According to Merriam-Webster.com, eugenics is defined as “the theory dealing with the production or treatment of a fine, healthy race.” Despite this seemingly innocent representation, eugenics is an extremely controversial science. Some even debate whether or not it is worthy of the label of science, or if it’s just a form of intellectual racism. Nevertheless, eugenics was greatly embraced and was behind a scientific and social revolution during the late 19th century through the Second World War. This essay will explore the topic of eugenics which has disappeared from today’s science textbooks. This includes a thorough history of the origin of eugenics, the people behind its movement, as well as its application in society.
Sir Francis Galton
Sir Francis Galton first coined the term ‘eugenics’ in 1883. Under his definition, eugenics was the “study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, either physically or mentally.” (Newman, 441) Galton was born in 1822 into a rich English family. From an early age he was put under incredible pressure to follow in the footsteps of Erasmus Darwin, Galton’s medically famed great-uncle. However, this pressure had little impact as he transferred from King’s College Medical School to Cambridge University due to an intense dislike of the study of medicine. At Cambridge he attempted to receive an honors degree in mathematics until during his third year he suffered a nervous breakdown. After taking a semester off, he returned and eventually received his degree although it was not an honors degree but rather a pass-degree. Once again Galton attempted the study of medicine, but with the death of his father in 1844 he felt he no longer had to fulfill the wishes of his deceased father and dropped out of school. Using his share of his inheritance, Galton proceeded to travel throughout much of Africa for the next few years. (Kevles, 6) Why Galton turned to eugenics is a mystery. He was a mathematician by degree with little to no experience in biology. He treated the study of eugenics as if it were a statistical problem, something completely foreign to the field of biology. (Kevles, 13)
Galton believed that a wide range of human characteristics were inherited, including mental, physical, and moral traits. This view was stimulated in part by Galton’s cousin, Charles Darwin, and his recent work in the field of evolution. Although Darwin didn’t play a direct role in eugenics, he had shown how man, despite his relative complexity as compared to plants and most animals, was still evolving. Because of this, Galton reasoned that humans could be controlled and manipulated so that the next generation would be of higher stock. He reasoned that man had been focusing too much on the evolution of lower level species for too long. So long in fact, “that human defectives [were] increasing at such an alarming rate that, unless some efficient methods...