The Fascinating History of Eugenics


The name deriving from the Greek “eugenes,” meaning “well-born,” it should be no surprise that “eugenics” seeks to engineer a better human race by purposefully selecting good traits, and eliminating bad ones, as is common when breeding animals. Over the years, eugenics has had a number of proponents, from some of the greatest and most admires thinkers in western civilization to the worst human monsters to ever walk the earth.

Ancient Eugenics

Eugenics is as old as Plato (although he didn’t call it that) and in The Republic, Plato (428-347 BC) argued that the state should control the reproduction of its ruling classes:

The good must be paired with the good, and the bad with the bad, and the offspring of the one must be reared and of the other destroyed; in this way the flock will be preserved in prime condition.

Although his views tempered with age, even at the end he thought ruling class marriages should be conducted “under the supervision of a board of matrons, appointed by the magistrates.”

This thinking was in line with, although more humane than, the common practice of infanticide in Sparta, which was used to keep that population in fighting shape.

Eugenics in the 19th and 20th Centuries

Human Selection

Ideas of selection and “survival of the fittest” became very popular in the mid- to late- 1800s thanks to the work of Charles Darwin in his On the Origin of the Species (1859).

Building on that, his cousin, Francis Galton, a famous scientist in his own right (he created the first weather map), reignited interest in purposefully selecting human traits and coined the term eugenics.

With only the best of intentions (and turning a blind eye to unintended consequences), Galton explained his philosophy and goal:

Raise the average quality of our nation to that of its better moiety at the present day . . . . The general tone of domestic, social, and political life would be higher. The race as a whole would be less foolish, less frivolous, less excitable, and politically more provident…

Over the next 80 years, interest in eugenics grew throughout the United States and Europe. Perhaps its most infamous incarnation happened in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. But it wasn’t just the Nazis who were in support of it, Winston Churchill and other prominent figures were also strong proponents.

Nazi Germany

Beginning in earnest in 1933, the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring was enacted. As a result, approximately 400,000 forced sterilizations were conducted on those who were either feebleminded, schizophrenic, manic-depressive, epileptic, deaf, blind, had Huntington’s or a severe deformity – or were an alcoholic.

By 1935, the Nuremberg and Marital Health Laws extended the eugenics program to include Jewish people and prohibited their marriages (and sex) with non-Jews. For safe measure, medical examinations, to ensue there would be no “racial pollution,” were required prior to marriage.

Apparently those measures were insufficient because beginning in 1939, “certain doctors [had been] commissioned to grant ‘mercy death’ to patients judged incurably sick by medical examination.” By 1941, more than 70,000 mental patients had been euthanized, and the lessons learned in this project were applied later to exterminations in the concentration camps.

Although it is tempting to paint the Nazi’s as uniquely cruel psychopaths, it is important to remember that: “American, British and German eugenicists openly discussed using ‘lethal chambers’ to kill ‘defectives’ in the decades prior to 1942.”

Nonetheless, wartime Nazi Germany took eugenics to an extreme. In addition to the mass killings we’re all familiar with, German citizens were also targeted:

In Germany itself, after August 1942, euthanasia became part of normal hospital routine. Handicapped infants were regularly put to death; persons requiring long-term psychiatric care and judged incurable suffered the same fate. Euthanasia operations were sometimes coordinated with bombing raids: elderly or otherwise infirm  . . . were killed in order to make room for war-wounded.

In the end, it is estimated that 200,000 people were killed in the euthanasia program, and approximately 11,000,000 people were killed in the holocaust.

Forced Sterilization in the U.S.

It is hard to overstate how popular eugenics had become in the United States by the early 20th century. Consider that by 1936, 31 of the 48 states had some type of eugenics or sterilization law.

Luckily, the legislation was not as extreme as a few eugenics advocates, such as neurologist Foster Kennedy, wanted. As he wrote in 1942: “I am in favor of euthanasia for those hopeless ones who should never have been born- Nature’s mistakes.”

In fact, Kennedy proposed that when a ‘defective child’ reached age five, if an appointed medical board determined that the:

Defective has no future or hope of one, then I believe it is a merciful and kindly thing to relieve that defective – often tortured and convulsed, grotesque and absurd, useless and foolish and entirely undesirable – the agony of living.

