Eugenics1883 by Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, to refer to the study and use of selective breeding (of animals or humans) to improve a species over generations, specifically in regards to hereditary features. Within a few years, Galton had improved his definition to included the specific varieties of "positive" eugenics (encouraging the "most fit" to reproduce more often) and "negative" eugenics (discouraging or preventing the "less fit" from reproducing). A eugenicist can be vaguely construed as anyone who is an advocate of, a follower of, or a researcher for eugenics.
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Selective breeding was suggested as early as Plato, who stated or rather wished that human reproduction should be controlled by authorities. He proposed that the selection should be perfomed by a fake lottery, controlled by the government, so that the people's feelings wouldn't be hurt by awareness of selection principles. Other instances of eugenics-like programs in Ancient times include the city of Sparta's mythological practice of leaving weak babies outside of city borders to die.
However, the initial principle defined by Galton, was directly in connection with the teaching and work of Darwin, himself very influenced by Malthus. According to Darwin, the mechanisms of the natural selection are thwarted by human civilization. One of the objectives of civilization is somehow to help the underprivileged ones, therefore to be opposed to the natural selection responsible for extinction of the weakest. According to eugenicists, the loss of effectiveness could lead to an increasing number of individuals who would have normally been eliminated through natural selection processes. Eugenicists thus propose to promote actions to balance effects of natural selection mechanism loss within civilizations. This basic principle inspired numerous and very diverse philosophies, scientific or pseudo-scientific theories and social practices.
In modern usage, it more commonly refers to human selective reproduction with the intent to create children with desirable traits, especially those that best meet some ideal of racial purity ("positive" eugenics), as well as elimination of individuals carrying undesirable traits ("negative" eugenics). "Negative" eugenic policies in the past have ranged from segregation to sterilization to even extermination. "Positive" eugenic policies have been typically awards or bonuses for "fit" parents after having another child, though even relatively innocuous things like marriage counseling have had early links with eugenic ideology.
Germany under Adolf Hitler was infamous for its eugenics program, which attempted to maintain a "pure" German race. Among other acts, the Nazis performed extensive, often cruel, experimentation on live human beings to test their genetic theories. During the 1930s and 1940s the Nazi regime sterilized hundreds of thousands of people who they viewed as mentally "unfit," and killed tens of thousands of the institutionalized disabled in their compulsory euthanasia programs.
The nation that had the second largest Eugenics movement was the United States. Beginning with Connecticut in 1896, many states enacted marriage laws with eugenic criteria, prohibiting anyone who was "epileptic, imbecile or feeble-minded" from marrying, Charles B. Davenport, a prominent American biologist, assumed the role of director of a biological research station based in Cold Spring Harbour. Here he began experimenting with evolution of plants and animals. That same year, Davenport received funds from the Carnegie Institution to found the Station of Experimental Evolution. 1910 heralded the Eugenics Record Office, Davenport and Harry H. Laughlin began to promote eugenics. In years to come the ERO collected a mass of family pedigrees, which concluded that those that were unfit were from economically and socially poor backgrounds. Eugenicists such as Davenport, the psychologist Henry H. Goddard, and the conservationist Madison Grant (all well respected in their time) began to lobby for various solutions to the problem of the "unfit" (Davenport favored immigration restriction and sterilization as primary methods, Goddard favored segregation in his The Kallikak Family, Grant favored all of the above and more -- even entertaining the idea of extermination). Though we now see the methodology and research methods as being highly flawed, in their time they were seen as legitimate scientific reseach, though they did have their scientific detractors (notably Thomas Hunt Morgan).
In 1924, the Immigration Restriction Act was passed, with eugenists for the first time playing a central role in the Congressional debate, as expert advisors on the threat of "inferior stock" from Eastern and Southern Europe. This reduced the number of immigrants from abroad to fifteen percent of that of previous years, to control the proportion of "unfit" individuals entering the country. Thus, strengthening the existing laws of no race mixing to try and maintain the gene pool. Eugenic considerations also lay behind the adoption of incest laws in much of the USA.
