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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.

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." <http://www.eugenicsarchive.org/eugenics>.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaGenetics in Medicine - Part 2Eugenics - British Origins, Positive And Negative Eugenics, Mendelian Inheritance, Intelligence Testing, And American Eugenics