gene pool. Eugenic considerations also lay behind the adoption of incest laws in much of the USA and were used to justify many anti-miscegenation laws.

Some states sterilized "imbeciles" for much of the 20th century. The US Supreme Court ruled in the 1927 Buck v. Bell case that the state of Virginia could sterilize those they thought unfit. The most significant era of eugenic sterilization was between 1907 and 1963 when over 64,000 individuals were forcibly sterilized under eugenic legislation in the United States. A favorable report on the results of the sterilizations in California, by far the most sterilizing state, was published in book form by the biologist Paul Popenoe and was widely cited by the Nazi government as evidence that wide-reaching sterilization programs were feasible and humane. When Nazi administrators went on trial for war crimes in Nuremberg after World War II they justified the mass-sterilizations (over 450,000 in less than a decade) by citing the United States as their inspiration.

Almost all non-Catholic western nations adopted some eugenics legislation. In July 1933 Germany passed a law allowing for the involuntary sterilization of "hereditary and incurable drunkards, sexual criminals, lunatics, and those suffering from an incurable disease which would be passed on to their offspring..." [3] Sweden forcibly sterilized 62,000 "unfits" as part of a eugenics program over a forty year period. Similar incidents occurred in Canada, Australia, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Estonia, Switzerland and Iceland for people the government declared to be mentally deficient. Singapore practiced a limited form of "positive" eugenics which involved encouraging marriage between college graduates in the hope they would produce better children.

Various authors, notably Stephen Jay Gould, have repeatedly asserted that restrictions on immigration passed in the United States during the 1920s (and overhauled in 1965) were motivated by the goals of eugenics, in particular a desire to exclude "inferior" races from the national gene pool. During the early twentieth century the United States and Canada began to receive far higher numbers of southern and eastern European immigrants. Influential eugenicists like Lothrop Stoddard and Harry Laughlin (who was appointed as an expert witness for the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization in 1920) presented arguments that these were inferior races who would pollute the national gene pool if their numbers went unrestricted. It is argued that this stirred both Canada and the United States into passing laws creating a hierarchy of nationalities, rating them from the most desirable Anglo-Saxon and Nordic peoples to the Chinese and Japanese immigrants who were almost completely banned from entering the country. However several people, in particular Franz Samelson, Mark Snyderman and Richard Herrnstein, have argued that based on their examination of the records of the Congressional debates over immigration policy, Congress gave virtually no consideration to these factors. Rather, they maintain the restrictions were motivated primarily by a desire to maintain the country's cultural integrity against a heavy influx of foreigners.

Some who disagree with the idea of eugenics in general contend that eugenics legislation still had benefits. Margaret Sanger (founder of Planned Parenthood of America) found it a useful tool to urge the legalization of contraception. In its time eugenics was seen by many as scientific and progressive, the natural application of knowledge about breeding to the arena of human life. Before the death camps of World War II the idea that eugenics could lead to genocide was not taken seriously.

Stigmatization of eugenics in the post-Nazi years

After the experience of Nazi Germany many ideas about "racial hygiene" and "unfit" members of society were publicly renounced by politicians and members of the scientific community. The Nuremberg Trials against former Nazi leaders revealed to the world many of the regime's genocidal practices and resulted in formalized policies of medical ethics and the 1950 UNESCO statement on race. Many scientific societies released their own similar "race statements" over the years and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, developed in response to abuses during the second World War, was adopted by the United Nations in 1948 and affirmed "Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family."[4]

In reaction to Nazi abuses, eugenics became almost universally reviled in many of the nations where it had once been popular (however some eugenics programs, including sterilization, continued quietly for decades). Many pre-war eugenicists engaged in what they later labeled "crypto-eugenics," purposefully taking their eugenic beliefs "underground" and becoming highly-respected anthropologists, biologists and geneticists in the post-war world (including Robert Yerkes in the USA and Otmar von Verschuer in Germany). Californian eugenicist Paul Popenoe founded marriage counseling during the 1950s, a career change which grew from his eugenic interests in promoting "healthy marriages" between "fit" couples.

High school and college textbooks from the 1920s through the 40s often had chapters touting the scientific progress to be had from applying eugenic principles to the population. Many early scientific journals devoted to heredity in general were run by eugenicists and featured eugenics articles alongside studies of heredity in non-human organisms. After eugenics fell out of scientific favor most references to eugenics were removed from both textbooks and subsequent editions of journals. Even the names of some journals changed to reflect new attitudes. For example, "Eugenics Quarterly" became "Social Biology" in 1969 (the journal still existed in 2005 though it looked little like its predecessor). Notable members of the American Eugenics Society (1922-1994) during the second half of the 20th Century included Joseph Fletcher (originator of Situational ethics), Dr. Clarence Gamble of the Procter & Gamble fortune and Garrett Hardin, a population control advocate and author of The Tragedy of the Commons.

