The Popular, Successful, Terrible, Horrible True Story of the Scientific Theory of Eugenics

JB Shreve
March 6, 2019 20 mins to read
Reading Time: 15 minutes

What if I told you that one of the darkest and most flawed scientific beliefs of the 20th century was largely American in its origins. It was a belief that fostered racism, discrimination, abortion, and genocide. It was embraced by academics (lots of them), politicians (presidents and prime ministers), and celebrities (some of the most famous).

eugenics movement

This is not the story about a footnote of history but a story that many have preferred to forget rather than account for the terrible errors that the science of the eugenics movement and its consequences unleashed on the earth. It is a story encompasses legal cases at the US Supreme Court, President Calvin Coolidge, former President Theodore Roosevelt, Planned Parenthood, Helen Keller…and eventually even Adolf Hitler.

eugenics movement
Charles Darwin

The story begins in the 19th century with the publication and widespread acceptance of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. This new framework for seeing the world consolidated a lot of concepts and ideas that previous scientists and philosophers held into one concise and brilliant theory that seemed to be confirmed by realities all around us.


The theory of natural selection was not merely about evolution. It was about survival of the fittest, and advancing the finer, more durable, points of creation to become the leading points of creation.


On the Origin of Species was published in 1859 at the conclusion of the industrial revolution. The ideas brought forth by the Englishman Charles Darwin did not speak to sociology, but they fit the observations being made by Europeans at the time none the less. If natural selection and survival of the fittest could shape and mutate the species biologically then surely the same principle could hold sociologically.

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Indeed, as the era of European imperialism advanced the principles of natural selection justified the conquests of Africa and Asia by Europe. It was the white man’s burden to tame and civilize the savage peoples of these lands.


Take up the White Man’s burden —
Send forth the best ye breed —
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild —
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

The White Man’s Burden by Rudyard Kipling (same guy who wrote the Jungle Book)


It was not only the right of these stronger white races but their duty for the benefit of the whole human race that they control and dominate the weaker races of the world.


eugenics movement
Herbert Spencer

It did not take long for a new variation of natural selection to be developed and applied to human society. This became known as Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism was “a belief that human groups and races are subject to the same laws of natural selection as Charles Darwin had perceived in plants and animals in nature.” This doctrine was put forward by several leading biologists and scientists in the latter half of the 19th century, the most prominent being Herbert Spencer. The preachers of the varying strains of Social Darwinism believed that the weak nations or even the weak in their own societies should be “diminished and their cultures delimited while the strong grew in power and in cultural influence over the weak.”


If this sounds harsh, you are correct. Believers in Social Darwinism did not apologize for this nor did they seek to mitigate it. The theory of natural selection demonstrated how that is the way nature works. The weak are diminished. The strong survive. And that is how mankind came to dominate the planet. That is how white European and American men came to dominate the world.

social darwinism eugenics movement
This is from a biology textbook. Ever notice how man gets whiter as he evolves?

Some survived and some did not. Social Darwinism explained the differences between the two. Some societies were stronger than others. Some individuals were stronger than others. It was not simply an issue of right decisions or opportunities. It was issues of biology, genetics, and mental strength. Right decisions and opportunities were at least partially the results of genetic and biological birthrights.


If this sounds racist – you’re right. But that was not a problem. That was not even a consideration in the 19th century. This was cold, clinical scientific worldviews.


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The ideas brought forth by Social Darwinism justified white supremacy, but they also justified why some whites were more supreme than other whites.


But the ideas of Social Darwinism were only the beginning of this story. In many ways, Social Darwinism simply provided a nesting ground for the scientific theories of eugenics to hatch.


Eugenics and Sir Francis Galton

eugenics movement
Sir Francis Galton

Sir Francis Galton of England was a failed medical student and a cousin to the famous Charles Darwin. He was pressured by his family to pursue the study of science and medicine but found himself incapable of enjoying it.  His real passion was mathematics.


After doing some traveling in Africa and studying his cousin’s theory of natural selection he came upon a way in which his passion for mathematics could fuse with the study of biology. He founded eugenics as the study of “agencies under social controls that may improve or impair the racial quality of future generations, either physically or mentally.”


