The word eugenics derives from the Greek word eu (good or well) and the suffix -genÄ“s (born), and was coined by Sir Francis Galton in 1883, who defined it as “the study of all agencies under human control which can improve or impair the racial quality of future generations”. Historically, the term has referred to everything from prenatal care for mothers to forced sterilization and euthanasia. Some types of eugenics deal only with perceived beneficial and/or detrimental genetic traits. These are sometimes called “pseudo-eugenics’ by proponents of strict eugenics. The eugenics movement arose in the 20th century as two wings of a common philosophy of human worth. Francis Galton, who coined the term eugenics in 1883, perceived it as a moral philosophy to be used in improving humanity by encouraging the ablest and healthiest people to have more children. The Galtonian ideal of eugenics is usually termed positive eugenics. Negative eugenics, on the other hand, advocated culling the least able from the breeding population to preserve humanity’s fitness. The eugenics movements in the United States, Germany, and Scandinavia favoured the negative approach.
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Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler was well known for eugenics programs which attempted to maintain a “pure” German race through a series of programs that ran under the banner of racial hygiene. Among other activities, the Nazis performed extensive experimentation on live human beings to test their genetic theories, ranging from simple measurement of physical characteristics to the experiments carried out by Josef Mengele for Otmar von Verschuer on twins in the concentration camps. During the 1930s and 1940s, the Nazi regime forcibly sterilized hundreds of thousands of people whom they viewed as mentally and physically unfit, an estimated 400,000 between 1934 and 1937. The scale of the Nazi program prompted one American eugenics advocate to seek an expansion of their program, with one complaining that “the Germans are beating us at our own game”.(Lynn, 2001)
The Nazis went further, however, killing tens of thousands of the institutionalized disabled through compulsory “euthanasia” programs such as Aktion T4. The methods of murder developed in the euthanasia policy led directly to their widespread use in concentration camps and extermination camps, especially the use of carbon monoxide followed by hydrogen cyanide in Zyklon B( Carlson, 2001). They also implemented a number of positive eugenics policies, giving awards to Aryan women who had large numbers of children and encouraged a service in which “racially pure” single women could deliver illegitimate children. Allegations that such women were also impregnated by SS officers in the Lebensborn were not proven at the Nuremberg trials, but new evidence (and the testimony of Lebensborn children) has established more details about Lebensborn practices. Also, “racially valuable” children from occupied countries were forcibly removed from their parents and adopted by German people. Many of their concerns for eugenics and racial hygiene were also explicitly present in their systematic killing of millions of “undesirable” people, especially Jews and Gypsies, in the Holocaust. The scope and coercion involved in the German eugenics programs along with a strong use of the rhetoric of eugenics and so-called “racial science” throughout the regime created an indelible cultural association between eugenics and the Third Reich in the post-war years. Two scholars, John Glad and Seymour W. Itzkoff of Smith College, have questioned the relation between eugenics and the Holocaust. They argue that, contrary to popular beliefs Hitler did not regard the Jews as intellectually inferior and did not send them to the concentration camps on these grounds. They argue that Hitler had different reasons for his genocidal policies toward the Jews. Seymour W. Itzkoff writes that the Holocaust was “a vast dysgenic program to rid Europe of highly intelligent challengers to the existing Christian domination by a numerically and politically minuscule minority”. Therefore, according to Itzkoff, “the Holocaust was the very antithesis of eugenic practice.” (Itzkoff, 1992).
