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The United States’ Eugenics Movement Term Paper

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Eugenics is a term used to describe a process that is implemented in hopes of creating a better race of humans through the genes the parent generation passes down to the offspring. Eugenics is defined as the study of human genetics prototypes with the target of developing the species using choosy breeding. Its doctrine dictates that genetic structures, rather than environmental factors solely determine human behavior.

The term was used originally by Englishman Francis Galton in 1883 who, incidentally, was a cousin of the famous evolutionist Charles Darwin. Galton was primarily concerned with mathematics. He was completing a statistical study of “latent ability” among a group of British people mainly through the reading of their biographical sketches, Galton noticed that most of these people were related somehow and he concluded that intelligence and other desirable traits could be passed on through heredity. He also concluded that the number of people with these abilities could be increased through marriages of those people who exhibited those traits. (1)

Many people blur the distinction between genocide and eugenics. And the Holocaust created by the Nazis wasn’t a method for eugenics but was a horrific example of genocide. Even the United States has used eugenics in some of its policies in the past. When immigrants started to come into this country in greater numbers the limits from certain countries was not based on the total number of people coming in at that time alone, but what the ethnic backgrounds of those people were as those in power, feared that these people wouldn’t be able to support themselves or would taint the gene pool of America.

Eugenics was a movement of pseudoscientific characteristics and manifesto that originated in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This movement made use of the universal science language to perk up the human race using breeding. “This breeding was exceptionally harmful to specific defenseless subpopulation segments, the poor, racial minorities, criminals, and the mentally and physically disabled through sterilization and marriage laws” (2).

While eugenics may have been used as a tool of oppression in creating an unwarranted means of keeping others down, it can be now used to do what the word means, “good in birth”. Since genetics has come into its own in the realm of science in regards to cloning and mapping genomes, great concern has been raised in regards to it mainly about the human genome. Many people feel that it may lead to a different form of eugenics one that may not involve killing people, but may involve killing fetuses and genetic selection/insertion after fertilization.

All parents desire to pass on to their children health and desirable traits. If a method can be scientifically developed why not take advantage of it. Even today people go through testing to determine if a fetus may have any kind of debilitating disease or defect. In some cases, many of these people do abort the fetus to forego any type of undue suffering on their part or the part of their child. Many people object to this for moral reasons which they feel are being violated.

To object from wanting to bring into this world a healthy child rather than one who may not live past their first day is kind of extreme. In cases of children who suffer from Spina Bifida an extremely debilitating birth defect the children who are born with it cannot live past a few hours or days without the help of machines or even at all. This fundamentally is a form of eugenics because it does not allow those with undesirable traits to live.

Eugenics, Genetics, and Heredity

To call bigotry or genocide eugenics or to believe it is such is skewing its definition almost infinitely. What Germans believed to be a form of eugenics symbolized through concentration camps was a thinly veiled form of genocide created through propaganda. If mankind now can make people smarter genetically before they are born it is then a form of eugenics beyond comparison to what may have happened under the banner of eugenics in the past.

It is a seemingly innate characteristic of humans to want better things for their offspring if we have developed the ability to do that without negative side effects why should it be stigmatized through the historical use of the term. Some traits may be found to be based on racism or bigotry such as how tall someone is or the color of their skin. But if this technology is used to let people have more intelligent babies or ones with less susceptible immune systems where is the evil? Sometimes people look to find the negative side of things even if it is far less visible than the positive.

As knowledge regarding the genetic constituents of human manners increases, so, precisely, does the number of prospects for its misuse. It is upsetting to envision naive criminologists who desire to exercise genetic data about conduct to recognize and manage antisocial individuals. It is possibly more troubling–because far more implemental–to consider employers and insurers who utilize such information to refute insurance or service to people reckoned inclined to valuable behaviors.

Given “the sordid history of attempts to use pseudo-biological explanations to justify the stratification of our society” (3) perhaps most disturbing of all is to picture that our contemporary society will exercise such research based to underpin the observation that existing structures of stratification are artless and natural.