Galton determined that a statistical approach to human biology could deliberately strengthen the evolving human race to become stronger and smarter. We could control the destiny of the human race!


Since Darwin showed how mankind was still evolving, Galton determined this evolving could be managed. He believed a large range of human qualities were inherited such as mental, physical and even moral traits.  And because these were inherited it was time to focus on the highest qualities of those inheritances.


For too long mankind focused on protecting the weakest elements of their race. Now, with the new-found knowledge of natural selection and genetics, we should focus on protecting and strengthening the highest and strongest elements of the human race.

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Galton developed a system of analysis in which men and women could be assessed and measured for their biological and genetic strengths. Conveniently the richer and the whiter a person was, the more likely they were to rank as exceptional human beings. The poorer, darker, or frail a person was, then the more likely they were to rank as defective in Galton’s system of analysis.


Having found a way to measure the quality of a human life and its propensity toward exceptional living Galton and his successors in the field of eugenics established two different tracks which could be used to benefit all of mankind – positive and negative eugenics.


Positive Eugenics

eugenics movement

Positive Eugenics was a fancy way of saying, “selective breeding.” It utilized the same logic one would apply to a quality show dog or racehorse. Partner the best stud with the best female and let genetics work its magic.


Through the findings of his eugenics studies the people who were the best could now find each other. It was a 19th-century In Galton’s view, applying positive eugenics would make sure that people of the best genetic stock would only mate with people of at least as high a quality as their own. In this way, the best mental, physical and moral traits of humanity would be handed down from one generation to the next.


Negative Eugenics

Then on the other side of the coin was Negative Eugenics. It wasn’t enough to make sure that the desirable traits of humanity’s cream of the crop reproduced. Eugenics’ believers wanted to make sure that the less desirables, the weak members of the race, were sure not to reproduce. These people were the “defective” elements of the race. And there were several ways to deal with them.


The first was through stronger immigration laws. Quit letting the darker, dumber and backward races into the countries of the whiter, smarter, progressive races.

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As bigoted as this sounds, this was one of the least offensive or controversial aspects of among negative genetics believers and their proposals for dealing with so-called defectives.


Another method of Negative Eugenics was through forced sterilization. Make sure the imbeciles of society cannot reproduce.


Then there were proposals for forced mercy killings. The mentally retarded were an especially popular target for believers in this application of Negative Eugenics, probably because these were some of the few groups of the human race who could offer the least amount of resistance for their own defense.


Eugenics Comes to America

Charles Davenport eugenics
Charles Davenport

Charles Davenport was a Harvard graduate and a biology professor at the University of Chicago. In 1904 he was recruited by the Carnegie Institute to take over a study of experimental evolution in New York.


By 1910 his study was officially and nearly exclusively focused on eugenics. Davenport and his newly formed Eugenics Record Office amassed thousands of personal records and histories of individuals and families for his eugenics research. He believed, like Galton before him, he could use these records to mathematically predict the distribution of human traits in their offspring.


Davenport believed that people of different races were originally, far back in the evolutionary track, actually different species. Due to this, interracial marriages and mating between races were harmful to the goals of strengthening and progressing the human race. It resulted, in his own words: in a “clash of instincts in groups with unlike temperament and mores. The present safe course is to pursue the idea of race homogeneity. For man is an animal and permanent racial progress in eugenics must be based on the laws of biology.”

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Charles Davenport, like Francis Galton before him, successfully used popular science to justify his own racist and bigoted beliefs.


He agreed in the basic tenants of positive and negative eugenics. On the one hand, it was best for selective breeding to be used among the highest orders of human beings while we should limit the breeding of those on the lower orders.


Davenport believed that a fitting place to start was at the state institutions. Prisons were a good place to begin sterilizing people. These were clearly men and women of low moral quality and so by sterilizing them the goals of negative eugenics could begin to be applied. (He never thought that perhaps the justice system was not as absolutely perfect as his Harvard educated imagination conceived.)


Made in England But Perfected in America

eugenics movement

By the turn of the century, some key issues were coming to the forefront of American society that helped turn eugenics from an egg head ideology into a national movement and phenomenon.


The first was mass urbanization. This mass urbanization meant the cities were literally overflowing with people of all kinds of cultures, races, and ethnicities. And they could not handle it.


