Does eugenics have contemporary relevance?

by Chi Chi Shi

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Exhibit photograph scanned from: Harry H. Laughlin, The Second International Exhibition of Eugenics held September 22 to October 22, 1921, in connection with the Second International Congress of Eugenics in the American Museum of Natural History, New York (Baltimore: William & Wilkins Co., 1923).

Logo of the Second International Congress of Eugenics, 1921. Source: WikiMedia Commons

Do the ideas associated with eugenics have contemporary relevance?

Eugenics is often regarded as a purely historical phenomenon, popular for a brief period at the beginning of the twentieth century, but not regarded as a contemporary issue. However, the ideas associated with eugenics still hold contemporary relevance, in both overt and subtle forms. Eugenics, as defined by Francis Galton (1904), is

‘the science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race’.

While since the mid-twentieth century the name ‘eugenics’ has been tainted with the brush of Nazi eugenic experiments, the advancement of work in genetics and the potential of genetically engineered ‘designer’ babies has renewed interest in the possibility of improving the genetic makeup of a population. There is a modern branch of eugenics which favours an environmentalist approach, advocating the use of eugenics not necessarily to better the population, but to save the earth from the problems of overpopulation: ‘the world has a cancer, and that cancer is man’ (Lambert in Hall, 2008).

However, in this essay I would like to focus on the more mainstream manifestations of eugenics and the ideas behind it in contemporary political, social and scientific thought and policy.

Genetic research is a contemporary area of science where the spectre of eugenics still lingers (Kevies, 1995: vii). The relationship between the past and the present is complicated; advocates of genetic research emphasize the differences and developments that have occurred between ‘then’ and ‘now’ (Kerr, 2004: 12), but a more sociological approach sees the dangers in dismissing the past as history. Science is always conducted in a social environment, and science cannot be completely separated from the social structures in which it is practiced. However, the failure of eugenics is often explained in comparison to the superior genetic research of today; while eugenics in the past is seen as being inseparable from the social prejudices of the time and, far from being scientifically objective, grounded in bias and subjectivity, contemporary genetics is seen in contrast as objective and neutral (Kerr, 2004: 11). While the way genes were understood in the past is seen to be dangerously reductionist, with eugenics having no true grounding in science, today, the complexity of the issue is thought to be understood (Kerr, 2004: 11). However, many today still see danger and bias in genetic research, with new technologies reinforcing old cultural values and societal arrangements, rather than challenging them. Genetic screening of foetuses arguably reflects the negative views of disability such as Down’s syndrome (Kerr, 2004: 5). Criticism comes from the disability rights movement, which sees the sanctioning of late abortion in the case of genetically defective foetuses as a form of modern eugenic policy (Bailey, 1996). It is impossible for science to be achieve complete objectivity because the values taken as given are socially determined and goals considered desirable are only so because of their social setting.

The ideas associated with eugenics go far beyond the definition of eugenics as the ‘science’ of breeding. Eugenics is concerned with improving the health of the population; breeding can be seen as the method through which this is done. In this way, government policies that seemingly have no connection with eugenics can be seen as descended from eugenics and working towards the same idea. UK’s Department of Public Health illustrates this idea; their focus is not on the health of individuals but on the health of communities. The ban on smoking in enclosed workplaces in the UK has been claimed to promote ‘a healthier England’ (UK Department of Health, 2007); the law is directly concerned with, not the health of individuals, but the health of the population in general. Rather than focussing on the health of individual English (or British) citizens, the policy is focused on England; it is collective health which is targeted: ‘everyone in England can benefit from healthier environments and better quality air’ (Donaldson, 2007). Science is used as a political weapon; the dangers, both real and exaggerated, of second hand smoke, have been used to justify government policy.

Obesity (Source: Wikimedia Commons)


Similarly, the government drive against obesity can be seen to operate in the same manner; obesity is considered a matter of public health rather than merely affecting obese individuals. This can be seen in the case of four obese children being taken away from their parents and placed into care after failing to lose weight (Collins, 2011; Hull, 2011), though the parents ‘are not guilty of any crime and have faced no accusations of deliberate cruelty or abuse.’ (Collins, 2011). This bears shadows of Karl Pearson’s ideas to provide state support to poor parents to help with the costs of bringing up children, but that ‘the provision for motherhood would be limited to cases of ‘sound parentage’’ (Porter, 2004: 282). Parents who produce obese children are seen to be unfit parents because obesity is seen as a threat to the population. The case reflects the contemporary acknowledgement that nurture, as well as nature, is central to the formation of a person, but the prevailing idea is very similar. Taking away obese children from parents, from the environment which is seen to foster obesity, is akin to the eugenics idea of breeding out the unfit; without preventing breeding, it prevents parents from raising their children to be unfit. Dividing the binary categories of ‘fit’ and ‘unfit‘ is a central concept in eugenics; this is still being done today in various guises, and the marking out of obesity, smokers, the disabled, and various other stigmatised groups as ‘unfit’, and unacceptable, is an example of this. They remain under the obligation to conform to society’s interests (Kerr, 2004: 21).

