By Andrés Muñoz
In an interview with British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, he said the following phrase: “If cannibalism is our greatest taboo, positive eugenics… is a candidate for the second… In our time, the word [eugenics] has a chilling ring.” The concept links individuals ranging from Darwin to Hitler and has sparked debates worldwide and made humans reevaluate their relationship with science.
But what is “eugenics” exactly? We’ll cover historical and modern elements and, through them, show you why this is all kinds of wrong in our day and age.
Ever heard of Francis Galton? This inventor, statistician, scientist and sociologist was a half-cousin of Charles Darwin. He wrote over 300 papers and applied the scientific method to every element in his life, personality, and mind. Or… have you ever heard the term “nature versus nurture”, the debate that sets human behaviour between the environment you grew up in and the genes you carry? Francis Galton coined the term too. Having read Darwin’s theory of evolution, Galton believed that humans could redirect the “gene pool” by allowing only those with desirable traits to reproduce and thus improve the population’s genetic quality.
Positive eugenics means the promotion of desirable traits in a population, while negative eugenics means the elimination of negative traits in one. Simply put, the entire concept is the application of selective breeding to the human population. While created by a scientist in the late 1800s intending to promote a better society, this entire ideology orbits and gravitates on social Darwinism—the concept that applies natural selection to sociology and politics.
What are these “desirable traits”, and who determines them? Despite any intentions he might have had, Galton was not promoting the welfare of humanity with his ideas; he was instead promoting his society, the British Empire and all her interests at the time.
Forced Sterilisation Of Marginalised Communities Throughout History
The obvious ideological fallout would be that others would take these ideologies and apply them to their doctrines, and their attempts to stay in power, and their attempts to remain in it by oppressing the right to exist of anyone that would be in their way. American eugenicist Frederick Osborn, in his 1937 book, “Development of a Eugenic Philosophy“, framed eugenics as a social philosophy, or a philosophy that has application in creating a perceived “social order”. Four years earlier, in the heart of Europe, it was already being put into practice.
One of the very first acts Hitler passed after the Reichstag fire was the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring or the “Sterilisation Law” of 1933. He established a nationwide eugenics program composed of over 200 “Genetic courts” that forced the sterilisation of anyone suffering from a hereditary disease. Among these were dementia, schizophrenia, hereditary forms of epilepsy, Huntington’s disease, blindness and deafness. It was the largest attempt at “controlling” the population’s gene pool, with over 400,000 people sterilised against their will and up to 300,000 killed under the Aktion T4 euthanasia program.
Not exclusive to Nazi Germany, eugenics and sterilisation of communities was an accepted concept before the horrors of the war and even after its conclusion, with many accounts of forced sterilisation globally. In the United States and Canada, forced sterilisation legislation was passed in the 1920s; some remained in effect into the 1970s. In Canada, active sterilisation efforts were unequally aimed at specific members of society, amongst them Indigenous people, Roman and Greek Catholics, and people of Ukrainian ethnicities.
Sterilisation in the United States was first approved in Indiana in 1907, with famous intellectuals supporting the practice. Later on, it is estimated that almost 60,000 people were sterilised, primarily African-American, Hispanic, and Native American women. The procedure was so frequently carried out in the South that the “Mississippi appendectomy” euphemism was commonplace.
While the forced sterilisation of poor people, prisoners, and the mentally ill was banned statewide in 1979, women in the California penitentiary system were sterilised without their knowledge or consent as late as the 2010s. Notable examples are Kelli Dillon, who was informed that she would have an “ovarian cyst” removed, only to find out several years later that a hysterectomy had been done. The practise was officially banned (again) in 2014.
The course of history has shown humanity why eugenics is a terrible concept. People in power cannot be allowed to control the population, as that very quickly escalates into the promotion of a very determined set of ideas and viewpoints. This dissemination of racist ideas and practices remains a dark stain in humanity’s history. We must make sure to remember this, not only for our well being but for that of humanity’s children’s children’s children.