Eugenics (; from Greek eugenes ‘well-born’ from eu, ‘good, well’ and genos, ‘race, stock, kin’) is a set of beliefs and practices that aims at improving the genetic quality of a human population. The exact definition of eugenics has been a matter of debate since the term was coined by Francis Galton in 1883. The concept predates this coinage, with Plato suggesting applying the principles of selective breeding to humans around 400BCE.
Frederick Osborn’s 1937 journal article “Development of a Eugenic Philosophy” framed it as a social philosophythat is, a philosophy with implications for social order. That definition is not universally accepted. Osborn advocated for higher rates of sexual reproduction among people with desired traits (positive eugenics), or reduced rates of sexual reproduction and sterilization of people with less-desired or undesired traits (negative eugenics).
Alternatively, gene selection rather than “people selection” has recently been made possible through advances in genome editing, leading to what is sometimes called new eugenics, also known as neo-eugenics, consumer eugenics, or liberal eugenics.
While eugenic principles have been practiced as far back in world history as ancient Greece, the modern history of eugenics began in the early 20th century when a popular eugenics movement emerged in the United Kingdom and spread to many countries including the United States, Canada and most European countries. In this period, eugenic ideas were espoused across the political spectrum. Consequently, many countries adopted eugenic policies with the intent to improve the quality of their populations’ genetic stock. Such programs included both “positive” measures, such as encouraging individuals deemed particularly “fit” to reproduce, and “negative” measures such as marriage prohibitions and forced sterilization of people deemed unfit for reproduction. People deemed unfit to reproduce often included people with mental or physical disabilities, people who scored in the low ranges of different IQ tests, criminals and deviants, and members of disfavored minority groups. The eugenics movement became negatively associated with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust when many of the defendants at the Nuremberg trials attempted to justify their human rights abuses by claiming there was little difference between the Nazi eugenics programs and the U.S. eugenics programs. In the decades following World War II, with the institution of human rights, many countries gradually began to abandon eugenics policies, although some Western countries, among them the United States and Sweden, continued to carry out forced sterilizations.
Since the 1980s and 1990s, when new assisted reproductive technology procedures became available such as gestational surrogacy (available since 1985), preimplantation genetic diagnosis (available since 1989), and cytoplasmic transfer (first performed in 1996), fear has emerged about a possible revival of eugenics.
A major criticism of eugenics policies is that, regardless of whether “negative” or “positive” policies are used, they are susceptible to abuse because the criteria of selection are determined by whichever group is in political power at the time. Furthermore, negative eugenics in particular is considered by many to be a violation of basic human rights, which include the right to reproduction. Another criticism is that eugenic policies eventually lead to a loss of genetic diversity, resulting in inbreeding depression due to lower genetic variation.
Seneca the Younger
The concept of positive eugenics to produce better human beings has existed at least since Plato suggested selective mating to produce a guardian class. In Sparta, every Spartan child was inspected by the council of elders, the Gerousia, which determined if the child was fit to live or not. In the early years of ancient Rome, a Roman father was obliged by law to immediately kill his child if they were physically disabled. Among the ancient Germanic tribes, people who were cowardly, unwarlike or “stained with abominable vices” were put to death, usually by being drowned in swamps.
The first formal negative eugenics, that is a legal provision against birth of inferior human beings, was promulgated in Western European culture by the Christian Council of Agde in 506, which forbade marriage between cousins.
This idea was also promoted by William Goodell (18291894) who advocated the castration and spaying of the insane.
The idea of a modern project of improving the human population through a statistical understanding of heredity used to encourage good breeding was originally developed by Francis Galton and, initially, was closely linked to Darwinism and his theory of natural selection. Galton had read his half-cousin Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which sought to explain the development of plant and animal species, and desired to apply it to humans. Based on his biographical studies, Galton believed that desirable human qualities were hereditary traits, though Darwin strongly disagreed with this elaboration of his theory. In 1883, one year after Darwin’s death, Galton gave his research a name: eugenics. With the introduction of genetics, eugenics became associated with genetic determinism, the belief that human character is entirely or in the majority caused by genes, unaffected by education or living conditions. Many of the early geneticists were not Darwinians, and evolution theory was not needed for eugenics policies based on genetic determinism. Throughout its recent history, eugenics has remained controversial.