Beyond the Nazi eugenics movement, America was also very influenced by this theory. The notion of segregating people considered unfit to reproduce dates back to antiquity. For example, the Old Testament describes the Amalekites – a supposedly depraved group that God condemned to death. Concerns about environmental influences that might damage heredity – leading to ill health, early death, insanity, and defective offspring – were formalized in the early 1700s as degeneracy theory. Degeneracy theory maintained a strong scientific following until late in the 19th century. Masturbation, then called onanism, was presented in medical schools as the first biological theory of the cause of degeneracy. Fear of degeneracy through masturbation led Harry Clay Sharp, a prison physician in Jeffersonville, Indiana, to carry out vasectomies on prisoners beginning in 1899. The advocacy of Sharp and his medical colleagues, culminated in an Indiana law mandating compulsory sterilization of “degenerates.” Enacted in 1907, this was the first eugenic sterilization law in the United States. (eugenicsarchive.org, retrieved 1 Nov, 2010)
By the mid-19th century most scientists believed bad environments caused degenerate heredity. Benedict Morel’s work extended the causes of degeneracy to some legitimate agents – including poisoning by mercury, ergot, and other toxic substances in the environment. The sociologist Richard Dugdale believed that good environments could transform degenerates into worthy citizens within three generations. This position was a backdrop to his very influential study on The Jukes (1877), a degenerate family of paupers and petty criminals in Ulster County, New York. The inheritance of acquired (environmental) characters was challenged in the 1880s by August Weismann, whose theory of the germ plasma convinced most scientists that changes in body tissue (the soma) had little or no effect on reproductive tissue (the germ plasma). At the beginning of the 20th century, Weismann’s views were absorbed by degeneracy theorists who embraced negative eugenics as their favoured model. (Science of Eugenics, University of Florida, retrieved 1 Nov, 2010)
Adherents of the new field of genetics were ambivalent about eugenics. Most basic scientists – including William Bateson in Great Britain, and Thomas Hunt Morgan in the United States – shunned eugenics as vulgar and an unproductive field for research. However, Bateson’s and Morgan’s contributions to basic genetics were quickly absorbed by eugenicists, who took interest in Mendelian analysis of pedigrees of humans, plants, and animals. Many eugenicists had some type of agricultural background. Charles Davenport and Harry Laughlin, who together ran the Eugenics Record Office, were introduced through their shared interest in chicken breeding. Both also were active in Eugenics Section of the American Breeder’s Association (ABA). Davenport’s book, Eugenics: The Science of Human Improvement through Better Breeding, had a distinct agricultural flavour, and his affiliation with the ABA was included under his name on the title page. Agricultural genetics also provided the favoured model for negative eugenics: human populations, like agricultural breeds and varieties, had to be culled of their least productive members, with only the healthiest specimens used for breeding. . (Science of Eugenics, University of Florida, retrieved 1 Nov, 2010)
Evolutionary models of natural selection and dysgenic (bad) hereditary practices in society also contributed to eugenic theory. For example, there was fear that highly intelligent people would have smaller families (about 2 children), while the allegedly degenerate elements of society were having larger families of four to eight children. Public welfare might also play a role in allowing less fit people to survive and reproduce, further upsetting the natural selection of fitter people.
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Medicine also put its stamp on eugenics. Physicians like Anton Ochsner and Harry Sharp were convinced that social failure was a medical problem. Italian criminologist and physician Cesare Lombroso popularized the image of an innate criminal type that was thought to be a reversion or atavism of a bestial ancestor of humanity. When medical means failed to help the psychotic, the retarded, the pauper, and the vagrant, eugenicists shifted to preventive medicine. The German physician-legislator Rudolph Virchow advocated programs to deal with disease prevention on a large scale. Virchow’s public health movement was fused with eugenics to form the racial hygiene movement in Germany – and came to America through physicians he trained. (Lynn, 2001)
Eugenicists argued that “defectives” should be prevented from breeding, through custody in asylums or compulsory sterilization. Most doctors probably felt that sterilization was a more humane way of dealing with people who could not help themselves. Vasectomy and tubal ligation were favoured methods, because they did not alter the physiological and psychological contribution of the reproductive organs. Sterilization allowed the convicted criminal or mental patient to participate in society, rather than being institutionalized at public expense. Sterilization was not viewed as a punishment because these doctors believed (erroneously) that the social failure of “unfit” people was due to irreversibly degenerate germ plasma.
The movement while stamped out in usage among the human race however continues today as a science we call selective breeding. Used in both animals and plants to create new breed of dogs, or incest resistant plants. In dealing with animals and plants we no longer have the ethical or moral consideration associated with Eugenics.
The Eugenics movement has evolved since its inception in the mid 19th century. Based on the evolution it can be estimated that the nature of scientific knowledge evolves with the changing times. As the society progresses and the racial and religious barriers are torn down the idea of Eugenics is less accepted. Theories that are formulated in the past are not necessarily valid in today’s modern society.
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