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Eugenics: Thwarting a Racist Science Essay

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Updated: Sep 8th, 2021

In the age where scientific breakthroughs and development are achieved, scientists have devised some ways in which selective breeding is used in plants and animals to improve the chance of survival of species. Of course, they did not throw away the idea of applying the same process of improving humans and eliminate undesirable characteristics in them. British biologist Francis Galton (1822–1911) coined the word “eugenics” in 1883, though the underlying ideas could be found in earlier works of Plato, the Greek term literally meant “good in birth”. Because of these new scientific methods, eugenics has given room for the advancement of racism and other types of social divisions like class systems. Galton believed that marital unions between people of what he regarded as “excellent genetic stock” could be expected to produce offspring with the same or similar qualities (Last, 2007). However, the eugenics movement was frowned upon by many people because it was used by the Nazi regime in Germany, as it pushed to improve human race by eliminating the people they despised – the Jews (anti-Semitism). Thus, eugenics and racism are linked by the fact that every person will have their own rights and it is prone to be abused by people who want to dominate the weak.

As a cousin of Charles Darwin who introduced to the world the theory of evolution, Galton incorporated Darwin’s idea of survival of the fittest into his notion of eugenics. The goal of eugenics was the improvement of the human species through the careful selection of parents. Galton identified two primary processes to achieve this end. Positive eugenics encouraged individuals who were above average both mentally and physically to produce more offspring. Negative eugenics proposed that individuals who were below average should have fewer or no children. This second proposal could be achieved through institutional segregation, marriage restrictions, or sterilization (Berson & Cruz, 2001, p. 300). His exact words for these processes were eugenics’ first objective is “to check the birth-rate of the unfit … the second object is the improvement of the race by furthering the productivity of the fit.” Galton used the word race in its nineteenth-century sense to designate the population of the nation state and not in the broader twentieth-century sense. Galton seems to have believed that the reason why it would be desirable to improve the genetic quality of a nation’s population is that this determines the quality of its civilization and the economic and military strength of the nation. Lynn (2004) writes that:

In his book Hereditary Genius (1869), Galton proposed that the population of classical Athens had the highest intelligence of any human population and that this was responsible for the high level of civilization. He also contended that when the intelligence and the moral character of a society deteriorate through dysgenic fertility, the quality of its civilization declines. He cited the decline of Spain in the seventeenth century as an instance in which the deterioration of intelligence, which he attributed to the extensive celibate priesthood, had been responsible for national decline in the quality of civilization and of economic and military power…. [In this case,] Eugenics, in Galton’s view, is primarily concerned with promoting the good of the population, not that of the individual. This idea that the well-being of the population is more important than that of individuals fell increasingly into disfavor in the second half of the twentieth century and is one of the major reasons that eugenics became almost universally rejected.

Since racism is a form of prejudice based on perceived physical differences and usually refers to unfavourable or hostile attitudes toward people perceived to belong to another race, eugenics would definitely fall in this category because racism usually results in a belief in the superiority of one’s own race. The trigger of prejudice and racism is the “human tendency to form stereotypes, generalized beliefs that associate whole groups of people with particular traits”. Racial stereotypes are “exaggerated or oversimplified” descriptions of any person’s “appearance, personality, and behaviour” (Cavalli-Sforza, 2005).

Actually, Galton and his cohorts were well intentioned and progressive in their idea of suggesting eugenics because they were just concerned with bettering humanity. After all, this was during the Progressive Era, characterized as a time of hope and reform. Gerald Grob (1991) pointed out that eugenics advocates were acting on behalf of a noble cause that would benefit humanity. They believed that medical and scientific knowledge, combined with a new technology, had reached a point in time in which the eradication of inherited defects was possible.