Eugenics became an academic discipline at many colleges and universities and received funding from many sources. Organizations were formed to win public support and sway opinion towards responsible eugenic values in parenthood, including the British Eugenics Education Society of 1907 and the American Eugenics Society of 1921. Both sought support from leading clergymen and modified their message to meet religious ideals. In 1909 the Anglican clergymen William Inge and James Peile both wrote for the British Eugenics Education Society. Inge was an invited speaker at the 1921 International Eugenics Conference, which was also endorsed by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York Patrick Joseph Hayes.
Three International Eugenics Conferences presented a global venue for eugenists with meetings in 1912 in London, and in 1921 and 1932 in New York City. Eugenic policies were first implemented in the early 1900s in the United States. It also took root in France, Germany, and Great Britain. Later, in the 1920s and 1930s, the eugenic policy of sterilizing certain mental patients was implemented in other countries including Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Japan and Sweden.
In addition to being practiced in a number of countries, eugenics was internationally organized through the International Federation of Eugenics Organizations. Its scientific aspects were carried on through research bodies such as the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics, the Cold Spring Harbour Carnegie Institution for Experimental Evolution, and the Eugenics Record Office. Politically, the movement advocated measures such as sterilization laws. In its moral dimension, eugenics rejected the doctrine that all human beings are born equal and redefined moral worth purely in terms of genetic fitness. Its racist elements included pursuit of a pure “Nordic race” or “Aryan” genetic pool and the eventual elimination of “unfit” races.
Early critics of the philosophy of eugenics included the American sociologist Lester Frank Ward, the English writer G. K. Chesterton, the German-American anthropologist Franz Boas, who argued that advocates of eugenics greatly over-estimate the influence of biology, and Scottish tuberculosis pioneer and author Halliday Sutherland. Ward’s 1913 article “Eugenics, Euthenics, and Eudemics”, Chesterton’s 1917 book Eugenics and Other Evils, and Boas’ 1916 article “Eugenics” (published in The Scientific Monthly) were all harshly critical of the rapidly growing movement. Sutherland identified eugenists as a major obstacle to the eradication and cure of tuberculosis in his 1917 address “Consumption: Its Cause and Cure”, and criticism of eugenists and Neo-Malthusians in his 1921 book Birth Control led to a writ for libel from the eugenist Marie Stopes. Several biologists were also antagonistic to the eugenics movement, including Lancelot Hogben. Other biologists such as J. B. S. Haldane and R. A. Fisher expressed skepticism in the belief that sterilization of “defectives” would lead to the disappearance of undesirable genetic traits.
Among institutions, the Catholic Church was an opponent of state-enforced sterilizations. Attempts by the Eugenics Education Society to persuade the British government to legalize voluntary sterilization were opposed by Catholics and by the Labour Party. The American Eugenics Society initially gained some Catholic supporters, but Catholic support declined following the 1930 papal encyclical Casti connubii. In this, Pope Pius XI explicitly condemned sterilization laws: “Public magistrates have no direct power over the bodies of their subjects; therefore, where no crime has taken place and there is no cause present for grave punishment, they can never directly harm, or tamper with the integrity of the body, either for the reasons of eugenics or for any other reason.”
As a social movement, eugenics reached its greatest popularity in the early decades of the 20th century, when it was practiced around the world and promoted by governments, institutions, and influential individuals. Many countries enacted various eugenics policies, including: genetic screenings, birth control, promoting differential birth rates, marriage restrictions, segregation (both racial segregation and sequestering the mentally ill), compulsory sterilization, forced abortions or forced pregnancies, ultimately culminating in genocide.
The scientific reputation of eugenics started to decline in the 1930s, a time when Ernst Rdin used eugenics as a justification for the racial policies of Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler had praised and incorporated eugenic ideas in Mein Kampf in 1925 and emulated eugenic legislation for the sterilization of “defectives” that had been pioneered in the United States once he took power. Some common early 20th century eugenics methods involved identifying and classifying individuals and their families, including the poor, mentally ill, blind, deaf, developmentally disabled, promiscuous women, homosexuals, and racial groups (such as the Roma and Jews in Nazi Germany) as “degenerate” or “unfit”, and therefore led to segregation, institutionalization, sterilization, euthanasia, and even mass murder. The Nazi practice of euthanasia was carried out on hospital patients in the Aktion T4 centers such as Hartheim Castle.
