Introduction: The Eugenics Movement in the United States

Tim Londergan, December 1, 2019

The eugenics movement began in Britain in the latter half of the 19th century. Exported to the U.S., it then developed and flourished until the 1930s, when it was debunked and fell out of favor. In this series of posts, we will review the birth, development and decline of the field of eugenics, both as a scientific hypothesis and for its influence on U.S. policy during this period.

One might ask why we spend so much time reviewing ideas that fell into disrepute nearly 80 years ago. There are several reasons why we feel it is important to review the rise and fall of the eugenics movement.

1) First, the field of eugenics represents a lamentable period in the history of science. There was a substantial period of time when eugenics was presented as the “cutting edge” of science, and when many leading scientists accepted the major premises of this field. As we will show, the “theory” of eugenics included a number of testable hypotheses. Many of these relied on assumptions regarding the mechanics of heredity. During the early stages of eugenics in the latter half of the 19th century, the field of genetics had not yet developed, so scientists at this time were only guessing about heredity. At the beginning of the 20th century, the principles of genetics were re-discovered, and significant progress was made in this field. However, for quite some time many scientists and historians held beliefs about hereditary traits that, in hindsight, were quite unfounded. We will trace the history of eugenics, particularly in the U.S., and we will outline the “scientific evidence” that was claimed to support eugenics. We will show how these scientific arguments were discredited as evidence was accumulated on genetics and heredity, as well as developments in anthropology.

2) The field of eugenics combined pseudo-scientific notions regarding heredity and race with a number of extraordinary cultural prejudices. This provides us with a case study of how cultural biases can distort scientific investigation. Several lessons can be drawn from the sorry example of eugenics. First, scientists must be careful not to draw unwarranted conclusions from their evidence. Scientists should be particularly cautious when they discuss the scientific rationale for public policy. ‘Expert’ eugenical scientists played a major role in influencing public policy during this period. A sense of caution or humility on the part of these scientists might have helped avoid some most unfortunate outcomes.

3) The motivating impulse behind eugenics was the argument that the “fitness” of the human race could be improved, using selective breeding techniques similar to those used to improve the “bloodlines” of horses, or to create new breeds of dogs. It was argued that selective breeding was not only desirable but was necessary, because its proponents claimed they could demonstrate that the ‘fitness’ of the inhabitants of a given society (particularly Great Britain and the U.S., where eugenics arguments first gained hold) was dramatically declining. This alarming degradation of the population was ‘proved’ in several studies. One such study involved taking genealogical histories of families. It was claimed that the genealogical histories demonstrated that a number of undesirable traits such as alcoholism, diseases or disabilities, poverty, promiscuity and ‘feeble-mindedness’ (a sweeping term that encompassed a vast range of different conditions), were clustered in certain segments of the population. Thus, eugenicists claimed that ‘desirable’ characteristics existing in American culture were in danger of being ‘replaced’ by ‘inferior’ qualities carried by the less ‘fit’ members of society.

4) The field of eugenics was an integral part of the progressive movement. It is important to remember that progressive activists were responsible both for programs that were generally benevolent, and for more unfortunate policies. On the positive side were ‘race betterment’ programs that emphasized nutrition and wellness for mothers and their children. There were also initiatives that sought to identify and eliminate causes of disease, and to improve public health. Progressives also pushed for ‘good government’ initiatives, including a prominent role for consulting ‘experts’ in the social and natural sciences when making policy decisions. We will see that several prominent advocates of eugenics played leading roles in the conservation and environmental movements.

5) However, other aspects of eugenics had more dire consequences. One of the most pernicious was programs aimed at identifying and isolating ‘unfit’ elements of the population. One aspect of this movement was the growth of institutes for the ‘feeble-minded,’ institutions that were generally segregated by gender to prevent these people from reproducing. An even more egregious program was compulsory sterilization of groups of people who were thought to possess ‘undesirable’ traits. State laws that were written and strongly advocated by the eugenics community were responsible for over 60,000 forcible sterilizations of American citizens. In the 1930s, Nazi Germany adopted eugenical sterilization laws, and then extended this to a program of euthanasia among various minority groups. Eventually, this escalated to the horrific Nazi death camps that were revealed at the end of World War II.

6) During the ascendancy of the eugenics movement, American advocates succeeded in creating legislation that had a sweeping impact on immigration policy. The most dramatic example was the Immigration Restriction Law of 1924. This law mandated a dramatic decrease in immigration to the U.S., and it specifically targeted certain regions. The 1924 law prohibited immigration from Asian countries, and in addition limited European immigration. ‘Quotas’ on European immigration were designed to limit the number of immigrants from Southern and Eastern European countries. Those quotas were justified on the basis of ‘scientific racist’ arguments that people from these countries were ‘less fit’ than Scandinavian, British or German inhabitants. These policies were justified by eugenical arguments regarding heredity, and also by the development of IQ tests that purported to show significant differences in intelligence from different ‘racial’ groups.

7) Many of the arguments advanced by advocates for eugenics are currently being recycled in white nationalist movements in the U.S. and across the globe. The recent re-appearance of white supremacist and anti-Semitic groups is not confined to the U.S. Such groups have been visible recently in countries such as Hungary, Poland, Austria and Germany. Although the pseudo-scientific theories that formed a basis for the eugenics movement have long been debunked, nationalist movements exploit issues such as immigration and forced migration to foster resentment of Islamic and African groups in Europe, and Hispanic migrants in the U.S. It is worthwhile to remember the origins of the eugenics movement, and its excesses, when considering contemporary social policy in this country.

8) The eugenics movement raised many difficult ethical issues. One of these was the question of identifying and isolating from the community citizens deemed to be ‘unfit.’ A second vexed question was the forced sterilization of people suffering from disease, or a disability, or from ‘feeble-mindedness.’ Birth control was another contentious issue connected with eugenics. Later issues concerned new techniques to deal with infertility, such as in vitro fertilization. Cloning was raised as an issue, but in the first few decades of the 20th century this was more a theoretical question than a practical one. Several of these ethical issues are still relevant in today’s society, while emerging technologies are providing a new set of ethical issues. A major new development is germline gene editing or gene drives. This provides a mechanism whereby gene-editing can be tailored, so that particular traits have a very high probability of being passed to the succeeding generations. Gene drives represent a technology that could, in principle, be weaponized in the service of supremacist ideologies. We will discuss these questions at more length in the Summary to our blog post. Our series also contains a new post by Steve Vigdor that explains how gene drives work, and discusses the ethical issues that are raised by this new technology. We also review these ethical issues in the summary to our history of eugenics.

Our series is arranged as follows. In Part I, we will review the origins of eugenics in Great Britain. We summarize the career of Sir Francis Galton, the father of eugenics. And we discuss early aspects of race theory in both science and history. Part II reviews the origins of the eugenics movement in America. We discuss such developments as the Eugenical Records Office at Cold Spring Harbor, Henry Goddard and the treatment of the ‘feeble-minded,’ and the development of IQ testing. Part III reviews Madison Grant and his racial history of Europe. Part IV discusses the impact of eugenics on American social and political policies. Part V reviews the actions of the opponents of eugenics, that led to this theory being discredited in the 1930s. And Part VI discusses the current re-emergence of racist and nationalist ideas in the U.S. and around the world.

We provide a list of source material at the end of Part VI of this series.