Skip to main content
Select Source:



The term eugenics, derived from the Greek eugenes, was first coined by the English mathematician and geographer Francis Galton (18221911) in his Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development (1883) to refer to one born "good in stock, hereditarily endowed with noble qualities." As an intellectual and social movement in the early twentieth century, eugenics came to mean, in the words of one of its strongest American supporters, Charles B. Davenport (18661944), "the improvement of the human race by better breeding." For both Galton and Davenport, better breeding involved using the known scientific principles of heredity. Eugenics was the human counterpart of scientific animal and plant husbandry. It seemed ironic to eugenicists that human beings paid such careful attention to the pedigrees of their farm and domestic stock while ignoring the pedigrees of their children. The ideology of eugenics was characterized by a strong belief in the power of heredity in determining physical, physiological, and mental traits; an inherent ethnocentrism and racism that included belief in the inferiority of some races and superiority of others (a view extended to ethnic groups and social classes as well); and a belief in the power of science, rationally employed, to solve social problems, including ones so seemingly intractable as pauperism, crime, violence, urban decay, prostitution, alcoholism, and various forms of mental disease, including manic depression and "feeblemindedness" (retardation).

Eugenics movements did not begin to arise in Europe or the United States until the first decade of the twentieth century, and they did not become generally effective in promoting social and political programs nationally or internationally until after 1910. The earliest eugenics movements were founded in Germany in 1904, in Britain in 1907, and in the United States in 19081910. Other eugenics movements appeared subsequently around the world: in Western Europe (France, Norway, Sweden, Denmark), Russia, Latin America (Cuba, Brazil, Mexico), Canada, and Asia (Japan). However, it was in the United States, Britain, and Germany that eugenics as an intellectual and social movement made its greatest strides and, from eugenicists' point of view, achieved its greatest ideological and political effects.

Because eugenics developed in a variety of national contexts with a wide range of ideological and political programs, its content and style varied from one country to another and over time, from the early 1900s until just before the onset of World War II. For example, British eugenicists were particularly concerned with the high fecundity and inherited mental degeneracy of the urban working class, particularly those labeled as "paupers." By contrast, American eugenicists were more concerned with the number of feebleminded who filled the prisons and insane asylums and, after World War I, with the supposed genetic deficiencies of immigrants. In Germany mentally ill, psychotic, psychopathic, and psychiatric patients along with the congenitally deaf, blind, and feebleminded were of greatest concern. German eugenicists were also particularly interested in increasing the number of "fitter" elements in society (positive eugenics)where prior to the National Socialist takeover in 1933, "fitness" was understood more in terms of class than of race. Certain core principles and beliefs did link various eugenics movements together, however, and the three major international eugenics congresses, held in 1912, 1921, and 1932, emphasized the similarities among the various movements while also revealing the differences.

The core principles of eugenics as they came to be understood by the mid-1930s were summarized in a report, Eugenical Sterilization: A Reorientation of the Problem, published in 1936 by the Committee for the Investigation of Eugenical Sterilization of the American Neurological Association. The report articulates four major principles: first, that a number of social and behavioral problems, such as "insanity, feeble-mindedness, epilepsy, pauperism, alcoholism and certain forms of criminality are on the increase"; second, that people bearing these various defective traits "propagate at a greater rate than the normal population"; third, that such defects in mental function and behavior are "fundamentally and mainly hereditary"; and fourth, that the environment in which a person was raised was of much less importance than the germ plasm inherited from his or her parents as the cause of "adverse social status," criminality, or general "social maladjustment." Significantly improving the cognitive ability of the feebleminded or making the criminal into a model citizen was deemed virtually impossible. Biology was destiny.

The Historical Development of Eugenics, 19041950

In most countries eugenics movements combined theory with various forms of social and political programs, from education committees to lobbying political leaders. Before 1925 most eugenicists were well-respected members of the scientific community, and the eugenic ideas they espoused were not considered eccentric or bizarre. The acknowledged leader of American eugenics, Charles Davenport, received his Ph.D. from Harvard, taught at the University of Chicago, and then established his own research laboratory to promote the study of heredity and its relationship to selection and evolution. In Britain, Davenport's equivalent was Karl Pearson (18571936), director of the Eugenics Record Office and Galton Professor of Eugenics at University College, London. In Germany, Eugen Fischer (18741967), the academic leader of Rassenhygiene (racial hygiene), was the director of the newly founded Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Genetics, and Eugenics (KWIA) in Berlin-Dahlem. Along with other colleagues, these investigators contributed solid work on aspects of human inheritance as well as more tenuous studies on inheritance of feeblemindedness, mental capacity, and social traits.

In addition to such conspicuous national leaders, many well-known, rank-and-file biologists, especially in the period 19101925, enthusiastically endorsed the aims of eugenics. The attraction for these biologists was that the new science of genetics appeared to offer a solution to recurrent social problems that had eluded social workers and charitable organizations. Eugenics was seen as the efficient, rational, and scientific way to solve these problems by eliminating the cause rather than treating the symptoms. These supporters all contributed in some way to spreading the eugenics message to a broader public.

Financial support for eugenics research and propaganda came from the economic, political, and social elite and clearly served several special interests. First was economic efficiency: it was expensive to let defective people be born and then spend taxpayers' money to keep them in institutions for much of their lives. Second, the eugenic argument that social problems originated in "bad genes" deflected criticism of social policies and conditions and placed the blame for social problems on individuals.

Research Methods

Eugenicists were faced with the problem of defining and measuring the traits whose patterns of inheritance they wanted to determine. Definition posed a considerable problem when the traits were complex behaviors that were often defined in different ways in different cultures or different historical periods. What counted as an alcoholic or a criminal? How was "feeblemindedness" defined? Recognizing that such conditions are culturally defined, Davenport, for example, lumped all such individuals into the category of "social defectives" or "socially inadequate persons." For most of the behavioral and mental traits in which eugenicists were interested, no objective and quantitative definitions or measurements existed. For the most part, they had to rely on highly qualitative, subjective methods of defining traits and categorizing individual behavior.

One trait that could be expressed quantitatively was intelligence, tests for which were developed, particularly in the United States. In 1912 Davenport arranged for Henry H. Goddard (18561962) to administer versions of the French Binet-Simon test to immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. Although the Binet-Simon test was intended to measure only an individual's mental functioning at a given point in time, Goddard and a host of American psychometricians considered that it also measured innate, genetically determined intelligence. Goddard coined the term "feeblemindedness" to refer to those who scored below seventy on his tests. He claimed, "Feeblemindedness is hereditary and transmitted as surely as any other character. We cannot successfully cope with these conditions until we recognize feeblemindedness and its hereditary nature, recognize it early, and take care of it" (p. 117).

Psychometricians and eugenicists maintained their belief that their tests measured innate capacity rather than merely accumulated knowledge despite the abundance of culturally specific material and terminology in the tests. Even when results from the U.S. Army tests during World War I showed that the longer recruits from immigrant families had lived in the United States, the better they did on the tests, Carl C. Brigham (18901943), a Princeton psychologist who analyzed the data, argued that the trends showed a decline in the quality of immigrants over time, not their degree of familiarity with the cultural content of the tests.

The family pedigree chart was one of the main means for displaying and analyzing data on the heredity of a behavioral trait. The data were often anecdotal and subjective and many times were obtained from second-and thirdhand sources. Typical examples are the family studies carried out through the auspices of the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor. Starting with an individual, usually incarcerated in a mental or penal institution, field-workers would interview not only that individual but as many members of the family as possible. Where possible, medical records would be obtained. The data were then organized into pedigree charts to suggest how heredity influenced many behavioral, personality, and mental traits. For example, in a study published in 1919, Davenport claimed that thalassophilia, or "love of the sea," was due to a sex-linked Mendelian recessive appearing in the families of prominent U.S. naval officers. That the condition must be sex-linked was clear to Davenport, since in pedigree after pedigree only males showed the trait. Similar simplistic arguments were extended to explain the differences between racial, ethnic, and national groups, such as the claim that blacks showed genetic tendencies toward "shiftlessness" and the Irish toward "alcoholism."

Eugenics in the Public Arena

Eugenics ideology was spread not only through scientific but also through popular channels, including the press, exhibits, the eugenicists' own popular journals such as Eugenical News, various movies, "fitter family" contests at state fairs, and even a eugenical sermon contest. The number of articles on eugenics in popular magazines rose precipitously between 1910 and 1914 and again in the 1920s, especially when the immigration restriction issue was being debated in Congress between 1921 and 1924. Most high school biology textbooks included some discussion of eugenics. By the early to mid-1920s many segments of the American, British, and wider European public were at least aware of a claim, made in the name of modern science, that many social, especially mental, traits were genetically determined, that many segments of society were genetically unfit for anything but the most menial work, and that in these respects blacks, Native Americans, and many non-Nordic or non-Anglo-Saxon groups were genetically inferior.

From the start most eugenicists were anxious to play a role in the public arena. A good deal of eugenicists' efforts focused on lobbying for compulsory sterilization laws for the "genetically unfit" and, especially in the United States, for eugenically informed immigration restriction.

The United States pioneered in the passage of eugenical sterilization laws. The majority of such laws were passed by state legislatures during the interwar period. Eugenical sterilization was aimed specifically at those individuals in mental or penal institutions who, from family pedigree analysis, were considered likely to give birth to socially defective children. Eugenical sterilization reached astounding proportions worldwide in the first half of the century. In the United States over sixty thousand eugenical sterilizations were performed between 1907 and 1963. A similar number was estimated for Sweden, while the Germans ultimately sterilized over 400,000.

In the United States eugenicists were instrumental in the passage of the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act. Immigration from Europe, especially from eastern and southern Europe, had increased significantly since the 1880s, replacing the traditional immigrant groups from northern Europe and the British Isles. IQ test scores and data on institutionalization of various immigrant groups for feeblemindedness, insanity, criminality, blindness, and so on were used to support the claim that recent immigrants were less genetically fit than the older, northern European stock. Eugenics provided an air of scientific objectivity for what various nativist groups wanted to accomplish for reasons of economics or prejudice.

Because racial policy and eugenics formed one of the cornerstones of National Socialism, eugenics research and policy found considerable support in Germany after 1933. When Fischer retired as director of the KWIA in 1942, he was succeeded by his protégé Otmar von Verschuer, one of the pioneers in the use of identical twins in genetic and eugenic research. Verschuer eventually took the institute's research into extermination and slave-labor camps, where his assistant and former doctoral student, Josef Mengele, made pairs of twins available, especially for research on pathological conditions. For example, twins (with non-twins as controls) were infected with disease agents to study the effects of the same and different hereditary constitutions on the course of disease. After they died or were killed, twins' body organs were sent back to the KWIA for analysis. Such procedures, when brought to light at the Nuremberg trials, not only shocked the world but indicated the extent to which eugenic work could so easily transgress the bounds of acceptable scientific practice.

Criticisms of Eugenics

Almost from the beginning, many of the basic premises of eugenics received critical scrutiny by biologists, medical doctors, social workers, and laypersons from all walks of life. Criticisms emerged in most countries by the mid-1920s, though the reasons differed widely.

In Catholic countries criticism of eugenics was made official by the papal encyclical Casti connubi of 1930. Prior to the encyclical, however, in countries like France eugenic claims were tempered by the prevailing theory of inheritance of acquired characters, sometimes referred to as "neo-Lamarckism" after the French zoologist Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck (17441829), who had emphasized the influence of the environment as a cause of adaptations acquired by organisms during their lifetime and passed on to their offspring. If such adaptations could be inherited, then the environment had a much larger role to play in changing human behavior than eugenicists thought. Consequently in France prior to 1930 and in the countries whose scientific culture it influenced (particularly in Latin America), eugenics was always coupled with programs for public health reforms and attention to improving environmental conditions.

