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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 (1744–1829), 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 (1866–1945), 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 A family pedigree chart for "thalassophilia" (love of the sea) in the family of Charles William de la Poer Beresford 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 (1895–1975) 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 (1875–1967) 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 (1879–1940) at Johns Hopkins University, himself a onetime eugenics supporter. Pearl and his Hopkins colleague Herbert Spencer Jennings (1868–1947) 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 (1890–1967), 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 1929–1933 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.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ephemeris to Evolution - Historical BackgroundEugenics - The Historical Development Of Eugenics, 1904–1950, Research Methods, Eugenics In The Public Arena, Criticisms Of Eugenics