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The Historical Development Of Eugenics, 1904–1950, Research Methods, Eugenics In The Public Arena, Criticisms Of Eugenics

The term eugenics, derived from the Greek eugenes, was first coined by the English mathematician and geographer Francis Galton (1822–1911) 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 (1866–1944), "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 1908–1910. 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.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ephemeris to Evolution - Historical Background