Eugenics, literally meaning ‘well’, was instigated in the United Kingdom in the 1880s under the influence of Francis Galton’s collected statistical data and Charles Darwin’s theories of natural selection. However, it flourished in the US early 20th century fuelled by partly then-contemporary ideas on individualism, competitive capitalism, and the survival of the fittest.

Between the 1890s and 1910s was a period of widespread social activism and political reform across the United States of America. The main objectives of the activists and reformists were to address problems caused by industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and political corruption.

Activists and reformists joined efforts to reform local government, public education, finance, industry, churches, and many other areas. Progressives transformed, professionalized, and made the social sciences, history, economics, and political science more “scientific”. A remarkable amount of these efforts worked successfully but some of them failed with destructive consequences for tens of thousands of Americans.

Depiction of Gene Mutation
Depiction of Gene Mutation

Eugenics Movement

Eugenics, literally meaning ‘well’, was instigated in the United Kingdom in the 1880s under the influence of Francis Galton’s collected statistical data and Charles Darwin’s theories of natural selection. However, it flourished in the US early 20th century fuelled by partly then-contemporary ideas on individualism, competitive capitalism, and the survival of the fittest.  Eugenicists believed that state control and intervention into the nation’s breeding could reduce the suffering of Americans by “breeding out” disease, disabilities, and so-called undesirable characteristics through forced sterilization.

As the Eugenics movement gained support legal backing of the US Supreme,  California, which had subjected more people to forceful sterilization than all other U.S. states combined, began producing literature promoting eugenics and sterilization and sending it overseas to German scientists and medical professionals. The forced sterilization program engineered by the Nazis was partly inspired by California’s.

Depiction of DNA Strings
Depiction of DNA Strings

Initial Success of Eugenics Movement

Based on the genetic knowledge available in the early 1900s and its interpretation, changing the American gene pool by scientific methods seemed reasonable. After all, it was the application of science to society, there was no room for being sentimental. What made the Eugenics movement convincing were:

  • Demonstration of gene inheritance in plants allowed for the prediction of observable characteristics of the offspring once the genetics of parents are identified.
  • Animal breeders had been applying selective mating to successfully improve their livestock for centuries. Couldn’t these same principles be applied to improve the human population?
  • Demonstration of unwanted traits running in some families.
Blue Panoramic Butterfly
A different color butterfly among a Large group of blue morpho butterflies.

Flaws of the Eugenics Movement

Despite its popularity, the eugenics movement was doomed from the start because most of the traits studied by eugenicists had a little, if any, genetic basis. Eugenicists argued that by sterilizing people who carried genes for defective mental or personality traits, problems such as:

Poverty
Alcoholism and drug use
Tuberculoses
Epilepsy
Mental retardation
Huntington’s disease
Mental disorders
Criminality

Among those characteristics targeted for elimination from the American population were such complex that a vague catchall term used to describe varying degrees of mental retardation and learning disabilities. The possibility that environmental factors (such as poor housing, poor nutrition, and inadequate education) might influence the development of these traits was dismissed.

Science To Blame?

The conclusions the eugenicists reached based on natural selection have not been and are still not supported by science. Darwin with the theory of evolution explains why we have millions of species on earth and why they seem to be so adapted to their habitats. The mechanics that Darwin called “natural selection” and some others as “survival of the fittest” has never been meant to be a recipe to “improve” the human race.

Science is the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world, science is the pursuit of truth. What one does with the truth is one’s own responsibility.

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