Eugenics 2.0 – A Brief Primer

If you follow me on social media (Facebook and Twitter) you have probably seen me mention eugenics quite a bit lately. I wanted to make a quick post explaining a little bit about what eugenics is and why I think it is something we need to pay attention to once again.

First, eugenics literally means “good genes,” and is a, “set of beliefs and practices that aims at improving the genetic quality of the human population.” (see Wikipedia: Eugenics)

Social scientists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were beginning to interpret the past and, more importantly, the future of humanity biologically. Think Darwin, evolution, natural selection, etc. The belief was that the human stock could be improved by breeding out the bad genes, much like horses are bred for racing. This belief took two forms, a positive eugenics and a negative eugenics.

Positive eugenics encouraged people with favorable or superior qualities and traits to reproduce more. Negative eugenics discouraged people with unfavorable or inferior qualities and traits to reproduce more.

These beliefs are still around with us today, even though we shy away from calling it what it is (more on that later). Have you ever said to yourself, or heard someone say, “those people should not be allowed to have children”? If so, that’s negative eugenics. Positive eugenics is usually found when we talk about celebrities having children – when two really attractive or smart people have kids we imagine what sort of superhuman offspring they will inevitably create.

It is important to note that this is a misunderstanding of how genetics works. When Gergor Mendel (pea plants? Punnett squares?) outlined the laws of heredity many eugenicists claimed that his work confirmed their views. This was, in fact, false. They had a fundamental misunderstanding not only of his work but of genetics in general. Also missing from the eugenicists worldview were outside forces. Many studies came out showing how environmental factors played a larger role in creating “social problems” than genetics did. But the eugenicists ignored these.

Which brings me to the reason I keep bringing this up. The so-called social problems referred to above were believed to be genetically inherited or passed on from one generation to the next. If someone was a criminal, then their children would be criminals. If someone was sexually promiscuous, then their children would be as well. It followed that if you wanted to rid society of criminals, prostitutes, alcoholics, mental illness, disability, epilepsy, poverty, etc., then you needed to a. prevent those people who fell into that group from having kids, and b. encourage those who weren’t in that group to have more kids.

In his book Imbeciles, Adam Cohen describes the eugenicists’ attitude towards those in the former group:

Many eugenicists believed philanthropy was a threat to the human race. As the philosopher and reformer Jane Hume Clapperton complained, charities ‘deliberately selected the half-starved, the diseased, the criminals, and enabled them to exist and propagate.’ Many eugenicists and Tory politicians also opposed the widespread use of vaccinations, another intervention that, as they saw it, helped people survive who had been targeted by nature for illness and death.”

It is also important to note the confluence of this new science and changing ethnic, cultural, and religious makeup in America was driving a lot of the desire to prevent and eradicate the “unfit” from increasing in numbers and subsequently sullying the genetic purity of Anglo-America. Again, Cohen:

The driving force behind the eugenics movement of the 1920s was, historians suggest, the collective fears of the Anglo-Saxon upper and middle classes about a changing America. Record levels of immigration were transforming the nation’s ethnic and religious makeup. And with increased industrialization and urbanization, community and family ties were fraying. These anxieties were being redirected and expressed in the form of fears about the unfit… The eugenicists claimed the groups they wanted to exclude had inordinately high levels of physical and mental hereditary defects that were degrading America’s gene pool.

Not surprisingly, this movement was largely an elitist movement, attracting academics and professionals, and no small amount of clergy as well. The list of eugenics champions is shocking, including the American Bar Association, American Academy of Medicine, Clergy (they even had eugenics sermon contests), Progressives (including Teddy Roosevelt), Conservatives (who were drawn to the idea of there being a natural elite), and many well-known businessmen and academics. One doctor even wrote a poem about eugenics:

Oh, you wise men, take up the burden
and make this your loudest creed.
Sterilize the misfits promptly –
all not fit to breed.

Needless to say, there were many measures that were used to try and discourage the “unfit” from breeding. First, forced castration. That didn’t have the public or legislative support to get very far, though many doctors took it upon themselves to perform these operations anyway.

Next, marriage laws. This was an attempt to control who was allowed to marry whom, hopefully encouraging the superior to breed with the superior, and keeping the inferior from having children. An obvious problem with this law almost immediately undermined it – people would just have children out of wedlock. So more drastic measures were taken: segregation. This was effective, as it removed from public life anyone deemed “feebleminded,” a catch-all term for anyone who “offended the middle-class sensibilities” of judges and social workers. The feebleminded included those with epilepsy, mental illness, intellectual disability, alcoholism, dependency (another term for someone living in poverty), and women “too” interested in sex.

Ultimately, it was very costly to try to segregate the feebleminded from the rest of society. Institutions are very expensive to run.

The solution finally arrived from the medical community – forced sterilization. Now there was a cheap and effective way of ensuring that the “unfit” could not propagate. There were a wave of sterilization laws passed, first in the North, then in the South. Ultimately, Nazi Germany would draw inspiration from the American eugenics program for their attempts at eradicating those deemed “inferior.”

There is obviously a lot more to this complex issue than what I have summarized. But I think we need to pay closer attention to this movement because it is my belief that we are starting to see some of these beliefs creep out into the open once again.

Consider, for instance, the recent health care bill the GOP is trying to pass, the American Health Care Act. While these matters are far too complex for me, there are a few things that are painfully obvious.

  1. this bill disproportionately affects poor people.
  2. this bill disproportionately benefits rich and super-rich people

Just as the eugenicists 100 years ago believed that any type of philanthropy, charity, or entitlement program to help the poor and the sick would “enable them to exist and propagate,” it seems today that we have many politicians who believe that any type of help for the poorest and most ill in our society is undeserved. It is my contention that the obsession with eliminating “entitlement programs” (medicaid, food stamps, welfare, etc.) is nothing more than a veiled eugenics program, designed to eliminate those “not sufficiently complete to live.”

The kind of disregard that the politicians who crafted this bill have for those who are not rich is astonishing. That lives will be lost because of this bill (and not just this bill) seems of no concern them. I keep asking myself, “what benefit could they possibly believe this could have?” And the only answer I can come up with is:

Oh, you wise men, take up the burden
and make this your loudest creed.
Sterilize the misfits promptly –
all not fit to breed.

The eradication of all people not fit to breed, not fit to have healthcare, not fit to eat, not fit to work, not fit to have a home, not fit to live – that seems to be the only explanation I can come up with. Sure, it might be veiled behind layers of fiscal conservatism, or religious liberty, or individual freedom. But when you strip away all of the language and rhetoric what you end up with is: certain people deserve to be aliveeveryone else doesn’t. We are entering the age of eugenics 2.0, but instead of using medical science to eliminate the inferior, now we are using the lack of it to eliminate the inferior.

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One thought on “Eugenics 2.0 – A Brief Primer

  1. kb ·

    The obvious truth to this…chills the bones.

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