Posted on March 12, 2010

Ending a Historical Taboo

Peter Crittendon, American Renaissance, February 1997

Last year, more than half a century after the death of Alexis Carrel (1873-1944), his name was removed from the medical school of the University of Claude Bernard in Lyon, France. Carrel, an alumnus of the university, was a world-famous surgeon in the early years of this century and won the 1912 Nobel Prize in Medicine for discoveries in surgical techniques. His work in the 1920s and ’30s — much aided by a perfusion pump designed by his most famous helper, Charles Lindbergh — paved the way for organ research and transplant.

Why did the university deliver this posthumous rebuke to one of its greatest sons? Because, like his assistant Lindbergh, and many of his most eminent contemporaries, Alexis Carrel was a champion of eugenics.

Alexis Carrel

Alexis Carrel

Over the past fifty years, opponents have succeeded in bringing eugenics into disrepute by calling its supporters “racist,” “anti- Semitic,” “sexist,” “classist,” and “Nazi.” Even Christian foes of eugenics have recently appropriated some of these labels to make their traditional objection — that eugenics is a blasphemous tinkering with the Creator’s handiwork — sound more “relevant.” The anti- eugenics campaign has succeeded to the point that, as with Alexis Carrel, an association with eugenics can tarnish even the brightest reputation.

In fact, the currently promoted view of eugenics as a malevolent ideology or crackpot “pseudoscience,” is a gross caricature. In its heyday, eugenics was pioneered and promoted by leading biologists, including the founders of modern genetics. Their scientific authority was often transformed into public policy by some of the most eminent statesmen and intellects of the time.

Politically and socially, support for eugenics spanned so broad a spectrum — from socialism and liberalism on the left to, undoubtedly, the Nazis on the right — that to pin it on any one regime or philosophy is pure propaganda. Similarly, the diversity of support that eugenics enjoyed in its first flowering is evidence that the movement was not a disguised rationale for seating the ruling class more firmly, or for bolstering the patriarchy’s dominion over women, or for persecuting Jews. It is worth recalling not merely the authority and eminence of so many early eugenicists, but their diversity and idealism.

Early Eugenics

Man is instinctively eugenic: the most capable men have sought and been encouraged to mate with the healthiest women. Legal prohibitions against inbreeding, due evidently to an understanding of the increased chance of unhealthy offspring, are found as far back as the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1750 B.C.) and in the Old Testament. Plato and Aristotle advocated eugenic measures in the interests of society.

The birthplace of eugenics, properly understood, was 19th-century England, where Charles Darwin (1809-1882) had supplied strong evidence of man’s descent from other life forms. One consequence of this was quickly grasped by another Victorian Englishman, Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton (1822-1911). In Hereditary Genius (1869), Galton argued that intellectual abilities, no less than physical characteristics, are hereditary. From this insight, it was a short step to the realization that measures to foster the transmission of desirable traits could lead to enduring improvement of the race.

Sir Francis Galton

Sir Francis Galton

The four decades of laboratory and organizational work that Galton invested in eugenics establish him as the founder of the discipline and the movement. He coined its name, which derives from the Greek for “well born,” and defined it as follows: “Eugenics is the study of agencies under social control which may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally.”

Galton also established eugenics as an institutional presence in Edwardian England, and he gave the movement powerful impetus abroad. Himself childless, he dedicated much of his personal fortune to creating a laboratory for national eugenics, and to endowing the first eugenics professorship, at University College, London.

Although Francis Galton himself was from the propertied upper-middle class, his chosen successor, Karl Pearson, was an economic and political radical, in fact a socialist. The impression carefully cultivated today is that eugenics was spearheaded by ruling-class rightists. A few of its supporters, like Herbert Spencer, did see it as a natural corollary of class society, but the most vocal eugenics boosters came from the left. Their names read like a roster of Edwardian radicalism.

George Bernard Shaw, the pacifist, socialist, vegetarian playwright, wrote plentifully and quirkily in favor of eugenics, and was a subscriber to Pearson’s eugenics magazine, Biometrika. H.G. Wells, also a socialist, was a strong advocate of sterilization of the feeble-minded. Havelock Ellis, the pathbreaking student of human sexuality, and essayist, was the author of the eugenicist The Problem of Race Regeneration (1911). Other prominent supporters included Beatrice and Sidney Webb, founders of Fabian socialism and later enthusiasts for Soviet Russia, as well as the Anglo-Jewish radical Harold Laski, later to head the British Labor Party, who worked for six months at Pearson’s laboratory and once took tea with Galton himself.

