Eugenics: Definition & Explanation

Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

The atrocities committed under the Final Solution of Nazi Germany, the euthanasia of people deemed unworthy of life, was not the first or an isolated instance. Humankind has been trying to refine itself in many ways and many times.

Often labeled as 'Man's attempt to guide his own evolution,' the study and application of eugenics stretches back further than recorded history and into legend. What were the techniques used to reduce the undesirable aspects of humanity and increase the desirable ones?

Eugenics, the Hope of Tomorrow from the Past

Eugenics was a term coined by Francis Galton in 1869's Hereditary Genius. Galton was a man of great intellect and was a major researcher in the statistics and measurement of intelligence. It was his belief that the mental traits were no different than physical traits and could be enhanced by selective breeding.


Tree of Eugenics

During the early 1900s, eugenics was sometimes seen as the accumulation and ultimate goal of all science. Previous attempts at purification were crude attempts at what was now possible. Prior attempts can be traced back in every culture. Well-known Western stories of eugenics include warring kingdoms putting to death everyone defeated. Less well-known are the rules in the Old Testament and Tanakh (Jewish Bible) of expelling those who do not follow the religious strictures. When it says they shall be stoned, they are not being ironic, nor are they kidding. Lastly, the most well-known is the Final Solution of Nazi Germany, in which the mentally ill or those considered undesirable were euthanized.

Ideas of eugenics found a common ground with Herbert Spencer's Social Darwinism. Darwinism is the idea that living things survive and reproduce with the assistance of small, inheritable changes that, over time, lead to the evolution of the species; in Social Darwinism the fit people will have the most resources and be encouraged to reproduce. The idea was that the less fit would be less able to adapt to the industrial environment and should be discouraged from passing on their genetics. It was justified that the best way to stop future suffering was to keep the unfit from having children so that those children would not possess the frail bodies and weaknesses.

There was something of a division between the more active eugenics proponents and the more passive Social Darwinism idealists. Active eugenics could be considered culling, or actively removing, those seen as undesirable from the gene pool by forced sterilization or by more aggressive means. Think about the Final Solution of Nazi Germany. Passive eugenics is further subdivided into two categories, Positive and Negative Eugenics. Positive eugenics is the method of encouraging people with desirable traits to reproduce, and negative eugenics is encouraging those with undesirable traits NOT to reproduce. A passive eugenics method was supported by the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger. She was criticized for not encouraging a superior race to have more children; instead claiming the fit should have more children and the less fit should have fewer.

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