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Literature Review: Eugenics

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    Literature Review: Eugenics

    With the advent of cloning and genetic engineering, biologists dealt with issues with regards to the ethics of their work when working with human beings. As they already devised ways in which selective breeding are used in plants and animals to improve the chance of survival of their species, they did not throw away the idea of applying the same process of improving humans and eliminate undesirable characteristics in them. British biologist Francis Galton (1822–1911) coined the word “eugenics” in 1883, which in Greek literally meant “good in birth”. Galton believed that marital unions between people of what he regarded as “excellent genetic stock” could be expected to produce offspring with the same or similar qualities (Last, 2007). However, the eugenics movement was frowned upon by many people because it was used by the Nazi regime in Germany, as it pushed improve to human race by eliminating the people they despised – the Jews. Thus, eugenics and racism are linked by the fact that every person will have their own rights and it is prone to be abused by people who want to dominate the weak.

    As a cousin of Charles Darwin who introduced to the world the theory of evolution, Galton incorporated the Darwin’s idea of survival of the fittest into his notion of eugenics. The goal of eugenics was the improvement of the human species through the careful selection of parents. Galton identified two primary processes to achieve this end. Positive eugenics encouraged individuals who were above average both mentally and physically to produce more offspring. Negative eugenics proposed that individuals who were below average should have fewer or no children. This second proposal could be achieved through institutional segregation, marriage restrictions, or sterilization (Berson & Cruz 300). His exact words for these processes were eugenics’ first objective is “to check the birth-rate of the unfit … the second object is the improvement of the race by furthering the productivity of the fit.” Galton used the word race in its nineteenth-century sense to designate the population of the nation state and not in the broader twentieth-century sense. Galton seems to have believed that the reason why it would be desirable to improve the genetic quality of a nation’s population is that this determines the quality of its civilization and the economic and military strength of the nation. Lynn (2004) writes that:

    In his book Hereditary Genius (1869), Galton proposed that the population of classical Athens had the highest intelligence of any human population and that this was responsible for the high level of civilization. He also contended that when the intelligence and the moral character of a society deteriorate through dysgenic fertility, the quality of its civilization declines. He cited the decline of Spain in the seventeenth century as an instance in which the deterioration of intelligence, which he attributed to the extensive celibate priesthood, had been responsible for national decline in the quality of civilization and of economic and military power…. [In this case,] Eugenics, in Galton’s view, is primarily concerned with promoting the good of the population, not that of the individual. This idea that the well-being of the population is more important than that of individuals fell increasingly into disfavor in the second half of the twentieth century and is one of the major reasons that eugenics became almost universally rejected (Lynn 48).

    Actually, Galton and his cohorts were well intentioned and progressive in their idea of suggesting eugenics because they were just concerned with bettering humanity. After all, this was during the Progressive Era, where it was characterized as a time of hope and reform. Gerald Grob (1991) pointed out that eugenics advocates were persuaded that they were acting on behalf of a noble cause that would benefit humanity. They believed that medical and scientific knowledge, combined with a new technology, had reached a point in time in which the eradication of inherited defects was possible.

    With good intentions in mind, eugenics was welcomed in the United States. As Rosen (2004) wrote:

    Beginning in the early years of the twentieth century and spanning the decades of the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s, eugenicists in the United States called for programs to control human reproduction. They urged legislatures to pass laws to segregate the so-called feebleminded into state colonies, where they would live out their lives in celibacy; they supported compulsory state sterilization laws aimed at men and women whose “germplasm” threatened the eugenic vitality of the nation; they led the drive to restrict immigration from countries whose citizens might pollute the American melting pot. Their science filtered into popular culture through eugenics advice books and child-rearing manuals, eugenics novels, plays, and films, and scores of magazine and newspaper articles (Rosen 6).