This list of personalities evokes the politics of a ban-the-bomb march rather than, say, a Nuremberg rally. Nor is it an arbitrary group. In the judgment of Michael Freeden, a leading historian of the left-wing of British liberalism, “. . . in the first great enthusiasm for eugenics liberals were prominently to the fore. . . .” Eugenics, with its promise of long-term, innate human improvement, had great appeal for the reform-minded.

The leading names in the new science of genetics enthusiastically provided the intellectual foundations for the new movement. Among the more eminent supporters of eugenics were William Bateson, the first English professor of genetics (at Oxford); Ronald A. Fisher, originator of the modern evolutionary synthesis and successor to Pearson in the Galton Eugenics Chair; J.B.S. Haldane, innovator in population genetics and vocal radical; and the great biologist Julian Huxley. Heredity was a fact that could be put to the service of mankind.

In the early years of British eugenics, there rapidly arose a consensus among scientists and intellectuals spanning the entire political spectrum in support of positive eugenic measures. These included tax rebates to cover the costs of maternity and child-rearing, especially for meritorious families; education allowances for promising boys and girls of the working class; grants for maternity leave for the deserving, etc.

The eugenics movement included a disproportionate number of women. While its frank discussion of sexual matters and contraception enlisted the support of radical feminists like Margaret Sanger, Victoria Woodhull, and Emma Goldman, its focus on the family and the new value it attached to women’s intellectual prowess — how else was a prospective suitor to measure the hereditary mental capabilities of his mate? — recommended eugenics to more traditional women. In the estimation of historian of science Mark Adams, “[I]t would appear that by contemporary standards eugenics was one of the least sexist fields of the day in a number of countries.”

Some of the leading churchmen in England supported eugenics in uncompromising language. W.R. Inge, the famous “gloomy dean” of St. Paul’s, wrote in the first issue of the Eugenics Review: “Humanitarian legislation, or practice, requires to be supplemented, and its inevitable evil effects [emphasis added] counteracted, by eugenic practice, and ultimately by eugenic legislation.” When, in 1912, the House of Commons dithered on passage of the Mental Deficiency Bill (which provided for mandatory segregation of the feebleminded in institutions, but not for sterilization), the Archbishop of York, the second-ranking prelate in the Church of England, urged that they “get a move on,” and pass the bill.

While a diluted version of the Mental Deficiency Bill became law the next year, the British proved both too conservative and too liberal to enact strong eugenic measures, even in the heyday of eugenics: too conservative to entertain what smacked of meddling with matters of family choice that were traditionally private; too liberal (in the laissez-faire sense) to countenance restricting individual liberty or subsidizing procreation, even for the best of citizens. In any case, many leading English eugenicists would lend their approval only to voluntary sterilization.

A Growing Movement

The first International Eugenics Conference took place in London in 1912, just a few years after the establishment of eugenics as a science. The 750 or so participants represented a galaxy of international achievement. Arthur Balfour, the former prime minister and future foreign minister, delivered the opening address while Leonard Darwin, Charles Darwin’s son, who served as chairman of the Eugenics Society from 1911 to 1928, presided. Winston Churchill was a sponsoring vice president, as was the Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Bishop of Ripon.

A large contingent from the United States made the crossing, including Charles W. Eliot, storied president emeritus of Harvard, Alexander Graham Bell, and Gifford Pinchot, the famous conservationist, each of whom served as a sponsoring vice president from the American side.

In a sense this conference marked the passing of the torch from England to the United States. While American eugenics lacked the advocacy of a glittering ensemble of writers and radicals, the support of politicians, scientists, and the public at large made the United States arguably the world’s leading eugenic power in the first three decades of the twentieth century.

The movement in America owed its rise to Charles Davenport, a biologist and anthropologist who was one of the first Americans to understand and write about the findings of Gregor Mendel. Davenport, who earned his doctorate at Harvard and had been an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, was, like Galton, a gifted organizer and able fundraiser.

In 1910 he established America’s first center for the study of eugenics, the Eugenics Record Office, at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island. For this and other eugenics projects he was able to get significant funding from the Rockefeller and Harriman family fortunes, and above all the backing of the Carnegie Institution (all three have long since become engines of an anti-eugenic environmentalism). At Cold Spring Harbor, Davenport directed ambitious eugenics studies and supervised the gathering of anthropometric and genealogical data from all across America.

