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Early 20th Century Eugenics As Part Of Modernism

1080 words - 4 pages

As the sun was setting on the 19th century, a new theory, called eugenics was just beginning to rise. Eugenics is the idea that human mental, moral, temperamental and physiological traits are passed down through generations, and that society should attempt to foster the reproduction of those with favorable traits and discourage or eliminate those with less than favorable traits. In the early parts of the 20th century, eugenics was put into practice across the rich world. This increase, not only in popularity but in application is best viewed when part of the greater context of modernity. Although the justification for much of the theory came from Charles Darwin’s work, it is widely considered he was not a supporter of it. No, the idea that human beings can play god and use science to change society by control of reproduction is a product of modernism and techno-nationalism. The rapid development of science led the population to believe its power was limitless, even to the extent of creating a utopian society.
First we must examine the obvious factors; evolution and heredity. Charles Darwin’s theory itself was a product of its times, drawing on developments from fields as diverse as paleontology and animal breeding. The closest predecessor to Darwin was Lamarck, who proposed that organisms passed on the adaptations they had developed in their lives to their offspring (Bowler and Morus). Darwin theorized that over time, nature had selected for the most advantageous traits by giving those best suited to survive a greater chance of reproduction. In his 1859 treatise On the Origin of Species, Darwin outlined and provided reasons arguments for this concept. However, he widely avoided mentioning human beings for fear of rejection and persecution from the religious. This changed twelve years later when he published The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, which outlined his specific theories for the development of the human race (Fan 2/21). Even before this publication Herbert Spencer argued that the fit humans would naturally find their way to the top while the least would end up at the bottom, and that we social programs hinder this natural stratification. In 1869, Darwin’s half cousin Francis Galton argued that mental traits could be inherited just as readily as their physical counterparts in his work Hereditary Genius. He studied biographical data to find that people related to other successful people were more likely to succeed themselves and that the number of eminent relatives dropped off along with the degrees of relationship and coined the term eugenics (Bowler and Morus). Karl Pearson, one of Galton’s disciples used the example of the Boer War (in which he attributed British difficulties to degeneration), to illustrate that a Eugenics program was necessary to revitalize the white and British race. Darwin’s theory was combined with the re-discovered and re-interpreted work of Gregor Mendel in 1900 by Hugo De Vries and Carl...

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