Another leading eugenics proponent, Henry Laughlin of the influential Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, was slightly less callous. Rather than mercy killings, he was satisfied with simply stopping the reproduction of “inadequates,” and he created a Model Eugenical Sterilization Law to that end.

This model law provided for the sterilization of the “socially inadequate” which comprised a very wide range of “degenerates:”

A socially inadequate person is one who by his or her own effort, regardless of etiology or prognosis, fails chronically in comparison with normal persons, to maintain himself or herself as a useful member of the organized social life of the state…

The socially inadequate classes, regardless of etiology or prognosis, are… feeble-minded… insane (including the psychopathic) … criminalistics (including the delinquent and wayward) … epileptic … inebriate (including drug-habitués) … diseased (including the tuberculous, the syphilitic, the leprous, and others with chronic, infectious and legally segregable diseases) …blind … deaf … deformed (including the crippled) … and dependent (including orphans, ne’er-do-wells, the homeless, tramps and paupers).

In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell, found Virginia’s eugenics law, based on Laughlin’s model law, constitutional with regard to the forced sterilization of a “feeble minded white woman:”

The judgment finds . . . that Carrie Buck is the probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring. . . that she may be sexually sterilized . . .  and that her welfare and that of society will be promoted by [it] . . . .It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for the imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.

Altogether, more than 60,000 people were subjected to involuntary sterilization in the United States by the time the laws were abolished in the mid- 20th century. Similar laws could be found throughout the Western world and likewise began being abolished as a response to the extreme measures the Nazis had gone to in their eugenics programs.

U.S. Immigration Laws

As you can imagine, racists and xenophobes used eugenic principles to further their agendas. With names like the Race Betterment Foundation, activists encouraged Congress to pass the Immigration Act of 1924 that set limitations on the number of immigrants from “inferior” stock such as Southern Europe and Asia. The president who signed the act into law, Calvin Coolidge, had once said on the issue: “America should be kept American . . . . Biological laws show that Nordics deteriorate when mixed with other races.”

Eugenics Today

Recently, North Carolina established a $10 million compensation fund for victims of involuntary sterilization, and it appears Virginia is poised to do something similar. Nonetheless, eugenics has not disappeared, and in fact in recent years, it has become a central point of debate among geneticists, ethicists and activists.

Focusing on prenatal and pre-implantation diagnoses, a number of geneticists and others argue in favor of a “new eugenics“:

Because of advances in genetic screening, we are in a position to reduce the prevalence of … diseases caused by single gene mutations e.g. sickle-cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, PKU, Huntington’s disease … [and] Down syndrome.

Many of these proponents believe: “that people who carry a gene like GSS [a terrible and fatal neurodegenerative disease] have a moral duty to use preimplantation diagnosis – if they can afford it – to spare the next generation.”

On the other side of the debate, they argue that the genetic testing of embryos and fetuses leads toward discriminatory choices that over the long run will have a negative effect – “essentially saying someone [with the undesired condition] should never have been born.”

Those against modern eugenics also point to the potential slippery slope in genetic testing:

As more people adopt genetic screening, the choice to use it could become …harder to turn down … Once it becomes possible to engineer “superior” qualities in human beings, then a parent’s only moral choice would be to have genetically superior children.

Those who refused would consign their children to the underclass. Or as one of these “inferior” children put it in the movie Gattaca, “I’ll never understand what possessed my mother to put her faith in God’s hands, rather than her local geneticist.”

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Bonus Facts:

  • While he was progressive when it came to black people and women’s rights, Teddy Roosevelt did not hold criminals, the sick or crippled, and others in such high favor, being in favor of eugenics (ironic considering his own long history of medical ailments).   Roosevelt said of this, “I wish very much that the wrong people could be prevented entirely from breeding; and when the evil nature of these people is sufficiently flagrant, this should be done. Criminals should be sterilized and feeble-minded persons forbidden to leave offspring behind them.”
  • While it is true that, after WWII, public support for eugenics all but disappeared thanks to this association, numerous countries still performed forcible sterilization, including the United States with the last forcible sterilization occurring in 1981. Sweden was another example of a country that kept the eugenics torch burning until 1975, forcibly sterilizing some 21,000 people and coercing another 6,000 into “voluntarily” being sterilized.  There are a surprisingly large list of countries that kept such programs going for quite some time after WWII, more on this here.
  • Until 2011, Sweden controversially still required sterilization before sex change operations. After an unsuccessful attempt to change the law by Parliament, it was finally abolished by the Stockholm Administrative Court of Appeal.
  • Adolf Hitler’s surname is thought by many etymologists to derive from “Huettler” or “one who lives in a hut.”
  • “Nazi” isn’t just the name of a one-time prominent political party, but also the Swahili word for “coconut.”  So, essentially, if we knew nothing else about him than his name and his party affiliation, we’d likely assume Hitler was a guy who lived in a hut and joined the coconut party. ;-)
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  • How curious, Melissa, that you seem to have left out, or failed to discover, the role of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger in promoting eugenics in the 20th century: “As part of her efforts to promote birth control, Sanger found common cause with proponents of eugenics, believing that they both sought to “assist the race toward the elimination of the unfit.”[73] Sanger was a proponent of negative eugenics, which aims to improve human hereditary traits through social intervention by reducing reproduction by those considered unfit. Sanger’s eugenic policies included an exclusionary immigration policy, free access to birth control methods and full family planning autonomy for the able-minded, and compulsory segregation or sterilization for the profoundly retarded.[74][75] In her book The Pivot of Civilization, she advocated coercion to prevent the “undeniably feeble-minded” from procreating.[76]”

    Either your research methods are slipshod or you are slavishly following the party line on this lethal person. Either way it won’t help you to become a known and respected writer in the long run.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @vanderleun: “Either your research methods are slipshod or you are slavishly following the party line on this lethal person.” I can think of a lot of other reasons why Sanger wasn’t mentioned actually. Not everything’s black and white… In fact, almost nothing is black and white… except the literal black and white colors I guess. 😉 Melissa must compress a vast topic into an article that people want to read and is working under very strict guidelines (which I set, by the way). Had she mentioned every major person who was in support of eugenics and their involvement in promoting it, this article could have easily been 500 or 600 pages and still missed quite a bit on the topic and not one person would have read it past the intro. If it makes you feel better, there are other articles with other angles on this topic on TodayIFoundOut that do mention Sanger and her support of eugenics. The fact is the vast majority of prominent political figures in the world in that era were in support of it from every walk of life (both religious and not). If you’re going to call them all evil, that’s fine. But there’s no party line here. Pretty much every political party of the era had prominent members who were in support of it.

  • Michael Crichton wrote about this very same thing in the essay at the back of his book “State of Fear” – he went into much more depth and named more names who were associated with the “science”. The full essay is available here – and well worth the read:

  • You call this fascinating ?
    I think it’s deplorable.

    Shame on you for making it seem “cool”

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Marcel: Fascinating is not in any way a synonym of cool and many things that are deplorable are also fascinating. The two words can be applied to the same subject. Fascinating simply means “extremely interesting / captivating”.

  • A story about eugenics and not one mention of Margret Sanger? WTF?