Russia had a small but flourishing eugenics movement before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. With the advent of the Communist regime, some biologists hoped that the application of scientific principles to reproductive policies, as to agriculture, would receive official support. But many Soviet biologists, recognizing that complex human behaviors and social values cannot be ascribed to genes in any clear way, found the claims of Western eugenicists naive and class-based. Moreover the "hard" hereditarian line promoted by most Western eugenicists was at odds with the Communist views of the malleability of human nature and thus appeared to provide no role for the environment in shaping human destiny. The Central Committee of the Communist Party outlawed work on eugenics in 1930, making the Soviet Union the only country where eugenics was officially denounced by governmental legislation.

In Western countries like the United States and Britain, criticisms began to arise over the sloppiness of many eugenicists' research methods. Among the first and most important critics in the United States was Thomas Hunt Morgan (18661945), a geneticist at Columbia University and prior to 1915 a moderate supporter of eugenics. Morgan felt that the movement had become more propagandistic than scientific and criticized eugenical claims in print, starting with his book Evolution and Genetics (1925). He chastised eugenicists for lumping many mental and behavioral conditions together under a rubric like "feeblemindedness" and treating it as if it had a single underlying cause in a single gene. He argued that because environmental influences on mental and nervous development are so strong and since it is impossible to raise humans under controlled conditions like fruit flies, no rigorous claims could be made about a genetic basis for such traits.

Echoing similar concerns, the English mathematician and geneticist and sometime eugenicist Lancelot Hogben (18951975) made one of the clearest statements at the time about the oversimplified concept of genetics that informed much of the eugenics movement: "No statement about a genetic difference has any scientific meaning unless it includes or implies a specification of the environment in which it manifests itself in a particular manner" (Ward, p. 305). Furthermore, as Reginal C. Punnett (18751967) noted, even if a trait were found to be controlled by a single Mendelian gene, unless it was a dominant, it would take hundreds of generations of rigorous selection to eliminate it from the population.

A more public attack on eugenics came from Raymond Pearl (18791940) at Johns Hopkins University, himself a onetime eugenics supporter. Pearl and his Hopkins colleague Herbert Spencer Jennings (18681947) both agreed with the basic principles and aims of eugenics but felt that propagandists like Harry Laughlin and others made claims that went far beyond any reasonable biological evidence. Jennings wrote a series of rebuttals of Laughlin's claims and a small book (Prometheus, or Biology and the Advancement of Man ; 1925) condemning the vulgarization and racism of some eugenic writers. H. J. Muller (18901967), a student of Morgan, delivered a searing attack on "old style" eugenics at the Third International Eugenics Congress in New York City in 1932. Muller, who harbored strong eugenical beliefs as well as socialist leanings, argued that until the economic and social environment could be equalized, it would be impossible to know how much of any individual's "social inadequacy" was due to heredity and how much to environment.

Except for Germany and the countries it influenced or occupied, by the mid-1930s eugenics began to decline in general popularity and political effectiveness. Scholars have suggested several possible reasons for this change of fortune. Clearly both the depression of 19291933 and reports of Nazi eugenics activity played some part in a general disaffection with eugenical principles. In the depression people without jobs became "paupers" and "social inadequates" overnight with no change in their genetic makeup, while in Germany the sterilization and infamous Nuremberg Laws (1935) showed the extent to which eugenical legislation under a powerful central government could erode personal liberties. An additional factor may have been the recognition that eugenicists were increasingly out of touch with the most recent findings of laboratory genetics. Davenport's and Laughlin's simple unit-character concept did not square with recent experimental data suggesting that most traits were produced by the interaction of many genes and that evidence for a clear-cut genetic basis of complex human social behaviors was almost nonexistent.

Eugenics in the Twenty-First Century

The history of the eugenics movement raises many issues relevant to the expanding work in genomics at the beginning of the twenty-first century, especially the Human Genome Project (HGP). Since the advent of new technologies associated with test-tube babies, sequencing the human genome, cloning new organisms from adult cells, stem cell research, genetic testing, and the prospects of gene therapy, the term eugenics has once again come into popular culture. Since it is possible, through in utero testing, to determine if a fetus is male or female or has Down syndrome or a mutation for Huntingon's disease, cystic fibrosis, thalassemia, or Tay-Sachs disease, should these tests be required for all pregnant women? And if so, who should have access to the results? Can medical insurance companies refuse to cover families or their children if the mother does not undergo genetic testing of the fetus? Some medical ethicists argue that the outcomecontrolling births in order to reduce the number of "defective" people in societyis identical to that issuing from the old eugenics movement. According to this view, it makes little difference whether state legislation or social and economic pressures force people to make reproductive decisions they might not otherwise make. Other ethicists, however, argue that state coercion, as in the old eugenics movement, is qualitatively different from various forms of social pressure, since the latter still gives the individual some range of choice. In addition it can be argued that modern genetic decisions are made on a case-by-case basis and do not involve application of policies to whole groups defined racially, ethnically, or nationally.

Clearly it is in the interests of insurance companies to reduce as much as possible the medical costs incurred by their clients. And some would argue that it is also in the interest of individual families to avoid bringing a seriously disabled child into the world. But ethicists raise the question of what is "disabled" and who should be the judge. These issues have become more pressing the more costly medical care has become and the more ancillary social services are cut back. Ironically, as a result of sequencing the human genome, a project that carried with it funds for ethical considerations, geneticists now know that there is no one-to-one correspondence between genotype and phenotype and that the reading out of the genetic code is far more plastic than previously believed. Individuals with the same mutation in the cystic fibrosis gene, for example, can have quite different phenotypes (some are seriously affected and others are not or the effects manifest themselves in different organs and at different stages in development). Thus in utero genetic testing may reveal a mutant gene but will provide little information on how the child will turn out phenotypically.

While these various ethical issues are problematical, with well-defined clinical conditions, they are infinitely more so when mental, behavioral, and personality traits are the center of discussion. From the last quarter of the twentieth century many claims have been made for identifying genes that affect human behavior or personality (alcoholism, manic depression, criminality, homosexuality, shyness, aggression). No gene or group of genes has ever been isolated or shown clearly to affect any of these conditions, yet the belief that the conditions are to a significant degree genetically determined has become widespread throughout the media and in the public. Reproductive decisions based on circumstantial or nonexistent data add another level of ethical considerations in the growing debate about reproductive technologies. Recognizing the consequences of policies put forward under the guise of the old eugenics movement can help avoid some of the more obvious errors of the past.

See also Biology ; Class ; Development ; Evolution ; Family Planning ; Genetics ; Health and Disease ; Hygiene ; Lysenkoism ; Medicine: Europe and the United States ; Race and Racism ; Social Darwinism .


Adams, Mark B., ed. The Wellborn Science: Eugenics in Germany, France, Brazil, and Russia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Allen, Garland E. "The Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, 19101940: An Essay in Institutional History." Osiris, 2nd ser., 2 (1986): 225264.

. "Mendel and Modern Genetics: The Legacy for Today." Endeavour 27, no. 2 (2003): 6368.

American Neurological Association, Committee for the Investigation of Eugenical Sterilization. Eugenical Sterilization: A Re-orientation of the Problem. New York: Macmillan, 1936.

Barkan, Elazar. The Retreat of Scientific Racism: Changing Concepts of Race in Britain and the United States between the World Wars. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Broberg, Gunnar, and Nils Roll-Hansen, eds. Eugenics and the Welfare State: Sterilization Policy in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1996.

Carlson, Elof Axel. The Unfit: A History of a Bad Idea. Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2001.

Chase, Allan. The Legacy of Malthus. New York: Knopf, 1977.

Davenport, Charles B. Naval Officers, Their Heredity and Development. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1919.

Davenport, Charles B., et al. The Study of Human Heredity. Eugenics Record Office Bulletin no. 2. Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.: Eugenics Record Office, 1911.

Galton, Francis. Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development. New York: Macmillan, 1883.

Goddard. Henry Herbert. The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness. New York: Macmillan, 1913.

Kevles, Daniel J. In the Name of Eugenics. New York: Knopf, 1985.

Kühl, Stephan. The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Lombardo, Paul A. "Three Generations of Imbeciles: New Light on Buck v. Bell. " New York University Law Review 60 (1985): 3062.

Mazumdar, Pauline M. H. Eugenics, Human Genetics, and Human Failings: The Eugenics Society, Its Sources, and Its Critics in Britain. London: Routledge, 1992.

Müller-Hill, Benno. Murderous Science: Elimination by Scientific Selection of Jews, Gypsies, and Others, Germany 19331945. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Paul, Diane B. Controlling Heredity. Montclair, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1995.

Proctor, Robert. Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Selden, Steven. Inheriting Shame: The Story of Eugenics and Racism in America. New York: Teachers College Press, 1999.

Tucker, William H. The Funding of Scientific Racism: Wickliffe Draper and the Pioneer Fund. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

Ward, Harold. "The Dilemma of Eugenics." New Republic, 24 (April 1925): 305.

Garland E. Allen

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Eugenics." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"Eugenics." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (January 18, 2018).

"Eugenics." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from



Present problems and applications

Theoretical aspects of eugenics

Proposed systems of selection


Eugenics is an applied science that seeks to maintain or to improve the genetic potentialities of the human species. In practice, eugenics is concerned with any qualities that parents confer on their children, because genetic and cultural traits are often correlated or indistinguishable, and because measures that improve one at the expense of the other are to be avoided. Genetics provides the core of eugenic theory, while any implementation must be broadly based on demography, medicine, psychology, and sociology.

Founded by Sir Francis Galton at the end of the nineteenth century, before the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s laws of heredity, the early eugenics movement had an insecure scientific foundation and soon became contaminated with class and race prejudice. In the first half of the twentieth century, eugenics was challenged by the growth of equalitarian sentiments and suffered especially from the demonstration of perverted eugenics in Nazi Germany. Since mid-century, the movement has gained respectability by repudiating its early errors and by assimilating scientific advances.

False concepts are still widely propounded in the name of eugenics, and there is disagreement even among geneticists as to the desirability and the urgency of eugenic measures. While some deterioration of hereditary capacities is sure to result from preservation of physically or mentally handicapped persons and from increased irradiation of the population, the rate of this deterioration may be exceedingly slow. Furthermore, medical procedures that ameliorate genetic handicaps do not usually restore complete physical and social normality, so that natural selection still operates against the defects. Although intelligent parents have in the recent past tended to have fewer children than the less intelligent, early predictions of declining general intelligence have not been borne out. Analysis of present trends in reproduction indicates that the increased use and effectiveness of contraception may reverse this fertility difference (Osborn 1963a; 1963b).

The case for eugenics. Three lines of reasoning support the case for eugenics. First, individual families can be spared suffering and disruption if severe hereditary defects are identified and the parents given medical advice or assistance in preventing further births.

Second, the high correlation between parents and children in mental characteristics has some of the same implications whether attributed mainly to heredity or mainly to cultural transmission. Mentally handicapped persons, whose children stand the greatest risk of mental handicap, should at least be assisted if they wish to limit their offspring. More intelligent parents who can provide healthy home environments should be encouraged to bear as many children as they can support.

Third, even a very small improvement in the intelligence of a large civilized population may be expected to increase available leadership significantly. The argument for eugenics does not depend on proving that present trends are downward but on evidence that in important respects the population would be better off with eugenic measures than without them (Shapiro 1959). The only assurance against genetic deterioration is demonstrable genetic improvement.

Modern governments and institutions cannot avoid taking action in the sphere of eugenics. Every large-scale social or economic measure alters the distribution of births among segments of the population, and this distribution determines the genetic potentials of the next generation.

