Eugenics Essay

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The eugenics movement emerged in the late 19th century as a social philosophy advocating for the improvement of human genetic traits through social and political intervention. Although its purported goals were to benefit humanity and save society’s natural resources, the theory ultimately justified racism and state-sponsored discrimination. Selective breeding, forced sterilization and birth control, and genocide are examples of the types of social control that were advocated by early eugenicists. Eugenics relies on the belief that intelligence is associated with social class and that humanity benefits by maintaining racial purity. These beliefs were widely held by academics, doctors, professionals, and politicians up until the early 20th century. Today, these views are widely discredited due to advances in the understanding of genetics and greater recognition of human rights. The legacy of eugenics continues to pervade political debates, however, concerning the causes of poverty and overpopulation and their effects on the environment.

Sir Francis Galton coined the term eugenics in 1883 in his book Inheritance of Human Faculties, which made assumptions from the recent work of Charles Darwin and the theory of natural selection. Galton assumed that human traits such as intelligence and talent were genetically determined and therefore could be improved if proper breeding selection occurred among the most-fit humans-primarily the upper classes. According to this belief, any effort to aid the poor and underprivileged is at odds with natural selection and therefore is a disservice to all of humanity. He concluded that the poor were genetically inferior, and therefore dismissed the social and political questions of why poverty exists and how it can be alleviated.

The most notorious application of state-sponsored eugenics was in Nazi Germany during Hitler’s attempts to create a pure German race. Forced sterilization and genocide were grossly carried out in the name of eliminating inferior races, while economic benefits were offered for Aryan women to produce more children. The Nuremberg Trials, which indicted these actions as war crimes, raised international attention to this form of eugenics and scientific racism. The second-largest eugenics movement occurred in the United States. In 1910, the Eugenics Record Office opened with a mission to collect family pedigrees and document unfit citizens, primarily from economically and socially poor backgrounds. This was an attempt to bolster the belief that classes were hereditary traits rather than social constructs. The U.S. Immigration Act of 1924 limited entry of people considered as coming from inferior stock, meaning people from certain parts of Europe that were not as “racially pure.” In addition, states had rights to sterilize any citizens that were seen as unfit, such as the disabled. During the Cold War, eugenicists suggested that any political radical was “inferior” in an attempt to discredit socialism or other forms of political and social equality.

The worldwide attention that focused on these human rights violations-especially in Nazi Germany-began to discredit eugenics ideology. Politically motivated eugenics principles manifested in other ways, however, and began to focus on the environmental effects of overpopulation and common property ownership of natural resources. In a 1968 essay, Garret Hardin, a biologist and population control advocate, put forth a thesis known as the Tragedy of the Commons that relied on a population-centered logic that has bolstered some eugenic thinking. For example, Hardin concluded that large populations (typically of the poor) make excessive claims on public resources and that society should try to curb the fertility of poorer, high population nations.

The Tragedy of the Commons thesis thus argued that the poor degrade the public stock of natural resources. It has been used by less scrupulous thinkers to further argue for specifically racial and national population control. Ultimately, the Tragedy of the Commons argument combines current concerns of environmental degradation with issues of population that make it vulnerable to the legacy of eugenics by concluding that the only way to prevent the “tragedy” of overuse is to promote preferential distribution of rights to natural resources and reproduction. Although most scholars recognize eugenics as invalid, caution must be taken to ensure that contemporary policy debates that focus on ways to conserve nature or limit population growth do not employ the racist or classist undertones endemic to previous eugenics movements.


  1. Edwin Black, War against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race (Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003);
  2. Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (Norton, 1981);
  3. Eric Ross, The Malthus Factor: Poverty, Politics, and Population in Capitalist Development (Zed Books, 1998).

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