Eugenics of the PastEmbryo Eugenics

It is worse than folly, so it seems to me, not to utilize such laws as many be derived from a study of living thins in order to promote the progress of our race.(Leonard Darwin 1926)

The previous quote, taken from Leonard Darwin’s book ‘The need for eugenic reform’, epitomises why Darwin (and many others scientists of that time) declared eugenics to be the key to mankind’s future.

To emphasise the benefit that eugenics could bring, Darwin made the comparison to the dealing of playing cards:

When packs of cards are being dealt out a whist drive, good hands appear fairly frequently and very good hands at rarer intervals. In somewhat the same way, the coming together by chance of a number of good qualities in the same individual before birth results in the appearance of superior individuals at frequent intervals, and men of genius much more rarely. Much the same might be said as to the way in which inferior and very inferior individuals make their appearance at intervals. Now, if some of the very low cards were to be removed altogether from all the packs, the differences between the hands as dealt out would become somewhat less marked. In the same way, if all the above-mentioned very defective types of individuals were to have no children, there would in future generations come to be somewhat less natural inequality between human beings.(Leonard Darwin 1928)

Following the publication of Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’ in 1859, some individuals studying Darwin’s work (’social Darwinists’) believed that natural selection could also be applied to mankind.

In combination with Gregor Mendel’s findings with regards to genetic inheritance published in 1865, eugenicists and social Darwinists came to believe that medical science held the key to the optimum advancement of the human race.

The term ‘eugenics’ was first used by Francis Galton in 1883 when examining the “comparative worth” of different races, to describe the improvement of man through “better breeding“. Other terms that evolved included:

Dysgenic: Elements believed to increase the occurrence of undesirable genes.
Negative eugenics: Those classified as the ‘genetically unfit.’

Eugenic: Elements believed to increase the occurrence of desirable genes.
Positive eugenics: Those classified as the ‘genetically fit’.

Eugenic campaigns began in earnest in several nations including the UK, USA and Germany, with the establishment of the British Eugenics Education Society (1907), American Eugenics Society (1923) and the Society for Racial Hygiene (1905) respectively.

Eugenicists came to believe that the goal of ‘better breeding’ could be achieved through the sterilisation of dysgenic individuals and the promotion of breeding amongst the genetically fit.

Involuntary sterilisation was never passed as law in the UK, despite the campaigning of British eugenicists. In the USA and Germany however, the practice became widespread. Whilst less publicised than its German equivalent, the eugenics movement in the USA, resulted in the forced sterilisation of 65,000 individuals up to the program’s eventual end in the early 1970s.

In Germany however, eugenics found its ideal social and political environment in which it could thrive.

With the nation locked in a post- World War 1 economic crisis, eugenicists held the opinion that medical care had interfered with the laws of nature by keeping the weak alive and that “defectives” were reproducing faster than healthy individuals.

Amongst the so-called ‘defectives’ were the hereditary blind and death, those with “physical deformities” and the congenitally “feebleminded” (those with learning difficulties).

Fürsorge (care of the individual) was to be condemned whereas Vorsorge (preventative care for the good of the nation) was to become medicine’s priority; with the role of the physician as a “cultivator of the genes” and “biological soldier.”

The resulting eugenic campaign between 1933 included the forced sterilisation of up to 375,000 people between 1933-39; and ultimately the killing of hundreds of thousands of those deemed to be “life unworthy of life”. Doctors involved in the campaign claimed that the Hippocratic oath was a “vestige of ancient times” and that such killing complied with medical ethics since these people were mere “empty shells of human beings” and “effectively already dead.”

These actions by Nazi physicians is well summarised by Christian Pross:

The search for truth in medicine turned into destruction when medicine abandoned the Hippocratic ‘nil nocere‘…and this was done for science’s own “superior” aims.Christian Pross