Present problems and applications

Radiation effects. In the past two decades public attention has been focused on possible genetic effects of radiation, namely, gene mutations. Children born to survivors of the atomic bombs in Japan have not shown significant genetic effects, and this supports the belief that to date the deleterious effects of atomic bursts on human heredity are small in comparison with natural mutations already accumulated in concealed form. Yet in absolute numbers, the new induced mutations are probably numerous and destined to take a proportionate toll in death and suffering spread over many generations.

In medically advanced countries the population receives radiation from medical X rays that may greatly exceed the present dosage from fall-out of atomic tests. The debt incurred for future generations by use of X rays or atomic testing must be weighed against the supposed immediate gains in health or national security. Some drugs also induce mutations, and these may need to be controlled in the future. Among the consequences of induced mutations, it is likely that physical defects would be less of a threat to man’s survival under civilization than innumerable small mental impairments.

Race mixture. There is a broad consensus among geneticists that race mixture in man is no eugenic hazard. In plants and animals, the crossing of races may have unpredictable results. Especially if the parent populations were closely inbred, the new generation may show “hybrid vigor”; some other hybrids may show serious disharmonies. In the case of man there is little evidence for either hybrid vigor or hybrid disharmony, and if they occur they are overshadowed by social and cultural phenomena (Chung & Morton 1961). If some small hybrid populations appear to be genetically and culturally inferior to surrounding peoples, this may be due to isolation, inbreeding, or the quality of people who originate or who join such groups. Gene frequencies are not altered by race crossing but only by mutations and selection.

Population policies. The immediate problem of curbing world population growth overshadows problems of population quality. Nevertheless, population policies adopted now are likely to exert qualitative effects for a long time in the future, and these effects should be weighed.

Birth rate differences between educational classes or between occupations appear in most civilized countries to be unfavorable to social and genetic progress. Eugenically sound population policies would therefore reduce or reverse these differentials at the same time that they accomplish their main purpose. A program to reduce births might, for example, facilitate voluntary family limitation and at the same time extend and advertise the economic benefits of such limitation to the more fertile and less secure economic classes. A program to increase births might best achieve this by assisting with higher education and other goals that deter reproduction by persons of high ability.

Genetic counseling. Genetic factors undoubtedly play some role in nearly all diseases and abnormalities, but avoidance of reproduction is genetically indicated only in conditions for which the risk is known to be high. Even in these instances the advisability of reproduction depends on the nature of the disease, on other genetic variables, on socio-economic circumstances, and above all on the parents’ willingness to sustain the risk. People who avoid childbearing for fear of hereditary defects sometimes have negligible genetic risks and are potentially superior parents. Yet those who seek genetic advice often fail to make use of it. Many universities now have centers for genetic counseling, but hereditary diseases will remain unchecked until family planning becomes general and effective. Whether it will ever be possible to transform harmful genes to the normal form by artificial means is a subject of speculation (Hotchkiss 1965).

Theoretical aspects of eugenics

Heredity and behavior. Gallon believed that human behavior could be improved by genetic as well as by cultural progress (1883). Is there today any secure basis for such a belief? On theoretical grounds, the answer to this question is clearly yes. Over the past million years man’s forebears made rapid genetic progress with respect to intelligence and social behavior. The only known mechanism of genetic progress is natural or artificial selection of favorable variations, and selection produces permanent gains only if the selected variations are hereditary. Therefore, hereditary variation must have existed as long as mental capacities were evolving, and there is no theoretical reason to suppose that it has now disappeared. Such hereditary variation in behavior provides the necessary basis for further genetic improvement.

Many psychologists and geneticists have adduced what they regard as evidence for hereditary psychological differences. The most important variation seems to be that between individuals, whereas the observed differences between races and social classes are mainly cultural in origin. Even the concept of good and bad “family stock” is erroneous; both good and bad may occur in any family, and psychological traits shared with grandchildren or cousins must be attributed in large part to common environmental factors or to assortative (selective) mating.

Natural selection. Natural selection is the only known guiding influence in organic evolution and is a necessary correlate of reproduction in a genetically variable organism. Individuals who contribute more progeny than others to the next generation have, by definition, greater biological fitness. So far as the differences in fitness may be hereditary and the environment stable, the next generation will have a higher average ability to survive and reproduce. At equilibrium the gain in each generation is offset by new harmful mutations. The first test of fitness is survival; but even among the survivors, natural selection operates through differences in fertility.

Although it acts on whole organisms, natural selection produces evolutionary effects by changing the relative frequencies of single genes. In each generation, sexual reproduction recombines genes so that all are tested in new combinations. The ultimate frequency of a gene depends on its average effect on survival and reproduction; if it is to become frequent, a new gene must be consonant with the major existing adaptations of the species. Natural selection is therefore conservative, tending usually to stabilize established norms.

Natural selection is inefficient for at least three reasons: (1) Many deaths or reproductive failures are due to chance. (2) Individual differences in fitness are often not hereditary. (3) Most hereditary differences in fitness are small. Some of this inefficiency can be overcome under artificial selection, but at a price. When it entails breeding from a few selected individuals, artificial selection may sacrifice both genetic stability and reserve variability. The artificial reproductive success conferred by the breeder on animals with commercially valuable traits may result in feeble or sterile strains. On the other hand, natural selection adapts a species only to its present environment or set of environments, and when the environment changes radically the species may become extinct. Man can foresee some changes in the environment and can, if he will, select for long-term fitness. In the last analysis this is probably a crucial advantage of scientific eugenics over natural selection.

The genetic stability of populations. Evolution is slow not only because natural selection is inefficient but because natural populations have a great inherent genetic stability. This stability is considerable even in small populations, for example, with a few hundred breeding individuals. Because of large numbers and small individual contributions to the next generation (compared with most species), civilized human populations should be very resistant to change.

Genetic stability resides primarily in the “gene pool” of a population. Each gene has a characteristic frequency, usually determined by a stable equilibrium between opposing forces of selection and mutation. Sudden changes in selective pressures may have more effect on complex traits than on the underlying gene frequencies, but even such traits are not likely to change fast. Thus, if lactation ceases to have survival value, its dependence on several physiological systems may make it vulnerable to mutations in any of a great many genes. Before any single genetic defect reached a frequency of 2.0 per cent, most women might have one or two rarer defects that prevented lactation. But an increase from 0.1 per cent to 2.0 per cent by mutation would take at least a hundred generations. Defects of lactation that were positively selected because of effects on other traits might increase ten times this fast, but they would be few and represent coincidence only.

Probably all human behavioral traits, except some grossly pathological ones, are controlled by multiple genetic factors and by the environment. Most of these traits are graded or continuous. Natural selection tends to eliminate both extremes in such a continuum and produces evolutionary change mainly from slight differences in fitness among the more numerous intermediate individuals. Thus, the gene pool retains a large reserve of variability and accommodates any new variations that do not have extreme effects.

Sources of variation. It has been suggested that ionizing radiation may speed human evolution by inducing more mutations. While mutations are the raw material of evolution, increased mutation rates now would probably do much more harm than good. First, nearly all mutations are harmful and must be eliminated by impaired fitness of the carriers, often extending over many generations. Second, nearly all of the possibly beneficial mutations have occurred before and are already so frequent that rare additions will not help. Third, the few new useful mutations would increase so slowly under moderate selective pressures that they would remain very rare for centuries.

Variations already present in human populations would suffice to carry human evolution forward a very long distance. New useful mutations that have arisen in the past few millennia are still in the early stages of response to natural selection. The great majority of variable genes, kept at intermediate frequencies by conflicting or inefficient selection, should have an immense potential for improving the species. Some useful genes may be mainly restricted to small populations or to certain races; intermarriage between nationalities and between races will make these generally available. Finally, man’s constantly changing environment under civilization changes the survival value of genes, making some useful that were previously neutral or harmful.

The role of an optimum environment. Early Darwinian enthusiasts supposed that natural selection was inevitably cruel and that human evolution could proceed only in a harsh environment. Diverse environments are desirable since they develop diverse potentials and, under natural selection, maintain genetic variability. But present human environments are often restricting and largely beyond control of the individual and even of the family.

Man’s future environment will probably be closer to the best than to the worst of present living standards. Eugenic planning for long-term adaptation should seek not only to equalize opportunity but to equalize it at a high economic and educational level. This would have no eugenic effect by itself but would enhance whatever selection was operative, either negative or positive.

Direction and choice in programs. A number of experts have warned that man may become dangerously dependent on medical technology. Such dependence, on a genetic basis, may develop gradually over centuries or millennia, but it is evident that throughout human evolution innate physical capacities have tended to deteriorate as compensatory mental abilities increased. In subhuman evolution, adaptability has repeatedly proved superior to specialized adaptation, and intelligence in its many aspects opens the way to almost unlimited adaptability. In any eugenic program, therefore, intelligence, broadly defined, should take precedence over physical fitness.

The above implied choice is an example of problems that would continually arise in eugenics. It is sometimes contended that the planning of human evolution would require superhuman wisdom. In practice, eugenics need not imply detailed foresight or genetic planning but would select for adaptability and diversity among variations already discernible. If the problems were faced one by one and periodically reviewed, they should be no more grave or insoluble than present political, educational, and social problems.

Dysgenic and eugenic environments. The environment is the instrument of natural selection since it sets the conditions for individual biological fitness, that is, the ability to survive and reproduce. For the continuation of our culture, and perhaps ultimately of the species, some other traits are as important as fertility. A society in which culturally important traits are positively correlated with fertility may be defined as a eugenic environment; the opposite is a dysgenic environment. One society may be eugenic within some social strata and dysgenic in others. Any discussion of a eugenic environment requires specification of the traits considered culturally important. One might assume that the greatest need in our culture is for traits leading to superior achievement in one’s chosen occupation. A thorough treatment of the subject would give weight to more specific traits such as intelligence, social maturity, and parental responsibility.

Proposed systems of selection

Promoting optimum expression of each person’s genetic capacities would not by itself constitute genetic progress. Eugenic selection, either natural or artificial, is also needed. Any deliberate program to promote eugenic selection would require much research before it could be instituted and careful monitoring of its progress.

Breeding programs. Next to preoccupation with race, the advocacy of artificial breeding programs has probably done most to make eugenics unacceptable. Early proposals were incompatible with concepts of conventional marriage and families as social units. Since the introduction of artificial insemination, the possibility of multiplying the progeny of selected men has become real. If artificial insemination from donors is practiced, all eugenists would agree that the donors should be carefully selected. But proposals for large-scale use of semen from a few great men (Muller 1960) may attach too much importance to fortunate combinations of genes that have little general value in the gene pool or in ordinary environments.

Assistance to selected families. British eugenists, especially, have advocated financial assistance, resembling scholarships, to parents with good eugenic prognosis (Blacker 1952, p. 307). This would enable them to have as many children as they wanted. Economically dependent families, with generally poorer prognosis, would be assisted in limiting their progeny.

With exceptions for grossly pathological heredity, eugenic prognosis in such a program ought to be based upon a couple’s social and cultural attainments and on physical and mental health of their earliest progeny. Discrepancies between attainments and genetic potential might be compensated by social transmission of traits, so that this eugenic program would achieve limited cultural improvement if not also genetic improvement. If future environments achieve near equality of opportunities, attainments will more closely reflect genetic capacities.

Automatic selection. Some eugenists have been dissatisfied with the potential for error or misuse in any arbitrary system of selection. Others see eugenic processes as requiring both broad application across all families and stability beyond that of most political systems. From these concerns have come suggestions for automatic selection: economic measures or social conditions under which natural selection will favor qualities of greatest value to society.