By the end of World War II, many discriminatory eugenics laws were abandoned, having become associated with Nazi Germany. H. G. Wells, who had called for “the sterilization of failures” in 1904, stated in his 1940 book The Rights of Man: Or What are we fighting for? that among the human rights, which he believed should be available to all people, was “a prohibition on mutilation, sterilization, torture, and any bodily punishment”. After World War II, the practice of “imposing measures intended to prevent births within [a national, ethnical, racial or religious] group” fell within the definition of the new international crime of genocide, set out in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union also proclaims “the prohibition of eugenic practices, in particular those aiming at selection of persons”. In spite of the decline in discriminatory eugenics laws, some government mandated sterilizations continued into the 21st century. During the ten years President Alberto Fujimori led Peru from 1990 to 2000, 2,000 persons were allegedly involuntarily sterilized. China maintained its one-child policy until 2015 as well as a suite of other eugenics based legislation to reduce population size and manage fertility rates of different populations. In 2007 the United Nations reported coercive sterilizations and hysterectomies in Uzbekistan. During the years 2005 to 2013, nearly one-third of the 144 California prison inmates who were sterilized did not give lawful consent to the operation.
Developments in genetic, genomic, and reproductive technologies at the end of the 20th century have raised numerous questions regarding the ethical status of eugenics, effectively creating a resurgence of interest in the subject.Some, such as UC Berkeley sociologist Troy Duster, claim that modern genetics is a back door to eugenics. This view is shared by White House Assistant Director for Forensic Sciences, Tania Simoncelli, who stated in a 2003 publication by the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College that advances in pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) are moving society to a “new era of eugenics”, and that, unlike the Nazi eugenics, modern eugenics is consumer driven and market based, “where children are increasingly regarded as made-to-order consumer products”. In a 2006 newspaper article, Richard Dawkins said that discussion regarding eugenics was inhibited by the shadow of Nazi misuse, to the extent that some scientists would not admit that breeding humans for certain abilities is at all possible. He believes that it is not physically different from breeding domestic animals for traits such as speed or herding skill. Dawkins felt that enough time had elapsed to at least ask just what the ethical differences were between breeding for ability versus training athletes or forcing children to take music lessons, though he could think of persuasive reasons to draw the distinction.
Lee Kuan Yew, the Founding Father of Singapore, started promoting eugenics as early as 1983.
In October 2015, the United Nations’ International Bioethics Committee wrote that the ethical problems of human genetic engineering should not be confused with the ethical problems of the 20th century eugenics movements. However, it is still problematic because it challenges the idea of human equality and opens up new forms of discrimination and stigmatization for those who do not want, or cannot afford, the technology.
Transhumanism is often associated with eugenics, although most transhumanists holding similar views nonetheless distance themselves from the term “eugenics” (preferring “germinal choice” or “reprogenetics”) to avoid having their position confused with the discredited theories and practices of early-20th-century eugenic movements.
Prenatal screening can be considered a form of contemporary eugenics because it may lead to abortions of children with undesirable traits.
The term eugenics and its modern field of study were first formulated by Francis Galton in 1883, drawing on the recent work of his half-cousin Charles Darwin. Galton published his observations and conclusions in his book Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development.
The origins of the concept began with certain interpretations of Mendelian inheritance and the theories of August Weismann. The word eugenics is derived from the Greek word eu (“good” or “well”) and the suffix -gens (“born”), and was coined by Galton in 1883 to replace the word “stirpiculture”, which he had used previously but which had come to be mocked due to its perceived sexual overtones. Galton defined eugenics as “the study of all agencies under human control which can improve or impair the racial quality of future generations”.
Historically, the term eugenics has referred to everything from prenatal care for mothers to forced sterilization and euthanasia. To population geneticists, the term has included the avoidance of inbreeding without altering allele frequencies; for example, J. B. S. Haldane wrote that “the motor bus, by breaking up inbred village communities, was a powerful eugenic agent.” Debate as to what exactly counts as eugenics continues today.
Edwin Black, journalist and author of War Against the Weak, claims eugenics is often deemed a pseudoscience because what is defined as a genetic improvement of a desired trait is often deemed a cultural choice rather than a matter that can be determined through objective scientific inquiry. The most disputed aspect of eugenics has been the definition of “improvement” of the human gene pool, such as what is a beneficial characteristic and what is a defect. Historically, this aspect of eugenics was tainted with scientific racism and pseudoscience.
Early eugenists were mostly concerned with factors of perceived intelligence that often correlated strongly with social class. Some of these early eugenists include Karl Pearson and Walter Weldon, who worked on this at the University College London.
