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What Even Is It? Eugenics

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In 1883, Sir Franic Galton coined the term eugenics, the idea of forced sterilization to eradicate “unfit” traits. From the beginning of the 20th century up until the 1960s, politicians accepted this oversimplified version of genetics as a fact, excusing the actions of Germans leading up to World War II, as well as blatant racism in the states.


To understand the origins of eugenics, let’s brush upon the understanding of genetics in the 1880s. The 1800s in general saw the emergence of the modern study of biology and a burst of interest for the field. On 24 November 1859, Charles Darwin published Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, which is now a well known book documenting Darwin’s observations of traits of finches in the Galapagos. However, its alternate title, Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, gave an even clearer picture of what it implied. This interpretation of his work would be the version Darwin’s half-cousin Galton ultimately exploited. In 1865, Gergor Mendel released his pea-pod experiments. They indicated that indivisible things, now known as genes, determined the traits of an organism. His laws of inheritance also seemed to provide some scientist grounds for Darwin’s ideas. Galton later combined Darwin's and Mendel’s work for his proposition. To him, by blocking the passing on of unfavorable genes, we’d preserve favored ones. He proposed that healthy, intelligent individuals ought to reproduce. Furthermore, at the time, those types of people were typically the rich and white. As a result, Galton’s idea would, in theory, produce a breed of smart, rich, Caucasian, and healthy people. 


Naturally when, in the 1890s, immigrants began flooding into the states, there were questions of race superiority. So people turned to eugenics. One by one, states began to implement compulsory sterilization. First was Indiana in 1907, followed closely by Washington, Connecticut, and California in 1909. Other than California, most states kept the practice minimal and very few people were actually sterilized. 


All of this changed on May 2, 1927 with the Buck vs Bell supreme court case. In an 8-to-1 the court found that Carrie Buck, her mother, and her daughter all suffered from “feeble-mindedness” ,leading to the determination that those individuals should not pass those traits to the next generation. In Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s own words, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Unfortunately for the defendant, the details of their argument had little factual grounds. Carrie’s foster family had raped her and Carrie’s daughter had shown no signs of abnormal mental development. Aside from observations his team twisted to fit his case, feeble-mindedness, regardless of how a court charges, is not inheritable. 

Either way, the court charged the family with forced sterilization and the case became the springboard for decades of nonconsensual sterilization, often for non-inheritable conditions. Eugenics began being taught at universities. Political figures like T Roosevelt and W Churchill supported it. Celebrities like Helen Keller and W. E. B. Du Bois backed this. However did science back it? No. 

Hardy-Weinberg’s equation, discovered in 1908 by Godfrey Harold Hardy and Wilhem Weinberg independently, disproves the effectiveness of Eugenics and sterilization. Eugenics would only have a chance of working in small populations with no gene flow, two critical conditions that the United States certainly did not possess. Furthermore, mutations, a natural (and essential) part of evolution, would reverse much of what artificial selection could do and we’d soon have to face a host of new medical problems. 

Ultimately, this ought to teach a solemn lesson about the dangers of misinformation. Don’t allow the excitement of politics overshadow reality.


Mukherjee, Siddhartha. The Gene: An Intimate History. New York: Scribner, 2017. Print.

Raup, Christina, and Nathalie Antonios. "The Embryo Project Encyclopedia." 1 Jan. 2012. Web. 19 Sept. 2020.


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