The word “eugenics” comes from the Greek “eugenes,” meaning “good birth,” and the underlying ideas are quite ancient in origin. Plato argued that human baby production should be limited to people selected for certain desirable qualities, and certainly most mothers would like their sons and daughters to “marry well.”
The term eugenics was actually coined in 1883 by Sir Francis Galton, an Englishman and cousin of Charles Darwin. Galton, a brilliant statistician, anthropologist, and explorer, applied Darwinian science to develop theories about heredity and how to have “good offspring.” His original writings called for a “positive eugenics,” which would benignly guide young couples to find the “best” partners, in order to ensure that certain desirable traits would carry on.
Yet the legacy of eugenics has not been a good one for humankind. Galton’s ideas soon gave way to “negative eugenics,” which recommended the culling of defectives and degenerates from the population in order to promote and preserve the fittest. Eugenics movements in the United States, Germany, and Scandinavia favored the negative approach. “Genetically selected” traits included: pauperism, feeble-mindedness, alcoholism, rebelliousness, nomadism, criminality, prostitution — all due to “defective germ plasm.” On this idea, defective individuals should not reproduce, which led to compulsory sterilization. There was a strong racist element as well, which led to selective immigration restrictions.
The popularity of eugenics thinking waned in the U.S. and Great Britain with the extreme forms seen in Nazi Germany. So why are we seeing a resurgence of eugenics thinking today? Social Darwinism and human engineering is again on the rise, with a utilitarian calculus that desires to tinker with our traits in order to make men “better.” A recent post by Wesley Smith entitled “It Pays to be a Eugenicist” discusses the big money available to promote human neurological enhancement. This meddling with our birthright, our human givens, has Wesley Smith scared, and I’m right there with him. Isn’t there a saying about those who forget the lessons of history?