The History of Eugenics

By Petrus Simons


In the history of ideas, Darwin’s theory of evolution, followed by the development of genetic science, raised interest not only in breeding better performing plants and animals, but also in improving human populations – (eugenics). Proposals to apply eugenics were advocated and implemented in the United States, Canada, Scandinavia, Germany and many other countries. This article provides a thumbnail sketch of the history of eugenics and poses the question whether the idea is dead yet?

What is eugenics?

In 1883 Francis Galton (1822-1911), one of Darwin’s cousins, defined eugenics as: ‘the science of improving the inherited stock of a population, not only by judicious and selective matings, but by all other influences’1.    

Eugenics aims at improving whole populations, either positively by breeding those deemed desirable or, negatively, by eliminating those considered undesirable. Proponents may differ as to the criteria that define these categories and the methods to be employed.

The origins of eugenics

Philosophically, positivism (a philosophical system recognizing only that which can be scientifically verified or which is capable of logical or mathematical proof) became an important part of the cultural milieu during the second half of the 19th century. Its focus shifted to facts and science as a means of mastering nature to the detriment of metaphysics. It helped Charles Darwin (1809-1882) to publish his theory of evolution in 1859. He believed that in the competition for food etc. the strongest would survive through natural selection. The traits so favoured would be inherited by subsequent generations. In 1871 Darwin applied his theory to human beings in ‘The Descent of Man’, a work in which he states clearly a key tenet of eugenics: in D. Galton’s words: “successful, clever people will tend to produce good, clever children and, by and large, stupid parents will tend to produce bad stupid children. And if the latter outnumber the former it will be a poor outlook for society”.2

Darwin’s theory stimulated agriculturalists to improve the breeding of plants and animals by the artificial selection of traits they deemed favourable. In due course, they would also draw on the new science of genetics, initiated by Gregor Johann Mendel (1822-1884) through his systematic breeding and cross-breeding of round and wrinkled peas. Mendel’s seminal paper of 1866, however, was ignored and forgotten until it was rediscovered around 1900.

Meanwhile in England, Francis Galton researched the genealogies of important or gifted people, concluding that the human stock could be improved by letting gifted people breed profusely. Statistician Karl Pearson (1857-1936), and at a later stage agriculturalist and statistician R.A. Fisher (1890-1962), both eugenicists, believed that biometric statistics should provide data to test eugenic theories.

Social Darwinism

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) believed that societies could be improved by a better adaptation of people to their environment, something he termed survival of the fittest. Evolution would, mechanically, get rid of paupers, as long as they were not supported by public charity, because that would only encourage the poor to continue propagating, thereby impeding social progress.

In line with this, eugenicists in England and (especially) in the United States advocated applying negative eugenics by eliminating all those considered to be defective, degenerate, feeble-minded (including intellectually disabled as well as epileptics) or unfit. Put otherwise, they thought that efforts should be made to breed a superior, pure and white ‘Nordic race’.

Charles Davenport (1866-1944), a zoologist, was one of the key figures in the US eugenic movement. Black sums up his views: “Enforcing Mendelian laws along racial lines, allowing the superior to thrive and the unfit to disappear, would create a new superior race”.3

Davenport managed to obtain significant financial support from the Carnegie Institute for the establishment of a “Station for Experimental Evolution” at Cold Spring Harbor in 1904. Attempting to show that eugenics was indeed a proper science, Davenport teamed up with the American Breeders Association (ABA), established in 1903 by the Association of Agricultural Colleges and Experimental Stations, to foster co-operation between animal breeders and seed experts. At Davenport’s insistence the ABA added a Eugenics Committee, which should “devise methods of recording the values of the blood of individuals, families, people, and races”.4

This research involved the accumulation of detailed genealogical records of families from all over the world (to be called pedigrees) and the task for doing this was entrusted to the Eugenics Record Office (ERO). The ERO was financed by Mary Harriman, the widow of a railway magnate. The ERO also sought to identify the most defective and undesirable Americans.5 It led to frantic efforts across the US to identify the latter.

As a result, eugenic ideas came to be accepted and propagated by many. This likely encouraged Davenport and his co-worker Harry H. Laughlin to set up, in 1913, the Eugenic Research Association, which was charged with preparing “legislative and administrative action, and public propagation for the causes of eugenics, raceology and Nordic race supremacy”.6

The same movement, not surprisingly, also permeated the birth control movement through one of its ardent advocates, Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), who also came to be a proponent of negative eugenics, including mass sterilisation of “defectives” and “draconian immigration restrictions”.7

Laws enabling forced compulsory sterilisation came into effect from 1907 on, eventually being passed in 33 states. Many remained in force until the 1980s.


Davenport’s ideas spread around the world. Indeed, “the Carnegie Institution and the Rockefeller Foundation generously funded German race biology”.8 Adolf Hitler keenly followed what was being written and practised in the United States.    

