Eugenics, History of

Diane B Paul. Encyclopedia of Race and Racism. Editor: John Hartwell Moore. Volume 1, Macmillan Reference USA, 2008.

Eugenics, or the selective breeding of humans with the aim of improving their hereditary quality, has been entangled with ideas about race since the modern eugenics movement was founded by the British explorer, cartographer, and statistician Francis Galton (1822-1911) in the second half of the nineteenth century. Although Galton was primarily concerned with inherited individual differences, he also provided a scientific gloss on the standard racial views of his time, place, and social class. Thus, Galton thought he had shown scientifically that not just individuals, but also nations and races (defined as broadly as blacks and whites and as narrowly as Bohemians, Prussians, Bantus, Irish Celts, and Lowland Scots) differed in their inborn mental, moral, and temperamental as well as physical characteristics. (In the nineteenth century, the categories of race and nationality were often conflated.)

Among the “races” existing in his own time, Galton ranked Australian Aborigines at the bottom and Anglo-Saxons and Teutons at the top. Not all eugenicists, in Galton’s day or later, were as biased as he was, however, and some were concerned only with the future of the “human race” as a whole. On occasion, especially in Latin countries, race mixing was even viewed as desirable. But eugenicists generally favored maintaining racial purity, and their concerns about foreign admixture played an important role in shaping eugenic attitudes and programs in many countries, most notably in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Germany.

The Impact of Evolutionary Theory

Although the concept of eugenics extends back at least to Plato, the idea that human breeding should be consciously controlled remained largely theoretical until the late nineteenth century. An important factor in converting an abstract idea into a social movement was the newfound anxiety associated with the prospect of biological degeneration, which was prompted by the new theory of evolution by natural selection. In 1859, Galton’s cousin, Charles Darwin (1809-1882), published his revolutionary treatise On the Origin of Species. Darwin argued that evolution occurred and that its main mechanism, natural selection, involved a fierce struggle for existence in which the fittest organisms survive to reproduce their kind, while the less fit leave few if any progeny. Both Darwin and his readers (unlike most modern biologists) conceived of natural selection as a progressive process that led inexorably to the improvement of plants and animals. Although Darwin cautiously avoided any discussion of his own species in the Origin, questions immediately arose about whether humans had also evolved (and if so, were they evolving still?).

Darwin himself believed that humans were indeed products of natural selection, but that this process had been largely halted in “civilized societies,” where medical care and public and private charity salvaged many of those who would in previous times or in less advanced societies have succumbed to cold, hunger, or disease. Although troubled by the implications of this relaxation of selection, Darwin kept his worries largely to himself at that point. Others were much less reticent, however. Among the first to explore the meaning of Darwin’s theory for human social arrangements was Galton. In his 1869 book Hereditary Genius, Galton argued for intervention in human breeding based on the assumption that natural selection was no longer effective at culling the weak in mind and body, and that hereditary paupers, imbeciles, and criminals were reproducing at a dangerously rapid rate. At the same time, meanwhile, the most capable members of society married late and had few children. Thus, Galton argued, only a program of artificial selection could reverse the resulting degeneration. In 1883 he named this program eugenics, from the Greek word for “well-born,” and described its two dimensions: “negative eugenics” would aim at discouraging the inferior members of society from having children, and “positive eugenics” would encourage the most capable to reproduce early and often.

Debating Innateness

Galton’s argument rested on the assumption that mental, moral, and temperamental traits were innate and largely fixed at birth, and that when people succeeded in life it was because they had inherited the requisite traits. Likewise, when people failed it was because they lacked the requisite traits. The inferior social condition of women, the poor, Irish, Africans, and others was explained by their inborn traits. Because bad heredity was to blame for pauperism and vice, selective breeding was the only effective response.

The idea that individuals and groups differed by nature was not new, nor was its use in rationalizing social inequalities. Since the Enlightenment and the associated rise of “scientific racism,” innate differences had been invoked to explain why some people possessed social, political, and economic power while others did not. Indeed, at the time Galton wrote, the question of the relative influence of “innate character” and “institutional arrangements” in explaining human differences, especially in respect to gender, nation, and race, was being bitterly debated in Britain.

