We put down mad dogs; we kill the wild, untamed ox; we use the knife on sick sheep to stop their infecting the flock; we destroy abnormal offspring at birth; children, too, if they are born weak or deformed, we drown. Yet this is not the work of anger, but of reason – to separate the sound from the worthless.
— Seneca the Younger
Origin and development
The concept of positive eugenics to produce better human beings has existed at least since Plato suggested selective mating to produce a guardian class. In Sparta, every Spartan child was inspected by the council of elders, the Gerousia, which determined if the child was fit to live or not. In the early years of ancient Rome, a Roman father was obliged by law to immediately kill his child if they were physically disabled. Among the ancient Germanic tribes, people who were cowardly, unwarlike or "stained with abominable vices" were put to death, usually by being drowned in swamps.
The first formal negative eugenics, that is a legal provision against the birth of allegedly inferior human beings, was promulgated in Western European culture by the Christian Council of Agde in 506, which forbade marriage between cousins.This idea was also promoted by William Goodell (1829–1894) who advocated the castration and spaying of the insane.
The idea of a modern project of improving the human population through a statistical understanding of heredity used to encourage good breeding was originally developed by Francis Galton and, initially, was closely linked to Darwinism and his theory of natural selection. Galton had read his half-cousin Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, which sought to explain the development of plant and animal species, and desired to apply it to humans. Based on his biographical studies, Galton believed that desirable human qualities were hereditary traits, although Darwin strongly disagreed with this elaboration of his theory. In 1883, one year after Darwin's death, Galton gave his research a name: eugenics. With the introduction of genetics, eugenics became associated with genetic determinism, the belief that human character is entirely or in the majority caused by genes, unaffected by education or living conditions. Many of the early geneticists were not Darwinians, and evolution theory was not needed for eugenics policies based on genetic determinism. Throughout its recent history, eugenics has remained controversial.
Eugenics became an academic discipline at many colleges and universities and received funding from many sources. Organizations were formed to win public support and sway opinion towards responsible eugenic values in parenthood, including the British Eugenics Education Society of 1907 and the American Eugenics Society of 1921. Both sought support from leading clergymen and modified their message to meet religious ideals. In 1909 the Anglican clergymen William Inge and James Peile both wrote for the British Eugenics Education Society. Inge was an invited speaker at the 1921 International Eugenics Conference, which was also endorsed by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York Patrick Joseph Hayes. The book The Passing of the Great Race (Or, The Racial Basis of European History) by American eugenicist, lawyer, and amateur anthropologist Madison Grant was published in 1916. Though influential, the book was largely ignored when it first appeared, and it went through several revisions and editions. Nevertheless, the book was used by people who advocated restricted immigration as justification for what became known as “scientific racism.”
Three International Eugenics Conferences presented a global venue for eugenists with meetings in 1912 in London, and in 1921 and 1932 in New York City. Eugenic policies were first implemented in the early 1900s in the United States. It also took root in France, Germany, and Great Britain. Later, in the 1920s and 1930s, the eugenic policy of sterilizing certain mental patients was implemented in other countries including Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Japan and Sweden. Frederick Osborn's 1937 journal article "Development of a Eugenic Philosophy" framed it as a social philosophy—a philosophy with implications for social order. That definition is not universally accepted. Osborn advocated for higher rates of sexual reproduction among people with desired traits ("positive eugenics") or reduced rates of sexual reproduction or sterilization of people with less-desired or undesired traits ("negative eugenics").
G. K. Chesterton
, an opponent of eugenics, in 1909, by photographer Ernest Herbert Mills
In addition to being practiced in a number of countries, eugenics was internationally organized through the International Federation of Eugenics Organizations. Its scientific aspects were carried on through research bodies such as the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics, the Cold Spring Harbour Carnegie Institution for Experimental Evolution, and the Eugenics Record Office. Politically, the movement advocated measures such as sterilization laws. In its moral dimension, eugenics rejected the doctrine that all human beings are born equal and redefined moral worth purely in terms of genetic fitness. Its racist elements included pursuit of a pure "Nordic race" or "Aryan" genetic pool and the eventual elimination of "unfit" races.
Early critics of the philosophy of eugenics included the American sociologist Lester Frank Ward, the English writer G. K. Chesterton, the German-American anthropologist Franz Boas, who argued that advocates of eugenics greatly over-estimate the influence of biology, and Scottish tuberculosis pioneer and author Eugenics, Euthenics, and Eudemics", Chesterton's 1917 book Eugenics and Other Evils, and Boas' 1916 article "Eugenics" (published in The Scientific Monthly) were all harshly critical of the rapidly growing movement. Sutherland identified eugenists as a major obstacle to the eradication and cure of tuberculosis in his 1917 address "Consumption: Its Cause and Cure", and criticism of eugenists and Neo-Malthusians in his 1921 book Birth Control led to a writ for libel from the eugenist Marie Stopes. Several biologists were also antagonistic to the eugenics movement, including Lancelot Hogben. Other biologists such as J. B. S. Haldane and R. A. Fisher expressed skepticism in the belief that sterilization of "defectives" would lead to the disappearance of undesirable genetic traits.