    Yet, with the growing presence and perceived virility of African Americans, immigrants in the early 1900s, and the working class—as well as the increasing visibility of working-class “women adrift, this threatened white middle-class male authority in both power and numbers, proponents of eugenics in the United States targeted a factor in middle-class decline: the limited fecundity of this new woman”. As Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed in the 1900s, white middle-class womanhood had willfully abandoned its fertility. The white birthrate was rapidly declining: whereas the average American family of 1840 had produced six children that of 1900 generated only three children. With this situation they perceived, Roosevelt propelled sociologist Edward Ross’s term race suicide into the public arena. In a 1901 address, “The Causes of Race Superiority,” Ross warned that the advancement and progress of the “superior race” could lead to its demise; manhood had become overcivilized, decadent, and impotent. But Roosevelt, significantly, placed the blame on white womanhood. Women of “good stock” who chose not to have children, he declared, were “race criminals” (Paul 102).

    This brought about the shocking turnout the eugenics movement in 1902, when an Indiana physician named Dr. Harry Sharp urged passage of mandatory sterilization laws that would require all men in prisons, reformatories, and paupers’ houses to be sterilized. Before any such law was passed permitting it, he had involuntarily sterilized more than five hundred men. Following Dr. Sharp’s lead, in 1907 Indiana became the first state to pass a eugenics-based sterilization law. By 1912, eight states had sterilization laws. Eventually nearly thirty states followed suit (Paul 81-82).

    Upon realizing the iniquities of eugenics, Nobel Prize winning biologist Hermann Joseph Muller attacked eugenics in his paper “The Dominance of Politics over Eugenics” during the Third International Congress of Eugenics in August 1932. Muller criticized the whole eugenics movement for stressing imbecility and a few exotic and rare defects for its major concern. Muller argued that the eugenic issues are more complex. “An individual’s total genetic worth is a resultant of manifold characteristics, weighted according to their relative importance, positively or negatively, for society. It is a continuous function of all of these combined, so that there is no hard and fast line between the fit and the unfit, based on one or a few particular genes”. He criticized capitalist society for using economic criteria as the basis for genetic worth, such as success in business or acquiring personal wealth. This, he claimed, would lead to a reduced birth rate among those with more genetic talent (Carlson 347). Muller’s speech was supported by many biologists and encouraged them to abandon this idea after World War II.

    In the course of the rise and fall of eugenics, we can see that there are obvious problems with it. The first is that there is more at stake in creating superior human species than in creating a superior species of vegetables. Vegetables do not have rights but humans do, and these human rights are possessed by all persons because they are human. In this case, human rights do not cease to exist if an individual is “imperfect” in one or more ways. At its core, eugenics tends to cancel out the right of the less than perfect individual to existence and this type of presumptive arrogance is inherently immoral and racist. A second harmful outcome of eugenics could be that through screening programs privileged groups might act on their prejudices against, for example, Black people being linked with criminality. Since being Black is neither a crime nor a defect, it would be a grave injustice for advocates of eugenics to try to eliminate such classes of people from the human gene pool. Another possible harm of eugenics is that those who promote it do so at the expense of the harmony of the human community. This community, as we know it, is made up of people of all kinds, some more gifted than others, some more troubled than others. The solidarity and prosperity of the human community depend on cooperation and respect among all members, not on a screening policy, like eugenics, through which some members lose their right to membership based on the values and biases of those in influential positions. The biggest problem with eugenics is probably the fact that, even if the program were embraced and employed, it would not be possible to carry it out. Humans are the most complex of all the species and, even with carefully orchestrated breeding programs, individuals with physical, mental, social, or psychological limitations would still be born.

    Works Cited
    Berson, Michael J., and Barbara Cruz. “Eugenics Past and Present.” Social Education 65.5 (2001): 300.

    Carlson, Elof Axel. Unfit : A History of a Bad Idea. Woodbury, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2001

    Grob, Gerald. Introduction, in The Surgical Solution: A History of Involuntary Sterilization in the United States, ed. Phillip R. Reilly, Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

    Last, John M. Eugenics. A Dictionary of Public Health. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    Lynn, Richard. Eugenics: A Reassessment. Ed. Seymour W. Itzkoff. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001.

    Paul, Diane B. Controlling Human Heredity: 1865 to the Present. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1995.

    Rosen, Christine. Preaching Eugenics Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.


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