What is eugenics?

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Meaning of eugenics. 2

History of eugenics. 2

Dangerous Eugenics. 4

Eugenics today. 5

References. 8

Meaning of eugenics

Eugenics is the study of methods through which genetic qualities can be improved through selective breeding among human beings. When Sir Francis Galton coined the term in his 1883 book entitled Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development, defined eugenics as:“the study of all agents under social control, which may impair or improve racial qualities of future generations either mentally or physically”.


            When some people hear anything about “eugenics”, images of horror relating to Nazi Germany automatically come into mind. Other people remember the racist campaigns that have been taking place in the United States in the past in order to prevent the “superior” white blood from mixing with the “inferior” black blood.

History of eugenics     

  Towards the end of the 19th century, people were interested in solving society’s problems through scientific answers. This way of thinking was motivated by the successes of industrial revolutions. It is during this time that Charles Darwin published his book, On the Origin of Species, in which he proposed the theory of evolution. Through such scientific efforts, the primacy of scientific explanations was being cemented into human minds. The idea of Eugenics was just one of the many ways of perpetuating this kind of thinking.          Galton believed that the human society should “weed out” all unfit members just as nature weeds out all the “unfit” in the animal kingdom. He strongly believed that the human race was disrupting the course of evolution by letting the sickly and weak live on through institutions like mental institutions and social welfare programs.

            During this time, many people were pleased with the idea, which sounded like a natural way of bringing about a utopian society whereby all human beings are supposed to be brave, honest and intelligent. They believed that disease and crime would be eradicated by eugenics. It was widely held eugenics would easily solve social problems caused by rapid urbanization in contemporary societies.

            Upon the rediscovery of Gregory Mendel’s genetics research findings, notes Mehta (2000, p. 222), many budding eugenicists jumped into the argument that some behavioral traits such as pauperism, criminality, and a chronic tendency to wander could be scientifically proven to run along family lines. Therefore, they argued, the only of ending up with the “desired” traits among the human race was to allow only those individuals with desirable traits to continue breeding, much in the same way it happens in animal breeding.

            The word “Eugenics” comes from two Greek wordseu, meaning “good” or “well” and gene, which means “born”. In the literal sense, Eugene means “well-born”. For Galton, notes Holtzman & Rothstein (1992, p. 458) the broader meaning of what was encompassed in this term was difficult to pin down, and this difficulty remains a cause of confusion even today. Galton, in an effort to eliminate this conceptual confusion, came up with many definitions of the term. In one of the definitions, he put emphasis on the need to bring about influences that improve as many inborn qualities in the human race as possible. He believed that such inborn qualities should be developed to the utmost advantage.

In general terms, eugenics entailed influencing birth rates so as to create a society with over-abundance of many “desirable” traits while conversely, bringing about a complete elimination of all “undesirable” traits. Towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of 20th century, the idea of eugenics was so widespread that there existed one form of eugenics police or the other in virtually every country in the world. The main area of contention among countries was whether positive eugenics or negative eugenics should be practiced. Positive eugenics entailed increasing the desirable traits while negative eugenics entailed doing away with undesired traits.

However, all countries that engaged in eugenic practices applied the concept in its positive form, which was accompanied by coercive practices, class/racial practices, something that caused irreparable damage to the movement. Some of the practices motivated by eugenics included involuntary sterilization, segregation, and in the Nazi Germany’s situation, genocide. Most countries, however, pursued eugenic campaigns through maintaining focus on birth control, whereby “undesirables” were rewarded for opting not to have children or for undergoing voluntary sterilization.

Dangerous Eugenics

In the U.S, Germany, and Britain, eugenics was entrenched along social and racial hierarchies. In the U.S and Germany, things turned very ugly. In Germany, the first eugenics movement was formed in 1904, in the U.S around 1910 and in England, in 1907. A number of institutions in each of these countries became dedicated to the eugenics movements. In America, the Eugenics Record Office (ERO), headquartered at Cold Spring Harbor, New York, was one of the most notable eugenics institutions. This institution periodically published information, news and research findings, which in most cases, were doctored in order to concur with certain generally held prejudices. The ERO was also a repository for data relating to genetic traits. It was also used to train eugenic field workers.