Although genetic deficiencies that can cause obesity are considered rare (Lee, 2009), obesity is still often seen as caused by genetic factors, as pre-determined rather than purely environmental (BBC, 2007). This correlates with the common understanding that genes are the bedrock of genetic disease and the focus on an ‘obesity gene’, despite the fact that an underlying genetic susceptibility to obesity does not pre-suppose obesity (Lee, 2009: 34), emphasizes how obesity and overweight are seen in the same manner as disease rather than purely physical attributes. This is similar to the way that eugenics advocates and Social Darwinists saw human traits as genetic, fixed and unchangeable. Obesity has become a social deviance under the disguise of disease, and there are inevitably socioeconomic implications (Maddox et al, 1968: 290); fat has become associated with the lower classes and with certain moral qualities: laziness, lack of discipline, and the absence of qualities that would ‘make upward social mobility possible’ (Bordo, 1993: 195). Here there is a clear and worrying similarity to the eugenics thought to be a historical phenomenon: the drive against obesity can be seen indirectly as a manifestation of disdain against a certain social class. Science still resolutely remains a social practice; the justification of the wish to eradicate obesity is on scientific grounds, but the desire itself is social in its formation, working against the lower class and towards their eradication.

It is still a common view, often seen on the right of the political spectrum, that poverty is caused by fixed character attributes, that the poor are pre-destined to be poor. This is evident in ex-Republican state representative John LaBruzzo’s recent 2008 proposal for voluntary sterilization of poor women in an effort to stem generational welfare in Louisiana (Baram, 2008). Other proposals by LaBruzzo include paying poor men to get vasectomies and tax incentives for wealthy, college-educated couples to have more children (Baram, 2008). This is a clear effort to change the genetic makeup of the population, and to breed out those who LaBruzzo determines to be the weak: poverty is seen to be genetic and fixed, unchangeable. A similar idea was suggested in 1991 by Louisiana state representative David Duke, who proposed offering $100 a year to welfare recipients using the long term contraceptive implant Norplant (Lewin, 1991). This approach ensures minimum responsibility for the eradication of poverty and shows the prevalence of the idea of fixed categories; by seeing poverty in this way, there is no way of helping the poor or of preventing poverty and so eradication of the poor must be the only way to eradicate poverty. Although these ideas proved controversial, they are reflections, albeit extreme reflections, on the kind of thinking that is widespread in the Republican party.

Although in the present day, much emphasis is placed on nurture rather than inborn qualities, the idea that some traits are genetically inherited and unchangeable still proves popular and persistent. Sterilisation programmes remain popular in many countries, and in a more subtle way, government concerns with the health of communities rather than the health of individual citizens can also be seen as traceable from the ideas behind the eugenics movement. However, this is not to say that everything today that can be traced or linked to the eugenics movement should be immediately discredited; eugenics can be seen as a shameful origin, but this does not automatically make everything that can be associated with it shameful as well. Constant reflection and re-evaluation on what we believe to be right and how we express our beliefs, as well as an understanding of the socially shaped aspect of science, rather than taking science for granted as unquestionable, is needed in order to truly learn from the mistakes of the past.

Baram, M., 2008. Pol Suggests Paying Poor Women to Tie Tubes. ABC news [online] 25 September. Avaliable at [accessed 22 February 2012]
BBC, 2007. Clear obesity gene link ‘found’. BBC news [online] 12 April. Avaliable at [Accessed 22 February 2012]
Bordo, S., 1993, Unbearable Weight, California: University of California Press
Collins, N., 2011. Obese children to be put up for adoption. The Telegraph [online] 5 September. Avaliable at [Accessed 21 February 2012]
Galton, F., 1904, “Eugenics: Its Definition, Scope, and Aims”. The American Journal of Sociology, 10 (1)
Hall, J., 2008, History of the environmental movement [online]. Available at [accessed 21 February 2012]
Hull, L., 2011. Child of five taken from parents for being obese: Social workers say they didn’t do enough to control weight. Daily Mail, [online] 6 December. Avaliable at [Accessed 21 February 2012]
Kerr, A., 2004, Genetics and society: a sociology of disease, New York: Routledge
Lewin, T., 1991. 5 year contraceptive implant seems headed for widespread use. New York Times [online] 29 November. Avaliable at [Accessed 22 February 2012]
NHS, 2007, A healthier England from July 1st 2007 [online], avaliable at [accessed 20 February 2012]
Porter, T., 2004, Karl Pearson: the scientific life in a statistical age, Princeton: Princeton University Press
UK Department of Health, 2007, Smokefree England: Healthier workplaces and public places. [online] Avaliable at [accessed 20 Feburary 2012]

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Chi Chi Shi studies Politics and Sociology at the University of Warwick.

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