The logo of the Third International Congress of Eugenics, held in
The term ‘eugenics’ was coined in 1883 by Sir Francis Galton (1822–1911), after the Greek εύγενής, meaning ‘wellborn’. Galton mistakenly assumed that all traits are passed down unaffected from our ancestors (‘law of ancestral heredity’) and envisioned eugenics as a naturalistic religion antagonistic to Christianity. An extreme version of this theory, called Ahnenerbe (‘ancestral inheritance’), which described individual life as the epiphenomenon of perpetual bloodlines, was deployed by Heinrich Himmler to justify his plans for a New European Order.
Traces of this erroneous understanding of genealogies in terms of genetic continuity were evident in the writings of Nietzsche, Ernst Haeckel, the most influential German popularizer of evolutionary theory, American biologist Charles Davenport, who held that predispositions to social deviance were inherited from ‘ape-like ancestors’, and British biostatistician R. A. Fisher, who once (1929) remarked that, if King Solomon’s line was not extinct, he was ‘in the ancestry of all of us, and in nearly equal proportions, however unequally his wisdom may be distributed’. A similar combination of Eternal Recurrence – human beings as expressions of the immortal germplasm – and natural teleology of history – biology as destiny – stamped their positions.
Similar convictions informed Cesare Lombroso’s theory of atavism and those of various Social and Racial Darwinists, animal breeders and pedigree researchers. Among them was the American psychologist Herbert Goddard, who authored a study of hereditary feeble-mindedness. The Kallikak Family (1912), based on patently manufactured data, proved so influential on both sides of the
Most early eugenicists were raised in deeply religious families and, between 1907 and 1940, eugenics laws were only promulgated in those countries where Puritan, Pietistic and Calvinist denominations were stronger. In fact, religious affiliations and the heterogeneity of Western cultures led to different styles of eugenics. The rediscovery of Mendelian laws, August Weismann’s experiments on inheritability, T. H. Morgan’s gene theory and the publication of Wilhelm Johannsen’s seminal scientific review ‘The Genotype conception of heredity’ (1911), established the new orthodoxy of genetic research. ‘Germplasm’ (reproductive tissues) and ‘somatoplasm’ (non-reproductive tissues) were distinct and separate. In Romance and Far Eastern countries, the prevalent interpretation was that the distinction between soma and germplasm did not imply the one between germplasm and environment. Accordingly, medical researchers focused on external, physiochemical mutagenic factors, rather than on differential genetic predispositions and hereditary transmission, which had strong eugenic implications. Given these conflicting allegiances, it was inevitable that the large Italian and French delegations attending the first and second international eugenics congresses (London 1912, New York 1921) would criticize those scholars who posited the existence of biologically distinct human groups with differential disease susceptibility.
The tenor of most of the papers presented at the first International Congress of Social Eugenics, held in
In 1929, while Eugene Gosney and Paul Popenoe’s Sterilization for Human Betterment, extolling the achievements of Californian eugenicists, was being translated into German and would soon become an important source of inspiration for European race hygienists, Corrado Gini, a world-famous Italian demographist and eugenicist, and Mussolini’s confidant, presided over the second Italian Congress of Genetics and Eugenics in Rome. This international meeting was attended by race hygienists Alfred J. Mjoen (
This rift, aggravated by comparable contrasts between North American and Latin American eugenicists that had emerged at the 1927 Pan-American Eugenics Conference in Havana, led, in 1934, to the creation of the short-lived Latin Federation of Eugenics. Its first and last congress, held in
Fragmented and with its credibility increasingly eroded, the international eugenics movement was on the wane already in the late 1920s, so that mainline eugenics gave way to ‘reform eugenics’, family planning and population control, characterized by a greater emphasis on environmental factors, voluntary sterilizations, birth control, the rational management of human resources, and the repudiation of an overtly racist language.This tactic made eugenics far more palatable and effective: if the impact of nurture was so important, then children should only be raised in healthy home environments. In order to redress nature’s essential randomness and synchronize biological and socioeconomic processes, irresponsible citizens unable to meet the challenges of modern society could be forced, blackmailed, or cajoled into accepting sterilization or castration. Neo-Malthusianism replaced biological determinism, and the Hardy-Weinberg theorem (1908), which demonstrated that sterilizing or segregating the ‘mentally unfit’ would not appreciably reduce the incidence of ‘feeble-mindedness’, was now deemed irrelevant.
Consequently, by the early 1930s, eugenics sterilisations programmes were in full swing. Following the moral panic generated by the Great Depression, few families were prepared to put up with the social protection of what was perceived to be a disproportionate number of dependent people. It was argued that under exceptional circumstances, basic rights could be withheld and that social services should only be granted to those whose social usefulness and biological capability were certain. Consequently, the international political climate proved very receptive to the arguments of those prominent American, German, and Swedish jurists who agreed that personal and social rights were culturally and historically relative legal fictions or superstitions, their existence depending, to a large extent, on the majority’s willingness to uphold them. Enlightened governments were expected to foster virtues and restrict personal rights for the sake of communal rights and civic responsibility.
This led to the paradoxical result that involuntary sterilizations and confinements were almost exclusively carried out in the most advanced and progressive democracies, the only exception being Nazi Germany. Most such laws would only be repealed in the late 1960s and 1970s. By contrast, in those same years, legislators and jurists in Latin, Eastern European, Far Eastern, and developing countries, as well as in Holland and Britain, objected to selective breeding, involuntary sterilization, the assault on the notion of free will, and the linear extension of natural laws into the social sphere. Eugenics and the marriage between bureaucratic rationality and scientism did not resonate with every local repertoires of values and symbols.
After World War 2, the transnational eugenics movement was forced underground by the popularity of the human rights discourse, and pro-eugenics journals and organizations adopted new names. But eugenics never died out. While some eugenicists espoused the aims of Planned Parenthood and addressed questions of population quantity, celebrated scientists at the 1962 CIBA-sponsored London conference and 1998 UCLA ‘Engineering the human germline’ symposium advocated programmes of involuntary sterilization, human cloning, and genetic enhancement. Meanwhile,
Western societies themselves are on the verge of a eugenics revival in the form of reprogenetics, germline engineering, and cloning, a trend which is indirectly reinforced by the courts’ recognition of wrongful birth and wrongful life claims, by the commodification of healthcare, by the diffusion of testing for genetic predispositions, and by the rhetoric of genetic responsibility, involving new forms of discrimination and exclusion.