Eugenics in Jonathan Marks’ Human Biodiversity

As its aim, eugenics had a high mission of making humankind better off by cherry picking from the gene pool of the best and worthiest people. Based on Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, eugenics was initiated by the English anthropologist Francis Galton who claimed that people could have purebreds similarly to animals in order to outbreed negative traits and enhance positive traits. However, on practice, eugenics was very conflicting and in its most extreme form it resulted in Nazi’s extermination of Jews. Although the underlying reasons for eugenics were positive such as improving the general well-being of the nation by cutting back on mental retardation, eugenics was unable to overcome its major flaw in attempting to overcome social problems with non-social methods.

The social reasons underpinning eugenics had been in circulation long before they took their form in the science. Throughout the nineteenth century, sociologists and anthropologists attempted to explore phenotypic variations and connect them to hereditary traits but they did not have scientific proofs. However, the findings of Mendel in the mid-nineteenth century and their rediscovery at the beginning of the twentieth century revealed the mechanisms of hereditary information transmission. Together with Darwin’s natural selection, it gave scientific explanation to the already existing grid of sociological assumptions. However, at the core eugenics remained a pseudo-science because it was explored and developed by scientists whose sphere of expertise was not genetics. Therefore, their knowledge of genetics was rather lay and amateur.


The idea of eugenics was best of all expressed and formulated by the American biologist Charles B. Davenport who stated that people should strive to “improve the race” and to this effect choose the best mating partners with the most remarkable inherent traits and a lack of traits that may entail mental retardation and wanton behavior. Davenport suggested to “fall in love intelligently,” which is, needless to say, rather impossible in terms of the whole nation. However, the suggestion to fall in love with people of certain social groups or of certain physical and psychological traits can be considered positive eugenics because people are not coerced into anything. They are encourage to have a new look of choosing a life partner. Inasmuch as aristocracy and upper classes were considered the crème de la crème, young people were encouraged to propagate because they were bearers of the traits of success and good and socially positive behavior. Yet, Davenport’s speculations about the application of eugenics involved the state’s control over the social groups that were unreliable and socially disadvantageous. Because birth control was more expensive than extermination, eugenics developed negative features and became dangerous for certain social groups which could be exterminated by the government. Negative eugenics singles out the groups of people which are inferior to aristocracy and upper class and aims to reduce their numbers.

In an attempt to eradicate social problems, eugenicists boiled them down to feeblemindedness. They saw phenotypical similarities on the faces of poor people and concluded that they were the traces of feeblemindedness. It was linked to wanton behavior, which also had to be eradicated. Eugenicists came up with a string of logic saying “there is a very intimate relation between crime, vice, and feeble-mind ness. Wipe out the feeble-mindedness, say they, and you wipe out most of the vice and crime”. The idea was that feeble-minded people can bear only feeble-minded children. Therefore, there is no point to allow them to procreate because their offsprings do no good for society, either by committing crimes or simply doing nothing socially useful. Thus, eugenics saw the way out in eradicating those people who carried a gene of feeblemindedness believing that it would help solving the issues of poverty, crime, and wanton behavior.

Eugenicists suggested people afflicted with feeblemindedness to be remove from the rest of society and new feebleminded people to be prevented from entering the country. Thus, eugenics added immigrants to the groups potentially afflicted with the disease. Notably, feeblemindedness was characteristic of people “not located in or derived from northern Europe”. The scientific milieu at the time believed that the ‘melting pot’ of America is valid only for northern Europeans because they have similar culture, habits and standards of living. Meanwhile, immigrants from southern and eastern Europe are too different and are not able to fit it, thus causing trouble. Besides, they were “tremendously prolific,” which was also a cause of concern because they could outbreed the US residents.

The eugenicist program was undermined by the specific problems such as implementation, arbitrariness, and hereditarianism. First of all, as soon as eugenics attempts to move from theory to practice it comes across a significant difficulty such as how to weed out mental retardation. As mental retardation was the primary reason for the development of eugenics, it was perceived as if mental retardation can be uprooted as a single disease. Meanwhile it is a very broad term and there is no a single gene responsible for feeblemindedness. Therefore, it would be impossible to eradicate it by simply coupling one group of people with another group of people. As we now know, “cutting back the cases of retardation caused by chromosomal imbalances would require tests in utero, not better mating”. Second, it was difficult to determine what genetic traits could be passed on to offsprings and what were better to weed out. It was not clear at all times how a certain genetic defect or peculiarity would behave in the course of time. Moreover, it would be unthinkable if such decisions would be placed at the hands of the government. Lastly, the problem of eugenics was to try to solve social problems by non-social means. While geneticists claimed that that with genetics they were dealing with mental illnesses, in fact they just wanted all people act according to “middle class standards”.

Yet, eugenics based its assumptions on animal breeding believing that similarly people can mate with the best representatives of humanity and it would create the best people in terms of health and moral qualities. However, for some reasons they overlooked the fact that, in animals, closely controlled breeding results in “inbreeding depression” and a loss of vigor “necessary for perpetuation of the strain”. Therefore, an occasional outbreeding is advised to assure the vigor and an ability of a desirable trait to remain. Later the works of the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky proved that genetic variability is extremely important for the viability of the species and it left eugenicists without a foundation for their theory of social improvement.

Basically, the major flaw of eugenicists was that they expressed their opinion on the subject they hardly knew at only allowing their social viewpoints to get a better hold of them. Later, when eugenics was more vigorously criticized, the American-German cultural critic H. L. Mencken pointed out favorable conditions contribute to the appearance of talented and creative people. When there is no baseball, there are no great baseball players. As soon as aviation was established, great pilots appeared. Therefore, the developments of society can be measured not by a number of geniuses but by the availability of resources and encouragement for those people who could use it and become geniuses. No one can know how many musical prodigies could have been in times of Beethoven should they have been given resources and opportunities to study and to shine. There are gifted people everywhere in every time and in every country but not always there are open opportunities for them to develop their talents. Therefore, critics of eugenics advised them to turn their attention to where social problems could really be solved – to the social sphere.

Thus, eugenics attempted to find an explanation and a solution to social issues but it was done in a wrong way. Whereas there was a certain appeal in positive eugenics that encouraged people of noble ancestry to mate with similarly noble and worth partners, the negative side of eugenics was a proclamation of superiority of one group of people over other groups. In its extreme form, a desire to reach the maximum worth for humankind resulted in Nazi’s extermination of Jews as representatives of an inferior race. Therefore, the application of eugenics’ assumption that a single gene is responsible for crime and poverty had grave consequences because in reality it was not a gene at all and it was impossible to screen all the people and prevent them from propagating. Apart from being based on far-fetched assumptions, eugenics met serious problems in how to make decisions on who is worthy to live and procreate and who is not. The arbitrariness of this theory and its difficulty in implementation meant that it could not be sustained for long. In the USA, eugenics abated when the Great Depression began as those who believed in their own superiority no longer had proofs of it in terms of their income.

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