The systematic attempt to increase desirable genetic traits and to decrease undesirable genetic traits in a population.
As Charles Darwin's ideas on evolutionary theory gained acceptance in the late 1800s, the public's faith in science as a source for social remedies increased in popularity, and scientists have looked for ways to "improve" humanity. British scientist Francis Galton introduced the ideas that led to a scientific approach to eugenics, including the concept of "positive eugenics" in which he encouraged the healthiest and most intelligent to marry one another and procreate. Although Galton's theories did not gain widespread acceptance in England, in the United States his ideas were interpreted in programs of "negative eugenics," designed to keep certain people from bearing children. Negative eugenics included such extreme measures as castration and sterilization as well as the institutionalization of people considered "defective" or "undesirable."
Racial, social, and moral issues were key factors in the American eugenics movement. Its victims included individuals diagnosed with mental retardation, psychiatric symptoms, epilepsy, or deafness, and people considered to be of low moral stature—unwed mothers, thieves, and prostitutes, for such behaviors were thought to be genetically based. A number of states enacted miscegenation laws that prohibited marriage between people of different races because it was believed that mixing the genes of different races would allow undesirable traits to proliferate in the dominant population. In an attempt to keep the "unfit" from procreating, legislators passed compulsory sterilization laws. Indiana was the first state to pass such legislation in 1907; by 1932, thirty states had similar laws. Prior to these statutes, however, compulsory sterilization had been an accepted practice in parts of the Midwest, and by the end of the eugenics movement, approximately 20,000 people had been sterilized.
In one particularly noteworthy case, the state of Virginia had ordered that Carrie Buck, an allegedly retarded women, be sterilized against her will. Later, Buck sued the state in a case that ultimately went to the Supreme Court. With a single dissenting vote, the Court upheld the existing sterilization laws, with Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes handing down the opinion that it would be better to sterilize a feebleminded woman than to allow her to bear children who would ultimately become thieves and murderers. Recent investigations have revealed that Carrie Buck was completely normal intellectually, as was a daughter—conceived before the sterilization in a case of rape—who, before her death at the age of eight, performed quite satisfactorily in school. The daughter, Vivian Dobbs, had been diagnosed as retarded at six months of age during a cursory examination by a social worker.
In some cases, mental retardation was diagnosed on the basis of intelligence test scores. One prominent psychologist, Henry H. Goddard (1866-1957) actively campaigned to keep mentally retarded individuals from having children, and segregated students living at the New Jersey Vineland Training School for Feeble-Minded Girls and Boys by sex so that they could not procreate. Goddard also worked to keep "defective" immigrants from entering the United States. In one instance, he used Alfred Binet's intelligence test to assess 35 Jews, 22 Hungarians, 50 Italians, and 45 Russians at Ellis Island in New York as they entered the country, and concluded that on average, over 80 percent of the immigrants scored so low as to be reflective of mental retardation. In this case, low test scores are not surprising given that the immigrants were tested in a language foreign to them (English), were probably intimidated by the testing situation, and were unfamiliar with American culture. Subsequent immigration laws included provisions relating to the intelligence quotients of potential immigrants.
Many of the tenets of the American eugenics movement were initially promulgated by the American Breeder's Association. While reputable scientific research did not support many of the ideas of the eugenicists, they did attempt to invoke science as the foundation for their ideas. The "research" employed was often regarded as low quality by the top scientists of the day, and its "findings" were considered flawed. In fact, Goddard's discredited research involving the famous lineage of the Kallikak family is now regarded as an example of poorly conceived and biased science.
American eugenics laws were widely supported up until World War II, when evidence of atrocities committed at Nazi death camps were publicized. The eugenics movement can be seen as more a socially than a scientifically based enterprise; only when the malignant implications of eugenics became clear did the American public withdraw its support.
Bajema, Carl Jay, ed. Eugenics: Then and Now. Stroudsburg, PA: Dowden, Hutchinson & Ross, 1976.
Darwin, Leonard. What Is Eugenics? London: Watts, 1928.
East, Edward Murray. Mankind at the Crossroads. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1923.
Goddard, Henry Herbert. The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness. New York: Macmillan, 1927.
Packard, Vance Oakley. The People Shapers. Boston: Little, Brown, 1977.