If the newest methods of contraception become widely available, they may eliminate nearly all unwanted pregnancies. This in itself would bring family size more in line with parents’ capacities for education and achievement (Osborn 1963a). The rewarding of fertility with uniform family allowances is not eugenically effective, but some countries offer other benefits. Highly effective automatic selection would require a more carefully planned eugenic environment (Osborn 1940). This might include high degrees of (1) social mobility, (2) individual opportunity, and (3) voluntary assortative marriage, that is, between persons with similar abilities. It might also require special educational, economic, and social measures to make child rearing more acceptable to socially competent persons and less so to the socially inadequate.


[Other relevant material may be found inEVOLUTION; GENETICS; RADIATION; and in the biographies ofDARWIN and GALTON.]


BLACKER, CHARLES P. 1952 Eugenics: Galton and After. London: Duckworth.

CHUNG, C. S.; and MORTON, N. E. 1961 Genetics of Interracial Crosses in Hawaii. Volume 1, pages 134–138 in International Congress of Human Genetics, Second, Rome, Proceedings. Rome: Istituto G. Mendel.

DOBZHANSKY, THEODOSIUS 1962 Mankind Evolving. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → An authoritative exposition for the general scientist of genetic principles relevant to human evolution.

Evolution and Man’s Progress. 1961 Dæedalus 90:409–586. → A symposium. See especially pages 416–476, dealing with genetic evolution.

GALTON, FRANCIS (1883) 1952 Inquiries Into Human Faculty and Its Development. London: Cassell.

HALLER, MARK H. 1963 Eugenics: Hereditarian Attitudes in American Thought. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press.

HOTCHKISS, ROLLIN D. 1965 Portents for a Genetic Engineering. Journal of Heredity 56:197–202.

MEDAWAR, PETER B. 1960 The Future of Man. New York: Basic Books; London: Methuen. → A simple discussion of some central questions.

MULLEH, HERMAN J. 1960 The Guidance of Human Evolution. Pages 423–462 in Sol Tax (editor), The Evolution of Man. Volume 2: Evolution After Darwin. Univ. of Chicago Press.

OSBORN, FREDERICK H. (1940) 1951 Preface to Eugenics. Rev. ed. New York: Harper.

OSBOBN, FREDERICK H. 1963a Excess and Unwanted Fertility. Eugenics Quarterly 10:59–72.

OSBORN, FREDERICK H. 1963b Eugenics and the Races of Man. Eugenics Quarterly 10:103–109.

SHAPIRO, HARRY L. 1959 Eugenics and Future Society. Eugenics Quarterly 6:3–7.

WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION 1957 Effect of Radiation on Human Heredity. Geneva: The Organization.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Eugenics." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"Eugenics." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (January 18, 2018).

"Eugenics." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from


eugenics The founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, identified it as ‘the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally’. Galton was Charles Darwin's cousin and believed that human evolution could be consciously directed, by using biometry to explain the mechanisms of inheritance that would prescribe new rules for human reproduction. Eugenics, therefore, was both a theoretical system and a social cause, which aimed to bring about social and biological improvement of the human race through the application of the study of heredity to human affairs.

Galton developed probabilistic statistics by inventing the correlation coefficient to analyse heredity — his main interest in the 1870s to 1890s. The idea that heredity could be understood through statistical analysis alone, however, was challenged when the works of the Austrian monk, Gregor Mendel, were discovered at the end of the nineteenth century. In the 1860s Mendel had outlined the ‘law’ of biological inheritance of positive and recessive characteristics. Something of an intellectual rift subsequently developed between biometric and Mendelian research into heredity, symbolized above all by the hostility of Galton's disciple, Karl Pearson, to Mendelianism. Pearson, who held the first Galtonian Chair of Biometry at University College London, refused to join the Eugenics Education Society, founded in Britain in 1907 (and later known as the Eugenics Society), because he believed that they remained too sympathetic to Mendelian research into heredity. In fact the Eugenics Society tried to turn Galton's creed of human racial improvement into a reality by supporting both Mendelian and biometric research into heredity and helping others to develop a method which synthesized both theories, ‘pedigree analysis’ — and it was renamed the Galton Society after World War II.

Following the establishment of the Eugenics Education Society, enthusiasm for eugenics crossed national boundaries and it promoted an international discourse on the relationship between the quality and quantity of population.

Eugenists believed that modern economies encouraged undesirable — ‘dysgenic’ — differential birth rates by facilitating the survival of ‘unfit’ mental and moral defectives, the chronic sick, residual idlers, recidivist criminals, and the unemployable. The productive had to bear ever greater tax burdens in order to support the growing numbers of degenerates, and higher fiscal exactions naturally persuaded the prudent middle classes to go in for practices of family limitation. Declining fertility amongst the professional and middle classes, rising birth rates amongst the working classes, and massive reproductive surges amongst the ‘lumpenproletariat’ — the unemployed and unemployable — had to be corrected in order to avoid race suicide.

The self-appointed mission of eugenics was to protect ‘the unborn’ through a programme of selective breeding. Positive eugenics aimed to achieve racial improvement by encouraging the fit to breed, while the goal of negative eugenics was to prevent breeding amongst the unfit. In Britain, Europe, and the US, eugenic reformers advocated marriage regulation, sequestration of the mentally deficient, and sterilization — voluntary or compulsory — of the unfit. Methods for controlling human reproduction and directing demographic change were applied, however, in different ways in different national contexts.

Before World War I eugenists in Britain concentrated on obtaining the sequestration of the ‘feebleminded’, which included the mentally retarded, alcoholics, and women who had more than one illegitimate pregnancy. British eugenists also advocated voluntary and compulsory sterilization for various social categories, and some flirted with the idea of the ‘lethal chamber’ for ridding society of its unwanted; this idea had its most profound expression in Germany in the inter-war period. In Germany and elsewhere, however, negative eugenics can be seen to have accommodated rather than invented a set of political goals whose origins had a much broader cultural base.

Eugenism combined with other ideological cults in Germany during the 1930s and 40s to produce a murderous science which legitimated the ‘final solution’ implemented under the Third Reich. When Hitler held a meeting, on August 20 1942, to appoint Otto–Georg Thierack as Reich Justice Minister and Roland Freisler as President of the ‘People's Court’, he raged about the need to reconstruct the criminal justice system. He vented a tirade about the dysgenic effects of war which left only the poorest stock to breed for the future. The justice system had to be used to re-balance the equation by killing off the ‘negative’ elements of the population. Punishment was subsequently used to cleanse the ‘body of the race’ of its undesirable members. Criminals — who, according to the Führer, included the frivolous and the irritable — were not, of course, the only undesirables who were being referred to. Cleansing meant targeting Jews, Gypsies, the mentally ill, and political dissenters for elimination. The relationship between eugenics, social Darwinism, racial hygiene, and the Nazi policies of elimination is highly complex and fiercely debated by historians. Nazi population policy could be seen as a mixture of science and pseudo-science which informed but did not solely determine the murderous ideology of Fascism. However, although eugenics may not have led directly to the construction of the Final Solution, it played a significant role in providing it with a rationalist authority. It provided similar legitimate authority to the debate about population quality elsewhere.

Eugenics won enthusiastic disciples during the Progressive Era in the US, appealing to both the conservationist and the technocratic ideas of the movement. Eugenics was embraced by a number of reform movements, which espoused the ideas of Progressivism. Sex educationalists in the social hygiene movement believed that ‘eugenics will destroy that sentimentalism which leads a woman deliberately to marry a man who is absolutely unworthy of her and can only bring disease, degradation and death.’ Margaret Sanger supported her leadership of the birth control movement with eugenic arguments about stemming the tide of the reproduction of the unfit. In the US and elsewhere, however, other eugenists were extremely cautious about the question of birth control. Some were concerned that those whom they wanted to breed actually used contraception most — the middle class and the economically prudent. In Britain the Eugenics Education Society were hostile to the activities of the Neo-Malthusian League because they feared that the widespread availability of contraception would simply enhance the decline of the middle-class birth rate, which was already fearfully low.

In the US eugenics successfully influenced three other policy areas: marriage regulation, sterilization of the unfit, and immigration restriction. By 1914 thirty states passed laws preventing marriage of the mentally handicapped and the insane, together with laws restricting marriage between people suffering a venereal disease, or between those from various categories of ‘feebleminded’. The first state sterilization law was passed in Indiana in 1907, and by 1917 fifteen other states had followed suit. Sterilization was legal for habitual criminals plus various categories of the insane, mentally handicapped, and epileptic. Eugenics in the US also provided ideological justifications for immigration restriction and the development of IQ testing.

By the inter-war years eugenics in Britain focused on the declining birth rate, the changing demographic structure of the population, family allowances and family tax relief, voluntary sterilization, popularizing the idea of the eugenic marriage, and raising a eugenic consciousness throughout society. The British biologist, Julian Huxley, and the long-serving secretary of the Eugenics Education Society in the 1920s and 30s, C. P. Blacker, suggested that eugenics should become a form of social consciousness, which elevated the needs of the community above those of the individual, thereby facilitating the creation of a planned Utopian society.

‘Reform’ eugenics in Britain and Europe in the inter-war period claimed that social systems and philosophies based upon individualism, such as capitalism and nationalism, were dysgenic because rigid social stratification failed to maximize the reproduction of hereditary talents, which were distributed throughout all social divisions. Capitalism, for example, failed to provide favourable conditions for the most able amongst the labouring classes to rise to higher social and economic status and reproduce their hereditary endowments. Equally, the least able in all classes were not prevented from reproducing their inadequacies in their offspring. In place of the class system, a eugenic utopia would provide an equalized environment maximizing the possibility for the expression of desirable genetic qualities. Improvement of the social environment was crucial if a eugenically sound society was to be achieved.

While concern over the differential birth rate remained central amongst eugenic thinkers, the demographic debate broadened to include discussions of the changing age structure of the population. The transformation of the demographic structure of modern industrial societies, with smaller productive populations supporting expanding numbers of ageing, chronically sick, and unproductive dependants, led eugenists in Britain and Europe to advocate the introduction of family allowances and tax relief to encourage large families amongst both the working and the middle classes in order to check these trends. The broadening of the demographic debate was accompanied by the modernization of discussions about sterilization. The eugenic campaign for voluntary sterilization in Britain and elsewhere in Europe now suggested that the people most likely to be enthusiastic about legal voluntary sterilization would be working-class mothers with no other access to reliable birth control.

Eugenism in this period became a loose synthesis of widely divergent ideologies. The Eugenics Review reflected the broad cross-section of eugenic interpretations of demography and degeneration. British eugenists were enthusiastic about the first sterilization laws set up in Germany in 1933, admired the Nazi policy of family allowance and tax relief, which assisted ‘Aryan’ early marriage and large families, and approved of the courage of the new regime in introducing compulsory sterilization of the mentally defective. However, British eugenists were at pains to point out the differences between German and British proposals for legal sterilization. The British Eugenics Society wanted a law based on consent, with legal protection for the ‘liberty of the individual’. Blacker, in particular, perceived the need, early on, publicly to separate the identity of British from German eugenics, although he was privately aware of the members of the Society who wholeheartedly approved of the German measures.

In Britain, Europe, and the US, the popular appeal and intellectual legitimacy of eugenics declined after World War II following revelations of the mass murder perpetrated by the Third Reich. Nevertheless, eugenic ideology did continue to influence post-war ideas about the social applications of medicine. Enthusiastic supporters of social medicine, for example, believed that a form of whole-person clinical practice should mix prevention and cure by synthesizing an understanding of the effects of environment and endowment upon physiological variability. In this context doctors could use knowledge of susceptibilities to advise a pattern of life and a policy of reproduction for their patients which would prevent the onset of disease either in themselves or their offspring. Such ideas eventually provided a blueprint for genetic counselling.