In this controversy, the philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill became the chief standard-bearer for the view that human nature is not fixed and that institutions shape character. Thus, in his influential Principles of Political Economy (1848), Mill wrote: “Of all the vulgar modes of escaping from the consideration of the social and moral influences on the human mind, the most vulgar is that of attributing the diversities of conduct and character to inherent natural differences” (p. 319). Indeed, Mill thought that the chief barrier to social reform was the belief that differences among individuals and groups were largely innate and fixed rather than the product of circumstances.

Ireland and Jamaica

During the Irish famine of the 1840s, Mill published a series of newspaper articles on conditions in Ireland. His portrait of the Irish was not flattering, for he viewed them as lazy and brutish. But unlike many other commentators, Mill did not attribute their degraded condition to innate racial characteristics. On the contrary, he argued that it resulted from patterns of land tenure, and he proposed that the government drain uncultivated wastelands and divide them into small farms in order to create a class of independent peasants. Mill argued that peasant proprietorship would be morally transformative, and that if peasants came to feel that they counted for something, they would not choose to live in squalor.

Many others considered the Irish to be a distinct inferior race whose condition resulted from their nature and was unalterable. For example, in his 1869 “Realities of Irish Life,” the essayist William Greg wrote:

“Make them peasant-proprietors,” says Mr. Mill. But Mr. Mill forgets that, til you change the character of the Irish cottier [landless agricultural laborers who sublet tiny patches of potato ground], peasant-proprietorship would work no miracles. He would fall behind the installments of his purchase-money, and would be called up to surrender his farm. He would often neglect it in idleness, ignorance, jollity and drink, get into debt, and have to sell his property to the newest owner of a great estate… Mr. Mill never deigns to consider that an Irishman is an Irishman, and not an average human being. (p. 78)

The question of innate character was also central to the debate over the status of black labor in Jamaica, where 13,000 whites ruled 420,000 impoverished blacks. In his 1849 essay “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question,” the historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) proposed that Jamaican blacks be returned to compulsory servitude. He argued that the emancipation of slaves in the West Indies had been a terrible failure, with the islands reduced to a “Black Ireland.” He saw the “pumpkin people” of the Caribbean as counterparts to the “potato people” of Ireland. In his view, both the Irish and blacks were naturally idle and would not work unless compelled to do so.

In response, Mill noted that Carlyle was apparently not bothered by the idleness of the white proprietors, and he suggested that what Carlyle really wanted was access to cheap spices. In this context he wrote: “But the great ethical doctrine of the discourse, that which a doctrine more damnable, I should think, never was propounded by a professed moral reformer, is, that one kind of human beings are born servants to another kind,” and he charged Carlyle with “the vulgar error of imputing every difference which he finds among human beings to an original difference of nature” (Mill 1850, p. 93).

These are only two of numerous nineteenth-century voices involved in the debate about the inherited nature of human differences, but they are perhaps enough to demonstrate the importance of the colonial context for thinking about such differences, and to indicate that Galton did not initiate the “nature-nurture” debate (although, as with eugenics, he did name it). But Galton’s intervention was nevertheless a crucial one, for he was the first to invoke science in support of the hereditarian position.

Galton’s Project

To prove what others had only assumed, Galton consulted the biographical reference works of his day, such as Dictionary of Men of the Time. From these sources he was able to show that high achievement runs in families. He argued that scientists, statesmen, military commanders, literary figures, judges, musicians, artists, and divines who were prominent enough to be listed in such works were more likely than members of the public at large to have near male relatives who were also prominent enough to be listed. Galton was aware that this fact alone might not convince doubters that the traits important for success were inherited. After all, the training, experience, and associations of the children of poets or scientists would also differ from that of persons chosen at random. Galton dismissed the idea that social circumstances could explain achievement, at least in the fields he considered meritocracies such as science, literature, and the law. In his view, those born with natural ability would succeed no matter how unfavorable their environment, while those who lacked it would fail, however auspicious their start in life or powerful their social connections.