Among institutions, the Catholic Church was an opponent of state-enforced sterilizations. Attempts by the Eugenics Education Society to persuade the British government to legalize voluntary sterilization were opposed by Catholics and by the Labour Party. The American Eugenics Society initially gained some Catholic supporters, but Catholic support declined following the 1930 papal encyclical Casti connubii. In this, Pope Pius XI explicitly condemned sterilization laws: "Public magistrates have no direct power over the bodies of their subjects; therefore, where no crime has taken place and there is no cause present for grave punishment, they can never directly harm, or tamper with the integrity of the body, either for the reasons of eugenics or for any other reason."
As a social movement, eugenics reached its greatest popularity in the early decades of the 20th century, when it was practiced around the world and promoted by governments, institutions, and influential individuals. Many countries enacted various eugenics policies, including: genetic screenings, birth control, promoting differential birth rates, marriage restrictions, segregation (both racial segregation and sequestering the mentally ill), compulsory sterilization, forced abortions or forced pregnancies, ultimately culminating in genocide. By 2014, gene selection (rather than "people selection") was made possible through advances in genome editing, leading to what is sometimes called new eugenics, also known as "neo-eugenics", "consumer eugenics", or "liberal eugenics".
Nazism and the decline of eugenics
birth house in Nazi Germany. Created with the intention of raising the birth rate of "Aryan
" children from the extramarital relations of "racially pure and healthy" parents.
The scientific reputation of eugenics started to decline in the 1930s, a time when Ernst Rüdin used eugenics as a justification for the racial policies of Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler had praised and incorporated eugenic ideas in Mein Kampf in 1925 and emulated eugenic legislation for the sterilization of "defectives" that had been pioneered in the United States once he took power. Some common early 20th century eugenics methods involved identifying and classifying individuals and their families, including the poor, mentally ill, blind, deaf, developmentally disabled, promiscuous women, homosexuals, and racial groups (such as the Roma and Jews in Nazi Germany) as "degenerate" or "unfit", and therefore led to segregation, institutionalization, sterilization, euthanasia, and even mass murder. The Nazi practice of euthanasia was carried out on hospital patients in the Aktion T4 centers such as Hartheim Castle.
By the end of World War II, many discriminatory eugenics laws were abandoned, having become associated with Nazi Germany. H. G. Wells, who had called for "the sterilization of failures" in 1904, stated in his 1940 book The Rights of Man: Or What are we fighting for? that among the human rights, which he believed should be available to all people, was "a prohibition on mutilation, sterilization, torture, and any bodily punishment". After World War II, the practice of "imposing measures intended to prevent births within [a national, ethnical, racial or religious] group" fell within the definition of the new international crime of genocide, set out in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union also proclaims "the prohibition of eugenic practices, in particular those aiming at selection of persons". In spite of the decline in discriminatory eugenics laws, some government mandated sterilizations continued into the 21st century. During the ten years President Alberto Fujimori led Peru from 1990 to 2000, 2,000 persons were allegedly involuntarily sterilized. China maintained its one-child policy until 2015 as well as a suite of other eugenics based legislation to reduce population size and manage fertility rates of different populations. In 2007 the United Nations reported coercive sterilizations and hysterectomies in Uzbekistan. During the years 2005 to 2013, nearly one-third of the 144 California prison inmates who were sterilized did not give lawful consent to the operation.
Modern resurgence of interest
Developments in genetic, genomic, and reproductive technologies at the end of the 20th century have raised numerous questions regarding the ethical status of eugenics, effectively creating a resurgence of interest in the subject.
Some, such as UC Berkeley sociologist Troy Duster, claim that modern genetics is a back door to eugenics. This view is shared by White House Assistant Director for Forensic Sciences, Tania Simoncelli, who stated in a 2003 publication by the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College that advances in pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) are moving society to a "new era of eugenics", and that, unlike the Nazi eugenics, modern eugenics is consumer driven and market based, "where children are increasingly regarded as made-to-order consumer products". In a 2006 newspaper article, Richard Dawkins said that discussion regarding eugenics was inhibited by the shadow of Nazi misuse, to the extent that some scientists would not admit that breeding humans for certain abilities is at all possible. He believes that it is not physically different from breeding domestic animals for traits such as speed or herding skill. Dawkins felt that enough time had elapsed to at least ask just what the ethical differences were between breeding for ability versus training athletes or forcing children to take music lessons, though he could think of persuasive reasons to draw the distinction.
Lee Kuan Yew, the Founding Father of Singapore, started promoting eugenics as early as 1983.
In October 2015, the United Nations' International Bioethics Committee wrote that the ethical problems of human genetic engineering should not be confused with the ethical problems of the 20th century eugenics movements. However, it is still problematic because it challenges the idea of human equality and opens up new forms of discrimination and stigmatization for those who do not want, or cannot afford, the technology.
Transhumanism is often associated with eugenics, although most transhumanists holding similar views nonetheless distance themselves from the term "eugenics" (preferring "germinal choice" or "reprogenetics") to avoid having their position confused with the discredited theories and practices of early-20th-century eugenic movements.
Prenatal screening can be considered a form of contemporary eugenics because it may lead to abortions of children with undesirable traits. The State of California Legislature and Governor passed a form of negative eugenics into law via SB 1095 (2016), resulting in a State law requiring the screening for "any disease" (...) "detectable in the blood" prior to birth. The bill, still law in California, has been widely regarded as a form of scientific racism, though its proponents continue to claim that it is necessary. A system was proposed by California Senator Skinner to compensate victims of the well-documented examples of prison sterilizations resulting from California's eugenics programs, but this did not pass by the bill's 2018 deadline in the Legislature.