The plight of the poor and the miserable state of different immigrants races and ethnic groups within these overflowing cities was now on display for the whole world to see.


The second thing that was produced was massive fortunes among those who helped move the gears of the industrial revolution. These were men like the Carnegies and the Rockefellers. These fortunes, the biggest in the history of the world, needed to be put to good use in order to better society. In the past, they might have given their money to the church to help the miserable and the poor. But now, these men and their fortunes of the gilded age were going to put their money into modern science to help solve the ills of society all around them.


And one of the top sciences to receive that funding was the eugenics movement!


As the funding came, more and more intellectuals and academics came aboard to agree with the eugenics movement. Eugenics was fashionable in academic circles and profitable in the circles of social activists.

eugenics movement

By the end of the 1920s, almost 400 leading universities offered well-attended eugenics courses in their curriculum. Organizations such as the American Breeders Association and the Race Betterment Society were developed to help spread the gospel of eugenics.


Even famous black intellectuals like W.E.B. Du Bois came to support the science of eugenics believing that the best blacks were as good as the best whites. Du Bois believed that only fit blacks should procreate.


Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone was a member of the American Breeders Association.

Margaret Sanger, Planned Parenthood

Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood was a strong and vocal proponent of eugenics. She used the scientific philosophy and language of eugenics to promote birth control. She sought to discourage the reproduction of persons who would pass on mental disease or serious physical defect. She advocated sterilization in cases where the subject was unable to use birth control.


The National Federation of Women’s Clubs, the National League of Women Voters and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union all were on the record as proponents of eugenics.


As social activists leveraged the strength of the academic studies into eugenics and partnered with the financial fortunes of their benefactors the laws of American society soon began to change and align to the eugenics movement.


The state of Connecticut was first to put push for a law to officialize eugenics in 1896. The Connecticut law forbade anyone who was epileptic, feeble-minded, or an imbecile from being married.


By 1914, 30 of the United States of America had laws directly influenced by eugenics to change marriage laws. More than 75% of these laws targeted people of lower intelligence. Some states enforced a waiting period between license application and the actual wedding so that proper authorities could determine if a wedding was to be permitted on the grounds of eugenics.


Michigan introduced a compulsory sterilization bill in 1897. It failed to pass at that time, but 8 years later the same kind of law made it all the way to the governor’s desk in Pennsylvania before it was vetoed. Indiana finally became the first state to have a sterilization bill on the books by 1907. Washington and California followed suit in 1909.


In 1917 sixteen states had forced sterilization laws. Many of these continued to target the mentally retarded or “feeble-minded” as the different statues read and still others targeted those who were convicted of crimes more than once.


In 1927 the US Supreme Court made a historic ruling that legitimized forced sterilization for patients at a home for the mentally retarded. California performed over 20,000 forced sterilizations between 1909 and the 1960s. In North Carolina, social workers were given the power to push for forced sterilization of anyone they deemed to have an IQ lower than 70.


Once again, social advances and extremism have always found it easiest to advance on the backs of those who have no voice to oppose them in our democratic society.

Emma and Carrie Buck

One of these famous sterilization cases that were heard by the Supreme Court had to do with the situation of Carrie and Emma Buck. They were both identified by the eugenics movement as feeble-minded and immoral because the mother and daughter had each birthed children out of wedlock. Carrie’s daughter Vivian thus represented a third generation and at 7 months of age was deemed an imbecile and the three generations of women were the perfect proof for the and ideals and causes of the eugenics movement.


The Supreme Court agreed:


“that Carrie Buck is the probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring, likewise afflicted, that she may be sexually sterilized without detriment to her general health and that her welfare and that of society will be promoted by her sterilization.”


Missed among all of this was the fact that Carrie’s illegitimate daughter was the result of her having been raped by the nephew of her foster parents. Vivian would later be an honor roll student in grade school, thus disproving the imbecile title before she died young from an intestinal disorder.


In the mountains of Virginia during the 1930s people on welfare were identified as “misfit families” and the authorities round them up and took them by trucks into the nearby towns to be sterilized. According to the tenants of eugenics, this would keep their immoral behavior and defective intelligence from being passed down to another generation of misfit families.