Eugenics originated as a scientific movement, validated by the leading scientists of the time. To call eugenics a “pseudoscience” is to make it seem less threatening, but it is also incorrect; the great majority of scientists at the turn of the century believed in eugenics. In 1916, all five scientists who founded the American journal Genetics were advocates of eugenics, even though each was an established scientist of great reputation. (4) If most practicing scientists adhere to a certain view of the world, that viewpoint is, by definition, mainstream science.

Social Darwinism and American Eugenics

The growth of American industry created the first major migration away from farms, causing a shortage of adequate housing. Price fluctuations bankrupted businesses and created a series of depressions. Social Darwinism explained social and economic inequalities as “survival of the fittest.” However, a low birth rate of the wealthy suggested that captains of industry were losing the struggle for existence. At the same time, the working class had a higher birth rate.

Progressive advocates believed that science would treat any negative aspects in human and natural societies. As a result, genetics spit out a new science of social engineering that is called eugenics. Eugenicists believed that human social problems were the cause of inheriting defective germplasm. They argued that society would have to pay a high price to care for the defective individuals. Sterilizing one defective person could save future generations thousands of dollars.

Eugenicists planned to restrict immigration. According to eugenicists, state welfare and charity only treated the symptoms, but not the roots of the problems.

Diane Paul’s stance, however, those eugenics was (and remains) too versatile a phenomenon to delineate decisively and to expurgate from family planning and public policy. Numerous personal and policy decisions engage largely eugenic thoughtfulness, and, therefore, oppositions to the eugenics movement and its continued existence are objections to definite policies rather than to the wide-ranging inspiration of humanizing social groups.

Besides this, other aspects must be taken into reflection. “First and foremost, although ‘race’ was an accepted concept, there was no simple consensus on its meaning in the 1930s. There was nothing new in this: the fluidity of the term had been evident since the Renaissance, through the late nineteenth century” (5)

Scientific Origin of Eugenics

Francis Galton thought of eugenics as a way to improve humanity by encouraging healthy people to have children. Unlike negative eugenics, which rejected the disabled, Galtonian views usually, used positive eugenics. Degeneracy theory was accepted by scientists until the late 19th century. Masturbation was thought to be the cause of degeneracy. Most scientists believed that a bad environment caused degenerate heredity.

Morel expanded the causes to mercury poisoning, ergot, and other poisonous substances. A good environment could change degenerates into better citizens. Changes in body tissues had little effect on reproductive tissues. Some physicians were convinced that social failure was a medical problem. When hospitals failed to treat the psychotic, retarded, and the poor, eugenicists started to research preventive medicine. Eugenicists argued that degenerates should not breed. Most doctors felt sterilization was effective to prevent them from breeding. (6)

Eugenicists applied Mendel’s laws to explain the inheritance of human traits. Researchers tried to trace the inheritance through a pedigree. Beginning in 1900, Mendelian rules were used to explain the inheritance of traits in plants, animals, and humans. Eugenicists had difficulty when they tried to measure complex traits. Instead, they forced their data to make it look like it agrees with simple Mendelian rules. Now, geneticists know that DNA is the molecule of heredity. “Several historians have analyzed the complicated social roots of Galton’s eugenic argument; what is significant to our story is the way the language of “disinterested” science disguised those roots”. (7)

Flaws in Eugenics Research

There are five flaws associated with eugenics research. The first flaw was the difficulty of defining traits. Phenotypic traits are easy to measure, but mental and behavioral traits are extremely hard to measure because they’re difficult to be defined. The second flaw was that eugenicists treated complex traits as if they only had one cause. For example, intelligence was believed to be an innate quality of the brain with only one factor.

Later, however, experts realized there were many areas of intelligence. The third flaw was the poor survey and statistical methods. Much pedigree information was reported second-hand or sometimes rumor. The fourth flaw is false qualification. Not all tests were valid. For example, IQ tests sometimes contained questions that depended on background and experience. Tests were given under a variety of conditions. Some takers did not speak English at all. The last flaw was social and environmental influences.