What was true of individuals applied equally to larger groups. In Hereditary Genius, Galton devoted a chapter to analyzing the comparative worth of different races. According to his calculations, which relied on estimating the proportion of eminent men in each race, black Africans, on average, ranked at least two grades below whites in natural ability, while Australian Aborigines were three grades below whites. Galton also found considerable variation among whites, with the Lowland Scots and the North-Country English representing a higher standard than individuals from other parts of Great Britain. He thought it obvious that the ablest race in history was the ancient Greeks, especially the subrace of Athenians, who stood as far above his compatriots in their achievements, and thus in their innate abilities—just as whites stood above blacks. But he also found that the most accomplished Athenian women often failed to marry and bear children, while emigration and immigration sapped the purity of the race. Thus, to humanity’s great misfortune, the “high Athenian breed decayed and disappeared” (Galton 1892, p. 331).

As historian Nancy Stepan notes in The Idea of Race in Science (1982), Galton did not consider African blacks, Australian Aborigines, or other “savages” a threat to the Anglo-Saxon and other “civilized” races. Rather, he believed that the stronger races would inexorably eliminate the inferior in a natural process that was already well underway. His concerns were thus focused inward, on the problematic condition of his own Anglo-Saxon race. Galton feared that even races that were superior in a global perspective would be unable to meet the mental demands of an increasingly complex modern society. As in the case of ancient Greece, degeneration would be the inevitable result of failing to breed from the best. Among his proposals to address the problem was an 1890 scheme to encourage the early marriage of female Cambridge University students who were especially superior in physique and intellect. These women would be given 50 pounds if they married before age twenty-six, and 25 pounds on the birth of each child.

Darwin’s Descent

Galton had originally been inspired by Darwin to investigate the inheritance of talent and character, and Darwin’s view of human evolution would in turn be shaped by Galton’s studies. After reading the first fifty or so pages of Hereditary Genius, Darwin wrote that whereas he had previously been inclined to attribute differences among individuals mostly to enthusiasm and hard work, he had been largely converted to his cousin’s viewpoint. Galton’s influence is explicitly acknowledged in Darwin’s book on human evolution, The Descent of Man, and in his Autobiography (Barlow 1958), where Darwin notes: “I am inclined to agree with Francis Galton in believing that education and environment produce only a small effect on the mind of any one, and that most of our qualities are innate” (Darwin 1879, p. 43). Of course, to agree with Galton was to dissent from Mill. Although Darwin greatly admired Mill, he thought he had a blindspot when it came to inherited mental and moral differences. In The Descent, Darwin specifically criticized Mill’s belief that moral feelings are not innate, and in the second edition he added: “The ignoring of all transmitted mental qualities will, as it seems to me, be hereafter judged as a most serious blemish in the works of Mr. Mill” (Darwin 2004 [1879], p. 121).

In the chapter of The Descent dealing with the social implications of the theory of natural selection, Darwin expressed the view that civilized societies are continually displacing savage ones in a process that is sometimes distressingly brutal but also inevitable. Thus, like Galton and many other contemporary figures, Darwin was not worried about competition from barbarous nations. Being inferior, they would eventually succumb in the struggle for existence anyway. The situation at home was more worrying, however. There, the process of natural selection had largely been checked. Vaccinations against smallpox, the establishment of asylums for the sick and insane, poor laws to support the unemployed, and other medical and charitable measures all counteracted the beneficial effect of natural selection by keeping the mentally and physically weak alive. Because their traits were inherited, the stupidity, insanity, and tendencies to laziness, intemperance, sexual promiscuity, and so forth responsible for their condition would be passed to their offspring. Darwin complained that “excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed” (Darwin 2004 [1879], p. 159).

Darwin himself had mixed feelings about whether humans should inhibit breeding. After all, the social and sympathetic impulses that lead people to help others are also the products of natural selection. There were also countervailing forces—such as high mortality among the urban poor, suicides of the insane, emigration of the restless, and sterility among the sexually profligate—that limited the scope of the problem. Thus, although Darwin worried aloud about the harmful effects of relaxing selection, he did not propose any specific measures to counter the process. His book certainly reinforced the anxieties felt by many of his contemporaries. Like Galton’s work, it also reinforced prevailing racial views, giving them a new scientific authority.