The development of molecular biology and embryology since World War II have greatly enhanced the possibilities of genetically engineering future populations. While genetic counselling has currently been limited to providing prospective parents with advice about known hereditary diseases, such as Huntington's Chorea and Cystic Fibrosis, there has been popular speculation about the possibility of ‘designing’ the babies of the future. Tests for fetal gender have already resulted in controversial abortion practices amongst communities throughout the world who place a higher cultural value on a male than a female life.

For the first three decades after World War II, genetics limited its investigations largely to the hereditary nature of physiological diseases and characteristics. By contrast, contemporary molecular biology is once again beginning to cross into the social and psychological realm by claiming to be able to identify the genetic source of various forms of behaviour. The determinants of human behaviour, however, continue to be highly disputed amongst social, psychological, and biological scientists, and what has been identified in the Western media as the ‘New Eugenics’ is once again at the forefront of public debate. Some public commentators from both the scientific and lay communities have speculated that this debate is likely to become one of the most urgent in the post-industrial societies of the twenty-first century.

Dorothy Porter


Evans, R. (1997). In Search of Social Darwinism. The histiography of the concept. In Medicine and modernity. Public health and medical care in nineteenth and twentieth century Germany, (ed. M. Berg and G. Cocks). Cambridge University Press.
Kevles, D. (1985). In the name of Eugenics. Genetics and the uses of human heredity. Knopf, New York.
Mazumdar, P. M. H. (1992). Eugenics, genetics and human failings. Routledge, London.
Soloway, R. (1990). Demography and degeneration. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.

See also genocide; heredity; sterilization.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"eugenics." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"eugenics." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . (January 18, 2018).

"eugenics." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from



While the idea of improving humans through selective breeding is at least as old as the ancient Greeks, it gained widespread prominence after 1869. In 1883, Sir Francis Galton coined the word "eugenics," from the Greek word eugenes, meaning "well-born" or "hereditarily endowed with noble qualities," to describe this new science of directed human evolution. Galton's work, and the subsequent rediscovery of Gregor Mendel's genetic studies, convinced many scientists and social reformers that eugenic control over heredity could improve human life.

Galton's ideas swept America during the Progressive Era of the early twentieth century. At that time, many scientists and laypeople believed that eugenics could facilitate social progress by eradicating problems ranging from alcoholism and prostitution to poverty and disease. What better way to prevent such misfortunes, eugenicists asked, than to prevent the birth of people genetically susceptible to them? Eugenics seemed to offer an efficient and humane solution to society's ills. Unfounded hope in this imperfect science, however, ultimately contributed to repressive social policies, including marriage and immigration restriction, forced sterilization, segregation, and, in the case of Nazi Germany, euthanasia ("mercy killing") and genocide, all in the name of human betterment.

British Origins

Charles Darwin's theories of evolution by natural selection rocked the scientific world in 1859, and prompted his cousin, Galton, to study human evolution. Galton's first book, Hereditary Genius (1869), analyzed famous European families and concluded that "genius," which he defined as the ability to succeed in life, tended to run in families. Galton believed that individuals inherited the traits that destined them to either success or failure. Thus, success resulted from biology, not from the wealth or poverty of a person's background, and controlled breeding might permanently improve the human race.

Galton hoped to speed and direct human evolution. Writing in Inquiries into the Human Faculty and Its Development (1883), Galton defined eugenics as "the science of improving stock to give the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had." Familiar with farmers' achievements in breeding more-valuable plants and animals, Galton believed that such methods were "equally applicable to men, brutes, and plants."

Galton identified those fit folk who should have children and stigmatized those he deemed unfit for parenthood. He also believed then-accepted notions of "racial" superiority and inferiority, had more to do with class and cultural prejudice than with biological difference. Galton assumed that wealthy people like himself were fit, whereas poor folk were unfit. Northern European "white" people stood atop the evolutionary scale of fitness, followed by "whites" from southeast Europe, Asians, Native Americans, Africans, and Australian Aborigines.

Positive and Negative Eugenics

Galton identified positive and negative eugenics as the two basic methods to improve humanity. Positive eugenics used education, tax incentives, and childbirth stipends to encourage procreation among fit people. Education would convince fit parents to have more children, out of a desire to increase the common good. Lower taxes on larger families and the provision of a small birth payment for each "eugenic" child would provide further inducements. Conversely, eugenically educated but unfit people would selflessly forgo procreation, to prevent the propagation of their hereditary "taint." Believing that neither altruism nor self-interest would be enough to control the unfit, however, many eugenicists also advocated negative eugenics.

Negative eugenics sought to limit procreation through marriage restriction, segregation, sexual sterilization, and, in its most extreme form, euthanasia. In an attempt to decrease procreation among the "unfit," laws prohibited marriage to people with diseases, or other conditions believed to be hereditary. Similar restrictions banned marriage between people of different races, in order to prevent miscegenation . Popular in the United States, antimiscegenation laws sought to use science to legitimize racial prejudice. Since marriage restriction failed to stop extramarital procreation, eugenicists argued for more intrusive interventions.

Many of these more intrusive interventions relied upon segregation. For example, individuals judged unfit might be segregated in institutions such as insane asylums, tuberculosis sanatoriums, and homes for the so-called feebleminded or mentally retarded. Isolated from "normal" society, these people were also segregated by sex within the institution to prevent procreation. Segregation through incarceration, however, proved too costly to be applied to all but the most severely handicapped.

Compulsory sexual sterilization of those individuals deemed "feeble-minded" or "slow" promised eugenic and economic benefits for society. Once sterilized, such individuals posed no eugenic risk; sexual intercourse would never result in pregnancy. Sterilized individuals could therefore return to society and work, rather than remaining an economic "burden" in an institution. Many social reformers argued that compulsory sterilization was more humane than locking people away during their childbearing years.

In the case of individuals afflicted with gross physical or mental abnormalities, the most radical eugenic intervention was proposed: euthanasia. While many eugenicists theorized about euthanasia, very few seriously considered it as a real possibility. This would change with the advent of Nazi eugenics in Germany.

Mendelian Inheritance, Intelligence Testing, and American Eugenics

Galton's eugenic ideas found fertile ground in America after 1900, when scientists rediscovered Mendel's findings regarding the inheritance of physical traits in pea plants. Mendel's notions of "dominant" and "recessive" genetic traits, easily identified in "lower" organisms such as plants and animals, convinced people that human eugenic improvement was possible. Scientists assumed that even complex human traits such as intelligence and behavior behaved as simple genetic "unit characters," such as height or color in peas.

The advent of intelligence testing in the 1900s provided a new way to quantify Galton's notion of genius. American eugenicists assessed an individual's eugenic worth by combining his intelligence quotient (IQ) with a Galtonian study of the family pedigree. Psychologist Henry Herbert Goddard published one famous study, The Kallikak Family, in 1912. Goddard traced two family lines that originated with a common male ancestor, whom he called Martin Kallikak (from the Greek words for beautiful [kalos ] and bad [kakos ]). One branch appeared healthy and eugenic, descended from Martin's marriage to a "respectable" woman. The second branch was composed of "Defective degenerates" (alcoholics, criminals, prostitutes, and particularly the mentally "feebleminded") born of Martin's dalliances with a "feebleminded" tavern mistress. Goddard thus "proved" the inheritance of feeblemindedness, and its social cost.

Convinced that "feeblemindedness" and other complex antisocial behaviors behaved like simple Mendelian traits, eugenicists lobbied for compulsory sterilization laws. Between 1907 and the mid-1930s, such laws were adopted by thirty-two American states. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld these laws in 1927, when Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled that, "the principle that sustains compulsory vaccination of schoolchildren is broad enough to cover the cutting of the fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough." "Feebleminded" individuals were prominent among the more than 60,000 individuals sterilized in the United States under eugenic sterilization laws between 1927 and 1979.

Nazi Eugenics

Eugenics is commonly associated with the Nazi racial hygiene program that began in 1933 and ended in May 1945, with Germany's defeat near the end of World War II. Although the German eugenics movement existed long before the Nazis came to power, scholars have shown that Nazi eugenicists were inspired by American eugenic studies and sterilization, as well as their antimiscegenation and immigration restriction laws.

Goddard's Kallikak study was well respected among German eugenicists who, like American eugenicists, emphasized genetics as the basis of human differences. German racial hygienists also praised the American eugenicist Madison Grant's racist book, The Passing of the Great Race, which Adolf Hitler referred to as his "Bible." The 1933 Nazi "Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Progeny," relied on American examples, especially the model law drafted by American eugenicist Harry Hamilton Laughlin. In 1936 the University of Heidelberg awarded Laughlin an honorary degree for his contributions to "racial hygiene." Laughlin's degree was ordered and signed by Hitler.

The Nazis instituted state-supported positive eugenics programs that encouraged "racially fit" women to reproduce, as well as a massive negative eugenics program that included euthanasia. Ultimately, the Nazis sterilized about 400,000 people and euthanized another 70,000 individuals that were judged to be feebleminded or otherwise unfit. The euthanasia program fore-shadowed the extermination of six million Jewish victims, along with millions of others, notably Gypsies and homosexuals, in the Holocaust.

Demise of Eugenics

Early on, some scientists objected to the eugenicists' insistence that heredity overwhelmed environmental influences in shaping human life. Others objected to the eugenicists' methodologies, noting that family studies often relied on hearsay evidence and biased observation rather than direct, quantifiable, empirical measurements. Others challenged the eugenicists' reliance on phenotypic traits such as body form to diagnose presumed underlying genetic causes. Developments in genetics increasingly undermined this simplistic reasoning from phenotype to genotype.

Instead, genetic studies increasingly revealed the complex nature of most human phenotypic traits. Human traits rarely result from the action of single gene pairs, and expression depends on complex environmental influences. Moreover, many genes induce pleiotropic effects: that is, a single gene may influence more than one phenotypic characteristic. If multiple genes cause single traits, or if single genes are involved in many effects, then any attempt to "breed out" traits becomes virtually impossible. Moreover, if, as most eugenicists believed, negative traits are recessive factors in single-gene disorders, then most "bad" genes are harbored in apparently normal, heterozygous carriers. The Hardy-Weinberg theorem, formulated in 1908, made it clear that eugenic selection directed solely against affected individuals would barely reduce the incidence of a trait in the larger population. To decrease such defects by half would require forty generations (1,000 years) of perfect negative eugenics.

The Hardy-Weinberg theorem alone, unfortunately, did not dissuade most geneticists from eugenics. Many continued to believe, as geneticist Herbert Spencer Jennings wrote in 1930, that preventing the "propagation of even one congenitally defective individual puts a period to at least one line of operation of this devil. To fail to do at least so much would be a crime." Nevertheless, the most bigoted aspects of eugenics dwindled after 1946, as scientists recoiled from the horrors of Nazi atrocities.

The dream of improving human life through genetic intervention remains with us today. While genetic knowledge and technology have changed since the Holocaust, the cultural and political context surrounding the pursuit of genetic improvement has undergone even greater transformations. The goal of present genetic intervention is not group improvement, but individual therapy. Modern conceptions of individual, patient, and human rights reduce the risk of abuses committed in the name of eugenics. While negative eugenics has been largely eliminated as neither possible nor socially acceptable, positive eugenics are still considered desirable among some people who propose genetic engineering for the development of children with superior traits. The ethical issues surrounding genetic engineering and cloning are still debated in light of the history of the eugenics movement.

see also Cloning: Ethical Issues; Gene Therapy: Ethical Issues; Hardy-Weinberg Equilibrium; Inheritance Patterns; Reproductive Technology: Ethical Issues.

Gregory Michael Dorr


Gould, Stephen J. The Mismeasure of Man, revised and expanded ed. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1996.

Kevles, Daniel J. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. NewYork: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.

Kuhl, Stefan. The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Paul, Diane B. Controlling Human Heredity, 1865 to the Present. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1995.