Despite the changed post-war attitude towards eugenics in the US and some European countries, a few nations, notably Canada and Sweden, maintained large-scale eugenics programs, including forced sterilization of mentally handicapped individuals, as well as other practices, until the 1970s. In the United States, sterilizations capped off in the 1960s, though the eugenics movement had largely lost most popular and political support by the end of the 1930s.

Modern eugenics and genetic engineering

Beginning in the 1980s the history and concept of eugenics were widely discussed as knowledge about genetics advanced significantly. Endeavors such as the Human Genome Project made the effective modification of the human species seem possible again (as did Darwin's initial theory of evolution in the 1860s along with the rediscovery of Mendel's laws in the early 20th century). The difference at the beginning of the 21st century was the guarded attitude towards eugenics, which had become a watchword to be feared rather than embraced.

Only a few scientific researchers (such as the controversial psychologist Richard Lynn) have openly called for eugenic policies using modern technology but they represent a minority opinion in current scientific and cultural circles. One attempted implementation of a form of eugenics was a "genius sperm bank" (1980-1999) created by Robert Klark Graham, from which nearly 230 children were conceived (the best known donor was Nobel Prize winner William Shockley). In the USA and Europe though, these attempts have generally been criticized as in the same spirit of classist and racist forms of eugenics of the 1930s. Results, in any case, have been spotty at best.

Some conservative commentators have also proposed eugenics-like programs. Thomas Sowell advocated differential birth rates in his book Ethnic America:

The internal distribution of children among blacks has made the upward movement of the race as a whole more difficult. The general tendency of poor people to have more children than middle-class people has been accentuated among American Negroes. Better educated and higher income blacks have even fewer children than their white counterparts, while low-income blacks have even more children than equally low income whites. Much of the struggle that has brought some blacks up from poverty has had to be repeated in successive generations because successful blacks did not have enough children to reproduce themselves. (Sowell, 1981, p. 213)

Because of its association with compulsory sterilization and the racial ideals of the Nazi Party, the word eugenics is rarely used by the advocates of such programs.

Only a few governments in the world had anything resembling eugenic programs today. In 1994 China passed the "Maternal and Infant Health Care Law" which included mandatory pre-marital screenings for "genetic diseases of a serious nature" and "relevant mental disease." Those who were diagnosed with such diseases were required either to not marry, agree to "long term contraceptive measures" or to submit to sterilization. This law was repealed in 2004.

A similar screening policy (including pre-natal screening and abortion) intended to reduce the incidence of thalassemia exists on both sides of the island of Cyprus. Since the program's implementation in the 1970s, it reduced the ratio of children born with the hereditary blood disease from 1 out of every 158 births to almost zero. Dor Yeshorim, a program which seeks to reduce the incidence of Tay-Sachs disease among certain Jewish communities, is another screening program which has drawn comparisons with eugenics. In Israel, at the expense of the state, the general public is advised to carry out genetic tests to diagnose the disease before the birth of a baby. If an unborn baby is diagnosed with Tay-Sachs the pregnancy is usually terminated. The ultra-Orthodox association Dor Yeshorim tests young couples to check whether they are genetically "suitable." If both the young man and young women are Tay-Sachs carriers, the match is determined to be unsuitable and the couple is supposed to split up.

In modern bioethics literature the history of eugenics presents many moral and ethical questions. Commentators have suggested the new "eugenics" will come from reproductive technologies which allow parents to create "designer babies" (what the biologist Lee M. Silver prominently called "reprogenetics"). It has been argued that this "non-coercive" form of biological "improvement" will be predominately motivated by individual competitiveness and the desire to create "the best opportunities" for children, rather than an urge to improve the species as a whole, which characterized the early twentieth century forms of eugenics. Because of this non-coercive nature, lack of involvement by the state and a difference in goals some commentators have asked whether such activities are eugenics or something else all together.

Disabled activists argue that although their impairments may cause them pain or discomfort, what really disables them as members of society is a socio-cultural system which does not recognise their right to genuinely equal treatment. They express skepticism that any form of eugenics could be to the benefit of the disabled considering their treatment by historical eugenic campaigns.