It should be noted that internationally recognised German geneticists favoured eugenics many years before the period of Nazi rule, advancing economic arguments in favour of euthanising all those seen as costly to maintain including invalids, those suffering hereditary diseases, criminals and alcoholics.

The Nazi regime introduced eugenics as “a way of loving neighbour and caring for future generations”.9 The first German law, following legislation in the United States, Switzerland and Scandinavia was promulgated on 14 July 1933:

Whoever is affected by a hereditary disease may be sterilised by means of a surgical intervention, if, on the basis of a medical diagnosis, there is a strong probability that their descendants might suffer grave hereditary bodily or mental diseases.10

A few months later, a second law was passed prohibiting a marriage if one of the couple suffered from a contagious or hereditary disease, was mentally ill, or incompetent to marry, or was under state supervision.

Meanwhile, in December 1935, Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, initiated a ‘positive’ form of eugenics, to improve the human race. Parents with the right ‘Aryan’ physical and mental characteristics were selected and sent to special institutions. Their offspring received a special education. It is estimated that 92,000 children were so educated.

In October 1939 Hitler authorised the T4 programme, the name deriving from 4 Tiergartenstrasze, the address in Berlin of the organisation charged with euthanising all mentally incurably ill people. This programme ran until August 1942 when Hitler halted it because of growing opposition. At the Nuremberg trials it was estimated that about 60,000 people, aged from 6 to 93, were killed under this programme. Sometimes, old senile people, those impotent and even individuals regarded as a-social were killed. After 1942 the programme continued in the form of starving to death 120,000 people considered to be mentally ill.11

Guillebaud12 notes that the most troubling aspects of the Nazi policies of eugenics and horrendous medical experiments on concentration camp inmates were the underlying beliefs used to justify them. Thus, Hitler wrote in “Mein Kampf” that “to preserve the race, it is necessary to sacrifice the individual”. In 1934 Rudolf Hess affirmed that “national-socialism is nothing but applied biology”. Various German eugenicists of the time employed the phrase “lives not worth living”. The term “racial hygiene” sums up all the ambiguities of these ideas at that time.13

In 1942 the German Institute in Paris published “State and Health” which alludes to an economic need to manage living capital and “the biological body of the German nation” by means of a:

synthesis of biology and economics. As economists and merchants are responsible for material values, it is a must for doctors to co-operate with them to achieve a humane rational economy, since the health of the populace is a prerequisite of economic profit.14 (My translation).

Eugenics in the light of technicism

Eugenics came about because of developments in scientific knowledge, especially biology and genetics. It is thus an example of technicism, broadly understood as the use of technology to resolve issues deemed to interfere with progress, including the existence of persons/groups of people regarded as ‘defective and seen as hindering ‘progress’. Hence, Edwin Black’s choice of the title “War Against the Weak” for his book on the history of eugenics. Because there will always be groups believed to be ‘weak’ and ‘non-productive’, and because technicism has become such a key ideology of our times, eugenics remains a real threat.

In the current age, commentators such as Connelly have identified the advent of modern genetics as ushering in a new era of eugenics they describe as “the privatisation of population control”:

Parents increasingly experience ‘genetic counselling’… as social pressure to have perfect children…In everyday conversation, people ascribe a whole range of behaviors to good or bad genes, faithfully reciting a eugenic catechism without the faintest idea of where it comes from or where it can lead.15

If anything, the advent of powerful means resulting from modern genetics enhances the dangers for all who are considered ‘sub-optimal’. Thus, neo-reactionaries, such as Nick Land, who seek to optimise humankind and its genetic material in order to accelerate the tempo of economic change, express the view that “under digital capitalism the selection of the fittest will be enhanced”.16

In contrast, from a Christian point of view, the strong should use science and technology to better serve the weak rather than eliminate them.


Dr Petrus Simons is a retired economist with a PhD in Philosophy.


  1. Galton, D. (2001). In our own image; eugenics and the genetic modification of people. Little, Brown and Company, London, 259.
  2. Ibid., 87.
  3. Black, E. (2003). War against the weak; eugenics and America’s campaign to create a master race. Four Walls Eight Windows, New York, 36.
  4. Ibid., 38-39.
  5. Ibid., 52.
  6. Ibid., 90.
  7. Ibid., 127.
  8. Ibid., 258.
  9. Guillebaud, J-C. (2001). Le principe d’humanité. Seuil, Paris, 252.
  10. Ibid., 258
  11. Ibid., 259.
  12. Ibid., 261.
  13. Ibid., 261-262.
  14. Ibid., 262.
  15. Connelly, M. (2008). Fatal misconception; the struggle to control world population. The Belknap Press Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, 382.
  16. Balzer, J. (2017). Unterwegs zum <neuen Menschen>. Die Zeit, Hamburg, No. 25, 47.