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What are Eugenics?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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Eugenics is a social movement that involves manipulating human genetic inheritance to bring out the traits that are believed to be “best.” While the future of the human race is an issue of concern to most people, many people distance themselves from eugenics because it has some very negative connotations. This practice has been used historically as an argument for mandatory sterilization and a variety of other policies that have been targeted at the “lesser” members of the society with the goal of eliminating their genetic heritage from the gene pool.

The story of eugenics begins in the 1800s, when Francis Golton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, coined the term and started to explore the idea of consciously altering the course of human evolution. Support for eugenics grew, and at one point many leading members of the scientific community believed in the movement. Most modern scientists regard it as a form of pseudoscience, although in strict point of fact, humans could indeed be bred like animals to bring out specific desired traits.

Historically, many of the arguments used to support eugenics have indeed been pseudoscientific in nature, even if the fundamental assumption that humans could be improved through breeding was sound. Scientists who worked in the field used fallacious arguments, like the idea that dark-skinned people were naturally less intelligent than light-skinned people, or that poor people were more likely to be intellectually challenged than those with money. In essence, eugenics supported the idea that wealthy, white people should be permitted to propagate the human race, while poor people, members of some religions, people of color, and individuals with disabilities should be eliminated from the gene pool.

Eugenics ignores the profound role that environment has on human development, focusing on identifying genetic traits. Many of the traits believed to be genetic by members of the movement were later proved to be more closely related to environment, and the fact that eugenics played a role in the Holocaust further added to the stigma of this branch of scientific inquiry.

Most researchers into the history of the movement, along with people who dabble in this field today — calling their field “liberal eugenics” — distinguish between two forms. In positive eugenics, people with traits that are perceived as positive are encouraged to have children. Negative eugenics involves the suppression of traits deemed negative; historically, this involved using forced sterilization, imprisonment, denial of social services, segregation, genocide, restrictions on marriage, birth control without consent, and forced abortions as tools.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All The Science researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon941416 — On Mar 22, 2014

People with mental illnesses only breed more mentally ill children. Nancy Lanza (mother of the Newtown shooter) was clearly an unhinged woman who should have had her tubes involuntarily removed.

Peter Lanza, her ex-husband (widower?) said in a recent New Yorker article that he wished Adam (who ended up raising Cain) had "never been born." Adam was autistic, and one of the hallmarks of autism is that they have zero empathy for other people.

We should sterilize all parents of autistics, and the autistics themselves, so that future Adam Lanzas are not allowed to exist. Yes, that would mean getting rid of a future Bill Gates, but who cares, since Microsoft is a bunch of crap anyway, and lard knows Windows 8 (Vista 2.0) is by no means as worthwhile as a cure for cancer.

By amypollick — On Oct 26, 2013

I can give you an excellent example of eugenics in practice. As late as 1940 or so, in some states in the U.S., the only thing that was needed to have someone permanently committed to a mental hospital was the signature of an M.D. No other paperwork was necessary. Whole families were committed. This is because the prevailing scientific attitude was that no one wanted these folks to propagate because, of course, this ran in families. Even persons who were mentally retarded were consigned to these institutions to become wards of the state.

It was only when people became more aware of this happening that public outcry caused a change in policy. Read "Della Raye: A Girl Who Grew Up in Hell and Emerged Whole" by Gary Penley, Pelican Publishers, for a firsthand account of how this system worked. You will never be the same.

By anon352931 — On Oct 26, 2013

Eugenics is a disgusting and unethical process. Who determines what genetic traits are 'desirable' or more 'superior'? All it leads to is the sterilisation or involuntary euthanasia of a race or type of people deemed 'inferior' or 'Undesirable' by people who have no right to label someone like that and deliver them a death sentence or not allow them to produce their own children.

By Renegade — On Jan 08, 2011


I would argue that the concepts of eugenics had little or nothing to do with Judeo-Christian Calvinistic ideals, which valued human life and charity, but were instead a direct result of Social Darwinism. I don't believe Darwin ever meant for his scientific ideas to be applied to forming and dictating who has a right to live in a society.

By Qohe1et — On Jan 05, 2011

It seems that a conscious straying of scientists from objective and fact-based thinking to subjective concepts of "good" and "better" genes are what caused the eugenics movement. German thinking in the time before and during the Third Reich thought in a manner that was somewhat mystical and subjective. They dismissed the concept of a child being a "tabula rasa" and instead held that all people were born with intrinsic traits which ultimately determined who they would become. Such an extreme Calvinistic view of life was sure to cause problems, and we should learn from history's mistakes.

By hangugeo112 — On Jan 04, 2011

Is abortion eugenics? Often when a parent discovers that their child is going to have certain deformities or is going to be an unanticipated burden, they choose to have an abortion. Could this be called eugenics? If not, where does one draw the line?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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