In the introduction to the French edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species, Clémence Royer claimed that Darwin’s theory called for the elimination of “all the disgraces of nature” among humanity, and social Darwinism was born. In 1871 Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton gave this belief a name, eugenics. During the remainder of the nineteenth century, eugenic ideology spread across the globe. Promoted as proven, unassailable science, eugenics was by the twentieth century endorsed by practically everyone who was anyone. The wealthy Harrimans, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller funded research; politicians (such as Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Woodrow Wilson), European ministers of state, and Supreme Court justices promoted it through laws, policies, and judicial decisions; the presidents of Harvard, Stanford, Bowdoin, and the like incorporated it into their universities; and celebrities such as Charles Lindbergh, Helen Keller, Aldous Huxley, and Bernard Shaw popularized it in mass culture.
Soon eugenic ideology was accepted by the middle class, and even (naively) by some of the lower class. Critics were few and far between. Instead of being a passing fad or an embarrassing mistake, as many present-day scholars maintain, eugenics was deeply and openly entrenched in global culture by the 1940s. Only when the horrors of the Holocaust became visible did the name of eugenics become stained. I say “name” because eugenic ideology did not disappear or abandon its founding principles, even after the Nuremberg trials. It lowered its profile and hid-but only for a while.
Today, “old” eugenics is still very much with us, disguised under different nomenclature. The British Eugenic Society renamed itself the Galton Institute, and the American Eugenic Society now calls itself the Society of Biodemography and Social Biology. The National Institutes of Health now funds a division for biodemography, making the United States the first government since the Nazis to fund eugenic research. Oregon’s Board of Eugenics, operating under the name Board of Social Protection, coercively sterilized its last victim in 1981. This “new” eugenics is alive and well and is still the driving ideology behind the current assault on life. Only the way the ideology is applied varies. For this reason it is essential that we become thoroughly familiar with its fundamental principles. Such knowledge is hard to come by, though, because ever since the disgrace Nazism brought upon eugenics there has been a concerted effort to erase it from public memory. Since the 1990s, however, the stranglehold of selective amnesia has at last begun to relax, and the history of eugenics is gradually being exposed.
It is hard to overestimate how popular and influential eugenics was in its first century. It is also hard to exaggerate the leading role the United States and Britain-not Germany (the Rockefeller Foundation funded German research)- played in the movement. In 1912 eugenists were numerous enough to hold their First International Conference on Eugenics in London. There, representatives from twenty-two countries and four continents passed an agenda calling for, among other things, life segregation of the unfit; coercive sterilization; eugenic education of the public; euthanasia; and outlawing marriage for those with certain medical, mental, and social problems.
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