What Is Eugenics? Definition and History

The Nazi Program and the Eugenics Movement in the US

Nazi Eugenics
The children of partisan parents from Celje, Yugoslavia (now in Slovenia), arrive in Frohnleiten, Austria, where they are met by German military police officers, August 1942. The children, classed as 'racially desirable' by the Nazi authorities, are being re-located and placed in children's homes or with foster parents, where they can be indoctrinated with Nazi ideology.

 FPG / Getty Images

Eugenics is a social movement based on the belief that the genetic quality of the human race can be improved by the use of selective breeding, as well as other often morally criticized means to eliminate groups of people considered genetically inferior, while encouraging the growth of groups judged to be genetically superior. Since first conceptualized by Plato around 400 BC, the practice of eugenics has been debated and criticized. 

Key Takeaways: Eugenics

  • Eugenics refers to the use of procedures like selective breeding and forced sterilization in an attempt to improve the genetic purity of the human race.
  • Eugenicists believe that disease, disability, and “undesirable” human traits can be “bred out” of the human race.
  • Though commonly associated with the human rights atrocities of Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler, eugenics, in the form of forced sterilization, was first used in the United States during the early 1900s. 

Eugenics Definition

Coming from a Greek word meaning “good in birth,” the term eugenics refers to a controversial area of genetic science based on the belief that the human species can be improved by encouraging only people or groups with “desirable” traits to reproduce, while discouraging or even preventing reproduction among people with “undesirable” qualities. Its stated goal is to improve the human condition by “breeding out” disease, disability, and other subjectively defined undesirable characteristics from the human population.

Influenced by Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection and survival of the fittest, British natural scientist Sir Francis Galton—Darwin’s cousin—coined the term eugenics in 1883. Galton contended that selective human breeding would enable “the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable.” He promised eugenics could “raise the present miserably low standard of the human race” by “breeding the best with the best.” 

Portrait of Francis Galton
Wood engraving of British scientist Sir Francis Galton (1822 - 1911), mid to late 19th century. Known for his work in anthropology, he was also the founder of eugenics. Stock Montage / Getty Images

Gaining support across the political spectrum during the early 1900s, eugenics programs appeared in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and throughout much of Europe. These programs employed both passive measures, such as simply urging people deemed genetically “fit” to reproduce, and aggressive measures condemned today, such as marriage bans and forced sterilization of persons considered “unfit to reproduce.” Persons with disabilities, people with low IQ test scores, “social deviants,” persons with criminal records, and members of disfavored minority racial or religious groups were often targeted for sterilization or even euthanasia. 

After World War II, the concept of eugenics lost support when defendants at the Nuremberg Trials attempted to equate Nazi Germany’s Jewish Holocaust eugenics program with less drastic eugenics programs in the United States. As global concern for human rights grew, many nations slowly abandoned their eugenics policies. However, the United States, Canada, Sweden, and some other Western countries continued to conduct forced sterilizations.

Eugenics in Nazi Germany

Operated under the name “National Socialist racial hygiene,” the eugenics programs of Nazi Germany were dedicated to the perfection and domination of the “Germanic race,” referred to by Adolf Hitler as the purely white Aryan “master race.”

Before Hitler came to power, Germany’s eugenics program was limited in scope, similar to and inspired by that in the United States. Under Hitler’s leadership, however, eugenics became a top priority toward accomplishing the Nazi goal of racial purity through the targeted destruction of human beings deemed Lebensunwertes Leben—“life unworthy of life.” People targeted included: prisoners, “degenerates,” dissidents, people with serious mental and physical disabilities, homosexuals, and the chronically unemployed. 

Even before WWII began, more than 400,000 Germans had undergone forced sterilization, while another 300,000 had been executed as part of Hitler’s pre-war eugenics program. According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, as many as 17 million people, including six million Jews, were killed in the name of eugenics between 1933 and 1945.

Forced Sterilization in the United States

Though commonly associated with Nazi Germany, the eugenics movement began in the United States in the early 1900s, led by prominent biologist Charles Davenport. In 1910, Davenport founded the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) for the stated purpose of improving the “natural, physical, mental, and temperamental qualities of the human family.” For over 30 years, the ERO collected data on individuals and families who might have inherited certain “undesirable” traits, such as indigence, mental disability, dwarfism, promiscuity, and criminality. Predictably, the ERO found these traits most often among poor, uneducated, and minority populations. 

Supported by scientists, social reformers, politicians, business leaders, and others who considered it to be the key to reducing the “burden” of “undesirables” on society, eugenics quickly grew into a popular American social movement that peaked in the 1920s and 30s. Members of the American Eugenics Society participated in “fitter family” and “better baby” competitions as movies and books praising the benefits of eugenics became popular.

Indiana became the first state to enact a forced sterilization law in 1907, quickly followed by California. By 1931, a total of 32 states had enacted eugenics laws that would result in the forced sterilization of over 64,000 people. In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Buck v. Bell upheld the constitutionality of forced sterilization laws. In the court’s 8-1 ruling, renowned Supreme Court Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind ... Three generations of imbeciles is enough.”

Approximately 20,000 sterilizations took place in California alone, actually leading Adolf Hitler to ask California for advice in perfecting the Nazi eugenics effort. Hitler openly admitted to drawing inspiration from U.S. state laws that prevented the “unfit” from reproducing. 

By the 1940s, support for the U.S. eugenics movement had eroded and vanished entirely following the horrors of Nazi Germany. Now discredited, the early eugenics movement stands with enslavement as two of the darkest periods in America’s history. 

Modern Concerns

Available since the late 1980s, genetic reproductive technology procedures, such as gestational surrogacy and in vitro genetic disease diagnosis, have succeeded in lowering the prevalence of certain genetically transmitted diseases. For example occurrences of Tay-Sachs disease and cystic fibrosis among the Ashkenazi Jewish population have been decreased through genetic screening. However, critics of such attempts to eradicate hereditary disorders worry that they could result in the rebirth of eugenics.

Many view the potential to ban certain people from reproducing—even in the name of eliminating disease—as a violation of human rights. Other critics fear that modern eugenics policies could lead to a dangerous loss of genetic diversity resulting in inbreeding. Yet another criticism of the new eugenics is that “meddling” with millions of years of evolution and natural selection in an attempt to create a genetically “clean” species could actually lead to extinction by eliminating the immune system’s natural ability to respond to new or mutated diseases. 

However, unlike the eugenics of forced sterilization and euthanasia, modern genetic technologies are applied with the consent of the people involved. Modern genetic testing is pursued by choice, and people can never be forced into taking actions such as sterilization based on the results of genetic screening.

Sources and Further Reference

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Longley, Robert. "What Is Eugenics? Definition and History." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-eugenics-4776080. Longley, Robert. (2021, December 6). What Is Eugenics? Definition and History. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-eugenics-4776080 Longley, Robert. "What Is Eugenics? Definition and History." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-eugenics-4776080 (accessed June 3, 2023).