Eugenics deals with the application of the laws of genetics to the improvement of the human race. Some scientists are concerned that the mitigation of natural selection and conditions in highly developed societies bring about a deterioration of genetic fitness, the relative ability of a an organism to propagate its genotype. Over the years various methods of counteracting genetic deterioration have been implemented. Under some of these circumstances conflicting points of view continue today concerning the rights of the individual versus the rights of society.

The study of improving the human race by genetics via the means of eugenics dates from ancient times. For example, in ancient Sparta, defective babies were destroyed by throwing them over cliffs in order to keep the race strong. In his Republic, Plato depicts an ideal society through the effort to improve human beings through selective breeding.

English scientist Francis Galton pioneered the use of statistics in genetic thought. In his first important book, Hereditary Genius (1869), Galton proposed that a system of arranged marriages between men of distinction and women of wealth would eventually produce a gifted race, but the idea never won widespread acceptance. Many people feared that a eugenics program would take away basic human rights, such as peoples' rights to marry whom they choose. Coining the term eugenics in 1883, Galton continued to expound its benefits until his death in 1911.

Since the 1950s there has been a renewed interest in the idea because certain diseases such as hemophilia and Tay-Sach's Disease are now known to be genetically transmitted. Moreover, some states in the United States have laws that are aimed at preventing persons with known defects from having children.

To date expanding eugenics programs which range from the creation of sperm banks for the genetically superior to the potential cloning of human beings, have been met with extreme resistance from the public, which often views such programs as unwarranted interference with nature or as opportunities for abuse by authoritarian regimes.


Winchester, A.M. Genetics: A Survey of the Principles of Heredity. Ed. H. Bently Glass, June Shepard. 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972.

Leading up to Eugenics

Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, a turbulent time in American social history was taking place. This is not unreasonable to consider as there were many dramatic changes taking place. Vast numbers of people were migrating from rural and farming locations into cities. The cornucopia of laborers available resulted in very straightforward exploitation of the labor force, which in turn lead to a very aggressive Labor Union system. A period of economic turmoil extended until the 1900's and vast immigration movement was underway by this time which extended until World War I and resurged again soon afterwards. The immigrants were mostly from Southern and Eastern Europe. Social Darwinism, a popular field of "science" at the time, had explained away inequality by virtue of a corrupted form of Darwin's concepts of evolution. Social Darwinism had been a major tool in the justification of racism and its influences continue to affect our culture even today.

At the time, the birth rate of the wealthy and powerful had been declining. This is significant only because this was the era of scientific practicality, the birth of statistical analysis and scientific management. It was in this era many of the humanities were renamed "social sciences." Add to this the fact that charity, social work, and religion were no more successful at ending poverty than they have ever been and a perception may be constructed construing the situation to be dire indeed. In response partially to this seemly apocalyptic state of affairs the progressivism movement began. The philosophy of progressivism was mainly that society was a logical, though complex, system which could be controlled by logical means. It heralded science and scientific thought as the panacea of all the world's ills. With the advancements in genetics and a sort of "genetics fad" in place, a new field of pseudo-science was born: Eugenics.

Eugenic theory placed the blame for all of the society's ills, and all problems pertaining to humans, as being the result of inferior genes in the problematic individuals. With this philosophy the fault for poverty fell on the poor, and the fault for imbalanced society and the ostracization of minorities fell upon the minorities themselves. In general, it blamed the victims for the problem. It ignored any possible causes stemming from the organization of social structure, class struggle, demographic balance, ethnicity, or gender, or any inabilities of any groups associated with these things to communicate or peacefully coexist with the others. The blame was placed fully upon feeble-minded individuals, as well as a number of symptoms of the problems which they were attempting to solve, such as rebellion, prostitution, and alcoholism. Coincidentally, eugenics scientists did not fall into these groups, or if they did they kept it secret.

It looks like a blatant case of puritan syndrome to me.