Darwin himself was vehemently opposed to slavery, and in 1865, when a riot in Jamaica was brutally suppressed by the island’s British governor, Darwin subscribed to the committee (headed by Mill) that unsuccessfully pressed to have the governor condemned for murder and the victims compensated. He also assumed that virtually all aboriginal peoples were inferior, by nature, to Europeans. The real threat to England, however, came from a European source: the Irish. Darwin quoted Greg in support of his claim that the reckless and degraded members of society tend to increase their number at a faster rate than their prudent compatriots: “The careless, squalid, unaspiring Irishman multiplies like rabbits: the frugal, forseeing, self-respecting, ambitious Scot … passes his best years in struggle and celibacy, marries late, and leaves few behind him.” Thus, at home, Darwin believed, it was the inferior race that was prevailing in the struggle for existence (Darwin 2004 [1879], p. 143).

Eugenics in Comparative Perspective

Galton’s work received a mixed reception when it originally appeared, but by the end of his life his ideas had become quite popular, at least among middle-class citizens of predominantly Protestant nations. In the first decade of the twentieth century, eugenics societies were established in many countries, and by the 1920s the goal of improving heredity found numerous adherents, not only in the Anglo-American countries and much of Europe, but also in Latin America, Russia, China, and Japan. (In some Asian countries eugenics remains quite respectable today). Of course there also were skeptics and opponents, including the Catholic Church, which held that reproduction was not a matter for human tampering; immigrants and others who were the targets of eugenic policies; and those who continued to believe, along with Mill, that human differences were largely due to differences in education and training.

There were also important national variations because religious, scientific, political, and cultural traditions influenced the ways that eugenics was taken up in any particular setting. Latin countries were not only religiously Catholic, but scientifically they leaned toward a “neo-Lamarckian” view of heredity. From this standpoint, heredity was malleable rather than fixed, so there was no sharp distinction between nature and nurture. Social problems might be due to bad heredity, but if heredity improved with improved environments, the solution could be better nutrition and schools and other social reforms. Thus, what it meant to subscribe to eugenics tended to have a different meaning in Brazil or Mexico, for example, where many eugenicists endorsed race mixing and even a “cult of the mestizo,” than it did in the United States or Germany, where race mixing was more often feared. In France and some other Latin countries, eugenics tended to be not only less racist than elsewhere, but it also implied a commitment to maternal and infant care rather than harsh policies of selection. Different perspectives existed within, as well as among, countries, with eugenicists heatedly debating such issues as whether immigration was desirable (and if so what kind), whether the distribution of birth-control information and devices would promote or retard eugenical aims, and what methods to prevent mental and moral defectives from breeding were effective and moral.

In Britain, where the Labour Party was hostile to eugenics and workers were not fractured by religious and ethnic/racial differences, eugenics was largely restricted to propaganda. Indeed, even a campaign to legalize voluntary sterilization was unsuccessful. In the United States and many European countries, especially Germany, eugenics would take a harsher turn. In 1907, Indiana became the first state to authorize compulsory sterilization of confirmed “criminals, idiots, rapists, and imbeciles.” (Sterilization was accomplished through vasectomy in men and tying of the Fallopian tubes in women.) The movement gained ground after the 1927 Supreme Court decision in Buck v. Bell, which upheld the Virginia sterilization statute. Speaking for the Court, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously wrote: “It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind … Three generations of imbeciles is enough.” With the worldwide economic depression that soon followed, support for such laws increased because of the large expense required to provide institutional care for the feebleminded, insane, and delinquent. By 1940, involuntary sterilization had been legalized in thirty-three American states, two Canadian provinces, and many countries, including Germany, all of Scandinavia, Australia, and Japan.

Racial Eugenics

A number of countries, including the United States, adopted legislation to restrict immigration. That effort was not motivated solely or even principally by eugenic concerns, however. In the United States, immigrants from Asia and southern and eastern Europe were thought to be culturally unassimilable, and it was believed that they would drag down wages. Fears of biological degeneration were part of the mix. In the United States, which in the 1880s began to experience a large increase in the number of immigrants from Russia, Poland, Hungary, Greece, and Italy, race theorists such as Edward Ross and Madison Grant warned that the country was committing “race suicide,” meaning that biologically inferior immigrants were flooding the country and, once there, multiplying their numbers.

