Eugenics Essay

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Eugenics is a movement, supposedly based on scientific evidence, that holds that people are naturally superior and inferior to each other based on their racial and genetic makeup. Its political dimension, which was widespread in the early twentieth century, used this basis to recommend selective breeding of superior people and policies of restricted immigration, sterilization, and segregation of those deemed inferior. Traces of this ideology remain in behavioral determinism. This entry looks at the history of the movement, especially in the United States.

Historical Background

The American eugenics movement can be traced to Great Britain and to the work of Sir Francis Galton, who coined the term eugenics in 1882 to mean “well born.” A member of the British upper classes, Galton thought that the social positions achieved by England’s ruling elite were determined by their superior biological inheritance; nature was far more important than nurture in human development. Believing in the determinism of biology and “positive” eugenics, he recommended that society’s best marry their superior counterparts and have many offspring.

By contrast, American mainline eugenics added a “negative” dimension to its policy options. By 1906 the American Breeders Association investigated and reported on just the issues that would have interested Francis Galton. Building on a rigid interpretation of the recently rediscovered research by the Moravian monk Gregor Mendel, and presuming hereditary differences between human races, the association popularized the themes of selective breeding, the biological threat of “inferior types,” and the need for recording and controlling human heredity. By 1910, and under the leadership of Charles Davenport, the Eugenics Record Office served to propagandize eugenics nationally.

By 1918, the Galton Society, reflecting its namesake’s interests, was formed in New York City. Concerned with policies of differential breeding and presumed human racial differences, it brought together eugenicists such as Charles Benedict Davenport, racist authors such as Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard, and leaders from the academy, museums, and philanthropic organizations. Consistent with its popularization mission, the society was organized into committees focused on cooperation with clergy, religious sermon contests, crime prevention, formal education, and selective immigration.

Transformed in the 1920s into the American Eugenics Society, it sponsored Fitter Families Contests and exhibits at state fairs in locations as varied as Kansas and Massachusetts. Exemplifying the tone of these exhibits, the 1926 display “The Triangle of Life,” which referred to environment, education, and heritage, warned of the threat of inherited “unfit human traits,” including feeblemindedness, criminality, and pauperism. “Selected parents will have better children,” poster exhibits claimed. “This is the great aim of eugenics.”

Impact On Education

Mainline eugenics also found support from leaders in educational statistics and education for gifted children. For example, E. L. Thorndike and Leta Hollingworth popularized eugenics in their classes at Columbia University’s Teachers College throughout their careers. Using flawed racial interpretations of the World War I Army alpha and beta test data, Carl Brigham added to eugenics’ temporary luster in A Study of American Intelligence (1923). At the same time, authors such as Edward A. Wiggam were recommending policies of controlled breeding for America’s citizenry. Traveling across the country with lanternslide presentations that linked eugenics with the rise of civilization, he proposed a new ten commandments based upon eugenic principles.

Popular eugenics was also part of the fabric of American popular culture during the twentieth century’s second and third decades. For example, on a given Saturday night, high school students might go to the movies to see The Black Stork or Tomorrow’s Children, films that supported eugenics-based sterilizations. On Sunday, they might join their families in church, where they could listen to sermons selected for awards by the American Eugenics Society, learning that human improvement required marriages of society’s “best” with “best.” Monday’s newspaper might discuss the threat posed to America by a “rising tide of feeblemindedness,” a tide which required restrictions on southern and eastern European immigration. And

Tuesday’s paper might carry the “good” news that thousands of Americans were being sterilized for eugenic purposes. On Wednesday and Thursday, while visiting a state fair with their hygiene class, these students might sign up for a eugenic evaluation at a Fitter Families Exhibit.

By week’s end, and back in the classroom, these same students would learn from their biology textbook’s chapters on eugenics about the beneficial policies of immigration restriction, sterilization, and segregation. One analysis of high school textbooks determined that between 1914 and 1948, over 60 percent supported Galton’s original policies of differential birth rates.

Eugenics also found its place in the college classroom; many of America’s leading universities, including Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, and Brown offered courses on the topic. In fact, by 1928, 376 separate college courses included the subject, with approximately 20,000 students and the potential to influence the social attitudes of America’s future leaders.

Eugenics’ Decline

Mainline eugenics became a mainstay of racism in the United States, and it was used as a rationalization for the Nazi Holocaust, but by the early 1930s, its popularity in the United States had diminished. The reasons were many. By the late 1920s, it had succeeded in its policy initiatives; anti-immigration laws had been passed, the Supreme Court had legalized statesponsored sterilization, and many states had passed antimiscegenation laws. In addition, legitimate advances in biology revealed eugenics to be a suspect science. Further, the worldwide economic depression that began in 1929 made it clear that the unemployment of millions could not simply be explained by their heredity.

While the early twentieth-century eugenics had lost its legitimacy by the 1930s, biological determinism did not, and today’s public continues to read of the links between complex human behavior and genetics. There are claims that people are what their genes make them, that the basis for a market economy is genetic, that faith is inherited, and that playing fair is hereditary. While these are reports of pioneering work, the findings are far from robust enough to serve as the basis for significant education policy and practice. Rather, schools and teachers frame a series of environments— learning, social, physical, and moral—that also shape the students entrusted to them.


  1. Gould, S. J. (1981). The mismeasure of man. New York: W. W. Norton.
  2. Kevles, D. (1985). In the name of eugenics: Genetics and the uses of human heredity. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
  3. Lombardo, P. A. (2003). Taking eugenics seriously: Three generations of ??? are enough. Florida State University Law Review, 30(2), 191–218.
  4. Selden, S. (1999). Inheriting shame: The story of eugenics and racism in America. New York: Teachers College Press.

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