Then there were the immigration laws used to weed out defectives from damaging the gene pools of Americans.


The Immigration Restriction League was founded by three Harvard graduates and sought to restrict immigration with literacy tests. By 1924 this grew into a successful campaign that achieved the Immigration Act that year. Experts showed up to the Congressional debate and warned of inferior stock arriving in the US from southern Europe. This inferior stock of people would contaminate the more potent and powerful Nordic race in America.


President Calvin Coolidge, who signed the bill into law, stated earlier when he was vice president, “America should be kept American…Biological laws show that Nordics deteriorate when mixed with other races.”


Until the 1930s eugenics was widely embraced throughout the country by intellectuals and academics, entertainers and politicians. It became a dominant ideology for social change and transformation that was easily used to legitimize the darkest of American prejudices.

Theodore Roosevelt wrote when he was president:


…Society has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind. It is really extraordinary that our people refuse to apply to human beings such elementary knowledge as every successful farmer is obliged to apply to his own stock breeding. Any group of farmers who permitted their best stock not to breed, and let all the increase come from the worst stock, would be treated as fit inmates for an asylum. Yet we fail to understand that such conduct is rational compared to the conduct of a nation which permits unlimited breeding from the worst stocks, physically and morally, while it encourages or connives at the cold selfishness or the twisted sentimentality as a result of which the men and women ought to marry, and if married have large families, remain celibates or have no children or only one or two. Some day we will realize that the prime duty the inescapable duty of the good citizen of the right type is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world; and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type.


Helen Keller, strangely enough, called for physician juries to determine the fate of defective babies. She wrote: “Our puny sentimentalism has caused us to forget that a human life is sacred only when it may be of some use to itself and to the world.”


The science fiction writer HG Wells wrote: “The way of nature has always been to slay the hindmost, and there is still no other way unless we can prevent those who would become the hindmost being born.” And at another time he wrote, “It is in the sterilization of failures, and not in the selection of successes for breeding, that the possibility of an improvement of the human stock lies.”


The Decline in the West and Reemergence in Europe


Eventually, the beliefs of eugenics began to fall out of favor in the US. It would be a few more decades before the science would be seen as entirely flawed in its basic premises about genetics.


In the 1930s the rise of the psychologist movement helped to replace eugenics. Social ills and ideas for social change became a debate about nature versus nurture. Were people born weak by nature or did their environment make them weaker by way of poor nurturing? This is where American history went.


But even as eugenics declined in America, the steps taken by the various American organizations and influential people had one last gift to give in the form of the eugenics movement and its brief revival in Europe.


That revival came in the form of a German soldier and failed painter by the name of Adolf Hitler.

The idea of a master race, blonde haired and blue eyed was not Hitler’s idea. It was from the American eugenics movement. The soon to be fascist dictator as far back as 1924 frequently quoted the eugenics movement’s findings and had a thorough knowledge of the science.


In his book Mein Kempf Hitler wrote:


“The demand that defective people be prevented from propagating equally defective offspring is a demand of clearest reason and, if systematically executed, represents the most humane act of mankind. It will spare millions of unfortunates undeserved sufferings, and consequently will lead to a rising improvement of health as a whole.”


Later in the book he gave credit where credit was due:


There is today one state in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception [of immigration] are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but [the US], in which an effort is made to consult reason at least partially. By refusing immigrants on principle to elements in poor health, by simply excluding certain races from naturalization, it professes in slow beginnings a view that is peculiar to the People’s State.


He told a fellow Nazi:


Now that we know the laws of heredity, it is possible to a large extent to prevent unhealthy and severely handicapped beings from coming into the world. I have studied with interest the laws of several American states concerning prevention of reproduction by people whose progeny would, in all probability, be of no value or be injurious to the racial stock.”


As Hitler came to power the believers of Eugenics even in America celebrated this new champion of their science. A leader of the eugenics movement in Virginia complained in 1934 “The Germans are beating us at our own game.”


Around that same time, the number of sterilizations in Germany was accelerating beyond 5,000 per month. Beginning in 1940, thousands of Germans were taken from homes for the elderly, mental institutions and other state-run institutions and were systematically gassed – i.e. negative eugenics.

Learn more about this story in my podcast episode available to my Patreon supporters. 


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