Eugenics (/jˈɛnɪks/; Template:Etymology) is the belief and practice of improving the genetic quality of the human population.[2][3] It is a social philosophy advocating the improvement of human genetic traits through the promotion of higher reproduction of people with desired traits (positive eugenics), and reduced reproduction of people with less-desired or undesired traits (negative eugenics).[4]


Main article: History of eugenics

Eugenics, as a modern concept, was originally developed by Francis Galton. It has roots in France, Germany, Great Britain and the United States in the 1860s-1870s.[5] Galton had read his cousin Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, which sought to explain the development of plant and animal species, and desired to apply it to humans. Galton believed that desirable traits were hereditary based on biographical studies.[6] In 1883, one year after Darwin's death, Galton gave his research a name: "eugenics".[7] Throughout its recent history, eugenics remains a controversial concept.[8] As a social movement, eugenics reached its greatest popularity in the early decades of the 20th century. At this point in time, eugenics was practiced around the world and was promoted by governments, and influential individuals and institutions. Many countries enacted[9] various eugenics policies and programmes, including: genetic screening, birth control, promoting differential birth rates, marriage restrictions, segregation (both racial segregation and segregation of the mentally ill from the rest of the population), compulsory sterilization, forced abortions or forced pregnancies, and genocide. Most of these policies were later regarded as coercive or restrictive, and now few jurisdictions implement policies that are explicitly labelled as eugenic or unequivocally eugenic in substance.

The methods of implementing eugenics varied by country; however, some of the early 20th century methods involved identifying and classifying individuals and their families, including the poor, mentally ill, blind, deaf, developmentally disabled, promiscuous women, homosexuals, and racial groups (such as the Roma and Jews in Nazi Germany) as "degenerate" or "unfit", the segregation or institutionalization of such individuals and groups, their sterilization, euthanasia, and their mass murder.[10] The practice of euthanasia was carried out on hospital patients in the Aktion T4 centers such as Hartheim Castle.

Eugenics became an academic discipline at many colleges and universities, and received funding from many sources.[11] Three International Eugenics Conferences presented a global venue for eugenicists with meetings in 1912 in London, and in 1921 and 1932 in New York. Eugenic policies were first implemented in the early 1900s in the United States.[12] Later, in the 1920s and 30s, the eugenic policy of sterilizing certain mental patients was implemented in other countries, including Belgium,[13] Brazil,[14] Canada,[15] and Sweden.[16] The scientific reputation of eugenics started to decline in the 1930s, a time when Ernst Rüdin used eugenics as a justification for the racial policies of Nazi Germany. Nevertheless, in Sweden the eugenics program continued until 1975.[16]

In addition to being practiced in a number of countries, eugenics was internationally organized through the International Federation of Eugenic Organizations.[17] Its scientific aspects were carried on through research bodies such as the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics,[18] the Cold Spring Harbour Carnegie Institution for Experimental Evolution, [19] and the Eugenics Record Office.[20] Its political aspects involved advocating laws allowing the pursuit of eugenic objectives, such as sterilization laws.[21] Its moral aspects included rejection of the doctrine that all human beings are born equal, and redefining morality purely in terms of genetic fitness.[22] Its racist elements included pursuit of a pure "Nordic race" or "Aryan" genetic pool and the eventual elimination of "less fit" races.[23][24]

By the end of World War II, eugenics by means of coerced sexual sterilization had been largely abandoned, having become associated with Nazi Germany;[10][25] their approach to genetics and eugenics was focused on Eugen Fischer's concept of phenogenetics[26] and the Nazi twin study methods of Fischer and Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer. Both the public and some of the scientific community have associated eugenics with Nazi abuses, such as enforced "racial hygiene", human experimentation, and the extermination of "undesired" population groups. However, developments in genetic, genomic, and reproductive technologies at the end of the 20th century are raising for some people numerous new questions regarding the ethical status of eugenics, effectively creating a resurgence of interest in the subject.

Today, eugenics is regarded by some as a brutal movement which inflicted human rights violations on millions.[27] Some practices engaged in the name of eugenics, such as attacks on reputation and violations of privacy, reproductive rights, the right to life, the right to found a family, and the right to freedom from discrimination, are today classified as violations of human rights.