Watson, the first director of the Human Genome Project, initiated the Ethical, Legal and Social Implications Program (ELSI) which has funded a number of studies into the implications of human genetic engineering (along with a prominent website on the history of eugenics), because:

In putting ethics so soon into the genome agenda, I was responding to my own personal fear that all too soon critics of the Genome Project would point out that I was a representative of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory that one housed the controversial Eugenics Record Office. My not forming a genome ethics program quickly might be falsely used as evidence that I was a closet eugenicist, having as my real long-term purpose the unambiguous identification of genes that lead to social and occupational stratification as well as genes justifying racial discrimination. (Watson 2000, p.202)

While any ideas described as "eugenic" are still highly controversial in both public and scholarly spheres, a few distinguished scientists including Nobel Prize winners John Sulston ("I don't think one ought to bring a clearly disabled child into the world") and James D. Watson ("Once you have a way in which you can improve our children, no one can stop it.") have recently spoken in support of "voluntary" eugenics.

Some transhumanist groups advocate eugenics assisted by cloning and genetic engineering, sometimes even as part of a new religion (see Cosmotheism and Prometheism [5]). These groups also talk of "conscious evolution", "neo-eugenics" or "genetic freedom".

Behavioral traits often identified as potential targets for modification through human genetic engineering include intelligence, depression, schizophrenia, alcoholism, sexual behavior (and orientation) and criminality.

Most recently in the United Kingdom the Crown VS James Edward Whittaker-Williams set the precedent of banning sexual contact between people with learning disabilities. The accused, a man suffering learning disabilities was jailed for kissing and hugging a woman with learning disabilities. This was done under the 2003 Sexual Offences Act which redefines kissing and cuddling as sexual and states that those with learning difficulties are unable to give consent regardless of whether or not the act involved coercion. Opponents of the act have attacked it as bringing in Eugenics through the backdoor under the guise of "consent".


This article or section is currently being developed or reviewed.
Some statements may be disputed or dubious.
Please read talk page discussion before making substantial changes.


While the science of genetics has increasingly provided means by which certain characteristics and conditions can be identified and understood, given the complexity of human genetics and culture, there is no scientific means of determining which characteristics might be ultimately desireable or undesireable. Hence, since eugenics must be taken as a study of social policy, if eugenics is mistakenly applied as a science it can be called a pseudoscience, a term which refers to any field that isn't scientific but is sometimes erroneously regarded as such.

Objectification of hereditary traits

Some critics have argued, often on ethical grounds, that eugenic attitudes and practices may objectify human hereditary traits, placing too much emphasis or value on arbitrary characteristics rather than considering the individual as a whole. Objectification has also been raised as a concern in the medical treatment of patients in general.[6]

Tom Shakespeare, a bioethicist and disability advocate, has argued that the new genomics "does not mark a radical departure" from the eugenic attitudes of the past (2002: 8-10), and that "the real problems of disabled people are social arrangements, not their impairments" [7].

Slippery slope

A commonly advanced criticism of eugenics is that, evidenced by its history, it inevitably leads to measures that are unethical (Lynn 2001). H. L. Kaye wrote of "the obvious truth that eugenics has been discredited by Hitler's crimes" (Kaye 1989). R. L. Hayman argued "the eugenics movement is an anachronism, its political implications exposed by the Holocaust" (Hayman 1990).

Steven Pinker has stated that it's "a conventional wisdom among left-leaning academics that genes imply genocide." He responds to this by comparing the history of Marxism, which had the opposite position on genes as Nazism:

But the 20th century suffered “two” ideologies that led to genocides. The other one, Marxism, had no use for race, didn't believe in genes and denied that human nature was a meaningful concept. Clearly, it's not an emphasis on genes or evolution that is dangerous. It's the desire to remake humanity by coercive means (eugenics or social engineering) and the belief that humanity advances through a struggle in which superior groups (race or classes) triumph over inferior ones.[8]

Richard Lynn argues that any social philosophy is capable of ethical misuse. Though Christian principles have aided in the abolition of slavery and the establishment of welfare programs, he notes that the Christian church has also burned many dissidents at the stake and waged wars against nonbelievers in which Christian crusaders slaughtered large numbers of women and children. Lynn argues the appropriate response is to condemn these killings, but believing Christianity "inevitably leads to the extermination of those who do not accept its doctrines" is unwarranted (Lynn 2001).

Genetic diversity

Eugenic policies could also lead to loss of genetic diversity, in which case a culturally accepted improvement of the gene pool may, but wouldn't necessarily, result in biological disaster due to increased vulnerability to disease, reduced ability to adapt to environmental change and other factors both known and unknown. This kind of argument from the precautionary principle is itself criticized.


One website on logic has used the statement "Eugenics must be wrong because it was associated with the Nazis" as an example of the association fallacy. [9]

Eugenics in popular culture

Eugenics is recurrent theme in science fiction (often dystopian) - the novel Brave New World by Aldous Huxley explores the theme in depth, as well as the more recent (and up-to-date on the science) movie Gattaca, whose plot turns around genetic engineering and genetic testing. Boris Vian (under the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan) takes a more light-hearted approach in his novel Et on tuera tous les affreux.

