The general concept of eugenics was first introduced in Greek philosophy as early as 368 BCE. Plato and Aristotle both refer to the city and state’s need for healthy citizens to create an elite ruling class and army. In this concept of eugenics, men and women were encouraged to reproduce when they were at their highest physical and mental powers in order to conceive the healthiest and the most intelligent children. This underlying principle of striving for an ideal society through selective breeding is one that has motivated eugenicists throughout history and has facilitated the emergence of the eugenics industrial complex, a flawed and crude interpretation of Gregor Mendel’s laws on heredity to argue that criminality, intelligence, and pauperism were as inherent in families as were simple dominant or recessive hereditary traits. For example, California women’s prisons, which have a history of forcibly sterilizing inmates (more than 20,000 between 1909 and 1964), continued to sterilize inmates without their consent, nearly 40 years after the practice had been criminalized. The concept is therefore related to surveillance, security, and privacy, given its direct violation of the privacy of the victims.
The term eugenics was derived from the Greek word eugenes meaning “good (or beautiful) birth.” It was first coined in 1885 by the English mathematician Sir Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin. He defined eugenics as the science of improving stock, not only by judicious mating but also by all the influences that give the more suitable strain a better chance. Galton believed that intelligence and other appreciated traits were inborn quite apart from environmental influence. With a resolve to maximize brilliance and prevent “feeblemindedness,” Galton encouraged “good” marriages that would produce highly intelligent males and ultimately assure the stock of the next generation. He believed in the superiority of one race over another and therefore advocated a form of selection that restricted undesirable people from reproducing.
What Galton saw as a new branch of scientific inquiry became a rigid prescription in the ranking and ordering of human worth. At the turn of the 20th century, his ideas found a receptive audience in the United States. At that time, the United States was experiencing rapid social and economic changes. The industrialization and urbanization that were occurring in the United States brought millions of poor immigrants from southern and Eastern Europe seeking a higher standard of living. At the same time, thousands of African Americans were migrating to Northern cities from the Southern states. The increased competition for jobs intensified existing frictions along class and racial lines.
Intermittent economic recessions over this period created further social unrest. Labor unions, civil rights groups, and the women’s suffrage movement pressed for greater equity in the country. Simultaneously, nativist and racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan wanted to maintain the status quo.
Mainline eugenicists, who were preoccupied with issues of race, believed that some individuals and entire groups of people (e.g., southern Europeans, Jews, Africans, and Latinos) were more predisposed to the “defective genes.” As such, Charles Davenport, a leader in American eugenics, argued for laws to control the spread of “inferior blood” into the general population. Today, this approach speaks directly to the issues of invasion of privacy and violation of human rights.
In 1921, President Calvin Coolidge embraced the assumptions of eugenics and declared that there are racial considerations too grave to be brushed aside for any sentimental reasons. Biological laws tell us that certain divergent people will not mix or blend. The Nordics propagate themselves successfully. With other races, the outcome suggests that observance of ethnic law is as great a necessity to a nation as immigration law.
In 1924, supporters of eugenics played a decisive role in the passage of the Immigration and Restriction Act, which established blatantly racist quotas for individuals wishing to enter the United States. This law was based on a quota of 2% of a defined ethnic group’s population according to the 1890 census. The law was not substantially revised until 1965.
Support for eugenics and racial hygiene increased with the reinforcement of Margaret Sanger in the United States. She led the movement for global birth control and supported the concept of more children from the “fit” and less from the “unfit,” which was purported as the chief issue of birth control. This approach was readily accepted by the American society during that period. Eugenicists began to influence public concern that society was afflicted by the “unfit,” and they demanded government action.
Throughout the 20th century, advocates of the eugenics industrial complex convinced 30 state legislatures to pass involuntary sterilization laws that targeted “defective strains” within the general population, such as the blind, deaf, epileptic, feebleminded, sexually deviant, alcoholics, and paupers. Sterilization laws were most popular in the Atlantic region, the Midwest, and California, with California carrying out more eugenic sterilizations by 1933 than the rest of the United States combined. California records show that based on their representation in the state’s population, African Americans and foreign immigrants were subjected to sterilization at double the rate of other Californians. By 1929, approximately 8,500 sterilizations were conducted; by 1940, the number increased to 35,000; and by 1968, the number of sterilizations had risen to 65,000. However, most states did not enforce sterilization laws, and more than one third of American states never passed such laws.
Subsequent to World War I, Adolf Hitler began to take notice of the eugenics movement in the United States. After assuming leadership of Germany, he changed Germany’s sterilization law from voluntary to compulsory. From 1934 to 1937, 400,000 sterilizations took place in Germany, compared with 30,000 sterilizations in the United States by 1939. Leading biologists and physicians in Germany supported Hitler’s idea of placing race at the center of building a new state, which resulted in the concentration camps and genetic research on humans that defined the Holocaust.
The ideology of eugenics also influenced the educational reform movements of the 1910s and 1920s, affecting teacher training, curriculum development, and school organization. It was also instrumental in the development of the first IQ tests, which were promoted as a tool to assess the intelligence of children in the education system. Those tests were used to track and segregate students into separate and unequal education courses; by 1921, more than 2 million American children were tracked based on IQ tests. It was also used to “establish the first gifted and talented programs, and promote the idea that educational standards could be measured through single-numbered scores.”
Prominent educational researchers such as Lewis Terman, Edward Thorndike, and Carl Brigham subscribed to the notion of intelligence propagated by the eugenics industrial complex. They successively convinced many U.S. school districts to use high-stakes and culturally biased tests in order to place “slow” students into special classes, rigid academic tracks, or entirely separate schools. The assumptions of race and class that underscored these recommendations were justified as scientifically sound because the “tests told the truth.” IQ tests soon became a popular eugenics tool for identifying “superior” and “inferior students and then charting their educational destiny. In most cases, it was the African Americans and the descendants of recent immigrants who were being identified as “inferior” students.
Although the eugenics industrial complex enjoyed popularity during the early 20th century, at its highest point, there was an active minority of educators, journalists, labor groups, and parents who resisted the ideas advocated by the concept. In particular, there were informed critiques by African American scholars such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Horace Mann Bond, and Howard Long who criticized the use of these tests to rank racial groups and warned that its use further disadvantaged the minority groups in the society and limited the potential of the next generation.
Dianne Williams and Megan Doldron
See also American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Privacy Information Center ; Civil Liberties ; Civil Rights Movement ; Paternalism and Parens Patriae ; Privacy, Right to ; Violence Against Women Act ; Women, Girls, and the Body
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