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Schildgen: You could say that about a good percentage of the political figures of the era across many parts of the world. Why do you personally feel Sanger is special here compared to all the rest?
      From other commenters (some of which I’ve had to delete their comments for language and personal insults, which are banned here- we love good discussions, but personal insults or inappropriate language isn’t allowed), it seems people want her mentioned because of their feelings about Planned Parenthood. Obviously I don’t know if that’s your reasoning (so don’t take the rest of this as directed to you), but it strikes me as a little bit like the issue of racism in history. Pick a prominent figure in American history up to a certain point who was white and they almost certainly were racist (and sexist), with few exceptions.
      Does that mean we should vilify them all and everything they were a part of? Maybe in the former case at least. But should we then say everything they did should be equally vilified because of the association with this other thing? Even Abraham Lincoln himself was quite the racist according to one of his most ardent admirers, and a truly great man in his own right, Frederick Douglas who gave some interesting examples of this, and there are quite a bit of other references to it, even Lincoln’s own words. Douglas still liked Lincoln a lot. In the end, Lincoln was less racist than many people at the time, but by today’s standards… not so much. 🙂
      In any event, so yes, as mentioned in a couple other articles on this site, Sanger was a supporter of eugenics like many prominent figures in her era. Heck, U.S. Congress once intentionally poisoned (and killed) over 10,000 American citizens, simply because they liked drinking alcohol. When the death-rates started coming in, one of the strong arguments in Congress and among the general public to keep the program going was to get rid of the undesirables who liked drinking alcohol… This wasn’t just stopping “undesirables” from breeding, this was intentionally killing human beings, not unlike what the Nazis would soon be doing. But, you know, it was America, so you typically won’t find this in your U.S. high school history book, though it doesn’t take much searching to simply read the congressional records on the matter.
      Point being, if one’s agenda is simply to attack Planned Parenthood today, attack it on its own merits today, not where it came from or the beliefs of one of the founders. And if you want to attack it where it came from, better to do it in the context of history, unless you just want to vilify most everybody and everything in history, which there might be some argument for. 😉 Thomas Jefferson was a great man, who also kept a slave who he sometimes used for sex (and she was likely just 14-16 when he started sleeping with her). This type of thing was not uncommon. Should we vilify that? You bet.
      Today he’d rightly be locked in prison for a very long time for his actions there. Should we then use that to vilify and rage against the Declaration of Independence? I mean, we can, because there is some irony there, but it doesn’t mean the Declaration of Independence wasn’t (and isn’t) a good thing, among many other good things Jefferson did in his life. So I guess my point is for those who’re working the Sanger/eugenics/Planned Parenthood angle, judge things on their own merits and never forget historical context. After all, in all likelihood if we’d been raised in that era, just like many people then were in support of eugenics, about the same percentage of us would have been too, even the really vile programs. And most of us would be quite racist and sexist to boot. 🙂
      As to your point, as I said elsewhere, this article could have been turned into a book and still not covered every major person who fought for eugenics programs and what their involvement was. I’m quite sure we’ll do more articles on the subject in the future, and it’s been mentioned in past articles as well. We might even do one on Margaret Sanger and her good and bad qualities. But even a 1000-1500 word article on Sanger herself wouldn’t be complete by any stretch. That article could easily be expanded into its own book as well. 🙂

    • No mention of the early 20th century “progressives” who thought forced sterilization and infanticide were GOOD ideas…

      Among the more notable progressives to embrace the practice were the anarco-communist Emma Goldman, NAACP founder W.E.B. Dubois, author H.G. Wells, political scientist Harold Laski, socialist reformers Sidney and Beatrice Webb, biology instructor/atheist Edward Aveling, economist John Maynard Keynes, playwright George Bernard Shaw, World Wildlife Fund founder Julian Huxley, sex theorist Havelock Ellis, and Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger.

      Eugenics is NOT fascinating… it is a weapon of mass destruction.

  • No mention of the Carnegie Institute where these sterilizations took place and funded by Rockefeller and Harriman. Most of the El-ite were right on board with these creatures. Rockefeller went on to fund the Nazi’s from A to Z. Never answering to these crimes on humanity. Their eugenic programs are still going strong today. That is why cancer rates are so high.

  • The “fascinating” thing about eugenics is that it is still going on–right in front of your faces–with you being unable to understand.

    • Must be why whites are outnumbering all other minorities…. Oh wait. We are about to become the minority.

  • Speaking as a disabled person and a very strong advocate of the rights of disabled people I find this sort of thing absolutely disgusting. How would you feel if you knew that some groups of people considered you as nothing more than a flaw on society or considered you “Not worthy of life”?

    I personally will keep fighting till people understand the sick nature of such policies

  • @Daven, Some people will always find a way to criticize or to find flaws in your articles. I don’t know whether it’s narrow-mindedness or an insuppressible urge to show the world that “I know this” or “I know that”.

    But I think you have done & are doing a pretty good job, researching extensively on a wide range of topics & providing us all of them in one place.

    As per the word “fascinating”, if some one has problems with it, he/she can simply drop it & read the title as “The History of Eugenics” 😉

    The main thing here is the information. We are not in a debate whether it is fascinating or not. 🙂