Some states also practiced sterilization of "imbeciles" for much of the 20th century. The US Supreme Court ruled in the 1927 Buck v. Bell case that the state of Virginia could sterilize those they thought unfit. Between 1907 and 1963, the most significant era of eugenic sterilization, over 64,000 individuals were forcibly sterilized under eugenic legislation in the United States. When Nazi administrators were on trial for war-crimes in Nuremberg after World War II, they justified their mass-sterilizations (over 450,000 in less than a decade) by pointing a finger at the USA as their inspiration.
Almost all non-Catholic western nations adopted some Eugenics legislation, with the notable exception of Britain. Sweden forcibly sterilized 62,000 "unfits" as part of a eugenics program over a forty year period (see ). Similar incidents occurred in Canada, Australia, Norway, Finland, Estonia, Switzerland and Iceland for people the government declared to be mentally deficient.
Various authors, notably Stephen Jay Gould, have repeatedly asserted that restrictions on immigration passed in the United States during the 1920s (which were overhauled in 1965) were motivated by the goals of eugenics, in particular a desire to exclude "inferior" races from the national gene pool. In the early part of the twentieth century the United States and Canada began to receive far higher numbers of southern and eastern European immigrants. Influential eugenicists like Lothrop Stoddard and Harry Laughlin (who was appointed as an expert witness for the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalisation in 1920) presented arguments that these were inferior races who would pollute the national gene pool if their numbers went unrestricted. It is argued that this stirred both Canada and the United States into passing laws creating a hierarchy of nationalities, rating them from the most desirable Anglo-Saxon and Nordic peoples to the Chinese and Japanese immigrants who were almost completely banned from entering the country. However, several people — in particular Franz Samelson, Mark Snyderman, and Richard Herrnstein — have argued, based on their examination of the records of the Congressional debates over immigration policy, that in fact Congress gave virtually no consideration to these factors. Rather, they maintain, the restrictions were motivated primarily by a desire to maintain the US's cultural integrity against the heavy influx of foreigners.
Some who disagree with the idea of eugenics in general contend that eugenics legislation still had benefits; namely, that advocates such as Margaret Sanger (founder of Planned Parenthood of America) found it a useful tool to urge the legalization of contraception. In its time, eugenics was seen by many as scientific and progressive, the natural application of knowledge about breeding to the arena of human life. Before the death camps of World War II, the idea that eugenics, in an ultimate expression, could lead to genocide was not taken as a serious possibility.
Though eugenics has been almost universally reviled since the ultimate fulfillment of its slippery slope in the Holocaust, there are suspicions of whether eugenic sentiments or notions persist under other names in modern culture. Soon after World War II, many eugenicists in the United States, for example, realized that eugenics was rapidly losing popularity and created the term crypto-eugenics to describe what they thought must then be done: taking eugenics "underground." Many prominent eugenicists became highly-respected anthropologists, biologists, and geneticists in the post-war world, such as Robert Yerkes in the USA and Otmar von Verschuer in Germany. Californian eugenicist Paul Popenoe became the founder of modern marriage counseling, a career change which initially grew out of his eugenic interests (promoting "healthy marriages" between "fit" couples) but later became an honest interest independent of what initially drew him to the topic. Occasionally various opinions on race, immigration policy, poverty, crime, or mental health are labeled as being "crypto-eugenics" though it is not a very heavily used term (often labeling as "eugenics" works well enough for the purposes of the accuser).
The history of eugenics, and the concept of eugenics, have become more heavily discussed in the last ten years as knowledge about genetics has significantly advanced. Endeavors such as the Human Genome Project have again made the possibility of effective modification of the human species seem real, at least in the minds of many commentators (see, for example, Gattaca), just as Darwin's initial theory of evolution did in the 1880s, and the rediscovery of Mendel's laws did in the earliest years of the 20th century. The difference this time around is, however, that "eugenics" is used as a derogatory term -- not a favorable one.