Eugenics: How Did It Start?

by Christy Yao Pelliccioni



Dr. Laura Rivard of the University of San Diego, founder of Genetics Generation, makes an excellent point in her article America’s Hidden History: The Eugenics Movement: Americans often know our history is imperfect. We learn about slavery, segregation, and the Trail of Tears. But many people don’t have a clear understanding of eugenics or haven’t even heard of this chapter of American history. Rivard believes in the old adage that if we do not learn about our history, we are doomed to repeat it.


I can’t help but agree with her, which is why I am going to dedicate this blog post to the history of the origin of eugenics. If I am going to be a pro-life, pro-justice mom, I need to educate myself on the ways that so many others have had their parenthood stripped away from them, because they were deemed “unfit.” I need to prepare myself for a world that still has eugenic influences in it and figure out ways to fight against this dehumanizing pseudoscience.


The term “eugenics” was coined in the late 1800s by Sir Francis Galton. Galton was an English intellectual who did work in the fields of statistics, psychology, meteorology, and, most lasting, genetics. He was also Charles Darwin’s half-cousin. After looking at the characteristics and perceived superior intelligence of England’s upper classes, Galton decided these characteristics were inheritable and could be passed down genetically. In his book Hereditary Genius, Galton advocated for a selective breeding program.


Hereditary Genius wasn’t Galton’s only writing on eugenics. In “Eugenics: Its Definition, Scopes, and Aims” Galton defines his new field as the science that deals with influencing the qualities of different “races” that people are born with. Galton expresses his belief that eugenics will save our society and rid it of many widespread problems. Galton takes natural selection to the human level, believing that society can use the concept of “survival of the fittest” to its advantage. Galton also encourages standards for marriage so that society can breed what he believed to be the best humans possible.


Galton then divides people into races — stressing that people of the “best races” have the utmost advantage. He reduces humans to mere animals who do their best to survive in their environments. Galton says that just like there are varieties of dogs, there are varieties of humans. He puts the value of human beings on how much they can produce — stating that the “useful classes” will contribute more if society utilizes eugenics. Perhaps most shockingly, Galton claims his new field of study is so intellectual that it can’t be bothered with morals.


Galton revisits his comparison of people to dogs in “The Possible Improvement of the Human Breed Under the Existing Conditions of Laws and Sentiment.” He makes the claim that people’s behavior and job depend on their “type” — like a dog’s breed. He goes on to say that different people have different civil worths. Someone with a higher worth would have a better character and physique with more intelligence and energy. Galton then presents charts and assigns values to people given the circumstances in which they are born.


In “Our National Physique — Prospect of the British Race — are we degenerating?” Francis Galton gives a call to action, saying there need to be measures set forth by commissioners and society needs to accept them. He compares people to plants, saying the decision of who should breed is like deciding which hedge is the best. He is explicitly quite racist, stating there is “no question” that the “English race” is the best. He then compares people to horses, saying that well-bred people, like well-bred horses, are expensive to maintain.


Francis Galton originally promoted “positive eugenics,” or the encouragement of more “worthy people” to have more children. By “worthy people,” Galton meant those he considered healthy, capable, and of above-average intelligence. This way, Galton thought he could improve the human race. Later, as we’ll discuss in my next post, Germany and the United States practiced negative eugenics, the prevention of those deemed “unworthy” from reproducing, for fear of passing on bad traits. We will discuss next how the eugenics movement took the U.S. by force, influencing decades of policy and practices.

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