The practice of negative racial aspects of eugenics, after World War II, fell within the definition of the new international crime of genocide, set out in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.[28]

The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union also proclaims "the prohibition of eugenic practices, in particular those aiming at selection of persons".[29]

The sequencing and mapping of the human genome and its medical implications has caused some, such as UC Berkeley sociologist Troy Duster, to claim that modern genetics is a back door to eugenics.[30] This view is shared by White House Assistant Director for Forensic Sciences, Tania Simoncelli, who claimed in a 2003 publication by the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College, that advances in preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) are moving society to a "new era of eugenics", and unlike the Nazi eugenics, modern eugenics is consumer driven and market based, "where children are increasingly regarded as made-to-order consumer products."[31] In a 2006 newspaper article, Richard Dawkins said that discussion was inhibited by the shadow of Nazi misuse, to the extent that some scientists would not admit that breeding humans for abilities was at all possible, but in his view this was not physically different from breeding domestic animals for traits such as speed or herding skill. He felt that enough time had elapsed to at least ask just what the ethical differences were between breeding for ability versus training athletes or forcing children to take music lessons, though he could think of persuasive reasons to draw the distinction.[32] Some such as Nathaniel C. Comfort from Johns Hopkins University, claim that the change from state led reproductive-genetic decision-making to individual choice has moderated the worst abuses of eugenics by transferring the decision-making from the state to the patient and their family.[33] Dr. Comfort suggest that “[t]he eugenic impulse drives us to eliminate disease, live longer and healthier, with greater intelligence, and a better adjustment to the conditions of society; and the health benefits, the intellectual thrill and the profits of genetic biomedicine are too great for us to do otherwise." [34] Others, such as bio-ethicist Stephen Wilkinson of Keele University and Honorary Research Fellow Eve Garrard at the University of Manchester, claim that some aspects of modern genetics can be classified as eugenics, but this classification does not inherently make modern genetics immoral. In a co-authored publication by Keele University, they stated that “[e]ugenics doesn’t seem always to be immoral, and so the fact that PGD, and other forms of selective reproduction, might sometimes technically be eugenic, isn’t sufficient to show that they’re wrong.” [35]

Meanings and types

The modern field and term were first formulated by Francis Galton in 1883,[36] drawing on the recent work of his half-cousin Charles Darwin.[37][38] Galton published his observations and conclusions in his book, Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development.

The origins of the concept began with certain interpretations of Mendelian inheritance, and the theories of August Weismann.[39] The word eugenics is derived from the Greek word eu ("good" or "well") and the suffix -genēs ("born"), and was coined by Galton in 1883 to replace the word "stirpiculture", which he had used previously but which had come to be mocked due to its perceived sexual overtones.[40] Galton defined eugenics as "the study of all agencies under human control which can improve or impair the racial quality of future generations".[41]

Eugenics has, from the very beginning, meant many different things. Historically, the term has referred to everything from prenatal care for mothers to forced sterilization and euthanasia. To population geneticists, the term has included the avoidance of inbreeding without altering allele frequencies; for example, J. B. S. Haldane wrote that "the motor bus, by breaking up inbred village communities, was a powerful eugenic agent".[42] Debate as to what exactly counts as eugenics has continued to the present day.[43] Some types of eugenics deal only with perceived beneficial or detrimental genetic traits. These types sometimes called "pseudo-eugenics" by proponents of strict eugenics.

The term eugenics is often used to refer to movements and social policies influential during the early 20th century. In a historical and broader sense, eugenics can also be a study of "improving human genetic qualities". It is sometimes broadly applied to describe any human action whose goal is to improve the gene pool. Some forms of infanticide in ancient societies, present-day reprogenetics, preemptive abortions and designer babies have been (sometimes controversially) referred to as eugenic. Because of its normative goals and historical association with scientific racism, as well as the development of the science of genetics, the western scientific community has mostly disassociated itself from the term "eugenics", although one can find advocates of what is now known as liberal eugenics. Despite its ongoing criticism in the United States, several regions globally practice different forms of eugenics.

