Eugenics and Progressives

Eugenics represents a shameful period in the United States' history. The progressive idea that technocrats in government could improve society and cure social evils encouraged many scientists and policymakers to look for a way to do so through the field of genetics. Social Darwinism, racism, as well as some scientific research helped bring the eugenics movement into existence.

Eugenicists attempted to improve the gene pool using positive or negative eugenics. Positive eugenics focused on encouraging the higher classes of society to reproduce offspring. Negative eugenics focused on stopping the lower and "defective" classes from reproducing. Because the eugenicists believed that insanity, criminal tendencies, deafness, blindness, epilepsy, and even laziness were genetic traits, they thought that preventing the carriers of these traits from breeding would cut off the traits and improve society. Many in the United States, blinded by their goal of improving the gene pool, passed compulsory sterilization laws in 33 states for those members of society deemed "defective." The Supreme Court, in Buck v. Bell, upheld Virginia's law in 1927. By the 1970s, 60,000 people had been sterilized under these laws. One such victim, Carrie Buck (Buck v. Bell), is on the left of the picture above.

Though not all progressives or socialists were eugenicists, many individuals of influence in the United States and other countries who affiliated themselves with those schools of thought were indeed supporters of eugenics. Some of the more famous supporters were President Teddy Roosevelt, John Maynard Keynes, President Woodrow Wilson, Bertrand Russell, Alexander Graham Bell, George Bernard Shaw, Harry Laughlin, H.G. Wells, Margaret Sanger, foundations connected to the Rockefellers, Harrimans, and Carnegies, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and others.

After the horrors of the Holocaust were widely publicized in the late 1940s, eugenics in America (and any progressive support of the idea) quickly faded into the past. Nonetheless, it's an important piece of American history that should not be forgotten. The temptation to manipulate science, to use aggressive propaganda in schools, and to enact repugnant laws in the belief that technocrats can mold a perfect society is something that will always linger in different forms. Americans should study the tactics and think of the eugenicists and some of the progressives from this period in order to guard against future acts of collective tyranny.

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This article traces eugenics from Darwin's theory on natural selection down to the final theory of eugenics. Rogers also gives a brief history of the movement and explains the lasting implications of eugenics.

"The eugenics movement saw itself as fostering a public good. It was optimistic that scientific changes in human breeding habits would solve many complex problems facing modern American society. Eugenicists favored better public health, family planning, more thoughtful preparation for marriage, and education about human reproduction. They encouraged reproduction of the "best and the...

This article describes the connections between American immigration quotas and the Eugenics movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Among other things, some Eugenicists "argued that the 'American' gene pool was being polluted by a rising tide of intellectually and morally defective immigrants – primarily from eastern and southern Europe."

Selden examines the forces that made eugenics so popular to so many people. Famous supporters, financial support, embedded ideological ideas in the cinema, and support from leading universities helped the movement gain followers.

Garland points out the faulty research ideas and methods of the eugenics movement. Eugenicists used poor survey and statistical methods of research and false quantification. They didn't fully understand that complex traits couldn't be pushed into Mendel's chart and they didn't understand the full effect...

This essay explains the connection between social Darwinism and eugenics. Kevles goes on to further elaborate on the effects of the eugenic movement on the world.

"Eugenicists were particularly interested in mental illnesses, although some were known by different names. Notably, 'dementia praecox' we now know as schizophrenia and 'mongolian idiocy' is Down syndrome. By the turn of the 20th century, people with mental disorders were usually wards of the state, and eugenicists argued that their care was a growing burden on society. Mental patients made...

This article explains the long-term progression of medical ethics in Germany from Social Darwinism to eugenics. Mocozzi warns us that care is critical when we face the difficult ethical decisions of today so that we do not travel down the eugenics pathway.

"Among the many concerns that captivated the American educated class early in the last century, few were thought to be as urgent as the threat posed to the nation by sexually insatiable female morons. This may sound silly; today, our fear of morons is rather abstract, and on a national scale confined mostly to whomever is the current resident of the White House. But a hundred years ago, morons...

This article talks about the American Eugenics Society's efforts to spread the ideas of the eugenics movement through fairs, "Fitness Family" contests, lectures, and exhibits.

Garland answer the question of why so many intelligent people were involved in eugenics by looking at the economic, political, and social influences on the time.

An excerpt is below:

"Solving the new problems of industrialization demanded a change from laissez-faire to managed...