. The Politics of Heredity: Essays on Eugenics, Biomedicine, and the Nature-Nurture Debate. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

Pernick, Martin. The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of Defective Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures since 1915. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Proctor, Robert. Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis. Cambridge, MA: HarvardUniversity Press, 1988.

Reilly, Philip R. The Surgical Solution: A History of Involuntary Sterilization in the United States. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

Selden, Steven. Inheriting Shame: The Story of Eugenics and Racism in America. NewYork: Teachers College Press, 1999.

Internet Resource

"Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement." <>.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Eugenics." Genetics. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"Eugenics." Genetics. . (January 18, 2018).

"Eugenics." Genetics. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from



During the first half of the twentieth century, the movement known as eugenics profoundly influenced children and reproduction in most Western societies. The term eugenics was first popularized by Charles Darwin's cousin, Sir Francis Galton, who defined it as the use of science to improve human heredity. But that definition left many key questions unresolved: What is an improvement? What is heredity? How can science improve heredity? Who has the authority to answer these questions?

Self-proclaimed eugenics experts, drawn largely from middle-class professional and managerial backgrounds, formed a network of formal institutions, such as the American Eugenics Society and the British Eugenics Education Society, which promulgated a set of orthodox answers to these questions. These groups enjoyed political success dis-proportionate to their relatively small numbers, but they did not monopolize the meaning of eugenics. Public discourse included a variety of conflicting alternative answers to each of these questions, with differing implications for children.

What Is an Improvement?

Eugenicists' diagnoses of good and bad human traits were molded by their particular cultures' values, including their racial, religious, gender, and class prejudices. Eugenicists in the United States focused on racial and ethnic distinctions more than did British eugenicists, who tended to see class as more important than race, while French eugenicists instead emphasized nationality. Eugenic leaders from elite or managerial backgrounds depicted poverty as an inherited disease, while socialist eugenicists portrayed greed and capitalism as the pathologies. Eugenic intellectual leaders emphasized what they called the "menace of the feebleminded," but in mass culture eugenic popularizers often ranked an attractive body ahead of a brilliant mind. Although the subjective, culturally derived nature of these diagnoses is obvious in retrospect, at the time each was presented as the objectively proven verdict of science.

What Is Heredity?

Early-twentieth-century scientific understanding of heredity was transformed by rediscovery of Gregor Mendel's research on the patterns of inheritance of specific traits, and by August Weismann's demonstrations that heredity is unaffected by environment. However, many eugenicists campaigned against conditions from infectious diseases to malnutrition whose causes science now attributed to environment, not genetics. This expansive version of eugenics did not result from ignorance of science, but from a different set of concerns. In this view, calling something hereditary meant that you got it from your parents, regardless of whether you got it via genes or germs, precepts or probate. The 1922 U.S. Public Health Service film The Science of Life defined a man's heredity as "what he receives from his ancestors." What made a trait hereditary was the parents' moral responsibility for causing it, rather than the technical mechanism of its transmission. On this view, eugenics meant not simply having good genes, but being a good parent.

How Can Science Improve Heredity?

Eugenicists often categorized their methods as either positiveincreasing the reproduction of those judged fitor negativedecreasing the fertility of those judged unfit. Positive measures ranged from proposed government stipends for parents of large healthy families, to Better Baby and Fitter Family contests modeled on rural livestock shows. Negative measures included forced sterilization, ethnic restrictions on immigration, and euthanasia. In France and Latin America eugenicists generally emphasized positive measures, while the United States and Germany led in negative measures.

However, positive and negative were meant as simply arithmetic not evaluative distinctions. Negative measures often relied on coercion, but so did some pronatalist methods. In addition, negative techniques from birth control to euthanasia often were not imposed by the government, but chosen by families, sometimes even when they violated the law. Furthermore, most eugenicists employed a mix of positive and negative methods. Both positive and negative methods shared the same goals, based on shared definitions of good and bad heredity.

Eugenics and Children

Different versions of eugenics affected children in different ways. Eugenic efforts to control who had children did not explicitly prescribe how to raise them. But the eugenic assumption that heredity determined a person's essential characteristics could undercut support for efforts to improve children's environment through such means as education or health care. Furthermore, many eugenicists such as Charles Davenport endorsed Social Darwinist and neo-Malthusian assertions that disease in general, and infant mortality in particular, were valuable means of natural selection. On this view, death was nature's method for eliminating children with inheritable defects. For example, from 1915 to 1918, a prominent Chicago surgeon, Dr. Harry Haiselden, refused to treat and sometimes actively hastened the deaths of infants he diagnosed as eugenically unfit. His practice won widespread public support.

On the other hand, eugenics was also frequently invoked to support improved medical treatment, education, and welfare programs for children. The American Association for the Study and Prevention of Infant Mortality had a formal section on eugenics, while America's first major eugenic organization, the Race Betterment Foundation, promoted a broad range of preventive health measures for children, from exercise to clean milk. Eugenicists who supported social services for children argued that infant mortality was insufficiently selectivetoo random, or too likely to kill children with valued traits (such as intelligence). They also tended to define eugenics as good parenting, not limited to good genes. Such views were especially appealing to maternalist social reformers, who believed that power for women would make society more nurturing, and to advocates of scientific motherhood, who sought to professionalize homemaking. These versions of eugenics attempted to help all children, but they still depended on distinguishing between good and bad parents.

Support for programs labeled as eugenic declined in the 1930s and 1940s in the United States, in reaction to the Nazi use of eugenics to promote genocide, and in response to growing scientific understanding of the complexity of genetics. To protect genetic medicine from the prejudiced values of past eugenics, many postWorld War II scholars insisted that doctors should treat only objectively defined diseases. However, medicine has always required some evaluative judgments to distinguish good health from disease. Well-intentioned efforts to keep medicine value-free actually replicated past eugenicists' faith in the objectivity of their own diagnoses. Such efforts could not succeed in eliminating the need for value judgments in medicine, but they could obscure and delegitimate the political and ethical analyses necessary if a culture is to make such value judgments wisely.

See also: Family Patterns; Fertility Rates; Pediatrics.


Adams, Mark B., ed. 1989. The Wellborn Science: Eugenics in Germany, France, Brazil and Russia. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Briggs, Laura. 2002. Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science, and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dikotter, Frank. 1998. "Race Culture: Recent Perspectives on the History of Eugenics." American Historical Review 103: 467478.

Kevles, Daniel. 1985. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kline, Wendy. 2001. Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom.

Berkeley: University of California Press.

Larson, Edward J. 1995. Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Meckel, Richard. 1990. Save the Babies: American Public Health Re-form and the Prevention of Infant Mortality. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Paul, Diane. 1996. Controlling Human Heredity 1865 to the Present. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

Pernick, Martin S. 1996. The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of "Defective" Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures since 1915. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pernick, Martin S. 1997. "Eugenics and Public Health in American History." American Journal of Public Health 87: 17671772.

Pernick, Martin S. 2002. "Taking Better Baby Contests Seriously." American Journal of Public Health 92: 707708.

Proctor, Robert N. 1988. Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Martin S. Pernick

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Eugenics." Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"Eugenics." Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. . (January 18, 2018).

"Eugenics." Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from



Attempts to improve human beings and to understand human differences have often been seen in terms of a "nature verses nurture" debate. The history of eugenics is the history of the belief that nature is more important than nurture in this equation. This debate dates back at least to Plato's Republic. In that volume, Socrates maintained that human differences reflect human essences, that people's behaviors derive from the material of which they are made. As materials scale upward in metaphorical quality from iron and brass through silver to gold, so too do the qualities that make up individual persons. While one cannot know today whether this argument for human differences was accepted by ancient Athenians, it is clear that a form of this idea gained considerable popularity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as part of a worldwide eugenics movement.


The history of eugenics began in Britain with Sir Francis Galton (18221911), who coined the term "eugenic" meaning "wellborn," in 1883. Galton observed that the leaders of British society were far more likely to be related to each other than chance alone might allow, and he searched for reasons. While he might have concluded that the insular world of England's schools and business and political environment explained this phenomenon, he drew a very different conclusion. He explained adult leadership in terms of inherited qualities. It was the superior biological inheritance of members of the British ruling classes, he insisted, that determined their social position. To Galton, nature was far more important than nurture in human development, and by the 1860s he had popularized programs of human improvement through competitions for marriage partners, where only "best" would marry "best."


The late nineteenth century was a revolutionary period in biology, during which environmentalist interpretations of human improvement were rejected. The pre-Darwinian theories of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (17441829), who argued that the muscles of blacksmiths would be transmitted to their children as "acquired characters," were refuted by the research of August Weismann (18341914), who discovered that germ plasm was continuous from generation to generation and was unaffected by environmental change such as physical activity.

Perhaps of greatest significance in the development of the American eugenics movement was the popularization of the work of Gregor Mendel (18221884) after its rediscovery in 1900. Mendel, a Moravian abbott, had carefully bred peas in his garden and recorded the patterns of inheritance of their different traits for many generations. He discovered that he could control traits such as size, color, and texture, and could therefore predict the qualities of future generations with mathematical precision. These discoveries seemed to support the eugenicists' belief that a wide variety of complex moral, intellectual, and social traits in humans could also be easily explained by heredity. In addition to intelligence, hereditary traits were thought to include patriotism, shiftlessness, pauperism, boat building, and a tendency to wander.


For many early-twentieth-century intellectuals it seemed that heredity was of signal importance in predicting human performance and that it should play a key role in social policies and programs for human betterment. Anxious about their social status and changes in America's ethnic makeup, they saw eugenics as a way to legitimize racial and ethnic interpretations of differential human worth. Based upon this mix of scientific and pseudoscientific theories, they pursued a series of specific eugenic policies. In the 1920s, for example, they actively supported laws for state-sponsored sterilization and the restriction of immigration from southern and eastern Europe. School textbooks lauded the promise of eugenics, movies such as the Black Stork (1917) and Tomorrow's Children (1934) warned of eugenic decline, and Fitter Families contests offered medals to those of presumed eugenic excellence. Perhaps the most destructive of these policies was the adoption of a model American eugenic sterilization law by the National Socialist government in Germany, which contributed to policies that eventually led to the taking of more than 6 million lives in the Holocaust.


By the late 1920s, the implications of the work on chromosomal inheritance by Thomas Hunt Morgan and his students at Columbia University made it clear that human intelligence and morality were far too complex to be understood in simple Mendelian terms. Such efforts helped discredit eugenics as a scientific endeavor. Yet the belief in hereditary determinism has regularly returned to claim a place in public policy. It is of course true that conditions such as Huntington's disease and Down syndrome can be traced to inherited genetic or chromosomal abnormalities. But it is now the consensus of the majority of scientists who have studied the issue that complex human behavior is determined by multiple interacting factors.

While eugenics was indeed popular during the first half of the twentieth century, it was poor science and was eventually rejected. Discoveries from the Human Genome Project in the early twenty-first century will likely reveal much about human genetics and will surely lead to improvements in medical treatment. But just as people are not simply an expression of their biology, genes do not produce behavior. Genes produce enzymes, and enzymes control chemical processes. Many scientists believe that nature cannot be separated from nurture in the production of complex human behavior and that human traits are not to be improved solely through manipulating nature.

It might be said that there has been a return to eugenic ideas as represented in an increasing interest in in vitro fertilization, sperm banks of Nobel laureates (allegedly guaranteeing an intellectually superior fetus), and cloning. These twenty-first-century initiatives are different from earlier eugenic attempts. This is due, in part, to their medical purposes rather than their racial or nativist motivations. Yet, these initiatives should be subject to careful consideration from the public. The ethical issues raised by eugenics may be even more important in light of advances in human medical genetics. However, despite advances in science, it remains true that policies directed toward human improvement and social justice can best be achieved through political, educational, and ethical action.