Eugenicists advocate specific policies that (if successful) they believe will lead to a perceived improvement of the human gene pool. Since defining what improvements are desired or beneficial is perceived by many as a cultural choice rather than a matter that can be determined objectively (e.g. by empirical, scientific inquiry), eugenics has often been deemed a pseudoscience.[44] The most disputed aspect of eugenics has been the definition of "improvement" of the human gene pool, such as what is a beneficial characteristic and what is a defect. This aspect of eugenics has historically been tainted with scientific racism.

Early eugenicists were mostly concerned with perceived intelligence factors that often correlated strongly with social class. Some of these early eugenicists include Karl Pearson and Walter Weldon, who worked on this at the University College, London.[6] Many eugenicists took inspiration from the selective breeding of animals (where purebreds are often striven for) as their analogy for improving human society. The mixing of races (or miscegenation) was usually considered as something to be avoided in the name of racial purity. At the time this concept appeared to have some scientific support, and it remained a contentious issue until the advanced development of genetics led to a scientific consensus that the division of the human species into unequal races is unjustifiable.

Eugenics also had a place in medicine. In his lecture "Darwinism, Medical Progress and Eugenics", Karl Pearson said that everything concerning eugenics fell into the field of medicine. He basically placed the two words as equivalents. He was supported in part by the fact that Francis Galton, the father of eugenics, also had medical training.[45] Eugenics has also been concerned with the elimination of hereditary diseases such as hemophilia and Huntington's disease. However, there are several problems with labeling certain factors as genetic defects. In many cases there is no scientific consensus on what constitutes a genetic defect. It is often argued that this is more a matter of social or individual choice. What appears to be a genetic defect in one context or environment may not be so in another. This can be the case for genes with a heterozygote advantage, such as sickle-cell disease or Tay-Sachs disease, which in their heterozygote form may offer an advantage against, respectively, malaria and tuberculosis. Although some birth defects are uniformly lethal, disabled persons can succeed in life. Many of the conditions early eugenicists identified as inheritable (pellagra is one such example) are currently considered to be at least partially, if not wholly, attributed to environmental conditions. Similar concerns have been raised when a prenatal diagnosis of a congenital disorder leads to abortion (see also preimplantation genetic diagnosis).

Eugenic policies have been conceptually divided into two categories. Positive eugenics is aimed at encouraging reproduction among the genetically advantaged,for example the reproduction of the intelligent, the healthy, and the successful[46] Possible approaches include financial and political stimuli, targeted demographic analyses, in vitro fertilization, egg transplants, and cloning.[47] Negative eugenics aimed to eliminate, through sterilization or segregation, those deemed physically, mentally, or morally "undesirable".[46] This includes abortions, sterilization, and other methods of family planning.[47] Both positive and negative eugenics can be coercive. Abortion for fit women was illegal in Nazi Germany .[48]

Implementation methods

There are three main ways by which the methods of eugenics can be applied.:

  • Authoritarian eugenics, in which the government mandates a eugenics program.
  • Promotional voluntary eugenics, in which eugenics is voluntarily practiced and promoted to the general population, but not officially mandated. This is a form of non-state enforced eugenics, using a liberal or democratic approach, which was mostly seen in the 1900s.[49]
  • Private eugenics, which is practiced voluntarily by individuals and groups, but not promoted to the general population.


Research has suggested that in the modern world, the relationship between fertility and intelligence is such that those with higher intelligence have fewer children, one possible reason being more unintended pregnancies for those with lower intelligence. Several researchers have argued that the average genotypic intelligence of the United States and the world are declining which is a dysgenic effect. This has been masked by the Flynn effect for phenotypic intelligence. The Flynn effect may have ended in some developed nations, causing some to argue that phenotypic intelligence will or has started to decline.[50][51][52]

Similarly, Richard Lynn argued that genetic health (due to modern health care) and genetic conscientiousness (criminals have more children than non-criminals) are declining in the modern world. This has caused some, like Lynn, to argue for voluntary eugenics.[53] Richard Lynn and John Harvey suggest that designer babies may have an important eugenic effect in the future. Initially, this may be limited to wealthy couples, who may possibly travel abroad for the procedure if prohibited in their own country, and then gradually spread to increasingly larger groups. Alternatively, authoritarian states may decide to impose measures such as a licensing requirement for having a child, which would only be given to persons of a certain minimum intelligence. The Chinese one-child policy is an example of how fertility can be regulated by authoritarian means.[51]