Restriction of Immigration

the first endeavors in Eugenics came through the practice of the restriction of immigration. Before the word "eugenics" had been invented, the thought process was already partially there. The first naturalization law enacted was in 1790, limiting citizenship to free whites; soon immigration was prohibited to those who could be clearly demonstrated to not be self-sufficient. In the 1900s Eugenics societies teamed up with immigration organizations native to the United States in order to push laws through congress to prohibit the immigration of "mongrel races" and stop them from polluting the American Gene pool. By 1917 the definition of "persons likely to become a public charge" (and thereby prohibited from immigration) was extended to include "the feeble-minded, idiots, imbeciles," or "mentally of physically defective." What this basically meant was that the port inspector had the right to stop anyone whom they thought, upon first glance, was inferior. It also meant that, if they were racist, and it is likely that most were, they would have the ability to discriminate against anyone they chose and write it off as "Feeblemindedness" to avoid any blame, assuming there was anyone present who would be offended by racism and would need to be circumvented.

Calvin Coolidge coined the phrase "America must remain American," and it was used long afterwards as a rallying point for anti-immigration sentiment. I, personally, am aghast with the terribly irony of this idea.

Marriage Laws
Miscegenation laws predated Eugenics and had been primarily used to persecute black men of raping white women by negating any possibility of legal consent being given. The eugenics movement reinforced these laws, giving them new "legitimacy" and bringing them back to the forefront of the American consciousness. Many famous works were written warning the white population of the dangers of mixing the races and "bastardizing their bloodlines," and the government was openly and publicly on board with it. The "Scientific Justification of Racism" was quite pervasive. As a result of the Eugenics movements, definitions of who could be considered "white" were restricted in order to further control the purity of Anglo-Saxon bloodlines; specific percentages of "Native American" were deemed acceptable, specifically 1/64th part or less. This number was later relaxed to 1/16 part to ensure that all lawmakers in power at the time could be considered white. In 1942 a Virginia Miscegenation law, backed by an offshoot of the KKK proclaimed that public health problems were the result of interracial marriage; state-published pamphlets were distributed to all persons applying for marriage licenses saying as much. Not until 1967 were miscegenation laws taken off the books.
Involuntary Sterilization

In 1907 Indiana enacted a law allowing the forced sterilization of individuals on genetic grounds. In 1914 Harry Laughlin published the "Model Eugenical Sterilization Law." By that time twelve states had already enacted sterilization laws. Laughlin proposed the authorization of involuntary sterilization of those who were "Socially inadequate" or who were "maintained wholly or in part by public expense" (Welfare, Prison, Mental Hospitals, orphanages, ect...) as well as the "feebleminded, insane, criminalistic, epileptic, inebriate, diseased, blind, deaf; deformed; and dependent {...} orphans, ne'er-do-wells, tramps, the homeless and paupers."

In 1924 Virginia passed a sterilization law based on Laughlin's model, and approximately 3,000 people had been involuntarily sterilized up to that point. Virginia supported the idea that all social problems were the result of genetically inferior people and that is was necessary to sterilize "Defective persons" whose reproduction posed a "Menace to society."

Legal documents show that doctors were often called into court to testify about the character of persons whom they had never met by virtue of medical bases. Any concept of evidence in a sterilization trial was a mockery of the legal system at best. Persons accused of any offence punishable by sterilization could have the actions of their parents or grandparents held against them as evidence that they contain malignant DNA, and no quarter was given to those who had bastard children due to rape, they were classified as whores and prostitutes. The case of Buck vs. Bell was taken to The Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of forced sterilization and set a precedent legalizing it beyond question.

The Nazi German Government adopted Laughlin’s model and used the legislation to sterilize 350,000 people. Laughlin was granted an honorary degree from the University of Heidelberg for his work in the scientific field of ethnic cleansing.

In 1942 the law was again challenged at the Supreme Court and was this time struck down. The case of Skinner vs. Oklahoma outlawed the compulsory sterilization of inmates and convicted felons, it did nothing to abate the other rampant methods in play.

Until the mid 1970's involuntary sterilization in mental institutions of all types was legal and over 60,000 individuals were sterilized there.

The precedent legalizing the forced sterilization of the feebleminded is still in effect.

Divine. America Past and Present. Longman: New York. 2002.

Eu*gen"ics (?), n.

The science of improving stock, whether human or animal.

F. Galton.


© Webster 1913.

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