Eugenics is a philosophy advocating the improvement of human hereditary traits through social intervention. Goals have included creating more healthy, intelligent people, to save resources and lessening human suffering. Proposed means of achieving goals include prenatal testing and screening, genetic counseling, birth control, selective breeding and genetic engineering. Critics argue that eugenics has been a means whereby social thinking can result in coercive state-sponsored discrimination and human rights violations.
Selective breeding of human beings was suggested as far back as Plato, but the modern field was formulated by Sir Francis Galton in 1865, drawing on the work of his cousin, Charles Darwin. Eugenics has been supported by prominent thinkers (including, economists Lord Maynard Keynes and particularly Irving Fisher) and even been an academic discipline in universities. Its scientific reputation tumbled in the 1930s, a time when Ernst Rüdin began incorporating eugenic rhetoric into the racial policies of the Nazis.
Harry Bruinius’, fascinating ‘Better for All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America’s Quest for Racial Purity’ is reviewed at Salon today. It takes up themes that periodically get revived in most societies.
The source of the American movement was concern over the threat posed to the US by sexually-insatiable female morons! The fear was that the US would be overrun by ‘fools’. ‘Hyper-fecund’ female morons were seen as giving in to their sexual urges more quickly than feebleminded men and hence were the source of the problem. Progressives saw sterilization as having advantages over traditional ways of helping the poor, such as charity. Eugenics was ‘scientific’ since superior people, like superior crops and farm animals, were the product of good breeding. Just stop morons from passing on their characteristics (genes) to future generations.
Today we think of eugenists as faddists. But to Bruinius, American eugenicists are consequential. In 1907, Indiana passed the first sterilization law in human historyand over the next two decades, the US became the pioneer in state-sanctioned programs to rid society of the ‘unfit’.’ At least 30 states enacted similar laws, and sterilization became routine. California sterilized more than 2,500 people over 10-years and, in all, more than 65,000 Americans were rendered infertile.
The American enthusiasm for purifying the populace did not go unnoticed beyond US borders. After the Supreme Court approved the process, the American approach became the model for Canada, Denmark, Finland, France and Sweden. In Hitler’s Germany sterilization laws were consciously modeled on and supported by the American efforts.
But the US, after the sin of slavery, could not stand a state-sanctioned biological aristocracy. Americans saw that eugenics science was weak and recognized the obvious problems of labeling people morons, imbeciles, idiots. Scientists came to favor genetics over Social Darwinism.
Could modern scientific advances in genetics and bioengineering usher in policies where genocide – cultural, ethnic, or genetic – can again seem a desirable goal?’. We still have intellectual movements that motivate revived interest in eugenics (the Bell Curve literature can be traced to Galton) and even Donna Vale’s recent indiscretions on Muslim fertility in Australia had eugenic overtones.