Ross was an intellectual mentor to Theodore Roosevelt, who, both as vice president and president, did much to popularize the views of the race theorists. Claiming that Americans of Anglo-Saxon stock were engaged in a desperate “warfare of the cradle” with lesser races, Roosevelt warned both of the need to curb immigration from southern and eastern Europe (immigration from China and Japan having already been halted) and to increase the reproductive rates of old-stock families. Concern with the apparent high fertility of recent immigrants and the prospect that they would interbreed with older Americans, resulting in racial decline, was a factor in the success of the effort to restrict immigration and make it more selective. That effort culminated in passage of the Immigration Restriction Act (or Johnson-Reed Act) of 1924, which greatly reduced the number of allowable entrants to the United States and applied a national-origins quota system that ensured that few of those allowed would come from southern and eastern Europe.

Racialist policies reached their zenith in Germany, where eugenic measures of all types were taken to their ultimate extremes. These policies were aimed at Jews, Gypsies, the offspring of German women and black French soldiers, and others. About 400,000 Germans were sterilized (compared to about 62,000 in the much larger United States) under the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Progeny enacted shortly after the National Socialists came to power in 1933. The Nazis also instituted a program to rid the country of mental patients and the physically disabled through starvation, gassing, and lethal injection. Other legal and extra-legal measures had explicit racial motivations, as in the Lebensborn program that operated in both Germany and occupied countries and allowed unmarried women who were considered “racially valuable” to give birth in special maternity homes run by the Schutzstaffel (SS). In addition, the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 stripped Jews of German citizenship and forbade their marriage with “Germans.” Ultimately, the campaign against the Jews led to the program of mass extermination called the Holocaust. The outcome of eugenics in Germany cast a shadow over the field of human genetics. Thus, the question of whether and in what ways developments in that field constitute a “new eugenics” still carries an emotional charge.

According to some scholars and journalists (e.g., Duster 1990), reproductive genetic services that involve the selection of gametes, fetuses, or embryos—including the use of ultrasound for sex selection, amniocentesis and embryo screening to detect abnormalities, and the procurement of eggs and sperm from carefully chosen “donors”—are a form of back-door or private eugenics. In their view, the term is appropriately applied not only to state policies such as involuntary sterilization that were clearly coercive, but also to activities that may be freely adopted or even demanded by prospective parents. Other commentators disagree, arguing that the latter practices, which are not only voluntary but based on sound science and largely devoid of race and class bias, differ so greatly from those that gave past eugenics its bad name that they should not be tagged with the same label. A few scholars concede that contemporary reprogenetics constitutes eugenics but believe that there is a need to sharply distinguish the bad eugenics of the past from the benign eugenics practiced by private individuals for their own reasons in the early twenty-first century. Whether these writers believe that contemporary practices are eugenics of a good kind or bad or are not rightly considered eugenics at all, there is close to a consensus that race has not been an important factor in their development or use.

The racial concerns that animated much past eugenics do remain evident in studies that argue for the genetic inferiority of blacks and sometimes other minorities and warn that “dysgenic” public policies discourage breeding by the intellectual elite while encouraging those of inferior ability and character to reproduce. The Pioneer Fund, a rather secretive organization founded by the eugenicist and textile magnate Wickliffe Draper in 1937, has been an important sponsor of such work. Historically, the Fund pursued an aggressively antiblack and anti-Semitic agenda, including support for a proposal to repatriate blacks to Africa and opposition to the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education as well as civil rights legislation more generally (Kenny 2002; Tucker 2002). More recently, it has promoted research and publication in the field of behavior genetics that emphasizes the contribution of genes to both individual and group differences. The Bell Curve (1994) by psychologist Richard Herrnstein and political scientist Charles Murray, which argued that the gap in black-white IQ scores reflects real and for all practical purposes unalterable differences in innate ability, drew heavily on Pioneer-supported research by Arthur Jensen, Richard Lynn, and J. Philippe Rushton (the last was appointed president of the Fund in 2002). Despite its length and often dense technical content, The Bell Curve received many initially favorable reviews and became a best-seller. Subsequently, Rushton and Jensen published a lengthy article confirming Jensen’s original claim of a substantial genetic component to the black-white IQ score difference (Jensen 1969; Rushton and Jensen 2005; for a contrasting view see Dickens and Flynn 2006). Thus it seems that the racial views and associated policy concerns that motivated many eugenicists continue to inform at least some strands of behavior genetics research.