Eugenics Popularization

The American Breeders Association researched areas that would have interested Galton. The ABA popularized themes of selective breeding of superior stock, the biological threat of “inferiors”, and the need for controlling human heredity. The legislation required racial registration certificates and strict qualifications of how could qualify as members of the white race. Additionally, it emphasized the basis of race assessment and hazards of interracial marriage.

Eugenics was used to stop the immigration of “inferiors”. (8) The Public Health Service supported eugenicists’ position on immigration restriction. Latin America is considerable specifically since it challenges the more general perception based on what Daniel Kevles has typified as the “mainline” eugenics movements of Europe as well as the United States. (9)

Many eugenists of Weismann Mendelian persuasion interpreted genetics to mean that heredity prevailed over the environment and that only a policy devoted to breeding–to regulating the production of innate fitness–was “eugenic.” This interpretation led very often to something of a disjunction between eugenics and traditional public-health or social reforms since medical care of the sick and social welfare measures were seen as needlessly interfering with natural selection and the elimination of the unfit. Many eugenists even recommended eugenics as a kind of alternative to traditional medicine. The British scientist Karl Pearson went much further; to him, writes Kevles, “The eight-hour day, free medical advice, and reductions in infant mortality encouraged an increase in unemployable, degenerates, and physical and mental weaklings.” (10)

In certain conditions, eugenics–a scientific, secular agenda that dealt exclusively with transmissible health in reproduction-became integrated into the sex transformation movement. Women themselves frequently played outstanding roles in supporting the justification of birth control and the essential registration and cure of venereal ailment. Incredibly often, they also admitted thoughtlessly the more culpable class and racial prejudices of eugenics, thus considering their own advantaged rank as members of the mediocre class. “Some women found in eugenics societies a new space for social action. Even in the most medically-oriented eugenics organizations, where a medical degree was a requirement for membership, women began to find opportunities for careers.” (11)

The relations between Latin America and the United States were developed still more problematic by the tremendous character of U.S. eugenics. From its initial days, eugenists in the United States had taken a strappingly reductionist, Mendelian stroke on ethnic development. Charles Benedict Davenport, the leader of U.S. eugenics had proselytized the new-fangled eugenics under the flag of Mendelism after he visited Galton and other eugenists in England in the initial years of the twentieth century. (12)

Edwin Black’s book ‘War against the Weak’ melodramatically emphasizes that American eugenicists initially “infected our society and then reached across the world and right into Nazi Germany,” (13) Goethe’s interest in the Nazi government, however, was not simply a nostalgic yearning for his biological and cultural roots. He was neither a sentimentalist nor a fifth columnist, as suggested by Edwin Black. (14) While interracial marriages emerge to have been truthfully dependent upon common appeal, the couple may have often been forced to substantiate themselves to an antagonistic and bigoted public. “Imperialism, social Darwinism, nativism, and the emerging science of eugenics all spurred white supremacy in this period. (15)

Eugenics Movement

In the 1990s several significant works were published that demanded a reevaluation of the eugenics movement. Studies of eugenics in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Brazil, Latin America, Russia, and the American South brought a variety of voices and new meanings to the history of eugenics in the twentieth century and challenged the notion that eugenics was a unilateral conservative social movement. Other studies teased multiple meanings out of the movement by looking at mass culture and the diversity of support eugenics received. Certain new studies helped to generate increased interest in the history of eugenics.

Yet there is more work to be done. One major problem is that most histories of eugenics pay little attention to gender. Though several historians recognize the importance of sexuality and gender to the eugenics movement, they limit their analysis to the role of women in the movement. Indeed, too often gender has merely become a synonym for women.

The role of gender in the eugenics movement requires complex analysis. Gender was important because women played “a significant part in the politics of eugenics,” which gave them “a new space for social action,” as scholars now argue. (16) But gender was also central to eugenics because the movement called for a new approach to understanding sexuality, reproduction, and the role of men and women in society.

Some women actively supported eugenics; some, as physicians, even sterilized other women; still, others lobbied against eugenics. They did not form a unitary coalition, but this lack of unity does not make gender any less relevant to our understanding of eugenics.