Steven Selden

(see also: Biological Determinants; Environmental Determinants of Health; Genetics and Health; Medical Genetics )


Davenport, C. B. (1913). State Laws Limiting Marriage Selection in Light of Eugenics. Eugenics Record Office Bulletin No. 9. Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Eugenics Record Office.

Galton, F. (1883). Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development. London: J. M. Dent and Sons.

Herrnstein, R. J., and Murray, C. (1994). The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. Boston: The Free Press.

Kevles, D. (1985). In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Montagu, M. F. A. (1997). Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race, 6th edition. London: Alta Mira Press.

Paul, D. (1995). Controlling Human Heredity: 1865 to the Present. New Jersey: Humanities Press.

Pernick, M. (1996). The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of "Defective" Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures Since 1915. New York: Oxford University Press.

Selden, S. (1999). Inheriting Shame: The Story of Eugenics and Racism in America. New York: Teachers College Press.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Eugenics." Encyclopedia of Public Health. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"Eugenics." Encyclopedia of Public Health. . (January 18, 2018).

"Eugenics." Encyclopedia of Public Health. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from




Although ideas concerning the mutability of so-called natural human traits have been a part of Western civilization since antiquity, the science of eugenics emerged out of a particular nineteenth-century discourse that had its roots in social Darwinism and scientific racism. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, the English scientist Sir Francis Galton used statistical studies of British families to argue that heredity governed physical ability, talent, and character, and that reputable families were much more likely than ordinary families to produce superior offspring. He argued, moreover, that humans possessed the abilitythrough a system of selective breedingto guide the course of human evolution and ultimately improve the race. In 1883, Galton named his new science eugenics, which he derived from the Greek word eugenes, meaning good in birth or noble in heredity.

Following the publication of his famous cousin Charles Darwins On the Origin of Species in 1859, Sir Francis Galton began his inquiry into human heredity and the use of science to improve the human race. His first attempt to articulate his thoughts concerning the power of nature in determining human ability came in the form of a two-part article entitled Hereditary Talent and Character, which was published in a popular English magazine in 1865. In another article entitled, Hereditary Improvement, published in 1873, Galton established his method for improving the quality of the human race. He declared that his goal was to improve the race of man by a system which shall be perfectly in accordance with the moral sense of the present time (Gillham 2001, pp. 195197). To implement his plan, Galton envisioned the creation of a state agency that would gather, analyze, and distribute important pedigree data, accompanied by photographs and physical measurements, to all Englishmen interested in improving the race. This information would then be used to encourage the reproduction of those families perceived to have talent, and to discourage the reproduction of the masses of individuals perceived to be of inferior quality. Programs designed to encourage fit individuals to reproduce came to be known as positive or productive eugenics, and those programs designed to prohibit unfit individuals from reproducing came to be known as negative or selectionist eugenics.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, eugenics had become very popular among a broad array of Americans eager to remedy the social, cultural, and political upheaval caused by decades of massive industrialization, urbanization, and immigration. Men such as Charles B. Davenport and Harry Laughlin of the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, New York, embraced the new science. Women reformers such as Margaret Sanger also extolled the benefits of controlled breeding. In the 1920s, eugenicists created the American Eugenics Society, and the Eugenics Research Association. American eugenicists played a critical role in the passage of a 1924 immigration law known as the National Origins Act (or the Johnson-Reed Act), which greatly reduced the number of southern and eastern Europeans entering the United States. Harry Laughlin and other eugenicists wrote the Virginia sterilization law that became the focus of a 1927 Supreme Court decision in Buck v. Bell. The court voted to uphold forced sterilization, ultimately resulting in the sterilization of over 65,000 individuals throughout the United States. Eugenic ideology also made possible studies such as the controversial Tuskegee syphilis study, which focused on African American males and lasted forty years, from 1932 to 1972.

Eugenics was not limited to England and the United States. Societies across the globe embraced the new scientific thinking. In Germany, Alfred Ploetz and other scientists applied American eugenics to the new science of race hygiene, resulting in the creation of the Society for Racial Hygiene and the eventual Nazi extermination of millions of Jews, Gypsies, persons with disabilities, and other unfit individuals during World War II. Throughout the twentieth century, Scandinavian countries coerced large populations, consisting mostly of women welfare recipients, to be sterilized in an effort to reduce the number of genetic flaws among their offspring. In places such as Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, eugenics greatly influenced biological and cultural definitions of race and gender, as well as popular notions of national fitness. In Latin America, the state regulated reproduction through different legal restrictions imposed on marriage.

Eugenic thought has loomed large in the public discourse and social policy of numerous countries throughout the world since the late nineteenth century. It has assumed many forms; it has spanned the geopolitical spectrum; and although it fell into disfavor after World War II, it has experienced a resurgence in the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The advent of the Human Genome Project and other advances in genetic science has ushered in new concerns about the moral, ethical, and racial implications of selective breeding. In his recent bestselling book Freakonomics, the University of Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt caused a tremendous stir when he argued that abortion has been the most dominant factor in declining crime rates in the United States. Put simply, Levitt argued that unwanted children are more likely to become criminals, and that since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision fewer unwanted children have been born, resulting in a reduction in American crime rates. Critics have since charged Levitt with being a eugenicist who advocates the selective extermination of at-risk offspring. Although this was not his intent, Levitt has subsequently been forced to defend his abortion hypothesis in a number of popular media outlets. Clearly, and understandably, anything that even remotely smacks of eugenics continues to create a firestorm of controversy.

SEE ALSO Genocide; Nazism; Population Control; Racism


Gillham, Nicholas Wright. 2001. A Life of Sir Francis Galton: From African Exploration to the Birth of Eugenics. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Kevles. Daniel J. 1985. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. New York: Knopf.

Paul, Diane B. 1995. Controlling Human Heredity, 1865 to the Present. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

Proctor, Robert. 1988. Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Stepan, Nancy. 1991. The Hour of Eugenics: Race, Gender, and Nation in Latin America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Michael A. Rembis

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Eugenics." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"Eugenics." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (January 18, 2018).

"Eugenics." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from



The systematic attempt to increase desirable genetic traits and to decrease undesirable genetic traits in a population.

As Charles Darwin 's ideas on evolutionary theory gained acceptance in the late 1800s, the public's faith in science as a source for social remedies increased in popularity, and scientists have looked for ways to "improve" humanity. British scientist Francis Galton introduced the ideas that led to a scientific approach to eugenics, including the concept of "positive eugenics" in which he encouraged the healthiest and most intelligent to marry one another and procreate. Although Galton's theories did not gain widespread acceptance in England, in the United States his ideas were interpreted in programs of "negative eugenics," designed to keep certain people from bearing children. Negative eugenics included such extreme measures as castration and sterilization as well as the institutionalization of people considered "defective" or "undesirable."

Racial, social, and moral issues were key factors in the American eugenics movement. Its victims included individuals diagnosed with mental retardation , psychiatric symptoms, epilepsy , or deafness, and people considered to be of low moral statureunwed mothers, thieves, and prostitutes, for such behaviors were thought to be genetically based. A number of states enacted miscegenation laws that prohibited marriage between people of different races because it was believed that mixing the genes of different races would allow undesirable traits to proliferate in the dominant population. In an attempt to keep the "unfit" from procreating, legislators passed compulsory sterilization laws. Indiana was the first state to pass such legislation in 1907; by 1932, thirty states had similar laws. Prior to these statutes, however, compulsory sterilization had been an accepted practice in parts of the Midwest, and by the end of the eugenics movement, approximately 20,000 people had been sterilized.

In one particularly noteworthy case, the state of Virginia had ordered that Carrie Buck, an allegedly retarded women, be sterilized against her will. Later, Buck sued the state in a case that ultimately went to the Supreme Court. With a single dissenting vote, the Court upheld the existing sterilization laws, with Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes handing down the opinion that it would be better to sterilize a feebleminded woman than to allow her to bear children who would ultimately become thieves and murderers. Recent investigations have revealed that Carrie Buck was completely normal intellectually, as was a daughterconceived before the sterilization in a case of rapewho, before her death at the age of eight, performed quite satisfactorily in school. The daughter, Vivian Dobbs, had been diagnosed as retarded at six months of age during a cursory examination by a social worker.

In some cases, mental retardation was diagnosed on the basis of intelligence test scores. One prominent psychologist, Henry H. Goddard (1866-1957) actively campaigned to keep mentally retarded individuals from having children, and segregated students living at the New Jersey Vineland Training School for Feeble-Minded Girls and Boys by sex so that they could not procreate. Goddard also worked to keep "defective" immigrants from entering the United States. In one instance, he used Alfred Binet 's intelligence test to assess 35 Jews, 22 Hungarians, 50 Italians, and 45 Russians at Ellis Island in New York as they entered the country, and concluded that on average, over 80 percent of the immigrants scored so low as to be reflective of mental retardation. In this case, low test scores are not surprising given that the immigrants were tested in a language foreign to them (English), were probably intimidated by the testing situation, and were unfamiliar with American culture. Subsequent immigration laws included provisions relating to the intelligence quotients of potential immigrants.

Many of the tenets of the American eugenics movement were initially promulgated by the American Breeder's Association. While reputable scientific research did not support many of the ideas of the eugenicists, they did attempt to invoke science as the foundation for their ideas. The "research" employed was often regarded as low quality by the top scientists of the day, and its "findings" were considered flawed. In fact, Goddard's discredited research involving the famous lineage of the Kallikak family is now regarded as an example of poorly conceived and biased science.

American eugenics laws were widely supported up until World War II, when evidence of atrocities committed at Nazi death camps were publicized. The eugenics movement can be seen as more a socially than a scientifically based enterprise; only when the malignant implications of eugenics became clear did the American public withdraw its support.

See also Heredity; Jukes family; Nature-nurture controversy

Further Reading

Bajema, Carl Jay, ed. Eugenics: Then and Now. Stroudsburg, PA: Dowden, Hutchinson & Ross, 1976.

Darwin, Leonard. What Is Eugenics? London: Watts, 1928.

East, Edward Murray. Mankind at the Crossroads. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1923.

Goddard, Henry Herbert. The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness. New York: Macmillan, 1927.

Packard, Vance Oakley. The People Shapers. Boston: Little, Brown, 1977.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Eugenics." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"Eugenics." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . (January 18, 2018).

"Eugenics." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from



Eugenics is a science that aims to purify the gene pool, especially of humans, by controlling reproduction to assure the birth of offspring with desired traits. The roots of eugenics go back to ancient Greece, where Plato's Republic lauds procreation by the best parents. The term eugenics, derived from the Greek word eugenes (good in birth), was first used in 1883 by the British scientist Francis Galton. Advocates of eugenics sought to counter Charles Darwin's theory of natural evolution with human-controlled outcomes. American biologist Charles Benedict Davenport (18661944), founded the Eugenics Records Office at Cold Spring Harbor, New York, in 1910. Davenport's work there led some of the first research in human eugenics during the early 1900s.

Environmental eugenicists emphasized prenatal care and a clean environment to ensure "positive" eugenics. Negative eugenics reached its apex during the Nazi regime (19331945) in Germany, which sterilized and murdered the "racially unfit." By the late twentieth century, eugenics and the Holocaust were linked. Yet earlier, some states and the U.S. government mandated sterilization for persons with severe genetic disabilities, and immigration laws in 1924 sought to reduce the number of immigrants from areas considered less desirable, such as eastern and southern Europe. In the 1950s, and most dramatically since the 1980s, human genetics replaced eugenics as the accepted approach to planned reproduction. Genetic counseling and sophisticated screening for genetic or chromosomal diseases or disorders inform parents about reproductive options. Will labeling fetuses "defective" or "less desirable" reintroduce selection by abortion, voluntary sterilization, or birth control? Some feminists and liberal religious groups embrace freedom of reproductive choices, while persons with disabilities, Roman Catholics, and conservative Protestants fear that it will lead to a disregard of human life from conception forward.

