Eugenics - The forgotten scientific travesty of the last century

Most of us know about the crimes of Nazis against the Jewish population and the associated genocide, right?

Fewer of the people saying ‘yes’ to my previous question, would know/remember that the Nazis did this because they considered Jews to be of an inferior race.

But I wonder how many of you know that the theory of racial supremacy of Nazis was based upon a very widely popular scientific theory in that time - a theory which had caught the whole world on fire at that time. A theory which was endorsed by states other than Germany - allied states , no less. A theory endorsed by the American Congress and the American Supreme Court. Prominent American personalities believed in the theory, and in turn caused forcible sterilizations and deaths in a great many countries.

The name of the theory is Eugenics, and only towards the end of the last century was it declared to be a pseudoscience, after it had caused deaths to millions, and forced sterilizations, rape and incest sponsored by the state.

The theory of Eugenics was developed by a man named Sir Francis Galton in 1865. Galton was a cousin of Charles Darwin, and was influenced by Darwin’s pathbreaking book - the origin of the species. After going through Darwin’s book, Galton hit upon a thought which ultimately evolved into Eugenics - “if evolution happened because of survival of the fittest, is mankind doomed because the society tries to protect the weak and the under-developed”? Galton argued that if man pays close attention to mixing and matching dogs, cows, pigs, plants so that the offspring has desirable enhanced qualities, why does man disregard such considerations during his own marriage? By disregarding such considerations, is man becoming more and more average so that his evolution into superior human beings become stunted?

Eugenics spread like wild fire in all western societies towards the beginning of the 20th century, and Nazis only took up a prevalent theory and then advanced it to new heights of human immorality.

Wikipedia’s page on Eugenics has been a horrific read of how science (or rather pseudo-science) can bring such misery to so many people. Consider these facts (from Wikipedia):

  1. One of the earliest modern advocates of eugenic ideas (before they were labeled as such) was Alexander Graham Bell, best known as one of the inventors of the telephone. Like many other early eugenicists, he proposed controlling immigration for the purpose of eugenics, and warned that boarding schools for the deaf could be considered possible breeding places of a deaf human race.
  2. During the 1930s and 1940s the Nazi regime forcibly sterilized hundreds of thousands of people who they viewed as mentally and physically “unfit,” and killed tens of thousands of the institutionalized disabled in their compulsory euthanasia programs.
  3. They also implemented a number of “positive” eugenics policies, giving awards to “Aryan” women who had large numbers of children, and even encouraged a service in which “racially pure” single women would become impregnated by SS officers.
  4. Many of their concerns for eugenics and racial hygiene were also explicitly present in their systematic killing of millions of “undesirable” Europeans, including Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals, during the Holocaust, and much of the killing equipment and methods employed in the death camps was first developed in their euthanasia program.
  5. The nation that had the second largest eugenics movement was the United States.
  6. Beginning with Connecticut (US) in 1896, many states enacted marriage laws with eugenic criteria, prohibiting anyone who was “epileptic, imbecile or feeble-minded” from marrying.
  7. In 1924, the Immigration Restriction Act was passed in USA, with eugenicists for the first time playing a central role in the Congressional debate, as expert advisers on the threat of “inferior stock” from Eastern and Southern Europe.
  8. Some states also practiced sterilization of “imbeciles” for much of the 20th century. The US Supreme Court ruled in the 1927 Buck v. Bell case that the state of Virginia could sterilize those they thought unfit. Between 1907 and 1963, the most significant era of eugenic sterilization, over 64,000 individuals were forcibly sterilized under eugenic legislation in the United States.
  9. When Nazi administrators were on trial for war crimes in Nuremberg after World War II, they justified their mass-sterilizations (over 450,000 in less than a decade) by pointing a finger at the USA as their inspiration.
  10. Almost all non-Catholic western nations adopted some eugenics legislation. Sweden forcibly sterilized 62,000 “unfits” as part of a eugenics program over a forty year period. Similar incidents occurred in Canada, Australia, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Estonia, Switzerland and Iceland for people the government declared to be mentally deficient. Singapore practiced a limited form of “positive” eugenics which involved encouraging marriage between college graduates in the hope that they would produce better children.

(Found the link from Swaroop’s blog entry here. Read it for a fascinating non-fiction piece by Michael Crichton in his book state of fear where he compares the lessons learnt from the Eugenics fiasco, and the current world wide fear of global warming.)

comments powered by Disqus