Davenport and his second-in-command, Harry Laughlin, drew criticism, most pertinently from other geneticists, for their tendency to exaggerate and oversimplify the heritability of characteristics that have since been demonstrated to depend on more than one gene, or to involve significant environmental factors. Their errors — understandable given the field’s infancy — and the warnings from geneticists have been exploited by anti-eugenicists to obscure the reality that, as historian Kenneth Ludmerer reports, during the years in which the eugenics movement flourished in the U.S., approximately half of all American geneticists were involved in it.

As the leadership of Eliot, Pinchot and Bell at the London conference shows, enthusiasm for eugenics in early twentieth-century America was not limited to geneticists. The two leading American physical anthropologists of the era, Aleš Hrdlička, curator of the National Museum in Washington, and Harvard’s Earnest Hooton, were both enthusiastic proponents. There was broad support among psychologists, above all the American pioneers in intelligence testing: G. Stanley Hall, Henry Goddard, Robert Yerkes, Lewis Terman, and William McDougall (who dedicated the 1921 Lowell Lectures at Harvard to the thesis “that the great condition of the decline of any civilization is the inadequacy of the qualities of the people who are bearers of it”).

Luther Burbank, the famous plant breeder, was active in the formation of the American Eugenics Society, as was David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford University and a biologist by training, who invoked eugenic principles to underline his opposition to war. In all, five presidents of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science served on the advisory board of the American Eugenics Society.

Ordinary Americans

From the beginning, eugenics caught the imagination of ordinary Americans. Its relation to family genealogy and its connection with the principles of plant and animal breeding aroused enthusiasm, particularly in farming communities, and eugenics exhibitions and contests became common at county fairs.

As in England, leading churchmen endorsed eugenics — as did many Jews, who arguably owed their hereditary capabilities to a eugenic mating system adopted during their centuries of segregation in exile. In a Mother’s Day sermon at a temple in Kansas City in 1926, Rabbi Harry Mayer declared, “May we do nothing to permit our blood to be adulterated by the infusion of blood of a lower grade.” Jews were well represented in eugenics societies, and in eugenics research as well.

It was America’s reform-minded Progressives — not right-wing conservatives or Southern segregationists — who took the lead in advocating and enacting eugenics legislation in America’s eugenic heyday. As historian Mark Haller writes, “Eugenics in its early years exerted a broad influence upon American thought as a sort of scientific reform among the many other reforms of the Progressive Era.”

In his later life, perhaps the most eminent Progressive, Theodore Roosevelt, promoted the cause of improving the race through better breeding with his customary vigor. Echoing Professor McDougall, the Rough Rider wrote: “The great problem of civilization is to secure a relative increase of the valuable as compared with less valuable or noxious elements in the population. This problem cannot be met unless we give full consideration to the immense influence of heredity.”

The Progressives were instrumental in passing laws providing for sterilization (often involuntary) of the insane or feebleminded. Indiana’s (1907) was the first; Governor Woodrow Wilson signed New Jersey’s sterilization law in 1911; Hiram Johnson signed California’s two years later. Significantly, sixteen American states passed legislation for sterilization before a single such law was passed in the South. By the 1930s, some thirty states had passed eugenics laws, primarily in reform-minded legislatures. It was in the most “conservative” states, where religion and tradition were most strongly opposed to reform, that eugenics made the least progress. From 1907 to the 1960s, some 60,000 sterilizations were performed in the United States, with California well in the lead with 20,000; below the Mason-Dixon line, North Carolina eventually carried out the most sterilizations.

Involuntary sterilization came under legal fire as a violation of a basic right. Fittingly, it was a great progressive jurist who wrote the most authoritative decision on the matter, finding that involuntary sterilization, in certain compelling circumstances, was not incompatible with the United States Constitution.

The decision, Buck v. Bell, was written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who dominated American jurisprudence for half a century. Of the right of the State of Virginia to sterilize a feebleminded child, Holmes, who had been badly wounded at Antietam 54 years before, wrote:

We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the state for those lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such for those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with their incompetence . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” [The Bucks, one of whose family members were plaintiffs in the case, were poor whites.]

Following the American lead, other governments adopted eugenics measures. In Switzerland the canton of Vaud passed a sterilization law in 1928; in the next year Denmark was the first European nation to enact such a law, followed by the rest of Scandinavia shortly thereafter.

Canada, too, had its eugenics movement, in which women played a leading role. While the influence of the Catholic Church prevented eugenics legislation in Canada’s most populous provinces, sterilization laws were enacted in Alberta and British Columbia in 1933. Fatefully for the eugenics movement, in that same year Germany adopted a law for eugenic sterilization.