Eugenics also had a place in medicine. In his lecture “Darwinism, Medical Progress and Eugenics”, Karl Pearson said that everything concerning eugenics fell into the field of medicine. He basically placed the two words as equivalents. He was supported in part by the fact that Francis Galton, the father of eugenics, also had medical training.
Eugenic policies have been conceptually divided into two categories. Positive eugenics is aimed at encouraging reproduction among the genetically advantaged; for example, the reproduction of the intelligent, the healthy, and the successful. Possible approaches include financial and political stimuli, targeted demographic analyses, in vitro fertilization, egg transplants, and cloning. The movie Gattaca provides a fictional example of a dystopian society that uses eugenics to decided what you are capable of and your place in the world. Negative eugenics aimed to eliminate, through sterilization or segregation, those deemed physically, mentally, or morally “undesirable”. This includes abortions, sterilization, and other methods of family planning. Both positive and negative eugenics can be coercive; abortion for fit women, for example, was illegal in Nazi Germany.
Jon Entine claims that eugenics simply means “good genes” and using it as synonym for genocide is an “all-too-common distortion of the social history of genetics policy in the United States.” According to Entine, eugenics developed out of the Progressive Era and not “Hitler’s twisted Final Solution”.
According to Richard Lynn, eugenics may be divided into two main categories based on the ways in which the methods of eugenics can be applied.
The first major challenge to conventional eugenics based upon genetic inheritance was made in 1915 by Thomas Hunt Morgan. He demonstrated the event of genetic mutation occurring outside of inheritance involving the discovery of the hatching of a fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) with white eyes from a family with red eyes. Morgan claimed that this demonstrated that major genetic changes occurred outside of inheritance and that the concept of eugenics based upon genetic inheritance was not completely scientifically accurate. Additionally, Morgan criticized the view that subjective traits, such as intelligence and criminality, were caused by heredity because he believed that the definitions of these traits varied and that accurate work in genetics could only be done when the traits being studied were accurately defined. Despite Morgan’s public rejection of eugenics, much of his genetic research was absorbed by eugenics.
The heterozygote test is used for the early detection of recessive hereditary diseases, allowing for couples to determine if they are at risk of passing genetic defects to a future child. The goal of the test is to estimate the likelihood of passing the hereditary disease to future descendants.
Recessive traits can be severely reduced, but never eliminated unless the complete genetic makeup of all members of the pool was known, as aforementioned. As only very few undesirable traits, such as Huntington’s disease, are dominant, it could be argued[by whom?] from certain perspectives that the practicality of “eliminating” traits is quite low.
There are examples of eugenic acts that managed to lower the prevalence of recessive diseases, although not influencing the prevalence of heterozygote carriers of those diseases. The elevated prevalence of certain genetically transmitted diseases among the Ashkenazi Jewish population (TaySachs, cystic fibrosis, Canavan’s disease, and Gaucher’s disease), has been decreased in current populations by the application of genetic screening.
Pleiotropy occurs when one gene influences multiple, seemingly unrelated phenotypic traits, an example being phenylketonuria, which is a human disease that affects multiple systems but is caused by one gene defect. Andrzej Pkalski, from the University of Wrocaw, argues that eugenics can cause harmful loss of genetic diversity if a eugenics program selects a pleiotropic gene that could possibly be associated with a positive trait. Pekalski uses the example of a coercive government eugenics program that prohibits people with myopia from breeding but has the unintended consequence of also selecting against high intelligence since the two go together.
Eugenic policies could also lead to loss of genetic diversity, in which case a culturally accepted “improvement” of the gene pool could very likelyas evidenced in numerous instances in isolated island populations result in extinction due to increased vulnerability to disease, reduced ability to adapt to environmental change, and other factors both known and unknown. A long-term, species-wide eugenics plan might lead to a scenario similar to this because the elimination of traits deemed undesirable would reduce genetic diversity by definition.
Edward M. Miller claims that, in any one generation, any realistic program should make only minor changes in a fraction of the gene pool, giving plenty of time to reverse direction if unintended consequences emerge, reducing the likelihood of the elimination of desirable genes. Miller also argues that any appreciable reduction in diversity is so far in the future that little concern is needed for now.
