Eugenics: Not Well-Born

Karl Pearson, ed., The Treasury of Human Inheritance. (London: Dulau & Co., 1909): 284.

“Eugenics” means “well-born.” The term was coined by Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton in the nineteenth century. Despite thinking of it as a science, it was not. “Eugenics,” wrote Frank Dik├Âtter, “was not so much a clear set of scientific principles as a ‘modern’ way
of talking about social problems in biologizing terms.” The way to understand eugenics is not as a branch of biology, but a branch of politics. If science asks questions of fact: “What can we discover about the natural world?” politics is about what we should do: “What kind of actions should our society undertake?” Misunderstanding this basic distinction and you misunderstand the nature of eugenics.

Eugenics, which flourished in the years before World War II, was meant to help the human race improve itself by encouraging desirable people to pass on their genes and discouraging undesirable people to pass on their genes. There are lots of problems with this idea: Who decides what’s desirable or undesirable? How do we encourage or discourage people from reproducing? And the history of eugenics includes lots of bad, bad policies. Before World War II, in the United States, eugenic thought contributed to restricting immigration on racial grounds, forcibly sterilizing people against their wills, segregating people in institutions, prohibiting inter-racial marriages, and, in the case of Nazi Germany, contributing to genocide. On the other hand, it did a lot of good like……well…..actually no one thinks anything good came out of eugenics when it was in its heyday. It did great harm and absolutely no good whatsoever.

Naturally, there are people who want to bring it back. Let’s find out why they are wrong.

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