"Of all the legislation enacted during the first four decades of the 20th century, sterilization laws adopted by 30 states most clearly bear the stamp of the eugenics lobby. The first law was passed in Indiana at the urging of the prison physician, Harry Clay Sharp, who advocated vasectomies as a way to prevent the transmission of degenerate traits. At meetings of the American Medical...

In this article, West argues that scientific materialism, or the view that everything in the universe can be fully explained by science, is a dangerous view. Not only does this view lead to ideas like technocracy, utopianism, and dehumanization, but it also stifles free speech. When science is seen as way to solve social problems, West says, whole classes of society can be destroyed.

This article traces the effect that the American eugenic movement had on the German eugenics programs.

This article tells the history of eugenics, paying special attention to the role the Progressive movement played in eugenics. The article also discusses the role that American eugenics policies played in the formation of Hitler's eugenic programs.

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"Like a tree, eugenics draws its materials from many sources and organized them into an harmonious entity."

Thirty-three states passed sterilization laws, and by the 1970s, 60,000 people had been sterilized.

This graph illustrates the eugenicists' idea that different countries had different intelligence levels.

Analysis Report White Paper

This article gives some historical background to the eugenics movement and attempts to explain how eugenicists used religion to condone their actions.

This article offers a comprehensive look at the rise of fall of eugenics. It also offers well-researched facts about many significant figures in the field of eugenics.

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"Clip from Forgotten Ellis Island, a documentary film by journalist Lorie Conway, narrated by Elliott Gould.

...

This video gives a short, but comprehensive history of eugenics in America, the influences American eugenics had on Nazi Germany, and cautions Americans about embracing new technology for social progress.

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This landmark case upheld a statute that instituted compulsory sterilization for the mentally ill. Carrie Buck, the plaintiff, was determined to be feeble minded and promiscuous, and therefore the court ruled that she be sterilized. This case was a proponent of negative eugenics, or the limiting...

"'The most important lesson,' Dr. Eliot said, 'which the great advance of applied biological science teaches is that the treatment of human evils and wrongs in the future should be preventive for the mass as well as curative for the individual. The main functions of the medical profession are to be the prevention of the spread of disease, the eradication or seclusion of the causes, sources, or...

"Sir Francis Galton's essays were originally published by the Eugenics Education Society in 1909. Collected here are historically significant essays on the possible improvement of the human breed, eugenics (definition, scope, and aims), restrictions in marriage, studies in national...

"TO THE READER:
I PUBLISH these essays at the present time for a particular reason connected with the present situation; a reason which I should like briefly to emphasise and make clear.

Though most of the conclusions, especially towards the end, are conceived with reference to...

In this article, the founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, defines eugenics. He addresses the importance of the field and urges the spread of eugenics until it is accepted as a foundational principle of genetics. An interchange between H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Galton, and...

In this book, Francis Galton attempts to prove one of eugenics most foundational ideas-that mental ability is hereditary.

"Borrowing from Laughlin's Model Law, the German Nazi government adopted a law in 1933 that provided the legal basis for sterilizing more than 350,000 people. Laughlin proudly published a translation of the German Law for the Prevention of Defective Progeny in The Eugenical News. In 1936, Laughlin was...

Harry Laughlin was influential in the area of compulsory sterilization laws. He viewed many laws used by states to be too confusing or too poorly written to be effective. To remedy this, he created his own model law. A state law derived from this law was declared constitutional in the famous...

In this speech, James Wilson praises the work the American...

"Laughlin's report began with an analysis of the 'phenomenon of heredity' and its role in increasing the numbers of 'socially inadequate' people in America. Taken together, said Laughlin, this 'great mass of humanity is not only a social menace to the present generation, but it harbors the potential parenthood of the social misfits of our future generations.' The defective traits common to...

In this work, Lewis defends a universal law of morality.

"This essay, which was published as a pamphlet by the Hogarth Press in July 1926, was based on the Sidney Ball Lecture given by Keynes at Oxford in November 1924 and on a lecture given by him at the University of Berlin in June 1926.

This essay is worth reading for especially two reasons. First of all, for the wealth of historical information about the origin of the laissez-faire...

"BIRTH CONTROL, Mrs. Sanger claims, and claims rightly, to be a question of fundamental importance at the present time. I do not know how far one is justified in calling it the pivot or the corner-stone of a progressive civilization. These terms involve a criticism of metaphors that may take us far away from the question in hand. Birth Control is no new thing in human experience, and it has...

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