Eugenics is the systematic attempt to increase the incidence of desirable genetic traits and to decrease the incidence of undesirable genetic traits in a population.

Eugenics is a relatively recent development in the history of human anthropology (the systematic study of humankind), emerging only in the late nineteenth century.

Origins of eugenic theory

As Charles Darwin's ideas on evolutionary theory gained acceptance in the late 1800s, the public's faith in science as a source for social remedies increased in popularity, and scientists looked for ways to improve the human species. British scientist Francis Galton (1822–1911), a half-cousin of Darwin, invented the term eugenics, which he derived from two Greek words, meaning “good” or “noble,” and “bloodline.” Galton introduced the concept of positive eugenics, in which he encouraged the healthiest and most intelligent people to marry among themselves at early ages and have large families. Interestingly, he and his wife had no children.

Early twentieth century

Although Galton's theories did not gain widespread acceptance in England, in the United States his ideas were interpreted in programs of negative eugenics, designed to keep certain people from bearing children. The American Eugenics Society was founded in 1921; it eventually changed its name to the Society for Biodemography and Social Biology when the term eugenics acquired disturbing associations in the wake of World War II.

Negative eugenics in the United States included such extreme measures as restriction of immigration from Eastern Europe and Asia and castration and sterilization as well as the institutionalization of people considered defective or undesirable. The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, now recognized worldwide as an outstanding research institution in the fields of cancer biology and neuroscience, served as the base of the Eugenics Record Office (ERO), which was funded by the Carnegie Institution and conducted later-discredited human heredity research between 1910 and 1939.

Racial, social, and moral issues were key factors in the U.S. eugenics movement. Its victims included individuals diagnosed with mental retardation, psychiatric symptoms, epilepsy, or deafness, and people considered to be of low moral stature, such as unwed mothers, prostitutes, and thieves, for such behaviors were thought to be genetically based. A number of states enacted miscegenation laws that prohibited marriage between people of different races because it was believed that mixing the genes of different races would allow undesirable traits to proliferate in the dominant population. Margaret Sanger (1879–1966), a pioneer proponent of birth control, privately advocated contraception as a way to reduce the African American population in the United States.

In an attempt to keep the so-called unfit from procreating, legislators passed compulsory sterilization laws. Indiana was the first state to pass such legislation in 1907; by 1932, 30 states had similar laws. Prior to these statutes, however, compulsory sterilization had been an accepted practice in parts of the Midwest, and by the end of the early twentieth-century eugenics movement, approximately 20,000 people had been sterilized.

In one particularly noteworthy case of 1927, the state of Virginia had ordered that Carrie Buck, an allegedly intellectually disabled (today defined as an IQ below 50) woman, be sterilized against her will. Later, Buck sued the state in a case that ultimately went to the Supreme Court. With a single dissenting vote, the Court upheld the existing sterilization laws, with Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes handing down the opinion that it would be better to sterilize a feebleminded woman than to allow her to bear children who would ultimately become thieves and murderers. Subsequent investigations revealed that Carrie Buck was completely normal intellectually, as was a daughter conceived before the sterilization in a case of rape who, before her death at the age of eight, performed quite satisfactorily in school. The daughter, Vivian Dobbs, had been diagnosed as retarded at six months of age during a cursory examination by a social worker.

In some cases, mental retardation was diagnosed on the basis of intelligence test scores. One prominent psychologist, Henry H. Goddard (1866–1957) actively campaigned to keep mentally retarded individuals from having children and segregated students living at the New Jersey Vineland Training School for Feeble-Minded Girls and Boys by sex so that they could not procreate. Goddard also worked to keep so-called defective immigrants from entering the United States. In one instance, he used Alfred Binet's intelligence test to assess 35 Jews, 22 Hungarians, 50 Italians, and 45 Russians at Ellis Island in New York as they entered the country and concluded that on average, over 80% of the immigrants scored so low as to be reflective of mental retardation. In this case, low test scores are not surprising given that the immigrants were tested in a language foreign to them (English); were probably intimidated by the testing situation; and were unfamiliar with American culture. Subsequent immigration laws included provisions relating to the intelligence quotient of potential immigrants.

Postwar changes and developments

U.S. eugenics laws were widely supported until the end of World War II, when evidence of medical experiments and other atrocities committed at Nazi death camps were publicized. The early twentieth-century eugenics movement can be seen as a more socially than scientifically based enterprise; only when the malignant implications of eugenics became clear did the U.S. public withdraw its support.

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, however, discussion about eugenics resurfaced in the wake of new concerns about the environment, the introduction and refinement of assisted reproductive technology (ART), and the problematic interconnections between eugenics and politics. With regard to the environment, concern about world overpopulation led to such official measures as China's one-child policy, introduced in 1978 to curb China's population growth. Unofficially, many Western intellectuals influenced by the Zero Population Growth (ZPG) movement urged people, including the highly intelligent and physically fit, to “stop at one” or forgo having any children in order to reduce humanity's footprint on the environment.

In terms of medical advances, the introduction of in vitro fertilization and embryo storage, the growing acceptability of artificial insemination by a donor unrelated to the woman seeking to bear a child, the practice of harvesting ova from female college and graduate students for childless couples, and experiments in cloning sheep, cats, rats, and other animals have led to concern about the misuse of reproductive technology to breed a race of superhumans or to a general tendency to regard children as consumer products and status symbols, as evidenced by the term designer babies.

Last, the mapping of the human genome, completed in 2003, coupled with advances in prenatal screening for some (though not all) genetic disorders, have led some ethicists to ask whether these accomplishments might encourage increasing government interference with childbearing and family life. The loss of genetic diversity as well as the unforeseen side effects of such selection (such as the genetic association between some desirable traits and susceptibility to certain diseases) could have disastrous consequences that would be difficult to undo. In addition, the outcomes of the twentieth century's experiments with eugenics in the hands of the politically powerful are not grounds for hope on the part of those outside the power structures.

See also Heredity ; Jukes family ; Kallikak family .


Artificial reproductive technology (ART)—
A general term for fertility treatments for infertile couples that may include embryo storage, in vitro fertiliza-tion, the use of fertility medications, and preimplantation genetic diagnosis.
The process of producing copies of genetically identical organisms.
Designer baby—
An informal term for the use of genetic engineering to create or select for traits in a child that the parents consider desirable, such as high intelligence, physical attractiveness, or resistance to disease.
Referring to principles of right and wrong; also, being in line with the standards of right conduct that govern the practice of a profession.
In vitro fertilization—
The process of fertilizing ova with sperm outside the human body in a laboratory. The Latin phrase means “in glass.”



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American Genetic Association (AGA), c/o Anjanette Baker, 2030 SE Marine Science Dr., Newport, OR, 97365, (541) 867-0334,,

Society for Biodemography and Social Biology, c/o Christine Himes, Secretary-Treasurer, Syracuse University, Aging Studies Institute, 314 Lyman Hall, Syracuse, NY, 13244,