While the science of genetics has increasingly provided means by which certain characteristics and conditions can be identified and understood, given the complexity of human genetics, culture, and psychology, at this point no agreed objective means of determining which traits might be ultimately desirable or undesirable. Some diseases such as sickle-cell disease and cystic fibrosis respectively confer immunity to malaria and resistance to cholera when a single copy of the recessive allele is contained within the genotype of the individual. Reducing the instance of sickle-cell disease genes in Africa where malaria is a common and deadly disease could indeed have extremely negative net consequences.
However, some genetic diseases cause people to consider some elements of eugenics.
Societal and political consequences of eugenics call for a place in the discussion on the ethics behind the eugenics movement. Many of the ethical concerns regarding eugenics arise from its controversial past, prompting a discussion on what place, if any, it should have in the future. Advances in science have changed eugenics. In the past, eugenics had more to do with sterilization and enforced reproduction laws. Now, in the age of a progressively mapped genome, embryos can be tested for susceptibility to disease, gender, and genetic defects, and alternative methods of reproduction such as in vitro fertilization are becoming more common. Therefore, eugenics is no longer ex post facto regulation of the living but instead preemptive action on the unborn.
With this change, however, there are ethical concerns which lack adequate attention, and which must be addressed before eugenic policies can be properly implemented in the future. Sterilized individuals, for example, could volunteer for the procedure, albeit under incentive or duress, or at least voice their opinion. The unborn fetus on which these new eugenic procedures are performed cannot speak out, as the fetus lacks the voice to consent or to express his or her opinion. Philosophers disagree about the proper framework for reasoning about such actions, which change the very identity and existence of future persons.
A common criticism of eugenics is that “it inevitably leads to measures that are unethical”. Some fear future “eugenics wars” as the worst-case scenario: the return of coercive state-sponsored genetic discrimination and human rights violations such as compulsory sterilization of persons with genetic defects, the killing of the institutionalized and, specifically, segregation and genocide of races perceived as inferior. Health law professor George Annas and technology law professor Lori Andrews are prominent advocates of the position that the use of these technologies could lead to such human-posthuman caste warfare.
In his 2003 book Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, environmental ethicist Bill McKibben argued at length against germinal choice technology and other advanced biotechnological strategies for human enhancement. He writes that it would be morally wrong for humans to tamper with fundamental aspects of themselves (or their children) in an attempt to overcome universal human limitations, such as vulnerability to aging, maximum life span and biological constraints on physical and cognitive ability. Attempts to “improve” themselves through such manipulation would remove limitations that provide a necessary context for the experience of meaningful human choice. He claims that human lives would no longer seem meaningful in a world where such limitations could be overcome with technology. Even the goal of using germinal choice technology for clearly therapeutic purposes should be relinquished, since it would inevitably produce temptations to tamper with such things as cognitive capacities. He argues that it is possible for societies to benefit from renouncing particular technologies, using as examples Ming China, Tokugawa Japan and the contemporary Amish.
Some, for example Nathaniel C. Comfort from Johns Hopkins University, claim that the change from state-led reproductive-genetic decision-making to individual choice has moderated the worst abuses of eugenics by transferring the decision-making from the state to the patient and their family. Comfort suggests that “the eugenic impulse drives us to eliminate disease, live longer and healthier, with greater intelligence, and a better adjustment to the conditions of society; and the health benefits, the intellectual thrill and the profits of genetic bio-medicine are too great for us to do otherwise.” Others, such as bioethicist Stephen Wilkinson of Keele University and Honorary Research Fellow Eve Garrard at the University of Manchester, claim that some aspects of modern genetics can be classified as eugenics, but that this classification does not inherently make modern genetics immoral. In a co-authored publication by Keele University, they stated that “[e]ugenics doesn’t seem always to be immoral, and so the fact that PGD, and other forms of selective reproduction, might sometimes technically be eugenic, isn’t sufficient to show that they’re wrong.”
In their book published in 2000, From Chance to Choice: Genetics and Justice, bioethicists Allen Buchanan, Dan Brock, Norman Daniels and Daniel Wikler argued that liberal societies have an obligation to encourage as wide an adoption of eugenic enhancement technologies as possible (so long as such policies do not infringe on individuals’ reproductive rights or exert undue pressures on prospective parents to use these technologies) in order to maximize public health and minimize the inequalities that may result from both natural genetic endowments and unequal access to genetic enhancements.
Original position, a hypothetical situation developed by American philosopher John Rawls, has been used as an argument for negative eugenics.
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