Eugenics can be described as the science and practice of improving the human race through the selection of “good” hereditary traits. Eugenics inevitably brings to mind the atrocities committed by the Nazis, who used eugenic ideology as the rationale for large-scale forced sterilisation, involuntary euthanasia and the Holocaust. Given this sinister history, it’s bound to be alarming when government officials endorse eugenic ideas.
The eugenics movement of the past has been thoroughly discredited on both moral and scientific grounds. But questions about the ethics of genetically improving humans remain relevant.
The emergence of new genetic technologies often prompts renewed debate. Can eugenic ideas about improving the human race be divorced from the evils of the past and pursued through benign means? Or is there something inherently morally problematic about the idea of genetically improving humans?
A new, morally responsible eugenics may well be defensible, and new genetic technologies must be assessed on their own terms. But we also need to consider the broader political context. If the betterment of individual traits were to be presented as a key strategy to improve human welfare, this would look very much like the individualisation of social problems that was such a central feature of the old eugenics.
The father of the eugenics movement was the English explorer and scientist Francis Galton (1822-1911). Influenced by his cousin Charles Darwin’s work The Origin of Species, Galton was interested in ideas about the heritability of different traits. He was particularly interested in the heritability of intelligence and how to increase society’s diminished stock of talent and character. He also believed that social problems such as poverty, vagrancy and crime were ultimately caused by the inheritance of degenerate traits from parent to child.
Galton embarked on an ambitious research programme with the explicit goal to “improve human stock” through selective human breeding. In 1883 he named this research programme “eugenics”, meaning “good in birth”.
Galton’s ideas quickly became influential and were widely embraced, first in Britain but subsequently in many other countries, including the US, Germany, Brazil and Scandinavia. At a time coloured by widespread concerns about the state of the nation, lack of social progress and the “degeneration” of the population, Galton’s ideas inspired a popular movement for social reform through selective human reproduction.
The first half of the 20th century saw the enactment of a variety of eugenic policies. “Positive” eugenics focused on encouraging those of “good stock” to reproduce, such as through the “fitter family” contests put on across the US. “Negative” eugenics involved discouraging or preventing reproduction among those deemed “unfit”, such as the poor, criminals or the “feeble-minded”, predominantly by coercive means.