The race also needs clarification here. American eugenicists often made references to “improving the race” without specifying whether they meant the human race, the Anglo-Saxon race, or some other type of racial differentiation. Though the meaning varied from person to person, the common eugenic vision of “building a better race” was implicitly racist. While most of those targeted as in need of sterilization in California’s movement were white, the race was still at the center of the eugenic campaign. As Hazel Carby writes in Reconstructing Womanhood, “Work that uses race as a central category does not necessarily need to be about black people.” (16) Eugenicists were agents of racial discourse, and though it was sometimes unmentioned or merely hinted at, the race was a salient category in the eugenics movement.

Eugenic Thinking Evaluation

The genetic theory began in the 19th century with Gregor Mendel’s investigations into plant heredity. Independently of Mendel’s work, in 1859 Charles Darwin followed with his theory of natural selection in the book “Origin of Species”. Since its discovery, genetic manipulation has been a source of both joy and suffering to humanity. (17) Sir John Francis Galton, introduced the concept of Eugenics in 1883, as he attempted to understand the ‘genius’ that ran through his family. Eugenics is the theory that a scientifically directed process of controlled or selective breeding can improve the genetic code of mankind. (18)

The most extreme example of eugenic thinking was found with the Holocaust of Nazi Germany, where according to Nazi policy, ‘inferior’ races were ‘polluting’ the human gene pool. “Under Nazism, eugenics became national policy.” (19). Nazi philosophy placed much emphasis on eugenics and attempted to justify that genetic selection should be practiced deliberately for the good of mankind through sterilization and eventually extermination.

This form of pseudo-Darwinism didn’t stop at individual races but also persecuted the handicapped, the physically weak and, people with genetic defects. “Sterilization was only the prelude…the Nazis began the systematic murder of Germans who were insane, handicapped, or mentally retarded.” (19)

This method of genetic selection included the procreation of a ‘racial elite’ and the extermination of ‘damaging’ or ‘racially inferior’ groups such as Eastern Europeans or Africans. These were deemed racially inferior to a supposed race of Germanic Aryans, which the Nazi doctrines believed to be weakened by a substandard gene pool. “The Nazis regarded the Germans as racially superior, and considered the Slavs, Gypsies, and blacks to be inferior.

At the bottom of this scale were the Jews.” (20) The tragic consequences of the Nazi eugenicist efforts to cleanse the human genome of supposed racial inferiority interrupted the popular continuation of the eugenic train of thought with the closing of the extermination camps.

What could be a potential echo of the eugenic philosophy is the latest form of attempted manipulation of human genetics known as the Human Genome Project (HGP). The HGP is a worldwide research effort to analyze the structure of human deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the genetic equivalent of a blueprint determining the function of every cell in the human body.

Whether it is the practice of eugenics or the HGP, the goal appears much the same: to eradicate unwanted or possibly unfashionable aspects of the human genome. Despite promises of the benefits in the HGP, many ethical, social, and political concerns urgently need to be resolved and consequences fully investigated. Without appropriate consultation and stringent legislation, there is a strong possibility once again, in the abuse of this science in areas like genetic discrimination.


Although we cannot foretell the ultimate results of this new eugenic movement, we can vaguely see their general nature. Eugenics gives man a marvelous instrument whereby in due time a whole nation may be elevated. Many and grievous mistakes will doubtless be made, and wrong steps will have to be retracted. Nevertheless, in the long run, we have reason to hope that man will use the art of eugenics as well as he has used the arts connected with tools, speech, fire, and writing. If this should happen we can scarcely expect less than that in physique, intelligence, emotional stability, and character, the most undesirable individuals of future generations will be at least the equals of those who now stand halfway from top to bottom.

In order better to understand how eugenics can thus benefit mankind, let us look briefly at the history of the great movement for the regulation of the quantity and quality of the population. Three great stages can be recognized. The first is personal because it is motivated solely by the desires of the individual, or at least of his family or clan. The second is institutional or social because it assumes a more highly organized form and is developed on a large scale for some general-purpose which is supposed to be for the good of the community at large. The third is evolutionary, or creative because it is devoted to the preparation of a new situation that will permanently create a finer and more satisfactory world.

