Early Eugenics: A Dangerous Response to Overpopulation


Among the fears of many environmentalists is that of overpopulation. Acutely aware of the finite resources that the planet possesses and the limitations of renewable resources, there are concerns that the planet may soon reach its maximum caring capacity. Since the First Great Transition ten thousand years ago, the planet has experienced an astounding increase in population. Generations later, the planet is beginning to feel the effects of continual population expansion. Over the years, numerous methods have been proposed or adopted to ensure that the Earth will not exhaust its resources. One of the most frightening adapted solutions was the eugenics movement.

As small mobile groups of hunter-gatherers adopted a sedentary lifestyle, they mastered both agriculture and animal domestication. These small settled groups quickly evolved into cities and towns that encompassed the entire globe. Today the estimated population of the world is over 6.2 million people.1 As the population has grown, it has had several deleterious effects on the Earth. These include climate changes, the spread of diseases, declining food production, deforestation, and environment pollution (particularly air pollution). As people have become more conscious of these harmful effects, they have begun to devise strategies to combat this problem. Among the suggested responses include a switch to renewable energy, a call for zero population growth, and adopting sustainable agricultural practices.

The concept of eugenics was not initially intended to prevent overcrowding, however, it would later be used as a form of population control. Eugenics is the idea of improving society by breeding fitter people. Francis Galton was the first person to originate this term and was a major proponent of the concept during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The practice of eugenics was originally performed through the use of selective breeding. Eugenics was a progressive idea, driven by social perceptions. In fact, "many of its most strident advocates were socialist, who saw eugenics as enlightened state planning of reproduction."2 Fearing the degradation of society, the elite desired to prevent further social decay of the world by eliminating individuals who were considered unfit physically, mentally, or socially.

In order to accomplish its goal of producing healthier people, eugenics embraced two goals. First, it attempted to improve certain heritable qualities with the human species through selective breeding. Second, it prevented other "undesirable" qualities from recurring by either restricting reproduction or through direct removal from the gene pool. Unfortunately, the scientists arbitrarily selected these desirable attributes without considering the deeper ethical implications their choices would encompass. At times, the traits they wanted to promote were not even heritable.

During the early conception of eugenics, intelligence became the primary determinate for categorizing fit and unfit people. Appeals by scientists and socialists highlighted the need to preserve the human intellect. These individuals encouraged intelligent people to procreate and also suggested the removal of unintelligent people. Shortly after these pleas, "imbeciles" (the mentally disabled), were encouraged to avoid procreating. Believing that this was not enough, scientist began to forcibly sterilize these individuals. Others even advocated the practice of killing, supposedly in a relatively painless manner, the insane and mentally disabled.

With the invention of the I.Q. (intelligence quotient) test, scientists were given another means to identify individuals of lower mental capacity. These tests were administered to virtually every category of people from criminals to army recruits. Unfortunately, these intelligence tests were proven to show no "concrete, invariant entity called intelligence that could be unambiguously measured."3 Although the intelligence tests have since been determined to be unfounded, testing for something that cannot be quantified, the original results demonstrated certain biases underlying the examinations.

For instance, the interpretations of the exams findings were mainly divided along racial lines. African Americans were almost universally regarded as possessing lower intelligences when compared to those of European descendent. These findings were regularly reexamined and supported. These results provided ample evidence for scientists to begin suggesting that African Americans refrain from procreating. Other scientists began mass sterilizations of all African Americans. Otto Klineberg was able to counter the false conclusions that racial differences suggested diminished mental ability. After examining the types of questions asked on the I.Q. exams, he determined that some of the questions pertaining to environmental influences did not even affect intelligence. Furthermore, he provided evidence that northern African Americans scored much higher than southern African Americans, suggesting that it was an invalid assumption to claim that all African Americans were unintelligent. Although many of Klineberg supporters would not go as far to say "that there were absolutely no biologically determined mental differences between races, virtually all held that no such differences had been scientifically demonstrated."4

Eugenics was used to endorse other questionable practices. In some instances, sterilization and government-sanctioned executions were used to remove the supposedly heritable attribute of criminality from the gene pool. After further research, it was finally "concluded that there was no evidence for the heritability of criminality."5 These findings suggested that the approaches to eugenics should be reevaluated. Unfortunately, despite the increasing evidence to suggest that the application of eugenics was flawed, scientists continued to practice these methods.

The eugenics movement was finally laid to rest after World War II. The reports of the horrors committed by Nazi Germany were a deathblow to the eugenics movement. Nazi Germany's objectives of creating a superior Aryan race were an extension of eugenic ideals. Their methods of sterilization and murder were fundamentally the same as those practiced in the United States only applied on a previously un-attempted scale. Though their particular detest for the Jewish community is well documented in the atrocities of the Holocaust, Nazi Germany did not exclusively focus upon Jews as they would cull any group they deemed as unfit. Nazi executions of these groups along with the mentally disabled would create disfavor with the current eugenics policies of the United States. Nazi Germany's actions caused a reevaluation and a serious shift on the thought of how eugenics should be performed.

By the time eugenics returned to the mainstream, scientists had realized that advancements in biotechnology also necessitated the formation of more intricate ethical codes in order to identify acceptable uses of genetic research. It is currently employed to prevent congenital diseases as opposed to behavioral phenotypes. Looking to the future, new question arise regarding gene screening and gene therapy. As Jeremy Rifkin has implied, will we soon witness the rise of commercial eugenics to produce healthy babies and what, if any, are the ethical implications of tampering with the genes of unborn children?6

History has shown that technological advancements may and often are exploited for questionable uses. This exploitation is not always represented in the form of weapons. The eugenics movement is an example of one such innovation. Even though it was not developed for the purpose of fighting population pressure, it sill managed to serve population control efforts. Although some have argued that the Earth will never experience overpopulation or reach its caring capacity, I am not that optimistic. However, I encourage all to remain cautious regarding solutions to overcrowding, lest we revisit the atrocities that were associated with the early eugenics movement.

1. U.S. Census Bureau <http://www.census.gov/cgi-bin/ipc/popclockw>
2. Ridley, Matt. "The New Eugenics: Better than the Old." National Review Jul 31, 2000; 52.14 p. 34
3. Kevles, Daniel J. In the Name of Eugenics Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1985 p. 129.
4. Kevles. p. 138.
5. Kevles. p. 144.
6. Tech Nation, Americans and Technology. Number 98014, 1997.

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last updated 4/7/03