With the completion in the year 2000 of the sequencing of the human genome, determining genetic anomalies or, some say, even the genetic roots of destructive social behavior will trigger the wide dissemination of genetic information. Confidentiality becomes crucial. Some fear that human hubris, like that exhibited by the mythic figures Prometheus or Pandora, will engineer the engineer as well as the engine along an unknown track. Eugenics merged with genetic engineering produces scientific triumphs, moral challenges, and fears about things like human germline alteration and dissemination of pathogenic bacteria. There are dangers in policies of noninterference (as plagues and epidemics testify) as well as in genetic enhancement in which the definition and social policies establishing the "fit" are externally, rather than individually, determined. The slippery slope argument suggests that once certain traits are screened (e.g., color blindness or skin color) they will be eliminated or altered. The challenge is to determine the difference between therapeutic and eugenic measures.

At heart, one's definition of moral dilemmas surrounding eugenics is affected by one's view of knowledge as neutral or value-laden. If "improving" the human condition is a laudable end that genetic engineering can achieve, then this knowledge is good. Some believe that obligations to future generations and exorbitant health care costs provide a moral mandate to screen and treat curable diseases. Is consideration of supremely compromised fetuses, profoundly disabled persons, or comatose elderly from the perspective of financial and social burdens a sign of a highly moral society or an irresponsible one? Hermann Muller, for one, argues that the gene pool is at risk without positive eugenics, while Gregory Pence argues in Classic Works in Medical Ethics that even with sperm and eggs from genetically "superior" fathers and mothers, predicting "perfect" children is uncertain at best.

See also Abortion; Biotechnology; Darwin, Charles; Ethnicity; Gene Patenting; Genetic Engineering; Genetics; Genetic Testing; Human Genome Project; Plato; Playing God; Reproductive Technology; Sociobiology


"genetics and faith." the park ridge center bulletin 13 jan/feb (2000).

kass, leon r. "the new biology: what price relieving man's estate?" science 174 (1971): 779787.

muller, hermann j. "genetic progress by voluntarily conducted germinal choice." in man and his future, ed. gordon wolstenholme. boston: little, brown, 1963.

national institutes of health. draft national institutes of health guidelines for research involving human pluripotent stem cells. bethesda, md.: nih, 1999.

pence, gregory e., ed. classic works in medical ethics: core philosophical readings. boston: mcgraw hill, 1998.

reich, warren thomas, ed. encyclopedia of bioethics, rev. edition. new york: macmillan, 1995.

abigail rian evans

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Eugenics." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"Eugenics." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. . (January 18, 2018).

"Eugenics." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from



EUGENICS, like "pragmatism," was a new name coined in the late nineteenth century for some old ways of thinking. But while philosophers worked hard to explain what "pragmatism" meant, believers in "eugenics" were satisfied merely to use the new word to advance their varied concerns. Both parents and intellectuals had nearly always expressed hopes and anxieties about reproduction and about the health and quality of the next generation. Marriage guides, medical writings, and social reform literature in nineteenth-century America emphasized the polar terms "amelioration" and "degeneration." They anticipated that healthy, caring parents of European Protestant descent were likely to produce better children than those who were diseased, licentious, or from a less "developed" ethnoreligious group.

The English biosocial scientist Francis Galton coined the word "eugenics" to describe "the cultivation of the race" in 1883, but the term only came into general use in both England and the United States after 1900. For the first third of the twentieth century American eugenicists (also called "eugenists") promoted a variety of causes, including the encouragement of fecundity among educated women; birth control for both rich and poor; earlier marriage; easier divorce; breast-feeding; the sterilization of criminal, retarded, epileptic, insane, and sexually promiscuous people; tests for intelligence; tests for syphilis; abstinence from alcohol; the positive value of unrestricted

drinking; country roads; urban parks; pacifism; military preparedness; immigration restriction; segregation of the "feeble-minded" from the general population; segregation of black Americans from white Americans; imperial expansion; and the dangers of tropical climates for European Americans.

In the 1910s the biologist Charles B. Davenport, supported by the philanthropist Mary Harriman, argued that a scientifically authoritative eugenics should be grounded in the new Mendelian genetics and in a sharp distinction between influences of heredity and environment. Davenport's views, however, were inconsistent—for instance, he supported the environmental reform of alcohol prohibition as a eugenic measure—and they were never dominant. The famous 1927 opinion of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in Buck v. Bell, that "three generations of imbeciles are enough," owed more to the views taught by his physician father in the 1860s than to the new genetics of the Jazz Age.

Between 1925 and 1940 the tenuous cooperation among biologists, psychiatrists, sociologists, psychologists, and reformers under the big eugenics tent broke down, and the many campaigns that had for a time stood together went separate ways. After 1940 the association of the word "eugenics" with Nazi mass murder made it a term of insult. Promoters of population control, medical genetics, and reproductive therapies sought to distance themselves as much as possible from the recent past. Yet pragmatic efforts to prevent malformations and to improve the biological quality of humans have continued. It is a reasonably coherent realm of expert activity but one that remains, understandably, nameless.


Haller, Mark H. Eugenics: Hereditarian Attitudes in American Thought. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1963.

Kevles, Daniel. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. New York: Knopf, 1985.

Paul, Diane B. Controlling Human Heredity, 1865 to the Present. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1995.

Philip J.Pauly

See alsoGenetics ; Racial Science .

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Eugenics." Dictionary of American History. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"Eugenics." Dictionary of American History. . (January 18, 2018).

"Eugenics." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from


eugenics (yōōjĕn´Ĭks), study of human genetics and of methods to improve the inherited characteristics, physical and mental, of the human race. Efforts to improve the human race through bettering housing facilities and other environmental conditions are known as euthenics.

Sir Francis Galton, who introduced the term eugenics, is usually regarded as the founder of the modern science of eugenics; his emphasis was on the role of factors under social control that could either improve or impair the qualities of future generations. Modern eugenics is directed chiefly toward the discouragement of propagation among the unfit (negative eugenics) and encouragement of propagation among those who are healthy, intelligent, and of high moral character (positive eugenics). Such a program involves many difficulties, especially that of defining which traits are most desirable.

The first half of the 20th cent. saw extreme coercive application of such principles by governments ranging from miscegenation laws and enforced sterilization of the insane in the United States and other nations to the Holocaust of Nazi Germany. Regulated eugenics continues in some parts of the world; China enacted restrictions on marriages involving persons with certain disabilities and diseases in 1994.

In the United States in recent years, interest in eugenics has centered around genetic screening (see genetic testing). It is known, for example, that hemophilia, albinism, and certain structural abnormalities are inheritable. Family gene maps, called pedigrees, can help families with serious diseases avoid having children with the same diseases through genetic counseling, and, increasingly, prospective parents can be tested directly for the presence of undesired genes. If conception has occurred, tests such as amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling can be used to detect certain genetic defects in the fetus. Embryo screening can be used in conjunction with in vitro fertilization prior to pregnancy to test embryos for genetic abnormalities; only those found free of defects are implanted and allowed to develop.

See J. H. Bennett, Natural Selection, Heredity, and Eugenics (1983); D. J. Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics (1985); M. B. Adams, ed., The Wellborn Science: Eugenics in Germany, France, Brazil, and Russia (1989); E. A. Carlson, The Unfit: A History of a Bad Idea (2001).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"eugenics." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"eugenics." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (January 18, 2018).

"eugenics." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from


eugenics From the Greek eu (well) and gens (to produce), eugenics refers to the manipulation of the processes of evolutionary selection, in order to improve a particular genetic stock or population. This may be achieved either through ‘negative’ eugenics (for example the provision of screening facilities to pregnant mothers, in order to detect and prevent the inheritance of deleterious recessive genetic conditions), or through ‘positive’ eugenics (in which certain groups may be selected for, or prevented from, reproducing). The latter is generally considered ethically unacceptable; the former is an area of ethical controversy. The Eugenic Society achieved notoriety in the early years of this century for advocating various forms of positive eugenics in order to improve the genetic quality of the national populations in Britain and the United States. See also DARWINISM; GENE.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"eugenics." A Dictionary of Sociology. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"eugenics." A Dictionary of Sociology. . (January 18, 2018).

"eugenics." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from


eugenics A postulated method of improving humanity by altering its genetic composition. It would involve encouraging the breeding of those presumed to have desirable genes (positive eugenics), and discouraging the breeding of those presumed to have undesirable genes (negative eugenics). It relies upon the notion of ‘desirable’ and ‘undesirable’ genotypes and assumes that selection for these can be particularly applied. Neither concept is generally accepted as valid, the former because it is often a value judgement that will vary between individuals, societies, and circumstances; the latter because genotypes are often present in the heterozygous state and so are not readily detected. Every human is heterozygous for several different deleterious recessive genes, so that, if these were detectable, no one would be allowed to breed under such a programme.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"eugenics." A Dictionary of Ecology. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"eugenics." A Dictionary of Ecology. . (January 18, 2018).

"eugenics." A Dictionary of Ecology. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from


eugenics A postulated method of improving humanity by altering its genetic composition. It would involve encouraging the breeding of those presumed to have desirable genes (positive eugenics), and discouraging the breeding of those presumed to have undesirable genes (negative eugenics). It relies upon the notion of ‘desirable’ and ‘undesirable’ genotypes and assumes that selection for these can be particularly applied. Neither concept is generally accepted as valid, the former because it is often a value judgement that will vary between individuals, societies, and circumstances; the latter because genotypes are often present in the heterozygous state and so are not readily detected. Every human is heterozygous for several different deleterious recessive genes, so that if these were detectable, no one would be allowed to breed under such a programme.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"eugenics." A Dictionary of Zoology. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"eugenics." A Dictionary of Zoology. . (January 18, 2018).

"eugenics." A Dictionary of Zoology. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from


eugenics Study of human improvement by selective breeding, founded in the 19th century by English scientist Sir Francis Galton. It proposed the genetic ‘improvement’ of the human species through the application of social controls on parenthood, encouraging parents who are above average in certain traits to have more children, while ensuring those who are below average have fewer. As a social movement, eugenics was discredited in the early 20th century, owing to its ethical implications and its racist and class-based assumptions. Advances in genetics led to the development of the modern field of genetic counselling, through which people known to have defective genes that could cause physical or mental disorders in offspring are warned of the risks.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"eugenics." World Encyclopedia. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"eugenics." World Encyclopedia. . (January 18, 2018).

"eugenics." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from


eu·gen·ics / yoōˈjeniks/ • pl. n. [treated as sing.] the science of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics. Developed largely by Francis Galton as a method of improving the human race, it fell into disfavor only after the perversion of its doctrines by the Nazis. DERIVATIVES: eu·gen·ic adj. eu·gen·i·cal·ly / -ik(ə)lē/ adv. eu·gen·i·cist / -ˈjenisist/ n. & adj. eu·gen·ist / -ˈjenist/ n. & adj.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"eugenics." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"eugenics." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . (January 18, 2018).

"eugenics." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from


eugenics The study of methods of improving the quality of human populations by the application of genetic principles. Positive eugenics would seek to do this by selective breeding programmes. Negative eugenics aims to eliminate harmful genes (e.g. those causing haemophilia and colour blindness) by counselling any prospective parents who are likely to be carriers.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"eugenics." A Dictionary of Biology. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"eugenics." A Dictionary of Biology. . (January 18, 2018).

"eugenics." A Dictionary of Biology. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from


eugenics (yoo-jen-iks) n. the science that is concerned with the improvement of the human race by means of the principles of genetics.
eugenic adj.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"eugenics." A Dictionary of Nursing. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"eugenics." A Dictionary of Nursing. . (January 18, 2018).

"eugenics." A Dictionary of Nursing. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from