Attempts to improve human beings and to understand human differences have often been seen in terms of a "nature verses nurture" debate. The history of eugenics is the history of the belief that nature is more important than nurture in this equation. This debate dates back at least to Plato's Republic. In that volume, Socrates maintained that human differences reflect human essences, that people's behaviors derive from the material of which they are made. As materials scale upward in
The history of eugenics began in Britain with Sir Francis Galton (1822–1911), who coined the term "eugenic" meaning "wellborn," in 1883. Galton observed that the leaders of British society were far more likely to be related to each other than chance alone might allow, and he searched for reasons. While he might have concluded that the insular world of England's schools and business and political environment explained this phenomenon, he drew a very different conclusion. He explained adult leadership in terms of inherited qualities. It was the superior biological inheritance of members of the British ruling classes, he insisted, that determined their social position. To Galton, nature was far more important than nurture in human development, and by the 1860s he had popularized programs of human improvement through competitions for marriage partners, where only "best" would marry "best."
The late nineteenth century was a revolutionary period in biology, during which environmentalist interpretations of human improvement were rejected. The pre-Darwinian theories of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829), who argued that the muscles of blacksmiths would be transmitted to their children as "acquired characters," were refuted by the research of August Weismann (1834–1914), who discovered that germ plasm was continuous from generation to generation and was unaffected by environmental change such as physical activity.
Perhaps of greatest significance in the development of the American eugenics movement was the popularization of the work of Gregor Mendel (1822–1884) after its rediscovery in 1900. Mendel, a Moravian abbott, had carefully bred peas in his garden and recorded the patterns of inheritance of their different traits for many generations. He discovered that he could control traits such as size, color, and texture, and could therefore predict the qualities of future generations with mathematical precision. These discoveries seemed to support the eugenicists' belief that a wide variety of complex moral, intellectual, and social traits in humans could also be easily explained by heredity. In addition to intelligence, hereditary traits were thought to include patriotism, shiftlessness, pauperism, boat building, and a tendency to wander.
For many early-twentieth-century intellectuals it seemed that heredity was of signal importance in predicting human performance and that it should play a key role in social policies and programs for human betterment. Anxious about their social status and changes in America's ethnic makeup, they saw eugenics as a way to legitimize racial and ethnic interpretations of differential human worth. Based upon this mix of scientific and pseudoscientific theories, they pursued a series of specific eugenic policies. In the 1920s, for example, they actively supported laws for state-sponsored sterilization and the restriction of immigration from southern and eastern Europe. School textbooks lauded the promise of eugenics, movies such as the Black Stork (1917) and Tomorrow's Children (1934) warned of eugenic decline, and Fitter Families contests offered medals to those of presumed eugenic excellence. Perhaps the most destructive of these policies was the adoption of a model American eugenic sterilization law by the National Socialist government in Germany, which contributed to policies that eventually led to the taking of more than 6 million lives in the Holocaust.
By the late 1920s, the implications of the work on chromosomal inheritance by Thomas Hunt Morgan and his students at Columbia University made it clear that human intelligence and morality were far too complex to be understood in simple Mendelian terms. Such efforts helped discredit eugenics as a scientific endeavor. Yet the belief in hereditary determinism has regularly returned to claim a place in public policy. It is of course true that
While eugenics was indeed popular during the first half of the twentieth century, it was poor science and was eventually rejected. Discoveries from the Human Genome Project in the early twenty-first century will likely reveal much about human genetics and will surely lead to improvements in medical treatment. But just as people are not simply an expression of their biology, genes do not produce behavior. Genes produce enzymes, and enzymes control chemical processes. Many scientists believe that nature cannot be separated from nurture in the production of complex human behavior and that human traits are not to be improved solely through manipulating nature.
It might be said that there has been a return to eugenic ideas as represented in an increasing interest in in vitro fertilization, sperm banks of Nobel laureates (allegedly guaranteeing an intellectually superior fetus), and cloning. These twenty-first-century initiatives are different from earlier eugenic attempts. This is due, in part, to their medical purposes rather than their racial or nativist motivations. Yet, these initiatives should be subject to careful consideration from the public. The ethical issues raised by eugenics may be even more important in light of advances in human medical genetics. However, despite advances in science, it remains true that policies directed toward human improvement and social justice can best be achieved through political, educational, and ethical action.
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