A Brief History of the Eugenics Movement

The first stages of plant and animal-breeding mark the end of the hunter-gatherer period of human evolution. As far as written testimony is concerned, Plato’s Republic provides an early theoretical treatise on eugenics. Once Darwin’s 1859 Origin of Species had established both the mechanism of evolution and man’s place in nature’s greater scheme of things, it was inevitable that people would want to engage in what was then referred to as “racial” improvement.

They would, at the same time, worry about the genetic consequences of eliminating natural selection in the modern world. Darwin himself became a true Social Darwinist, bemoaning the fact that: We do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment…. Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.

It was Darwin’s cousin, Sir Francis Galton, who in his 1883 book Inquiries into Human Faculty coined the word “eugenics.” Even earlier he had done pioneering work in his Hereditary Genius (1869) and English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture (1874). Galton was also one of the first to recognize the importance of twin studies. He also proved to be correct (unlike his more famous cousin) in rejecting the Lamarckianism of the age, which held that acquired characteristics could be passed on to offspring.

In 1907, the Eugenics Education Society was founded in London, and eugenics enjoyed broad support among the British elite, including that of Havelock Ellis, C. P. Snow, H.G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw. The last wrote that “there is now no reasonable excuse for refusing to face the fact that nothing but a eugenics religion can save our civilization from the fate that has overtaken all previous civilizations.

The movement was also strong in the United States. In the 1870s, Richard Dugdale published his famous study of the Juke family, unearthing 709 members of a single family with criminal pasts. By the 1880s, custodial care was widely introduced to prevent the feebleminded from reproducing, and by the end of the century, there were cases of sterilization of the feebleminded. 1910 saw the founding of the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, on Long Island. Alexander Graham Bell, who was wed to a deaf woman and was concerned about the interbreeding of the deaf, feared that such selective mating could lead to the creation of a deaf population. He became a prominent member of the American eugenics movement.

The influence of the eugenics movement did not derive from the number of its members. Both in Great Britain and in the United States adherents numbered only a few thousand. Rather, the influence of the movement was explained by the wealth and influence of an elite and, unfortunately, an often elitist group. After 1910, eugenics societies were founded in various American cities, and a number of Americans attended the First International Eugenics Congress in London in 1912. The Second and Third were held in New York, in 1921 and 1932, respectively.

When World War I broke out, eugenicists helped the U.S. Army develop intelligence testing, and they proselytized widely after the war. In the 1920s, they played a major role in tripling the number of institutionalized feebleminded and in vastly increasing extra-institutional care.91 As for sterilization, contrary to popular belief, eugenicists were split down the middle on the issue. Neither the National Committee for Mental Hygiene nor the Committee on Provision for the Feebleminded supported sterilization.92 Part of the reason for the reluctance was that eugenicists were a straight-laced lot, who were afraid that sterilization could lead to a loosening of sex ual mores. Neither, for that matter, were they particularly eager to see eugenics tarred with the polygamist brush.

By 1931, 30 states had passed a sterilization law at one time or another. Even so, the number of actual sterilizations was modest on a national scale. By 1958, these amounted to only 60,926. In comparison, twenty million sterilizations were performed in India between 1958 and 1980, and in China some thirty million women and ten million men were sterilized between 1979 and 1984. An undetermined number of these were coerced. German submarine warfare had temporarily braked free immigration to the United States during World War I. In 1924, Congress was strongly influenced by eugenic considerations in framing immigration law, so that immigration flows were made to reflect the ethnic makeup of the country as a whole. On July 1, 1929, national origin quotas were established as the basis of American immigration policy.

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