Other novels touching upon the subject include The Gate to Women's Country by Sheri S. Tepper and That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis. The Eugenics Wars are a significant part of the background story of the Star Trek universe. Eugenics are also a significant part of the plot of the James Bond movie Moonraker.

There tends to be an eugenic undercurrent in the science fiction concept of the supersoldier. Several depictions of these supersoldiers usually have them bred for combat or are genetically selected for attributes that are beneficial to modern or future combat.

See also Genetic engineering in fiction.

See also


  • Elazar Barkan, The retreat of scientific racism: changing concepts of race in Britain and the United States between the world wars (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992). (On the changing attitudes towards race and biology in the 20th century academic community)
  • Francis Galton, Eugenics: Its definition, scope, and aims. The American Journal of Sociology, Volume X; July, 1904; Number 1
  • Francis Galton, Hereditary genius: an inquiry into its laws and consequences (London: Macmillan, 1869). (Galton's first comprehensive work on eugenics)
  • Francis Galton, Hereditary talent and character," Macmillan's Magazine 12 (1865), 157-166 and 318-327. (Galton's first article on heredity and eugenics)
  • Francis Galton, Inquiries into human faculty and its development (London, Macmillan, 1883). (Galton coins the word "eugenics")
  • Stephen J. Gould, The mismeasure of man (New York: Norton, 1981). (Looks at the history of using science for racist purposes)
  • Mark Haller, Eugenics: Hereditarian attitudes in American thought (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1963). (Early work on the history of eugenics)
  • Daniel Kevles, In the name of eugenics: Genetics and the uses of human heredity (New York: Knopf, 1985). (Most recent survey work on the history of eugenics)
  • Stefan Kühl, The Nazi connection: Eugenics, American racism, and German National Socialism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994). (On the connections between U.S. and Nazi eugenics and eugenicists)
  • Dieter Kuntz, ed., Deadly medicine: creating the master race (Washington, DC: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2004). (On the use of science for eugenics in the U.S. and the Holocaust) online exhibit
  • Donald A. MacKenzie, Statistics in Britain, 1865-1930: The social construction of scientific knowledge (Edinburgh: Edinburg University Press, 1981). (On the development of 19th century eugenics and theories of heredity)
  • Diane B. Paul, "Darwin, social Darwinism and eugenics," in Jonathan Hodge and Gregory Radick, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Darwin (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 214-239. (Darwin's assessment of Galton)
  • Robert Proctor, Racial hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988). (On the mobilization of the medical community under the Nazi state and the development of the racial hygiene movement)
  • Tom Shakespeare, Genetic Politics: from Eugenics to Genome, with Anne Kerr (New Clarion Press, 2002).
  • Thomas Sowell, Ethnic America. Basic Books, 1981. ISBN 0465020755
  • James D. Watson, A passion for DNA: Genes, genomes, and society (Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2000). (Co-discoverer of DNA talks about genes and ethics)
  • Paul Weindling, Health, race and German politics between national unification and Nazism, 1870-1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989). (On the development of hygiene movements in Germany)
  • "Sterilisation of the unfit", The Guardian, July 26, 1933. (Reporting on the passage of the German sterilization law)
  • Richard Lynn, Eugenics: A Reassessment (Human Evolution, Behavior, and Intelligence) (Praeger Publishers, 2001).
  • Robert L. Hayman, Presumptions of justice: Law, politics, and the mentally retarded parent. Harvard Law Review 1990, 103, 1202-71. (p. 1209)
  • H. L. Kaye, The social meaning of modern biology 1987, New Haven, CT Yale University Press. (p. 46)

Further reading

  • Mark B. Adams, ed., The Wellborn Science: Eugenics in Germany, France, Brazil, and Russia (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990). ISBN 0195053613
  • Edwin Black, War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race (Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003). [10] ISBN 1568582587
  • Edwin Black, "Eugenics and the Nazis -- the California connection", San Francisco Chronicle (9 Nov 2003).
  • Elof Axel Carlson, The Unfit: A History of a Bad Idea (Cold Spring Harbor, New York: Cold Spring Harbor Press, 2001). ISBN 0879695870
  • Michael Crichton, State of Fear, (New York: HarperCollins, 2004). ISBN 0066214130 (contains an appendix on eugenics, politics, and science in the US.)
  • Richard Lynn, Eugenics: A reassessment (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2001). ISBN 0275958221 (controversial book which argues for eugenics)
  • Nancy Ordover, American Eugencis: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2003). ISBN 0816635595
  • Tom Shakespeare, "Back to the Future? New Genetics and Disabled People", Critical Social Policy 46:22-35 (1995)

External links

Wikimedia Commons has media related to:

Anti-eugenics and historical websites

Pro-eugenics websites

Personal tools