All three stages are characterized by the conscious limitation of the population, the preservation of certain selected types, and the removal of people from one region to another. As a rule, man’s action in these respects has been based upon two more or less unconscious premises; first, that some particular part of the world does not contain the right number of people–either too many or too few; and second, that people of one’s kind are better than others. Darwin and other pioneers of evolutionary biology realized very clearly the basic importance of heredity for understanding evolution. However, it is only during the current century, and particularly during the last twenty to thirty years, that a theory of evolution based on the findings of the study of heredity, genetics, has become possible.

A large part of the reason why the subject of nature and nurture is so laden with emotion for so many people is that the new science of behavioral genetics has intellectual roots in the old ideas of eugenics. Eugenics is that field of study dealing with improving the inborn qualities of the human race, particularly through the control of hereditary factors. The emotional resonance of nature versus nurture controversy cannot be fully appreciated without an understanding of the dark history of eugenics. No one should forget that the ideas touched on here are explosive; problems in human biology are fascinating, but they are also emotionally charged.

It is simply impossible to study our species as dispassionately as we would study an insect or a bird. Social values are inherent, or potentially so, in any scientific finding of humans, and the scientist who is unaware of this is naive and open to exploitation.

Although eugenics began as a scientific concern for the betterment of the human race, it evolved into a social and political effort to control human evolution. The ideas of eugenics were gradually perverted into ideals, against which all persons could be measured. Ultimately, millions of people were systematically killed by the Nazis because they did not fit the rigidly codified ideals of the day. The fact that mainstream science was used as a rationale for systematic genocide is proof that ideas can have great power. It is also proof that scientists who have ideas of great power may be unable to foresee the consequences of those ideas.

The intellectual roots of eugenics extend back to Plato, who believed that defective children should not be cared for by parents. He also believed that chronic invalids and those who were ill because of self-indulgence should not receive medical care and that moral degenerates should be executed. Plato even advocated temporary unions between superior men and women for the express purpose of having superior children.

Mendel’s work with pea plants was rediscovered in Germany at the turn of the century, and it inspired a tremendous flurry of scientific research in genetics. Germany quickly became the European center of activity in genetics, and it also became the center of activity in eugenics. Mendel’s laws of inheritance were soon invoked to explain many different familial patterns of inheritance, including the inheritance of mental illness, retardation, alcoholism, criminality, prostitution, and poverty.


  1. Forrest, D.W. Francis Galton: The Life and Work of a Victorian Genius. New York: Taplinger, 1974. p.210.
  2. Selden S. 1999. Inheriting Shame: The Story of Eugenics and Racism in America. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University Press.
  3. Paul, Diane B. Controlling Human Heredity: 1865 to the present (Atlantic Highlands NJ Humanities Press International, 1995) p 93.
  4. Beckwith, J., “A historical view of social responsibility in genetics”, BioScience 43 ( 1993): 327-333.
  5. Paul 1995:p106.
  6. Galton F. 1869. Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences. London: Macmillan. p309.
  7. Daniel Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity ( New York: Knopf, 1985), chap. 1.
  8. Daniel J. Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), p23.
  9. Daniel J. Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), pp. 34-45.
  10. Daniel Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Heredity ( New York: Knopf, 1985), p. 64.
  11. Daniel Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity ( New York: Knopf, 1985), pp. 44-56.
  12. Edwin Black, War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race; New York: Four Walls Eight Windows: 2003; 267.
  13. Edwin Black, War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race; New York: Four Walls Eight Windows: 2003; 379.
  14. Steven Selden, Inheriting Shame: The Story of Eugenics and Racism in America (New York: Teachers College Press, 1999).
  15. Hazel V. Carby: Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist Oxford University Press, USA; New Ed edition (1989) p.118.
  16. Hazel V. Carby: Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist Oxford University Press, USA; New Ed edition (1989) p.170.
  17. William Bateson: Mendel’s Principles of Heredity, a Defense, First Edition London: Cambridge University Press, 1902: p.66.
  18. Wendy Kline: Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom; University of California Press (2001) p.98.
  19. ibid. 100.
  20. ibid. 102.
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