With all that intention, eugenics was welcomed in the United States. As Rosen (2004) writes:

Beginning in the early years of the twentieth century and spanning the decades of the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s, eugenicists in the United States called for programs to control human reproduction. They urged legislatures to pass laws to segregate the so-called feebleminded into state colonies, where they would live out their lives in celibacy; they supported compulsory state sterilization laws aimed at men and women whose “germplasm” threatened the eugenic vitality of the nation; they led the drive to restrict immigration from countries whose citizens might pollute the American melting pot. Their science filtered into popular culture through eugenics advice books and child-rearing manuals, eugenics novels, plays, and films, and scores of magazine and newspaper articles.

With the growing presence and perceived virility of African Americans, immigrants in the early 1900s, and the working class—as well as the increasing visibility of working-class “women adrift, this threatened white middle-class male authority in both power and numbers, proponents of eugenics in the United States targeted a factor in middle-class decline: the limited fecundity of this new woman. As Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed in the 1900s, white middle-class womanhood had willfully abandoned its fertility. The white birthrate was rapidly declining: whereas the average American family of 1840 had produced six children that of 1900 generated only three children. Roosevelt propelled sociologist Edward Ross’s term race suicide into the public arena. In a 1901 address, “The Causes of Race Superiority,” Ross warned that the advancement and progress of the “superior race” could lead to its demise; manhood had become over civilized, decadent, and impotent. However, Roosevelt, significantly, placed the blame on white womanhood. Women of “good stock” who chose not to have children, he declared, were “race criminals” (Paul, 1995, p. 102).

Yet, the shocking turnout the eugenics movement was that in 1902, when an Indiana physician named Dr. Harry Sharp urged passage of mandatory sterilization laws that would require all men in prisons, reformatories, and paupers’ houses to be sterilized. Before any such law was passed permitting it, he had involuntarily sterilized more than five hundred men. Following Dr. Sharp’s lead, in 1907 Indiana became the first state to pass a eugenics-based sterilization law. By 1912, eight states had sterilization laws. Eventually nearly thirty states followed suit (Paul, 1995, p. 81-82).

In the course of the rise and fall of eugenics, we can see that there are obvious problems with it. The first is that there is more at stake in creating a superior human than in creating a superior species of vegetable. Vegetables do not have rights but humans do, and these human rights are possessed by all persons because they are human; human rights do not cease to exist if an individual is “imperfect” in one or more ways. At its core, eugenics tends to cancel out the right of the less than perfect individual to existence and this type of presumptive arrogance is inherently immoral and racist. A second harmful outcome of eugenics could be that through screening programs privileged groups might act on their prejudices against, for example, Black people being linked with criminality. Since being Black is neither a crime nor a defect, it would be a grave injustice for advocates of eugenics to try to eliminate such classes of people from the human gene pool. Another possible harm of eugenics is that those who promote it do so at the expense of the harmony of the human community. This community, as we know it, is made up of people of all kinds, some more gifted than others, some more troubled than others. The solidarity and prosperity of the human community depend on cooperation and respect among all members, not on a screening policy, like eugenics, through which some members lose their right to membership based on the values and biases of those in influential positions. The biggest problem with eugenics is probably the fact that, even if the program were embraced and employed, it would not be possible to carry it out. Humans are the most complex of all the species and, even with carefully orchestrated breeding programs, individuals with physical, mental, social, or psychological limitations would still be born.

Works Cited

  1. Berson, Michael J., and Barbara Cruz. “Eugenics Past and Present.” Social Education 65.5 (2001): 300.
  2. Grob, Gerald. Introduction, in the Surgical Solution: A History of Involuntary Sterilization in the United States, ed. Phillip R. Reilly, Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.
  3. Last, John M. Eugenics. A Dictionary of Public Health. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  4. Lynn, Richard. Eugenics: A Reassessment. Ed. Seymour W. Itzkoff. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001.
  5. Paul, Diane B. Controlling Human Heredity: 1865 to the Present. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1995.
  6. Rosen, Christine. Preaching Eugenics Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
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