Doubts on traits triggered by inheritance

The first major challenge to conventional eugenics based upon genetic inheritance was made in 1915 by Thomas Hunt Morgan, who demonstrated the event of genetic mutation occurring outside of inheritance involving the discovery of the hatching of a fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) with white eyes from a family red-eyes.[54] Morgan claimed that this demonstrated that major genetic changes occurred outside of inheritance and that the concept of eugenics based upon genetic inheritance was, to some extent, not completely scientifically accurate.[54] Additionally, Morgan criticized the view that subjective traits, such as intelligence and criminality, were caused by heredity because he believed definitions of these traits varied and accurate work in genetics could only be done when the traits being studied were accurately defined.[55] In spite of Morgan's public rejection of eugenics much of his genetic research was absorbed by eugenicist.[56][57]

Diseases vs. traits

While the science of genetics has increasingly provided means by which certain characteristics and conditions can be identified and understood, given the complexity of human genetics, culture, and psychology there is at this point no agreed objective means of determining which traits might be ultimately desirable or undesirable. Some diseases such as sickle-cell disease and cystic fibrosis respectively confer immunity to malaria and resistance to cholera when a single copy of the recessive allele is contained within the genotype of the individual. Reducing the instance of sickle-cell disease in Africa where malaria is a common and deadly disease could indeed have extremely negative net consequences. On the other hand, genetic diseases like haemochromatosis can increase susceptibility to illness, cause physical deformities, and other dysfunctions, which provides some incentive for people to re-consider some elements of eugenics.


A common criticism of eugenics is that "it inevitably leads to measures that are unethical".[25] A hypothetical scenario posits that if one racial minority group is perceived on average less intelligent than the racial majority group, then it is more likely that the racial minority group will be submitted to a eugenics program rather than the least intelligent members of the whole population. H. L. Kaye wrote of "the obvious truth that eugenics has been discredited by Hitler's crimes".[58] R. L. Hayman argued "the eugenics movement is an anachronism, its political implications exposed by the Holocaust".[59]

Steven Pinker has stated that it is "a conventional wisdom among left-leaning academics that genes imply genocide". He has responded to this "conventional wisdom" by comparing the history of Marxism, which had the opposite position on genes to that of Nazism:
But the 20th century suffered "two" ideologies that led to genocides. The other one, Marxism, had no use for race, didn't believe in genes and denied that human nature was a meaningful concept. Clearly, it's not an emphasis on genes or evolution that is dangerous. It's the desire to remake humanity by coercive means (eugenics or social engineering) and the belief that humanity advances through a struggle in which superior groups (race or classes) triumph over inferior ones.[60]

Genetic diversity

Eugenic policies could also lead to loss of genetic diversity, in which case a culturally accepted "improvement" of the gene pool could very likely, as evidenced in numerous instances in isolated island populations (e.g. the Dodo, Raphus cucullatus, of Mauritius) result in extinction due to increased vulnerability to disease, reduced ability to adapt to environmental change and other factors both known and unknown. A long-term species-wide eugenics plan might lead to a scenario similar to this because the elimination of traits deemed undesirable would reduce genetic diversity by definition.[61]

Proponents of eugenics argue that in any one generation any realistic program should make only minor changes in a fraction of the gene pool, giving plenty of time to reverse direction if unintended consequences emerge, reducing the likelihood of the elimination of desirable genes. Such people also argue that any appreciable reduction in diversity is so far in the future that little concern is needed for now.[62] The possible reduction of autism rates through selection against the genetic predisposition to autism is a significant political issue in the autism rights movement, which claims autism is a form of neurodiversity. Many advocates of Down syndrome rights also consider Down syndrome a form of neurodiversity.