Nothing has blackened the reputation of eugenics so much as its link to the Hitler regime. In the estimation of Paul Popenoe, one of the leading figures in the American eugenics movement, “The major factor in the decline of eugenics was undoubtedly Hitlerism.” But in fact, as the American geneticist and anthropologist Stephen Saetz has demonstrated in a well-researched study of eugenics in the Third Reich, German eugenic practice was not radically different from its American counterpart, and many policies afterwards blamed on eugenics, above all the measures against the Jews, had nothing to do with eugenics. The “euthanasia” program, in which as many as 80,000 of the severely retarded and incurably insane were killed, was motivated by a desire to free medical facilities and personnel at the outset of the war, and was not a eugenics program. In the view of historian Sheila Faith Weiss: “German eugenicists . . . have at most only indirect responsibility for the “euthanasia’ program.”

Still, the association of eugenics with Adolf Hitler and Nazism helped turn what was already a strong opposition to eugenics — stretching from the Catholic Church on one end, to the anti-hereditarian left (from the American academy to the Kremlin) on the other — to an ironclad orthodoxy. Most Jews, at first affronted by tangential connections between the eugenics movement and U.S. immigration reforms of the 1920s, and then repelled by Hitlerism, passed solidly over into the anti-eugenics camp.

After the war, eugenics was largely driven underground, or softened and repackaged as “genetic counseling” and other limited applications. The involuntary sterilization laws and other programs deemed to be “eugenicist” were either abolished or allowed to fall into disuse. Eugenics societies and eugenics journals were renamed, redirected, or abolished. Working geneticists, whatever their private opinions, denied the original and long-standing connection between their science and eugenics.

Nevertheless, even in its eclipse, eugenics continues to be publicly supported in America by a bold, creative and diverse minority. In the 1960’s, the leftist, Jewish, anti-racist geneticist Hermann Muller (Nobel Prize for Medicine, 1946), who three decades before had praised Alexis Carrel and Charles Lindbergh’s work, collaborated with inventor and entrepreneur Robert K. Graham to establish a “genius sperm bank.” In 1980, William Shockley, outspoken advocate of recognizing racial differences, was the first Nobel laureate to become a donor to Dr. Graham’s Repository for Germinal Choice.

Constant progress in our knowledge of how heredity plays a role in every aspect of our nature — including the Human Genome Project, which is to map and identify all of the human genes by the target date 2005 — has demonstrated that the environmentalist vision of improving man is a mirage. As the eminent geneticist James D. Watson told Congress, “We used to think that our fate was in the stars. Now we know that, in large measure, our fate is in our genes.” Breath-taking advances in genetic engineering have brought many of the dreams of the eugenicists within reach.

Yet despite this, and despite the obvious failures of Western liberalism and the collapse of Communism; despite all the promising implications for the renaissance of eugenics, the taboo remains. Today, the greatest obstacle to eugenic thinking is the dogma of equality. Although inequality is evident everywhere, and although genetic laws clearly apply to every organ of every species, modern liberalism can almost be said to be founded on the notion that the human brain is unaffected by genes.

In a multi-racial society, it is the racial implications of the heritability of mental traits that have forced obvious truths underground. All standards of eugenic selection will fall differently on different racial groups, so even the most obvious and benign measures are sure to provoke cries of “genocide,” and “Nazism.”

We continue to pay a fantastic price because of the fear that we cannot afford to abandon the illusion of racial equality. Since we deny inequality of races, we can barely countenance inequality of individuals, even among members of the same race. Homogeneous societies are far less prone to egalitarian nonsense because they need not make racial comparisons. China and Singapore have already instituted mild eugenic measures and future generations will reap great benefits.

The principles of eugenics are, of course, racially neutral and all groups can benefit from them. Until Americans are prepared to accept the reality of racial differences, they are unlikely to accept even the most obvious and beneficial eugenic proposals — and all Americans of all races will continue to suffer.

It would a great tragedy if mankind, and in particular the white race, which created both genetics and eugenics, were deprived of the great opportunity that lies before us. Reclaiming the truth about the first eugenicists can be a first step to winning the future.


Mark B. Adams, ed. The Wellborn Science: Eugenics in Germany, France, Brazil and Russia, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Michael Freeden, The New Liberalism: An Ideology of Social Reform, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978.

Mark Haller, Eugenics: Hereditarian Attitudes in American Thought, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1963.

Daniel Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.

Kenneth Ludmerer, Genetics and American Society: A Historical Appraisal, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.

Stephen Trombley, The Right to Reproduce: A History of Coercive Sterilization, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988.