Eugenics and ‘Newgenics’ Part 1: Historical BackgroundFriday, 7 March, 2008
In 1883, an Englishman and statistician by the name of Francis J. Galton (pictured) decided upon a name for the idea of scientifically breeding to change the human race for the better – the name he chose was “eugenics”, to mean in Greek ‘well-born’. He asserted that marriages between people should be chosen with the future generations in mind, and that unions likely to breed better humans should be encouraged and promoted. But what actually occurred in the 20th century (after Galton had died in 1911), notably in America and later Europe, was invasive governmental restrictions, forced sterilisation and, especially in Nazi Germany, extermination of those deemed unfit to reproduce. Galton’s vision of positive eugenics – encouragement through education to limit the number of children born into a life of hardship, had been mutilated almost beyond recognition into by 20th century racism, prejudice, xenophobia, fascism and really, really bad science (I mean ‘bad science’ in an objective sense, not as a moral judgement) into what is now called negative eugenics.
The concept of eugenics is hardly a new one. Plato alluded to assigning fit people to marry similarly fit people in his Republic, and the Roman and Spartan people were rumoured to have practised selective infanticide. These were rather clumsy means of selection, as little was known about the hereditary nature of traits. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the early field of genetics did much to scientifically demonstrate that the human gene pool, and hence the traits present in society, could be changed by selective breeding. Indeed, Francis Galton’s cousin (literally, they shared a grandfather), Charles Darwin did much to uncover the fact that Mother Nature, God or The Blind Watchmaker (unguided evolution) had been weeding out the ‘unfit’ and multiplying the fit for as long as life existed. It was this fact that led Galton to devise a possible way for humans to guide this natural process to a pleasing outcome and to allow social attitudes to be applied to biology on a massive scale across the Western world.
Even while Sir Galton was still alive (he died in 1911), eugenics policies could have been categorised into two main types.
- Positive eugenics – encouraging the reproduction of those perceived to have advantageous hereditary traits. Policies included bonuses for fit marriages and births to outlawing birth control for the ‘fit’ couples.
- Negative eugenics – discouraging the reproduction of those seen to have poor hereditary traits. Methods ranged from restricting marriages, encouraging or forcing birth control and sterilisation to the extremes of eliminating the unfit altogether.
The goal of eugenics, perhaps the defining characteristic, was to create or maintain a race of people who fit the image of the Wunschbild (ideal person). The exact definition of ‘ideal’ varied depending on the social climate of the country in which the eugenic policies or movements developed. In England, where the fore-fathers of eugenics lived, a social climate of class discrimination led to an ideal image of a well-to-do gentleman, likely of Nordic descent. In North America, the large number of immigrants led to the ideal being more racially defined than in Britain, based on the idea that the “old stock” Americans of white English descent were more intelligent and far less prone to crime and poverty than other immigrants or Native Americans. In Nazi Germany, the Wunschbild was far more comprehensive in nature, aiming for an “Aryan race” free of undesirable characteristics such as mental illness, homosexuality, non-Christian religiosity and criminality (oddly missing in Nazi eugenics is a focus on intelligence). Similar themes of class and race-based prejudice were present the ‘ideal’ in other countries with significant eugenics movements.
The downfall of public support for eugenics came only after World War II. Up until that time, American eugenics societies supported and worked alongside Nazi eugenicists. Though support in Western nations had waned somewhat after the 1930s, it was only until the public became aware of the Holocaust and other genocidal crimes committed by the Third Reich that racism and class-based prejudice became a moral crime to the enlightened of society. This eventually filtered down to all levels of society, with many countries, states and international bodies repealing racist policies and promoting equality and freedom for all.
It is this sociopolitical environment in which most of us currently live. But could scientific methods in reproduction see a resurgence in eugenic science, appropriate of the portmanteau ‘Newgenics’? Before looking at whether such a thing would be good or bad in the modern era, one must first look at whether eugenics was, or is, even possible.
Part of a Four Part Blog Series:
- Eugenics and ‘Newgenics’ Part 1: Historical Background
- Eugenics and ‘Newgenics’ Part 2: Separating science from pseudoscience
- Eugenics and ‘Newgenics’ Part 3: Moral criticisms and quandaries
- Eugenics and ‘Newgenics’ Part 4: Lessons for the future, from the past