Heterozygous recessive traits

In some instances efforts to eradicate certain single-gene mutations would be nearly impossible. In the event the condition in question was a heterozygous recessive trait, the problem is that by eliminating the visible unwanted trait, there still may be many carriers for the genes without, or with fewer, phenotypic effects due to that gene. With genetic testing it may be possible to detect all of the heterozygous recessive traits. Under normal circumstances it is only possible to eliminate a dominant allele from the gene pool. Recessive traits can be severely reduced, but never eliminated unless the complete genetic makeup of all members of the pool was known, as aforementioned. As only very few undesirable traits, such as Huntington's disease, are dominant, one, from certain perspectives, may argue that the practicality of "eliminating" traits is quite low.

There are examples of eugenic acts that managed to lower the prevalence of recessive diseases, although not influencing the prevalence of heterozygote carriers of those diseases. The elevated prevalence of certain genetically transmitted diseases among the Ashkenazi Jewish population (Tay–Sachs, cystic fibrosis, Canavan's disease, and Gaucher's disease), has been decreased in current populations by the application of genetic screening.[63]

Supporters and critics

At its peak of popularity, eugenics was supported by a wide variety of prominent people, including Winston Churchill,[64] Margaret Sanger,[65][66] Marie Stopes, H. G. Wells, Norman Haire, Havelock Ellis, Theodore Roosevelt, George Bernard Shaw, John Maynard Keynes, John Harvey Kellogg, Linus Pauling[67] and Sidney Webb.[68][69][70] Its most infamous proponent and practitioner was, however, Adolf Hitler, who praised and incorporated eugenic ideas in Mein Kampf and emulated Eugenic legislation for the sterilization of "defectives" that had been pioneered in the United States.[71]

The American sociologist Lester Frank Ward,[72] the English writer G. K. Chesterton, and the German-American anthropologist Franz Boas[73] were all early critics of the philosophy of eugenics. Ward's 1913 article "Eugenics, Euthenics, and Eudemics", Chesterton's 1917 book Eugenics and Other Evils and Boas' 1916 article "Eugenics" (in Scientific Monthly magazine) were all harshly critical of the rapidly growing movement.

Among institutions, the Catholic Church was an early opponent of state-enforced eugenics.[74] In his 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii, Pope Pius XI explicitly condemned eugenics laws: "Public magistrates have no direct power over the bodies of their subjects; therefore, where no crime has taken place and there is no cause present for grave punishment, they can never directly harm, or tamper with the integrity of the body, either for the reasons of eugenics or for any other reason."[75]

In popular media

  • Galton and many others claimed that the less intelligent were more likely to procreate than the more intelligent. This is the basis of the movie Idiocracy, in which five hundred years in the future (2505) the dysgenic pressure has resulted in a uniformly stupid human society. The movie borrowed some of its plot from the 1951 science-fiction story The Marching Morons.
  • In Star Trek, the Eugenics Wars were a series of conflicts fought on Earth between 1993 and 1996. The wars were the result of a scientific attempt to improve the human race through selective breeding and genetic engineering, and devastated parts of Earth, nearly plunging the planet into a new Dark Age. (TOS: "Space Seed"; ENT: "Borderland")
  • In the 1988 movie Twins, a secret experiment was carried out at a genetics laboratory to produce the perfect human, using sperm donated by six different fathers. The experiment resulted in the birth of twins, named Julius and Vincent Benedict. While successful, the genetics program was considered a failure and shut down because one of the twins inherited the "desirable traits", while the other inherited the "genetic trash". The mother was told that her child died at birth, and the twins were raised separately from each other.
  • In the dystopian movie Gattaca, the application of artificial selection is misused by employers, insurance companies, and even schools to screen out "in-valids". The protagonist, an "in-valid", attempts to reach his dream of being an astronaut.
  • In Frank Herbert's "Dune," the Bene Gesserit breeding program (designed to produce a messiah) is eugenics on a massive scale, calculating the exact genetic pairings needed to produce a messiah over many generations. This was done without artificial insemination and, in some cases, without the knowledge of the participants.

See also


  1. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  2. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  3. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  4. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
  5. See the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.


Histories of eugenics (academic accounts)
Histories of hereditarian thought
Criticisms of eugenics
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