Dikötter (1998, p. 469) observes that in Britain and in the U.S, the poor were considered to be unfit and therefore, were not supposed to breed with members of the upper class. They were therefore easy targets in negative eugenics campaigns. In the U.S, these efforts were taken to the extreme bounds. State fairs used to hold regular contests for the “best bred” humans. They also set up displays that expounded the “evils of mixing blood”. Additionally, by the early 1930s eugenics laws had been put in place, requiring involuntary sterilization of all people who the state considered to be “feeble-minded” or “imbeciles”, or in simple terms, socially undesirable. It is estimated that about 70,000 sterilizations were undertaken through the enactment of these laws.

In the US, Britain, and Germany, eugenics was used as a motivating factor for the Dcreation of laws that were very strict on immigration. In the U.S, in addition to strict immigration laws, anti-miscegenation laws were made and enforced throughout the 1920s. In Germany, it was eugenics that paved the way for the Holocaust.

Eugenics today

Eugenics was developed by scientists and scholars, supported by statesmen and funded by philanthropists. It, therefore, played a key, sometimes central role in the intellectual, social and political history of many people and nations. Therefore, today, the effects of Eugenics are still experienced and the term “eugenics” is so emotive that it is hardly used at all.

            Today, the Mendelian notion that all human traits are inherited is no longer considered acceptable. This means that technically, the eugenics concept of creating a social utopia by “bettering” the human race has been discarded. However, population control measures still remain, the rationale of which is the protection of limited natural resources and ensuring that there is sustainability in the management of these resources.


            Genetic tests are still being carried out in efforts to discover treatments for certain inherited disorders. Genetic counseling is also gaining popularity. Therefore, more and more genetic tests are being made available such that potential parents and fetuses can be screened. Some people, notably Catholics, consider this to be a form of eugenics, since, they say, there is “interference in the process of human reproduction”. I agree with these Catholics.

            Many people disagree that genetic tests are comparable to a modern form of eugenics. Meanwhile, today, ideas relating to eugenics, in its broadest sense, seem to have changed, such that eugenics can only be seen at work in applied human genetics. However, this is a claim that is very controversial. Supporters of current genetic technologies, according to Harper (1992, p. 462), vehemently oppose any attempts by opponents to use the word “eugenics” in reference to genetic tests among human beings. In fact, this word is hardly ever used.

As Garver & Garver (1991 p. 1111) points out, most people agree that no problem with eliminating genetic diseases through personal choice, just as the Tay-Sachs disease was eliminated among Ashkenazi Jews through use of screening tests. This does not qualify there is as eugenics since it was not sponsored by the government.

Some people argue about eugenics, human genetics and the sanctity of human life by first propounding the premise that two forms of human life exist: living and potential. Geneticists according to Garver&LeChien (1992, p. 923), consider it a fair game to discuss the potential life that might result from an ovum and a sperm, as long as conception has not yet taken place. They also find no harm in talking about “good genes” and “bad genes” before conception has taken place. However, some people, afraid that modern societies might slip back into the days of eugenics, are uncomfortable with such discussions.

According to a poll conducted by March of Dimes in 1993, 11% of all parents who were surveyed said were comfortable with aborting a fetus its genome had obesity predisposition; four in every five would abort a child that shows signs of disability and 3% of all parents would use genetic engineering technology, if available, to enhance the appearance of their child (Griffin Kavanagh & Sorenson 1977, p. 172). All these are issues, though based on personal decisions; exemplify “eugenic” thinking.


Dikötter, F.  1998, ‘Race Culture: Recent Perspectives on the History of Eugenics’, The American Historical Review, Vol. 103, No. 2, pp. 467-78

Garver, K, & Garver, B, 1991, ‘Eugenics: past, present, and the future’. Am J Hum Genet. Vol. 49 No.5, pp.1109–1118.

Garver, K. &LeChien, K.1992, ‘Geneticists’ responsibility to other health care professionals and to the lay public’.Am J Hum Genet, vol.5 no.4, pp. 922–23.

Griffin M, Kavanagh, C,& Sorenson, J,  1977 ‘Genetic Knowledge, Client Perspectives, and Genetic Counseling’, Social Work in Health Care, Vol. 2 no.2, pp.  171 – 80.

Harper, P, 1992, ‘Huntington disease and the abuse of genetics’ Am J Hum Genet. Vol. 50, No. 3, pp. 460–64.

Holtzman, N, & Rothstein, M, 1992, ‘Eugenics and genetic discrimination’. Am J Hum Genet. Vol.50, No. 3, pp. 457–59.

Mehta, P. 2000, ‘Human Eugenics: Whose Perception of Perfection?’ The History Teacher, Vol. 33, No. 2 pp. 222-40.

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