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  • Amidala Barta-Zilles & Eva Li

Contemporary Eugenics

Amidala - What are Eugenics?

Eugenics- derived from the Greek prefix “eu,” meaning good/well, and “genics” meaning born, has a storied history across the world, stemming from the Progressive Era. So, what does it mean?

Well, eugenics is not “good” or well,” it is a study of science that falsely links social behavior to heredity. It was born as an attempt to improve the human species by using Mendelian genetics to solve social problems like crime and prostitution. While perhaps seeming harmless at outset, the applications of eugenics becomes much more sinister, as does eugenics’ relationship with scientific racism.

Deeming members of society unfit for breeding, so-called proponents of science would sterilize people involuntarily as well as segregate and socially exclude them. This centered primarily on immigrants and the desire for Europeans to remain pure by conserving a “superior” gene pool. This dangerous idea immeasurably impacted society, and its effects continue to be prevalent today.

Amidala - Eugenics in History, 1880-1950 

In 1883, Sir Frances Galton proposed a theoretical framework of eugenics, its first appearance on the scientific scene. Galton was a British polymath and naturalist with experience in meteorology, psychology, and anthropometrics, and happened to be Charles Darwin’s first cousin. The concept of eugenics was formally introduced by his book Inquiries into the Human Faculty and Its Development, qualifying it as a way to ‘give to the more suitable races … a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable.” In 1904, Galton provided a secondary, concise definition of eugenics in the American Journal of Sociology as “the science concerned with enhancing the innate qualities of a race and optimizing their development.” Additionally, Galton is credited with coining the phrase “nature versus nurture.” 

As a result of Galton’s book, eugenics gained significant global traction. One country in particular where it gained traction was Germany, eugenics being associated with the Nazi regime and the incredibly harmful notion of Aryan supremacy, leading to the Holocaust. German biologist Alfred Plötz coined the term “racial hygiene,” emphasizing Nordic and Aryan supremacy. Based on these notions, The Society for Racial Hygiene was formed in 1905, becoming the earliest eugenics-based organization in the world. Similar organizations followed, notably the American Breeders Association and their committee on eugenics. 

Talk soon became action: in 1907, Indiana passed the first sterilization law, with other states following closely behind. Indiana’s law mandated forced sterilization of people who were labeled “idiots” or “imbeciles” in state institutions, in addition to certain classes of criminals. This law was incredibly damaging, violating the rights of countless people. The generality of the label allowed for a disturbing large number of people to be forcibly sterilized, amounting to a staggering 64,000 individuals in the US alone. This included people who identified as LGBTQ+, women considered “feebleminded” or “promiscuous,” and those with disabilities, to name a few. A specific example of forced sterilization is the Buck v. Bell County decision regarding Carrie Buck, an 18-year-old girl from Virginia who was made to be forcibly sterilized. Her mother had a history of prostitution, and Carrie herself birthed a child when she was raped by her foster parents’ nephew. The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court, and the majority opinion, quoted by Justice Oliver Wendel was, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Similar sentiments continued across the US and the world at large - committees grew, movements gained reputability, and soon, the ideology infiltrated nearly all aspects of life. In Kansas circa 1920, the first Fitter Family Contest was held, a continuation of Better Baby Contests. Judges would grade families and children specifically on their mental capacity and their physical appearance, supposedly determining their “eugenical worth.” Participating families submitted a record of family traits, and winning families were nearly always White, reflecting the ideals of the eugenics movement of the US. 

During World War II, eugenics reached an all-time height in Nazi Germany and subsequently fell out of favor in the US. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Americans learned of how Nazis used eugenics to justify their forced sterilization, persecution, and torturing of Jewish people. The knowledge of these horrific manifestations partly based upon US policies shook America, and eugenics became increasingly unpopular. 

After the War, eugenics adapted and changed shape. While many American scientists and academics distanced themselves from eugenics in association with Germany, others took up similar ideas under a new name. Eugenics continues to manifest itself in the systemic ableism, racism, homophobia, anti-semitism, and misogyny of today, and will forever leave a stain on modern history. 

Eva L - Contemporary Eugenics

As mentioned earlier, the concept of eugenics dates back to early Western philosophy, with the advocation of selective breeding and to “enhance'' human traits. Contemporary eugenics began in the late 19th century, where scientists proposed that human abilities could be improved and selected for through controlled reproduction. The eugenic movement, split into two: "positive" and "negative" eugenics, one promoting desirable qualities and one supporting the eradication of unfavorable traits in society. With all the history that precedes a new era of Eugenics, the baselines of morality and drive remain similar to that of the 19th century, and actively highlight the inequality and adversities that historical eugenics have carried on. 

As we progress and precede an era where technology shapes nearly every aspect of mankind, the search for artificial general intelligence emerges as one of the most ambitious and controversial topics of today. The drive to develop artificial intelligence and advance in technological eugenics has been found to be rooted in a set of ideologies that some scientists identify as the second wave of eugenics. The application of these technological advancements are equally portrayed in modern day society and standards. 

Modern eugenics advocates for producing more of the “best” children through scientific means, and aims to create superior individuals by eliminating those with undesirable traits. This is shown in practices like abortion, where fetuses with genetic defects are screened prenatally and aborted. Societal standards have also shifted through these types of practices, eugenics can condition parental love and acceptance based on the child's genetic traits. Despite its scientific advancements, modern eugenics symbolizes the same ideals of superiority as the old eugenics movement.

Eva L - Conclusion

In conclusion, eugenics has an unpleasant history characterized by serious misconduct and violations of human rights, despite its apparently innocent roots in the effort to improve human characteristics. The theory was strongly linked to scientific racism and led to some of the most horrific crimes against humanity, highlighted by the Holocaust's tragedies. To avoid the repetition of previous mistakes, it is important to fully understand and recognize the complete consequences of eugenics to guarantee that future scientific pursuits are directed by the values of equity, respect, and value for humanity.

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